Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Alexander Schmemann.
It is not our purpose to outline, even superficially, the Orthodox teaching concerning the Devil. In fact, the Church has never formulated it systematically, in the form of a clear and concise “doctrine.” What is of paramount importance for us, however, is that the Church has always had the experience of the demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational. And the demonic and, more generally, evil are precisely the reality of the irrational. Some theologians and philosophers, in an attempt to explain and thus to “rationalize” the experience and the existence of evil, explained it as an absence: the absence of good. They compared it, for example, to darkness, which is nothing but the absence of light and which is dispelled when light appears. This theory was subsequently adopted by deists and humanists of all shades and still constitutes an integral part of our modern worldview. Here the remedy against all evil is always seen in “enlightenment” and “education.” For example: explain to teenagers the mechanics of sex, remove the “mystery” and the “taboos,” and they will use it rationally, i.e. well. Multiply the number of schools and man, who is naturally good, will ipso facto live and behave rationally, i.e. well.
Such however is certainly not the understanding of evil in the Bible and in the experience of the Church. Here evil is most emphatically not a mere absence. It is precisely in presence: the presence of something dark, irrational and very real, although the origin of that presence may not be clear and immediately understandable. Thus hatred is not a simple absence of love; it is the presence of a dark power which can indeed be extremely active, clever and even creative. And it is certainly not a result of ignorance. We may know and hate. The more some men knew Christ, saw His light and His goodness, the more they hated Him. This experience of evil as irrational power, as something which truly takes possession of us and directs our acts, has always been the experience of the Church and the experience also of all those who try, be it only a little, to “better” themselves, to oppose “nature” in themselves, to ascend to a more spiritual life.
Our first affirmation then is that there exists a demonic reality: evil as a dark power, as presence and not only absence. But we may go further. For just as there can be no love outside the “lover,” i.e. a person that loves, there can be no hatred outside the “hater,” i.e. a person that hates. And if the ultimate mystery of “goodness” lies in the person, the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one. Behind the dark and irrational presence of evil there must be a person or persons. There must exist a personal world of those who have chosen to hate God, to hate light, to be against. Who are these persons? When, how, and why have they chosen to be against God? To these questions the Church gives no precise answers. The deeper the reality, the less it is presentable in formulas and propositions. Thus the answer is veiled in symbols and images, which tell of an initial rebellion against God within the spiritual world created by God, among angels led into that rebellion by pride. The origin of evil is viewed here not as ignorance and imperfection but, on the contrary, as knowledge and a degree of perfection which makes the temptation of pride possible. Whoever he is, the “Devil” is among the very first and the best creatures of God. He is, so to speak, perfect enough, wise enough, powerful enough, one can almost say divine enough, to know God and not to surrender to Him—to know Him and yet to opt against Him, to desire freedom from Him. But since this freedom is impossible in the love and light which always lead to God and to a free surrender to Him, it must of necessity be fulfilled in negation, hatred and rebellion.
These are, of course, poor words, almost totally inadequate to the horrifying mystery they are trying to express. For we know nothing about that initial catastrophe in the spiritual world—about that hatred against God ignited by pride and that bringing into existence of a strange and evil reality not willed, not created by God. Or rather, we know about it only through our own experience of that reality, through our own experience of evil. This experience indeed is always an experience of fall: of something precious and perfect deviated from and betraying its own nature, of the utterly unnatural character of that fall which yet became an integral and “natural” part of our nature. And when we contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all “reductions” of evil to neat and rational theories. If there is one thing we learn from spiritual experience, it is that evil is not to be “explained” but faced and fought. This is the way God dealt with evil. He did not explain it. He sent His Only-Begotten Son to be crucified by all the powers of evil so as to destroy them by His love, faith and obedience.
This then is the way we must also follow. On this way we inescapably meet the Devil at the very moment we make the decision to follow Christ.