All at once, the trend turns from naturalistic humanism (whether progressive-optimistic or existential-pessimistic) to the supernatural and the occult. Huxley and Heidegger are out; hell and hex are in! What is to be done? The modern theologian has exercised all his powers to become maximally secular, and now the ungrateful society he serves wants the titillation of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. The Devil, supposedly demythologized, has become de rigueur. Under such traumatic circumstances, it is of more than passing interest to observe a recent mainline theological rehabilitation of Old Nick.

I refer to The Devil, a book as succinct (142 pages) as its title, written by Richard Woods, a young Dominican Ph.D. candidate in psychology, who typifies today’s New Shape Catholicism. An instructor at Loyola University and author of a previous work entitled The Occult Revolution: A Christian Meditation, Woods has become the Chicago area’s resident pundit on the subject. Since the flurry over the film version of The Exorcist, he has appeared frequently on television talk shows (on one occasion with the undersigned) and has been interviewed by press and radio. He is the kind of “authority” who is listened to: as a Roman Catholic, he presumably stands for something; yet as an acquaintance of William Stringfellow and a supporter of the post-Vatican II liberalization of the Church, he is in tune with the best modernity has to offer.

An initial impression of Woods’s theology of the occult is provided in the dedication of his first book: “To … Bishop James A. Pike, late of the earth-plane, whose journey towards truth led him along unaccustomed paths, a modern wise man worthy of membership in the Brotherhood of the Magi.” This evaluation is reinforced in the book itself, where we read:

James A. Pike was for many a living symbol of the contemporary Christian’s pilgrimage towards an ever deeper understanding of the ultimate mystery of life. Yet he was able to remain faithful to his Church while wandering the labyrinth of occult theories, claims, and experiences. His example may prevent others from plunging over the edge of the unknown in their quest.

Woods’s conferral of Magi status on the late bishop seems singularly incongruous, since Pike did not believe in the Virgin Birth, much less the Magi! To quote his own immortal words: “I’ve jettisoned the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation” (Look, February 22, 1966). Two years before his death, Pike was “communicating” with his son who had committed suicide, the medium being Arthur Ford, a universalist bishop of the Spiritualist Church. Pike’s own demonology left something to be desired; of Jesus’ healing of the Gadarene demoniac (probably the most important passage on demon possession and exorcism in the entire Bible), Pike approvingly cited the third-century non-Christian philosopher Porphyry’s comment: “Probably fictitious, but if genuine then morally discreditable” (What Is This Treasure).

Article continues below

In The Devil, the reader quickly gets the scent of the author’s theology. Woods devotes several pages of the very first chapter to panning Hal Lindsey’s Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. The best Woods can say for it is that “his commentary on the New Testament is occasionally an uplifting experience of pre-Bultmannian fervor.” Having thus dispensed with Lindsey’s exegesis as hopelessly obscurantist because it does not accept the categories of modern radical biblical criticism, Woods can flay Lindsey for an equally obscurantist theology:

It is not surprising, then, to discover, when we arrive at his treatment of the atonement, that Lindsey envisages God as pouring out his pent-up rage on Jesus so that we good Christians might go scot-free. Lindsey gets my nomination for theological sadomasochist of the year. Not to mention the Atavist Award of the century.

Since Lindsey obtains his substitutionary view of the atonement from the Book of Hebrews, should its author get these same awards also? Woods doesn’t tell us.

But he does purport to tell us about Satan and the occult. Here we meet secondary citations of classical works on the occult that the author has not personally consulted (e.g., Thyraeus, misspelled as “Thyraüs”), and such dangerously misleading judgments as a pooh-poohing of the statement in The Exorcist, “There are lunatic asylums all over the world filled with people who dabbled in the occult” (Woods: “There are also plenty of ‘dabblers’ in the occult who are happy, well-balanced and responsible people. The same rhetorical sophistry is used to discredit marijuana, higher mathematics and pacifism, for what it’s worth”). “Rhetorical sophistry”? Psychiatrist L. Szondi, in his Schicksalsanalyse (second edition, Basel, 1948) demonstrated a high correlation between occult dabbling and schizophrenia—but Woods is apparently not acquainted with Szondi.

Article continues below

As for the Devil, he is alive and well for Woods, but his activities are not exactly the traditional ones. He turns out to be the perfect opponent of modern liberal theology! The “Satanic conspiracy” has two phases: (1) distracting Christians “from the needs of the social realm” back to a “piecemeal campaign to snatch individual souls from the clutches of Satan. Mankind is the object of God’s salvation—we are individually saved as a people, not as individuals”; and (2) impeding ecumenical unity—“I believe that the current emphasis on demonic possession represents a dire threat to the social concern so recently urged by the Second Vatican Council and the World Council of Churches.”

In the closing pages of his book, Woods offers a metaphysical underpinning for these views. Did not Teilhard de Chardin see God’s work as that of cosmic, organic evolution to the Omega point, when all should become One in Christ? Did he not see the entropic drift to “heat death,” as formulated in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as the great evil that had to be subordinated to the evolutionary pattern (thus Chardin’s “hyperphysics”)? Behold, then, the Devil: “The entropic agency of disruption and dispersal is a conscious, deliberate entity of immense energy.”

If you are a modern theologian, committed to relevance, what do you do with the current occult revolution and the Devil? Why, you just symbolize them—as for two centuries the positive verities (Christ, the Resurrection, etc.) have been symbolized. The Devil=all that opposes what modern theology is committed to (social activism, the WCC, Chardin, process theology, etc.). Above all, do not be troubled by the biblical theme of the Serpent who throughout human history asks, “Hath God said …?” (Gen. 3:1), endeavoring thereby to pull men away from God’s revelatory Word.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.