​Sermon - The Devil is in the Details

Sermon for 1st Unitarian Society of Denver, by Rev. Mike Morran, delivered February 6, 2011

Our Whole Souul Living Theme for the month of February is Evil. And while it might seem strange to hold up an ancient concept like Evil in the context of a modern, liberal church, I hope you’ll soon agree that this is important for us to grapple with. In your order of service is a very brief introduction to Evil as a Whole Souul Living Theme, and some questions for our  common reflection as a community. As always, the questions are intended not just for your private reflection but especially for your conversations with each other. We are aspire to be on this great journey of the mind, the heart, and the spirit together.

I also feel a need to warn you that Evil is a really large and complex topic, and we will only scratch the surface this morning.

So, to spark our collective thinking on this, I tried to imagine what a conversation with Evil might look like. I imagined that if Evil, just pure Evil, could be embodied in some kind of being, and I were somehow able to sit down with Evil for a conversation, the question I think I would ask first is, “What is it that makes you tick?” That is, “Why are you Evil?” And the trouble begins because at least in my imagination, I suspect that evil would probably answer my question with another question. Evil might well ask me in turn, “Why are you human?” And I’d say something like “Because I can’t be anything else.” And I think evil would say “Exactly.”

In grappling with evil in preparation for this month, I’ve learned that evil is like this. It’s elusive and slippery, hard to pin down, with no easy answers. It is worth noting that our ancestors, and not so very long ago, had a very different understanding of evil than we do. For nearly two thousand years, evil had a name and an identity.  Satan was understood to be roaming the world, preying on the weak, a demon who was always lurking around and on the lookout for his next victim. The image and folklore around the devil gave people and society a common language and understanding of what evil was, where it came from, and how it worked.  And some of that common understanding had real value and wisdom. There is a kind of inherent mystery and otherworldliness about Evil already built in to the idea of a devil demon. And it’s interesting to note that people who have experienced real evil almost always report that there was an otherworldly quality to it, as if the event took on a surreal kind of quality.

When Evil was personified in the devil, everyone understood that Evil was bigger than we were. And this is very important, everyone understood that no one was completely immune.

It also strikes me as wise to see that when Evil is personified in the devil, then Evil is already and automatically identified as a spiritual issue. And this applies to both the individual and the community. Spiritual weakness leads to being more vulnerable to temptation. Spiritual fortitude helps fend off the temptations that Satan would put in our path. In this way, having spiritual fortitude was understood as a life imperative because everyone knew evil could cost your soul…, for all eternity. And that’s pretty strong motivation.

One of the reasons we are looking at Evil this month because I believe evil presents the modern world with a deep tension that we have yet to resolve. On one hand, evil among human beings is arguably more of a reality than ever before. But we don’t know how to talk about it anymore. We no longer have a common language, or a common, potent symbol for knowing evil when we see it, being able to name something as evil, or even to just talk about evil. I would argue that even within the privacy of our own hearts and souls, we have very little in the way of spiritual tools for understanding or grappling with Evil, even as we see and experience things in the world nearly every day that it would be difficult to call anything else.

William James once wrote: The world is all the richer for having the devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.” But how do we keep our foot on the neck of something we all agree is a quaint figment of some ancient human imagination?  So these days we tend to use the language of neurosis and delusion, anti-social behavior, psychopathology, or some other emotional or psychological dysfunction.  When Jared Loughner killed those nineteen people in Tucson three and a half weeks ago, most of us assumed that he was some right wing nut job and almost certainly mentally ill. Or when Susan Smith made sure her two children were safely seat-belted insider her car before she sent it rolling into a lake a few years ago. Or when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wreaked havoc and death at Columbine High School... We look for who Jared was listening to on the radio and whether he was receiving psychiatric services. Whether Susan was treating her depression and taking her medicine. Or whether the bullying and peer pressure in High School is too intense for young minds to deal with.

And maybe it is. And maybe she wasn’t treating her depression. And maybe Jared Loughner will turn out to be totally delusional and as certifiably psychotic as the day is long.

But isn’t it interesting that both these ways of approaching Evil, whether we give it Satanic origins, or lay it at the feet of some psycho-social pathology, both of these approaches avoid the issue of personal responsibility? “It’s not entirely their fault.”  “The Devil made them do it.” “It was the illness, it was the family of origin, it was the controlling father, the abusive mother, a bonding disorder, it was pornography, or violent video games, or the hateful and pompous pundits…,” Or whatever… 

But here’s my question. We live in what is arguably the most evil-laden time that human beings have ever created or lived through. With all our modern understanding and sophistication, what have we learned about Evil?

I think it’s safe to say that the Devil is dead. The existence of Satan as a common understanding of evil is gone and it’s not coming back. And that’s probably a good thing. But it’s also true that psycho-social pathology is simply and utterly inadequate.

No one I know of has tried to argue that the holocaust, the terrorists responsible for September 11th, the leaders of any of the horrifically repressive regimes around the world, or the decimation of Indigenous populations all over the world, including right here in the United States, or the practice of human slavery, and so on and so on…; no one I know of is arguing that the people who did and do these large scale atrocities are mentally ill.

We have to look elsewhere.

Scott Peck believes that “…the central defect of evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.” In other words, Peck believes that the root of all evil is the endless capacity of human beings for self-deception, compartmentalization, and denial.  In Daniel Goldhagen’s landmark book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, he begins with an amazing letter written by Captain Wolfgang Hoffman, a commander of three companies of Police Battalion 101 in occupied Poland during World War Two. Hoffman led his men in the documented execution of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, yet the letter expressed his refusal to obey an order. The order that he refused was one that required him to sign a statement which would obligate himself and his command to refrain from stealing. And the objection he stated in this letter was that he would not sign the statement about stealing because he felt his morals were being called into question. He felt his honor was being injured.

Carl Jung wrote, “…the individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil, as it is posed today, has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him, should he wish – as he ought – to live without self-deception or self-delusion.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think a deeper grasp of evil begins to emerge when I imagine the continuation of that imaginary conversation that we started with. I imagine also that if I were to ask evil, “How am I to understand you?” I expect that evil would probably say something to the effect of “Maybe you should look in the mirror.”

About ten years ago I had just seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, and especially the opening scenes has made a huge impression on me…: the unspeakable violence of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach, the chaos, and the death. A few days later I was car-pooling with a minister colleague (to some conference or something) and I asked her if she had seen it. ButI wasn’t quite prepared for her response. She said she never watched movies like that. She thought all portrayals of violence only caused more violence, and even watching dramatized violence did spiritual violence to the viewer. She was quite adamant about it.

Her spiritual path is Buddhism, and in Buddhism there is the idea that all things have residual effects, and everything, no matter how seemingly trivial, has an effect on the overall harmony and balance of the universe.

It’s a compelling argument, and I admire those who are able to authentically practice such compassion. My problem is that this method just doesn’t sit right with me. At the time, my boys were very small, and I remember when that movie was over, I went and sat on the older one’s bed and I cried. Zack was only three, and I cried because I knew in my bones that there is no way I will be able to protect him from events like that. His precious little forty pounds of clear-eyed joy and energy will grow into a man who will be swept up in the tides of history, just as all of us have been and currently are, just as those soldiers on Omaha beach were. I cried because there is no way to know if those tides will be relatively uneventful like mine have blessedly been, or fraught with tension, hatred, and sudden death. I cried because I can’t know or control what passions will ignite his yearning heart. I cried because he will suffer, and he will die, and there is nothing I can do about it.

But I did get to thinking about all this afterwards, and wondering what would at least raise the odds of his avoiding another Omaha Beach… I don’t think it’s by avoiding all violence or evil. Carl Jung wrote that, “One does not attain enlightenment by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Evil, cruelty, indifference, greed, violence; all of these chains upon the human spirit are part of us.  To pretend otherwise seems to me hopelessly idealistic, and like prohibition, will only push them further underground where it seems to me likely that they will come out again in ever more dark and twisted ways.

I think more effective and therefore more hopeful approach to these things is to know them, own them, and understand deeply how they work and the lies they tell. I want to understand violence so well that I can’t even conceive of violence without the simultaneous and intimate awareness of its costs. If I ever have to send my son to a war, if he ever has to make a decision about whether or not to go, at the very least I want it to be by informed consent! I want us both to be fully aware of just how brutal, how barbaric, how sickeningly violent, and how ultimately stupid it is.

I think with that kind of knowledge, all of us will do a better job of making sure something like Omaha beach doesn’t happen again. We’ll be more effective because we’ll know just exactly how high the stakes really are. I’m not suggesting that we all go out and watch Saving Private Ryan this afternoon. I am saying that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to move past or skip over some of the inevitable disturbances that will come into our lives.

Buddhism also has this idea that all our judgments about right and wrong, good and evil, joy and pain, are just illusions…: human creations that the universe knows nothing of. And that makes a lot of sense to me. I think that the universe was not created in order to make us comfortable, and I think that life includes suffering. I think that pain and sorrow, grief and loss are simply the prices we pay for a life that includes Love, and I think it’s a bargain! But when it comes to unnecessary suffering, or cruelty, or war, or torture…, I can’t go there.

The last aspect of this that I want to wrestle with today are the consequences of evil. Not so much the legal or punitive consequences, but the personal and spiritual consequences. As in, what are we to make of those who do evil and appear to get away with it?

It may be a matter of faith, but I choose to believe that there is a cost, and I believe the cost is a certain disconnection from themselves, and a sacrifice of their own wholeness. Scott Peck writes that those who deny their evil are avoiding the pain of self-reflection. There is a soulful healing that takes place when we come to understand our own failings, own them for what they are, forgive ourselves and others for all those unrealistic expectations of perfection.

There is a wide sense in sacred teachings and wisdom literature that spiritual maturity has a lot to do with an expansive, cellular understanding of how all of life is connected, with a deep ability to empathize, and with an abiding compassion. I believe those who unrepentingly choose evil also choose to close off their access to this spiritual maturity and the peace that comes with it. I think that old mythology about evil costing you your very soul is really not too far off.

In our congregation, we hold up these propositions on our wall because we aspire to their truthfulness. There is a reason that among the folklore of evil, Satan is known as the great trickster, or the great liar, and I believe the primary lie that evil tells us, whether through the creature Satan or the voices in our own heads, the primary lie is that we are isolated, that we are separate, that the reality of others isn’t a reflection, a consequence, and intimately dependent on our own reality, and that of everyone else.  I wonder about the kind of lies and falsehoods that someone like Jared Loughner, or Susan Smith, or Egyptian president Mubarak, or any number of others have come to believe. I don’t think they believed that there is a Unity that makes us One. Or that All Souls are Sacred and Worthy.

In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” In other words, none of us makes progress toward the proverbial light without bringing our darkness with us. In the New Testament, Jesus challenged us to “…be harmless as doves, and as wise as serpents.”  In closing, I’d only like to say this. That when it comes to understanding or confronting evil, we make no gains by doing nothing. We go nowhere by pretending we don’t know where to go. And, we can take no one with us by pretending that we’re in the struggle alone.

My wish for all of us is that we don’t let our desire to be harmless as doves prevent us from being wise as serpents.


Oh, but economy is rich and deep, and a subject absolutely worthy or our attention. And although we will reference the world of goods and services, labor markets and capital, we will be exploring economy in a more holistic sense. Consider the origins of the word economy from the ancient Greek. The first part, Eco, comes from the Greek Oikos, and it refers to the support of a household, and specifically to the total systems that would support and sustain an extended family. Every family had some close tie to the land, which everyone understood was the primary source of food and wealth, but Oikos was about the totality of how the people were supported and sustained…, by the land, by each other, and by the gods. We still find this same root in words like Ecology, and Ecosystems.

The second part of economy comes from the Greek Nomos, which refers to the act, the law, or the affecting principle behind something. We see this ending in words like Astronomy (the laws that govern stars and their behavior), Autonomy (the laws that govern individuals and their behavior), and so on. So eco-nomy is about the laws that govern our systems of support, and for our purposes, it applies to everything. Not just our financial and material support, but our relational, emotional, and spiritual support.

Turns out this works just fine because everything has some economy to it! Everything comes with a trade-off. Just a week ago I was doing some counseling with a younger couple, and this extremely talented young man was talking about his great aspirations for a career in music, and being torn by his equally strong aspirations to be a great husband and father. And even at his young age was beginning to sense that there were going to be hard choices to make, and how do you balance these things? How does one prioritize?

It reminded me of a quote from E.B. White, "I wake each morning torn between two impulses: the impulse to savor the world, and the impulse to save it. It makes it hard to plan the day."

Here’s a definition of economy that I think fits the bill perfectly. Economy is the correct and effective use of available resources. Which leads us pretty much to the heart of the issue. In your order of service there is a box on the inside page about Whole Souul Living, and it notes that at any given time you have exactly two quantities to spend, right, your time, and your energy. And it notes that these are going to be spent no matter what you do. So, what are you spending and being spent for? What gets the best of your time and your energy? What are your hopes, goals, and purposes in life? And what will you, or what do you exchange for them? Cause you can’t do everything!

Maybe the most obvious tie between spiritual practice and economy is in the idea of karma, and is a little more subtle than it first appears. Most people tend to think of good karma or bad karma, and in some Hindu writings that would be exactly the case. But Buddhists tend to avoid passing judgments like good and bad. The Buddhist karmic principle basically says that what you put out to the world doesn’t just disappear, but goes out from you in affecting circles like ripples on a pond.

Everything is connected to everything. So everything we do and think, the choices we make, the degree of compassion or the lack of compassion that we exhibit in our lives raises or lowers the level of those qualities for everyone. And we live in a world affected by the actions and thoughts of everyone else. That’s the karma. Give out love and compassion, you might (or might not) get love and compassion back in an immediate sense, but know you have put love and compassion into the world. Put contempt, distrust, dishonesty, scorn, or unnecessary violence into the world, and you might or might not get it back in any immediate sense, but the universe will feel it, and the energy from those thoughts and actions are now part of everything. In this way, so the theory goes, you either sweeten or poison the world that everyone, including you, has to now live in.

So, Karma is the broad idea that nothing happens in a vacuum, but every action or thought is linked to an infinite series of interconnected causes and effects. This comes from another Buddhist principle that all things co-arise. That is…, everything is dependent on everything else: our thoughts come from past experience and sensory input; our emotions come from our biology, past events and relationships; our bodies dependent on nourishment from the life and death of other living things. And this applies even to the point of saying that since neither the doer nor the deed can exist independent of the other, there is no meaningful distinction between the two. Joanna Macy wrote, "The basic issue here is the connection between what we do and what we are... not only does it matter, it molds us."

Apply the idea of reincarnation and the karmic principle holds true. You will still experience the world that you help to create, but it will be in this and in all your future lifetimes too. Or in biblical terms, you reap what you sow, but the route might be somewhat indirect So let’s see if I can link this idea to the global economy.

In economics, they have this really interesting idea called “the invisible hand,” first penned by Adam Smith. It’s a way of thinking about how the world works, and it’s almost a mystical idea because even though lots of economists use and argue about the phrase, no one claims to really understand it. The general idea is that as long as everyone acts in accordance
with their own self-interest: that is, as long as buyers and consumers pressure markets to increase supply and lower the prices of goods and services, and as long as producers pressure markets to control supplies and raise prices, then there comes into being a kind of invisible, guiding hand that will tend to increase the productivity and the standards of living for everyone.

Probably the best example of the invisible hand came from another economist named Leonard Read. In 1958, he wrote an essay called, “I, Pencil,” and it is widely considered a classic. It is short, quite pointed, you can find it on the internet, and I highly recommend that you look it up. Read asserts that the common yellow pencil is nothing short of a miracle, worthy of the highest wonder and awe. You see, he says, despite the fact that the world creates something like a billion of these a year, and literally millions of people are involved in the process, no one on earth knows how to make one. No one.

The wood is logged in Northern California, and sent to a lumber mill in Oregon. The lead is made from graphite mined in Sri Lanka, mixed with clay from Mississippi, treated with ammonium hydroxide, then wetted with animal fats reacted with sulfuric acid, and heated in candililla wax from Mexico.  The yellow pigment in the paint is made from Cadmium, and the six coats of lacquer that every pencil receives comes from refined castor oil, which at some point was grown by castor bean farmers. The eraser is made by reacting rapeseed oil from Indonesia with rubber from South America and pumice from Italy. The ferrule is made of brass, which is smelted and machined copper and zinc from some other part of the world, and so on, and so on, and so on.  So that that the graphite miner in Sri Lanka and the company president in New Orleans, and the bean farmer in Brazil, and the mill worker in Oregon, and the chemist in London, and the salesman in Moscow, none of whom know each other, and each having highly specialized trades that the others know nothing of, and yet all of them work together in an astonishingly complex and astonishingly harmonious web of cooperation and connection to create and distribute something that none of them even wants, and only a tiny handful of them even know what the final result will be. No one on earth knows all there is to know about how a pencil is made, yet pencils are everywhere, and we take them completely for granted!

Economists like to point out that this is only the simplest of examples, and they invite us to consider all of the myriad goods and services that define the modern world: from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, from cell phones to dress shoes, from the gasoline that burns in your car to the carbon copies in your checkbook, from the clothes on your body to the turbines that drive jet planes across the sky... Economists say that it is nothing less than the invisible hand that makes all this possible. And you are connected to people and places and skills and technologies that you have no idea of, and they don’t know about you, and no one can explain how it all manages to work together. It just does.

This way of thinking about the economy, by the way, at its best, is the essential theory and belief behind those who advocate politically for an unfettered and unregulated capitalism.

But here’s my question, and why I’ve taken all of this precious time to talk about karma and economic theory. If the invisible hand of capitalism is driven by all the myriad players acting in economic self-interest, then what would happen if some critical mass of people began to understand that economic self-interest is only one kind of self-interest, and maybe we should consider that a different kind of economy might be possible? And maybe karma is one way of thinking about that, but there are other ways, too. What if, in addition to economic and material self-interest, we began to act in ways that propagated our spiritual and relational self-interest, maybe where the currency is kindness, wholeness, honesty, connection, and love?

I’m not suggesting that we dismantle capitalism, as if that were possible. Though I’m not sure how we start teaching the invisible hand about global warming, human caused extinctions, limited resources, overpopulation, and long-term sustainability in a larger ecosystem that is essentially closed.

I am suggesting that the central function of a religious community is to take seriously a different kind of economy; the economy of soul, if you will. The economy of wholeness, connection, and spiritual well-being, for ourselves, and for our larger community… Right?  Because we are all connected, woven into an invisible, spiritual unity that holds us, and binds
us, and heals us, completely independent of whether any goods, services, or money changes hands.

And what kind of world economy might be created, what kind of karma might be generated if we made our daily decisions with the awareness that our thoughts and actions affect not just the surface but the soul of the people we love? Affect the whole emotional field of our church community, and maybe even the soul of the graphite miner in Sri Lanka? (In some small but very real way.)

I raise these issues because we get to make some choices about how we spend our time and our energy. We can choose to become more relationally, spiritually conscious. We have some say in just what our lives will be spent for, and everything has a trade-off. Working 70 hours a week is going to make it pretty hard to be a devoted mom or dad. Being a devoted mom or dad is going to make it pretty hard to work 70 hours a week. Being consumed by shopping, or cruising the internet, or longing for a bigger house, or a newer car, or that next vacation, or cheap sex, or whatever…, is going to make it harder to be fully present to the people you love, or to work for justice, or be connected to your community, or to God, or to whatever your deeper, truer soul is longing for…, whatever you were put on this earth to do or to be.

For a really concrete example, how many of you spent more than you should have on presents and gifts for the holidays? I think that’s great! I did too! And the newspapers say this is somehow good for the whole economy. And something about the holidays makes a whole bunch of us spend much more freely to buy things than we ordinarily would. But I wonder…, what about spending ourselves? In other words, if we spend freely to buy things, at whatever level our material economics allows us to, how freely do we spend ourselves? How freely do you spend your soul, your being, your presence, and your love, on the people you care about?

And that raises still more questions. If working for a living and earning a paycheck is what we do to refill our wallets and bank accounts with money to spend, then what do we do to refill our spirits, our soul energy, our capacity for love, so that those are resources we have at our disposal to spend? And how much of our precious life energy do we devote to refilling our spiritual bank account?

And isn’t that the beauty of this alternate economy? Unlike petroleum, isn’t love a renewable resource? Isn’t it true that the more we love, the more we can love, the more love there is in the world, and isn’t that a precious and miraculous thing? And what kind of invisible hand might come miraculously into being through that kind of economic investment? Gets me all tingly and inspired just thinking about it!

I close with a parable, said to come from the Desert Fathers of the second and third centuries.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: but I don’t know what else to do. Still, with all of my practices, still I struggle to know God. Please tell me, what else can I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten burning flames. He said: Why not be changed into fire?

About the Author

Glenn grew up in the church and has been a member for over 20 years. You can find Glenn enjoying the nature trails around the Denver area. For any questions or information, you can email Glenn at admin@fusden.org.