… [these] are things which Mormon women submit to because their religion teaches them that the more wives a man has on earth, and the more children he rears, the higher the place they will all have in the world to come—and the warmer, maybe, though they do not seem to say anything about that.
— Mark Twain, Roughing It, Chapter XV
It’s always struck me as odd that mainstream people–religious or otherwise–laugh at the antics of street preachers, but take the conversions of the members of the early Church seriously. Take Paul, for instance. The guy hunted Christians, till one day he fell off his horse and had a vision and then became one, and pretty much transformed Christianity according to his own thinking.
If I were watching this in a movie, I’d be expecting the major plot-twist to come when it’s revealed that it was actually Satan who turned Paul from a mere henchman to a sidekick and infiltrator of the Church. But mention of this simple and rather obvious reading of the Acts of the Apostles seems scarce, though I did happen upon this guy.
But you see, on further thinking, the implications of this idea are what make it so far from the mainstream of Christian imagination. After all, if Paul was a dupe of Satan, then maybe the whole of the Church was. And if all of the Church was, maybe so are all modern Christian sects. How can one truly know for sure that one’s own Church doesn’t serve the Dark instead of the Light? Well, one cannot know for sure, which means that a lot of anxiety lies in store for any believer who needs a definite answer, and who values his or her version of The Church.
This is where the major problems with authenticity come in, in terms of religious observance. In order for any one church group, or arguably even any one Christian, to be truly able to relax and practice his or her religion, he or she usually needs some kind of sense of certainty of the righteousness of the path embarked upon. He or she needs to be able to feel sure that the right decision has been made. But what a believer is, and what an unbeliever is, is necessarily so impossible to pin down that the net effect is, one simply has to take it on good faith that when someone calls himself a Christian, he really is one. That is to say, when someone says he has been born again, people kind of just have to accept that claim as definitive of him, because if one doesn’t immediately grant this — if one introduces the possibility of questioning another’s Christianness or faithfulness or righteousness — then suddenly one also opens oneself up to potentially devastating criticism, on the level of personal religious practice, on the level of criticism of one’s particular church or creed, and so on.
This is really kind of odd because — given only the internal logic of the Gospels as far as I know them — it’s not a ridiculous idea to entertain that someone like Saul (St. Paul) was in fact deluded by Satan into thinking he was a man of God, but was in fact a henchman of Hell. If Satan tempted Jesus, if Satan could prod Simon Peter into denying his Messiah thrice, then why would it be beyond Satan to infest the mind of Saul and use him as a weapon against the Followers of Jesus, causing them to accept a demoniacal debasement of their master’s teachings — institutionalized in a way He Himself would probably have rejected — that, up until the present day, has been in a constant state of bifurcation into a vast sea of competing little cults and factions, none of them concerned any longer with the original teachings but all of them considering themselves the Crucible of the True Flame?
C.S. Lewis had the imagination, in his novel The Screwtape Letters, to suggest that Church could be bad for certain men. He had the imagination to suggest that in going to Church, some men would be laid even more open to the proddings of Hell. But he dared not go so far as to ask whether the same could be true of the whole of the Church, or of the modern Churches, and whether the whole scope of modern institutionalized Christianity, despite its best intentions, is not also caught up in the grips of evil. I have only heard three people suggest such a possibility in my life; one was a madman, and another was a very intelligent if somewhat annoying Catholic I once knew who’d also become a practicing Presbyterian. And the third person I’ve heard suggest it is me, myself.
The Catholic who cannot even imagine that the Pope is an unwitting servant of hell is lacking in some kind of imagination so basic as to seem, to me, essential for survival as a spiritual being. Which is to say that true religiosity — personal religion, outside of having truth and guidance spoonfed by an authority who may or may not be aiding you — is probably beyond most human beings.
Thank goodness that, what with me being an atheist, the implications seem to me limited only to how this impacts upon the living, and not the vast hordes of the potentially misguided dead that some seem willing to take it upon themselves even to baptize. As far as I can tell, a lot of people hoodwinked in this way don’t seem much worse for it, but it is funny how very sensible the possibility is — from the narrative logic of Christianity — that Church Fathers are in the thrall of Satan, and how vigorously and unthinkingly the mainstream Christian imagination recoils from such a notion.