My long-promised book on the devil will be published by Stanford University Press, under the title The Prince of This World: The Life and Legacy of the Devil. Details of the publication date, etc., have not been decided, but I do know that I’ll be spending my winter break making final revisions. I’d like to thank my editor, Emily-Jane Cohen, as well as two conscientious and perceptive peer reviewers, for their work on behalf of this project. A description of the project follows beneath the fold.
The Prince of This World is an attempt to re-read the Christian tradition from a demonic perspective. It takes as its starting point an unfixable problem: the problem of evil. As an intellectual exercise, the problem of evil is the attempt to reconcile three apparently incompatible propositions–God is all-good, God is all-powerful, and evil happens. As an existential problem, it represents the most enduring challenge to traditional monotheism and to the legitimacy of the world orders that monotheism has underwriten.
Again and again, religious thinkers have sought to square the circle by finding ways to say that God is responsible for absolutely everything–but not for evil. They achieve this by “offloading” responsibility for evil onto some subordinate figure, who has somehow disturbed God’s perfect creation. And not only does God correct the problem that his rebellious subordinate introduced, he also manages to bring about a result that improves on the original condition that evil had disturbed. Far from detracting from God’s authority, then, the existence of evil contributes to his glory by providing the occasion for mighty acts of redemption. In this way, the rebel in a sense becomes God’s most faithful servant, and once God has “recruited” the author of evil, God inevitably winds up taking on the characteristics of his rival.
The first half of The Prince of This World traces the way the figure of the devil emerges out a series of attempts to articulate this self-undermining solution to the problem of evil in the Hebrew biblical tradition, and then the way the Christian tradition develops the figure of devil along with the biblical tradition that it takes up and transforms. It is a bitterly ironic story, full of tragic reversals. It shows how the devil emerged as a theological symbol that helped oppressed communities cope with the trauma of unjust persecution, torture, and death at the hands of political authorities (who provide the initial model for the devil), and how the devil eventually becomes a vehicle to justify oppression at the hands of Christian rulers. At the same time, it shows how the biblical God at first presents himself as the vindicator and liberator of the oppressed, as the God of justice, but by the medieval period God ends up as a cruel ruler who delights in inflicting suffering on his friends and enemies alike. In other words, it is the story of how God became the devil.
The second part explores the paradoxical figure of the devil who emerges out of this great reversal. The medieval devil is both the ultimate enemy and God’s most capable servant, the representative and leader of all who rebel against God and the eternal executor of God’s will. Having traced the devil’s emergence in history, this part changes approach and explores the devil’s own history in terms of the medieval theological system–the devil’s past (his initial fall from grace), his present (his identification with troublesome social bodies), and his future (his role as chief inmate and guard in the eternal prison of hell).
Throughout both major parts, I will explore the light that the devil sheds on signature concepts of modernity, including freedom, revolution, social contract, and economy. I will conclude by drawing those threads together, showing that the theological problems surrounding the devil are the most decisive legacy that Christianity leaves to secular modernity.