The Value of Conceptual Models of Satan

In Seriously Have we Been Captured by Satan?, I sketched out a conceptual model or philosophical theory on humanity being captured by Satan. What is the purpose of such a model? Most Catholics who hear about the temptations of Christ, demonic possessions or hell have no interest in such abstract discussions. (I write “most Catholics” because I believe that much of the time I think and act as a “typical Catholic in the pews.”)We read the words of scripture and hear homilies. We accept the words and, more or less, heed the instructions not to take any images as portraying spiritual realities. We need not rely only on own own imaginations for imagery to set aside. We enjoy an immense artistic tradition illustrating Satan and his “works and pomps.” For instance, see Temptation of Christ by Vasily Surikov (1872) and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel .  See also Temptation of Christ .  What is the value of all of this imagery? Of course, much of it has artistic value although, for the most part, not by presenting what is beautiful.

It must be emphasized that the imagery of Satan et al. is to be ignored for purposes of representing what was the case in natural and supernatural reality. The religious value of the imagery is as a heuristic leading us to take the words of scripture seriously. By catching our imaginations, we pay attention to the words. To repeat: The imagery is not be ignored. In so far as, the imagery helps appreciate and follow the words of scripture and doctrines developed from scripture, the imagery is valuable.

What is the value of the scripture and doctrines?

The scripture and doctrines tell of our relation to God, the supernatural and how we are to live our natural lives so that we can be happy with God in heaven. The scripture, doctrines and heuristic imagery of Christianity form a vast conceptual scheme. It is a way of speaking and living. Here the attention is on the speaking. As a twentieth century philosopher who wrote his Ph. D. dissertation* on Wittgenstein, I class the Catholic way of speaking as at least a language game . There is no need to digress into the literature on language games. The important point is about what is the right thing to say. The word “game” suggestion that what is right or wrong in the game is contained in the game’s rule, explicit or implicit. The language game specifies what is correct to assert and correct to deny. Reality beyond the game need not be consulted on how to play the game, viz., say the right thing. Call the right thing to say “warranted assertions.”

I write mostly of Catholicism. But what I write can be applied to other religions.

Catholic faith is trust that the warranted assertions of the Catholic teaching and practice, the Catholic language game, tell us what is the case with the natural and supernatural and how to live properly in it. Simple faith is trust that the warranted assertions tell the truth without any consideration of what it would be like for them to have truth conditions in reality – to represent what is the case.

It might be proposed that Catholic faith is trust that the warranted assertions of Catholicism tell us what is true, and not merely warranted, because they come from a language game developed from the reality of Jesus’s teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. However, how do the first century reality of Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection justify, outside our Catholic language game, assertions in the twenty first century? This is a problem which calls for a philosophical model.

Faith seeking understanding is hope that we can have some understanding of what it is like for there to be truth conditions for the warranted assertions. In particular, the value of conceptual models of Satan is to sketch out how there can be truth conditions for talk of Satan.

However, the conceptual models will be ignored by most, unverifiable by any empirical tests and controversial amongst the few who pay attention? (There is always quarrelling about any philosophy.) The fact that there are philosophically minded Catholics who are trying to understand how assertions about the transcendent and supernatural can be true becomes part of the language game of Catholicism. This contribution to the Catholic outlook, the Catholic language game, is an antidote to non-cognitivism about religious belief and, in particular, in Catholic religious belief.

Roughly, the non-cognitivist interpretation of religious assertions is that they do not tell us the truth about a reality independent of the religious beliefs. Truth and falsity are irrelevant. The function of religious assertions is to guide conduct and inculcate life-guiding attitudes and outlooks.  For instance, they may lead us to having a purpose driven life, construct a sense of being a community, prescribe rituals for making daily life feel sacred, or protect ourselves from the uncanny.  Reconsideration of the paragraph about he role of stories at the beginning of Seriously: Have We Been Rescued From Satan?  leads to an insight into non-cognitivism.

“We passionately believe that the most urgent task is the compelling proclamation of the gospel, one that not only shares it in an attractive – and concentrated – way, but that also offers people a way of seeing reality, and of making sense of the world, history, and life that is vastly different from the story our modern culture tells.” N.T. Wright is quoted: “This is how stories work. They invite listeners into a new world, and encourage them to make it their own, to see their ordinary world from now on through this lens, within this grid.”

The non-cognitive interpretation of religions is that they are nothing more than these life guiding stories.  They are only language games.

Call a religion which holds that its story is worth using because it tells some basic truths about what is and what ought to be “realist religions.”  Christianity, and especially Catholicism, have been realistic religions.

A move within a realistic religion to many holding, explicitly or implicity, non-cognitivism provides a temptation to think that the story is no longer worth telling.  I do not want to talk with my fellow Catholics about this temptation because I fear that it may help it become vivid for them. That temptation certainly threatens me.  So, I struggle to understand how the Catholic Christian story can tell the truth about what is and ought to be. Perhaps, making my thoughts public may help others with similar anxieties.

* An improved version of my dissertation examining Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics is in my book: Strict Finitism, The Hague 1970

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The Value of Conceptual Models of Satan

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