When we look at history, it’s clear that Christianity is an evolving faith. It only makes sense that early Christians would look for a logical and meaningful explanation for the “why” of the tragic death of their religion’s founder. For the early centuries, appeasing an angry, fanatical Father was not their answer. For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross—the “price” or the ransom—was being paid not to God, but to the devil! This made the devil pretty powerful and God pretty weak, but it gave the people someone to blame for Jesus’ death. And at least it was not God.
Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) wrote a paper called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) which might just be the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written. Thinking he could solve the problem of sin inside of the medieval code of feudal honor and shame, Anselm said, in effect, “Yes, a price did need to be paid to restore God’s honor, and it needed to be paid to God the Father—by one who was equally divine.” I imagine Anselm didn’t consider the disastrous implications of his theory, especially for people who were already afraid or resentful of God.
In authoritarian and patriarchal cultures, most people were fully programmed to think this way—working to appease an authority figure who was angry, punitive, and even violent in “his” reactions. Many still operate this way, especially if they had an angry, demanding, or abusive parent. People respond to this kind of God, as sick as it is, because it fits their own story line.
Unfortunately, for a simple but devastating reason, this understanding also nullifies any in-depth spiritual journey: Why would you love or trust or desire to be with such a God?
Over the next few centuries, Anselm’s honor- and shame-based way of thinking came to be accepted among Christians, though it met resistance from some, particularly my own Franciscan school under Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Protestants accepted the mainline Catholic position, embracing it with even more fervor. Evangelicals later enshrined it as one of the “four pillars” of foundational Christian belief, which the earlier period would have thought strange. Most of us were never told of the varied history of this theory, even among Protestants. If you came from a “law and order” culture or a buying and selling culture—which most of us have—it made perfect sense. The revolutionary character of Jesus and the final and full Gospel message has still to dawn upon most of the world. It is just too upending for most peoples’ minds until they have personally undergone the radical experience of unearned love. And, even then, it takes a lifetime to sink in.
Even Jesus had to walk it on his own, which is the only meaning of God “requiring” his death of him. Jesus calls this goal the “destiny” of the “Human One” (Mark 8:31), and he seems to know that he is a stand-in for all of us (Mark 10:39)—much more than he ever walks around saying, “I am God”! The only person Jesus ever calls a “devil” is Peter when he, the so-called “infallible” first pope, tries to oppose Jesus’ central message of death and resurrection (Matthew 16:23).
Much of Jesus’ work was healing, with many of his teachings illustrating the healings. Nine of Jesus’ healing stories are actually exorcisms. While the term may be off-putting, the fact that there are so many exorcisms in the Gospels speaks to their importance. I believe “possession by devils” refers to what we now call addiction. The “possessed” person is in some sense trapped by a larger force and is powerless to do anything about it. The only cure for possession is “repossession” by Something Greater than the disease. This is why Bill Wilson said that a “vital spiritual experience” is necessary for full recovery.
I’m convinced that when the great medieval spiritual teachers talked so much about attachment, they were really talking about addiction. We are all attached and addicted in some way. At the very least, we are addicted to our compulsive dualistic patterns of thinking, to our preferred self-image, and to the usually unworkable programs for happiness we developed in childhood—which then showed themselves to be inadequate or even wrong.