Book Review - Sin--Radical Evil in Soul and Society

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 1, pages 107-109. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Sin--Radical Evil in Soul and Society. 

Ted Peters. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994, 338 pages.

Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, Ted Peters is the most cult-knowledgeable theologian in my faith tradition. His theological study of sin and evil deals with the phenomenon we have experienced as cults. In my almost two decades of confronting the destructive effects of abusive new movements, I have come up against entities and a reality that could only be defined as demonic and evil. This has led me to demonize certain groups and individuals, a practice of judgment that I had not allowed myself in the previous forty years.

Because we in the countercult movement have focused on abusive practices for so long, only recently have we begun to examine cultic truth claims, or to think theologically about these movements and their abuses. Starting with his first-hand research into New Age activities, Professor Peters was launched into this study in response to a number of questioners about Satanism, as he acknowledges on the first page.

Drawing deeply from the works of Ernst Becker, Carl Jung, Augustine, Karth Barth, M. Scott Peck, Paul Tillich, and the Biblical writers, Peters defines sin as missing the mark, the human propensity to injustices that cause evil, which Peters defines as loss, pain, suffering, and destruction. All of which leads him to radical evil, "evil consciously embraced for its own sake ... symbolized by Satan" (p. 9).

Medieval Christian moral theologians held to a catalogue of seven deadly vices (pride, envy, anger, covetousness, sloth, gluttony, and lust). Peters builds his book around "Seven Steps Down the Path to Radical Evil" as a progression "from innocence to maximum profanity" (p. 10). The steps are anxiety, unfaith, pride, concupiscence, self-justification, cruelty, and blasphemy.

Anxiety rooted in human fear of death and nonbeing becomes the breeding ground for a deepening distrust of divine providence. Pride seeks to co-opt divinity for oneself in human hubris. Concupiscence, the lusting after what others have, denies one's own limits and is expressed through the consumption of someone else's life-giving power. Looking good while scapegoating others, human self-justification progresses towards a cruelty defined as enjoyment of the neighbor's suffering.

"The worst of the seven deadly sins on my lists is blasphemy," Peters writes (p. 16), "--that is, radical evil.... In its overt form, blasphemy is the conscious use of divine symbols in the worship of radical evil." In the peak chapter of his work, entitled "Blasphemy--Satanic Rituals and the Destruction of the Inner Soul," Peters competently and concisely defines the current forms of Satanism and ritual abuse, reviews the current literature, identifies the parties in the current debate over Satanism, and concludes by observing that "Satan is present when we hear the call to shed innocent blood" (p. 257).

For the past 15 months, I have been part of a recovery team of clergy, therapists, and physicians working with a 40-year-old ritual abuse victim named Mary who has survived as a Multiple Personality Disorder with 26 alters. Working with her parish pastor, we found ourselves called upon to decontaminate the sacred symbols of God's unconditional love for this woman--the church's Scriptures, calendar, rituals, and sacraments from the blasphemous perversion to which they had been subjected in her childhood experience of unspeakable atrocities. Peters' theory is verified in my pastoral experience.

Ronald M. Enroth makes the same point in Recovering from Churches That Abuse.

Presenting her story (with her encouragement as well as permission) as a case history to Professor Duane Larson's class at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I had the unnerving experience of doing this presentation of radical sin and evil--as well as divine redemption--on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the Branch Davidian firestorm in Waco, Texas, and almost the very hour the bomb was detonated at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Peters is empowered to take the reader deeply into the discomforting arena of sin and radical evil by his overriding confidence in the ultimate victory of God's unconditional love, which for him and for me is focused in Jesus Christ. "There are two prerequisites for making the transition from the present to such a future beyond evil," he writes, "forgiveness of sin and life without death" (p. 33).

Peters's theology is confirmed in my pastoral experience in that the factor of unconditional acceptance has been the basic unmet need (among a number of others) in every recovering cult victim with whom I have ever worked, as well as in most sufferers of eating disorders and the chemically addicted.

We have not heard the last from Ted Peters by his own admission. His final two chapters set out an agenda for further study: theodicy, natural evil, the ecological myth of holism, the unhappy unconscious, free will, a theological view of Satan, the double tie to eternity as well as biological determinism.

Professor Peters addresses the radical evil that, in the experience of many of us, has broken through the liberal optimism of the 1960s and confronted many in the destructive effects of cults, especially in cases of Satanic Ritual Abuse. In so doing he has aligned himself as a colleague of the counter-cult movement which should welcome and employ the gifts of one of its newest comrades.

Richard Dowhower

All Saints Lutheran Church

Bowie, Maryland

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1995