The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




Last Sunday I preached a sermon in which I talked about the essence of the individual human, the self which is inviolable, which cannot be touched by circumstance or tragedy, which I suggested was what in traditional faiths is called the soul. I said that although outside forces cannot destroy it, we ourselves can, but it seemed to me that I didn’t say enough then about how that can happen, so I’d like to do that today. It has been my contention that all human evil is based on fear and greed, both distortions of the survival instinct, and certainly there can be no greater evil than the destruction of one’s own soul. I suspect, however, that indifference may also be as productive of this evil as the other two. It was Edmund Burke who said, “In order for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good (people) to do nothing.”

There is a rather cynical and unkind story which I have heard variously attributed. I think when my mother first told it to me it was supposed to be about Winston Churchill. He was sitting at a dinner and talking to his dinner partner, when for some reason the question he asked seemed appropriate, although I can’t imagine how it could have been. He asked her if she would sell her body for £1 million, and she said yes, she thought she might. Then he asked if she would do it for £10. “What do you think I am?” she cried indignantly. “Madam,” he responded, “we have already established that. Now we are only haggling over the price.” If the price of our bodies can be agreed upon, what is the price of our souls?

The story of Dr. Faustus and his pact with the devil is a very ancient one. It is thought that it is based upon a real physician/professor/alchemist of Hamburg whose learning, wealth and power were so great that it was said that to obtain these things he had sold his soul to the devil. The traveling puppet shows of medieval times portrayed the story of his Mephistophelean bargain as often as they did the quarrels of Punch and Judy, and the final scene where he is finally taken to the pit was as famous as those where that contentious couple battered one another. It was a cautionary tale for children, but it entered the ranks of literature when Christopher Marlowe wrote The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus in the middle 1500’s. It has never, in one form or another, passed completely from public consciousness. The idea of selling one’s soul to the devil for great advantage is one that maintains its fascination. It is, of course, so easy to do — so easy that it is sometimes done for little advantage at all, and sometimes even given away without our realizing it. Part of the fascination, though, is probably the tempta­tion that we might all feel, just as the dinner partner could be tempted by the proffer of a million pounds to sell her body, so might any of us be tempted by great gain to sell our souls. Perhaps some might do it more easily since there is little belief nowadays in an objective lord of evil who holds sway over our souls after we die. I do not need to tell you, I’m sure, that I have no such belief, yet the loss of one’s soul is still the greatest tragedy that can befall any of us. There may not be a horned and hoofed individual who offers us a bargain before we die and stokes the fire under us afterwards, but the loss of our commitment to and connection with meaningful and tran­scendent living, or with the holy as I prefer to call it, is more than sufficient punishment, even if in the callousness of evil it be unfelt.

There are those who do it intentionally, consciously and flamboyantly, who decide that the essence of their humanity with its knowledge of good and evil is of little importance in comparison to what they can gain by its sale. It is hard for me to believe, for example, that those people who practice the traffic in human bodies, who own and sell slaves even today and even in this country, have not intentionally sold their souls for wealth and power. Although we have many techniques of denial, such blatant inhumanity surely could not be hidden from those who practice it. Those who do harm knowingly for the sake of gain are the ones that we can point to most easily as having sold their souls.

Fame and popularity, however, may be as tempting as wealth. How many people are willing to compromise their principles for approval by others? Nowadays with the confusion of individualism with narcissism and the idolatry of some transcendent notion of community, it is even almost being touted as a virtue to negotiate such a sale.

I suspect, however, that very few people sell their souls intentionally and all at once, or even always recognize the bargains they make. We fritter them away, a little here, a little there, for this or that tiny advantage, or even, sometimes, for no advantage at all. As we do it we become less aware, less sensitive to those things that compromise our souls. Things are not always easy to recognize as evil, either. There is little in our world that is pure black and white, and it is therefore possible for us to justify our choices, even when they are Mephistophelean bargains.

I think of the Germans who supported the Third Reich. Most of them did. The Swiss bankers, too, and the Roman Catholic Church were complicit in the Nazi regime. These were not terrible people. They were normal people. They closed their eyes to evil or justified it, for the sake of peace or gain or national loyalty. I sometimes wonder (and fear) whether I would have done the same if I had been in that society at that time. It is so easy not to see, not to hear, not to understand, when one’s own peace or prosperity is involved. There have been times, after all, when I have allowed blatantly racist statements to pass unchallenged in the name of good manners, or of just keeping the peace. For so little one’s soul, or at least a little piece of it, is on the auction block.

It is so easy to become indifferent, too, when we are bombarded with evil, so that even if we don’t actively participate ourselves we are no longer shocked or angry, no longer sensitive to such things as dishonesty and violence. One of my favorite of Mark Twain’s sketches is one called “The Facts Behind the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”. It was his conscience that he was dealing with rather than his soul, but I suspect that Twain didn’t differentiate between the two, and it may indeed be difficult to tell the difference. The conscience, if not the whole soul, is certainly a primary aspect of it. In the sketch his conscience came to visit, a little, mold-covered, distorted creature. He had been selling bits of it for some time. It still had the power to torture him sometimes, despite its weakened nature, about such things as the sufferings of widows and orphans, but in their conversation it told him about the hugeness and beauty of the conscience which continually tortured the best person he knew, and the microscopic aspect of that of the happiest villain. Twain determined to kill it to escape its monitions, but couldn’t catch it until in the midst of a harangue by his aunt on a matter to which he had become utterly indifferent, it fell asleep. After its death he was able to do all the evil he pleased without a twinge. He didn’t sell his soul but killed it, but when it becomes completely indifferent to evil, there is very little to choose between them.

It is a good thing, since it is so easy and practically universal to sell or give away one’s soul that it is almost impossible for most of us to do it completely or permanently. In all the stories of Dr. Faustus, Mephistopheles had a terrible time keeping him to the bargain they had made, and in other stories with similar themes there is almost always some escape route. Daniel Webster gets Jabez Stone off in the story of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by appealing to the universal humanity even of the most evil of us. The last and most famous of the stories of Dr. Faustus, Faust, a dramatic poem or poetic drama by Goëthe, written in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, has a happy ending. Despite many years of holding Mephistopheles to his promises of knowledge, love, wealth and power, the last scene is of angels carrying Faust’s soul to heaven while Mephistopheles curses and bemoans his luck below.

Although it is a quintessentially romantic production, perhaps this version of the bargain is really more realistic. No matter what we have done, what we have accepted, what we have allowed, that is evil, in our greed or fear or indifference, no matter how we have compromised our souls, they can always be redeemed. Even the soul too small to be seen except under a microscope can be taken back and made to grow. The stories are right when they make it clear that evil cannot destroy our souls unless we surrender them willingly. Once we are no longer willing to profit from such a bargain it becomes null and void.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t make it okay to do evil for awhile expecting to balance things out later by doing good. That’s simply leasing rather than selling the soul and is just another kind of pact with the devil. There is the danger that custom makes us indifferent, and more than this, although in the Epistle of James it says truly that faith without works is dead, equally dead are works without faith. I do not by that mean belief, as you know, but a real loyalty to transcendent value and the courage to live by it. To do good works in hopes of saving your soul after entering into a lease agreement with evil is better than doing no good works at all, but it won’t break the lease by itself.

There is a misunderstanding by many non-Catholics (and some Catholics as well) of the purpose and value of confession. If you confess your sins and are absolved, those who are confused about it think that that’s the end of it. Do something, confess, get absolution, and it’s all taken care of. No, you have to be sincerely sorry that you did it and determined never to do it again. So it is with the Mephistophelean pact. The company that pollutes for profit and then cleans up the pollution is better than one that doesn’t do the cleanup, but there needs to be a sincere realization that the original pollution, if not necessary and justified by the good that the company was doing to a wider population than its shareholders, was wrong. We must hunger and thirst after righteousness, not after salvation. It is not a balancing act, but a commitment to the good.

Of course, it’s never so cut and dried as we can make it in explanation. The good is not always easily recognized, nor is evil always obviously evil; greed and fear and indifference are a part of who we are as animals native to our planet with the same survival needs as others. Nevertheless, the human essence, the knowledge of good and evil is also a part of us and can never be destroyed without our willing surrender of it. Even then it can always be redeemed. We can never be entirely cut off from goodness and from our essential selves unless we agree to the separation. Although the official theology of the middle ages insisted that goodness was only possible to human beings through the intervention of the divine, even the crude puppet shows of Faustus knew better. Although they, pre-Goëthe, ended with the final surrender of the protagonist to evil, it was a struggle that Mephistopheles barely won even after extorting a contract signed in blood. Not the greatest material rewards, not even fame and power, nor even popularity or peace can easily resign us forever to the separation from our love of justice, beauty, compassion and creation. We can make our pacts with the devil, but thank goodness they’re always breakable.