The Devil and Bobby FischerSomewhere deep in the American consciousness is buried the concept of Faustian bargaining. The idea of selling one’s soul to the devil – Old Scratch as he was called in the folklore of Appalachia – inspired not only the original Faust, but spin-offs such as Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker, Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Groening’s The Devil and Homer Simpson. In reality, however, the devil would rarely need to resort to contracts, it being so easy to drag men into sin by temptation alone, without recourse to the promises of a lost treasure, 7 years of prosperity, or an accursed forbidden donut, respectively. Nevertheless, let’s consider why it’s a bad idea to make a contract with the devil with the hope of finding some loophole.
The devil would never leave a loophole for us, nor have a flaw in the logic of his contract. The thing to remember about the devil is that he has no brain. For us humans, that would be a terrible state of affairs, but for spiritual creatures – fallen ones included – it is a distinct advantage. They can think quickly, instantaneously, in fact, without worrying about the processing speed of an organic network of neural connections. We, however, have to rely on senses, flawed as they are (thank you, original sin), and then submit our impressions to an equally flawed series of logical analyses we call – in many cases, somewhat presumptuously – “human reason.”
If the latest in this long tradition of Faustian bargain stories centered on a man who, foolishly selling his soul, tried to redeem it with a game of chess, there are any number of additional disadvantages he would have. Modern man is, for instance, plagued by a depressing lack of attention span. Chess requires a man to rely on his long game, but we are all about the short game. We cannot focus longer than the latest distraction – a notification from Twitter will probably interrupt some of you readers right about now – and if we could, our insatiable desire for immediate gratification would likely lead us to sacrifice the queen for the pawn simply for the pleasure of having captured an opposing piece. The man in our updated tale would be doomed if left to his own devices.
What if he called on the great late Grandmaster Bobby Fischer to win it back for him in a game of chess? This reckless sinner would almost certainly lose his soul. The devil could out-think IBM’s famous Deep Blue in a heartbeat (though neither player would have a heart); Bobby Fisher would be no challenge at all.
Nevertheless, many of us wish to fool the devil. We try to fool him with the sin of presumption, hoping against hope that, having gambled away our queen and rooks and bishops and knights, our pawns will mount a daring rescue mission in the last moments of life, and we will muster perfect contrition for our sins. We try to fool him also with the rationalization that aids and abets a lax conscience – “technically, I missed Mass because I slept in, which I had to do because I was tired, and exhaustion is a physical ailment, a type of sickness, right?” We try to fool him by relying simply on our faith to save us, as if he doesn’t also believe and tremble (James 2:19). In all these things, we ourselves are proven fools. Playing chess with the devil is never wise.
If the devil will always outwit us, how shall we be saved?
We will never have to outwit the devil on our own brainpower and neither would Bobby Fischer. We cannot ever exceed him in smarts, but we can exceed him in grace and charity. We can cling to God’s wisdom, revealed to His Church, found in her teachings. By God’s grace, the courtroom where the devil will make his arguments for our souls is not one in which we will have the burden of defending our innocence. No, we will win by confessing our sins and admitting our guilt in this life, even before trial. If we have lived a Christian life – even without great understanding of theology or an ability to match wits with Old Scratch – we will be acquitted by our faith in God, the hope and charity it bore as fruit in our souls, the indwelling of grace. On that day, Christ Himself will be our judge and the Holy Spirit our court-appointed Advocate.