We at Vox Nova are happy to bring you this post today from Professor Tim Muldoon of Boston College. Thanks to Professor Muldoon for sharing this with the VN community.
OK, bad pun. But it’s hard to avoid the fact that there’s suddenly a fascination with all things demonic. Consider this Discovery Channel series in production, cooperating with the Vatican (though the article does not specify who or what office of the Holy See). Then there are the films The Last Exorcism and, coming this month, Anthony Hopkins in The Rite– the latest in a more-or-less constant fascination with demons dating back to films like The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and others. And even the Catholic Church–at least in the United States–convened a conference in November for the sake of educating bishops (56 attended!) and priests on exorcism. Catholic News Service reports that a 2005 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specified that every bishop is to appoint an exorcist in his diocese.
Belief in demons has its roots in the Bible and is a constant theme in the history of Christian writings on spirituality. Consider as one more or less typical example that of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), whose Spiritual Exercises is one of the most influential spiritual texts even to this day. He writes frequently of the “enemy of our nature,” or some similar phrase, as one who constantly tries to seduce us into approving desires that will lead us to unhappiness:
the enemy of human nature, roaming about, looks in turn at all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral; and where he finds us weakest and most in need for our eternal salvation, there he attacks us and aims at taking us. (tr. Elder Mullan here)
For several years I’ve taught a course on Ignatian spirituality at Boston College, and my experience tells me that few students are willing to take Ignatius’ very clear language about the devil or demons at face value. At the root of this bias is a characteristically modern posture: what ancient writers meant by demons and possession, moderns understand to be psychic disorders and epileptic fits.
There is some truth to this modern posture. The Church’s exorcists will seek to identify when psychological or medical help is called for, and indeed there is good reason to support the idea that our knowledge of the sciences renders understandable much of what was once taken to be divine or demonic forces in the world.
But conventional wisdom errs at a fundamentally epistemological level when it dismisses demons a priori, or suggests that we have all the evidence to safely conclude that there is no such thing as possession. How can we possibly know that? The reason why people find demons uncomfortable is that they do not fit the diminished notion of transcendence that moderns and postmoderns have dangled before us. We’re just a little too uncomfortable with the idea that demons have power that only God can save us from. That would make us unable to have perfect autonomy!
To be clear: Hollywood demons are pretty much nothing like the ones that exorcists and spiritual directors deal with. Ignatius, for example, living in the 16th century–really the tail end of the Medieval world–did not describe demons in a Dante-like way. In Ignatius’ mind, demons weren’t hopping around with pitchforks or melting people’s faces. They were real, but their work was not one of terror but of constant temptation, and they could be overcome through lives of virtue and prayer. Indeed, the spiritual life as a whole, he wrote, was an ongoing practice of discernment so that one could learn which desires were rooted in God and which were rooted in the demonic.
At the foundation of this picture of the spiritual life, of course, was a basic conviction: God has created us for freedom, and we attain our freedom by living in ways that call forth the greatest love. Turning away from demons amounts to turning away from the false loves which, in the end, cannot make us happy.
It is interesting to consider, for example, that most modern model of spirituality: the 12-step program, as an intuitive (even if not explicit) recognition of the power of the demonic. Those who suffer from alcoholism or drug use, those addicted to sex or shopping, those who have compulsions like hoarding or cutting– often describe themselves as out-of-control. And yet all these conditions are kinds of actions which people themselves choose to undertake, even though they do not feel free when they choose them. We are very quick to assume that their problems are psychic and ought to be handled by therapy, and to a large extent that assumption is well grounded. But does the need for psychotherapy mean that the causes are not demonic? And can we be certain that every instance of compulsive behavior can be treated by psychotherapy?
Belief in demons is a belief in an “I know not what” that can have a negative impact on our lives. Ignatius’ thoughtful language of “the enemy of our nature” is a way of expressing this basic reality: there are movements in our hearts whose origins we cannot fully plumb, but whose influences need to be weighed by the careful practice of discernment. And the key direction of that discernment is asking the global question of whether a proposed choice leads to greater faith, hope, and love. One of Ignatius’ important pieces of advice is that temptations are real and they must be faced head-on with courage– the enemy gets afraid of our resolve and weakens the grip on our desires. This suggestion, I have found, is on the money, even if it offers a different picture of the demonic than that of most films. Yes, there are many archaic images of demons out there, and that’s partly why there’s some fascination about them. But relinquishing entirely the idea of the demonic, as a corollary to the modern posture of denying any reality beside that which can be measured or surveyed, strikes me as dangerous. I am advocating for a certain epistemic humility: let us acknowledge demonic power but not pretend that we fully understand it. Ignatius’ basic insight here is still valid: recognizing the power of the demonic should lead us to turn to greater reliance on God, whose love calls from us a love in return which is greater than the power of any demon.