Oncology and Spiritual Warfare, or Did the Doctor Find a Demon?

Oncology and Spiritual Warfare, or Did the Doctor Find a Demon? October 20, 2012
Oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee

Having been touched by cancer too often in the past couple years, I recently picked up Siddhartha Mukherjee’s remarkable Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  The book is a tour de force and must reading for anyone who actually wants to read about cancer (admittedly not everyone).  Mukherjee is a highly literate and sensitive writer and does justice to a an extremely difficult topic.

In another realm of life, in preparation to teach Christian Anthropology, I have recently done some reading about angels and demons, those immaterial personal intelligences affirmed in Christian tradition but inevitably misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture.  Mukherjee makes no religious claims in his book, but the following passage (from p. 39) seems to me evidence of a spiritually sensitive soul.  Mukherjee has described a demon much more accurately, almost certainly without knowing it, than any non-theological source I have yet encountered:

In writing this book, I started off by imagining my project as a “history” of cancer.  But it felt, inescapably, as if I were writing not about something but about someone.  My subject daily morphed into something that resembled an individual – an enigmatic, if somewhat deranged, image in a mirror.  This was not so much a medical history of an illness, but something more personal, more visceral:  its biography.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Fascinating–and a little frightening. I’ll definitely have to get the book.

  • Dante Aligheri

    This is an interesting excerpt and reminds me very much of Fr. Louis Bouyer’s or John Newman’s very Neoplatonic take on the role which the spiritual world takes. It echoes with Paul’s very Jewish conception of powers and principalities ruling over and influencing corrupt nations, maladies, etc. I just wonder from a practical perspective how far we can take this metaphor (?) in the modern age.

    • brettsalkeld

      I think the best thing I have read to answer your final question is Rahner’s article on Angels in his Theological Investigations.

      • Dante Aligheri

        Thanks. I’ll take a look.

  • Roseann

    As a Catholic nurse and student of graduate theological studies, I can definely agree with his interpretion. Especially since I have just taken a position with our local hospice services. I will have to read his book.

  • nequeangeli

    To a three-time cancer survivor and someone who has lost both a parent and a spouse to cancer, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to see cancer as a powerful implacable malignant force ever seeking the ruin of the vulnerable.

  • Rat-biter

    What can one say but “Wow” LOL ?

  • Ronald King

    Brett, I was given this book as a present by my future son-in-law about a year and a half ago. It is a very sensitive, personal and intelligent work of mercy. By the way, my personal hero is your own Terry Fox. “Wow”

  • An interesting thought, but probably can only be used analogically. If literal, would Cancer be one demon, or a separate being in each case? Also, would exorcism then cure cancer??

    I understand what you mean about the nature of pure forms or spirits, but I’m pretty sure even this interpretation would require that the spirits be “memes”, not material. How much they might involve a meaning associated with the material I’m not sure.

  • Mark VA

    I think Mr. Mukherjee is on the right track, and he should pursue his insight to its logical conclusion.

    In an opposite direction, but in a somewhat parallel fashion, our soul often remains a vague, enigmatic set of intellectual propositions, that we may occasionally reflect upon. Whatever it is, many a times it remains shrouded and mysterious, may be even doubtful.

    This changes radically when our person is invaded by a form of political totalitarianism that attempts to take concrete control of all our thoughts and emotions. We instinctively recoil and defend with all our strength – what are we exactly defending at that time?

    It is this kind of horrible experience, that may take many years of unfold, which reveals the immaterial soul to be as real as any internal organ of our body. This experience is not allowed to be duplicated in a controlled manner (except thru the grace of God), but it can be described in a more or less vague and enigmatic fashion.

    I think we should all pray for one another.

  • crystal

    Ignatius of Loyola’s idea of the discernment of spirits seems to say that there are “bad” spirits (angels) that can influence people’s choices, but I don’t see any foundation for personalizing a disease as a demon.

    • brettsalkeld

      Thanks for this opportunity to provide a slight clarification. As I understand it, cancer itself is not a demon, but there is probably a demon of cancer. In other words, the universe is structured by created immaterial intelligences. This basic idea is captured nicely in Tolkkien’s creation myth Ainulindale or in the medieval idea of angels pushing the planets in their orbits. It is also captured in the traditional idea that people, places and things have angels (and/or demons). That I have a guardian angel does not make me an angel. St. Paul’s “powers and principalities” seem to be intelligences that govern functions and structures of this fallen world. And so, things like empires, corporations, political administrations, and yes, even Churches, often take on a kind of institutional personality that is bigger than the sum of its (human) parts. Many of us have been caught in structures of evil where the people on the ground seem relatively helpless to do anything about it. (Think of the last time you had a dispute with your health insurance company!) The suggestion here is that cancer is a structural deformation of creation that has a particular (and insidious) intelligibility that is personal in this analogous way.

      I know a (highly educated and sophisticated) woman who knew Kurt von Schuschnigg, the chancellor of Austria who conceded to Hitler. According to her, von Schuschnigg felt completely overwhelmed by the demonic during his engagement with Hitler. There was a sense of something bigger behind the man that could not be explained without recourse to the spiritual dimension. I suspect that the kind of engagement Dr. Mukherjee has with cancer produces a similar spiritual sense.

      • crystal

        “people, places and things have angels (and/or demons).”

        Like genius loci? I guess this is a sort of medieval cosmology, but many contemporary theologians see this kind of spiritual hierarchical system in place. David Bentley Hart mentioned this in on of his recent books. An interesting article on Rahner … http://www.questia.com/library/1G1-15172803/demythologization-in-the-theology-of-karl-rahner

        • brettsalkeld

          Thanks for the references. I really liked Rahner’s article on angels, so I’ll be sure to check it out. I think it is relatively little appreciated just how much Christianity in general is a religion of demythologization. (I think this relates to David’s current post on Benedict and bad religion.)

          And I think Bentley Hart a very interesting fellow and a fun read.

  • Ronald King

    Brett, in recalling Genesis, off the top or bottom of my head, isn’t it God Who shortens the life span of human beings? So, it would appear from that account that cellular mutations would be the work of God and not some demon.

    • Dante Aligheri

      This is a tough question. On the one hand, Scriptures do say that God alone has power over life and death: “I kill, and I make alive.” Isaiah states God creates both good and evil. On the other hand, St. John says there is no darkness in God. I think God ultimately is responsible for everything. Even the demons fall under His authority and cannot act without His permission. Jesus could command them. At the same time, they do act on their own wills just as we do and just as matter moves according to the laws of nature. Still, God remains ultimately in charge, and this – I think – does create a degree of inscrutability with regards to evil, leaving us in mystery and darkness before God like Job, asking “why.” Evil is not as simple as to say demons did it yet it truly exists and offends God. In these situations, the best option I think is trust and hope in Providence.

  • Gordie

    I believe this post and the post concerning Pope Benedict and bad religion can be explained with Rene Girard’s anthropology.

  • Dante,

    Do you have some Newman and Bouyer references for me? I’d like to look those up. Thanks

  • Dante Aligheri

    There was an essay I read which included quotes and ideas from both. It’s called “The Angels and Cosmic Liturgy: An Oratorian Angelology” and was written by Keith Lemna, a theologian at St. Meinrad’s in Indiana. It’s very good.

    The web address is “http://www.secondspring.co.uk/articles/Lemna%20on%20Angels,%20Bouyer,%20Tolkien.pdf”

    I hope you enjoy it.