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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Exorcism (as a spiritual exercise)

I confess: I was spooked by the film "Rosemary's Baby."

Raised Catholic, taught by nuns who took Church teachings on "fallen angels" and "Satan" seriously and literally, one of whom gave me a book in the sixth grade called The Last World War based on private revelations by possessed individuals predicting the end of the world by the next year.  And so I read with interest the article in todays WP by Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist writing a book on demonic possessions that cannot be explained by natural reason. He helps the Church's exorcist priests ascertain whether certain devilish behaviors in persons have natural or supernatural roots.

Does Satan exist?

I agree with Hamlet that there are more things than those taught in my philosophy, which does not rely on or even admit of supernatural beings or places. I affirm the spiritual dimension, mind, consciousness, soul, religion, but not separate from the material, natural, and embraced body. Angels and devils, and all forces for good and evil, are not fully explainable in our state of knowledge--and may indeed never be totally explainable through a science that is totally focused on the objective.

The phenomena that Gallagher cites: e.g. levitation and revelations of private affairs by possessed subjects that cannot be explained by skeptics are not enough evidence for scientists though they are more than enough for believers. In any case, I bet his book will be a good sell. As are those by Stephen King. We humans love to imagine the preternatural which I think is a manifestation of the transcending dimension of human bodily existence.

So while I am skeptical of supernatural verbs (activities) and nouns (persons, places, things), that is not to say that I do not believe in evil activities and persons. And I often must confront the evil in myself, in others, in institutions, in practices--some of it so gross and overpowering that its seems unnatural. (Think Holocaust, racism, slavery, war, and child abuse.)

In fact, nature itself has no quality of good or evil unless we who think, choose, and act put it there. I suppose in that sense, good and evil are over and above nature. We beings of nature who have acquired the ability to think, choose, and act transcend nature and make nature transcend itself. In human existence, nature is transcending itself.

In thinking we come to know good and evil. We have chosen to eat the forbidden fruit. We know evil  in the death or abuse of innocents and the actions that cause that. It is much easier to blame some psychological condition or some preternatural being for the evil, than to take responsibility for the evil in the world and our complicity in it.

Calvinists can divide the world between the saved and the damned and blame God for it. Catholics can blame Satan trying to get back at God. Manichaeans can blame both as warring Principles. Sociologists can blame the structures of society and psychiatrists can blame an Ego captured by the Id or Superego. But for me these are copouts. To confront evil in all its forms and be free, then I must take responsibility. And since I cannot do it alone, we must take responsibility.

Theologian Paul Tillich defines "the demonic" as absolutizing the contingent whether through idolatry or iconoclasm. His definition has the ironic effect of making belief in devils demonic because it supernaturalizes what is natural. So Tillich argues for Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle--that is, the acceptance of what is and the challenging of what is. Reinhold Niebuhr and most existentialist theologians counsel us to accept the ambiguity of our existence between the poles of Good and Evil which only exist as poles of our ambiguous existence, not as absolutes out there.

My own critical, but limited, thinking induces me to discard devils (and angels) as real beings, that is, reasonably validated by evidence. I also reject theories of possession whether by gods or devils outside natural processes. I do not reject illusions, strange behaviors, ecstatic moments, and experiences of being possessed by spirits. Those I think are almost everyday and everywhere occurrences that can be attested whether we can explain them or not due to the complexity of our brain and the phenomenon of mind.

I also accept our use of images, symbols, and metaphors in knowing our world; and the fallacy of literalizing or absolutizing those metaphors.  I can accept angels and demons as useful images if we do not take them too seriously. And thus I will continue to read the CS Lewis's Screwtape Letters and Stephen Ambrose's Devil's Dictionary with relish.

Exorcism, therefore, I do not count as a spiritual exercise. In fact because exorcism places evil outside ourselves and dispenses with our responsibility for evil, including the evil in the social order  into which we are born, exorcism is evil. I find exorcism to be as evil as were the witch hunts of Boston Puritans, post WW2  anti-communism, and the nationalist racism of today where we make ourselves to be victims of outside forces and then make victims of others.

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