Sunday 19 June 2022

Angels, demons, exorcism and the mass media

It is interesting that there are plenty of mass media, indeed Hellmouth-Hollywood, products that depict the spiritual war of this world - in terms of angels and demons, and including what might be termed 'spiritual technologies' such as exorcism. And such matters have been the subject of best-selling novels for many decades. 

The provenance of these stories should alert us to the probability that many are evil-intentioned in one way or another (and, since it is negative by nature, there are numberless ways in which evil can oppose Good). 

But there is perhaps a deeper and more devious misleading going-on in terms of the basic quality of these depictions - which is nearly always of a 'medieval' nature. What I mean is that in these stories symbols have objective effectiveness in a quasi-technological fashion. 

The media spiritual world is one in which demons possess good people against their will; and when corrupted they can be saved (again, without consent) by physical objects such as Holy Water, Consecrated Host; or by expert exorcisms using specific Latin prayers and which must be performed by consecrated priests.   

Such aspects make spirituality into an almost materialist technology and down-play (or eliminate altogether) what is actually the core role of human freedom and choice in spiritual matters. 

I believe that human consciousness has changed since the medieval era, and therefore the 'objective' world as we know it - has also changed. 

In the middle ages, Men lived in a mental-world that we would experience as communal - they had not fully dissociated their consciousness from the group; and (to a significant extent) meanings and effects were taken-in with perceptions.  

What this meant was that symbols and language had an objective reality - perceived symbols affected the material world; because the material world was not separable from them. For example, a physical cross, or a picture or a vision of the cross; had reliable and powerful spiritual effects - on unbelievers, animals, disease - causally potent much as we would expect from a laser beam. 

Thus, demons could attack men who resisted them, because Men could not fully resist them due to their (partial but significant) absorption into the communal spiritual mind. And/ but these demons could be exorcised even without the consent of the possessed - for the same reason. 

Exorcism, done by those with authority and in the proper form of words and actions, therefore had the kind of objective efficacy we moderns might associate with penicillin or surgery.  

As the modern era dawned from around 1500 in Europe; these symbols began to lose their objective effect and the Reformation was a major result. This focused on whether the consecrated host was objectively spiritually-effectual - or whether there needed to be an inner 'subjective' act on the part of the believer. 

I believe this dispute arose exactly because the Eucharist began to lose the unquestioned and reliable objective effects it had possessed for many centuries.

My understanding is that the root cause of this change was a change in human consciousness - with the separating-out of the individual 'self' from the communal mind. Men no longer took in meaning with their perceptions, but also required that the outer symbol be met with a voluntary inner assent. 

And I believe this process has continued until now; when once-sacred and objectively-effective symbolism has become completely ineffectual and irrelevant for many modern people.  

The other side of this coin is that individuals are now responsible for their own spirituality. On the one hand (as I understand it, as a rule); nowadays demons cannot possess men unless they are invited, and can only stay in possession with consent... 

On the other hand, exorcism has lost its objective and reliable effectiveness. 

Nowadays an exorcism would not be something done-to a possessed person; but would need to be more like an attempt to persuade and encourage a possessed person to resist and repent - to withdraw consent and make an inward decision to refuse demonic control. 

The basic nature and conduct of the spiritual war has therefore changed since medieval times - and both the power and responsibility of the individual have increased greatly

Thus individuals are personally to blame for their own spiritual plight. And also, for the same reasons, people must do for-themselves what could once be done for-them.  

What I am saying is that in their depictions of angels, demons, and spiritual technologies; the mass media are encouraging a false understanding of the spiritual war as it (nearly always) applies here-and-now.  

They are encouraging an atavistic, obsolete spirituality - which is not true for these times; and therefore does not work

This has two kinds of bad effects: 

In the first place it absolves individuals of responsibility of their own spiritual corruption, and encourages a spiritual passivity that looks to other people, external actions and physical objects for their salvation. 

Yet none of this actually works. (Or, only seldom, and incompletely.)

In the second place; this atavistic spirituality is so alien to the actuality of modern life (and so ineffective) as to seem utterly absurd; and to encourage the rejection of spiritual belief altogether. 

When the depictions are so sensational, medieval and untrue to experience; naturally most people regard the whole subject as mere make-believe.  

Meanwhile, the real spiritual war proceeds and thrives unnoticed, denied; and unimpeded by that correct-understanding, acknowledged responsibility, and free-individual-choice - which are the demons only truly-powerful opponents.  

Note: The above perspective, especially on the developmental (evolutionary) changes in human consciousness through history - and causally-driving that history - is heavily indebted to Owen Barfield - in books such as Romanticism Comes of AgeSaving the Appearances and Worlds Apart - and also a selective reading from the vast (and uneven) corpus of Rudolf Steiner.


Lady Mermaid said...

Man's cooperation w/ his spiritual development is a key difference between Christianity and paganism. I'm currently watching The Last Kingdom depicting the struggle of the Christian Saxons and pagan Danes. The Viking spirituality is shown to be quite real, but the practitioners do not seem to have any real free will. The gods determine destiny and curses can be laid on people w/o their consent. While Christianity has sacred objects and images, I do not believe that these have power on their own volition. Faith is required as God wants us to participate in divine creation as opposed to a pre determined fate.

Bruce Charlton said...

@LM - Yes, I agree that Christianity was when this freedom decisively came into human thinking (probably as a change in ultimate reality induced by the life and death of Jesus Christ) - but this seems to have been a gradual and incremental change; as men became gradually less communal-groupish in thinking, and more individual.

Ultimately, this is why Men never do go back to earlier religious forms, because we cannot go back to earlier forms; we ourselves have changed inwardly and spiritually.

Indeed, Christianity is itself very historical as a religion, very directional.

WJT said...

That’s a very useful way of conceptualizing things.

I note that in the Synoptics, possession seems to have little moral dimension and is healed by Jesus as if it were just another disease. The only possession mentioned in the Fourth Gospel is that of Judas Iscariot (also mentioned in Luke), and it is clearly moral in nature.

I’ve read somewhere that Tolkien was an ordained exorcist. Do you know anything about that aspect of his life?

Evan Pangburn said...

@Lady Mermaid
When reading ancient pagan texts, it isn't particularly uncommon for the authors to speak of the gods with contempt.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WJT - I haven't heard that JRR Tolkien was an exorcist, and I doubt he would feel it appropriate for a layman to do this. But his son John was a Roman Catholic priest and exorcist. And Charles Williams (not a priest) once performed an exorcism as a favour. Maybe these stories have been mixed up. Unless people have taken seriously JRRT's joke of speaking the Lord's Prayer in Gothic into the tape recorder, to 'exorcise' any demons; before he recorded some excerpts from his writings at George Sayers's house in Malvern?

Doktor Jeep said...

Lends well to an observation that there appears to be a lot of low level possession going on. No heads turning around or crawling on the ceiling but leftism instead. Notably a lot of "spiteful mutants" all looking like they come from the same parents.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Ah, I (or my source) must have mistaken John for John Ronald.

Kristor said...

No argument about the development of individualism, and the concomitant increase in individual power and responsibility (and *irresponsibility*) - and the correlative dissolution of society. But exorcism still works the way it always did. I well know a psychologist - and Catholic mystic - who assists in the exorcisms of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. On the basis of the credible word of this righteous and intelligent man, who has participated many exorcisms, I can assure you, it works. The same is evident in the books I have read written by latter day exorcists. It is hard, but it works. Or can, anyway.

As individualism waxes, and social bonds and mores more and more deliquesce, demand for exorcism is on the rise.

Exorcism is not done to energumens unknowingly, against their will, or without their participation, like the hexes and spells of Africa. Indeed, the active participation of the energumen is essential to the success of the exorcism: he must first of all confess his sins, receive absolution, and then live a holy life. Only on that basis can the exorcism begin, or continue.

When we sin, we invite the demons into us by simple virtue of our sinful rejection of the Lord of Life, which opens niches for them in our psychic ecology. So, a holy life is a sine qua non of successful exorcism.

This requirement of the energumen is nothing new; it has been standard procedure since the rite of exorcism was first formalized.

So, yeah, individual responsibility of the energumen is crucial, and his power is great. He can ruin an exorcism the same way he can ruin his baptism or his absolution. He cannot however generally cast out the demons that possess him, all by himself; that's why he seeks help from the Church in the first place. Energumens who seek that help desperately want it; they are in torment, and cannot get free of it. When they ask for help from the Church, that *just is* their exercise of individual power.

If it lay in the power of the energumen to cast out his own possessing demons all by himself, hey presto, then exorcism would be a lot easier than it is, and no one would worry about demons. What is more, it would indicate that the modern emphasis on individualism is *correct.* It would be a rather dispositive demonstration that we have no spiritual need of each other; no need of membership in the mystical Body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful believers; no need of fellow warriors in the Spiritual War.

That would pit each of us alone against the demons, the same way that liberalism - having deleted all the intermediate organs of the social hierarchy, all alliances, all the little platoons - wants to pit each of us alone against the State.

As for the cinematic depictions of the Spiritual War, yes, Hollywood gets almost everything wrong, as with every other serious topic. I would except The Exorcist, which was (from all I have read) quite faithful to the truth of the matter, albeit sensationalized.

PS: In the final analysis, the exorcism is not done to the energumen at all, but to the demons who possess or oppress him. It is they who are adjured to depart. The energumen participates that adjuration by his own prayer and fasting and personal holiness.