Thursday 13 September 2007

The mentally handicapped and the demonic

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

Anyone wanting to poke fun at the naïveté of the first-century worldview – and by implication the biblical texts shaped by it – will sooner or later bring up the “primitive” belief that those suffering from a mental affliction are actually beset by demons. As unremarkable as this jibe is, the comparisons that inevitably follow between their worldview and our own are even less interesting.

For instance: while the first-century world is full of magic, myths and demons, the modern world is determined by rationality, hard science and medicine. And so, whereas the ancients used exorcism to deal with mental illness, we use medication, precise treatment programs and various forms of supported accommodation. The implicit judgment that drives these comparisons is the superiority and benevolence of modern science and the health-care system, versus the cruel, more ancient practice of ostracising the sick from civic life.

But is the difference quite so clear-cut? As soon as it’s pressed, this double reduction (modern benevolence versus primitive cruelty) collapses.

To begin with, earliest Christianity – in which designation I include Jesus himself – did not simply accept the superstitions and religious palliatives supplied by its cultural surroundings. Instead, it consistently exhibited a remarkable capacity for theological imagination and an ethical intensity that released it from the clutches of nationalist idolatry and merciless ritual practices. The ethical freedom of early Christianity is nowhere better demonstrated than in the radical way that it presents and uses the notion of “the demonic”. Far from simply accepting the existence of malevolent, individuated personalities as an easy explanation for a variety of ailments, the Christian texts identify demonic influences as an effective mechanism of cultural and political critique.

For instance, in Mark’s Gospel, the commencement of Jesus’ public activity – in the form of the announcement of the redefined kingdom of God – is punctuated by the presence of “a man with an unclean spirit” in the synagogue. It is as if the Jewish religious system itself, governed by the demands of holiness and ritual exclusions, is possessed by something antagonistic to the presence of the kingdom of God. Similarly, it is hard not to pick up the political overtones in Mark’s episode concerning the Gerasene demoniac. As Dominic Crossan observes: “The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power.” Toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, the nocturnal arrest of Jesus is depicted as the proper activity of “the power of darkness.”

And in Paul’s writings, not only are the Roman rulers reduced to impotent “powers” that cravenly plotted to execute Jesus, but the Jewish Torah itself is described as belonging to the stoicheia, the dark, elemental forces that exert their chaotic influence on this world.

What is crucial to notice here is the way that the demonic influence is mediated through political and religious structures as the means by which individuals are subjugated, humiliated, excluded, dehumanised. The message of the gospel is that these powers have been emasculated (as Karl Barth put it, demons “are null and void, but they are not nothing”), and that their effects must be opposed in the same manner by which they were defeated: in faith and by love. The powers are thus to be taken seriously, but disregarded as an act of faith. Here again, Barth captures the spirit of the Christian critique perfectly:

“Demons are only the more magnified if they are placed in a framework of the conflict between a modern and an ancient system.… The demythologisation which will really hurt them as required cannot consist in questioning their existence. Theological exorcism must be an act of the unbelief which is grounded in faith.”

The Christian attitude toward demonic powers, then, was not simple acceptance of their existence and influence on the world, much less a kind of primitive heuristic device for explaining what now is the domain of medicine. Instead, it represented a vital critique of those political, religious and even bureaucratic systems that subjugate the masses, and thus manifest a terrifying yet anonymous form of Evil.

But this sword cuts both ways. Just as the New Testament texts are neither naïve nor homogeneous in the way they speak of demons, our own world is hardly free from “demonic” influences.

What is needed is the theological clarity and moral courage to be able to identify these influences as such. And one need look no further than the diabolical effects that political neglect and bureaucratic indifference continue to have on the quality of mental health care. The dehumanising forces endemic within the mental health care system stretch from the woeful levels of funding – designed to maintain an already exceedingly tenuous status quo – to the high rate of staff turnover due to burnout and work-related stress. But Stanley Hauerwas has gone further, suggesting that the care of the mentally handicapped exposes the deep contradiction at the heart of liberal humanism:

“No group exposes the pretensions of the humanism that shapes the practices of modernity more thoroughly than the mentally handicapped. Our humanism entails we care for them once they are among us, once we are stuck with them; but the same humanism cannot help but think that, all things considered, it would be better if they did not exist.”

In his terrifying masterpiece of theological journalism, Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin insisted that it is the exorcist himself that must play the role of “the devil’s hostage”, by placing himself between the victim and the demon, by being an advocate for the one who has no capacity to resist. This is precisely the kind of faithful advocacy demanded from Christians today: to oppose Evil even in its most innocuous, anonymous and bureaucratic forms, and thus to enact the prayer, “Deliver us from the Evil One!”


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott (and Ben),

I enjoyed this post and -- as one who as learned from the writings of peole like Ched Myers, Walter Wink, and William Stringfellow -- I am quite sympathetic to what is writen here.

The risk, however, is to overemphasise the "sociopolitical" nature of the "demonic" and downplay or ignore the more "spiritual" elements (Myers and Crossan especially do this in their explorations of the impact of the Powers on particular individuals within the Gospels; whereas Wink and Stringfellow do a good job of holding the two together -- although they are more concerned with institutional Powers, than with the ways in which those Powers "possess" particular individuals).

However, as I have spent the last number of years living and working with those who are most oppressed by the sociopolitical powers within Canadian urban centres (homeless youth, "survival" prostitutes, etc.), and as I have noted the astounding stats on "mental illness" within the populations that are street-involved (in Toronto that stats showed that anybody who was on the street for five or more years had somthing like a 100% chance of having a mental illness), it is easy to see a correlation between sociopolitical oppression and the "demonic" which exhibits itself in "mental affliction."

The problem here is that simply addressing the sociopolitical root of such "possession" is not enough to overcome the afflictions faced by some of these people (of course, some people do just need the right meds and/or a community that cares, but for others this is not enough). Take addiction for example -- a clear cut case of a Power that possesses and controls a person (I often say that "crack is the devil" and I am only half joking). Addiction can be a symptom (and then, of course, a cause) of marginalization and oppression, but rectifying that marginalization and oppression (by providing housing, life skills, counseling, a community of care, etc.) is often not enough. The Power, once it has entered a person, is not so easily driven out. I realised this fairly early on when I was talking with one young fellow addicted to crack who told me that smoking crack "alters people at the level of their DNA -- because when you smoke crack something comes in and attaches itself to your DNA and you are never the same again." No amount of sociopolitical work can restore (or make new) a person's DNA. This, then, requires something of an "exorcism" and the coming of the Spirit into a person to alter their DNA in a new direction. Of course, this sort of renewal is something I rarely see in my work and it makes me wonder a great deal about how we, as Christians, have gone about journeying with these people.

So, yes, by all means lets recover a sociopolitical understanding of these things. But let's also remember that some things are only cast out "through prayer and fasting." We need to hold on to the both/and (sorry for going on for so long, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts).

Anonymous said...

Excellent post but I was a bit alarmed about the abrupt shift from talking about mental illness to the mental handicap of the headline. The two things are, of course, completely different.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - thanks, Scott! This is as good an interpretation of "the demonic" as I've seen anywhere.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post, which makes many insightful points. Indeed, the way that social, political and economic forces manifest themselves in a community’s accounts of illness (mental or physical), dreams, spirits and the unseen generally has been documented extensively by anthropologists – I think immediately of the works of Michael Taussig including “The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in Latin America” and “Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wildman”. Surely, however, this post is not suggesting that we take seriously a belief in the devil and demons, as first century and later believers did, as this would take us perilously close to the insanity of the witch-hunts. Readers who find compelling evidence for the existence of the devil in case studies of supposed exorcisms would be advised to check out the psychological literature on satanic ritual abuse and UFO abductions before becoming too convinced.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Scott I do not need to want to poke fun at the naïeté of the first-century worldview --- and anyway, there has always seemed to me to be a missing term in such fun-poking, because if I understood the person in front of me to be an afflicted indivudual who was off his lithium, and yet a travelling preacher walked in and brought him to order simply by being in the room, I would have pretty much the same "wow" reaction as is reported in the NT, my worldview notwithstanding ---

As I say, I don't need to want to poke fun at the so-called first-century worldview. Preachers in my locale are in the habit of expounding the relevant NT texts entirely on their face, as if schizophrenia and other illnesses were unknown ... without even a gesture in the direction of modern understanding. So if I find myself poking fun at first-century stereotypes in my own mind, I claim that I have been provoked.

Surely as a church we should get our own house in order in this matter, before whipping on anyone else? Yes?

David W. Congdon said...


Excellent post! I am reminded of something that Eberhard Jüngel makes in his ethical writings. He says the test of our understanding of the doctrine of justification is how we treat infants and the elderly, for these are people that do not fit within the norms of modern society — e.g., being productive, self-sufficient, self-realizing, etc. Infants and the elderly are a disruption of modern Western society, and so they are dehumanized. The same can be said of the mentally ill.

On a related topic, I wonder how we might use the language of the "demonic" today as a subversive critique of modern sociopolitical systems of dehumanization? Does such language have any traction for us today? Or do we need new words to communicate the same kind of critique? It seems like the church today is limited to the same "language game" as everyone else. The church critiques oppressive frameworks in the same way as any other person or group. If we call capitalism "oppressive," we sound like any of the other secular academics today. But if we call it "demonic," we sound like medieval nuts. Does the church have its own discourse any more? Or are we simply stuck between a rock (modern liberalism) and a hard place (modern fundamentalism)?

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I think human culture is too complex, and language games (which in any case are notoriously hard to define) too porous, to be boxed into your liberalism/fundamentalism rock-hard place paradigm, though I know what you mean.

I am reminded of "existentialist" theologians like Tillich speaking of "sin" in terms of "alienation" and "estrangement". The idea was to speak to so-called "modern man" (cf. Bultmann's demythologising programme), but, as Barth saw, something was surely lost in translation (that is, if "modern man" was even listening). On the other hand, liberalism has no intellecual property rights over the words "alienation" and "estrangement" - or, in this case, "oppression" - so there is no reason why the terms cannot and should not be deployed in theological discourse - and this is the key - as long as they are semantically baptised, which rite will include critique and redefinition.

On the other hand, while Christians should be competent speakers of the language of Babylon, there is no need - heaven forbid! - to abandon the mother tongue. We should no more feel the need to jettison the term "demonic" (in fact, Tillich himself loved it) than the term "sin" - indeed the two discourses are ineluctably related. But here too we will have to exercise critique and careful definition, precisely so that we don't sound like "medieval nuts".

This might be the place to explore what Bonhoeffer meant by his enigmatic term the "non-religious interpretation" of biblical concepts. While Bonhoeffer was certainly motivated by a concern to avoid an obscurantist and escapist religiosity, he clearly did not envision a Tillich-like liberal reductionism. Rather, central to Bonhoeffer's whole blueprint for a "religionless Christianity" was an unembarrassed and robust Christological foundation. And I think that's where we need to begin to make sense of the "demonic" - the fundamental datum is that Jesus cast out demons - as well as to make the demonic not so much sensible as intelligible. (Of course we will also listen to what psycho and socio-pathologists have to say - without according them quite the status of Bultmann's famous electric light and wireless!)

Oh - and I should have begun, yes, great provocative post, Scott.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post, Scott. You're right about the "diabolical effects" of "political neglect and bureaucratic indifference". Anyone who doubts this should remember Kafka.

Anonymous said...

I'll add my thanks on the pile of gratitude already accumulating.

The equation of the diabolical and the dehumanizing sounds to me like a fruitful avenue for thought. It encompasses all the dimension under consideration in both the post and the comments. After all, one can be rendered less-than-fully-human in myriad ways. Political neglect, economic exclusion, materialistic reductionism, and hyper-spiritual fundamentalism all line up in this category.

What is more, in addition to the biblical stories mentioned above-and Jesus' profoundly humanizing effect on those he healed-we might also think of Daniel. Daniel's four creatures represent oppressive kingdoms who stomp, crush, and devour life on earth-these powers are simultaneously beastly and demonic. The resolution of Daniel's vision comes, of course, in the form of one like a Son of Man. The messianic overtones are undeniable regardless of whether the figure is ultimately connected to Christ, but the message is as clear as it is profound--where God is in control, humanity is restored.

My favorite metaphor for salvation these days is the restoration of the marred image. Where we turn ourselves and one another into beasts, living up to the laws of nature, "red in tooth and claw," salvation entails re-imaging. That involves restoring connections and resemblances that have been lost. For the mentally ill (whether they are healed by means of excorcism, medication, or both), salvation comes in the context of relationships not the context of containment or abandonment - the two paradigms that seem to be the most prevalent in our enlightened culture.

Thanks again...

Unknown said...

Hi there:
I love your blog and the messages...
God Bless!

Ben Myers said...

Hi David -- I sympathise with your point about the need for intelligible language in theology. And I'm sure there's some truth in your remark that "if we call capitalism 'demonic', we sound like medieval nuts".

Still, the category of "the demonic" might not be quite so nutty as you suggest. An essay I was reading yesterday (by an atheist philosopher) describes capitalism as a "blind, monstrous, acephalic polymorph" (Ray Brassier, "Nihil Unbound: Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capitalism", p. 58); and Slavoj Žižek describes capitalism as a "self-engendering monster" which is driven not by any concrete individuals, since it is "purely 'objective', structural, anonymous" (The Universal Exception, pp. 216-17).

In other words, even atheist philosophers seem to find it useful to speak of global capitalism with quasi-demonic terminology. So perhaps a theological retrieval of "the demonic" would not be quite as nutty as it seems. (Angels, however, are another matter....)

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

What is it about belief in angels that strikes you as nutty?

solarblogger said...

If the text had been written today, and the demon said, "My name is bureaucracy, for we are many," that might be a kind of parallel. A power-seeking group of the anonymous.

Then when they are cast out, they could be sent over a cliff! Oh, wait. That's an Apple commercial.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Ben, why are angels nutty (I can hear old Karl asking the guy with a harp sitting next to him on a cloud!)? If the "demonic" (if not "demons") is retrievable, why not at least the "angelic" (if not "angels")?

I like what Rowan Williams has to say about angels in his recent Tokens of Trust (2007):

"Odd as it may sound, thinking about these mysterious agents of God's purpose, who belong to a different order of being, can be at least a powerful symbol for all those dimensions of the universe about which we have no real idea. Round the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things, of which we know nothing. We're so used to sentimentalizing and trivializing angels ... But in the Bible angels are often rather terrifying beings occasionally sweeping across our field of vision; they do God's strange services that we don't fully see; they provide a steady backdrop in the universe of praise and worship...

"I realize that taking angels seriously probably raises a few eyebrows these days; but it's more than just a picturesque fantasy that's at stake. Anything that puts our own human destiny a bit more into perspective isn't a waste of time in this obsessional and addictive age, where we are tempted to think that if it's nothing to do with me it isn't significant."

Here angels speak to the unmasterable wonder of creation, as demons speak to the unfathomable mystery of evil, without us buying into the fad of "guardian angels", because it simply feeds the religion of selfism (that's its social location), or swallowing an analogous preoccupation with personal demons, because it feeds a pathology of paranoia (though remember the deep impression the deliverance ministry of Johann Christoph Blumhardt made on Barth, not least in instilling an abiding skepticism about a purely mechanistic universe).

What do you think?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jonathan: "What is it about belief in angels that strikes you as nutty?" Pretty much everything, really.

Still, I was about to say (before Kim beat me to it) that Rowan Williams' discussion of angels in his new book (see here) is the most persuasive account I've seen of a "theology of angels".

My own take is that angels mark a limit of theological thought -- and for precisely that reason, they have to be strictly excluded from positive theology. This is basically what Rowan Williams says as well -- but I think Williams' account could have been more rigorous if he had also insisted that angels (precisely as markers of the limitation of thought) have no positive theological meaning at all. They are a theological impossibility (the whole history of angelology proves this point!). They have no meaning, no name, no place. They do not "exist". But in just that way, they "guard the gates" (Gen. 3:24), marking a boundary that can't be crossed.

So perhaps we can still speak of angels from time to time -- but I think all doctrines of angels, all positive descriptions, all attempts to name them or include them within theology, will always be fundamentally "nutty".

Unknown said...

A couple of suggestions in matters of "language" around this issue. Graham Ward's Cities of God offers an excellent critique of the pop cultural use of angels (though I don't have my own copy and can't reference it right now).
When it comes to the demonic I would look to writers such as Dostoevsky who integrated thoughts on mental illness, the demonic and social critique in a way that remained rigorous and anything but sentimental.
I can think of Ivan's "conversation" in Brothers K but I am thinking more of the lesser read Demons (or The Possessed depending on your translation) which is a more extensive and subtle engagement with social powers and the "demonic"

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,
What you have written about angels raises some intriguing issues - I would be particularly interested in how you understand the angel(s)/young man(men) at the empty tomb of Jesus. I'm wondering if you see them as indicating that the resurrection is someting we can't grasp? Or perhaps can't be symbolized adequately, in other an encounter with the "Real" as Lacan/zizek would say? Or perhaps I'm completely taking this in the wrong direction?

Unknown said...

Sorry to chime in on that on that one. Since we are speaking of R. Williams he has drawn attention to that image as calling to mind the holy absence between the cherubim in the H. of H. I don't know enough about Zizek/Lacan (and I got firmly rebuffed at Larval Subjects for relating Lacan's Real with any notion of the sacred) but what you are referring to tends to be a direction that I take it. Some of my more recent posts reflect on some of that thinking.

Unknown said...

I've got to say that I am astonished by the energy and generosity of the responses this post has generated. Thank you all.

Nevertheless I must insist that any application of the Lacan notion of "the Real" couldn't be more wrong-headed. In fact, far from designated some ineffable, much less apophatic sublime, "the Real" refers to the bare, brutal is-ness of reality as such. It is materiality in all its immutable denseness - it means nothing, wants nothing, craves nothing. But for all that, it exerts its power on the already flimsy domain of human subjectivity, culture, civilisation. Lacan himself was very fond of describing the planets as "Real" - their movement and logic is their own ... It's no wonder, then, that Zizek uniquely describes Capital as Real (passionless, immovable, yet devastating), and insists that any recourse to conspiracy is a neurotic way of evading Capital's anonymous character. (Marx was on to the same idea when he described Capital as full of "theological subtleties and metaphysical niceties".)

So, if you really want a theological point of connection with the Lacanian Real, it is Barth's Das Nichtige, "Nothingness." For Barth, its status is not quasi-ontological: it exists, but only by not-being. Insofar as demons share in this quality of Nothingness, Barth insists that they belong to an entirely different order to that of angels.

For me, the lesson is (at the risk of simplifying, and thus of offending a lot of people): neither Barth, nor Lacan, nor Zizek (nor any properly Christian conception of language or of the ethical dimension of the theological task, for that matter) has anything to do with apophatism, or the contemporary obsession with the failure (and thus, bizarrely, the success) of symbols for apprehending the divine.

Unknown said...

Yup, the rebuff went a little like that. I'll actually have to read Lacan on the matter some time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that comment, Scott. I've just started reading one of your Zizek volumes (as recommended on this blog), and I've been puzzled by all that talk about "the Real". So your explanation of the Lacanian "Real" is a big help - and I like the connection to Barth's "Nothingness"!

Anonymous said...

First of all sorry for not getting to this response sooner as the line is now probably dead but I do want to respond to Scott on this matter. I’m not so sure about what you say about Lacan’s notion of the Real. I’m curious in which of the Lacanian registers do you think the resurrection has its impact. Evangelicals generally claim that the resurrection is of cosmic importance and if this is the case, surely it has implications for the Real – the as you say brutal is-ness of reality. As I understand writers such as N. T. Wright, the resurrection is a pivotal moment for the cosmos – so are you saying it has no implications for what Lacan is referring to as the Real?

It is interesting that in the 1953-54 Seminar Lacan says that the “real or what is perceived as such, is what resists symbolization absolutely. In the end, doesn’t the feeling of the real reach its high point in the pressing manifestation of an unreal hallucinatory reality?” (p 66)

It is intriguing that at least in the canonical gospels there is no attempt to represent the actual resurrection event – it resists symbolization. In addition, many scholars have suggested that the witnesses to the resurrection were in the grip of an hallucination when they encountered the risen Lord – which is a vehicle through which the Real is expereienced.

Finally, other writers Malcolm Bowie for one, in Lacan in the Modern Master series, argues that the Real does refer to “the ineffable” or “the impossible”. Also John P. Muller in Beyond the Psychoanalytic Dyad: Developmental Semiotics in Freud, Peirce and Lacan – points out that the Lacanian Real is encountered in catastrophe, trauma and death – this seems to fit with the notion that the resurrection broke through the boundary of death.

You will probably disagree severely with this but I don’t think the issue is as settled as you make out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment on the Real, Scott. In a neat summary, I think Zizek somewhere describes the Real as "the grimace of reality".

Anonymous said...

"...the Jewish Torah itself is described as belonging to the stoicheia, the dark, elemental forces that exert their chaotic influence on this world"

You should be careful with notions like this, as it sounds very much like you've either inherited antisemitism from Karl Barth or the false notion of a newer and better god from Marcion. The word stoicheia in the passage you allude to, Gal 4:9, doesn't refer to demons at all but to the observance of a worldly-minded principle or rule, as observing certain holidays or phases of the moon, etc. Things that God indeed put into the Torah, because God understood the Jews needed something physical to be a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ, and hence to maturity as a people, as we see in Gal 3:24 which is in the chapter before the verse you allude to. We see then, that in context, Paul is saying "you are little kiddies anymore--you don't need to go back to childish observances of holidays" and is not saying that the Torah is in any sense demonic.

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