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Of demons and supernatural wonders in the age of secular materialism

There’s an absolutely fascinating conversation taking place over at the Website for the noted interreligious Christian journal First Things about the ontological status of demons and other supernatural beings and their place within contemporary Christianity and secular-scientific society at large. Starting from an article about this very subject, the comments section has evolved into a rich dialogue about supernaturalism, religion, materialism, and the signs and wonders that many inhabitants of modern technological societies have seen and experienced when living and interacting with more traditional and primitive peoples.

Here are a couple of chunks from the seed article itself, which opens with the recent and sensational reports of Pope Francis apparently performing an ad hoc exorcism:

On Pentecost Sunday all hell broke loose in Rome. Following Mass that day, the unpredictable Pope Francis laid hands on a demon-possessed man from Mexico and prayed for him. The YouTube video of this encounter was flashed around the world, and the story caught fire: Is Pope Francis an exorcist? The Holy Father’s Vatican handlers were quick to deny such. The pope simply offered a prayer of deliverance for the distraught man, it was said. Exorcism in the Catholic Church is a sacramental, a sacred act producing a spiritual effect, which must be done according to the officially prescribed Rite of Exorcism. And yet what the pope did on Pentecost Sunday in St. Peter’s Square was more than a simple prayer for someone to get better. It looked for all the world like a real act of spiritual warfare.

. . . The downplaying of the miraculous, the supernatural, and a fortiori the demonic has long been a staple in mainline Protestant culture and takes its toll among some progressive Catholics and evangelicals as well. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis devoted the second chapter of his book, Heaven and Earth, to “The Devil” and warned against the ultra-modernist idea “that everything can be traced to a purely human plan.”

. . . It is worth noting that Pope Francis came from the global South to the heart of Europe to confront demons, whereas [the more skeptical and secular-minded] Bishop [Katharine Jefferts] Schori [presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church] traveled from North America to Venezuela to cast the demons from the [biblical] text — without the benefit of an exorcism. There is some irony in this: a prominent representative of the rarified, Enlightenment-based religion of the North peddling a domesticated version of the Gospel in the global South. As we know, the Christianity thriving there is increasingly Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Pope Franciscan-Catholic. Like the robust faith of the New Testament, this kind of affective Christianity embraces the charismatic, the visionary, and the apocalyptic. These are all held in deep suspicion by those who still find spiritual warmth in the dying embers of rationalist religion. As Kenya’s Musimbi Kanyoro wrote, “Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.”

— Timothy George, “A Tale of Two Demons,” First Things, June 3, 2013

For context, here’s more information about the Pope Francis incident:

According to TV2000, a Catholic television channel, the act was carried out in St Peter’s Square after Mass on Sunday. Smiling broadly, the Pope initially shook the man’s hand, but the South American pontiff’s expression changed dramatically after a priest from the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order, leaned in close and spoke a few words to him. With a more serious expression on his face, Francis placed both hands on the man’s head for 15 seconds. The pilgrim, said to be a 43-year old married man from Mexico called Angelo, then convulsed briefly and emitted a long sigh. His body went limp and his mouth dropped open.

“Exorcists who have seen the footage have no doubt — this was a prayer for liberation from Evil, an actual exorcism,” said TV2000, which is owned by the Italian Bishops Conference.

. . . The Vatican downplayed the incident, although it used ambiguous language that did not deny altogether that Francis had tried to rid the man of evil. “The Holy Father did not intend to carry out any exorcism,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “Instead, as he often does for sick and suffering people, he simply intended to pray for a person who was presented to him.”

Leading exorcists insisted that the Pope had indeed taken on the forces of evil. “The Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, and like any bishop he is also an exorcist,” Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic Church’s best known exorcist and the head of the International Association of Exorcists, told La Repubblica newspaper. “It was a real exorcism,” he said. “If the Vatican has denied this, it shows that they understand nothing”, said Father Amorth who claimed that the Mexican was “possessed by four demons”.

. . . There was now, more than ever, a need for exorcists to combat people possessed by “sorcerers” and “Satanists”, Father Amorth said. “We live in an age in which God has been forgotten. And wherever God is not present, the Devil reigns.” He acknowledged that many people, even Catholics, regarded exorcism as mumbo-jumbo but insisted they were mistaken. “Those who don’t believe should read the Gospels. Jesus continually performed exorcisms. “Today, unfortunately, bishops appoint too few exorcists. We need many more. I hope that Rome will send out directives to bishops around the world calling on them to appoint more exorcists.”

— Nick Squires, “Pope Francis ‘Performs First Exorcism,’ The Telegraph, May 21, 2013

FYI, anybody who has a general interest in these things combined with at least a mild scholarly bent is strongly encouraged to pay attention to Paranthropology, editor Jack Hunter’s marvelous “free on-line journal devoted to the promotion of social-scientific approaches to the study of paranormal experiences, beliefs and phenomena in all of their varied guises.” The material published in the journal, including my own piece in last October’s issue, “In Search of Higher Intelligence,” about the interlinked experiences of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson with inspiration and communication from daemonic muses, focuses regularly on the question of anomalies, the paranormal, the supernatural, and their ontological status and cultural standing.

Recommended Reading 29

This week, we bring you a roundup of readings spanning a rainbow of trends and topics, from the collapsing economy to the destruction of modern sociopolitical and cultural myths to the imaginal realm of shamanism, creativity, and mythic descents to the underworld.

More specifically, we have: a report on the U.S. Army’s stated criteria for recognizing potential terrorists, and why you and your coworkers probably meet one or more of them; an indictment of the Baby Boomers for destroying America (economically, ecologically) and leaving the wreckage to their children; a deep analysis of the current crack-up in the presiding Western myth of liberal individualism as bequeathed to us all by Adam Smith; an examination of the raging crisis in Western secularism as the implicit religiosity lying beneath the veneer of the secular mind is drawn to the surface; a paean to the lost joys of reading aloud; a scornful take on neuroscientific “discoveries” about the value of reading and the meanings of art; a first-person account of and reflection upon the imaginal and alchemical experience of descending into the underworld for death and reconstitution; and a brilliant exposition of the supreme value of poetic metaphor in the context of the deep linkage between shamanism and creativity. Read the rest of this entry