There are many ways of thinking about demons, and they all have seeds of wisdom in them. Skepticism is our default reaction when we hear about demons, and often we lace our skepticism with a trace of contempt for the past. But skepticism itself has some spiritual value. We don’t want to make too much of demons, even as we consider other ways of thinkings about them.
Because we’re rational people, we look for rational explanations. One of the most popular is to assume that the demonaics of the Gospels were simply people suffering from mental illness. I’ve long thought this was offensive to people who are mentally ill, and who probably don’t need to be accused of harboring demons as they struggle with their illness. But I mentioned my qualms to a friend who is manic depressive, and she said that she wasn’t offended by this association. Her illness sometimes does feel demonic. So let’s leave the possibility that the demons of the Gospels were illnesses in the mix.
Another possibility, and the one I believe in most strongly, is the idea that demons are manifestation of community illness, rather than personal illness. I have heard police officers say that it really is possible for entire communities to have collective bad days. And this makes sense when we consider how empathetic we really are – how sensing one person’s mood can lead us to discover that mood within ourselves. But my understanding of demons as a kind of community illness goes much further than that. I want to associate them with the principalities and powers that Paul will talk about in his epistles. What are those forces that are influencing your thoughts and actions without you even realizing it? We are increasingly sensitive to the power of racism, sexism, and homophobia over our lives, and if we’re honest we can name moments when we unconsciously act out of the promptings of those -isms. When we do, we’re feeling the demonic manifest itself in our lives.
In the Gospels, certain people don’t just experience a moment of racism or sexism. The principalities and powers seem to take them over completely. But this isn’t just a Biblical phenomena. Anthropologists have seen it working in most, if not every, society. Powerful communal forces can become manifest in a single individual, so that these forces can be excised or banished in the form of that individual. Think of the people whom we shun. Often we turn against them because they have manifested something in their lives that we are secretly tempted by, or have done ourselves and then kept hidden. An obvious example is teenage girls who are shunned by conservative churches after they become pregnant. They are blamed for sexual activity that the community finds shameful, even as many community members indulge in it.
Another way of thinking about demons might feel much closer to home. A few years ago, I was in almost constant conflict with a friend. I didn’t know why, but he was always hinting to me that I was disappointing him in some way, sometimes actively hurting him. It always took me by surprise that some chance comment I made would be given a negative interpretation by him. And because I think of myself as a good person who doesn’t willingly hurt others, I constantly stewed about it. One day, while I was painting and stewing, I realized that I was having an experience of the demonic. Not that my friend was demonic, but the doubt and hurt that we both felt in the relationship was like a pesky demon that continually tore at each of our own sense of selfhood.
Naming what I was feeling was tremendously helpful. Being able to picture that pesky little demon put it in perspective and it didn’t tear at me so much after that. And that’s the solution to every encounter we have with the demonic. Name it, and its power is diminished. There’s a reason why Jesus prophesizes before he casts out demons. He’s modeling to us the very power that will allow him to perform his exorcisms. Prophets don’t predict the future. They correctly name what’s going on in the present. If we can correctly name the demonic, we will gain some degree of power over it. For those with mental illnesses, this naming might simply be diagnosis. For all of us as we deal with our culture’s ills and isms, such naming might entail honest recognition of the ways that we are affected by the powers and principalities that want to claim dominance over our lives. In our interpersonal relationships, such naming can heal and reconcile.
In narrative therapy, there is a model of naming that we should pay attention to. It involves simply taking the thing that is troubling us about ourselves or our loved ones, and talking about it as if it were a third person. Married couples can talk about the marriage as if its a third person, and when they do they feel tremendous relief, because they no longer feel as if they’re accusing each other, or that the fault is in them or in their partner. Individuals can talk about grief, or depression, or addiction, or anything else, as if it were a third person, not integral to themselves but something that they’re in relationship with, and that they can set boundaries around, argue with, rage at, or reconcile themselves to. We each have the potential to be prophets to our own lives, naming the powers that move or manipulate us, and reclaiming our own ability to choose how to relate to them. And once we see them for what they are, it might be right to treat them with some skepticism, to laugh at them and see if they can laugh at themselves. If they can’t, then we have some measure of how demonic they really are. If they can, then we might be able to convert them, just as we ourselves our converted.