At that moment in their synagogue was a person with an unclean spirit; he screamed and shouted: “What do we have in common, Jesus, you Nazarene? Have you come to wipe us out? I know you for what you are—the holy one of God.”
Mark 1: 23-4
In their commentary on Mark’s gospel, John R. Donohue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. point out that it is only Mark who “makes the story of Jesus’ confrontation with evil spirits the initial public act in Jesus’ ministry.” In doing so Mark highlights that “Transcendent forces recognize . . . [Jesus] for who he really is. However human Jesus appears throughout the subsequent narrative, he is also a figure of mystery and power. Through this initial conflict with evil, Mark also stresses that Jesus is the stronger one who has withstood Satan’s attacks (1:7, 13) and despoiled his household (see 3:23-27).” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 84) In the world of Jesus and of the gospels, as well as what we term the “ancient” world as a whole, there was a pervasive sense that the world was inhabited by spirits, both good and evil. Beyond the inner, the inter-personal and the inter-tribal conflicts that we continue to recognize today, there was a common understanding of an extra-sensory battle constantly being waged in the “transcendent” sphere. In the gospel account it is precisely Jesus’ power in this realm that gives him authority in the eyes of those present.
As unfamiliar as this can be to us, it raises for us the question of how we appraise the authority of another. Absent a transcendent source of truth and reality, what is the foundation of our words and actions and how do we appraise a lie from the truth and the real from the imaginary? We cannot deny, even if for us there is not a battle being waged between good and evil spirits, that we live each day a battle between self-centeredness and generosity, truth and falsehood, love and hate, and peace and violence. In the world of the gospel, the spirits, including the evil spirits, testify to the truth: “I know you for what you are—the holy one of God.” Strangely enough, there is a consensus among the spirits about where truth and holiness lie. For us who live the conflicts and tensions of life in a non-spiritual world, however, there is no realm of consensus.
In the United States at the present time there is an agonized conversation concerning real and fake news, concerning the responsibility of journalists to inform the public (whom we now see as the arbiter of the truth) in such a way that they can discern truth from falsehood. The difficulty, of course, is that we as crowd or mass tend to become identified by the lesser capacities of our humanity. We tend to bond most readily out of our needs for security, acceptance, power, and gratification. In short, our judgments as a whole tend to be based more on our animal than our spiritual natures, on the pre-transcendent levels of our personalities rather than on our transcendent or uniquely human dimensions. The result is that “the truth” most frequently is determined to be what we most want it to be. It is what pleases and gratifies us rather than what summons us to our greater possibilities.
There is nothing new about this. With a few rare exceptions (“Ask not what your country can do for you but for what you can do for your country.”), political discourse in a “democracy” tends to be false promises and flattery. It does not touch human aspiration but rather promises prosperity without sacrifice and gratification without discipline. In order to create and then appeal to a controlling majority, it tends to use discourse that divides rather than unites and marginalizes rather than includes. Perhaps inevitably over time, the shared political discourse of what we call democracy, in its appeal to our crowd mentality, inevitably degenerates into an inability to recognize truth and authority. When we are no longer responsible for our words and deeds, they become merely modes of manipulation and control. By losing all connection to our spiritual reality, to that which transcends our lower nature, our words and deeds become valuable only to the degree that they serve our will to power and pleasure.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism published in 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” When the gospel tells us that the people recognize in Jesus that he speaks with authority, it is affirming that they are able to recognize the difference between the truth of his words and those of many of their religious and secular leaders. No less than we, they have been lied to for a long time. Yet, they have not been overcome by a cynicism that fails to distinguish between the true and the false, between fact and fiction. They are able to recognize the testimony that comes from a transcendent reality.
The human condition will always be a conflict between what is less in us and our spiritual possibilities, between the “typically and distinctively human” in us. We can settle for a false “integrity” by denying the struggle, by refusing spiritual awareness, and by settling for the search for power and gratification. Or we can learn to listen deeply within and without. We can attend to the summons of the transcendent truth in us, calling us to live the Divine life within and among us. If we do so, that call will become for us, as it was for those who saw and heard the conflict between Jesus and the evil spirits, the standard by which we shall judge who speaks with the words and does the deeds of The Author. Arendt says that totalitarian leaders depend on a population pervaded by cynicism. in cynicism we cease to believe in the more of which we as human beings are capable. We despair of the truth in and among us because we tire of the struggle.
The gospel tells us, however, that our struggle is one that God has taken on in Jesus. It is not easy to become a human being. It is much easier, in fact, to settle for something far less than our true destiny and call. Yet, Jesus tells us that we are to walk the Way that he is. We are to become in him who we truly are. The counter to cynicism is faith, hope, and love. The truth is that which draws us forward on that Way.
More important than to “rage against the dying of the light” as the end is drawing near is to decry the darkening of the light that goes on daily in the presence of life, that has been going on throughout the history of humankind (and never more than in modern times), the impetus of animality wielding the leading influence over human behavior, preventing he highest aspirations from being attained, the full power of the spiritual holding the promise of humanity, unable to do what it can do, be what it can be to the world because a majority have settled for so much less than what could be experienced.
Carroll Blair, Human Natures: Of Animal and Spiritual, p. 113