And demons also came out from many, shouting, “You are the Son of God.” But he rebuked them and did not allow them to speak because they knew that he was the Christ.

Luke 4:41

I must admit that I don’t all that often in my daily thoughts advert much to demons. Yet, I am slowly learning that it is worse than naive not to reckon with the level of violence in the world and in human persons, and, in particular, in that violence that inheres in perversion of the spirit.

There is, in our time, an apparent renaissance of fundamentalism. In the Roman Church there are those who would demonize Pope Francis for his supposed lack of orthodoxy in reminding us that God, above all, is mercy. Throughout the western world “believers” in “white supremacy,” informed by their own versions of Christianity, are wreaking violence and chaos, at times in the form of mass murder. In Islam violent fundamentalists claim to be carrying out the call to jihad in mass repression and sadistic and murderous domination. And on the West Bank fundamentalist settlers are attempting to repress and ultimately destroy those on whose homelands they are encroaching.

Historically speaking how is it that far too often we find the roots of totalitarianism and repression in religious “belief”? Why is it that almost invariably various churches are allied with the powers of repression and domination? Is it perhaps the demonic that lurks under the surface of our personal and shared spiritual aspirations? It may well be demonic forces that turn our spiritual aspirations for transcendence into violent ambitions for domination and control.

In our everyday “religious” lives we experience this same “temptation” to turn our desire to be and to do good into an exercise of power and control. This temptation is one that we can readily submit to in our personal and in our shared lives. True faith is a trust that in all so much of life that is mystery and even apparent chaos, there is a direction born of a loving and beneficent cause. Yet, this darkness and mystery, this unknowability and unpredictability, is very difficult for us to live with. So, we seek a kind of management and control through the use of force and violence. If we are to be honest about our lives as believers, we must acknowledge how often we have seen our religion take the form of a forced submission of others to the will of the authority. We confuse faith with a self-imposed or institution-imposed order. As a member of a religious community, I see how often we replace relationships of respect and love with relationships of power.

Thomas Merton calls this applying “of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims” the “theology of the devil.” It is a long understood theological principal that the devil is most active where there is the greatest potential for truth and good. And so, religion or the life of the spirit is a very fruitful place for the devil to operate. As we learn from the account of the fall of Satan, we sin most grievously when our desire to be close to God is perverted into a desire to be as God. When our own vision or idea becomes paramount, then we shall, often unconsciously, employ violence in order to achieve its end. This is why the “spiritual leader” of any kind must be, of all persons, the most humble in terms of his or her own beliefs and the most respectful and reverent toward others.  

While the cult is the most apparent example of how spiritual leadership becomes demonic, my experience tells me that abuse of power lies just under the surface in almost every religious gathering. With rare exceptions, religions create hierarchies. There are “superiors,” which then require there to be “inferiors.” For much of the history of my community, we even called superiors “bosses.” There were good and bad bosses, but in every case the “boss” had a position different from the others. To be designated a superior or boss is not good for human beings and is inevitably a locus for abuse.

Even in very good communities constituted by very adult, emotionally healthy, and responsible members, there is a tendency on the part of the superior to relate, at least at times, to other members out of the stance of power. It is subtle, to be sure, and probably unconscious. Yet, it exists nonetheless. The value that our religious tradition puts on order and control make such relationships almost inevitable. And this is true even in a person without any malicious intent.

We must always be careful of institutionalizing that in us which has an innate tendency to apply violence to reality in order to change it according to our own needs or designs. A Church, in the best sense, is not a vehicle for changing the world, or even as we like to say in our tradition “building the Kingdom.” Rather it exists as a gathering of those who are committed together to recognizing the Kingdom and witnessing to the love and mercy that is its cornerstone. What we humans build and create is always tentative, fragile, and contingent. It is only by violence that we can attempt to build the eternal, the absolute, and the infallible.  

I don’t advert to the demonic very much, at least in part, because where it exists in and around me is often hidden to me. In the United States, we now live in a political culture where it is acceptable to speak of “inferior races,” of hating and punishing those who are different from ourselves. Such socially acceptable expressions of demonic violence can only spring from the wells of a similarly violent self-hatred. When we refuse our own deepest spiritual awareness, violence toward others inevitably follows. Jesus rebukes the demons and does not allow them to speak. Yet, we actually seem to find ourselves in a place where we invite them to set our course. It may be time for us to recognize the presence and power of the demonic in and among us, including in our own most valued institutions, and, having recognized their truth in us, to turn in faith to the mercy of God.

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is really not the acceptance of God Who reveals himself as mercy.  It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims. . . . 
We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some “soul force.” We believe. We believe.
Nothing happens.
We close our eyes again, and generate some more soul force. The devil likes us to generate soul force. He helps us to generate plenty of it. We are just gushing with soul force.
But nothing happens.
So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business.  We get tired of “generating soul force.” We get tired of this “faith” that does not do anything to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us a prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, that some people’s faith is often quite effective).
Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of “inferior races” or of enemy classes, or generally speaking with punishing someone who is different from ourselves

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 94-6

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *