Playing the Indian Card

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Temptation in the Wilderness: This Sunday's Gospel

Russian icon

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, 
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.

After John had been arrested, 
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."

Monreale Cathedral mosaic

Jesus goes out into the desert. Why? Besides the obvious privations, as the passage notes, he risks being torn apart by wild beasts. And for what? For the opportunity of being tempted by Satan? Don't we pray, “lead us not into temptation?” Where's the upside here?

Yet all the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, preceded him in this pilgrimage out into the barrens. So have many monastics after him, beginning with St. Anthony of Egypt. So, in fact, did the Native Americans—young men were supposed to spend a time exposed alone out in the wild on the cusp of adulthood.

Temptation of St. Anthony attributed to Bosch.

The first moral I take from this is that the religious are not, contrary to much popular misconception, the shy wallflowers of the world. They are not the Father Mulcaheys. They are not ignorant of evil, and they do not avoid evil. Instead, virtue is heroic. It is a matter of meeting with temptation, and battling it eye to eye and hand to hand.

This only stands to reason. If one does not sin simply because one is not tempted, one is not acting morally. It is only with temptation that we have the opportunity to be moral beings.

Accordingly, it is only after a heated struggle with evil, with suffering, and with temptation, that one is ministered to by angels. It is in this solitary setting, along with the wilder spirits, Lilith and her kind, that God himself speaks clearly. It was in Sinai, in the desert, and alone, that Yahweh spoke to Moses. Artists, too, commonly find themselves liberated, and their muses made chatty, by solitude, or exile. Our Christian Lent is a reflection of this, and the Catholic tradition of penance, and the Catholic tradition of “retreat.”

There's more. In order to come into proper contact with the spirit, we first need to shut out the incessant din, not just of the material, but even more, of the social. The world of spirits, which we then contact, includes beings and experiences both good and evil. Rick Santorum, as it happens, is right. There really is a Devil. That's rough; that's what happens when you have free will; but the good includes the Highest Good.

Saftleven, Temptation of St. Anthony

This uncovers a tragic problem with modern psychiatry. The last thing in the world any psychiatrist or psychologist worth their degrees will tolerate is a patient's solitude. All solitude or desire for solitude is thought pathological. Never having been to the desert themselves, the good doctors see it as the typical townsman sees it, only as a barren and dark place full of dragons. They do not know what happens if you ever slay those dragons. They themselves have never ventured out of doors.

The result, I suspect, is often if not always to turn what should be a life-fulfilling spiritual quest, indeed, the point of life itself, into a state of life-long torture. Get repeatedly yanked back into town, and you just get the monsters, again and again and again.

Grunewald, Temptation of St. Anthony

The best treatment for “mental illness” might also be the cheapest. Basically, let the poor pilgrims work it out on their own, and stop harassing them.Take the welfare cheque they would be due in any event, and use it to rent a simple cabin somewhere in the woods. Not hard to find such a thing in Canada, especially in the winter, when the tourists have gone home. Instead of an expensive physician, who knows not what he does, just hire someone local with a truck to deliver the necessities of life to the cabin door weekly. I'd suggest stocking the cabin with a little bit of reading material as well—such as, oh, I don't know, say, a Bible. No problem if you want to get non-denominational and add a Book of Mormon, a Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching. The more, the merrier. A few psychiatric pills would probably do no harm.

Then just wait until the blessed hermit phones and says he's ready to rejoin the world.

Wijnen, Temptation of St. Anthony

In Canada, what could be simpler?

I have heard former schizophrenics claim they actually cured themselves with a procedure like this. I have heard many people who were mentally ill pine for this, saying they thought this would be the way they might be cured.

Why not?

Better yet, perhaps we could prevent much “mental illness” in the first place if, like the Native Americans, we all did this at a certain point in our lives, as a matter of course.

Bosch, Temptations of St. Anthon

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Devil and Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is accused by Drudge Report of saying, at Ave Maria University, that Satan is attacking America.

Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name.

Satan is, of course, doing exactly that. Santorum was speaking at a Catholic gathering at a Catholic university in proper Catholic theological terms. Check the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Satan is real. He is pure spirit. He attacks both individuals and societies. his action may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature- to each man and to society” (CCC, para 395). If no presidential candidate is permitted to say this, even in a religious setting, then no Catholic is permitted to run for president.

Gaea by Feuerbach. Wikimedia.

So too with Santorum's remarks that Obama's environmental policy is based on a “theology that does not come from the Bible.” It ought to be self-evident, surely, that he was referring to the quasi-religious beliefs of radical environmentalists. Yet the Obama White House, along with many commentators, objected immediately that Santorum was impugning Obama's Christianity. Obliquely, I suppose he was, but surely in a perfectly legitimate way, in saying that his environmental policy is not in keeping with Christian ideas. It isn't. Radical environmentalists consider humanity a kind of cancer on the suffering body of the goddess Gaea. Ask David Suzuki. This is incompatible with the Christian idea that man is above nature—let alone that nature is not divine.

The problem here, I think, is just that too many people, notably including journalists, are theologically illiterate.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sunday's Reading

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
-he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home."
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."

--Mk. 2:1-12

Paralysed man flying.

As usual, this Sunday's Gospel reading is pretty darned funny. Picture the remarkable detail of those four men, unable to get close to Jesus, actually climbing onto the roof of the house, pulling their paralysed friend up with them, breaking the roof open, and lowering him down. They were bound and determined to find that poor man a cure.

And then Jesus's reaction: he looks at the man, and says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

That's is. His sins are forgiven. Imagine the reaction of the four men who have lowered him down with such effort. That's it? His sins are forgiven? What about his blooming paralysis?

Consider just how much obvious sin a paralysed man is likely to be getting up to. Adultery? Gluttony? Armed robbery? Is it really likely this is a man lost in sin? Yet Jesus ignores the blindingly obvious physical limitation.

He does then cure him of paralysis, but, only to make a point—that he can forgive sins. It seems purely an afterthought.

Your sins are forgiven. Too bad about the paralysis, though.

There is a very good reason why miracles are trivial. God is good; and God made the world. It follows that the world is already set up for our benefit. Accordingly, no miracles will really make things better for us. We need no miracles. All we need, as St. Theresa of Avila said, is a relationship with God. Which is to say, all we need is to know that God forgives us our sins.

So why any miracles at all?

Miracles are God's reminders that he is there, and that he loves us. We should expect and accept them purely in these terms.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Bitter Pill

The Jewelled Gates of the New Jerusalem.

I am amazed by the sheer folly of the Obama administration's requirement for religious organizations to provide medical insurance for their employees that includes free contraception. It looks like a deliberate attempt to pick a fight with the Catholic Church in an election year, which all the polls suggest will be tight and hard-fought. How can this make sense? Catholics are 27% of the US population; no small voting bloc. In 2008, 54% of them voted for Obama. Even that was much lower than historical averages; before Reagan, in the days of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party could count on the solid backing of Catholics in every election. Yet instead of luring them back, Obama's administration seems to be driving them away, or at least forcing them to choose: it's us or their Catholicism.

It's more remarkable when you consider that the administration, if their objective was to ensure that contraceptives were free, could easily achieve this without forcing the churches to pay for it or provide it—as their “accommodation” or “compromise” really still does. They could, for example, issue separate government vouchers for contraceptives. One is forced to assume that the entire point of this policy was simply to pick a fight with the Catholic Church.

Why? Apparently, they thought they could harm the Catholic Church with this, and felt this was worth doing even if it cost them support—even if it cost them this election, or even many elections to come. The Church's stance on contraception is not popular, even among Catholics. They figured that, by forcing a fight on this ground, they could diminish the popularity of the Catholic Church. Even if it's crazy to think this would raise instead of lower their Catholic vote overall. Or indeed, that such an assault on the First Amendment and freedom of conscience would raise instead of lower their support among the religious generally.

For them, clearly, this was a matter of principle, above all electoral politics. Religion, and especially Catholicism, is bad.

Thomas Nast's most famous anti-Catholic cartoon.

That's also, I suspect, the reason for the prominence of the issue of homosexuality over the last few decades. A conservative columnist a few years ago openly pondered how it is possible that such a small portion of the population, only 1-3%, had pushed its concerns to the top of the social agenda. They didn't; they're only being used. The answer, I think, is that those who hate the Catholic Church saw the Church's stand on homosexuality as an issue with which they could accuse the Church of prejudice--as if homosexuals were an ethnic group like blacks or Jews. It also goes a long way to account for the current near-hysteria about child molestation. It was not perceived as all that fundamental in its evil—witness the once-burgeoning NAMBLA--until the moment Catholic priests were accused of it. Then it was unspeakable.

If it can hurt the Catholic Church, it seems, it is worth doing, even if it sacrifices other principles, even if it leads to dangerous consequences for others. Why? Because, for many on the left, the Catholic Church is the very essence of evil.

It makes sense, in a backwards way. When “the pill” was introduced in the early 1960s, a lot of us, especially on the left, believed the millennium had arrived. Because sex had supposedly been untethered from procreation, a whole lot of new pleasure became permissible. All moral objections to unrestrained sex had disappeared. Whoopie!

The Catholic Church, almost alone at first, held out against this. It was this that confirmed me, personally, as a Catholic, because the premise was obviously wrong from the start. It is just that people wanted it so much to be true, that they refused to see the reality. And the Church's refusal to be swayed proved that it alone cared about the truth. But I also feared, at the time, that the Church was being very brave, and would inevitably pay a heavy price.

By a twisted logic typical of human beings, when they do wrong, far from facing up to it, they are far more inclined to see evil in their victims, and then in anyone who breathes a hint that what they did might have been wrong. Hence the Catholic Church is evil, and all religion is evil; if they could only be made to shut up, the rest of us could do what they want. Never mind that they in fact have no power, that the real and only reason that their words seem to hurt so much is our own conscience. And that means that, really, shutting them up would do nothing for us.

We can all see clearly enough now that “the pill” did not really change anything. Even aside from the emerging health dangers of the pill, women still kept getting pregnant without intending to. So we had to decide abortion was okay too—and unrestricted abortion. Another bit we forgot was venereal disease: old venereal diseases getting a new lease on life, old diseases developing immunities, and indeed new opportunistic venereal diseases like AIDS. All entirely predictable. So was the rise in broken marriages, with all the pain and suffering by children and adults they entail—who'd have thunk that sex actually had something to do with emotion? Other, that is, than every sane human being?

He was right.

But instead of admitting we were wrong, perversely, we hate the Catholic Church all the more for being right. So the tone of anti-Catholicism ratchets up as all this becomes more and more apparent. Nobody on the left would care much what the Catholic Church said if it were clear that the Church is wrong.

It cannot work, of course. Over time, any attempt to silence the conscience becomes self-destructive. This is what we are seeing now, with the left actually running the clear risk of sacrificing their electability and their future to the cause. It is a mark of their desperation, and a sign that the end, at least in America, is coming soon.

The end, that is, of the anti-religious left.

Let Whitney Houston Rest in Peace

The recent death of Whitney Houston seems to have already spawned two hot controversies. First is whether her doctors were culpable for prescribing her tranquilizers that may or may not have been the immediate cause of her trip to the hereafter. Second is whether she deserves the honour of having flags in New Jersey lowered to half-mast, since she basically killed herself.

Of course, both these claims cannot be true. But I'd say it's pretty obvious neither of them are.

Haven't we seen this many times before? Aren't two things staggeringly obvious?

  1. Great talent is a great burden.
  2. “You ought to be famous” is a curse.

We are blinded to these universal truths by our own foolish envy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sunday Reading.

A leper. From Wikimedia Commons.

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,"If you wish, you can make me clean."Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once. 
He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything,but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;that will be proof for them."
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.He spread the report abroadso that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.He remained outside in deserted places,and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
Jesus heals a leper. Byzantine mosaic. Wikimedia Commons.

Note Jesus's instruction, after he heals the leper, that the latter is to tell no one how this happened. This demand for secrecy is consistent through the three synoptic gospels, and is commonly referred to as “the Messianic secret.” That is, Jesus seems to try to keep it secret that he is the Messiah.

But why?

I think this analysis misses the mark by a bit. Unfortunate, because, properly understood, this “Messianic secret” reveals an important secret underpinning Western Civilization.

Which is, after all, really Christian Civilization, “Christendom.”

In Canada, recently, an immigrant family, man, wife, and son, were all convicted of murder for the “honour killing” of three daughters and a second wife. My friend the liberal columnist points out, in explanation, that while “Western” culture is based on “guilt,” “Eastern” cultures are based on “shame.” It’s not about what you do,” he writes, “but about its effect on the reputation of your family, clan, or caste. Collective honour matters more than love, genetics, or moral principles.” A distinction I have heard made before. And, as you can see from this short quote, despite his liberal beliefs in theory in cultural relativism, he seems unable here to see the Western model as anything but better, more moral.

And it is. I think most Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, would agree, given the facts of the Shafia case.

But note that the terms “Western” and “Eastern” here are meaningless dodges. The real contrast is between Christian culture and all others: the importance of “face” is striking in the Muslim Middle East, Hindu India, the Buddhist Far East, or among North American or African shamanists. It is only Christian culture in which its value is so diminished.

And the reason is right here before us. It is the New Testament, the “Messianic secret,” and such passages as this. Jesus is not trying to conceal the fact that he is the Messiah, as such; he is trying to conceal a good deed.
And this is simply practicing what he preaches. From the Sermon on the Mount:

1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.2“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3“But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.5“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. --Mt. 6:1-6.

The rejection and condemnation of hypocrisy is one of the most consistent, perhaps the most consistent, messages of the gospel. It is so much of the New Testament that our very English word, “hypocrisy,” --let alone “Pharisee”-- is New Testament Greek.

That is what a “culture of shame” actually is—a culture of hypocrisy.

Christianity alone stands head and shoulder above all other religious traditions on this one point: that of recognizing and combating the natural human tendency towards hypocrisy.

The message is conveyed in the present reading not only by the request to keep the deed secret, but by the deed itself—touching and healing a leper. Lepers themselves were a particularly obvious example of social shaming. As the passage notes, they suffered social ostracism. Not because of any moral fault, not for sin, but for being “unclean.” This was not, as Michel Foucault has pointed out, for medical reasons either. It turns out that it is rather difficult to catch leprosy from another, and certainly the mere act of touching a leper was not going to do it. Lepers wer shunned, and considered “untouchable,” because their disease made them look hideous.

Lepers, Jerusalem, 1906. Wikimedia Commons.

A perfect metaphor, then for shame as opposed to guilt. By touching and healing the leper, Jesus was rejecting and/or overcoming this issue of shame. It is a visible way in which Christ has redeemed the Christian: we no longer suffer under the burden of social shame, and need only deal with our guilt.

The New Testament nails this idea to the wall, again and again.

This strong message has made explicitly Christian societies freer, and on the whole more honest—with less of “such boastings as the Gentiles use,” in Kipling's phrase, less focus on mere social advantage and clawing over to the Eastern Wall at all levels; more on principle and getting the job done.

It has been both a moral advantage, and a competitive advantage in many ways, over the millennia, reducing the social friction in Christian jurisdictions.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Brokered Convention

Now that he's won the last three primaries, Rick Santorum is certainly not going to drop out of the Republican race any time soon. Having won South Carolina and still doing well in the national polls, neither, I expect, is Newt Gingrich.  Paul and Romney have the money and organization to stay in until the end no matter what.

This could mean nobody has a majority of delegates by the convention. And if this happens, if my memory serves, delegates are released from their pledge to a given candidate after the first ballot. The possibility opens for the convention to turn to a candidate who has not run in the primaries. moreover, there would be a certain obvious logic to doing so--a general dissatisfaction with the present field seems to be fuelling the voter indecision.

I suspect Romney has blown his chance to be the nominee by going too negative. Negative campaigning does have a tendency to blow up the author as well as the target. Romney was rather unloved by fellow Republicans before this all started; his extremely harsh attacks on Gingrich, added to that, may have made it impossible for the party to unite behind him.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Bombing Iran

Leon Panetta, amazingly, has just said he expects an Israeli attack on Iran in April, May, or June.

This is remarkable, because if he knows something, this is sensitive information. If Iran can expect an attack at that time, they can watch and try to prepare for it. The huge tactical advantage of surprise is largely lost.

So why would Panetta do this? The only motive I can see is to make it clear it is not the US who is attacking, hence perhaps avoiding Iranian and Muslim backlash against America and American interests.

This fits with a few other recent bits of news. First, just a week or two ago, the US leaked the claim that they had no bombs that could definitely crack the Iranian bunkers, and so they were ordering an upgrade. Again, on the face of it a damaging leak that threatened US interests. But if believed, it tells Iran that the US is not planning and is not responsible for any attack in the very near future on Iranian installations.

And the third, even more disturbing, piece of evidence is the American withdrawal of all forces from Iraq just a month or so ago. Officially, this was because the US and Iran could not agree on a SOFA. But several sources have claimed the US did not try very hard. This withdrawal was against the advice of the top military brass. Again, it seems against US interests, or at least risks losing US prestige.

But it too makes sense on the premise that there is going to be a big attack on Iran soon. A small American deployment in Iraq might simply have been sitting ducks for Iranian retaliation. A large American deployment in Iraq might have trapped American into a large-scale land war with Iran.

My take is this: there will probably be a massive air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. It will be done by Israel, though America or others may help behind the scenes. America believes Iran is capable of doing a lot of damage in any counter-attack. Hence it is wisest to limit possible retaliatory targets to Israel alone.

And it will probably happen before April.

Let's watch and see.

Leonard Cohen the Jew

Adam Cohen, Leonard's son, has confirmed in stark terms in a recent piece in the Winnipeg Free Press the thesis I proposed on this blog some time ago: that Leonard Cohen is in fact a devout practicing Jew. He writes of his memories of his father, "He was there to protect values. It would be lighting the Sabbath candles and learning Hebrew prayers, singing songs, reading the Bible."

Most artists seem to end up religious. And this fact is generally kept pretty secret. Not least by the artist himself: he knows it will hurt sales.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Mark 1: 29-39

On leaving the synagogue
Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John.
Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever.
They immediately told him about her.
He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.
Then the fever left her and she waited on them.

When it was evening, after sunset,
they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.
The whole town was gathered at the door.
He cured many who were sick with various diseases,
and he drove out many demons,
not permitting them to speak because they knew him.

Rising very early before dawn, he left
and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
Simon and those who were with him pursued him
and on finding him said, "Everyone is looking for you."
He told them, "Let us go on to the nearby villages
that I may preach there also.
For this purpose have I come."
So he went into their synagogues,
preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

What jumps up at Christian Scientists about this Sunday’s reading is that Jesus had the power to heal, and healing illness was a major part of his activity. What jumps out at me in the reading is that there were clearly a lot of people possessed by demons in First Century Judea. About as many, it sounds like, as people with physical illnesses, at a time when physical illnesses must have been more common than today.

So why do we not have many people possessed by demons today? What happened between then and now? Or do we?

After all, demons are real. That is non-negotiable for a Catholic. All things, visible and invisible, seen and unseen. Logically, then, demonic possession is also real, and the Church retains rites to deal with it. So, not incidentally, do the Orthodox Churches, Islam, and virtually all other religions. Can they all be wrong?

The obvious conclusion, and the one I make, is that what was then called demonic possession we now call “mental illness.” Freud even used the terminology: he speaks of “obsession.” “Obsession” originally meant “hostile action by an evil spirit,” one notch down from possession. What could be clearer? And this, of course, is why we, as if instinctively, fear the “mentally ill.”

A “schizophrenic” of my acquaintance keeps hearing metallic voices telling him to go jump off the balcony. Occam's razor: the simple and obvious explanation is that he is being tempted by an evil spirit. Anything else requires a good deal of mental gymnastics.

Another, to use the classic example, thinks he is Napoleon? The simple explanation is that he is possessed by the spirit of Napoleon, or of an evil spirit masquerading as the French Emperor.

So too with anxiety and depression. 1 Samuel 16:4: 14 “Now the spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD terrified him.”

Given that “mental illness” is necessarily, by definition, mental or spiritual in nature, it seems only sensible and efficient to address it in mental or spiritual terms. In other words, if a person thinks he is being invested with an evil spirit, he is being invested by an evil spirit, because in this case the thought is the thing itself. And the most efficient cure is something that will drive out the thought of the evil spirit. If the thought is gone, the thing is gone.

How? How do you change hearts and minds?

Two ways: art and prayer.

Shamanic cultures use what seems to us very much like drama: a story which can engage the mind and concentration, Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” and which then catches up and drives out, as Aristotle explained (it is the meaning of his term “cartharsis”), the evil spirits. This is how Korean mudangs, female exorcists, work, or the Native American “False Face Societies.” Other arts can also do this, in their various ways. David's harpistry drove the evil spirits from King Saul: “seek out a man who is a skilful player on the harp; and it shall be, when the evil spirit from God cometh upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.”

Myths, two, are probably designed to do this. “Myth” literally simply means “story.” Make it a real stemwinder, and it should have the engaging power to chase off the plague dogs.

If so, it is a serious misunderstanding to suppose a myth is a serious, but mistaken, statement of “scientific” cosmology—that it is meant to be taken seriously as the scientific explanation of how the leopard got his spots. It is real and true to the extent that it is engaging and vivid. This is why, for example, the Greeks, the Egyptians, or the Indians, could happily accept several contradictory myths in this scientific sense: several different origins for the sun, for example, or for mankind. Not a problem.

This is not science, but spiritual technology. Myths make the world meaningful and significant, and so fend off the demons. Or, should a demon come, immersion in a suitable myth can heal.

Now, what happens when the old stories, or the art, breaks down? That is, either it is forgotten by a large portion of the people, or it loses its power to enthral, to suspend disbelief?

All hell should theoretically break loose. There should be a general sense of meaningless and barrenness to the world; what was once a garden of shining meanings becomes a desert or a wilderness. And then the demons, who dwell in the wild places, like Lilith, or Pan, or the djinn, will come.

And they do. The classic case where this can be expected to happen is during rapid cultural change; when, for example, a culture long isolated encounters a new culture suddenly and massively.

Think, for example, of the North American Indians: as is generally understood, as soon as the Spanish arrived on their shores, they started dying off in droves. The usual explanation is the contact with unknown diseases, and that is fair enough, but it does not fully explain the matter. For one thing, logically, that spread of diseases ought to have gone about equally both ways, so the Europeans should also have started dying off. There is, indeed, evidence that syphilis came to the old world from the New; but it hardly had the effect on Europe the Indians experienced. For another, it does not explain how the early Conquistadors, with only a handful of men, were able to conquer vast Empires, the Incans and the Aztecs, with little effort.

Darwin spends some time in “The Descent of Man” documenting many similar examples from around the world, from the many new contacts of the European age of exploration and colonization. He does not see the effects of new viruses so much as the sudden loss of fertility: people in these societies stop having, and caring for, children.


Not because they are ill, but because they are dispirited. As we see in microcosm whenever an individual has a case of culture shock, the encounter with a new culture throws all the old stories into question, all the meanings the human world has acquired for that individual or culture. The individuals in the culture become depressed, unable to go on because unable to see any point in their existence. In time, they may well also become possessed--mad.

Why did the same thing not happen to the Europeans? Because they were inoculated by already, rather recently, having had contact with other alien cultures. Notably, the Spanish only finally drove the Muslims out of Spain in the same year Columbus sailed. More notably, they had long ago been inoculated by a mythos developed during the Alexandrian and Roman Empires, with their mixing of peoples.

I suspect, indeed, that a milder version of this sort of cultural collapse with the loss of the old stories was the general condition in Palestine and in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. The conquests of Alexander, followed quickly by the conquests of Rome, suddenly brought a wide variety of cultures into direct contact, Persians, Semites, Greeks, Egyptians, Celts, destroying the common heritage of the shared stories and psychic dramas that Homer, for example, would have known. As a result, the gods were no longer taken very seriously. And as a result, a sense of meaningless and then an epidemic of demonic possession should be expected to be extremely common at that time. And it was—we can trace the sense of meaninglessness, the general depression, in the writings of what is sometimes called the “Axial age.” circa 500 BC. 

Ecclesiastes is the perfect expression of depression. Buddhism, Pythagoreanism, the Tao Te Ching, and the Upanishads are of the same time, and of the same genre.

Then, we seem to see, in the New Testament, the upwelling of demonic possessions—of that madness beyond depression and anxiety.

This explains, in turn, how Christianity spread so quickly through the Empire: its ability to cast out demons. This is in fact what the ancient historians tell us: that first the Jews, and then the Christians, developed a huge prestige throughout the empire specifically for their ability to cast out demons. The powerful impression of its spiritual coherence, its spiritual truth, its vivid and compelling narrative, was strong enough to restore the shattered spiritual order. Later, it was strong enough to give Europe the upper hand in encountering alien cultures world-wide. Later still, its ability to drive out the demons and restore psychic order has led to its rapid adoption throughout the Third World: in the Americas, Africa, and now China.

Unfortunately, in the more developed parts of the world, we have recently seen another shattering: the one reported by Eliot in The Waste Land, or Yeats in The Second Coming. Things have again fallen apart, over the past century or so; again the spiritual centre cannot hold. Again what we see around us is no longer the shimmering garden of meaning, but a desert, the desert too of “Waiting for Godot.” Art has become derelict and morbid, and the incidence of mental illness seems, by many accounts, to be skyrocketing.

We are all going mad. We are all becoming possessed by demons. There is a spiritual catastrophe taking place.

This, I believe, is not because of globalization. That has been a relative constant for five hundred years. It is because our fascination with the material successes of science and scientific technology has caused us to neglect and to abandon our spiritual technology. We are no longer teaching our children the stories. We are no longer enthralled by the mystery of the Mass. We no longer believe in anything in particular.

As a result, we have stopped having children, or caring for them.

We are letting the demons in.