This is the last in a series of four articles on the theme of demonic possession, which is itself part of a series called The Supernatural Origin of the Natural. What follows are just some random thoughts that I’ve not mentioned so far, because they were not central to my argument. They will only make sense to those who have been following at least the last three articles. (For a guide to the whole series, see under Religion and Spirituality at the top of this page.)
Wilson Van Dusen is in the tradition of Carl Jung, who worked in the Burghölzli Mental Hospital, and the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, famous for his books The Divided Self, and Sanity, Madness and the Family. Instead of dismissing their patients as mad, and suffering from hallucinations, all three carefully listened to, and took seriously, what their ‘mad’, psychotic, schizophrenic patients were saying. They were rewarded by making significant psychological discoveries. Van Dusen’s work on spirit possession was described in an earlier article, and Jung went on to formulate his hypothesis of the collective unconscious.
Laing caused a stir by claiming that some of his patients had become schizophrenic as a result of how they were being treated by their families. (We are not talking about overt, obvious abuse, rather subtle and unpleasant, albeit probably unconscious, psychological manipulation.) Psychiatrists were not especially impressed, although he became a cult figure among the general public. Scott Peck, however, agrees with his basic claim: “Whenever a child is brought for psychiatric treatment, it is customary to refer to her or him as the ‘identified patient’. By this term we psychotherapists mean that the parents — or other identifiers — have labeled the child as a patient — namely, someone who has something wrong and is in need of treatment. The reason we use the term is that we have learned to become skeptical of the validity of this identification process. More often than not, as we proceed with the evaluation of the problem, we discover that the source of the problem lies not in the child but rather in his or her parents, family, school, or society. Put most simply, we usually find that the child is not as sick as its parents. Although the parents have identified the child as the one requiring correction, it is usually they, the identifiers, who are themselves in need of correction. They are the ones who should be the patients”¹.
By this he means that the parents (or perhaps other identifiers) are lacking in self-awareness, and therefore can act in an unconsciously evil way.
I once had the great privilege of attending a couple of Laing’s supervision sessions. At one of these a patient of his was present, a teenage girl, together with her mother. This was an extraordinary experience for me. The girl had been diagnosed as psychotic or schizophrenic and, from what I knew at the time from my reading of Laing, appeared to be a typical case. There were two striking things.
Firstly, even though the girl’s eyes were open, and there was no reason to believe that she could not hear what those present were saying, she nevertheless appeared to be completely unaware of what was going on in the room; she was, as they say, in a world of her own. She barely spoke but, when she did, it bore no relation to her physical situation. This does not sound like a typical Van Dusen case, where the patient’s conscious self remains in our world and is able to communicate, but is tormented by the inner voices of what he or she takes to be lower-order spirits. On the basis of one session, given that the girl was quasi-catatonic, it was impossible for me to tell whether she was hearing inner voices or not. If she was, it was not apparent.
The second striking thing was the mother. Even though she looked normal, and said apparently caring things, there was something deeply sinister and unpleasant about her. I felt that I was truly in the presence of evil.
My amateur hypothesis at the time was that the girl had withdrawn inside herself as a defense mechanism, forming a shield to protect herself against the evil mother. If I had known then what I know now, especially the work of Van Dusen, I would have had no doubt, and been able to understand much better what was going on, suspecting that the mother had indeed been possessed.
Many traditions accept the existence of demons or some similar word: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Jewish folklore if not mainstream Judaism², and Islam³.
Any Bible-based Christian must surely believe in demons. The Apostle Paul clearly recognised that we are engaged in a battle against supernatural demonic powers: “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). I paraphrase, the battle is not against evil humans, rather against the evil beings from the supernatural realms which possess them. Here Paul was speaking the same language as Swedenborg and Van Dusen.
Scholar Elaine Pagels adds further material on this theme. Commenting on Romans 5: 6–9, she says: “Paul explains here how the saviour came to destroy the power that hostile archons held over mankind… Subjected to the cosmic powers, helpless to resist the evil powers ‘who attack the soul through the body’, mankind is ‘weak’, easily prey to their influence and tyranny”⁴. Commenting on Romans 7: 14b-25, she says that the Gnostic teacher Valentinus “describes how evil spirits dwell in the heart, effecting evil actions: ‘each of these (demons) effects its own acts, insulting the heart many times with inappropriate desires’. The tormented heart, having become the ‘dwelling-place of many demons’ cannot cleanse itself; the Good Father must intervene to cleanse and to illuminate it”⁵. This sounds like an exorcism being described, and could have been the cases mentioned by Crabtree, Peck, Grof, or even Van Dusen’s patients speaking! Former lecturer in New Testament studies at the University of Oxford, John Ashton, says of the same passage: “This is the language of possession; it is not just an example of… weakness of will. The ego here is totally dominated, possessed, and occupied by an alien power”⁶.
So that is what Paul believes. Also, in the Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, Jesus is portrayed as a master exorcist. I am a fan of, and have recently been writing about, Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die. He has been a lifelong crusader for the modernisation of Christianity. Much of what he says about medicine and health would seem to be true, but on one point I think he has got it wrong. He says: “Epilepsy and mental illness also are no longer understood to result from demon possession, even though Jesus was portrayed in the Bible as believing that they did. Once again, honesty requires that we confront the Bible’s limited grasp on truth”⁷. I think that here, unsurprisingly, Jesus knows better than Spong, who has perhaps been led astray by modern science. I wish that he had read Van Dusen and Adam Crabtree to see what he would make of their case histories. What we read in the gospels sounds like the work of Crabtree, ordering, or trying to persuade, the invading entities to leave the victim. So it is certainly not true to say that all modern mental healthcare professionals have rejected the idea of possession as a causal factor in mental illness. (There are also the Peck and Grof cases mentioned in an earlier article.)
So, there was a firm belief in demonic possession in early Christianity. And this is not just true of the ancient religion. The Roman Catholic Church still has exorcists, and every diocese has to have a team. During the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued guidelines for driving out devils.
In 2016 Father Gabriele Amorth, who at the time was the world’s best-known, and chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome died at the age of 91. For 10 years he had been president of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990. He said that he had performed thousands of exorcisms, although it’s not quite clear what is meant by the term in this context. He has been quoted as saying that “most of these people who required exorcism actually needed psychological help more than anything else”. So some of what he calls exorcism may be closer to some form of psychological cleansing. He did believe, however, that the Devil exists, and that he had met him 7 or 8 times. He also said that the film The Exorcist was “substantially exact”⁸.
None of this constitutes proof of the supernatural and demons, of course, merely that materialist science has gone out on a limb in rejecting them, and takes great pride in doing so. As Steven Pinker has said: “The findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken…”⁹. Some of us are not convinced, however, by the hubristic fantasies of Enlightenment scientists, and believe that ancient wisdom and knowledge are closer to the truth. As I was arguing at the end of the previous article, it is people like Pinker who, while they mean well and think they are serving humanity, are unconsciously contributing to the continuing problem of evil in our world.
To conclude, on a slightly less serious note, in modern times the general public is still fascinated by this topic, witness the great popularity of the TV series Twin Peaks (total 29 episodes), and the follow-up film Fire Walk With Me. (I hope it’s not a plot-spoiler to say that the murderer was demonically possessed, and that the demon went on to possess one of the other characters.) David Lynch obviously believes in this phenomenon, since in another of his films Lost Highway, the nightmarish events of the main character’s life are organised by a sinister, supernatural figure from behind the scenes.
In several of my recent articles I have been quoting Jonathan Black’s book The Secret History of the World¹⁰, which describes the worldview of the ancient Mystery traditions, as preserved by various secret societies. He calls Lynch an “American outlaw”, and says that his work is “steeped in the ancient and secret philosophy” (p28). Interesting! (That is presumably why people find his film Mulholland Drive so hard to understand¹¹.)
We too will have to steep ourselves in the ancient philosophy, the mindset of the Apostle Paul and the ancient Gnostics, as well as the work of modern therapists like Crabtree, Peck, Grof, and Van Dusen, if we are ever to deal successfully with the problem of evil in our world.
Recommended reading on the psychology of evil:
People of the Lie, by Scott Peck, see footnote 1
Dispelling Wetiko, by Paul Levy, North Atlantic Books, 2013
1. People of the Lie, Touchstone, 1985, p59
2. This is called a dybbuk, which is a demonic spirit, a lost soul of the dead, capable of possessing and tormenting a living person. Many of Crabtree’s patients are afflicted by such spirits.
3. Islam believes in Jinn, considered to be supernatural creatures. They live alongside us, and can see us from a place where we cannot see them. They are believed to be more bad than good, and the bad ones will trouble humans. They can physically possess a human being, which can cause illnesses, and mental health can be disturbed. This sounds remarkably like Van Dusen’s understanding of the lower order of spirits.
4. The Gnostic Paul, Trinity Press International, 1992, p26. At the end of that quote she has a footnote reference to Excerpta ex Theodoto, from Stromata, Clement of Alexander: ed., trans., and intro. F. Sagnard, Les Extraits de Théodote, Sources Chrétiennes 23 (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1948, 73. 1–3.
5. ibid. p32
6. The Religion of Paul the Apostle, Yale University Press, 2000, p46
7. HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, p7
8. My sources for this information are BBC Radio5live, Afternoon Edition, November 2nd 2016, and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3794238/Gabriele-Amorth-prominent-exorcist-priest-dies-Rome.html
9. “Science is Not Your Enemy”, The New Republic, August 19th 2013, p33
10. Quercus Books, 2010
11. I have offered my interpretation of it here, or here on Medium.com