Thursday, June 27, 2013

Further thoughts on exorcisms

An Ethical Musings reader sent me the following true story in response to my post on twenty-first century exorcisms:

Some years ago, I met an African woman, also named Mary, at a national Episcopal conference. She turned up in all the same small group workshops I attended, so we saw a lot of each other. Subsequently, I sent her some knitting yarn, which apparently she was having trouble buying in Harare, where she lived. And at Christmas, I sent her a card; about twice more I sent her some little card or a note. I got a few replies.

Then Mary sent me quite a long letter, in which she described the ‘demon possession’ of her brother-in-law. He had got ‘into the hands of the witchdoctors’. As a result, he was deeply disturbed, even to the point of coming to their house late at night and wanting to stay the night; then in the darkest time of the night, they woke to his screaming outside their bedroom door, ‘the light, the light’. Of course, they tried to help him. In the morning after sitting up with him, they heard the story of the witchdoctors, and that he had been sent to kill them to gain more power. So they burned his clothes that he’d been wearing when he was put under the ‘spell’, and he tried everything he knew to escape the power of the ‘devils’ he had agreed to release within himself. Unfortunately, he was fine during daylight, but at night he raved again.

So, being modern educated people, they took him to the psychiatric ward at the hospital. The hospital staff told them that plenty of cases were possessed day and night, and that if he were functional during the day they wouldn’t admit him, even for tests.

On further investigation, Mary found that her husband had gone to visit the witchdoctors with his brother, but had not undergone the initiation and taken up with them in the same way.

While this was going on, Mary got a card from me. It said ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth,’ as I had sent it as a Christmas card, though by the time it was delivered it was long past Christmas. So Mary went to an Anglican church and asked for help. They did some sort of service for the whole family, banishing all evil thoughts or acts that would disturb the family. The brother gratefully accepted forgiveness for what he’d done, and from then on, they had no further incidents.

Mary wrote about this to me, and thanked me for bringing light to a very dark time for her and her children. I was amazed that a mere Christmas card could be such a powerful agent for God’s love. Mary, in her letter, said that people in the West can’t understand the power of evil since they have been protected by their faith in God for so long.

My perspective on Mary's story is somewhat different. Mary, her formerly possessed brother-in-law, the witchdoctors, and others obviously believed literally in demon possession. They similarly believed in God's power to free a person possessed by demons or evil spirits. Consequently, the exorcism, or whatever other service the Anglicans conducted was effective in ending the nightmares. In other words, I think this incident has a straightforward psychological explanation. Analogously, Christian teachers and healers – to include Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert Schuller – built expansive ministries utilizing similar pyscho-dynamics to help people live more fully and abundantly.

If my interpretation of what occurred is correct, then the incident raises two additional issues. First, is spirituality synonymous with, or a subset of, psychology? Alternatively, is spirituality something at least partially distinct from psychology? The latter seems to me to be correct.

If spirituality is reducible to psychology, then let's close churches and open counseling centers. (Incidentally, John D. Rockefeller built Riverside Church in New York City to provide a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the foremost American preacher of the first half of the twentieth century. Fosdick thought that good preaching was good group counseling.)

Spirituality's distinctive element is its transcendent dimension, which humans can experience through the various components of the human spirit, i.e., self-awareness, linguistic capacity, aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy and the ability to love/be loved. Not every aspect of what happens in a Church will be explicitly spiritual in the sense of helping people connect with the Ultimate. But for Mary, in the service at the Anglican Church, the presence of a life-giving, loving transcendent power (God) may have reinforced the transformative power of the psycho-dynamics I sketched above.

Second, I wish that Mary were correct, that people in the West were protected from evil by the power of their longstanding faith in God. Evil is insidious and pervasive. The West's fa├žade of religiosity is crumbling, revealing widespread apathy or antipathy to religion. Polls consistently show the downward trend and the superficial beliefs many nominally religious people hold, e.g., those who pray to God in times of need, treating God as a heavenly vending machine intended to dispense requested aid in a human's time of need.

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