My most recent sermon describes the first exorcism that I performed. Writing that sermon prompted some additional musings.
The very idea of a twenty-first century exorcism can easily evoke conflicting images. First, casting a demon out of a possessed person seems to be more fiction than fact (for many people the definitive image of an exorcism is what happened in William Blatty's bestseller, The Exorcist). Heads of living humans cannot spin in 360-degree circles.
Second, the most widespread interpretation of the biblical narrative with respect to evil owes more to Dante's Divine Comedy, pagan myths, and fears of the unknown than it does to responsible scholarship and theology. The Bible is clear: in the beginning, God was. Dualism – a pitting of a good God and against an evil entity - is primarily from Zoroastrianism, a religion rooted in Iran and foreign to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The delightful, imaginary demons of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters are just that: imaginary fictions with no basis in fact.
Third, demon possession clearly refers to multiple phenomena. In the biblical narrative, the authors, out of ignorance, often labeled mental illness and severe emotional distress as demon possession. More recently, many religious people personify the reality of evil, employing images of devil, demon, and Satan to describe the seductive and powerful attraction of evil psychological and sociological forces.
As I have repeatedly argued in this blog, religion and religious language depends entirely on symbols. Even the word God is a symbol for that ultimate reality that lies beyond the finite. If demons and demon possession are metaphors for evil, i.e., the absence of God, then exorcism is a metaphor for the process by which a person experiences God's healing, loving presence.
A former colleague of mine, a Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan monk who had served as a missionary in a remote area of South America before he joined the Navy, once told me about his experiences with exorcism. When sent by the Franciscans to South America, he flew to a remote city, rented a jeep that he drove first on a paved highway and then down a dirt track as far as he could. Then he walked, the track gradually becoming less and less of a path. About the time he was ready to despair, thinking that he had taken a wrong turn, though there had been no forks from which to choose, he reached a small village of mud huts. There he spent the next several years as a missionary, eventually building a small church and making several converts. There he observed what he believed were truly demon possessed individuals, whom he healed by performing exorcisms.
This priest was truly a man of God and a colleague whom I greatly respected. But I am convinced that he was wrong. I'm uncertain what he experienced, but demons do not possess only the uneducated in remote tribal areas. In some transformative manner, the Indians to whom he ministered, of whose worldview and value system I am completely ignorant, experienced a liberating, life-giving power through the exorcisms he performed.
I suspect that the Indians, unlike many of us, expected God to act. Because we doubt that God acts, we do not perceive God at work, since God usually (always?) acts in ordinary rather than extraordinary ways. The power of religious symbols – words, Bible, water, bread, wine, etc. – is their power to point to, and to evoke, that mysterious presence that permeates our world so pervasively and constantly that we no longer notice it.
We rightly reject superstition and seek knowledge. But this does not mean that the only source of knowledge is science. Pragmatism, a contemporary approach to philosophy, argues that knowledge that others and we consistently find life giving, a path to more abundant living, is a genuine source of wisdom. Defining exorcism as God healing the distressed, giving strength to the tempted, and comforting the afflicted seamlessly links the biblical narrative, my colleague's experiences in the South American jungle, and our own experiences of the mysterious other.