A couple of posts appeared over on Patheos, both by the same author: Killing Us Softly: Seduced by the Occult, and the sequel, All the Rage: Fashionable Occult Practices and Furious Consequences. I’m reluctant to post comments over there, because these two posts sparked one of the most uncivil, name-calling shouting-matches — well, not the worst I’ve seen on the Web, but the worst I’ve ever seen on Patheos.
The author of these posts, Lisa, claims to be expositing standard Catholic teaching on the subject of “the occult,” and I don’t know enough about Catholicism to confirm or deny that.
It’s also not my place or inclination to make pronouncements about what kinds of evil spirits there are, or may be, or might have been at some point in the past, or might be in the future. Or what motivates them, or how they might respond to certain human practices, be it blood sacrifice or Catholic exorcism.
What I do know a little bit about is crazy. Both of these postings, and the responses they elicited, walk the crazy side of the street.
I’m seeing a lot of that these days.
I’m personally a wild-eyed speculator. I love to think and wonder about a wide range of ideas: like the Red Queen, I’m in the habit of believing six impossible things before breakfast (and then disbelieving them before dinner.) Just tonight, we had dinner with friends, and had a long and delightfully animated conversation about negative interest rates and gift economies. I recently wondered how one might go about sanctifying a web site as a “virtual temple.” I can go on at length about the Lemurians. Heady stuff.
But I know that I’m speculating. Imagining. Wondering. I do it partly because I’m a natural-born (or early-made, I’m not sure which) iconoclast, and I don’t like to see comfortable mental structures get all middle-aged and spongey. I do it partly to keep my own mind sharp as I get older, based on the working theory of Use It Or Lose It. I do it partly to talk through different ideas for current and future works of fiction. And I do it to be funny and/or interesting to my friends.
Maybe — just maybe — there is some truth in my speculations: I like to think so. Perhaps a whole cup of metaphorical truth. Perhaps a teaspoon of literal truth. Perhaps a single granule of profound truth.
But speculation is speculation, and most of it is pure fiction.
When it comes to religious devil-talk, people seem to lose their ability to distinguish fact from fiction. They run over to the crazy side of the street and roll in the gutter.
The two articles I mentioned don’t bother me too much at a personal level. Lisa is a young mother, emphasis on “young.” Life-experience will inevitably knock some of the crazy edges off her faith, and may well mellow it into some form of wisdom. Or perhaps not: in which case she’ll become that crazy mother / aunt / neighbor who goes around sprinkling holy water on things to drive out evil spirits. I hope not — she strikes me as a nice young woman. But her life is hers to live and shape. She’ll become a wise old grandmother, or a crazy old grandmother, and her grandkids will love her either way. As a crazy old grandmother, she’ll probably get less face-time with them: that’s all the real advice I have for her.
But I have been in her shoes. Not exactly — my variant was Evangelicalism rather than Catholicism, and I was more into the Rapture and not quite so much into the Devil-fearing side of things. I read all those same books Lisa has read (written by an earlier generation of authors) and got all nervous about spirit beasties that go bump in the night. I dumped most of it as bilge before I entered college. But it was enough of an exposure for me to make some pointed observations today.
The most important is that this entire system of thought is a hole with no steps or hand-holds, coated with Teflon — what I’m calling the Teflon Hole of Evil. Once you fall in, it’s difficult to climb back out.
Here are a few basic tenets of faith that define the Teflon Hole of Evil.
- People fall into one of two categories: the Righteous, and those who are influenced by the Devil. There is no real gray area, because anyone in the middle is already sliding into Devil-worship; they just don’t realize it.
- The Righteous know and accept the Truth; those influenced by the Devil do not know Truth, but are deceived by falsehoods. The Righteous are therefore trustworthy, the Deceived untrustworthy.
- The only way to tell the Righteous from the Deceived is to determine whether they know and accept Truth. In all other respects, the Deceived can seem like perfectly ordinary people, and may even seem to be sensible, moral, kind, and virtuous. But if they do not accept Truth, all of the rest is unimportant window-dressing. Conversely, if they do accept Truth, all their irrationality, immorality, cruelty, and debauchery is merely their fallen nature, and don’t we all suffer from that? God forgives them.
- Truth can be found only in X. For Catholics, X is the teachings of the church. For Evangelicals, X is the Bible. This is taken as axiomatic: it is inconceivable that the church teaching (for Catholics) or the Bible (for Evangelicals) could contain any falsehood, confusion, or outright craziness. For Catholics, this has culminated in the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra; for Evangelicals it is embedded in the idea of Biblical inerrancy.
- When X appears to contain falsehood, confusion, or outright craziness, it is a misunderstanding on your part, and prima facie evidence that you are in the process of being deceived by the Devil. You must seek Truth more diligently in X, and if it is still unclear, you may need to seek the assistance of the Righteous: counsel at the very least, but perhaps the Devil already has a firm grip on your soul, and you need stronger measures, like deliverance prayer or an exorcism.
I think the essential circularity of this is evident, but in case you weren’t paying attention, here’s the condensed version:
A. Truth is by definition what the Righteous believe.
B. What makes you Righteous is believing the Truth.
What it means in practice is that anyone who wants to play Rasputin and claim to be speaking for God can get away with pretty much anything. Because he speaks for God, his words are Truth. Because his words are Truth, it proves he speaks for God. Everything else goes out the window, and anyone who tells you this is nuts is working for the Devil.
Welcome to the Teflon Hole of Evil.
In her second post, Lisa talks about her subject in terms of the trap that the occultists fall into, and I fully agree with her: the Teflon Hole of Evil is quite indifferent to creed. New Age spiritual-but-not-religious people are just as likely to fall into it as a Roman Catholic or an Evangelical.
Fraud: I sense a spirit nearby, whose name starts with a P. Or maybe a T.
Victim: (face stiffens, breathing slows, pupils contract)
Fraud: I sense you parted from this person on bad terms.
Victim: (looks uncomfortable, eyes shift downward)
Fraud: I think some wrong has been done to this person.
Victim: (first glimmer of tears in the eyes, involuntary twitch of the mouth)
Fraud: Do you know this person?
Victim: Aunt… Aunt Tilly.
Fraud: Tilly? Is this you, Tilly? Oh, she’s coming through strongly now.
A fishing expedition and some sharp observation have uncovered the first scrap of information about Aunt Tilly, a deceased woman the victim had treated badly in life. A miracle! How could the psychic have known about Aunt Tilly? He must be the real deal! Therefore, everything he says must be Truth.
The irony is that Lisa has done exactly the same thing with the priest she interviews in her second article: Father Reynolds, a “diocesan priest in New York” who has had “more than his share of experience with the paranormal.” In the interview, he blatantly claims unusual expertise, indeed a special divine calling to this kind of work, then comments that three of his own — his very own! — Eucharistic ministers were at John Edwards’ television show (John Edwards is a medium/psychic who channels the dead). The message here is that you can’t trust just anyone in the church, certainly not these unnamed eucharistic ministers, since they are already sliding toward the Devil. You can’t trust just any parish priest, either, since they don’t have the expertise and special calling. Best to trust Father Reynolds. He knows the Truth.
Father Reynolds can now tell poor Lisa pretty much anything, and she’ll swallow it whole. That evil spirits are like lint and stick to your soul if you walk into the wrong bookstore. That fights with your husband are evidence of Satan’s influence. That insomnia is a sign of spirit oppression. That you can hug your loved ones only after wrapping them in the Holy Spirit, like pulling a spiritual condom over them so they don’t “contaminate” you.
Maybe he’ll tell her someday that witches melt if they come into contact with salt. (Oops, there I go, spilling that secret again.)
It never occurs to Lisa — it can’t occur to her — that Father Reynolds may be exactly the same kind of fraud that he is warning her about. John Edwards is deceived by the Devil — Father Reynolds is guided by God and X. One is Deceived, the other knows Truth. They can’t be anything alike!
For even suggesting that they are both men with limited knowledge and less-than-noble human motivations, I’ve demonstrated that I, too, am a minion of the Devil. Anyone who doesn’t accept the Truth that Father Reynolds has filled her head with is a minion of the Devil.
I think the only way out of the Teflon Hole of Evil is to let it fill with life-experience and float you out.
You’ve all seen the various horror movies from Hollywood, like The Omen, and one of the recurring bit-parts is “the priest who knows too much.” He’s invariably found holed up somewhere in a room full of “weapons against darkness” — in some cases, it’s holy symbols and verses scrawled on all the walls, in others it’s a secret basement full of silver-tipped oak crossbow bolts. In the standard script, he steps out of line somehow — he knocks a cross off the wall, or leaves a warded window open a crack, or fumbles while loading the crossbow — and the Big Demon who’s been gunning for him for years grins and eats his head.
The metaphorical truth to this image is that this is exactly what it is like to live in the Teflon Hole of Evil. Living there spoils the world. Better to live in abject terror in a ten-by-ten room with black walls covered with mad scribbles, than to step outside and tell the Devil to go pound sand. Better to distance yourself from your loved-ones with a Holy Spirit Love Glove than to hug your husband and let him fully into your heart without reservations. Better to worry about how much evil-spirit detritus you’ve picked up while walking past that awful New Age store on the main square than to simply take in a deep breath and thank God for a beautiful Spring day.
No healthy-minded person can continue to live like that. Over time, a healthy mind will gradually shake off the influence of a fraudulent medium or a Father Reynolds.
If you want to accelerate that process, my advice is simple: get more real life-experience. Take a college course in physics for housewives. Take up reading non-religious literature from a different country, a different time. Read poetry. Learn some history from a country and time you know nothing about. Visit a foreign country for a month. Go camping, and observe the way birds and squirrels behave.
Start taking long walks in nature, and talk with God.
Get out of the ten-by-ten black room, and tell the Devil — and Father Reynolds — to go pound sand.