When the Church of England debated whether or not it should be specific about rejecting the devil at baptism, I joined the debate by writing an article for the Church Times.
I wrote with the intention of trying to convince people that the devil existed- that evil was an objective reality.
At one level, ‘professionally’ one might say, that a rather stupid thing to do.
It is not the position that a theologically sophisticated person ought to take; let alone someone who has for a while earned a living and developed a reputation for teaching in a university founded on intellectual competence.
So why risk a sneer or two from clever people who are sure that something they have never experienced cannot exist?
For many of the years of having been a Christian, I struggled with what evil was, with how I prayed about it, and with the need to combat the dreadful ‘head wind’ that blew up so frequently. But I had been a practicing Christian for over 30 years before I got it, before things fell into place and I saw things for what they really were. Paradoxically, I would say now, it was the devil overplaying his hand that lead to his exposure.
He broke cover in over assaults that I suppose were intended to break my spirit or demoralise me – or perhaps were just the effluence of his hatred.
In the summer of 2008 I experienced several direct and overwhelming assaults that were demonic. The worst one I won’t write about here. It lasted three nights and I thought in the middle of it, that it might drive me mad. Of course I suspected a nervous breakdown. But nervous breakdown don’t start at 1.05 a.m. and end about 5.05 am, switching on and off. And anyway, it wasn’t one.
Another one, which I will write a little about here, happened when I went to a small weekly mass in an ancient Church perched on a small volcanic hill with sheer sides in S.W.France. It was the Chapel of St Michael in Le Puy en Velais.
I had gone there to pray before hosting a visit to the Cathedral at Chichester of Vassula Ryden who was going to speak about the True Life in God Messages, which I believed to be a prophetic sign and gift to the Church. I had invited nearly 400 Anglican and 400 Catholic priests to come and hear about the unity to which God was urgently calling the Church.
Mass was only celebrated there once a week. One of the Cathedral clergy used to be dragged in on a rota to do it. I met the celebrant at the steps. I looked closely at his eyes – as I do with most priests. They were clear and good. I could expect a good mass. But what happened was totally outside the boundaries of my expectations and my experience.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened until he began the Eucharistic prayer.
Then things became strange. I noticed that I was having trouble hearing the words. Not physically, not with my ears, but with my mind. It became somehow inaccessible. And then a band tightened around my head and it was as if looking on a saw an upturned funnel above my head down into which came scores, hundreds of black bat like things dive-bombing my head. A sense of terror increased and I wanted to run out of the chapel, to get away from the terror.
Running terrified out of a quiet Eucharist in a French chapel wasn’t really an option some tiny rational part of my mind, which shared in the control of what I did, insisted. I held on and endured it. I wondered if the host would put an end to it. How on earth could what was clearly an assault of evil take place during the Eucharist, in this powerful and symbolically holy place. How dare it? Why wasn’t I somehow safe? The priest placed the host in my hand. I waited for a sudden event – but nothing happened. I held the host, still the bombardment; I was losing what few moorings were left me. I slipped the host onto my tongue – and it all stopped. It was like slipping into another dimension. It was almost an anti climax. Except that I was left with a small headache from where the band of pressure around my head had been released. Totally odd. But thank God receiving the Host on my tongue had been effective.
But it was like being psychically mugged.
I have no doubt retrospectively that these black bat like things that threatened me physically and psychically, were demonic.
Liberal, intelligent, rational culture can’t be doing with any of this. Nor can liberal, intelligent, rational Christianity. It looks to mental illness for an explanation. But there is another parallel world view that whilst it reflects much that is medieval and earlier, claims the same experiences and the same conclusions.
Most of us have a bogey group that we mistrust and dislike. For a lot of Europeans it is right wing American fundamentalism. But when some of their experiences are replicated by Twentieth century Italian monks like Padre Pio; or Polish nuns like Sister Faustina; and so the list could go on, to include even me; then one has to ask whether or not our rationalistic suppositions are just as much a causality of our own culture and its prejudices and blinkers as the outlooks we have decided are unacceptably primitive or odd.
In the light of this kind of experience then less dramatic assaults begin to show the same pneumatic dark fingerprints. Episodes previously, particularly ones involving despair, began to lake the same shape, and allow themselves to be interpreted in the same frame of reference.
Since then, I have known worse. It becomes clear that we are being assaulted both subtly and not so subtly by real evil. Objective, malignant and dangerous.
So when the C of E finds itself with a debate on its hands, it would be cowardice not to join in, and not risk my reputation in the eyes of those whose experiences are circumscribed and whose judgments are under-informed.
Hence the article that follows, printed in the Church Times on Friday 17th of January 2014
“Revising our core liturgical texts doesn’t usually create headlines, but this week it has. “Welby casts out sin from Christenings’ and ‘C of E to dump sin and devil from baptism rite.’
No doubt we should at one level be glad that we can still have theological conversations in the media because there is public interest. This particular conversation is being held in two places; under-informed banner headlines in public, and domestic theological discussion in the Church.
But I doubt whether our domestic conversations will go much further than asking whether or not we should ‘dumb down’ and make access to our rites easier, or keep traditional language and make people jump through hoops they find increasingly difficult or even alien. What we may not manage with much confidence is to have a conversation about the devil himself. But however awkward we find it, and we do find it very disturbing, it’s a theological conversation we need to have.
Freud helped make this conversation difficult when he published his first, and not very impressive paper on religion and mental illness ‘Obsessive Actions And Religious Practices’ in 1907.
He didn’t actually claim that mental illness and religion were inextricably linked, but his overt association of fear, guilt and anxiety with neurosis, and implicitly with religion, stuck in the public’s mind. The close proximity between religious experience, whether or not in involved ‘hearing voices’ and madness or mental illness, alarmed and continues to alarm people.
The whole thrust of Modernity moved society, bien pensants, churchpeople and theologians away from mystery and metaphysics, in the direction of rationality and empiricism. The theological tension that this produces is that it also moves us away from the language of the New Testament.
We have resolved this by and large by resorting to treating the world view of the New Testament as if it can best be understood as metaphor. We are very edgy about treating either the miraculous or the metaphysical what we often clumsily call ‘literally’. Perhaps we might help ourselves by avoiding the world ‘literally’ and talking more helpfully about engaging with New Testament ‘realistically’. The literal and the real are not same thing.
Physical hearing is based on an accessing sound within a range of frequencies. As one loses one’s hearing so higher frequencies become inaccessible; but that does not mean they don’t exist. It means some people can’t hear them. The New Testament treats evil as profoundly and effectively real.
Those who practice prayer seriously also tell us these metaphysical experiences are ‘real’. A useful analogy might by that our secularized generation suffers not only form a loss of physical hearing through exposure to our constant excessively loud music delivered in earphones –but it also seems to have lost its access of spiritual frequencies beyond a very narrow range. This spiritual deafness is caused not by excessive physical noise, but by the constant deafening buzz of rationalism, and perhaps also, sin.
At no place is this discomfort more keenly felt than in relation to the devil. The reflex reaction to the assertion there may be a devil, often involves anxiety about mental illness or vague historical memories of European witch burning. More informed responses look to theories of evil that concentrate on the absence of good (drawing on parts of St Augustine), perhaps a need associated with Aquinas to avoid a clumsy dualism, and a fear of so called biblical literalism.
There are some qualifications one can immediately make. In answer to the charge of dualism, the devil is of course theologically the flawed and rebellious counterpart to St Michael the Archangel, and not Jesus, and certainly not the Father. But it may be that we need to meet psychology with psychology and ask if the intellectual modernists’ discomfort with the devil and the associated spiritual world, is not so much about the organisation of intellectual categories that are congenial, but of fear.
If there really is a devil and a spiritual struggle that reflects his existence, then intelligence and brain power are not going to be as important and powerful in that struggle as purity and holiness. In other words, intellectual pride would predicate a preference for his non existence.
However much kudos we give to the clever, Jesus says only the pure in heart ‘see’ God. It may be then that it is especially the pure in heart who also see and engage in an effective struggle with evil. Following the analysis of Jesus in the beatitudes, we should not be over influenced by the ideas of theologians whose hearts or souls take less exercise than their brains.
The Eastern Church recognised theology as being done best by those whose penitential prayer and worship opened a window onto spiritual realities; an experience of the ‘real’ that those who don’t pray and don’t worship cannot access.
There are two elements which should remain central to this conversation. The first is the fact there is no doubt that the authors of the Gospels and the Apostolic tradition understood Jesus to be describing a real (objective?) figure when he talked of satan; and the second is that the long narrative of Christian experience and tradition has claimed to encounter and struggle both with him and the associated demonic.
Solidly sane writers like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Sienna (to pick a random few) describe soberly and vividly their struggles with the demonic. Immediately though they are assumed to be restricted to the limitations of their ‘world view’ as if everyone else other than our generation must be, but we alone are not.
Ironically, since we are the ones theologically and experientially out of step with the whole of the rest of Christian tradition, it may be we who are more constrained by our world view, than anyone else. Padre Pio who wrote extensively about his profoundly real struggle with the devil and demons died in 1968. The modern and rational does not necessarily constitute ‘the real’.
The experience of the reality of the devil and demonic continues, and not just amongst charismatics and Pentecostals.
Scientists like John Cornwell, having started as materialist atheist reluctantly begun to include the reality of evil, the devil and the demonic, in his book ‘Powers of Darkness Powers of Light’.
C.S. Lewis carefully hid his experience of the struggle behind satire and comedy in his Screwtape Letters, but they were predicated on his experience of the struggle as a profoundly real one.
Father Gabriel Amorth, known as the Vatican’s Exorcist has a overt and sane media profile in which he speaks forthrightly about the reality of the devil and the importance of the ministry of deliverance, documented by Tracy Wilkinson as an open minded journalist in ‘The Vatican’s Exorcists: Driving out the Devil in the 21st Century’. He goes further and says there has never been a greater need for experienced exorcists and those capable of exercising a ministry of deliverance, than today.
In revising its baptism liturgy, the Church of England is faced with a theological question that goes to the heart of its self understanding: what sin is, what salvation is, on what terms the Church should be engaging with society, how we pray and how we pastor. It will always be easier to accommodate ourselves to other people’s preferences, or to the limitations of their impoverished experienced of spiritual ‘frequency’.
But it may be that to actually be or aspire to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church, that we say we are at the most defining points of our liturgy, we need to re-inhabit a metaphysical world in which repentance from the reality of sin is the way into the Church, and the rejection of and struggle with the reality of the devil and the demonic, are the marks of authentic and effective pilgrimage.
Purity, piety and holiness will then constitute our deepest human aspirations and our spiritual potency. Depending on how you analyse our social dis-eases, this may turn out to be just as socially relevant to the wounded and disturbed, as the argot of Eastenders. But if you want an element of empiricism to inform our theological preferences, then perhaps we should not ignore the working generalization which suggests that the Churches that do inhabit that richer metaphysical world and a wider spiritual frequency, flourish as churches, more than those that do not.
The dilution of our understanding of the struggle between real good and real evil may constitute a kind of theological homeopathy. We reduce the constituent elements of our spiritual struggle to minute particles both in our liturgy and in prayers, that will not in fact have any discernible effect. We can scarcely hope to be ‘delivered from evil’ , as we pray every day, if we will neither recognise the evil we ask to be delivered from or use the prayers given to us to effect that deliverance.”
© Gavin Ashenden,