walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: November 26, 2010
Defanging the Supernatural

On November 13, 2010, there were two stories about religion, separated by four pages, in The New York Times. The first, filed by Laurie Goodstein (who reports regularly on religion), dealt with a conference of Roman Catholic bishops on procedures of exorcism. The other story, by Mark Oppenheimer (another regular Times reporter), told of an unusual proposal made at the recent annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. Both Goodstein and Oppenheimer are excellent journalists, and their stories are well worth reading separately. Let me propose that it is instructive to read them together.

The bishops’ conference met in Baltimore in order to better prepare bishops and priests to respond to what is apparently a rising demand for exorcisms. The organizer of the conference, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, explained: “Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually needs one. It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.” Hence it is important to determine whether the individual needs psychiatric care rather than an exorcism. The Rite of Exorcism (revised as recently as 1998) spells out the criteria for this determination (which, I would think, are not easy to apply in concrete cases). Scott Appleby, who teaches American Catholic history at Notre Dame, made an astute observation about the conference: “[Its aim is to say] that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the function of exorcism. It’s a strategy of saying that: We are not the Federal Reserve, and not the World Council of Churches [a rather nasty aside]. We deal with angels and demons (my italics).”

Exorcism deals with malevolent manifestations of the supernatural—Satan and lesser demonic forces. But the church also has standard operating procedures to deal with benign manifestations—apparitions of the Virgin, other miracles, saints. Thus there are precise, highly rational procedures to determine whether an individual can be considered a saint. Beatification and sanctification are juridical processes, sometimes lasting for over a century. Of course the church acknowledges intrusions of the supernatural into the empirical world. But it envelops these intrusion with legal and bureaucratic procedures which, so to speak, defang the supernatural. The church maintains strict control. Like all bureaucracies, it does not look kindly on free enterprise. Where the latter does appear, as in charismatic or mystical movements, the church seeks to contain the damage that they might cause—for example, by relegating them to the segregated sphere of a monastic order. Both the angels and the demons are neatly put in boxes supplied by Roman canon law.

The American Academy of Religion is probably the largest organization of religion scholars in the world. Its meetings provide a job market, an occasion for networking, once in a while a new idea. This time around the AAR gathered in Atlanta. I was not there, but I assume that the customary deals, intrigues and flirtations were going on as usual. But there was one unusual event: Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University, proposed in a paper that the “paranormal” be included in religious studies as normally undertaken by scholars belonging to the AAR. The term “paranormal”, used by Kripal in its conventional meaning, covers such phenomena as telepathy, premonitions, ghosts and even alien abductions. Kripal’s suggestion would not have raised eyebrows if he had simply meant the study of beliefs about the phenomena in question—that is what AAR-acceptable historians, social scientists or psychologists do all the time. But what he has in mind is the study of the phenomena as such—that is, scientific investigations as to whether they are real. He understands that this would violate the assumed epistemology of religious studies, which dismisses or brackets questions about the veridical status of the paranormal. Kripal believes that paranormal experiences are very important and should be scientifically studied. Indeed, he claimed to have had at least one such experience himself (which involved levitation to the ceiling).

The AAR originated in something called the Association of Biblical Instructors, founded in 1909. I assume that these were people who taught the Bible in a normative context—that is, as sacred scriptures. During the 1960s two things happened: the Association changed its name to Society for Biblical Literature, thus divesting itself of any theological implications; and the AAR was founded as an organization separate from the SBL (though the two groups sometimes meet at the same time). Their rigorously secular (if you will, naturalist) epistemology is shared. What Kripal has in mind has been the agenda of so-called “psychical research”, an activity that has been going on for a long time. In 1885 the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, one of its patrons being no less a personage than William James. The organization still exists and continues to investigate occurrences that the official worldview of modern society assigns to the category of superstition. It too is anxious to avoid any theological implications, defining its aim as looking for evidence of the “connectedness of conscious beings with the physical world”—an agenda with clearly naturalist assumptions. It seems to me that what Kripal is essentially after is a merger between the AAR and the ASPR, if not organizationally, at least in their scholarly agendas. Thus both groups can deal with the angels and demons claimed as the proper domain of the Catholic church, but approached in a spirit of scientific detachment.

I would not be misunderstood here: In no way am I disputing the right of any scholarly discipline to deal with religious, or for that matter paranormal, phenomena in a rigorously objective manner. I do the same all the time as a sociologist of religion. AAR scholars can deal with angels and demons as socially and/or psychologically relevant beliefs, without asking whether they exist outside these beliefs. ASPR scholars are fully entitled to explore whether, say, telepathy can be explained in naturalist terms as an as yet not fully understood capacity of the human mind. But I do want to point out that these activities can also be understood as a peculiar form of exorcism—the supernatural is contained, is prevented from exploding the reality of ordinary life.

Sociologists who deal with religion often like to refer to the etymology of the Latin word religio. Supposedly it derives from the verb religare—to re-bind. If so, this points to a very valid insight, most fully formulated by the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim—namely, that religion provides the symbolic ligature that keeps a society together. I understand that Latinists reject this etymology for a different, and actually more interesting one: Religio derives from relegere—to be careful. In other words, the supernatural is a very dangerous reality—one has to approach it with great caution. This understanding was brilliantly formulated by Rudolf Otto, arguably one of the greatest twentieth-century historians of religion, in his book The Idea of the Holy. Religion is always based on an experience, on whatever level of intensity or sophistication, with a reality that is intensely dangerous. (If I were writing a paper for an AAR conference, I would of course say “a believed reality”—as a sociologist, I might refer to the famous statement by W.I. Thomas, “If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences”.)

The most memorable passages in Otto’s work describe two events in very disparate cultural contexts, each illustrating the way in which religious experience explodes ordinary reality—the vision of God’s throne in the Book of Isaiah, and the vision of the divine form of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. In both accounts ordinary language breaks down as it seeks to do justice to an experience that challenges all the assumptions of ordinary reality. Otto coined the term “numinous” to refer to this experience. His German language too seems to break down, as he falls back on Latin to describe the numinous—it is a mysterium tremendum, both terrifying and alluring. It is totaliter aliter—totally other than the fabric of everyday life. Above all, it is extremely dangerous. This is why, in the Bible and in other sacred scriptures, the first words spoken by an angel to a human being is “Do not be afraid!” There is a wonderful hadith, an oral tradition about the prophet Muhammad, concerning his first encounter with the angel Gabriel (who instructed him to recite the words of the Koran). According to this tradition, Muhammad fled from Mount Hira, where the angel had appeared to him, ran all the way to his home and told his wife “Hide me, hide me, so that he will not find me again!”  Only with Khadijah’s encouragement did he find the courage to go up to the mountain again (which is why she is called the first Muslim).

One can build a whole theory of religious institutions from Otto’s key insight. At the origin of all religious traditions there is an experience of the numinous. Religious institutions have two functions: to preserve the memory of the experience, so that it can be handed on to future generations who did not have it themselves; and to prevent the numinous experience from invading everyday reality in such a way as to make impossible the ordinary business of living. In this sense, every religious institution is an exorcism. It cannot be my purpose here to go on theorizing in this way. Let me just get back to the two events with which I started this post. It is difficult to think of two institutions as different from each other than the Roman Catholic church and the American Academy of Religion. Yet both are similar in one not unimportant way: They provide procedures to keep the supernatural at bay. The church does this by legal and bureaucratic procedures. The discipline of religious studies does it by—well, by studying it. Both mechanisms avoid encountering the supernatural directly in its terrifying reality.

show comments
  • Jon Ruthven, PhD

    Loved your article! If you are quite serious about defending God’s revelation in power, you might want to check out Bethel Church in Redding, CA. Or “That’s Supernatural” with Sid Roth–if you haven’t already–or Chad Dedmon, among many others. After all 88% of Americans in a Harris poll agreed with the statement: God performs miracles today by his power. Why would they claim that if not based in some sort of experience?

    I bailed out of seminary teaching after 18 years because of exactly the attitude toward God in his revelation that you describe in your article. I’m working on a book on the central theme of the Bible: the voice of God and it’s power. God bless you in your trenchant observation.

  • Mahesh Shankarmahesh

    Why is the “super natural” dangerous? It makes no sense. Exorcism is for “evil spirits” not for the “religiously obsessed.” They need the help of psychiatrists and professional counseling (if they go ‘out of control’) and not ‘religious exorcists’ who would in my opinion come under ‘purveyors of superstition.’

    Yes, Khadija is the first Muslim and was as important to Mohammed as Mary Magadalene was to Christ.

  • PDGM

    Interesting article; thank you.

    The Catholic church holds that the supernatural is in some powerful sense more real than that of mundane reality; and it seeks to help humans negotiate this reality through sacraments, rites, prayers, and so on. The American Academy of Religion in contrast wants to reduce all reality to the mundane and quotidian version that the Enlightenment tells us is real: ultimately matter and motion, Jeffrey Kripal notwithstanding. So while Berger is correct that both want to keep the supernatural at bay, they want to do so in very different ways: the Catholic church wants to keep the negative supernatural at bay, keeping only the positive accessible through rites. The AAR in contrast wants to keep the supernatural at bay by denying the validity of the sacred as such except as a subjective phenomenon with power due to human ignorance.

    This difference is why all academic study of religion in the post enlightenment academy will be fatally flawed: it is ultimately patronizing and crippled by its own profoundly limited epistemological assumptions.

  • Andrew Harris

    The “numinous experience” puts me in mind of What Ernst Kassirer described as a “tro” in his work “Language and Myth.” He traces the development of explanations of these experiences through languages and mytholgies and then the differences in the Western way of articulating them through complex vocabularies and languages and the Eastern way of leaving much unsaid which would be revealed after extensive thought and meditation–similar to when Lao Tzu said “the Dao that can be spoken is not the Dao.” I strongly recommend it.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Really brilliant. A genuinely new thought; how rare and precious.

  • Pingback: Religion means “be careful” | Cranach: The Blog of Veith()

  • John Barker

    The spiritual is already making inroads into everyday experience in a practical and non-threatening way. “Mindfulness” is a variation of Yogic and Buddhist meditation practices used in psychotherapy, which lead those suffering from mental or physical distress to an inner calm and a sense (for some) of a loving and numinous presence in the center of the psyche.

  • Michael Korcok

    So if I understand this through the absurd academic trash-prose, it comes to: both scholars and zealots who believe imaginary magical beings and processes are real are attempting to get a handle on their nightmares and fantasies? Something like that? Why?

    Adult humans who believe they can levitate to the ceiling or that epilepsy is caused by demon possession need medical attention, not obfuscatory prose. Berger: you could do some good in the world by writing something like the above instead.

  • Denis Fodor

    I’d buy the view that originally the numinous was the main thing to religere. Nowadays it’s more likely scientism (which avails itself of science to make its case but is not science). Is it worth propitiating? I mean, its main tool, science, claims it can ever be falsified.

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