On September 16, 2016, Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the diocese of Rome died at the age of 91. I suppose that this must have been important news in some quarters that I don’t normally try to cover, though at a somewhat later date a very brief note did appear in mainstream media. I was sufficiently intrigued to march around the internet a bit. It seems that Father Amorth also served as chief exorcist for the Vatican (which after all is located in the diocese of Rome), so that he could be called if the devil succeeded in possessing the soul of one of the nuns who cooked for the Pope. It also is interesting that there has been an increase in the demand for exorcism in America, probably triggered by a number of successful motion pictures. Major dioceses have appointed specially trained priests to meet the demand (“exorcisms on wheels”?). I could not find an entry for an exorcist in the list of services provided by the Archdiocese of Boston, but they have one on call. Father Candido Amantini, Amorth’s predecessor in Rome, had become the subject of a beatification process in 2012. It had been reported that, in the course of carrying on his duties, he had a number of quite personal (even jocular) conversations with the devil. During one of these the devil mentioned the cold weather in Boston, whereupon Amantini assured him that God had prepared a very warm place for him. This induced the devil to say that, contrary to what most people think, God did not create hell—the devil with associates did so. I regret that nobody, neither in Rome nor anywhere else, followed up on this potential theological bombshell. As far as I could find out, Amorth didn’t. (Too bad. It could be a fascinating topic in an interfaith dialogue between Catholics and Zoroastrians—some have survived in Iran and in India.) What Amorth did do was warn that any dabbling with the supernatural (including magic as depicted in Harry Potter novels, or in yoga) opens the door to the devil, as does any act of abortion. He opined that Hitler, Stalin, and ISIS were possessed by the devil. That much I find rather plausible. Pope Francis seems to share this opinion, recently remarking that the devil is very real.
Of course exorcism is hardly a central concern of Roman Catholic teaching or practice. It continues to be an official rite of the Church. Until 1999 it was always performed in Latin—Vade retro satana/“Get thee behind me, Satan”—a language the devil supposedly understands and fears. It is assumed that the words are equally effective in the vernacular. The Catholic Church in its teaching and its popular piety continues to be robustly supernaturalist, as compared with most Protestant denominations (an important exception is Pentecostalism, which positively reeks with supernaturalism—that is another story). As the oldest continuing bureaucracy in history, the Catholic Church bureaucratically defines the boundaries between the supernatural and the natural. Before an exorcism is authorized by a bishop, modern psychiatry is called upon to assess whether the candidate is suffering from an ordinary mental illness, in which case an exorcism is not indicated. Similarly, before a candidate is proclaimed a saint, at least two miracles performed by him or her must be certified—which means that the event in question cannot be explained in purely secular terms (say, by effective medical interventions, or by the weather or a meteor shower). Mother Teresa of Calcutta had to undergo this procedure prior to her recent sanctification.
At least since the High Middle Ages in Europe, Catholicism has created a world in which the supernatural is very close to ordinary life, both in official Church teaching and popular lay piety. It is a world of mystery, magic, and miracle. Compare a baroque cathedral to a white-washed church of Puritan New England—the former crowded with images of angels and saints, the other world palpably close; the latter sober, stark, bereft of images. Max Weber’s key insight of his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) precisely concerned Protestantism’s role in what he called the “disenchantment of the world” (the German word is Entzauberung—literally “demagicalization”). This historic process, an exodus from the ”enchanted garden” of medieval Catholicism, was not only an important factor in the genesis of modern capitalism but of modernity as such. This was the case in the earliest period of the Protestant Reformation, when Luther challenged the Pope’s supernatural power to affect events in the hereafter (in the debate over the sale of “indulgences”). But the Lutheran version of Protestantism still retained significant vestiges of the “enchanted garden.” The ultimate climax of the Protestant revolution came with Calvinism. It hit me with full force when I first attended a Calvinist worship service in Geneva—bare walls, no images of any kind, no altar in front, instead an enormous pulpit, with the inscription “To the greater glory of God.” God confronts the congregation without any mediation—no Virgin, no saints, no sacramental intrusions of the supernatural—only the proclamation of God’s Word (the kerygma of the Gospel) written down in Scripture but made alive again in the preaching of the soberly dressed man in the pulpit. (I think that, in this fixation on written and spoken words, Calvinism is closer to Judaism and Islam than to any other form of Christianity.)
Radical disenchantment characterized the work of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), one of the most influential and controversial Protestant theologians of the 20th century. A lifelong professor of New Testament on the University of Marburg’s distinguished theological faculty, Bultmann was close to the so-called Confessing Church, which resisted the inroad of Nazi ideology in the Protestant Church in Germany. He published a number of significant works of New Testament scholarship before World War II, but his great influence burst on the theological scene after the war. In 1941 he wrote an essay entitled “The New Testament and Mythology.” It could not be published at the time, since wartime regulations allowed very few publications and Bultmann was considered politically unreliable by the Nazi authorities. The essay was published right after the war and attracted wide attention. It was republished in the first volume of a multi-volume series of books titled Kerygma and Myth, which also contained both positive and very critical commentaries. Quite apart from his own theological program of “demythologizing the New Testament,” which was always controversial, Bultmann also fortified his position as an objective Biblical historian in his magnum opus The Theology of the New Testament (several volumes 1948-1953). As a historian, Bultmann demonstrated that the New Testament was steeped in a “mythological worldview” in which supernatural forces, both benign and malevolent, ongoingly interfered and interacted with empirical reality. This concept of “myth” was also criticized. (Would this make unacceptable the Biblical understanding of God and Christ? Since this understanding was intrinsically mythological?) Bultmann refused to go that far, because that would have undermined his program of “demythologization.” Instead he tried to exempt the actions of God and Christ, not very plausibly, from his notion of “myth.”
What I find very interesting is that his theological program of “demythologization” hinges on an empirical assumption, quite unrelated to his historical understanding of the Biblical worldview—indeed a social-psychological assumption about modernity, which he never argued for but presupposed a priori. It is conveniently summarized succinctly in one sentence of the 1941 essay: “One cannot use electricity and radio, and avail oneself of modern medicine, and at the same time believe in the miraculous world of the New Testament.” Bultmann clearly thought that this sentence was self-evidently true, requiring no argument to make it plausible. There is irony in the fact that Bultmann wrote this during the Third Reich, whose chief theoretician was Alfred Rosenberg, author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, a muddled but aggressive statement of Nazi ideology. The term “myth” here is not used in a pejorative sense, but refers to the mysterious reality of race that is supposed to be the true determinant of history. This is not exactly what Bultmann meant by the term, but even then it was clear that one could use electricity and radio and at the same time believe in the Nazi Aryan mysticism (with its concomitant anti-Semitic demonology—which, to his credit, Bultmann courageously criticized). But one does not have to go back in time to see that “enchantment” can coexist quite comfortably with electricity, radio, and modern medicine. In America today the Bible Belt overlaps with the Sun Belt, a place of robust supernaturalism with one of the most economically dynamic regions of modern capitalism. Houston is the location of Texas Medical Center, one of the country’s most advanced hospital facilities. I have never visited the place, but I know something about the religious topography of Texas and I have no doubt that many of the patients that seek treatment at the hospital also believe in the healing power of prayer (as probably do many of the medical staff). But this does not necessarily mean that this power acts independently of or even against the effects of the modern treatment—in the Evangelical worldview, it may act through the latter.
Bultmann believed that one could separate the core of the Gospel from the mythological worldview in which it was originally wrapped up. What then usually remains is a moral message conveniently outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. Bultmann did not follow this route, among other things understanding as a historian that the oldest texts of the New Testament, the letters of the Apostle Paul, showed little if any interest in the “teachings of Jesus”—Paul preached Jesus crucified and resurrected. Instead Bultmann understood the demythologized Gospel as testifying to the liberating power of God through Christ. Liberating from what? Here Bultmann fell back on the philosophical concepts of Martin Heidegger, who bemoaned the “inauthenticity” of the unredeemed human condition. It seems to me that Bultmann made an unfortunate choice here: Heidegger’s obscure view of the human condition as the true core of the Gospel impresses me as singularly implausible, even more so than the current liberal Protestant embrace of “political correctness” as what Jesus was “really all about.” Bultmann was a remarkable historian of religion, less impressive as an innovative theologian. He also was a decent, even courageous person in the murderous madness of Nazi Germany. He seriously misunderstood the relationship between religious faith and modernity. I met him only once, it must have been in the late 1960s, at a lecture he gave in America. He was a very pleasant, open-minded elderly gentleman. It struck me as curious at the time that, though a believer in the cognitive superiority of modern thought, he mentioned that he was afraid of flying and insisted on crossing the Atlantic by boat.
Bultmann was certainly not alone in his view of the relation of religion (a.k.a. mythology) and modernity. See above on Max Weber’s view of disenchantment. In the past few years I have tried to replace the empirically untenable “secularization theory” (according to which more modernity inevitably leads to less religion) with a theory of pluralism. Actually I now prefer to speak of two pluralisms—that of different religions and worldviews coexisting in the same society, and that of religion and secularity in different sectors of human life. Each pluralism poses challenges to religious traditions and institutions, but those challenges are more complicated than that of enchantment and the exodus from it. However, modernity has in fact produced a social space, which is dominated by a secular discourse separated from all religious discourses. That space was originally where modern science and technology operated, but its form of religiously neutral cognition migrated into other areas of society—the law (especially where religious freedom was established), public and private bureaucracies, and the market economy. There are political factions who would like to banish all religion from the public sphere into private life. This is hard to do successfully. There are different forms of accommodation. Every modern or even modernizing society must have such a secular space—otherwise planes would fall out of the sky, millions would die or starve, and the peaceful resolution of social conflicts would become very difficult.
A few years ago Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford, published a fascinating study of an American Evangelical group who not only believed in the efficacy of prayer but that God actually responded verbally (When God Talks Back, 2012). Members of this group were very much aware of the fact that their experience was unusual, vulnerable to psychiatric explanations—consequently they were eager for criteria to discern whether the supposed messages really came from God, or were products of their own wishful thinking. Luhrmann mentioned other cases of people conversing with imaginary interlocutors, such as small children having conversations with pets or toys, or (more relevant here) patients suffering from schizophrenia. The most interesting chapter in her book is entitled “Are they [her subjects] crazy?” She decided that they were not, after almost pedantically going through the accepted criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. As I understand Luhrmann’s reasoning: Unlike her Evangelicals, the schizophrenic takes his delusions for granted, unaware that they are peculiar and might be doubted. Be this as it may, Silke Steets (a German sociologist currently at the Technical University of Berlin) is making ingenious use of categories developed by Alfred Schutz (1900-1959) in her study of “cognitive minorities” (specifically atheists in Texas and Evangelicals in Saxony, one of the most secularized regions in the world). It should be mentioned that Schutz was totally uninterested in religion. But two concepts that he applied to other matters are very useful for the study of religion—“finite provinces of meaning” and “relevance structure.” A finite province of meaning refers to a different reality from the reality of everyday life, which one leaves with a sense of crossing a dramatic border—different categories now apply, specifically of time and space.
A favorite example of Schutz’s was watching a play: The theater in which I’m watching the play is in Boston; the action in the play takes place in ancient Rome. By my watch the duration of the play is 90 minutes; in the play it is ten years. If the play really grips me, I temporarily emigrate from my everyday reality in Boston in 2016 CE and live through ten years in the Rome of Julius Caesar. It so happens that the concept applies precisely to, say, the mystical experience of Teresa of Avila. As she was in ecstasy transported before the throne of God, she left 16th-century Spain for eternity (a different structure of time as well as space)—a reality that in the words of Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), is totaliter aliter /“totally other.” (Otto was another famous religion scholar at the University of Marburg, best known for his Idea of the Holy and Mysticism East and West. Moral and political decency are more noteworthy than any amount of scholarly accomplishment: I should therefore note that Otto committed suicide by jumping off the high tower at the university he loved, after he knew that he would be stripped of his professorship for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the Fuehrer.) When she was not in a state of ecstasy, Teresa had to return to the reality of everyday life—as she set out on another journey to inspect the convents of Carmelite nuns who had embraced her reforms—ecstasy must be interrupted while one checks convent account books. Not only a different reality, but a different relevance structure takes over. This is all the more the case with an ordinary lay Catholic, say an electrician, who attends Mass with sincere devotion—which doesn’t stop him from thinking about how to engage in conversation with the beguiling young woman in the second row on his right who, he thought, was not unwilling to flirt with him. We switch relevance structures very frequently, as we navigate through the diverse institutions of a modern society. Religion is no exception. The Schutzian categories are very helpful in explaining how modernity and religion can coexist in civic peace.
I invite my readers to join me in a rather surreal fantasy. (The surreal is the antechamber of the supernatural!) The obituary of Father Gabriele Amorth has informed me that the Vatican has an exorcist on call. I have accidentally learned that, while the bulk of the so-called “pope-mobiles” are ordinary gasoline-fueled sedans with additional (shockingly expensive) features, the French automobile producer Renault has now offered the Vatican a new model powered electrically (I don’t know whether this is because it is less costly, or because Pope Francis is considering a possibly infallible decree making global warming obligatory Catholic doctrine). I suppose that the Vatican has quite a few electricians on call, but a major electrical emergency preventing the charging of the pope-mobile may require a call to the electricity board of the City of Rome. It so happens that the Roman municipal government has now fallen to the populist party Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which may become the party with the most votes in the next Italian election (which would allow it to form a national government). M5S was founded and is still led by Beppe Grillo, a charismatic circus clown (I’m not making this up). Incidentally, all municipal works (including the covers over potholes) sport the acronym “SPQR” (which stands for the Latin title “Senate and People of Rome” (I’m not making this up either). I understand that the Roman municipal government has functioned quite poorly since the M5S takeover. Imagine please that two emergency calls went out from the Vatican minutes apart—to the exorcism office and to the electricity board. Alas, the flustered police switchboard (SPQR) mixed up the two numbers. The chief exorcist arrived with his emergency kit (big crucifix, black candles, pungent incense) in the garage, the chief electrician with his more secular bag of tricks in the residence where a nun of the papal household showed signs of demonic possession. The drivers of the two vehicles were understandably flustered and drove too fast. They collided. It is rumored that Pope Francis, who usually exhibits the feisty sense of humor he learned on the streets of Buenos Aires, this time was not amused.