By Ian Olson
The present age may be a secular one, but it remains as haunted as ever. Haunted by the specters of our national past, haunted by reflexes and drives we do not understand, haunted by seemingly inescapable networks of propaganda and misinformation, and haunted by things which cannot be explained by the predominant scientific paradigm. However much the ghostly and preternatural may be derided as nonsense or as inconsequential, they persist into the present and shape our shared life.
Most cultures worldwide recognize a density to reality that the Enlightenment disregarded and excluded. As important as some of the Enlightenment’s epistemological principles were for the development of modern science and philosophy, they also permitted and nourished a sense of superiority over others who did not hold the same theories of knowledge and expectations of what was possible. Historian Keith Thomas is representative of this school of thought when he writes that, unlike the benighted era of the past, ghosts and other strange phenomena are “rightly disdained by intelligent persons” today (Religion and the Decline of Magic, ix).
The promulgation of empiricism and scientific method hypertrophied in much subsequent Western thought, though not universally. Rousseau, for instance, criticized the dominant scientistic view of the world for alienating humanity from nature. This criticism resurfaced in other forms throughout the intervening centuries, for instance in the spiritualism of nineteenth-century America and the New Age movement, all of which sought to enlarge the domain of the possible and recover a connection to the spiritual world that had been stifled under rationalism.
Christian faith confesses that humanity does indeed suffer this alienation, but that its scope and effects are more pervasive than Rousseau imagined. And while it confesses that other beings inhabit the cosmos besides humankind, when it is truest to its source, Christian faith bears witness that these beings cannot be manipulated or partnered with. Interaction is possible, in the forms of exorcism, the relaying of information, and the seeking of guidance, but this is always risky. For there are many types of these entities, and what each one of them are and what they serve cannot be known in advance and even in the encounter with them often cannot easily be discerned.
These forces — the dead, the unseen, the chthonic — complicate our relation to the planet insofar as they hinder or even contest our attempts at control. The affirmation of the New Testament’s witness to nonhuman powers resonates with our sense of there being an unknown, obscured Other intruding itself upon the field of our action, manipulating our anxieties and fears, steering our decisions in directions we could not foresee and would not have chosen ourselves. The unseen realm of nonhuman actants infringes on our efforts to order our lives, sometimes obstructing our efforts to forget, both for good and for ill, sometimes energizing our defacement of ourselves and others. The forces that exert themselves upon us also exert themselves within us. Psychologists locate ghosts within the human mind and they are correct insofar as the spiritual actants we experience as alien and oppressive are simultaneously agents distinct from us as well as uncomfortably close to our inmost selves. For there is a correspondence between these outer phenomena and the inner experience of terror, of guilt, of resentment, which goad us towards action we ourselves do not wholly understand.
No one is immune to such influence, for there is no necessary correlation between fear and belief. Ask many people and they will tell you they do not believe in ghosts but that they are afraid of them. (The same answer is sometimes given when the question pertains to God, interestingly enough.) Fear can be provoked apart from credence in the thing inspiring that fear; after all, one need not believe someone or something in their life is manipulating them in order to be manipulated. But fear can arise even within the careful insulation of skepticism when traces of the uncanny, of the anomalous and horrific, intrude themselves upon our lives.
A recent poll indicated that 45% of Americans believe in the existence of ghosts. Interestingly, the results were slightly higher regarding the existence of demons, with 46% of Americans agreeing that they definitely or probably exist. Additionally, 36% report they have witnessed or felt the presence of a ghost or spirit. The report breaks down respondents’ answers by political affiliation to show that over half of Republicans believe in demons (versus 37% of Democrats). The difference drops off markedly with regard to ghosts, with 46% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats affirming their belief in them.
A Pew Research poll from 2015 gives a different estimate of 18% of Americans having claimed to have seen a ghost. This poll also takes into account respondents’ attendance in worship services, noting that regular churchgoers are less likely to have seen a ghost (11%) than more infrequent attenders (23%).
We must be cautious, not merely to resist secularized incredulity, but to exercise the critical scrutiny of faith. We must not naively conflate the many preternatural entities of our world and the ministering spirits dispatched by God. For all the similarities between the ghost traditions of the world there are also enormous differences. The complexity of these phenomena, both in Scripture and in eyewitness accounts, resists simple categorization and thus the modern rational project. What differentiates the duende from the banshee? Or the Malay Pontianak from the Baital of Hindu myth? Or the Greek daimon from the Islamic jinn? These are all creatures of liminality, poised between the visible and the invisible, between the material and the immaterial, but these formal features cluster around a more purposive feature of their existence, that these haunting phenomena obstruct our efforts to forget. They keep alive the past we wish we could bury, the painful memories of injustice, of failure, of shame, by refusing to let the buried remain secret. Others forcefully bring to remembrance that the Earth is God’s and that humanity’s exploitation of it has no future. Our race’s arbitrary attempts at control depend upon our suppression of such facts and the unseen actants of our world problematize these efforts.
The plausibility structures of Western society perpetuate a self-reinforcing prejudice by forbidding certain types of experience to be affirmed and synthesized as knowledge. And so, as Gillian Bennett writes, “because no one will talk about their experiences of the supernatural there is no evidence for it and because there is no evidence for it no one talks about their experiences of it” (Traditions of Belief, 13). There are no neutral invocations of knowledge or truth: the exclusion of possibilities always serves the interests of power. Assertions and denials of knowledge are always bound up with an allegiance to some form of power.
Who benefits from the manufacturing of these plausibility structures? Both the persons and institutions which exercise and enforce this power as well as the inhuman powers that have haunted our world since time immemorial. Individual human beings and the societal infrastructures of which they are a part profit from the new regimes of possibility and its concomitant policing of the impossible, but the unseen actants underwriting those regimes invisibly consolidate their control over human affairs as well precisely under the auspices of their official non-existence.
That which we deny or repress always returns and painfully asserts itself. What is true on the scale of individual psychology is also true at the corporate level. Denial only postpones the shock of reality. Humanity’s innate need for ontological depth and otherness and for supranational allegiance offered a vulnerability ripe for exploitation by demonic values systems in the twentieth century.
“Many old gods ascend from their graves,” Max Weber observed in “Science as a Vocation”; “They are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again they resume their eternal struggle with one another.” The strategy of visible withdrawal permits them to operate in an array of modes within a polytheistic society. In a broadly scientific, rationalistic understanding of the world their purposes are served well by dispersively mediating their action through rival ideologies and institutions.
The Enemy’s shrewdest strategy, therefore, may not be convincing the world he does not exist but convincing those who believe in him that he only exerts his influence on those who do not belong to their faction.
After all, what meaningful impact does it have upon Republicans’ engagement with the world that they are more likely to believe in demons than Democrats are? The very people most likely to affirm the existence of such things have proven uniquely susceptible to their machinations as evidenced by the proliferation and recent electoral successes of the QAnon cult.
The urge to seek out misinformation, to cling to it and disseminate it, arises out of that same blinding spiritual influence sclerotically dulling the senses of earnest culture warriors. It enkindles the hatred which propels genocide in Rwanda, in Cambodia, against the Kurds and against the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. It is not the case that liberals cannot see or be affected by these actants, only that at this particular moment some of their most diabolical manifestations are focused elsewhere.
For those who would deny the existence of these forces do not thereby escape their influence. Is the bigotry which contemptuously looks down upon the Majority World’s belief in such things, which views itself as superior, as more enlightened, not as demonic at its root? The rationalist outlook which rules out such phenomena will be incapable of meaningful ministry in the wider world where angelic visitation, demonic possession, and other preternatural phenomena are occurring every day.
But utter credulity cannot be the answer either. The spirits resident in our world are not all truthful; some are deceitful and some are, whether due to our limitations and fallenness or theirs, unreliable guides to the truth of ourselves and of God. Some purposefully seek our subjugation and destruction and some can do little more than distort and degrade our impulse to worship or to seek security and stability. What good, then, is accomplished by seeking reconnection to the spiritual if that domain is itself subject to disorder and deformation? The New Testament exhortation to test the spirits is premised upon the fact that not all of them can be trusted (1 John 4:1).
The Church cannot be vigilant against a threat it does not believe is real or does not believe is pertinent to them. Appreciating the severity of the threat is not the same as living in fear of it: it is staying on guard, attentive, cognizant of how it operates and alert to the signs of its influence. Appreciating that threat requires a holy shrewdness that looks into the peripheries of our plausibility structures so as to discern what actants are embroiled in our individual and our corporate lives.
This is required by the baptismal vows Christians undertake in their initiation into the church: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”
Corporate adherence to these renunciations marks out the church as a people who name and resist the powers covertly operative in our world. Our task is the unmasking of evil in both its mundane and its spiritual dimensions, as the two are regularly linked. The Church’s confession of the reality of these things is not gullibility: it is an aspect of the faith which unites us to all ages of the church as it is the depth dimension of the church’s militancy against that which enslaves, distorts, and degrades God’s image bearers. This is why it is such a word of consolation when the Apostle Paul promises that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet (Rom. 16:20).
Openness to the possibility of such things is no more gullible than belief in conspiracy theories and fake news or uncritical adherence to a supposedly monolithic discourse called science. That openness is a refuge to those who experience the inexplicable, who come up against the frightening boundaries of the possible, and find themselves disdained and dismissed by their fellows.
There are more things in the heavenly places and on Earth than are evoked by the word “angel.” The human world is surrounded and permeated by such entities influencing human actors and the relational webs of which they are parts. Their influence is often obscured or obfuscated and thus difficult to trace within the categories available to us through our post-Enlightenment inheritance. Our lack of credence or of awareness does not change the fact that they are here. The world may go on sleepwalking amidst angels and powers and myriads of unnamed, unseen entities, but the church must strive to discern the shape of their activity, confident that God will, in time, tread underfoot our ghostly foe.
Ian Olson is an Anglican lay student living with his wife and three children in southern Wisconsin, enraptured with W. H. Auden, David Foster Wallace, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and resisting the gravitational pull of the world’s despair with re-enchantment.