Thursday, February 10, 2011

Spirits in the material world


There’s been a couple of nights this last year that I’ve had the creepiest experience ever: At the end of a dream, I’ve felt the presence of an Evil One, just over my shoulder and chuckling in my ear. Both times I woke up praying the Hail Mary, and sat on the edge of my bed smoking a cigarette to calm my nerves because the experience scared the bejabers out of me.

Anxiety dream? Perhaps; I wouldn’t rule it out.

“Hell … [is] as much a fact of the universe as is Heaven.” So Scripture attests;[1] so the Church Fathers taught;[2] so the Catholic Church maintains.[3] “… [T]he evidence we have is beyond the reach of the empiriometric sciences,” because: 1) by definition and design, the natural sciences study the material universe, and therefore have tools that only work within the scope of materiality; and 2) because the bulk of natural scientists rule out the immaterial a priori, and therefore aren’t willing to spend time, effort and resources trying to make it detectable, far less measurable.

Demons are real, too. Father Dwight Longenecker has posted a fascinating reflection on possession and exorcism, beginning with the story of his first — and to date, only — experience of a possession. I also recommend to you An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriele Amorth, who was for many years the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. I tell you this, not to convince you that I’ve been demon-haunted — heck, I’m not even convinced — but to underscore the fact that for many people the immaterial is not only real but a living, waking nightmare.

In the last few months, there’s been a resurgence of interest in demons and exorcism, prompted in part by conscientious efforts of the USCCB to revive the deliverance ministry, and also by the release of The Last Exorcism and The Rite. Along with that pickup of interest are the genteel (and not-so-genteel) sneers of the secularists and Christian liberals: “Good grief! You mean to tell me the Catholic Church still believes such nonsense?”

But the sneering and incredulity aren’t based on scientific fact. Rather, they’re based on philosophical presuppositions that preclude empirical investigation and discount eyewitness testimony out of hand. This isn’t scientific … in fact, it’s against the spirit of science, the “no-holds-barred search for the truth” that scientists claim for their disciplines. They’re based on the implicit assumption that we’ve learned 99.44% of everything there is to know about the universe, and therefore have enough information to dismiss such antediluvian mishegoss … an assumption against which I postulate The First Law of Ignorance: We don’t know how much we don’t know.

Consider: Many theoretical physicists are still working on the possibility of faster-than-light travel. However, success at making FTL travel possible will necessitate the discovery of a whole new realm of physical laws, to which we only now have the barest hints in the theories about tachyons. Will such a discovery happen? Do such rules exist? We don’t know.

If ever FTL travel is explored into feasibility, it won’t be done by physicists who are convinced that E=mc2 is the end of the discussion. And honest physicists will admit that, tomorrow or next year or next decade, a theory could come along that will do unto Einstein as Einstein did unto Newton; i.e., make it a “special case” rather than an overarching framework. Certainly, Neptune existed long before anyone did the math to explain the irregularities of Uranus’ orbit … unless, of course, you’re one of those few physicists who believe the moon isn’t there when no one is looking at it.

By contrast, there’s more than enough testimony to the existence of malevolent immaterial beings that a reasonable person can concede the general issue, though said person can reserve polite — let me say that again, polite — skepticism about specific instances. I don’t need to believe my neighbor is a spy in order to believe there’s such a thing as spies.

Since the tools of the natural sciences work only on material things, it follows that they won’t tell us anything about the existence or operation of the supernatural. That’s the fatal flaw which defeats most atheists’ attempts to scientifically “prove” the supernatural doesn’t exist; to steal a simile from cartoonist Scott Adams, it’s like using a metal detector to try to find unicorns in your sock drawer … whether they’re invisible pink unicorns or not.

It’s bad enough when atheists use invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and such to avoid questioning their materialist assumptions. Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, have no such excuse; our entire enterprise is predicated on the immaterial manifesting itself in the material world. A materialist Christian is as oxymoronic as a vegetarian tiger.

It’s very much in the interests of the Lord of Hell to promote the skeptical dismissal of demons along with ghosts, poltergeists and other things that go “bump” in the night. It reminds me very much of the organization back in the 1970s that claimed the Mafia was a fiction created by the government to oppress Italian-Americans … a movement that was founded and funded by men from the Mob.

The most frightening thing about such dismissal is that some of the people who promote it show signs of true possession: outward normality, but living a life of sin without shame, and showing nothing but scorn and contempt for Christ and his disciples. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they are possessed, but ….

I wonder what would happen if a priest blessed Christopher Hitchens’ clothes without him knowing? Would he be able to wear them … or would he tear them off as if they burned him?


[1] E.g., Is 33:11-14; Mt 25:41; Mt 25:46; Lk 3:16-17; 2 Thess 1:6-9.
[2] E.g., Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 16:1-2; Justin Martyr, First Apology 12, 21, 52; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:10:1, 4:28:2.
[3] CCC 1035; cf. Enchiridion Symbolorum 76; 409; 411; 801; 858; 1002; 1351; 1575.

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