Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
Each culture, in every time and place, has its monsters. It seems monster stories help define our conceptions of fear, death, the caprice of nature, and the nature of bravery and honor. Monsters provide us means to imagine how to bravely react to a world that can kill us.
So, I take a monster to be a projection of sorts, an amalgamation of threats to our community’s well-being.
In our ever more complex society, we are struggling these days to write monster myths that capture everyone’s imaginations. For a while, the popular monster myth of the “terrorist” served as an effective rallying cry for American “bravery.” But as we came to understand many facets of this myth as cruel fabrications, we’ve slowly (perhaps very slowly) been moving away from it.
These days, we can’t seem to settle on any one image of the monstrous. If anything, we are making monsters out of one another.
But there are certainly many monsters we face today. Global warming, a monster of sorts, is rearing its head. The police, for some, has become a monster—capricious and deadly, lurking at the edges of the community, waiting to do harm. Indeed the world, even as we’ve created it, can still kill us. As we mythologize new monsters, though, there’s a lack of consensus about what exactly the monsters of our day are and what kind of virtues are needed to slay them.
Take climate change as an example. Many of us are confounded by the willful disregard of the facts by our political opponents. As a response, we heap more facts on them. By simply describing the monster in greater detail, we believe that others will come to see that it really is a monster after all.
Surely, the monsters of our day are legion, and yet it seems that in our polarization we’re unable to approach consensus regarding a single one. In fact, we struggle to find consensus about what’s a monster at all.
I’d suggest that this is because we not only face monsters—but demons, too.
A startling fact: about half of all Americans believe in demons. In my own life, anecdotal experience only verifies this.
This fact startles me because belief in demons, to some extent, goes hand-in-hand with belief in the power of the demonic to affect everyday life—that is, belief that demons or the Devil can affect peoples’ behaviors and inner well-being. This is a remarkably world-altering view to hold, and yet it’s almost never addressed in the public sphere.
I wonder whether our public discomfort with the idea of demons is part and parcel with a much broader loss of understanding of what it means to be “possessed” by anything at all. For Kierkegaard, the religious experience is one of “absolute relation”—that is, relating to an other in an unmitigated way all the way to the core of our being. In a post-secular America, I worry that we’ve numbed our need for the feeling of “absolute relation” to something higher with entertainment and technology. But the need remains.
(This may be a reason why, ironically, most mainline churches are home to more numinous truth at the weeknight Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the basement than at the Sunday morning service. A recovering addict knows more than the average middle-class, white churchgoer about what it truly means to be “set free.”)
Whatever you think of the existence of demons or spirits, good or evil, it’s important to acknowledge that, for many, “possession” is still an important influence.
I’m not suggesting that we call our political opponents “demon-possessed” simply because we disagree with them. But I am suggesting that, for most people in the world, the feeling of being in ecstatic relationship to some higher truth is still a relevant factor in how they live and shape their beliefs.
This is all to say monsters are not the only threat in the world. Yes, we face many monsters—climate change, poverty, the list goes on. But as we confront others’ disbelief in our monsters, let us remember the existence of demons, too.
To describe a monster in greater detail will not convince an opponent of its existence if they themselves, in fact, feel possessed by a truth that precludes it. After all, monsters are not the only enemy we face. The many threats to our well-being are not limited to those material things that might do us harm.
For many, hatred, conspiracy theories, political grudges, or self-righteousness itself are demons that take hold of the soul and alienate from the mainstream of cultural myth-making. As long as we keep sweeping the language of “possession” aside, this phenomenon will continue to bring postmodern Americans to our wits’ end.
In our life together, having courage to confront monsters is necessary, but only part of the picture. We need to keep casting out demons, too.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.