Having addressed sin and original sin, I now move on to much less solid ground. While sin in its different forms is something most theologians have some thoughts about, the demons is much more elusive. It seems that there have always been people who believe that demons are some evil monsters that have a personal will and intelligence. It is not difficult to find such people today. Interestingly enough these are not the ones that really use this symbol in their understanding of the world. This is most obvious when studying the ascetic movement within Christianity during the fourth to sixth centuries.
The most well-known text from this period is probably the esteemed bishop Athanasios biography of
However, when we turn to the letters of
Demons, then, have a similar role in Christian theology as original sin: both describe the forces outside the individual that have an impact on the individuals freedom and identity. The difference is in the way one uses these symbols. While original sin is a description of a situation one cannot do much about, demons are there to be fought!
When reading the ascetics discussions on the war against the demons a pattern emerges. The various demons usually have a common goal. Not, as one could suspect, to drive the ascetic to sin, but what they are attacking is the ascetics faith in the self-understanding as an ascetic. The demons all try to make the ascetic give up an return to society.
While I am slightly optimistic about the possibility to use the symbol original sin in a constructive way today, it is probably impossible to use the symbol demons with a wider audience. It is just to difficult to get images from The Exorcist and similar popular notions out of people’s heads! It is a real pity, because I think this kind of language is really useful.
Who haven’t felt that we are up against some inhuman forces when we try to address how the media works, how large corporations function, how university administration… You know what I mean. There is also the notion that demons possess people and make them do things they would not do otherwise. This is exactly what happens when normal human beings make choices to run down profit-making factories and move the production to third world sweat shops, because “the market demands it”. There are dark forces at work.
So, how do you fight demons? Well, the key is truth. It will, as you know, set us free. The thing demons do is they interfere with our senses (this is why the ancients always pointed out the danger of believing the senses). They make us believe that, for example, the global system called “the market” is something that exists by itself and that its rules are somehow “natural” and not made up by people. To fight such demons we must look deeper into the structures of reality. Only this way can we expose them for the liars they are.
The ascetic fathers also recommended asceticism as preparation for the battle. Now, asceticism is about putting distance between oneself and the things that affect us, to help us see clearer. It is about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.
But in order to fight the demons of our time, we need ascetic practices suitable for our time.