It is Halloween time, a time when fright and gore seem to take center stage. Halloween seems to be one of the most popular holidays in our society (along with Christmas and the Super Bowl). Given the roots of Halloween I have become curious, is this simply a holiday for cheap thrills or do people believe in the existences of ghosts, ghouls, and demons? It may simply be my perspective, but, it seems to me that people are more open to the existence of the supernatural (or at least some form of it). I daresay there are few who believe in Dracula style vampires, or the reanimated mummies we see in movies (let alone the goat hooved and horned demon of cartoons). I think our belief in the supernatural has evolved into something less personal than these. I think C.S. Lewis captured our society when he wrote:
“Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name), will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The ‘Life Force’, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you.” C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters
I wonder if Lewis’ fear (presented as Screwtape’s hope) is not coming about. I look around at modern culture and I see people who want to believe in the supernatural without the personal. I see a society which increasingly believes in things that go bump in the night, but, believes they are somehow natural forces which cannot be dispelled by a person. Society believes in psychic energy and if we can simply produce POSITIVE ENERGY good things will come about (remember the slim in the second Ghostbusters movie). For our society the fact that bad things (including ghosts and demons) exist shows people are producing negative energy more abundantly than positive energy. Increasingly in our society, ghosts and demons exist, but these are impersonal forces which haunt us. I frequently hear, see, and read stories of people who understand they have encountered some sort of supernatural event (ghost, demon etc.). What is troubling, is that the event is usually frightening to the individual, but, it does not result in anything, except the person believes in ghosts or spirits. The spirits haunt us, but, there is literally nothing we can do about it. Again look at Ghostbusters, ghosts can be contained because they are an impersonal material force, not a supernatural being. (I should clarify I use the movie because it provides a tangible illustration of what I see as a modern philosophy.) The person who believes this will have difficulty believing in a personal God. From Screwtape’s perspective it is the best of both worlds, all of the evil of the personal demon, without that nagging concern that the victim will turn to God for help.
When people believed demons and ghosts were persons, they were frightened, but, that fright had a cure. A demon who is a person can be thwarted by a God who is a person. As Screwtape understood, if a person believes in personal demons, that person is likely to find a personal God to dispel them. If one believes demons do not exist then all that is, is material and there is no need for God. But, if demons can be impersonal, that is, a force, then they become even more powerful. The impersonal demon haunts humanity just as effectively as the personal demon, but, can also convince humanity that God does not exist to dispel it. The impersonal demon is a manifestation of the negativity of society something which can never be dispelled. All it takes for such a demon to win is for a person to perceive society is producing negativity. The result is that oxymoron of the Materialist Magician, the person vainly trying to expel a demon by merely being positive. Lewis feared a vague impersonal supernatural, because he knew it would be harder for people to recover the true person of God. Our society today has real fears of walking corpses, and evil spirits, but, these are vague impersonal fears. For many the ghost is real and there is no counter to it.
I am not trying to dissuade people from participation in Halloween, nor, am I advocating a return to a belief in a horned being with a pitchfork. Participating in Halloween is a personal decision based on one’s own worldview and irrelevant to this discussion. As for demons, I am not concerned, here, with whether or not they exist and in what form. I am concerned with what people BELIEVE about demons, and how these beliefs play out. In Lewis’ day many did not believe in demons and he confronted this disbelief by showing how it lead people away from God. I am attempting to open a small window into how an impersonal spirituality leads a person away from God. Culture today may be more ready to believe in spirits and ghosts, but, this does not mean it is any more ready to accept and understand a personal God. This divergence will present challenges moving forward; yet, it is important that we remember that a personal God can also drive away impersonal demons.