Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Rite by Matt Baglio

Synchronicity I: Ha! Just as I finished typing the title for this post, George Harrison intoned, via my iPod: "Beware of darkness."
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You know my schtick by now: the eggheaded skeptic with the Angel on his shoulder, and I hope I don't do it into the ground, but it's hard to walk the valley of the shadow of the strip-mall and to know at the same time that I'm "really" a child of God, "really" a spiritual being having a physical know that in fact all things must pass, including cat litter and escrow, to know that there is all around me an oceanic roiling realm of divine energy. It's hard for me anyway, and yet sometimes it's hard to know that there's anything but the fiery swirls of shakti.

The disconnect between modern life and the unseen spirit world forms a major theme in Matt Baglio's The Rite, subtitled "The Making of a Modern Exorcist." Baglio, an American journalist based in Rome, followed a priest through exorcist training and has produced a spiritual analogue to such bildungsreportage as The Right Stuff and The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228. Baglio's book is not as compelling a read as these, though--the style is quite dry and the main character, Father Gary Thomas, isn't drawn finely enough for me to be fully invested in whether he gets smacked down by Asmodeus. I mean, I was rooting for Fr. Gary and all, but Baglio, while he gestures towards the great distance the priest has to travel from a Silicon Valley parish and virtual unbelief in Satan to Rome and spiritual warfare, doesn't quite sell it to me. It may be that, to Baglio's credit, he's working overtime to not sensationalize the topic; the book's tone is rather understated.

Some of what you'll learn:
  • Real-life exorcism ain't like The Exorcist (except there can be copious quantities of bodily fluid expelled). Rarely does an exorcism play out as a one-time, all-or-nothing bout of single combat, and rarely do the possessed roll on the floor and froth at the mouth. But sometimes they do.
  • There's a fine line between diagnosable mental illness and possession. In fact, it seems very, very fine. In fact--I'm still not sure where the line is drawn, except that priests predictably suspect demonic influence when the patient reacts violently against prayer, religious icons, etc. On the other hand, exorcists will tell you that the people who come to them claiming to be possessed hardly ever are; the truly demon-haunted usually have no idea.
  • And yup, demons (at least the ones afflicting Italian Catholics) don't like Jesus, they don't like the mention of saints and popes, and above all they don't like Mary. Baglio himself had a possible Mary encounter; he talks about this and how researching exorcism renewed his Catholic faith in a Beliefnet interview with Tha Crunchy Con. The Rosary is presented here as a spiritual H-bomb, and I can add from my own experience that, although (thankfully) I have not had to use it for counter-demonic purposes, devoting oneself to the Rosary has a weird power whether or not you believe.
Baglio, in fact, cites research that shows that rituals like exorcism tend to have a positive effect on people, independent of belief. It takes him forever to get around to citing what I consider credible sources, but on the other hand at least he does delve into this material, and he pointed me in a couple of interesting directions:
  • psychologist Michael Hyland's work on "motivational concordance," the observation that therapies work better when they fit with patients' ideals of self-actualization, religious or non-religious.
  • psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz's work in treating OCD via relabeling, reattribution, refocusing, and revaluing (very reminiscent of John Lilly's metaprogramming).
  • theologian John Haught's idea of the "layered explanation" (example here).
The latter is Haught's way of blasting out of the phony natural/supernatural dichotomy that is the bane of us all. Haught is, unsurprisingly, rehashing Aristotle's four causes, but ponder 'pon it: public conversation on religion has degenerated to the point that a moldy Greek pedagogue is a breath of fresh air... fundamentalism and positivism have supplanted actual thought to the point that old Ari seems positively nuanced.

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Synchronicity I.5: Sophia got home. We went to Wal-Mart, as we are wont. Cashier was joking about being oppressed by demonic forces. (Then again, this is East Podunk, so whattaya expect?)

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On the other hand, I was disappointed that Baglio let priests and cops convince him that Italy is rife with Satanic cults -- the whole underground-hideouts and infiltrating-high-political-offices kind of thing that was debunked years ago in the States. It could be true in Italy, but such enormous allegations require evidence and all Baglio offers is vague testimony by people with something to gain. A big question, "What are demons?" is answered with the standard Christian mash-up of Revelation 12 with Isaiah 14 (Lucifer and his bad angels cast down from heaven) ... which I'm sure would come as big news to Isaiah himself, who was talking about Nebuchadnezzar and who couldn't really have used the word "Lucifer" since Latin didn't exist yet. If you ask yourself why there are reports of demons that long pre-date the Old Testament and the existence of the Hebrew tribes, or for that matter why demons aren't mentioned in the Old Testament at all, or why the older Greek concept of the daimon is much more ambiguous than the white/black Christian version, or why in fact most cultures' tales of the spirit realm are richer and more ambiguous than the rather downsized Christian mythos... then you are placing yourself outside the borders of respectable, Catholic belief-- naughty, naughty you-- and this book will in some sense let you down.

Baglio doesn't go far beyond the "fallen angel" model of demonology. Another, more empirically-based model has it that the possessed are enacting their frustrations, 'airing their grievances,' if you will, in a socially acceptable way. Those susceptible to possession tend to be those at the most disadvantage in a given society, and the theory goes that by dramatically acting out their society's discourse of the sacred these people are rewarded with positive attention and possibly in other ways as well: prestige, charity, starring in narratives of redemtion, etc. This model has been kicking around for decades; I remember hearing it in college in the 1980s, which means my profs probably learned it in grad school in the 196os... which means it was probably au courant in say, the 1940s... but in terms of sheer parsimony this social gospel of possession deserves some props, and Baglio doesn't mention it at all.

Not that Baglio means to construct an all-purpose, cross-cultural account of possession. I can't fault him for not doing what he didn't set out to do, and this book is a thoughtful introduction to a fascinating and highly elaborated spiritual technology, one that ironically is suspect even on its home ground. The funniest moment in the book comes when Fr. Gary's bishop, the one who sent him to Rome for exorcist training in the first place, is talking with him about his experiences and is stunned to hear that Fr. Gary has "actually seen an exorcism"! (By this point he'd attended 60 of them.) It won't please the spirit-skeptics that the Church is so conservative about exorcism, because of course for some people Christians will only gain respect when they publicly announce that God doesn't exist--except they tried that a while back and it didn't make much of a difference...

All of the above begs the question, "Are there such things as demons?" Sure there are, just like there's Truth, just like there's Intelligence, just like there's Will and Beauty and nightmares utterly real-- and a universe of other realities spawned by the folding of physical reality with culture, perception, belief, emotion, and the subconscious, realities that inspire or goad people into all kinds of actions. But I think demons may even be more concrete than that. My Guardian Angel says so; her idea is that eddies of consciousness, begat by our intense emotional states, are always swirling into little dust devils of sentience, and that some of these last long enough to start looking at nearby humans as hosts, and that some wax fat on whatever limbic goodies they can scam and attain a separate existence-- kind of like memes, except still there with eyes open when you're dead asleep. Lon Milo DuQuette tells a harrowing exorcism story about this kind of entity in My Life with the Spirits, a book you need to buy and read right now.

I can add to both Baglio's and DuQuette's accounts that I have experienced entities, both purely loving and purely evil, that no amount of neuropsychology could convince me were figments of my imagination, which is why I'm drawn to books like The Rite. For me it's ironic, given the "reality" (in whatever dimensions) of these encounters, that Baglio tries to promote the Church using the experiences of a priest who's dedicated to fighting spiritual wickedness seemingly in spite of the Church's inertia and best intentions. But of course certain experiences exist on the margins, always, wildly at odds with the world we imagine we inhabit, with the selves we assume.

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Synchronicity II: Sophia hung out with her best friend today and received her Christmas present: artsy/creepy angel and devil salt and pepper shakers.

Have I Totally Lost My Critical Perspective?

Or does this guy sound really cool?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Thought from Stuart Kauffman

"Is it, then, more amazing to think that an Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God created everything around us, all that we participate in, in six days, or that it all arose with no transcendent Creator God, all on its own? I believe the latter is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do. This view of God can be a shared religious and spiritual space for us all."

-- Revinventing the Sacred

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Crackpot Theory of Everything, Part II

Or is it Part CCXX??? At any rate, I have been providing comic relief to Sophia (and to myself, I have to admit) by musing 'pon the question of whether the universe is conscious or not. The proposition of a conscious universe used to be a given for me, but I've steeped myself in so much materialist thought of late, purposely, that it now seems rather silly.

Mind you, the idea that the universe is conscious is central to my cherish'd spiritual path. I just don't know if I believe it.

Oh, the weight! On one shoulder Richard Dawkins jostles for position with PZ Myers, who is cheek-to-cheek with Rebecca Watson, who is looking over Jerry Coyne's shoulder as he texts Sam Harris. On my other shoulder stands my Angel, who argues quite persuasively for the resolution before the chamber and who sends me, just as I slip into cognitive overload, stuff like:

Henry Stapp: "Attention, Intention, and Will in Quantum Physics"

Dennis Bray: Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell

and this oldie but goodie from Tim Leary, who explicates Blake's tyger:

"...What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

The answer is DNA. And what enduring intelligence burning bright in the forests of the night-time sky designed DNA?

The genetic code is surely not an accidental adhesion of molecules. It is an instrumental message, an energy directive created by a meta-biological intelligence.

This intelligence is astrophysical and galactic in scope, pervasive, ubiquitous, but miniaturized in quanta structure. Just as the multi-billion year blueprint of biological evolution is packaged within the nucleus of every cell, so may the quantum-mechanical blueprint of astronomical evolution be found in the nucleus of the atom.

I'm not saying he's right, you understand... and
yes, he veers perilously close to creationism, but he's really saying the same thing the others are: a) consciousness is an emergent property of matter, and b) the same thing my Angel is saying--you have to expand your definition of "consciousness" beyond the folds of the brain and perhaps beyond living beings as we understand them. The harder I try to demolish this conscious universe idea, the harder it pushes back. It's pretty sad when you lose an argument to the voices in your head.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blogger #@&* Twitter *&^%#

I fixed it for now... but you might have seen that, due to some subspace anomaly, my Twitter feed on this page was tweeting other people's twits... sorry. It's a "known issue" for Google but they're taking their time doing anything other than knowing about it... but for now I don't have to migrate my blog to LiveDrama™ or somewhere... :)

"Twitter is boring," sez Molly...

thanks to Molly, btw, I spent part of this morning joyously singing Christian hymns in a Baptist church... not even kidding... why do they show videos in church now???? But I felt Her there... as enfolding love...