On Supernatural Evil
This blog entry appeared once upon a time on my old blog at Angelico Press.
"Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." ~ 1 John 5:21
Much of my scholarly work has been invested in a retrieval or at least recognition of the supernatural in a positive sense. Indeed, Sophiology is a philosophical/theological discourse interested in the disclosure of the Glory of God in nature, the arts, liturgy, and the sciences (among other things). But not all of my work on the supernatural has been concerned with such an optimistic and beautiful milieu of Creation. Not every encounter with the spiritual is tinged by grace.
In Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, for example, alongside John Donne, Sir Kenelm Digby, Thomas and Henry Vaughan, and Jane Lead—all concerned in one way or another with an experience of God marked by truth, beauty, and goodness—I explored the career of the Elizabethan magus and polymath (his was a multifarious genius) John Dee and the “Actions” (conversations) he had with spirits and took to be from God. In the chapter entitled “John Dee: Religious Experience and the Technology of Idolatry,” I argue that Dee, an occasional counselor to Elizabeth I, deluded himself into thinking the spirits with which he and his assistant, Edward Kelley, discoursed were of divine origin (they clearly were not) and that, even though he was in his essence a very good and pious man (if a little vain), he let himself be talked into the danger of mortal sin.
The sin in question was adultery. But not just any adultery. The primary spirit, identified as Madimi, in fact, ordered Dee and Kelley to swap wives. As I write in the chapter:
On 17 April 1587, a series of very bizarre Actions began which encouraged Dee to think he and Kelley were “above the law.” That day, Kelley reported, “I saw Madimi, Il, and many other that had dealed with us heretofore, but shewed themselves in very filthy order; and Uriel appeared, and justified all to be of God, and good.” In the crystal, Kelley saw a globe covered all over with writing. One message read, “Souls joined toward the better.” The session ended with a shocking pronouncement: “All sins before me in this are disregarded: having been made mad for my sake, he is wise: on the contrary, committing adultery on my account, he is blessed in eternity and he will be touched by a heavenly reward.” The injunction must have caused Dee and Kelley no little amount of anxiety.
The spirits appeared the next day en force, as Kelley reported: “There appeared Madimi, Il, and the rest.” The majority of the spirits, however, straightaway vanished, leaving Madimi alone. She at this point exhibited some uncharacteristic behavior. According to Kelley, “she openeth all her apparel, and her self all naked; and sheweth her shame also” which was definitely outside the norm, even for the Actions. The vision unsettled Kelley and a fascinating exchange between the physical and spiritual participants of the dialogue ensued:
E.K. Fie on thee, Devil avoid hence with this filthiness, &c. Mad. In the name of God, why finde you fault with me? ∆. [ Dee identified himself by the Greek letter delta] Because of yesterdayes doings, and words are provocations to sin, and unmeet for any godly creature to use. Mad. What is sin? ∆. To break the Commandment of God. Mad. If the self-same God give you a new Commandment taking away the former form of sin which he limited by the Law, What remaineth then? ∆. If by the self-same God that gave the Law to Moses, and gave his New Covenant by Christ, who sealed it by his blood; and had witnesses very many, and his Apostles instructed by his holy Spirit, who admonished us of all cleanness in words and works, yea and in thoughts, if by the same God, whose former Laws and Doctrines be abrogated, and that sufficient proof and testimony may be had that it is the same God: Then must the same God be obeyed: For only God is the Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and Governour of all things.
Dee knew he was walking into tricky theological as well as legal territory, and we can see by his response to Madimi’s question that he knew he had to be completely clear about what was at issue. Madimi capitalized on his anxieties and avouched for the trustworthiness of her message: “The Apostle Paul abounded in carnal lust: he was also offensive unto his brethren so that he despaired, and was ready to have left his vocation, untill the Lord did say unto him, My mercy and grace sufficeth thee. Beleeve me, that we are from above.” Madimi was right, Dee would have agreed, God’s mercy should be enough (2 Corinthians 12: 9). Paul had transgressed the law in order to maintain the intergrity of his vocation, and Madimi commanded Dee to do the same:
Behold you are become free: Do that which most pleaseth you: For behold, your own reason riseth up against my wisdome. Not content you are to be heires, but you would be Lords, yea Gods, yea Judgers of the heavens: Wherefore do even as you list, but if you forsake the way taught you from above, behold evil shall enterprise your senses, and abominations shal dwel before your eyes, as a recompence, unto such as you have done wrong unto: And your wives and children, shall be carried away before your face.
This was rather a threat.
Even though Dee knew what the spirits were asking was against God’s mandates—he articulated as much—he nevertheless went along with the spirits’ demands, compromised as he was by the pride and promise of being God’s new messenger.
Most of us don’t compromise our principals as a result of direct communication from spirits. We have our culture for that. But that’s not to say that we aren’t led into these compromises by more indirect spiritual means.
Indeed, it doesn’t appear to me that we are appropriately aware of the presences of spiritual evil around us. The medieval period and Renaissance had precise taxonomies of the demonic realms: we have, in general, psychologizing or a sort of bland, generic affirmation that diabolical entities are “out there” somewhere. The cartoonish antics of SNL’s “The Church Lady” and The Temple of Satan aside, I think it’s almost as important to be cognizant of supernatural evil as it is to be aware of the sophianic glory that also abides in Creation.
I have found Rudolf Steiner’s conception of Lucifer and Ahriman very useful in diagnosing our own struggles with the Spirit of the Age. Though I disagree with Steiner on certain aspects of his Christology and the persistence of Blavatskian theosophy in his, especially earlier, work, I think he’s on to something with Lucifer and Ahriman.
For Steiner, Lucifer is the principle (or spiritual being) that tempts us with promises of “freedom,” the desire for self-expression, individualization, and an absolute creativity. Ahriman, on the other hand, is the principle (or spiritual being) that promises order and a kind of technological and corporatized efficiency that enslaves us to the subhuman, turns us effectively into machines. Between these two polarities, Steiner points to Christ as that principle which guides us through the perils of the promises made by Lucifer and Ahriman and helps us abide in the real.
When I look at our own culture, I can’t help but think that Lucifer (however one wants to understand the term) tempts us to a freedom of expression and selfhood that inevitably delivers us to Ahriman. That is, in order to “become who we really are” (or so we think) we turn to technology and scientific/medical interventions which enslave us to a lifetime of injections, prescriptions, surgeries, and technologies that inure us from the Real that inheres Creation. This is most obvious in some of the diabolical interventions foisted upon certain children in the name of freedom, but it also acts in subtle ways upon all of us.
Even though demonic possession as often depicted in film (The Exorcist, The Rite, Deliver Us from Evil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is certainly a reality, in general, the fallen angels work in much more invisible ways to lead us away from reality and, therefore, from Christ. It’s easier that way. I know this from experience. But, as St. John tells us, “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
A traditional protection against evil:
Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: and let them that hate him flee from before his face. As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. (Psalm 67:2-3)