Ever since I accidentally discovered it, I’ve been a bit fascinated by the way the Greek terms for “feeling compassion” and “possessed by a demon” in the New Testament are structurally analogous. The word splagkhnidzomai roughly translates as “motions of the spleen” (or innards); it’s a visceral euphemism for being moved with compassion. The word daimonidzomai roughly translates as “motions of the demon” and refers to being under the influence of a demon. But I digress . . . a bit.
Carl Jung once said (something like), “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.” And he’s absolutely right about that! We’re all under the sway of thought structures that are greater than the self-deluded autonomy we think our minds possess.
Liturgical theologians have observed for quite a while that humans aren’t Homo sapiens (man of wisdom) nearly so much as we’re Homo adorens (man of worship). And cultural anthropology tends to concur. Humans are inescapably religious creatures. We’re built with a mental structure for worship and religious processing of transcendent meaning.
And even if we (think we can) blow out or otherwise drop the metaphysical structures and theology that undergird our mental functioning so that we can have a framework of freestanding morality and meaning, we deceive ourselves. Humans aren’t built that way. Wipe out a time-tested fully functioning religion from the mind of a man, and a new ideology will rise and take its place. People don’t have ideas; ideas have people. If we functionally destroy the old God, we’ll construct a new and untested god to take his place. Ideologies have been described as the crippled parasites of religion. And I think that’s exactly right.
So, phenomenologically speaking, what does demonic possession look like? Well, one of its forms is that of a person who’s enslaved to a parasitic ideology. Think of any and every extremist radical you’ve ever seen. You’re looking at someone who’s functionally demonically possessed/oppressed. You’re witnessing the motions of the demon.
It’s no accident that the biblical concept of spiritual warfare is at the crossroads of our worship, our conduct in life, and our manner of thinking:
Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.
2 Corinthians 10:3-6
Thanks to Peter Leithart and Jordan Peterson for their contributions to the formation of my thinking about these things.