Monday, July 15, 2013

Demonic Possession and Theories of Personality (Mark 5:1-15): Introduction

1. Olympian worldview and biblical point of view
We live in an intensely Olympian society and culture. Because of this, we all grow up with an intensely Olympian personality with its comprehensively Olympian way of thinking. As we experience each moment of the day, we habitually interpret its meaning in a typically Olympian way. Furthermore, our intensely Olympian society rewards us in big but mostly little ways for doing so. It also punishes us in little but sometimes big ways if we don’t.

This applies to our reading of the Bible. We bring our habitual Olympian ways of thinking, our whole Olympian worldview, to it.

The Bible, however, witnesses to Jesus Christ and his very different way of thinking. If we stick to our Olympian worldview while reading the Bible, this will have curious consequences. We will read passages that we can’t understand, or that contradict what we know, or that, worst of all, challenge the meaning of our whole Olympian personality, culture, and society.

We risk this last kind of challenge whenever we allow Jesus to question our very Olympian ways through the biblical passage we are reading.

There are many different theories of personality. The theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were popular for a time. Their concepts, like the unconscious or introversion, are still used. Today even seminary professors make use of the Jungian-based Myers-Briggs identification of personality types. We can interpret biblical passages in terms of such psychological theories. Or we can allow Jesus to question them through those same biblical passages.

2. Biblical story: Jesus liberates a demoniac

They [Jesus and his disciples] came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke to pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he [Jesus] had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and was drowned in the sea.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid (Mark 5:1-15, New Revised Standard Version).

Today’s biblical passage from Mark concerns a man in whom a large number of demons (“unclean spirits”) dwell. Our Olympian theories of personality, whether Freudian, Jungian, or Myers-Briggsian, don’t speak explicitly in terms of God and Satan, angels and demons, or Christian and Olympian personalities. Consequently if we stick with them, we will be tempted to ignore today’s passage or to interpret it in a metaphorical rather than a literal way.

Let us, however, see if we can allow Jesus to question our understanding of God and Satan, angels and demons, and Christian and Olympian personalities through this passage. Let us see if we can begin to develop an understanding of reality that is consistent with a literal understanding of this passage.

If we are able to do this, we will affirm that the Bible is our normative witness to the one true god of freedom. We will affirm our understanding of the Bible as the standard by which we measure the truth of our understanding of reality and the words we use to express that understanding.

Any understanding of reality which we develop on the basis of this or any passage must ultimately be consistent with the whole biblical witness to Jesus Christ. When we affirm with Jesus that he is the Son of Man, we agree with him that he was and remains the one perfect, representative, truly human being. We affirm that he was and is what we will someday be with his gracious help.

Every human being has two personalities: an Olympian one and a Christian one. We ourselves and others define our personality in terms of our habitual responses to circumstances. Each personality, Olympian and Christian, is the sum of its habits.

3. The development of habits and personality
Habits follow certain set stages of development. This process of development applies to the formation of any habit whether Olympian or Christian.

The first stage in the development of a habit is that of initiation. Each habit starts with a suggestion followed by a single act and then a series of initial acts.

From a biblical point of view, an evil suggestion is a temptation. A single act affirming it, whether in thought, word, or deed, is a sin.

Jesus didn’t have an Olympian personality. In the age to come, when we are like him, we won’t either. He never developed the Olympian habits needed to form an Olympian personality because he never affirmed an evil suggestion. Satan, his enemy and ours, tempted him but he never affirmed Satan’s evil suggestions. He never made them a part of his personality.

The second stage in the development of a habit is that of inclination. Continuing a series of initial acts inclines us to act that same way almost without thinking.

This inclination to act in a certain way leads to habituation or the formation of a fully developed habit. When a way of acting reaches this stage, we no longer think about how to act but simply respond to circumstances in the same useful and increasingly skilled way.

We mentioned that temptation is an evil suggestion and that the affirmation of it is a sin. Thomas Aquinas defined the habitual affirmation of evil suggestions, or the habit of sinning in a particular way, as vice. In contrast, he defined virtue as the habit of acting in a good way.

The fourth stage in the development of a habit is mastery. This is the development of a habit with great depth. Such depth allows us to act spontaneously, to improvise, in a skillful way. Such habits are also so deep that we cannot easily rid ourselves of them even if we want to.

The final stage in the development of a habit is identification. This is when our habitual way of acting has increased in significance to the point that it is strongly integrated into the other major habits which form our personality. To rid ourselves of the habit, we must radically alter our personality.

4. Consequences of developing Olympian habits: addictions and possession
If we increase the variety and strength of our Olympian habits and personality, then we increase the clarity of our witness to the six Olympian gods of politics, war, technology, sex, money, and consumption. If we increase the variety and strength of our Christian habits and personality, then we witness better to the truth, freedom, love, and vitality of Jesus Christ.

Increasing the variety and strength of our Olympian habits and personality, however, has destructive consequences. It is always destructive to our relationships with Jesus, other human beings, and the rest of creation. It is also destructive to the integrity and vitality of our own Christian personality.

We mentioned earlier that the fourth stage in the development of a habit is mastery. A habit developed to such a level allows us to skillfully improvise. Such a habit, however, is also so deep we cannot will an end to it.

Usually we don’t want to. Sometimes we do but can’t. When we can’t, such habits are called addictions. Olympian habits developed this deeply tie us to the gods in increasingly inescapable ways. An addiction to sexual stimulation inescapably ties us to Venus goddess of sex; to food or alcohol or drugs, to Bacchus god of consumption; to gambling (whether with cards or derivatives), to Pluto god of money; to politics, to Jupiter god of politics; to television, video games, or texting, to Vulcan god of technology; to physical violence and destruction, to Mars.

We are possessed by one or more of the gods when we have developed one or more Olympian habits so completely that we identify with them. One expression of our devotion to the gods is delirium: emotional intensity and stubborn irrationality. As our Olympian habits deepen, this delirium grows. When our Olympian habits reach this fifth stage of identification, we may either wholly justify the destruction of others or wholly self-destruct.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.