Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
November 29th, 2018 by Joel Watts

Gripping sadness

There are two recent articles grabbing my attention, both as a training mental health clinician and a trained theologian. The first in The Atlantic, with a remarkable scientific and supernatural focus:

After listening to the priests and poring over news articles, I started to wonder whether the two trends—belief in the occult and the rising demand for Catholic exorcisms—might have the same underlying cause. So many modern social ills feel dark and menacing and beyond human control: the opioid epidemic, the permanent loss of blue-collar jobs, blighted communities that breed alienation and dread. Maybe these crises have led people to believe that other, more preternatural, forces are at work.

But when I floated this theory with historians of religion, they offered different explanations. A few mentioned Pope Francis’s influence, as well as that of Pope John Paul II, who brought renewed attention to the exorcism rite when he had it updated in 1998. But more described how, during periods when the influence of organized religions ebbs, people seek spiritual fulfillment through the occult. “As people’s participation in orthodox Christianity declines,” said Carlos Eire, a historian at Yale specializing in the early modern period, “there’s always been a surge in interest in the occult and the demonic.” He said that today we’re seeing a “hunger for contact with the supernatural.”

In all honesty, these two opinions aren’t that far afield and I believe are deeply connected. First, we see the same sort of pattern develop in historical societies as public institutions start to wane in their influence. I think of Rome as the Republic gave way to Empire and as the Julio-Claudians gave way to the Civil War. Moral decadence, tales of ghosts, or emperors returning from the dead and so on.

The second is very akin to the first. This is one is about the deaths due to drug abuse and suicide pushing life expectancy down in the US.

Suicides and drug overdoses pushed up U.S. deaths last year, and drove a continuing decline in how long Americans are expected to live.

Overall, there were more than 2.8 million U.S. deaths in 2017, or nearly 70,000 more than the previous year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. It was the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago.

Our society in in a state of change. I work with clients who have experienced such abuse and now experience abuse by a society leaving them out. Here are but two examples of people doing some deep thinking, even if that form of thinking requires what others consider deeply unscientific – exorcism.

Suicide, I grimly suspect, will reach the levels of ancient Rome, where it became a spectacle both in the arena and in the banquet halls.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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