Two things to note before I kick off.
Firstly, I’ve long admired and enjoyed Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s writing and spiritual insights, and will no doubt continue to do so.
Secondly, let us set out with the assumption that we do believe in the reality of demon possession.
In the face of such senseless evil and armed with the persuasion that demonic possession is a reality; this is an entirely legitimate line of reasoning.
Longenecker explores the complexity of possession and highlights three ‘levels’ of demonic integration with the person.
The third ‘level’ appears to be akin to a demonic hijack of the personality itself and of the ‘rational faculties’. Given this, my main contention with the ‘demonic possession’ theory would be the degree of culpability. How much blame and responsibility can be attributed to the man, and how much to the demon? We don’t tend to observe criticism of the man from Gadarenes, ‘Legion’; in fact, quite the opposite, he’s viewed with sympathy as an unfortunate victim.
That aside, my issues with Longenecker’s article go deeper. A hint of the problems to come begin here:
The human person is an intricate organism in which the physical, mental and spiritual aspects are totally interwoven. Therefore, in most cases, trying to diagnose the possibility of demonic influence is extremely difficult.
The use of the term ‘diagnose’ is interesting as this would usually have medical connotations, and I suspect Longenecker has this in the back of his mind; especially in relation to mental illness. He continues further on:
The obsession with evil will probably have an addictive element. The personality begins to change. The individual may seem “normal” most of the time, but he’ll have “dark moments” when his “inner demons” take over. The difficulty in diagnosing demonic influence is that these same symptoms may indicate substance abuse problems, mental illness, social maladjustment, emotional inadequacy, relationship problems or a complex web of such difficulties. Demonic influence will cause these symptoms, but these symptoms are not necessarily a sign of demonic activity.
Did you catch that? Let me elaborate.
Here we have the paragraph start with “The obsession with evil” and then move to an explanation of the difficulties of ‘diagnosing’ possession; as this same symptom may indicate mental illness, or even emotional inadequacy.
This, to me, is a blatant conflation of evil with mental ilness, or personality disorder.
In case you think I’m being over-sensitive, let me further illustrate this evil / mental illness conflation thinking:
When the signs of preternatural strength are seen, horrible alien voices come from the person, vile blasphemies are heard and perverted and violent actions are witnessed, one can be fairly sure that a demonic infestation is happening. However, many of these symptoms may also be signs of a deep mental or spiritual illness which is not demonic in origin.
So, preternatural strength, horrible alien voices and vile blasphemies may be symptoms of mental illness? Well, would they not be signs of demon possession rather than mental illness? And why would someone suffering from mental illness have supernatural strength? I’ve never read of such a thing.
Yes. Something happened to the mild mannered science geek. He turned into a monster. Something twisted in his mind and heart, and Evil made an entry. Evil infested his life. It took him over. Whether the twist was through mental illness, some inner wound or some terrible dark intelligence, we cannot say.
Again, we see the monster portrayed, fully beset and overwhelmed with evil, and what may have been one of the causes? Yep, I think you’ve already guessed….mental illness.
Feel free to believe in demonology, or not. Hey, feel free to believe in mental illness, or not. But if you believe in them both, PLEASE STOP conflating the two.
Mental illness DOES NOT equate evil.
The mentally ill may well perpetrate acts of violence and evil, as may any member of society.
I’m mentally ill and know many others that are; however, I don’t see any more, or any less, predisposition to evil than in those not afflicted with mentally illness.
Longenecker is not alone in this type of thinking; in fact, within the Christian community it is sadly all too common.
This thinking further ‘demonises’ the mentally ill, perpetuating stigma and shame, in the very community where we should feel safest.
We’re not necessarily any more evil than you!