There’s a funny comic I saw around Christmastime of baby Jesus in the manager surrounded by animals. All the animals say something nice they wanna do for baby Jesus. The camel says I will bear him gifts. The lamb says I will warm him. The cow says I will give him drink. The donkey says I will carry him. The dove says I will bless his baptism. The pig says I’ll let him fill me demons and jump off a cliff! The animals look at the pig bewildered and say Wait What?!? The pig wasn’t wrong though, just look at this Gospel story.
It's the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. One of the most vivid reports of demon possession in the Bible. There’s a lot of background and meaning to this story. For starters, it’s Jesus’ first time in Gentile territory in the Gospel of Luke. And he encounters this man who is an outcast. His own neighbors are so afraid of him that they chain him up to protect themselves, but he breaks free and lives among the tombs. The man’s torment is multiplied by a society that doesn’t know what to do with him. Another factor many Bible scholars point out is that the name the demons tell Jesus “Legion” is a reference to the largest military unit of the Roman army, which may be a literal or symbolic demonstration of the demonic power of the Roman occupying force. Then there’s the pigs. Pigs were unclean in Jewish culture, but because they’re in Gentile territory so there’s pigs which apparently were easy for the demons to enter into. And then of course there’s the major lesson of the story that an encounter with Jesus Christ is a healing and transformative experience, for the man and for us.
So there’s a lot going on here. But at the center is the topic of demon possession. It’s part of scripture that makes many liberal Protestants squirm a bit. Ancient peoples were comfortable thinking in terms of spirit entities and demon possession. But modern, rational Christians—especially mainline Protestants from Western cultures—typically are not so comfortable. The modern world generally sees demon possession as nothing but a primitive understanding of mental illness. Many Christians prefer to interpret such stories in this light or perhaps see it metaphorically. Now those are fine and faithful interpretations, I’m not criticizing them. But as I reflected on this story this week, I felt scripture calling us modern, rational Christians to reflect on the possible reality of demon possession and spirit entities and not gloss over it as something ancient peoples misunderstood in a bygone era.
This topic can be a slippery slope, so it’s important to tread cautiously. There are in fact scholars in psychology and psychiatry, and other subfields of mental health, who suggest people with certain mental illnesses may actually be more attuned to certain things. Perhaps some are more spiritually sensitive to unseen forces. This can be a gift, but it can also make them more vulnerable.
Throughout the centuries, many Christian mystics recorded their experiences of battling demons in visions and having transformative spiritual experiences. St. Anthony of Egypt, often considered the father of monasticism, was a hermit in the desert in the third and fourth century. During prayer and meditation he had visions of demons tempting him with money, sex, and fame to leave the spiritual life and return to the affluent lifestyle he had in the city. Up to that time the desert was understood to be a place where demons dwelled (remember it’s where Jesus encountered Satan). But after St. Anthony, many contemplative men and women journeyed to the desert to encounter demons and grow spiritually themselves.
So whether demons were literal beings or the product of the human mind battling itself, mystics willingly encountered them in order to progress on the spiritual journey. To paraphrase the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: Once you've made your peace, then you see the devils you thought were tearing you apart are really angels setting you free.
In a similar way, some 20th century leaders in psychology described their personal accounts of what might appear to be mental illness, but what they understood to be intense spiritual experiences. The famous psychologist Carl Jung recorded many dreams, visions, and mystical experiences in a collection now called The Red Book. He chose not to publish it during his lifetime. It wasn’t until 2009 long after his death that many of his experiences were made public. One author commented on Jung saying, “Through his experiences of divine madness in his encounters with the ‘spirit of the depths,’ Jung felt he had been able to glimpse the nature of ultimate reality.”
Another example is early 20th century minister and chaplain Anton Boisen, who was one of the founders of Clinical Pastoral Education, the training program for modern hospital chaplaincy. He wrote a book called Out of the Depths which explored his own experience of psychosis and how he believed it to be a spiritually transformative experience, a way that his mind unloaded trauma and psychological distress.
A similar perspective sees those who experience symptoms of mental illness as spiritually gifted individuals. But individuals who are often confused and frightened by a bombardment of unseen forces amidst a society that does not acknowledge such realities. Decades ago, author and social commentator Terence Mckenna said:
In a traditional society, if you exhibited ‘schizophrenic’ tendencies, you are immediately drawn out of the pack and put under the care and tutelage of master shamans. You are told, “You are special. Your abilities are very central to the health of our society. You will cure. You will prophesy. You will guide our society in its most fundamental decisions”. Contrast this with what a person exhibiting schizophrenic activity in our society is told. They’re told, “You don’t fit in. You are becoming a problem. You don’t pull your own weight. You are not of equal worth to the rest of us. You are sick. You have to go to the hospital”…This would never happen in an aboriginal or traditional society.”
Mckenna’s admonition to Western society is echoed by stories from shamanic healer Dr. Malidoma Somé. Dr. Somé was a healer from the African nation of Burkina Faso. After being trained in the tradition of his ancestors, he came to the United States and earned three master’s degrees and two doctorates. In his culture people who demonstrate what we might call psychotic or schizophrenic symptoms are seen as spiritually sensitive people with the potential to become healers and spiritual leaders.
Dr. Some recalled the first time he entered a psych ward in a Western hospital. He was shocked by how the Western medical model treated those his culture might deem their most spiritually gifted individuals. He said he sensed spirits hovering around the people, but without the tutelage of a shaman to guide them, these people were frightened and confused by such spiritual bombardment.
Before he died last year, Dr. Some would lead many retreats and workshops and helped people toward healing. He challenged the Western model of mental illness to recognize the wisdom of traditional cultures. He also appreciated many advances in Western medicine, and sought to integrate the knowledge of traditional healers with the knowledge of Western medicine. He wrote several books, including The Healing Wisdom of Africa. Others have written similar books on the topic like evolutionary psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Polimeni in his book Shamans Among Us.
This area of research suggests that there’s something real out there these people are sensing. And learning how to handle their spiritual sensitivity is the way to healing rather than suppressing their symptoms. There are many other stories I could share about the topic of spirituality and mental illness. I wrote a research paper on it in seminary and if you’re interested you can grab a copy on your way out, along with resources for further reading.
Now this all may sound a little out there. And I’m not saying we have to have the same perspective Dr. Some has. But I am saying that we live in a mysteriously complex universe. There’s a lot going on. And there’s a lot we don’t understand. And I think church should be a place to wonder about challenging questions where we explore the great mysteries of the universe, rather than be a place of easy answers. There’s a lot of unknown mysteries in this universe. Reality is complicated and mysterious. There aren’t simple, easy answers to such mysteries. And humbly engaging with the unknown is important for people of faith. Humble engagement with mystery promotes personal healing, spiritual growth, and I believe is key to the wellbeing and evolution of society.
Now, the fact that there’s a lot we don’t understand about spirit entities and the mysteries of life shouldn’t frighten us as much as make us curious. We Christians should wonder about spiritual realities and seek to grow in wisdom and divine connection. And we can do this with confidence, because there’s one thing we Christians know for sure: that Jesus Christ is our protection and our guide as we journey through this life and into the next.
Jesus healed the Gerasene demoniac and had full control over whatever spiritual forces were at play. An encounter with Jesus Christ was a life-changing, transformative experience for this man. And we know that an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ is life-changing and transformative for us.
So while the uncertainties of life may be challenging and at times even frightening, we put our trust in Christ and we follow the Holy Spirit’s direction on our journey. We know that no matter what we encounter, God will guide our life. We know that no matter how lost we may feel, God is by our side. We know that no matter what happens, nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are in the care of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who is leading us through life and shining the divine image through us. Calling us to grow in love and to bear good fruit that manifests the Kingdom of God in our world. Thanks be to God for the peace and comfort we have in the midst of chaos and confusion—and for blessing us with a faith and a community to ground us as we explore life’s mysteries and experience life’s challenges. Like the man Jesus healed in Gerasene, we too have been transformed by Jesus Christ and given new life in him. Amen.
Pastor Brian - 6/20/2022
2 MacKenna, Christopher. "Ch. 3: Jung's Divine Madness." Insanity and Divinity. Ed. John Gale, Michael Robson, and Georgia Rapsomatioti. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. Pg. 53. Print.
3 "Terence McKenna - "The Importance of Human Beings" Matrix Masters, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http://www.matrixmasters.net/podcasts/TRANSCRIPTS/TMcK-ImportanceHumanBeings.html>.