Lately I was reading a very interesting essay on “The Hermeneutics of the Use of Early Liturgical Practice for Modern Liturgical Reform” by the German scholar Basilius J. Groen. I enjoyed its many insights, but was particularly struck by one almost off-hand comment. Dr. Groen was commenting on the difficulty of simply borrowing liturgical practices wholesale from the early church and applying them to our own day as if nothing had changed. That is true enough, but what struck me was his choice of example. He wrote, “Whether modern Roman Catholic liturgical renewal is consistent with the liturgical practice in the early church is a very difficult question. As I said before, socio-cultural conditions almost two millennia ago were very different. One should think only of the tendency to perceive demonic activity everywhere. The most learned Greek church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, was convinced that Christians including himself were attacked and tricked by demons almost all the time and that, therefore, a continuous warfare was required.” He goes on to adduce as a further example the advice given by Pope Gregory that Great that people should make the sign of the Cross over lettuce before eating it, lest a demon sitting on one of its leaves should cause damage. One can almost hear Dr. Groen snickering at the superstitious and primitive credulity of the ancients.
In this Dr. Groen is not alone, and I quote him not to single him out in particular, but because he offers such a fine example of the modern contempt for a belief in the demonic. This belief he ascribes apparently to different “socio-cultural conditions”, which appears to be a polite way of saying that they were too primitive to know better. If asked to defend the two Gregory’s no doubt he would charitably suggest that despite their gifts they were men of their time, subject to all the prejudices and illusions of their prevailing culture.
Which may be true, but it nicely avoids the obvious retort that of course Dr. Groen is also a man of his time, subject to all the prejudices and illusions of his prevailing culture—a culture which denies the existence of the supernatural in general and the demonic in particular. And let’s be clear upon what our secular culture bases its denial of the existence of the demonic—namely, upon mere dogmatic prejudice and untested ideology. That is, everyone around us in the secular West says demons don’t exist and so, well, they don’t exist. Evidence to the contrary, whether the testimony of Scripture, the witness of the Fathers and the Saints, or the all-but universal experience of pretty much every culture ever recorded, simply count for nothing. We assume without proof that they were all primitive and gullible and that we are much smarter. It is true that we have built better machines than those who came before us, and lots of them. It is less clear that this technological superiority has any bearing upon our ability to know the truth about the supernatural world, especially since that world is not susceptible of being detected or measured by our machines. And our history offers no other evidence that we are wiser than our ancestors. If anything, the evidence suggests we are worse off. Our last century, for example, has seen more genocide, atrocity, and bloodshed than previous centuries put together. When today we are not using our machines to access pornography, send useless texts to our friends, or pick fights with strangers on Facebook, we often use our technology to kill one another. Whatever can be said about the different “socio-cultural conditions” of our ancestors, it seems that as least they practised less genocide than we do.
Here then is the great gap between the Church Fathers, such as St. Gregory Nazianzus, and that of our secular culture—they accepted without question that demons existed and that Christians had to fight against them, and our modern society rejects this absolutely. Note: we have not disproved it, and cannot offer the slightest bit of evidence that demons do not exist. We simply regard the notion as too implausible to require refutation. This gap is a very wide, deep, and important one, for it divides those confessing Christ into two very different groups. Those accepting the threat of the demonic will have a much different form of spirituality than those who deny it, in the same sort of way as those who accept the threat from germs will have a much different form of hygiene than those who deny it. And like those who deny the threat of germs and refuse to take precautions against possible damage, those who deny the threat from demons may also suffer damage. Certainly if one looks around in our culture to find evidence of such damage—things like violence, addiction, and sexual chaos—one does not have far to look.
This gap is all the more important because no one is talking about it. Scholars write tons of stuff on almost every conceivable topic, and get into all sorts of heated debates with other scholars. (The volume in which Dr. Groen’s essay was found also had essays outlining hot scholarly debates on the origin of the forty-day Lent and whether or not the Last Supper was a form of Jewish seder.) But no one debates the existence of the demonic, even though it has immediate and practical repercussions for the faithful—far more repercussions in fact than whether or not our present pre-Paschal Lent began in Egypt as a forty-day fast after feast of Epiphany, or whether or not the Last Supper was a seder. The issue is simply not an issue, and therefore the gap between those aligning themselves with Scripture and the Fathers and those rejecting their view is unbridgeable.
For me the perplexing thing about the gap is not that it exists—secularists will be secular, after all, and most people are too busy living life to spend much time questioning the underlying presuppositions of their culture. For me the perplexing thing is how Christians could come to deny the existence of the demonic. It is one thing to dismiss “the most learned Greek church father, Gregory of Nazianzus” (and with him, every other Church Father and saint in the Christian Church). It is quite another to dismiss Jesus Christ. He clearly believed in the existence of demons, and not only because He spent so much of His time performing exorcisms. More than that, He described His entire ministry in terms of exorcism: “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow and the third day I finish My course” (Luke 13:32). Was the Son of God merely a man of His time too, one imprisoned by the categories and assumptions of His socio-cultural conditions? Never mind that St. Paul defined the Christian life as “not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of evil in the heavenlies” (Ephesians 6:12)—the view that such spiritual armies of evil were arrayed against us goes back ultimately to Christ Himself. We may quibble about whether or not we should be concerned about every head of lettuce we eat. But there should no doubt for those who claim to follow Christ that “continuous warfare” with the demons is indeed required.