The real battle: demons vs. sacraments

What does the battle between good and evil look like? Who or what evil entities are we supposed to fight against? When I was a young social justice activist, the Bible verse I pulled out for an answer to this question was Ephesians 6:12, where Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.” Instead of seeing the battle of good and evil in terms of concrete, identifiable adversaries on a battlefield, I figured our battle as Christians was against “the system” which victimized oppressors and oppressed alike. I used to get annoyed with “spiritualized” interpretations of this verse, in which normally charismatic Christians argued that Paul was talking about demons and evil spirits and not things like the stock market, the prison industrial complex, etc. However, I have since come to the conclusion that my charismatic friends had a deeper insight than I had appreciated.

It is important to name the powers and principalities as more than impersonal, accidental systems; they are actual beings who act and make decisions according to observable motives and goals that are not traceable to the individual agency of those who are swept into their orbit. The battle between good and evil is a battle between two world orders: the demonic and the sacramental. Which side we take is fundamentally a question of which order defines us, or put differently, whose body incorporates us.

People do evil insofar as they allow themselves to be incorporated into the bodies of demons; people do good insofar as they are incorporated into the body of Christ, which is the perfect, sacramental ordering of humanity around the God we were created to worship. In other words, evil is less about discrete, rational choices and more about the bodies by which we allow ourselves to be defined.

The Demonic

To understand the nature of the demonic, I want to start off by explaining how power creates collective subjectivities that we could consider actual beings. I was drawn to this insight by Michel Foucault’s description of power in the History of Sexuality: “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations.”[1]

In other words, power is not a possession that belongs to any one individual in greater or lesser portions, but rather an infinitely complex matrix of subtle pressures and influences within which human community exists. The reason that some people seem to “have” more power than others is because power coagulates into certain synergies and patterns, but these synergies never become the actual possession of individual people.

It is more accurate to describe a coagulated power synergy as an actual creature in whose body individual people are incorporated to produce “a series of aims and objectives [that do not] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject.”[2] These synergies of power not only develop their own motives that become detached from the motives of the individual subjects who create them, but they remake into their own image all whom they have incorporated.

Deploying Foucault’s understanding of power in a reading of Augustine’s teaching on idolatry in De Doctrina Christiana, I discovered a different way of thinking about demons. Augustine writes about idolatry that “all such superstitious arts… which have been instituted through a pestilential association of human beings with demons… are to be utterly repudiated and shunned by the Christian.”[3] He cites 1 Corinthians 10:19-20, in which Paul writes, “Not that an idol is anything, but because what they sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God; I do not wish you to become the associates of demons.”[4]

Though Augustine and Paul are talking about specific pagan sacrificial cults from a different millennium, I do not think it is inappropriate to consider their words through a Foucauldian lens. If demons are synergies of powers that draw us into their orbit, this is compatible with Augustine’s statement that demons “direct all their efforts to no other end than that of bolting and barring the way [back to God].”[5] I would simply add, using Foucault’s concept of power synergies, that we can create demons by practice superstitious arts in the service of an idol, whether this idol is a person, an ideology, or a symbol. Worshiping an idol creates a demon because worshipers are drawn into a synergy that redefines them and incorporates them into a new body. Worship need not signify any particular ritual or act of devotion, but simply giving the idol normative privilege over one’s life. The demonic is any ordering of our world that draws us away from the purpose for which we were created: to enjoy God in all things.[6]

The Sacramental

In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine lays out the framework for a way of living in the world that is centered around the enjoyment of God. Augustine describes the world as consisting in things and signs, the only difference being that signs are “those things… which are used in order to signify something else.”[7] Augustine describes two possible encounters that we can have with things: use and enjoyment. Use describes how we treat something that is a means to acquiring another end; enjoyment describes how we treat something or someone who is the end we are seeking. [8]

Augustine argues that temporal things cannot be truly enjoyed, because they are quickly exhausted; only eternal things can be truly enjoyed even if we enjoy them through the use of temporal things. [9] As an example, an ice cream cone eaten in isolation has a much more fleeting enjoyment than an ice cream cone eaten in fellowship with a good friend whose relationship has been instrumental to one’s journey of knowing God. Augustine says that ultimately God is the only eternal thing, because all other things are contingent upon His creation.

Thus, our lives should be ordered by the enjoyment of God in all other things. We can best enjoy ice cream cones if we eat them as part of a continual experience of God’s abundant love for us. To return to Augustine’s distinction between signs and things, ice cream cones and every other piece of created matter are ultimately signs that declare the goodness of their Creator, the universe’s only eternal thing. This understanding of the world is what I would define as sacramental existence.M

My understanding of sacrament has been influenced heavily by Hans Boersma’s recent book Heavenly Participation. I am not talking about the seven speech-acts that Thomas Aquinas identified as unique means of church-instituted grace, nor the two that my own tradition of United Methodism has retained: communion and baptism. I am talking about sacrament in a much broader, generic sense as a sign that participates in the reality it signifies.[10]

To understand the world sacramentally is to see it as an inherently transcendent reality, the opposite of which would be the strictly empiricist view of the world that the scientism of the last three centuries has more or less imposed on modern, Western European culture. When we try to include God in an empiricist view of the world, He becomes an external watchmaker for whom creation was a static, one-time event at the beginning of time. In Boersma’s account, a sacramental worldview presumes that “not only does the created world point to God as its source and ‘point of reference,’ but it also subsists or participates in God.”[11] If true existence is sacramental in nature, then as creatures, we only exist to the degree in which we subsist or participate in our Creator. True existence then is incorporation into the divine reality, or to use Paul’s terminology, becoming part of the body of Christ.

Sacramental vs. Demonic Existence

When we love creation for the sake of the Creator, we participate in the eternal reality of God, which is to say we truly exist. On the other hand, Boersma writes that if we “celebrat[e] created realities for their own sake… we unhinge them from their grounding in the eternal Word or Logos of God… [such that they] lose their source of meaning [and] they become the unsuspecting victims of the objectifying human gaze and turn into the manageable playthings of the totalizing human grasp.”[12] An idol is an object of our love that has been stripped of its transcendent grounding in its Creator. Loving idols for their own sake means entering into their demonic entrapment, becoming incorporated into a body whose existence has been unhinged from the source of existence.

The only way for our love of objects or other people to remain sacramental is if we love them “on God’s account,”[13] to use Augustine’s words. Augustine says that the purest form of truly loving other people is to “want all of them to love God together with us.”[14] In other words, a sacramental kind of love has incorporation into divine reality as its basic end.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together describes what community should look like in the body of Christ. While Bonhoeffer does not overtly define his vision for community life as “sacramental,” the distinctions that he makes can be appropriated into our schema of demonic and sacramental existence. Bonhoeffer distinguishes between an idolatrous “human love [which] is directed to the other person for his own sake,” and a sacramental “spiritual love [which] loves him for Christ’s sake.”[15]

When our community is ordered properly, “there is never… any ‘immediate’ relationship of one to another,”[16] because “we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.”[17] To meet others through the mediation of Christ means “recogniz[ing] the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ,”[18] which is essentially describing the sacramental presence of Christ in the other.

An idolatrous relationship with another person “seeks a complete fusion of I and Thou… forcing another person into one’s sphere of power and influence,”[19] which creates a demon by making oneself into an idol that the other is compelled to worship. When our relationships are idolatrous, we form monstrous spiritual creatures like cults of personality and co-dependencies that attack our sacramental grounding in Christ.

Unfortunately, this often takes place in Christian life. A charismatic preacher who gets swept up in his/her popularity can easily convert a local congregation from the body of Christ into the body of a demon. A sweet, self-sacrificing, submissive wife helps to form the demon of co-dependency when her husband turns into a monster from exploiting her rather than being equally sweet, self-sacrificing and submissive.

Other Examples of Demons

Beyond the demons formed in interpersonal relationships, one of the most common synergies of demonic formation in our free market economy is the commodity. Augustine anticipates the nature of the commodity in his description of the signs formed by demons: “They have not, in fact, been noted down because they had any value, but they have been given a certain value by being noted down and treated as signs.”[20] The commodity is an object that has been stripped of its transcendent sacramental relation to God by being reconstituted as an exchange value within the marketplace. The commodity’s value is not derived in its Creator’s intrinsic purpose, but in the hypnotic enslavement of people to its extrinsic value.

Money is the obvious example of this, as the commodity of commodities. It only has value because the people who use it respect its value. Even though people technically hold the power to make money valueless, in practice they are slaves to it. It is very hard to conceive of money sacramentally, because its very nature is the negation of transcendence and thus sacramental value. Obviously, the world requires us to engage in the exchange of money for the sake of God’s purposes. But it’s critical that we consider ourselves to be stewards of God’s providential gifts in doing so. The more that money is considered something we have earned of which we are its rightful owners, the more we are owned by it demonically.

Another example of a powerfully demonic commodity in our economy is sex. Nothing is used more successfully to sell products in such a broad array of industries as sex. It is important to recognize sex’s status as a commodity in any Christian critique of the sexuality within pop culture. The more that sex is simply a product to be consumed either with another person or in front of a laptop screen, the more it is a demon that owns its consumer.

Sexual promiscuity in late capitalist Western culture is not primarily a rebellion against traditional social mores, but rather slavery to a demon created by consumer marketing. The act becomes something we perform in anxious tribute to a demon with increasingly high standards for what counts as a “good lay” (if we involve another person at all). What a far cry this is from what sex can be as a sacrament: the transcendent self-abandonment by which humans experience God’s divine embrace of humanity which Paul metaphorically compares with the relationship between Jesus and the church.

A still more basic form of demonic existence does not involve any external object at all; it is when I make myself the center of my world order. The paradox about this mode of existence is that it is unnatural at the same time as it is a default state of being for humans. We were created to reflect the image of God and participate in His divine reality as inherently sacramental creatures. The problem is that we humans reach a point in our lives, represented by Adam and Eve’s story, in which we declare our independence from God, decide to trust our own judgments, and turn our lives into a strategy for defending the dignity of a “self” which we had not previously noticed.

As rational creatures, we need to make sense to ourselves, but we do things that don’t make sense, so we start to justify actions that should not be justified. As we interact with other people who challenge our actions and dispute our rationalizations, we become more deeply enslaved to our self-justification. Our reason and willpower are perverted by this foundation of dishonesty and we are transformed into the demon that Augustine called homo curvatus in se (“humanity turned in on itself”), from whose grip we cannot wrest ourselves free on our own.

In its mysterious amalgam of atonement, solidarity, exemplar, and sacrament, Jesus’ cross is what makes it possible for us to be exorcised of the demon of self-justification and drawn into the body of Christ in which our sacramental nature is restored. Power is everywhere and constantly at work on us. The only escape that we have from the magnetisms and synergies that suck us into demonic bodies is to be incorporated into the body of Christ. As Paul puts it in slightly different terms, we can only leave the slavery of sin by becoming a slave to Christ.[21] Our placement on the battlefield between good and evil concerns fundamentally the synergies of power that we allow to order our existence.

Without the safety of Christ’s body, we are like “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching,”[22] sucked into one demonic body after another. This is why I interpret St. Cyprian of Carthage’s declaration Extra ecclesiam nulla sallus (“Outside the church there is no salvation”) to mean that salvation is inherently about which body has swallowed me (and not that Jesus rejects me unless I accept the pope as His infallible vicar).

Accepting our justification before God on account of Christ’s atoning sacrifice does nothing to protect us from demonic entrapment without also incorporating us into Christ’s body. The cross saves us from evil by creating the means by which we can “eat [Jesus’] flesh and drink [His] blood [in order to] abide in [Him] and [He] in [us].”[23] Within the safety of this mutual abidance that constitutes sacramental incorporation into the body of Christ, we can resist the demonic magnetisms that are what evil is.

[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. by Robert Hurley (NY: Vintage Books, 1990), 94.

[2] Ibid., 95.

[3] Augustine, Teaching Christianity (De Doctrina Christiana), trans. by Edmund Hill, O.P. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996), 2.23.36, 148.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 1.5.5, 108.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid., 1.4.4, 107.

[9] Ibid., 1.22.20, 114.

[10] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 23.

[11] Boersma, 24.

[12] Boersma, 30.

[13] Augustine, 1.27.28, 118

[14] Ibid., 1.29.30, 119.

[15] Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 34.

[16] Ibid., 32.

[17] Ibid., 36.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 33.

[20] Augustine, 2.24.37, 148.

[21] Romans 6:18

[22] Ephesians 4:14

[23] John 6:56

10 thoughts on “The real battle: demons vs. sacraments

  1. Pingback: Greg Boyd on evil, spiritual warfare, and divine sovereignty | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I especially appreciate the section of your blog devoted to sexuality. I feel as if I am surrounded by a society which craves higher and higher levels of excitement, yet our “exciting” lives feel empty as our activities have been separated from the deeper meaning within them.

    Also, it’s interesting that I’ve found quite a few very religious people go through the same cycles of self-justification which you describe as part of the “homo curvatus in se” phenomenon. Perhaps these are cases in which the person’s religious philosophy has also become an idol, as opposed to their spiritual purpose.

    • Exactly! Some people engage in the thing that is supposed to save us from self-justification for the purpose of their self-justification.

  3. Hey Morgan! I think that human and nonhuman complex systems may derive power and mabye even freedom from their connection with randomness (chaos). I put down some ideas in a blog titled The Beast, A Systems Analysis – my first new one since January inspired by your insights here. But I can’t figure out how to make a link in this comment.

  4. Pingback: The Beast, A Systems Analysis « Life, Learning and Lipids

  5. Modern neo-paganism describes things nearly the same, Morgan. The power of individual “dieties” is related to the number and devotion of followers. I think it is interesting that you are able to draw from Christian literature, Paul’s teachings, and your own insight the very same conclusions as neo-pagans. The question then becomes, are these ‘idols’ directed by the sphere of influence of specific entities (‘principalities’)? Are there actual Demons? I think the answer is yes. Perhaps I am a charismatic after all. It makes sense to me that true Demons hold dominion over specific idols/commodities/etc and that devotion to these things are the source of their power. I was reading an essay by E.M. Bounds on prayer this morning. It is not a coincidence that Paul follows his discussion of Demons with an exhortation to the Ephesians to pray. Prayer is the missing piece of your discussion. Prayer is how we discern the sacramental from the demonic. “Prayer in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18 NIV) is our full armor of God allowing us to walk through a world filled with Demons while leading a life of sacrament.

    • You ask “are there actual demons” when you mean something more like “are there literal demons, as described in the culture of the Near East in the first century CE”. To the first Morgan (and I) would say yes – as he has in this post. To the second, probably no. In Foucauldian analysis, a demon is created by human participators, yet it draws a life bigger than the sum of its parts – it exists, separate to any individual human. Yet it is not an independent entity in the sense that the early church would have imagined it.
      This kind of thinking, I believe, connects with the work of the late Walter Wink, which I have barely touched on. It also leaves me with a question of how the angelic comes into the conversation, as the Jews of late antiquity (and the early church) often thought of demons as fallen angels. Are the “angels of the churches” in Revelation ‘good demons’ of communities that are directing their members towards God, rather than away?

      • Thanks. I guess I would have to say that there are too many biblical examples of messengers of God for me to not believe in literal angels. Similarly, literal demons. My question was somewhat rhetorical I guess in that I was really interested in whether the literal demons are drawing power from these communities of humans described by Morgan as demons.

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