One of the myths that has been exploded in late modernity is that we Westerners are an “Enlightened” people, who have moved beyond demons, ghosts, and religion. We are not and we have not. I am not saying that we have not made technological progress. Certainly we have made medical and technological progress. I am arguing, however, that the assumed cause and effect relationship between technology and the Enlightenment movements is to be doubted. I am also arguing that there is abundant evidence that Late Modern “Enlightened” Westerners have not moved beyond religion. Rather, it is that religion has morphed. The naive Modern belief in progress was itself a religion. The Modernist creed that all humans are essentially good was a religious dogma. The universal brotherhood of humanity and the universal Fatherhood of God are articles of that creed.
The myth of the Enlightenment movements was that we had matured beyond the Medieval view of the world, that an unbridgeable gulf was now fixed between us and them, that we are as rational now as they were irrational then. That myth was shattered in Europe during World War I as boys marched to war with a bounce in their step only to return in coffins, millions of them; twenty million to be exact and that was only half of the total deaths. It was not what anyone expected. Europe descended into a funk that, including the Great Depression and the next World War, lasted for decades. Spiritually, she has never recovered.
The American belief in progress was more resilient. It did not die during World War I, perhaps because the war was not fought on our soil—the USA lost 53,000 men in battle and another 63,000 to other causes, including the so-called Spanish Flu. Not even the Great Depression nor World War II defeated seemingly boundless American optimism. Indeed, it is not dead yet. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign resonated with Americans. As much as the Obama Administration apologized for America’s misdeeds, he campaigned on a generally optimistic, some might say Messianic, platform.
What we are seeing in the American streets, however, as cities across America are on fire, as city governments seem to be unwilling (or worse, unable) to contain the violence, looting, mayhem, and murder is evidence of a disillusionment and much of the violence and chaos is facilitated by a demons both metaphorical and literal.
According to the Enlightenment philosophers (and theologians), the great sin of the Medieval period (including the Reformation) was its credulity. The Medievals were not sufficiently critical. To be sure, that word has taken on a new significance recently. In much contemporary usage, used as an adjective, critical (as in “critical theory”) is code for Marxist. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “critical theory” thus: “a philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it.” The definition itself, however, is code. When it says, “social…forces” it means class warfare and oppression. Under critical theory, there is always a victim, an oppressed person or class and there is always an oppressor. The only question is to identify the good guys and the bad guys.
In the older sense, critical meant to ask questions such as “is this true, is it reasonable, does this withstand scrutiny?” The older assumption was that reason is a universal, that sense experience is more or less universal, and that these things can be applied. In Late Modernity, confidence in both sense experience and reason has disappeared and thus the demons, latent all this while, have returned.
Just yesterday a man committed suicide, in public, in Minneapolis. The rumor, spread by metaphorical demons, via social media (the home of the late modern demons) was that he had been murdered by the police. Of course a riot and more destruction ensued. We laugh at the alleged credulity of the Medieval but we ourselves are awash in misinformation, confusion, lies, spin, myths, and hoaxes. For all our ostensible “enlightenment” we have no good reason to trust any “news” media report, social media claim, or claim of fact. Our self-appointed “fact checkers” must be “fact checked” themselves. Members of administrations and their opponents regularly leak lies to the media with the knowledge that they will be published as fact, without ever being checked, and those lies will circulate at wondrous speed and to disastrous effect before the truth can be found an articulated.
For all our boasting about our enlightenment we have become positively disinterested in truth. Does anyone really care what the truth is about “overpopulation” (1960s and 70s) “global cooling” (1970s), “global warming” (1980s and 90s), or “climate change” (2000s)? The medieval appealed to (and feared) demons to explain what he could not understand but how are we different? How are we superior? We have created a massive high-tech infrastructure to spread recipes, myths, porn, and instructions for would-be bomb makers.
Indeed, we are so credulous that low-budget psychological operations (Psy-Ops) by foreign governments, using bots on social media, have apparently been fabulously successful in creating fear, distrust, suspicion, and hostility. Were the Medieval world able to see ours they would laugh at our credulousness. We will, it seems, believe almost anything. Paganism is making a comeback. Virtually no one believed in a flat earth in the Middle Ages but there are notorious celebrities and not a little movement to defend the proposition in 2020. Far from banishing conspiracy theories, the internet has merely facilitated their transmission. The Enlightenment was a myth. We have not matured. We have merely sped up the process of deluding and confusing ourselves.
This is because humans are incurably religious. We know intuitively that we are creatures, that the order we see all around us—which we find to be far more complex than we knew even in chaos theory etc—is not the product of chance or chaos. We crave order. Every parent knows that every infant wants order. Even as he disobeys, every child depends on order. That need is built into us not by a random evolutionary process but by creation. If there is a creation then there is a Creator. If we hold each other accountable, and we do, then we too know that we shall be held accountable. That religious impulse will out. It will find an expression.
So far I have been using the noun demon metaphorically but, according to the Christian explanation of reality, they are not mere metaphors. They are as real as Jesus of Nazareth, who confronted them openly.
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region (Matthew 8:28–34; ESV).
The Gadarene demoniacs knew who Jesus was: the Son of God and they quite properly feared him but they did not submit to him. They raged and destroyed before they met him and after. When I see the video of angry young people, seemingly out of their minds, I think of the Gadarenes. I am thinking particularly of Antifa. Have seen you the mugshots of the Antifa members arrested for various felonies?
It is striking, no pun intended, that rather than submit to Jesus the demons sought to be released to enter pigs and to rush to their own destruction and to the destruction of the pigs. Even more remarkably, our Lord permitted it. He did not save them or the pigs. This is a picture of reprobation. The Lord has decreed from all eternity that some shall be permitted to pursue their own course, to rage, to destroy themselves and others, until their end.
In the New Testament narratives, peak demonic activity coincided with the advent of God the Son in the flesh. When he ascended demonic activity seems to have subsided but the medievals were not wrong to suspect continued demonic activity. There are spiritual realities and forces at work in the world which no earthly government can meet or control.
Jesus, however, governs the governors and nothing escapes his sovereign control. Just as the demons had to ask his leave so it is now. Christian, do not be naive. We do not live in a closed, mechanical world. That was the deist religion of the Enlightenment. Neither, however, do we live in a world in which all things are infused with demons. That is paganism. We live in God’s world, under the administration of Jesus the Messiah, God the Son incarnate. He rules all with a rod of iron and one day all the forces of evil shall be made to “kiss the Son” before they are finally banished to the hell for which they long.
This means that the moral law and the Christian gospel have never been more important. The spiritual realities behind our ostensibly enlightened and mature world have once again been laid bare. We have our own plague—though not quite the Great Mortality of the mid-14th century, in which 1/3 of the world’s population perished—and our own seemingly endless chaos, wars, and rumors of wars. Nevertheless, as the Apostle John shows in the Revelation, Jesus is on his throne and all the forces of this world, seen and unseen, shall one day bow the knee. Until then there is work to be done and the message of salvation to be announced. Who knows for whom and how many Jesus came, obeyed, died, and was raised? Only God knows. He has his innumerable host that he pleased to call through the foolishness of the gospel. His Spirit is at work. Never panic but only trust. King Jesus is still in charge.
Thanks to Le Ann Trees for her editorial assistance with this essay. All typos and errors remain the author’s responsibility.