In the history of Christian monasticism the story goes that the first monk, Antony, entered the desert to battle the demons. Whole works of art have depicted a bearded man in simple dress surrounded by disfigured and grotesque beings; some pulling on his beard, others seeming to yell, while still others threatening him with spears and swords.
To our modern eyes and ears this spiritual battle with demons seems mere fantasy, the work of cinema or Harry Potter novels. Yet, for the cosmology of the late Roman world these engagements were a profoundly insightful means of describing human struggles. Simply reading a few chapters of practiced monks reveals that the battle imagery is a robust description of human psychology.
Evagrios of Pontus gives these demons a system that is strikingly ahead of its time. Each demon, he says, is an opportunity for the growing perfection of each monk. What we know today as the reductionistic Seven Deadly Sins find their roots in this catalog. By naming them “sins” the west has taken away the opportunity for transformation and has told us that things like greed, pride, and gluttony are objects to be avoided at all costs. Evagrios is clear, however, that even as these demons are trying to pull us from the glorious vision of and rest in God, They are occasions to work deeply on our selves.
In the end, the demons reveal to us our true sins, that is, the very things that inhibit our union with God. They are not the sins themselves, but mirrors which show to us the passions and sins within us.
These demons, then, are both threats and opportunities. If they are dispelled too quickly the sin remains. If they are welcomed without prayer and observant discipline they drag us further from our Christian goal. In the middle, however, lies the occasion to work out our sins and strive toward what Jesus in the Beatitudes says is the ability to see God (Matthew 5:8)
It seems that in the Church today our “Issues,” or the current ideological conflicts which consume our attention and energies, offer that same threat and opportunity. Our “Issues” are like the “Demons” Take for instance the common debate about sexuality. What if we as the Church approached the Issue as a Demon which is engaged prayerfully rather than welcomed uncritically or exorcised immediately?
Richard Valantasis of the Institute for Contemplative Living has summarized the movements of dealing with Demon Issues through the classic lens of Evagrios. He says that “we give the demons their do, not expelling them, but analyzing and engaging thoroughly with them. So Evagrios lays out three steps: analyze the thought that thwarts your union with God, break it up into its component parts and reflect on those, then ask, in which of these parts is the true sin, the true element that thwarts your union with God. It is both intentionally and deliberately engaging of the sin, or the demon, or the thwarting patterns, so that by giving them their due attention, according to Evagrios, we destroy their psychological and spiritual hold on us and their power to thwart our union with God.” (Valantasis, Unpublished Paper presented at 2011 Church of the Brethren Spiritual Directors Retreat)
What does this look like for our current Demon Issue in the Church of the Brethren and our wider communities of the Church?
The often heard knee-jerk reaction is that both sides have something to teach us: the progressive wing witnessing to the welcome and acceptance of all, and the conservative element the vision for moral piety. What if, rather than lessons to be learned, these factions presented the Church with the very sins we are to overcome in our union with God? In this frame our conservative and progressive brothers and sisters present us with the common sin of idolatry, that of raising something above the very God we invoke and seek.
First, those of more progressive inclinations are setting up the idol of unrestrained personal desire. Here sexuality of any stripe is dismissed as an occasion for breaking relationships and is valued as the human person fully alive. This unfettered desire and personal choice is set up as something to be celebrated and nearly worshiped. Even worse, Love is not a relational movement but a sexual one and becomes but a whim of the moment and not to be judged. Note here, I have not made a qualification about sexual identity or expression. Rather, the sin lies in an untamed and shapeless desire. Assessment of that sin then, applies to each person regardless of orientation and practice. By not naming the sin of idolatrous sexual expression, a hurdle is created to divine union. For it is not sex in and of itself that is the problem, it is that modern culture has turned a vice into a virtue. Sex is now a god.
Second, our conservative brothers and sisters are setting up another kind of idol- the scriptures themselves. But here it is not just the scriptures, it is their own interpretive conclusions that stand even one more step removed from the Bible. In place of an encounter with God through the inspired texts, conservatives have constructed an idol of certainty, unaware that their readings are themselves interpretive conclusions. In a way, these interpretations are set up like the curtain in the Hebrew temple which divided the Holy of Holies from the people just to make sure that God would not be defiled. For our modern conservatives, the interpretive curtain stands at the gate to make sure the Holy Scriptures are not profaned. Unfortunately, this sin of doctrinal idolatry protects us from the very role and function of scripture as a point of meeting between The Author and us as readers. Stating with certainty what God has said in the scriptures prevents the divine union of Creator and created.
In a way, the sides of the issue do teach us something, just not in the way we have imagined. By treating our issues like the early monastic demon we see that both factions unintentionally seek to prevent us from truly coming into union with God. Both factions of the debate reveal our sins which prevent us from divine contemplation. To be sure, the threat and opportunity of these Demon Issues are not limited to our current debates of sexuality. Rather, the need to engage with personal and corporate demons is part of our human condition and is shared regardless of idealogical camp. As is said in the Gospel of Matthew, the need to judge is always based on first encountering our own sins and “logs in our eyes” before assessing the demons of others (Matthew 7).