Friday, October 30, 2009


It's that time of year, so I thought some ruminations on the goings-on on the other side of the mirror of reality might not be amiss.

Other people are doing it:
Exorcist shares past experiences with demonic possession

I have often thought that there seems, at least in the way most people practice the faith, two kinds of Catholicism. What I have arbitrarily designated "The Rules" and "Spooky Catholicism".

Of course, a balanced Catholic lives his life according to The Rules because he knows that Spooky Catholicism is real. This is the correct way of looking at it. The supernatural really actually exists in the really real world and therefore things like the difference between good and evil is not merely the subject of dry academic debate but an urgent and immediate reality to be contended with daily.

The reality of the supernatural is something that seems quite difficult for modern people to understand. And this despite the vast and growing proliferation of the occult in popular culture, which seems odd.

As you know, I have just finished reading a series of very dumb teenager vampire romance novels. (Yes, I enjoyed them ... sort a weird way.) One of the things that made them dumb was the fact that the authoress, Stephanie Meyer, did not seem to understand the difference between the natural and the supernatural. She regularly referred to her vampire and werewolf characters as being part of the supernatural world, but then said that tests had revealed that they had a different number of chromosomes in their cells from humans.

She indicated that the change from being a natural human to a supernatural vampire was merely a physiological change, the vampire "venom" (good grief!) would work its way though the body via the bloodstream re-writing the person's DNA to give them super-powers. (No, it really wasn't very well thought out, but that's not why all the teenyboppers are reading it.) And that was it, really, no more to it than that.

I suspect the banality, the flat-universe quality, of her books is a result of Stephanie Meyer's Mormonism, which does not even try to address the issue of "where does the universe come from". Mormonism also doesn't understand or acknowledge the difference between the supernatural world and the natural world. In Mormonism, the gods are more or less just humans with superpowers, and no one ever notices that the question "Who or what is the Prime Mover" is never asked.

At least with Buffy's vampires, there was a supernatural exchange of "souls" and the vampired person would become, essentially, possessed by an incorporeal demonic creature. (This system often broke down in Buffy, but that was the idea). In the Buffyverse, there are any number of "demons", "gods", "oracles" and assorted representatives of classical, pre-Christian and extra-Christian entities of varying degrees of supernaturalness (though perhaps significantly, never any angels. In all of Buffy, I think God only got a mention once or twice). And as the series progressed the rules about them seemed to shift according to the needs of the plot.

I note, however, that in Buffy, and even more later in Angel, the "demons" were again just a different kind of natural being. In Angel, there were actually different "species" of demons who were just modified humans and the damage they could do was not moral damage to a person's soul, but physical damage according to the potency of their super-powers. Plus, you could kill them with a gun or a sword. So ... you know.

It all gets a little fuzzy, really. It's not like I was really looking for theological consistency in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I believe that Harry Potter has solved the literary problem of the supernatural by more or less proposing that the wizards are a different species from the regular humans. A species that can naturally manipulate natural "forces" and that magic is essentially just another physical force like electricity. Again, this kind of breaks down in practice during the course of the books (which I haven't read), but that seems about the gist again. Once again, the modern occult writer does not seem to know what the supernatural really is.

I have noted several times that the universe accepted by the sci-fi writers is dualistic, that there is a distinct split between the physical and the incorporeal, the old mind-body split, but still no actual supernatural. Despite all the story lines of people exchanging bodies with each other and "ascending to a higher plane of existence" and whatnot, all of this is still strictly within the realm of the natural, the physical, the scientifically recordable. It's really just Cartesianism with special effects.

Nothing in, for example, Star Gate SG1's ideas about "ascended Ancients" was remotely supernatural. You just spent a few decades meditating and, pow! you got a pretty, glowy, kind of ghostly-looking body that could fly and control weather or whatever and live in some other "higher plane" that was, essentially, just another "dimension". This seemed to be as close as the sci-fi world could get to the idea of something "outside nature".

Whether we like it of not, we live in a culture that has, for 400 years or more, been rejecting the existence of the supernatural. And now that we're looking for it again, we don't know it when we see it and think we see it when we really don't.

I think that our modern obsession with the occult is not in fact a result of an innate human fascination with the supernatural. Or perhaps the purveyors of the occult pop-culture are so unimaginative that what they are peddling is merely naturalism dressed up in sparkly CGI costumes.

As a result, we Catholics seem to have a hard time understanding what the actual supernatural is. We have popular Catholic literature that talks about things like birth, and sunsets and butterflies as "miraculous". Well, it might be a poetic way of speaking about how great nature is, but it is misleading too. Natural things are not, by definition, miraculous. The supernatural is not just the natural with super-powers.

We really have a hard time with the idea of something that is real, has a will and an intellect and the ability to do things in the natural world, but no body at all. A spirit, in the strictest sense.

We have a heck of a time understanding the thing about God being outside, above and preceding time and space.

Now that the Church has more or less given up talking about the supernatural and continues to justify its existence based on its record of social work projects in the third world, we Catholics have fallen into the habit of thinking naturalistically. So much so, I think, that things like the "Catholic charismatic movement" have sprung up in reaction.

People who are interested in religion are really interested in the Spooky parts. They want to know about the grand movements of Heaven and Hell, of angels and demons and the Great War between them. They want to know that their own moral struggles are about something greater, taller and more grand than global warming or the dangers of smoking. Something better, that is, than what the secular world offers.

It's the real reason movies and books like the Da Vinci Code are so wildly popular. Why Hollywood always dresses its pretend nuns to look more like real nuns than the real nuns have looked in 40 years. And why the Godfather movies all have depictions of the brocade and velvet, pointed arches, gold-curliqued and marble-columned Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II era. No one who is looking for the real, Spooky, Supernatural version of religion wants a priest to dress in a polyester poncho and sing folk songs.

There's The Rules, yes, and we give intellectual assent to the doctrines of the Faith, (which is what "The Rules" is shorthand for.) But what are The Rules guiding if not the supernatural life of the soul?

What is it all for if there's no Spooky?


PCM said...

Very cogently and compactly written.

"What is it all for if there's no Spooky?" -- This sounds like an amusing paraphrase of St. Paul: "And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain..." Not that I'm an authority or anything, but I imagine a lot of errors (Christological, ecclesiological, etc.) can be traced back to failure to grasp this properly.

You're spot on with the dualism in a lot of sci-fi. I used to be somewhat into Babylon 5, really high epic space opera, but the quasi-Manichean and gnostic (all this hidden knowledge and "ascent" stuff) aspects jump out at me now when I see it again and I can't stand much of it.

Another case related to your Harry Potter example (I haven't read them, so that was interesting) -- Star Wars. I remember when the first of the terrible prequels came out, one of the new-found Star Wars lameness factors was from the new explanation that "the force" was really due to some biological factor. It certainly made "the force be with you" even further away from a sci-fi corruption of "Dominus vobiscum".


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

"cogently and compactly"

Hey, no mocking my longwindedness.

It's a disability, don'tcha know.

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed that the farther people are from a culture rooted in understanding the supernatural, the less funny they are? Like are there any funny Mormons? There aren't. But many, many funny people come out of Jesuit education. - Karen

Ellen P. said...

You've lost me---you discuss something I've never noticed before and I can't quite understand. Rather than say what it is not, can you give some good examples of how to tell the difference between the real supernatural and the mock supernatural?

Louise said...

I might be wrong, Ellen, but I imagine what Hilary meant by "Spooky" are the bits about Satan and stuff.

Satan is real. Demons (fallen angels) are real. Stuff like that.

Louise said...

I will say that I once spoke with a young man and in the course of that conversation I had the distinct impression that I was actually speaking to someone else.

Now, maybe I wasn't and he just had psychological problems or something, but I believe demonic possession, for example, is a real possibility.

Anonymous said...

Dear Hilary Jane:

First time I'm leaving a comment on your blog.

I agreed with your remarks about how a truly balanced Catholic needs both the "rules" and firm belief in the reality of the supernatural.

But I don't think your comments about how SF handles God and the supernatural were wholly correct. I can think of SF writers who treated religion and God seriously in their works. Examples being James Blish's A CASE OF CONSCIENCE and Walter Miller's A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.

I would like to bring to your attention the works of Poul Anderson (died 2001). Altho an agnostic, he treated the Catholic Church and ideas about God and the supernatural with respect. I have in mind these books of his: THE BROKEN SWORD, THE HIGH CRUSADE, THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS, OPERATION CHAOS, HROLF KRAKI'S SAGA, and OPERATION LUNA. I'm especially interested in what you might think of OPERATION CHAOS.

As for the vampire theme I lean towards two directions: that it is an evil manifestation of supernaturalism or caused by a kind of disease. Examples of the former being Stoker's DRACULA and Stephen King's 'SALEM'S LOT. The latter idea represented by Barbara Hambly's THOSE WHO HUNT THE NIGHT and TRAVELING WITH THE DEAD.

Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

hjw said...

exceptions to every rule abound, but do not disprove the rule. I have read a lot of SF, but not lately. I was not aware that Poul Anderson had died. What a shame. I know lots of other SF writers who deal intelligently with the supernatural and are not addicted to Cartesian dualism, but as a genre, the Cartesian mind/body split is the gold standard, and the one that most SciFi fans who are not themselves given to philosophical discernment have inculcated as a matter of course from the material. Of course, this dualistic assumption is not relegated to the world of SF, but is our post-Christian western culture's default assumption. I note merely that it becomes most obvious in the world of SF.

Anonymous said...

Dear Hilary Jane:

Thanks for your reply. I'm sure this merely reflects my own ignorance, but I'm a bit puzzled by "Cartesian dualism." If writers like Stephanie Meyer don't understand the difference between the natural world and the supernatural--because they make their vampires, werewolves, and so on merely a different kind of "natural" phenomenon--that would seem to be DENYING other "planes" of existence are real.

It seems plain to me that it's the SF writers who are exceptions to this Cartesianism whose works appeals most to me (and to you). Your remarks reminded me of this passsage from Poul Anderson's Time Patrol story "Delenda est:"

"Funny they should be so backward intellectually, and still have combustion engines."
"No, it's quite understandable. That's why I asked about their religion. It's always been purely pagan; even Judaism seems to have disappeared, and Buddhism hasn't been very influential. As Whitehead pointed out, the medieval idea of one almighty God was important to the growth of science, by inculcating the notion of lawfulness in nature. And Lewis Mumford added that the early monasteries were probably responsible for the mechanical clock--a very basic invention--because of having regular hours for prayer.

Which seems to indicate that philosophers like Whitehead and Mumford were not Cartesians bulldozing the world into one flat "natural" dimension.

Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks