Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays. That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes.
-Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*
The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”. The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings. In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.
They all believed in demons, for one thing.
In the Patristic world, demons are out there. They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air. Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us. They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin. One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin. Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.
Yes, your sins are your own. This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked. Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.
Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them. We should know our weapons. We should know our enemies. We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons. According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh. The other origin of evil is the world. The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.
However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian. We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism. What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.
I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers. We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful. My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.
And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:
How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?
In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives. Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best. You should read the post.
The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:
I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.
Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.
*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.
**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.