Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2008 Question

What does/can process theology contribute to angels and demonology?.

Dr. Cobb's Response

On the whole, we process theologians developed our theologies at a time when individual angels and individual demons were little considered in theological circles. Accordingly, we have thought and written almost nothing about them.

On the other hand, the idea of demonic powers, of “principalities and powers,” was profoundly important. Shaped by a period in which Italy followed the Fascist Mussolini, and the most highly educated country in the world, Germany, followed Hitler, when advanced technology was used to commit genocide, and when the world as a whole was drawn into the mutual slaughter of war, it was not possible to ignore the historical power of evil. The liberal notion of historical progress, with education and technology as the solutions to all our problems, looked absurdly wrong. To explain historical evil simply in terms of individuals falling short of God’s call was completely unconvincing in light of what was happening. Clearly, there were powers of another kind at work! Some of us followed Paul Tillich in calling them demonic.

That does not mean that we viewed human beings as helpless victims of these powers. Process theologians emphasize that every person in every moment has some freedom and responsibility. Nevertheless, at the same time, we emphasize that for the most part we are constituted in each moment by our past. Whitehead called this past one’s “actual world.” That actual world contains much that is good, but it also contains much that is evil.

An example may help to clarify what I mean. The actual world of most Christians, especially in Europe, contained negative views of Jews. The gospel of John places on the lips of Jesus the assertion that the Jews are children of the devil. In general the gospels blame them for the crucifixion of Jesus. Both of these facts reflect a situation in which followers of Jesus were persecuted by mainstream Jews. During the period when both Jews and Christians were persecuted by Rome, their quarrel had relatively minor consequences, but when the empire became Christian, these consequences became historically of great importance. They included long-term persecution, including periodic pogroms. The worse the treatment of Jews by Christians, the more important it became for Christians to justify themselves by inventing stories about the evil of Jews. Because Jews were assigned the role of money lenders, they acted in ways that further exacerbated Christian feelings.

Those who grow up in the climate generated by this inherit hostility to Jews quite apart from any personal experience of them. For many, the word “Jew” feels derogatory in itself. The presence of Jews in society is felt as a threat. If they are economically successful, this is attributed to sinister methods.

In other words, anti-Judaism became a powerful force in Western society largely independent of individuals and their personal judgments. Of course, a few Christians could criticize and transcend this aspect of their “actual worlds” to some extent. But none could be altogether unaffected by it. For hundreds of years it has constituted a demonic element in Christendom. Further, as nationalism succeeded Christianity as the primary unifying commitment of Western societies, this demonic force persisted. In the aftermath of World War II, the churches came to recognize their responsibility for Nazi genocide, and there have been real efforts to exorcise this demonic power from our cultures. Some progress has been made, but Jews rightly sense that the demon has not been fully destroyed. They remain fearful of the potential of this “demon” to be awakened and attack them yet again.

This example is of pervasive attitudes and feelings structured into language and culture. There are other instances in which the demonic takes institutional form. In my opinion many of our political and economic institutions embody demonic power. When this institutionalization is combined with a supporting culture and language, as is often the case, the demons are even harder to exorcise.

For process theologians, the identification and exorcism of demonic forces of this kind is more important than reflection about demons in the sense of malevolent personal spirits. Nevertheless, I do not want to reject or belittle the question. Can process thought allow for the actual existence of angels and demons?

My answer here is that, yes, it can. I will begin with demons. In principle it is not impossible that there are spirits without the sort of bodies that we possess who nevertheless act destructively on us and in us. The metaphysics of Whitehead, as such, does not exclude this. Since the New Testament takes demon possession for granted, theologians do need to engage this idea.

In the modern period the most common response to the New Testament account has been to assert that it is a primitive explanation of various psychoses. One psychosis that can easily lend itself to this explanation is that of dual personalities. The most famous fictional account is of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To say that, when Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde he has been possessed by an evil spirit, is not far from the truth. Nevertheless, a contemporary psychological account, or the explanation in terms of drugs, is more convincing and more helpful for therapy.

In traditional Catholic circles psychological study is encouraged, but it is believed that there are cases in which demon possession is the accurate diagnosis and exorcism is the correct response. Certainly in Africa there are many instances today when this diagnosis is made and exorcism seems effective. I am perhaps too much of a child of modernity to be fully convinced. But I do not exclude the possibility.

If there are instances of literal demon possession, what are the demons? One possibility would be that they are the spirits of persons who have died but whose anger or jealousy is so great that they are not willing or able to leave the earth. They establish a relation to the brain of some living person without disconnecting from their previous past. They may alternate in dominance over the body with its own soul or they may fully subordinate that soul. I confess that I find such speculations implausible, but I also understand that there are well-documented instances in which something of this sort seems to fit the reported facts.

Angels, on the other hand, are supposed to be messengers of God, and I believe that, in a broad sense, we are all called to be angels. But again my questioner is probably thinking of angels in a narrower sense. Are there spirits without bodies like ours who do God’s bidding and seek our good? Perhaps. If so how did they come into being?

Once again, if I speculate about such possibilities, I incline to think of them as human beings who have died. Unlike demons, angels do not take possession of people. They act, in good process fashion, persuasively. I would not draw a sharp line between the sense of the continuing presence and aid of loved ones who have recently died, the idea that saints may intercede for us, and the ministration of angels. Before trying to formulated a theory of angels, however, we need to consider the evidence for their reality critically. The fact that, in comparison with dominant habits of modern thought, Whitehead opens a door to types of reality that have long been excluded, does not mean that every idea popular in religious circles is true or beneficial. The diagnosis of a problem as demon possession can lead to treatments that cause great suffering with no beneficial consequences.

My own judgment is that Christian theology is better off without literal inclusion of angels. Talk of angels usually reflects a view of God as external and distant. Why does God send a messenger? Does that not imply that God is somewhere else, not present here and now? But for many Christians, and certainly for process thinkers, God is very near indeed. God is continuously alive within us. Why should we talk about messengers when God speaks constantly to us? Similarly, the idea that God assigns us guardian angels implies that God is not able to attend to us directly and personally. Process theology understands God as directly and personally within us.

There is another danger in taking angels and demons seriously. We are all familiar with the line: “The devil made me do it.” I have emphasized at the outset that much of the reason for the evil we do can be found in demonic power. But we need to take responsibility for allowing such power to dominate us. God calls us to transcend and oppose it. Thinking of demons as having the potential to control us works against this acceptance of personal responsibility.

Sometimes people even picture themselves as the battleground between an angel and a demon. They are almost passive in this picture, waiting to see which spirit wins. It is better to think of the past out of which we are largely constituted as containing much good and much evil and of God as calling us to fulfill the best of its potentialities, thus changing what we pass on to our future selves and to others as their actual world. We don’t need personalized demons and angels in order to describe our condition.

In the Book of Samuel, we find that Saul outlawed mediumship. This was not a matter of disbelief in their powers. When he wanted to consult the then deceased Samuel, he found a medium to establish communication. The objection to mediumship was that we should relate directly to God, and that suffices. I think this is good advice to us--not as a law that has no exceptions but as a general recommendation. Spiritually I see very little that can be gained by thinking about angels and demons, whereas I do see a good deal of potential danger. I think it possible that there are in reality entities to which these terms appropriately apply. I am open to the evidence. But if there is no convincing evidence, then, so far as I am concerned, nothing of Christian importance is lost.

I wonder whether the vastly increased interest in angels in the past few decades reflects a loss of personal experience of God. If that is so, and if talk of angels helps to restore even an indirect personal relationship, I should not be so critical. But would it not be better to think and write of the working of the Holy Spirit or of the living Christ and to encourage the sense of that presence in our lives? Certainly that emphasis would bring us more closely in line with the thought of Paul.


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