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Why the demoniac stayed in his comfortable corner of hell - Printable Version

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Why the demoniac stayed in his comfortable corner of hell - C C - Feb 28, 2019

EXCERPT: . . . This story from Mark 5:1-20 relates how Jesus and the disciples go to the town of Gerasenes and there encounter a man who is possessed by evil spirits. This demoniac – a self-imposed outcast from society – lived at the outskirts of town and ‘night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones’. The grossest part of the story, however, isn’t the self-mutilation. It’s the demoniac’s insane refusal to accept help. When Jesus approached him, the demoniac threw himself to the ground and wailed: ‘What do you want with me? … In God’s name, don’t torture me!’ When you’re possessed by evil spirits, the worst thing in the world is to be healed. In short, the demoniac tells Jesus to bugger off, to leave him and his sharp little stones in his comfortable corner of hell.

When I first read about the demoniac, I was admittedly scared, but I eventually convinced myself that the parable was a manipulative attempt to persuade unbelievers such as me to find religion. And I wasn’t buying it. But when I entered university, went into philosophy, and began to cultivate an agnosticism that one might call atheism, I discovered that many a philosopher had been drawn to this scary story. So I took a second look.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who spent years analysing the psychological and ethical dimensions of the demoniac, tells us that being demonic is more common than we might like to admit. [...] In Kierkegaard’s words: ‘One may hear the drunkard say: “Let me be the filth that I am.”’ Or, leave me alone with my bottle and let me ruin my life, thank you very much.[...]

Those who are the most pointedly afflicted are often precisely those who are least able to recognise their affliction, or to save themselves. And those with the resources to rescue themselves are usually already saved. [...] Eating well is second nature to the one who is already healthy; saving money is a no-brainer for one who one is already rich ... But for those in the grips of crisis or sin, getting out usually doesn’t make much sense.

[...] In *The Concept of Anxiety* (1844), Kierkegaard tells us that the ‘essential nature of [the demoniac] is anxiety about the good’. I’ve been ‘anxious’ about many things [...] but Kierkegaard explains that the feeling I have about these nasty things isn’t anxiety at all. It’s fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, has no particular object. It is the sense of uneasiness that one has at the edge of a cliff, or climbing a ladder, or thinking about the prospects of a completely open future – it isn’t fear per se, but the feeling that we get when faced with possibility. It’s the unsettling feeling of freedom. Yes, freedom, that most precious of modern watchwords, is deeply unsettling.

What does this have to do with our demoniac? Everything. Kierkegaard explains that the demoniac reflects ‘an unfreedom that wants to close itself off’; when confronted with the possibility of being healed, he wants nothing to do with it. The free life that Jesus offers is, for the demoniac, pure torture. I’ve often thought that this is the fate of the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play *No Exit* (1944): they are always free to leave, but leaving seems beyond impossible.

[...] this demonic situation is a problem. Indeed, I suspect it is the problem for many, many readers. The demoniac reflects what theologians call the ‘religious paradox’, namely that it is impossible for fallen human beings – such craven creatures – to bootstrap themselves to heaven. Any redemptive resources at our disposal are probably exactly as botched as we are.

There are many ways to distract ourselves from this paradox [...] But at the end of the day, these are pitifully little comfort....

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RE: Why the demoniac stayed in his comfortable corner of hell - Magical Realist - Feb 28, 2019

Many crave the purpose and structure of constraint to the open angst of freedom. It can be comforting to cling to the routines of our dysfunctional rituals over the uncertainty of the pure possibility of our future. One can feel oneself defined as a specific persona or role in the dysfunction, which beats assuming the ambiguity of a selfless passivity to whatever may come. An addict leads a very purposeful and dramatic life, caught up in the unending quest for the next high. It is almost always preferred over the vapid tedium of day to day sober living.