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How "The Exorcist" Depersonalizes God
Sterilizing the Person of God from Worship
Studying the “personalist” movement of St. John Paul II an important distinction was established that most Thomists can reasonably ascribe to: persons are subjects, not merely objects. When I say that, its important to understand that an “object” is something that is reduced to some simple combination of principles. For instance, Boethius established an objective notion of personhood by understanding the universal qualities of the person: an individual substance, with a rational nature. In other words, the human person as an object is a type of abstraction, whereas the human person as a person is a type of mystery. Both are true, in a tenuous manner.
This “objectivity” is certainly a key understanding of our Catholic philosophy around the person, but it also is reductive. That means that it purposefully reduces to the “bare-bones” what it means to be a person in an objective manner. But where studied in a subjective sense, we incorporate the unrepeatable dimension of each concrete person. Where one reduces each person to a mere instantiation (instance) of these objective principles, we lose a sight of the unique inter-personal relationships that exist within that person, and the relational dimensions that ought to be reverenced.
The philosophical science of “objectivity” is crucial to sound philosophy, and in some ways, depersonalizing matters can be crucial in an intellectual sense, insofar as we are able to genuinely understand the ultimate question of “what am I?” Such objectivity should not be ignored as it helps to hold the subjective considerations accountable to truth, and moral norms.
The Church wants us to also consider the person, which of course St. Thomas Aquinas would have done practically. Where we see him emphasizing the “law of gradualism” we see an implicit understanding that each person requires their own unique process of integration when it comes to moral matters. He did not espouse a “cookie-cutter” approach to each person, but he would stress that there are some objective principles that as such always apply, given the objective nature of being “human.” Thus we consider the “what” of man, and the unrepeatable “who,” together.
A lot more could be said on this matter, but I would now like to divert attention to the main reason for this blog. Often we are very invested in “why” and “what” we are doing, but may forget that there is also a “who” involved in our worship, and interior activity. Recently I was able to investigate the new “Exorcist move.” And while it was certainly woke (…) I would suggest that it is the ultimate bi-product of a narrative around Sacraments and Sacramentals that has pervaded Hollywood and many Catholics for a long time. In some ways the “what” of exorcism was a ritual performed by a priest; and the “why” was to cast the devil out of the person to liberate them. Yet reduced to this understanding the relational dimension of “Who” is the principal agent of an exorcism was lost, and the internal movement of God’s own heart has been utterly absent.
A number of years ago I had the chance to speak with a young woman who underwent a Major Exorcism. She shared with me her own encounter with Christ, and the Saints who appeared to her, offering her affection, support, and consolation during the ritual itself. There was an intimacy that she experienced, and she shared with me an image of St. Teresa of Calcutta that I will always treasure. This unity with beauty, and goodness, protective disposition, and ultimately relational love from a Savior who is deeply concerned for our own good is often absent not only from the colloquial notion of exorcism, but also the sacraments. While all the objective criteria are mentioned (i.e. form, matter, licit, illicit, invalid, valid, fruitful) in Orthodox teaching, they may not be internalized in the relational context of the person. For this reason, I believe the recent move on Exorcism employees a radical pluralism, coaxing the priest to formally cooperate with in disobedience. Ironically he dies, and in the end one of the members of the good-will team of exorcists (well-wishing machines) makes a deal with the demons (or negative energies).
The display of anti-fatherhood (i.e. Patriarchy) is something to mention in another post, because there is a giddy acceptance of this criticism by mainstream secularists. The key here, I would like to stress, however, is that in order to couch this type of erroneous attitude is to depersonalize the priesthood (which is the Sacrament of Christ’s priesthood) as a non-encounter with the person of Christ Himself. Rather, the priest is reduced to some functionary individual, belonging to a power-structure. Rather that internalizing the person of Christ as an active agent in the dispelling of a nefarious fallen angel out of a deep personal love for the captive-soul, what we have instead a personal God replaced with the “good-wishes” of “human-energy” and some impersonal cosmic appeal by our mere intentions.
I suppose at the end of the day, the way all of this should affect us as Christians is a type of deep sadness for those who produce such movies and champion them as such. Why? Because it displays a narrative about religion which is im-personalistic when it comes to knowing and being known and loved by a generous God. Rather, mankind has a mere relationship with a ritual and some functionary, but God Himself as a person is at a distance so remarkable that He is merely abstractly considered and altogether absent. Demons are personalized and represented here, but God is not present, personally. The saviors are human will-power, and radical pluralism. Sorry Jesus, you simply aren’t known for how incredibly good, intimate and personal. May our voices echo what is actually the case!
I believe that as members of the Church falter at times from considering the objective criteria of the sacraments, we also at times forget to integrate the Divine Persons, and the human persons interpersonal unity in such sacraments? I believe it is crucial for us to do both, in a manner that is integrative, lest we as the practicing Catholics merely reinforce the secular narrative around our faith and reduce our worship to some mere mechanical and effective impersonal production of grace.