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Columns

The Enchanted World

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

Here is some useful wisdom: If you happen to be a God-fearing Harvard Christian, and you (like me) have a secret, sneaking desire to shock and appall one of your soberly secular friends, don’t tell her that you believe in God.

Tell her that you believe in demons.

Even the most ardent of Harvard’s many materialists, you see, long ago came to terms with the fact that reasonable people still believe in an almighty deity who authored earth and heaven. They accept this strangely persistent fantasy largely because they assume, perhaps rightly, that most of Harvard’s Christians are really latter-day deists, conceiving of God as a distant, prehistoric clockmaker, setting the world in motion and then stepping back, safely out of the picture. They even accept the persistence of prayer with good grace, acknowledging its much-touted psychological benefits while assuming that no sane person would actually expect God to answer.

But tell them that you believe in demons—who are not only supernatural creatures, crouching in the underbrush of the soul, but malevolent supernatural creatures—and you will earn first disbelief, and then a stare contemptuous enough to freeze over hell, if such a place existed.

This contempt is the great strength of the materialist, the scornful weapon wielded against all attempts to suggest that the world might still be an enchanted place, that there might be angels and demons abroad in the streets of Cambridge, right beneath our over-educated noses. “Angels and demons?” the materialist sniggers. “Why not believe in fairies, too?”

Which is, admittedly, a perfectly sensible question. I have never seen a fairy, of course—not many people do nowadays, at least in this part of the world. But if one were to put in a sinister appearance tonight—and it would be sinister, since the realm of faerie is by all accounts dark and perilous—I would be far better equipped to deal with it than the average materialist, whose entire edifice of belief would be dynamited in an instant—and by a single leprechaun, no less.

“But there aren’t any fairies, or demons, or ghosts,” some of my readers will be shrieking at this point, tearing their hair out in clumps, “and so it doesn’t make any difference!”

Perhaps they’re right. But it behooves me to point out that if there were a supernatural realm, or realms, one would not expect its secrets to lie open to the probings of skeptical scientists and self-assured Harvardians. Indeed, one would expect the supernatural to impinge upon our own world only occasionally, in places where the wall between the two spheres was rubbed thin—or cleaved, briefly, by the Hand of God.

And it is, after all, arrant nonsense to claim that no one has seen a fairy, or a ghost. Thousands have, over the course of human history, and thousands more have seen what might have been fairies or ghosts or other, stranger things. It’s possible that in every instance there was a trick of the light, or a hallucination or a burst of wishful thinking. But since we do not know (and by definition cannot know) the probability of the supernatural’s existence, the assertion that every ghost or fairy-sighting must be a fiction is little more than a pleasant materialist prejudice.

Similarly, it is silly to claim that no one has ever encountered a demon. Consider, if you will, the extensive literature on demonic possession, a supposedly medieval phenomenon that has shown remarkable legs in our disenchanted world. (It’s worth noting that The Exorcist was based on a true story far more shocking and supernaturally charged than any of Linda Blair’s pea-soupy antics.) Yes, it’s perfectly conceivable that every case of “possession” has some as-yet-undreamt-of medical explanation. But it seems possible, at the very least, that when people behave as though they are inhabited by a demon and are cured only through the intervention of an exorcist (yes, we still have them), maybe they really were possessed by a demon.

Then there is the case of miracles, in which I have an advantage over some, having actually seen a few myself. When I was young, my family attended religious services run by a woman named Grace, a brassy Italian-American lady whose ministry was based around her ability to (brace yourselves, my science-concentrating friends) heal people of various illnesses, ranging from chronic arthritis to cancer. She would pluck sufferers from the crowd, name their ailments, touch them—and they would fall over and lie twitching on the carpeted floor of whatever Connecticut high school auditorium her constantly cash-strapped organization had rented out that night. Sometimes they spoke in tongues. (Sometimes my parents did—which is more embarrassing than you can imagine).

The Holy Spirit was at work, not her, Grace always insisted; I saw no reason to doubt it.

It was an imperfect business—sometimes people weren’t cured at all, sometimes the pain or the cancer went into remission and then returned weeks or months or years later. And I must admit that I was never cured of anything (though I knew people who were) and that I never even fell over under the weight of Spirit (though my parents did, even before they believed). So there are loose threads in this miraculous tapestry for a skeptic to tug at, if she chose.

But sometimes the tapestry matters more than the threads. Sometimes the weight of human experience, which suggests that all is not colliding atoms and crashing chemical waves, matters more than the laboratory rats who insist that their test tubes and supercollidors can take the measure of man, and of this strange earth (and heaven?) that we inhabit.

Of course, if you don’t believe me, with my tales of miracles and magic and people speaking in tongues, that’s perfectly understandable.

But if you happen on a fairy tonight, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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