Why We Need the Demonic: A Phenomenological Analysis of Negative Religious Experience

James M. Nelson 1  and Jonah Koetke 1
  • 1 Valparaiso University,, Valparaiso, United States of America


An enduring feature of Christian religious life has been the experience of the demonic. This experience can be found in the New Testament, most obviously in reported encounters with demons, but more centrally in the language of spiritual warfare that pervades much of the Pauline literature. In the Patristic period, these ideas were cemented in the Christian tradition in the writings of the Desert Fathers. A phenomenological understanding of experience holds that percepts have qualities that are inherently given as part of the experience, and that these qualities can be observed through the use of phenomenological concepts. An examination of the writings of the Desert Fathers suggests that one inherent quality of some religious experiences is their externality. Thoughts or feelings within the person are perceived as having an external source, and external threats can take on an embodied quality in perception, as in visions of demonic beings. These experiences have their initial constitution in an Otherness centered in the body. On reflection, it is not surprising that we would find a quality of externality in religious experience. Religion and spirituality deal with our relationship to the broader world around us. Recent phenomenological writings by Levinas and Marion have begun to recover the importance of externality, however, they neglect aspects of demonic experiences such as their negative valence. Critics of the demonic have tried hard to expel the idea from Western consciousness, pointing to tragic experiences in early modern history and the apparent need to posit the existence of immaterial entities. However, a careful phenomenological and historical analysis casts serious doubt on this modernist picture. The abandonment of the demonic in much of Christian religious thought and practice carries negative consequences, as it invalidates the external quality of many difficult religious experiences. A recovery of the concept of the demonic would help us better understand the phenomenology of religious life.

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