Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

If only you knew the power of the dark side.

— Darth Vader, Star Wars

Two critical elements are almost entirely missing from the scientific world view. The first is consciousness, which governs our subjective perceptions of the world around us: the fragrance of a rose, the redness of its blossom, the pain we feel if we prick our finger on its thorns. The second is the unconscious, which harbors thoughts and feelings that may affect our actions but operate outside our conscious awareness. For all practical purposes, both consciusness and the unconscious are invisible to science, because they are not subject to empirical verification. Of course, just because these elements are invisible to science doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, the more we try to banish them from our accepted view of reality -- particularly the unconscious elements -- the more they creep back in through dreams and myths.

Religion tends to get short shrift within the scientific community, and even nominal believers are increasingly ignorant of the Bible and other religious texts. Yet people flock to see the Star Wars films, which restate many of the themes found in sacred literature. The depth psychologist Carl Jung pointed out long ago that certain archetypal images and themes recur in a culture, rooted in what he called the “collective unconscious.” The overarching theme of the Star Wars films is spiritual warfare, with the Jedi knight Luke Skywalker and his friends aligned against the fallen angel Darth Vader, representing the “dark side of the Force.” Just in case anyone misses the symbolism, the heavy-breathing Vader and his stormtroopers are decked out in modified Nazi regalia.

Those living under the Roman imperium in New Testament times would need no introduction to powers and principalities -- terms St. Paul used in his Letter to the Ephesians. Jesus himself was the victim of crucifixion by the Romans – a particularly gruesome form of execution meted out to those viewed as a threat to the established order. However, Paul wrote that “we are not contending against flesh and blood” – not against the Roman emperor or his minons in Palestine, like the figurehead King Herod or the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ followers were engaged in spiritual warfare “against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Lest there be any doubt on that score, the First Letter of John flatly declared that “the whole world is in the power of the evil one.”

The scientific worldview leaves little room for invisible forces meddling in human affairs – at least not the type laid down in the New Testament. Of course, scientists traffic in invisible forces all the time, including some as deadly as anything conjured up by the Evil One. I am reminded, for instance, of Robert Oppenheimer’s reaction to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, when he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become Death, the·destroyer of worlds.” However, the forces of nature are impersonal and operate without conscious intention, unlike the mischief cooked up by those spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Indeed, scientists are quick to dismiss any teleological explanation for natural phenomena – that is to say, any suggestion that they operate with an underlying purpose.

Even the most casual observer of human affairs knows there is evil in the world. The question is whether it amounts to anything more than the random bad behavior of individuals. In other words, is it something that can take possession of people, sometimes whole populations, like a deadly contagion? A case in point: the genocide in Rwanda, when Hutu tribesmen butchered upwards of one million of the Tutsi minority in a 100-day killing spree in 1994. The massacre was spearheaded by the Hutu military against ethnic Tutsi but largely carried out by militia groups and civilians armed with machetes and clubs. Since Tutsis are outwardly indistinguishable from Hutus, the perpetrators in rural areas mostly killed people they knew. In the cities, roadblocks were set up and identity cards checked for ethnicity. The killing stopped only when an outnumbered rebel army defeated the military, which was so preoccupied with the genocide that they failed to defend the country properly. In the end, as many as one million Hutus – a fifth of the population -- were implicated in the carnage.

What would suddenly possess large numbers of otherwise ordinary people to attack their neighbors with machetes and clubs – not in isolated acts of violence but in a national paroxysm of mayhem? Ethnic hatred is nothing new, but there are powerful taboos against killing that must first be overcome. Academics will no doubt weigh in with historical or socio-political explanations of the carnage. My own feeling is that we must look to epidemiology to fully understand the phenomenon. What is it that causes a pathogen to break out suddenly into the larger population? And what pathogen can mobilize normally harmless carriers to lay waste to an entire nation?

Medical researchers were initially slow to grasp the full dimensions of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s because the disease presented itself as a bewildering variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms in different people. Evil works the same way. We hesitate to diagnose it because it incubates in darkness and operates invisibly, rarely leaving a telltale marker behind. Even its most active carriers may remain in the dark about its actions, at least as long as they remain unaware of the darkness within themselves. Jung once observed that “the world powers that rule over all mankind, for good or ill, are unconscious psychic factors.” In earlier times, these psychic factors -- at least those that rule over our darker impusles -- might have been called demons. So which is it, unconscious psychic factors or demons? Either way, it would seem, the result is the same.

1 John 5:19       

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