Friday, November 13, 2009

"What is it all for if there's no Spooky?"

The above question was posed recently by Rome-based Anglo-Canadian Catholic writer Hilary White on her provocative and often very interesting weblog Orwell's Picnic. In this post from earlier in the week, Miss White observes that contemporary Christian apologists seldom respond adequately to the glib posturing of the "New Atheists" and other ardent secularists because they seek to justify belief in secular and 'worldly' terms and fail to address "the religious part of religion." In yesterday's post, Miss White quotes an English priest-blogger who notices that "[w]hat most religious people are badly prepared to discuss are those things the non-religious want to discuss, those fundamental questions that science just can't answer or where science merges into religion."

What is the "religious part of religion" that believers often fail to discuss? Orwell's Picnic provides a shorthand term for it - "the Spooky." In another recent post, Hilary White explains what she means by "Spooky Catholicism" and considers how pop culture betrays a hunger for it:
I have often thought that there seems, at least in the way most people practice the faith, two kinds of Catholicism. What I have arbitrarily designated "The Rules" and "Spooky Catholicism."

Of course, a balanced Catholic lives his life according to The Rules because he knows that Spooky Catholicism is real. This is the correct way of looking at it. The supernatural really actually exists in the really real world and therefore things like the difference between good and evil [are] not merely the subject of dry academic debate but an urgent and immediate reality to be contended with daily.

The reality of the supernatural is something that seems quite difficult for modern people to understand. And this despite the vast and growing proliferation of the occult in popular culture, which seems odd.
In the paragraphs that follow, Miss White considers how the Harry Potter books, Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer cater to enduring fascination with the supernatural by providing what amounts to a muddled naturalism. This kind of thinking has rubbed off on many Catholics, while what is really supernatural - "the Spooky" - has often been neglected:
Whether we like it or not, we live in a culture that has, for 400 years or more, been rejecting the existence of the supernatural. And now that we're looking for it again, we don't know it when we see it and think we see it when we really don't.

I think that our modern obsession with the occult is not in fact a result of an innate human fascination with the supernatural. Or perhaps the purveyors of the occult pop-culture are so unimaginative that what they are peddling is merely naturalism dressed up in sparkly GCI costumes.

As a result, we Catholics seem to have a hard time understanding what the actual supernatural is. We have popular Catholic literature that talks about things like birth and sunsets and butterflies as "miraculous." Well, it might be a poetic way of speaking about how great nature is, but it is misleading too. Natural things are not, by definition, miraculous. The supernatural is not just the natural with superpowers.

We really have a hard time with the idea of something that is real, has a will and an intellect and the ability to do things in the natural world, but no body at all. A spirit, in the strictest sense.

We have a heck of a time understanding the thing about God being outside, above and preceding time and space.

Now that the Church has more or less given up talking about the supernatural and continues to justify its existence based on its record of social work projects in the third world, we Catholics have fallen into the habit of thinking naturalistically. So much so, I think, that things like the "Catholic charismatic movement" have sprung up in reaction.

People who are interested in religion are really interested in the Spooky parts. They want to know about the grand movements of Heaven and Hell, of angels and demons and the Great War between them. They want to know that their own moral struggles are about something greater, taller and more grand than global warming or the dangers of smoking. Something better, that is, than what the secular world offers.

It's the real reason movies and books like The Da Vinci Code are so wildly popular. Why Hollywood always dresses its pretend nuns to look more like real nuns than the real nuns have looked in 40 years. And why the Godfather movies all have depictions of the brocade and velvet, pointed arches, gold-curliqued and marble-columned Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II era. No one who is looking for the real, Spooky, Supernatural version of religion wants a priest to dress in a polyester poncho and sing folk songs.

There's the Rules, yes, and we give intellectual assent to the doctrines of the Faith (which is what "The Rules" is shorthand for). But what are The Rules guiding if not the supernatural life of the soul?

What is it all for if there's no Spooky?
To read the rest, click here. In my own way, I agree with Hilary White that the mysterious, numinous, "Spooky" element is at once what is most real and most essential in religion. The "Spooky" element of religion is also one that many intellectuals - including many Christian intellectuals - have tended to dismiss, suggesting that belief must have a rational grounding in the here and now to be worthy of consideration. The implication seems to be that if religion is to have a place in the post-Enlightenment world it must be defined on the Enlightenment's terms. Acceptance of this line of thought may invite problems, for when the 'usefulness' or 'value' of religion is debated, the defenders of religious belief may find themselves crippled by a reliance on terms and categories that effectively stack the deck against religion.

At the very least, it strikes me that some religious believers' tendency to dismiss the "Spooky" element of faith is rather unhelpful. I've witnessed manifestations of this tendency any number of times, but at the moment one particular instance stands out in my mind. I once attended a seminar at which a Roman Catholic liturgist cavalierly dismissed a college student's statement that she liked to attend a particular on-campus liturgy because it was, in her description, "spooky" - conducted solely by the light of candles, punctuated by Gregorian chant, celebrated with a stylized formality that was at once austere and inviting. In the eyes of this liturgist, to say that one was looking for "spooky" suggested that one wasn't really looking for God. I didn't offer a challenge to the liturgist's statement at the time, but I wanted to reply that it was precisely within the realm of the "Spooky" that many find God.

Contrary to the views of that liturgist and others like him, I would suggest that the widespread hunger for mystery must be accepted and respected. I would suggest, too, that Miss White's question - "What is it all for if there's no Spooky?" - is one that believers of all stripes ought to take seriously. Among other things, asking this question might help us to understand why so many people identify as "spiritual but not religious." To be very frank, people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious are wrong - if you describe yourself this way, you're relying on the mistaken premise that "spirituality" and "religion" are two distinct phenomena that can be separated rather than aspects of the same experience. Nonetheless, I suspect that not a few of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd may have trouble with "The Rules" (which is what they often take religion to be) but still seek the "Spooky" in some form or another. If we wish to convince an increasingly skeptical society that religion and spirituality are inseparable, we would do well to recognize that "The Rules" and the "Spooky" are inseparable as well. AMDG.


At 11/14/2009 7:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Very interesting post--it definitely comes off as a conflict of interest when you are a religious person but also attuned to "the spooky." When I did a silent retreat over the summer I had a Jesuit as my spiritual director who was totally into astrology and the occult, not that he necessarily believed in it, but he was obviously intrigued.

In fact, we found out that we had both shopped in the same voodoo shop in New Orleans. Something about the unknown lends itself to increasing your imagination greatly. "Well, if I don't know THIS, then there are certainly other things that I don't know." I can't write off things like voodoo (or Latin American animism!! :-) )

P.S. If you read a lot of blogs, you should check out "" if you haven't already--it's a Google service that compiles every blog or website that you read into one ultimate blog. Very helpful!!


At 11/15/2009 3:27 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for your comments. I believe that what you write about the apparent conflict of interest between "religion" and "the Spooly" reflects the post-Enlightenment dilemma that I made note of in the post.

The fact that people perceive a conflict here as well as the fact that they think of "the spooky" purely in terms of things like astrology and the occult and not in terms of a truly religious sense of mystery also reveals the rationalist bias that we've been conditioned to accept. People still seek mystery, and if they can't get it from mainstream religion they'll get it from other sources. That's not to say that mystery (or "the Spooky") isn't a part of mainstream religion - it's an essential part, but it's also a part that we have tended to neglect in favor of a rationalist apologetics.

So, in other words, people don't need to turn to voodoo or animism to encounter the sacred mystery - it's there in Christianity, but many seem to have forgotten about it.

At 8/09/2010 6:49 PM, Blogger anothertwocents said...

10:1 that was Fr. Thomas King SJ, RIP.

I miss him.

At 8/09/2010 7:14 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Yes, the "spooky" Mass that I refer to was Fr. Tom King's 11:15 pm at Georgetown - I've written a number of times on this blog about Tom's influence on my life, so it goes without saying that I'm still a fan of the 11:15 and that I miss that Mass (and Tom King) very much.

I won't give the name of the liturgist who bashed the 11:15, but I will say that the way he dismissed it was not only unfair but also kept me from being able to accept anything else he had to say - after he took aim at "spooky" liturgy, everything else he said became superfluous.


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