Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

Tillich writes from within the ambivalences he portrays, rather than analyzing them from the outside. He is patently fascinated by the threatening force of the “demonic primitive.” His explicit “demonization” of non-European art is, for him, a way of experiencing ultimate reality, of the “form-destroying eruption of the creative abyss of things.” The role played for Tillich by non-European art can surely be criticized on many levels, both at a moral level for its unreflective participation in the libidinal geography of European colonialism and on the aesthetic level for the skewed artistic judgments this participation often entails. And yet, Tillich presents a powerful theological, even poetic portrayal of the ways demonization is both an inevitable feature of human experience and an authentic experience of ultimate reality. In the form described here, demonization of the Other is also a path to the demonic within and the divine without; the primitivist fascination of modernism a journey to the psychoanalytic unconscious; and both a road to primordial reality. It is thus the theologian of demonization who not only portrays its destructiveness, but also its inevitability – as well as, in its “eruptive” dimension, its indispensability as the wellspring of creativity.

In political debate, demonization of this kind can be seen as engagement with the otherness of the Other, indeed with the way that Other embodies a vital, fascinating, terrifying reality which can unlock the ossifications of one’s own taken-for-granted certainties and identity. The very deformations one experiences in the demonized Other’s discourse is a signpost to one’s own desires and the “dark nether-world” within. The theological parallel teaches as well that engagement is not embrace, for while a universalizing humanism may efface the otherness of the Other, the experience of demonization can never do so. The demonizer should not be shamed but rather encouraged to fully elaborate his or her full range of desires and terrors in the precarious journey to the nether-world.

If demonization at this pole results from form-destroying energy, the danger at the other extreme lies in the absolutization of a particular form, its claim to definitively embody, even to “exhaust,” the vital forces. At this pole, “the creature desires to take possession of the inexhaustibility of the divine depth, to have it for its own. By this means the creative potency becomes destructive.”54 In the history of religions, the archetypal product of this kind of demonization is the “highest god of monarchial monotheism,” who proves to be “a demon, a finite thing that wants to exhaust the absolute” – implicitly making it a perennial imperative to re-enact the Gnostics’ demonization of Yahweh in relation to all “monarchial monotheisms.” If the challenge of “primitive art” is its strangeness, confronting the Western subject with its political and personal unconscious, the challenge of the “finite that wants to exhaust the absolute” is its uncanny familiarity. The absolutized finite confronts us with the double of the holy – the demonic god with the divine god, the demonic church with the divine church – a doubling made possible by the seizure of the energies of the abyss by the finite form. At its most terrifying in the period in which the early Tillich wrote, that of rising fascism, this confrontation was posed when religion and politics seemed to mirror each other – when the “totalitarian claim of the state upon man clashed with the unconditional claim which God makes upon him.”55

In political debate, the absolutization of the finite finds its parallel in the denial of Otherness – or, in the terms I have been using here, in the demonization-of-demonization. The “monarchial monotheism” of inter-subjectivity is the denial by the subject that it can be objectified, the refusal of the gaze of the Other, the force required to prevent the table-turning between “I” and “Other” in the struggle to organize the world. In short, the “monarchial monotheist” of political debate is the demonizer-of-demonization. Under his reign, radically alternative ways of framing the debate cannot be admitted, but only appear as demonic disruptions of proper discourse. Though the adversary of the monarch be thus demonized, Tillich’s theology teaches that it is the monarch who is the demon, the pretender to absolutized finitude, the Yaldabaoth of the seminar room.

Tillich was also concerned with a rather different danger, that of “profanization,” a quite different challenge than demonization. “Profanization,” as Tillich uses it during his early period, is much more akin to Weber’s “disenchantment,” a form of rationalization that affects the religious as well as the secular domains, than to conventional notions of secularization. Tillich closely associates “profanization” [profanisierung] with “de-demonization” [entdämonisierung]. It is a “form of the combatting of the demonic,” not through opening up finite forms to transcendent life forces, but rather, through suppressing all consciousness of cosmic depth. The lance of profanization in both ancient and modern times was philosophy, which has always sought to “make visible divine clarity in the perfection, completion, and rationality of form. But in the emphasis on divine clarity, the divine depth was lost: that which is inexhaustible, self-manifesting, unconditioned, and transcendent.”56 Profanization, often against its intentions, only overcomes the demonic “by tearing itself free from the divine at the same time”57 – an assertion whose paradoxicality may be traced to the paradoxical metaphysics of the “divine demonic” as ultimate reality. Thus, although the demonic is that which absolutely must be combatted – in fact its continual reappearance and the combat against it is, for Tillich, constitutive of the very history of religions – the disappearance of the consciousness of it would also spell the end of the sacred. This is a theology that wants otherness even, or especially, at all costs – an ambivalent desire that combines themes we have encountered in divergent forms in Heine, Picasso, and others.

54. Paul Tillich,, ‘Der Begriff des Dämonischen und seine Bedeutung für die systematische Theologie’, 286, translated in Paul Tillich’s Philosophy, 230 (translation modified).

55. Paul Tillich, ‘The Totalitarian State and the Claims of the Church’, in Social Research, 1:4 (1934), 425. Among the many parallels Tillich drew were the following: “The myth of the German nation and empire confronted the message of the people and Kingdom of God; the myth of blood, the community of sacrament which transcends blood relationship . . . the leadership of the national state, the sovereign claims of Christ.”

56. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic’, 107.

57. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic’, 106.

« Previous // Next »