Most stories about exorcism following in the wake of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist (and its film adaptation) tend to portray the Catholic Church as some sort of Justice League fighting the forces of darkness. They clumsily point to the existence of grotesque demonic forces as proof for God’s existence. Blatty however, shows more sophistication. He sets up the now-familiar juxtaposition of a character who is a skeptic and a character who is a believer. As the tale develops he turns this contrast on its head. It is Fr. Damien Karras, S.J. who is the skeptic, while Chris MacNeil, the atheistic mother of the possessed Regan, is the believer in the supernatural. Blatty understands that the world is not neatly divided into believers and doubters, but rather that doubt and faith are often intertwined, and that sometimes one must believe one fantastic thing in order to doubt another.
The Believing Skeptic
Chris is immediately introduced as a critical thinker. An actress, she is examining a new script and points out that her character’s actions make no sense. This extends, unsurprisingly, to spiritual matters; she is dryly and politely dubious of the merits of her secretary’s self-hypnosis, Buddhist chanting, and transcendental meditation.
Despite her skepticism, she believes that “perhaps” she once saw a Buddhist monk levitate while meditating. This “perhaps” is very important to her, because she knows that nobody can defy the laws of physics, but her senses tell her that somebody has done otherwise. This “perhaps” emphasises that she doubts her certainty in pure naturalism.
In Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, analyses the importance of the word “perhaps.” He refers to a story told by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, in which a man of the Enlightenment visits the Rabbi of Beritchev in order to “shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith.” When the man enters the rabbi’s room, the rabbi looks at the man and says, “But perhaps it is true after all,” which causes the man to tremble. Ratzinger says that unbelief, no matter how strong,
cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words ‘Yet perhaps it is true.’ That ‘perhaps’ is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief… both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief.”
Chris is haunted by the possibility that her disbelief may be wrong. Perhaps monks really can levitate. Ultimately, after she witnesses the helplessness and impotence of doctors and psychiatrists and other rational men of science, she comes to believe that her daughter is possessed, even before any priest does. Fr. Karras realises that Chris is afraid that Regan is not possessed, because it would mean that Regan’s condition is wholly incomprehensible. Chris needs to take that leap of faith in order to understand what is happening to Regan, even if it means that she must turn to a supernatural explanation.
Ratzinger says that belief
is a human way of taking up a stand in the knowledge of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is incommensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless… he can only [calculate and act] in the context of a meaning that bears him up.
For Chris, a supernatural explanation is not irrational; Regan displays all of the symptoms of a possessed person, and her condition cannot be explained as a physical or psychological disorder. Chris’s belief bestows meaning on Regan’s plight, and this belief means that Chris can choose a course of action in order to save her daughter.
The Doubting Believer
Fr. Karras, on the other hand, as a priest, would automatically seem to be the believer in the story. However, he disdains the idea of “levitating priests.” He is called a “walking Age of Reason,” afraid of seeming gullible or superstitious. When Chris asks him how to get an exorcism, he says that most educated people in the Church do not believe in the Devil, and conditions thought to be possessions are simply medical and psychological problems.
Not only does Fr. Karras doubt Regan’s possession, he also doubts his own faith. He does not want to have to find Jesus in the ugliness of the world, and cannot see God’s love amidst suffering. Even though he knows the logical answers to these problems, his emotions keep him from being able to believe.
This is where The Exorcist becomes truly brilliant. G.K. Chesterton says that when people no longer believe in God, it is not that they no longer believe, but rather that they believe in anything. Similarly, in order to maintain his doubts in a supernatural possession, Fr. Karras must believe in obscure and incredible paranormal phenomena. He says that telepathy is an accepted reality, and believes that Regan could be plucking the answers to his questions from his own mind. The furniture could be moving because of Regan’s psychokinesis, which is “not that uncommon,” not because of demonic power. He admits that “there’s no one in the world who pretends to understand” these phenomena; in other words, he is appealing to faith in something mysterious in order to doubt the possession, which is also mysterious. To doubt, he must choose to believe something about the nature of the cosmos, and it is this actively held belief that leads him to doubt the claims of another.
In this way, Blatty turns the believer-doubter dichotomy on its head once by making the priest the doubter and the atheist the believer, but then he does it a second time by showing how much this skeptic needs to believe in order to doubt. For Fr. Karras, disbelief and skepticism do not belong to aloof neutrality that dispassionately weighs different views based on evidence, but to faith in the incredible; as Dr. Brett Salkeld says, everyone “comes to questions with prior commitments.” For Fr. Karras’s skepticism to become just as much of a stand as Chris’s belief is, he must choose to believe something, in this case the paranormal. However, he does not choose a belief that can serve as a firm foundation for further belief and action; instead, he clings to his belief in the paranormal in order to doubt, and this doubt paralyses him to the point of being unable to help Regan.
Skepticism and the Risk of Faith
Skepticism certainly has its place, but, as Michael S. Roth says,
[F]etishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.
True intelligence cannot limit itself to debunking ideas, but at some point needs to take a stand and commit itself to the project of building something. Fr. Karras, the walking Age of Reason who expresses this reason by doubting, cannot help Regan by debunking every possible explanation for what ails her; at some point, he needs to decide what is best for her. He needs to commit to an action. Intelligence is not just about being critical; Roth says that “being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication,” but he says that it is also a shield against the risk of commitment to an ideal, and this is a risk that Fr. Karras has difficulty taking.
Fr. Karras’s beliefs are also haunted by the word “perhaps.” Perhaps Regan truly is possessed. She does, after all, display all of the symptoms of a possessed person, even if he can point to incredible natural explanations for their presence. He occasionally asks the demon for proof that it is in fact a demon, but the demon points out that Fr. Karras could find another explanation for any apparent proof. Even when he asks the bishop for permission to perform an exorcism, knowing that Regan’s case fulfills the criteria the Church has laid out, he “still did not dare to believe.” His reason has led him to consider the evidence and judge that Regan fits the Church’s definition of a victim of possession, but he cannot yet make that last leap into faith. His belief that there are no possessions is still too strong, even though Regan could perhaps be genuinely possessed, because perhaps there is another explanation that they have not yet found. He is yet to take the risk of looking gullible.
The most basic doubt people experience in The Exorcist, however, is not whether demons exist, or whether monks levitate, but whether they are loved. One of the early explanations for Regan’s possession is that she is feeling guilty and responsible for her parents’ divorce. She may be uncertain of their love for her. Similarly, Fr. Karras does not sees God’s love in a world where young altar boys are set on fire by strangers at a bus stop.
Eventually, Fr. Karras asks Fr. Lankester Merrin, the priest with whom he is performing the exorcism, what the purpose of possession is. Fr. Merrin replies,
The point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us.
Many of the stories that have followed in the wake of The Exorcist have seen an image of absolute evil as demonstrating the necessary existence of a contrary absolute good in God, but in this novel, Chris becomes convinced only of the existence of the devil. For Blatty, this image of evil is more devious and subtle. The possession might show that God exists, but the danger is that it simultaneously makes us doubt God’s love for us, our worthiness to receive God’s love, and God’s worthiness of being loved if He allows such evil to happen. Of course we cannot earn God’s love; it is given freely, but when we are confronted with our worst depravities, it is so easy to think that perhaps it is not given freely, and in fact comes only to the worthy. This horror, however, is a lie.
Fr. Merrin says that God asks them to act with love to those who repel them, which is the greatest love of all, and shows that God can indeed love the unworthy. It is a great risk to give this love to a person who might reject or abuse it, but Fr. Merrin can let vomit wash over his hand in order to save Regan; God can still love the unlovable.
Fr. Karras finds the strength to go back and continue the exorcism when he sees a card Regan gave her mother, praising the “prettiest things.” He sees this simple love and faith in beauty, and feels the need to help someone. He and Fr. Merrin sacrifice their lives to save Regan, but even before this, they endure every foul insult and taunt the demon throws at them, and its excrement and vomit, in order to save a beautiful little girl loved by her mother. The fourth section of the novel has as its epigraph a quote from St. John, that he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Fr. Karras comes to be able to abide in love, to see it and give it, and comes to elation at the time of his death, and has no need to doubt any longer.