The Conjuring, The Devil and the Curious Question of Peronhood and Existence: Parsing Out the Problem of Human and Divine Justice

As a considered fan of the Conjuring universe, it is too bad this third entry has been getting such a bad rep as it is actually a pretty strong entry in what is, I would argue, a really strong franchise. It isn’t quite as technically strong as it’s predecessors, but that shouldn’t take away from the interesting things it does manage to do both in furthering the storyline of Ed and Lorraine and in tabling specific themes surrounding their own sometimes troubled but always compelling and persistent public presence. I think critics in general are underwiting some of the technical proficiency, perhaps due to the pacing which differentiates itself from its predecessors.

There are two elements of this story that the film establishes up front- firstly the question of the real world case, which attempted to establish a historical precedent around the notion of criminal responsibility, and secondly, the aging couple (Ed and Lorraine looking appropriately weathered) facing questions about their own legacy and story. With the former, I imagine the mileage might differ on what people glean from the larger narrative, as the truth about the real story demands a lesser emphasis on the actual court room drama given how it all plays out, even as that is teased as a central tenant of the story’s larger concern. What this story is engaged in is the unfolding mystery, using the real world data to flesh that out and imagine the gaps from a particular perspective (that of a fleshed out and fully humanized Ed and Lorraine).

On the latter front, the series continues to ask viewers to reserve judgment so as to engage the idea that Ed and Lorraine were actual people with real world lives and real world convictions about how this world works. Maybe this is where the cynicism of the past couple years hampered this films performance and embrace, who knows. Controversial figures translating in controversial times challenging our perspective on the existence of darkness and evil in this world playing as entertainment seems like it could be a hard sell. Either way, this film seems to know that this is where it found success previously, and emphasizes their story as detectives, using that to form the heart and soul of this rather unusual case of possible demonic possession.

Here’s the thing. Even if one is uncomfortable with a film that humanizes Ed and Lorraine in an attempt to justify their witness to spiritual realities and use that for emoitonal points, the case itself still brings to light some interesting and compelling questions about the nature of human responsibility. The justice system here in North America is designed to ensure the safety and liberty of all, a basic human right. As the film underscores though, the way the justice system does this depends on some element of a definable human “responsibility” towards an accepted moral good. And it doesn’t take long to recognize that what guides the process and what underscores the system in the eyes of the general populace is a tendency and a need not only to judge an evil but to judge a person. What often gets sidelined within these assumptions is the science itself that we perceive to for the basis of modern Western society, which if taken at face value and at its most rational challenges many of the assumptions of personal responsibilty that play into this judgment of the invidual person. Inparticular, where this does come into play is in cases that involve questions of psychological and mental stability, which the case in this film is essentially playing on, albeit with a slightly different and radical emphasis. What they were arguing for with the real life person of Arty intersects with the familiar arguments used to plead insanity, and in the real life case this is actualy what the older brother eventually decided to argue a good deal after the fact (since then choosing to be silent after a heated battle over the book detailing this story). He cited the case as one of mental instability, a claim that remained tied to anonymous testimony and which didn’t sit entirely comfortable with the full breath of evidence, which itself was mired in uncertainty given the Court never allowed for the premise (the devil made me do it) to be used as a basis for an argument in court.

This really does cut to the heart of this perceived disconnect that exists in the modern West between science and faith, something the film is interested in pokimg a finger at. One doesn’t need to accept the way this film imagines the gaps in the story as completely factual (in fact, the film knows it is engaging an interpretive exercise) to allow the questions that emerge from those gaps to unsettle our frame of reference. After all, this is how imagining the mystery of God works. It translates to human, socially constructed and material images that help us to make sense of what we otherwise don’t have words for. That this would incorporate iconography and shared visions and narratives steeped in something like exorcisms should not be surprising. The questions behind this frame the emphasis, which is how is it that we make sense of a world cloaked in mystery regarding God, spirit and personhood but that also reveals tangible expressions of good and evil. Is science the great liberator that stands on necessary guard against this intrusive fallacy we call faith, thus causing faith to be at war with science in defence of its claims, or is the discussion more nuanced than that?

This is where the science that we assume informs the justice system becomes interesting to consider. If we take the science as it is, personal responsibilty is really just an illusion/delusion that we use to evoke personal response and to uphold the societies we are driven to protect. We play this out as more than than mere determinism though, largely in our inherent need to give and find meaning to existence, ofen locating this in our need to judge people as good or bad, good or evil. Given nature is a deteminitive force, all of us would fall somewhere within this same line of defence that could say that “nature” made me do it on some level. As science would show and demonstrate, free will is an illusion/delusion that should by nature strip us of any ability to demonstrab argue for a just sentence of the person in ways that translate to statements of given “personhood” as a factual reality, but we ignore this for the sake of building what we deem meaningful societies in the name of a progressive and linear reading of history, bringing in irrationally held assumptions about personhood and meaning to justify judging a person according to ones nature. Where this history is moving towards and why is not something science alone can justify and explain, let alone attending for the fact that these narratives can only be established retrospectively and within a time and place. It’s no surprise that when we dig behind modern expressions of this things get incredibly messy. People remain desperate to judge others, and do so using all manners of convoluted reasoning, often leading to a public sphere that is mired in hostility and untold convictions.

With the exception of those cases that do declare mental instability as a basis for determining innocence or guilt, a fact often proved using susceptible science which operates without much in the way of accepted definitions of what life is nor an inate abilty to locate precisely where we should and must draw the line between “responsible” natures and natures for which we cannot be held responsible (this is what emerged for me when I was doing my masters in counseling, one which I eventually switched to a different stream). We find something similar playing across the evidence of human activity within history. In truth, when this claim is made in particular cases popular society still has an incredibly tough time accepting such a judgment. They will still desire to judge the indivual and hold them personally responsible, and often in harsh terms (we witnessed this in my hometown of Winnipeg not that long ago with a man who murdered and ate parts of a human body on a highway bus). We are addicted to this idea of personhood even though the science would say that such a thing doesn’t truly exist except as an illusion, and we play this out in how we structure and organize our societies, often in a heirarchal and oppressive fashion.

What this film dares to ask is, what is the true difference between claiming one not responsible due to mental instability and health and claiming spiritual influence? Both claims exist within predetermined and accepted beliefs about the existance of good and evil. Both see justice as necessary (and injustice as an actualized and definable determination). Within a view that rejects the notion of spiritual reality we must contend for the fact that the way to express such dichotomies are created, emergent and functional realities that play as a result of living together as social creatures. And yet that premise rests on the truth that true personhood does not infact exist as truth outside of the illusions we give our lives to in order to have meaning (which is what injustice disrupts), raising serious questions about what it is that we are protecting and what it is we are using as our measure, let alone how that should motivate us to particular action. In truth, based on the science we can only make claims about the potential impact of actions within a material reality and within observable predictive and replicable response. And this requires the existence of determinism and repetition. We can state as a fact that if this person is a danger to society then they must be locked up for society to survive and, based on our motivating definition of such, to thrive. Judge the person though and we are translating that into transcendent truths, and as has been demonstrated, we do this in problematic and inconsistent manners that require certain irrational leaps in our judgment. Which is why the American Justice system, to use an example, remains so deeply problematic, precisely because it has its basis in a certain view of the world that is necessarily materiistic.

On the other side is the assumption of the spiritual component. Similar to the plea of insanity that evokes a deteminitive nature as reasoned basis for proving ones innocence, this evokes this notion that we live in a world where good and evil represents actual agency with the power to influence us, shape us, and yes, drive us towards certain actions and decisions. In my own experience what makes people uncomfortable with this idea is the agency part of the equation. Dig deeper though and the real piece that leaves people uncomfortable, imo, is the way this agency limits our ability to make our own judgements of the “person”. To be stripped of that power leaves people feeling out of control. And yet is there any difference between science perceiving nature as having that power over the person and the notion of spiritual powers having actual power to affect us in this world? Whether the spiritual powers are true in a factual sense, I would argue the difference is negligible, the only real question being who has the power and the control within that. While we might perceive that our allegiance then must go to our “nature”, we don’t live as though this is the case. Rather the two optons are some form of an external agency or humanity itself. Western, American society borrows from the former in order to build the latter, which is where it arrives at this convolted perception of personhood.

This is why we can note differences in retributive forms of justice and restorative justice when put in practice. I would argue that retributive justice flows from what we would define as “evil”. It is what religious texts cite as assuming the role of God, which is what spiritual forces have long been seen as capable of and determined to exploit. it is what find written into the template of Geneis in the Judeo-Christian text, with the story of Cain and Abel cited as beginning the never ending cylce of unforgiveness that fuels retributive justice. That it is so common place in a strictly materialist view of the world, repackaging what we define as evil as something good, is revealing. Restorative justice fights back against that assumption (that we must perpetuate this cycle to reach a just society) and we can see this operating naturally within different segments of society both as religious and non-religious conviction. For me though this begs the real question, which is whether a godless or spirit-less reality actually has a rational basis for living in such a manner. I’m not convinced it does. It requires us to live against our nature and assumes a definition of personhood that science cannot uphold in and of itself. That doesn’t mean people can’t live this way, and in truth what we might call goodness in this light (restorative justice) is visible in this world beyond the realm of specified or recognized embrace of faith systems. The fact that we do see this in both religious and non religious spheres of society to me is a witness to the existence of that good agency that I personally find makes most sense within a spiritual reality, precisely because this agency holds the power to declare this accepted truth of personhood into our lives in a given and actualized sense. It strips the power from us, removes it from the theory of emergence that binds the science to the natural order, and allows it to stand above us as both judge and jury of good and evil, acting as a universal truth, or a universal expression of truth. In a more integrated sense, accepting that there is a spiritual dimension to our reality where good and evil agency exists, whatever that looks like, allows me to move from judgment of the person to judement of good and evil itself in a way that is conistent with our knowleddge of reality.

Coming back to the trial at hand, what this does within my own frame of reference is challenge me not simply to accept Ed and Lorraine’s witness as true (their story has stood the test of time primarily because it stands in those gaps and invites engagement of a degree of mystery, which of course is vulnerable to expected controversy that inevitably follows and I would argue is rooted in a natural world driven equally by the allure of power and control), but rather to accept such questions as legitimate where they emerge within this imagined story. How does that challenge my view of the world? How does it challenge my own sense of power and control? How does it make me more aware of that which I call good and that which I call evil, and how does it make me more aware of the witness of these things as agencies at work within the world begging for our allegiance? And how does it challenge me to elevate my understanding of the “person” as one formed by both a material and spiritual reality?

To be clear, what this should do is collapse the never ending war between science and faith as well. This is not what is really on trial. Science and faith live in relationship to one another because the spiritual and material realities are not, as we have been conditioned in the west to believe, separated entities. What is different is how competing worldviews demand that we see and interpret the same reality and in the same information in a particular way, forcing us then to rationalize this in one direction or another and with different motovating factors from within that particular perspective. And make no mistake, if you believe that simply excising god and spirit leads to a better and more moral society you are not paying attention to how society actually works. Look at any number of social issues- racism, ecological/environmental concern, nationalism/globalism, immigration, abortion- and you will find movements that are just as prone to anger and hate and judgment of persons as the pardigms they are attempting to tear down. Again, the real question is, when we see nature and we locate good and evil as equal parts of this nature, does this point to using systems of power to gain control over pesons or does it point to submitting grace and empathy and forgiveness and love in relationship to persons. And if it is the latter, which reality makes the most rational sense of operating in this way given our competing natures? For me, faith affords me the abiltity to live into the latter most fully and most rationally precisely because it disempowers my need to be judge and jury of persons. And despite what some might argue this doesn’t make me less responsible for my actions, I find it makes me more so, precisely because the agency of good and evil stands above my own ability to conjure it, thus informing my reality. There is a freedom that I find in that, not dissimilar to the kind of freedom one might find if a court (or more importantly, a person) was to say and declare we are driven by a natue that lies within and outside of us and that who you are is not defined by good or bad actions. This is the same liberation, speaking from experience, that comes from hearing a doctor offer a diagnosis for a mental illness that helps you to distinguish between who you are and war that is happening inside of our own heads. That declaration alone has the power to liberate one towards true forgiveness and acceptance of both self and other, something that lies at the center of my own particular Christian faith. Thus the glorious truth is that we can lay claim to this precisely because a goodness operaating as agency holds the power to do this against the competing natures evident within our personhood and that society thus judges accordingly, shedding light on a greater view of reality emerging from the scientifically observable dirt of our existence. A god given reality if you will.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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