Monday, December 5, 2011

Beware the "pneumata akatharta"

Slow as I am, I am still working my way through Joseph Mangina's theological commentary on Revelation, while simultaneously reading through Revelation during Advent. I hope to cycle through the ultimate book of Sacred Scripture at least twice more before Christmas, enriched by Mangina's insights, before Christmas.

This morning I was reading Mangina's treatment of the sixteenth chapter of the Apocalypse and I was struck by two things. First, by Mangina's pointing out John's insistence on the power of speech, what he says is "John's view of the uncanny, almost magical quality of speech itself." This observation leads Mangina to conclude, "It is not the hard power of legions and armor that the Christian should fear. Far more dangerous is the soft power of speech, language, and propaganda."

A few pages later, commenting on Revelation 16:17-21, Mangina writes about the seventh angel, who, like the other six angels, is given a bowl with a plague to be poured out, who "pours his bowl out upon the air," thus fouling the air, which, as another commentator cited by Mangina, Swete, noted, air is necessary to sustain life. Even before the seventh angel pours out the final plague, the common air, according to Mangina, "has been fouled by the pneumata akatharta, the 'unclean spirits or 'breaths' of the dragon, beast, and false prophet," who together constitute an unholy anti-Trinity. Mangina goes on to say that especially in an age when we are rightly concerned about the effects of human activity on the earth's atmosphere, "it is tempting to think of the ways in which unbridled consumption has poisoned the physical atmosphere," he insists that instead, "it might be more apt to think of the poisoning of the air by human thought and speech." He immediately points to the phenomenon of the "blogosphere," noting "its particular venom." "The lack of charity" so evident in this interconnected web of human interaction, according to Mangina, "is its own kind of poison." Those of who constitute the very loosely constituted Catholic blogosphere must take our share of the responsibility for its spiritual climate.

Indeed, as Mangina notes, "[t]here are spiritual climates as well as meteorological ones." He insists, rightly to my mind, "What John depicts here is more than just the ordinary sinful corruption of the human air, but its demonic radicalization at the end of time." Keep in mind that etymology of the word "demon," which is Greek in origin, before it is about invisible, goblin-like entities, simply means "to divide." In Christian terms, it is important to note that, even in Revelation, it is God who does all the dividing. These are certainly sobering and useful things to consider of an Advent Monday.

Lest all of this sound too dire, it is important to state that not all human speech poisons the air. Writing about unity of Christ's Body, which unity inheres in a diversity of persons and gifts, and how to maintain this Spirit-given unity, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, instructs us:
No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. [And] be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ (Eph. 4:29-32)
To avoid moving from one extreme to another, negating my initial point, I have to point out that what the apostle exhorts is not merely blowing so much proverbial smoke up a certain orifice. We love someone most by uncompromisingly loving her/his or destiny. If what we say does not serve this purpose, even if it is "nice", it is not edifying.


  1. I think that your etymology of "demon" is a bit of a stretch. "DaimOn" may have its roots in "daiO," which can mean "to divide," but the Greek cognate does refer, even in Homeric Greek, to a deity or at least to divine power. The verbal relation, though, is regarded as conjecture by Liddell and Scott in their lexicon. I think that you would have to demonstrate the root of the word in Mycenaean Greek to be absolutely certain. Are you sure that you are not confusing this with the root of "diabolical"?

  2. Thanks for your helpful comment. I know that in classic mythology "daemons" are most often benevolent spirits and in Christian usage they are the opposite. What Liddell and Scott (an authoritative source for sure) say is conjecture, I often see portrayed as fact and taken for granted. I actually went back to some notes from an ecclesiology class for that bit, but, as always, any inaccuracies I post are mine alone.

    I am sure that I don't mean "diabolical," however. Given your insight, I stated that case too strongly (a constant temptation in blogging, at least for me). I suppose I could've been clearer and written something like, "it is often held that the Greek word for 'demon' is derived from the word meaning to divide."


"I'm gonna kick tomorrow"

I have long loved the sound of the '90s band Jane's Addiction. While doing some music listening recently, I ran across this acousti...