Religious Education and #charliecharliechallenge : It’s Time for a Lesson on the Occult.

I am not that worried about the recent social media trend for young teens and school pupils to play a game using two pencils and a sheet of paper to create a makeshift version of the Ouija board. A grid is drawn on paper to make four panels, two of which are labelled “yes” and the other two “no.” The pens are then put on top of another, positioned like a cross. The players call out “Charlie, Charlie can we play” or “Charlie, Charlie are you here?” Then they wait for the pen to move as they film the game for online posting.

I went to school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire where watching scary films and having a midnight séance was quite a craze for a while. Not least because the local caves of Sir Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club were just down the road and, for some reason, my school-friends and I were utterly convinced by the totally unfounded rumour, years old, that the manmade follies housed demons, ghosts and were used as a temple for devil worship. In fact, as with most scary stories, it remains just that, a story. The Hell-Fire club of Sir Dashwood and his friends was merely a lively bunch of well-humoured friends seeking an underground refuge for wild parties to celebrate life like the Venus and Bacchus. They would

“get together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury”.

So, not quite the occult.

Therefore, when I heard about the recent social media trend, my initial reaction was fairly sceptical. It’s just a game. A silly one, but probably for a teenager, quite fun. Perhaps though, I was wrong. The occult should be taken seriously. It is a super learning opportunity for pupils (and teachers!) of RE.

Spanish Catholic priest and exorcist Father Jose Antonio Fortea said this week that the Charlie Charlie Challenge poses a genuine and very real danger as it involves the summoning of spirits. In his book, Summa Daemoniaca, he presents a treatise of demonology and an exorcist’s manual. Wikipedia gives a brief synopsis of the book and it sounds like a fascinating read:

“This book analyzes the world of demons, the final damnation state of the soul, the inter-relationship of the fallen angels among themselves and with respect to angels, human beings and God. The book’s second part deals with the different related demonic phenomena: how to discern if someone’s possessed, how to conduct an exorcism, the poltergeist phenomenon in haunted houses, as well as some other strange and unusual phenomena. This book ends with an analysis about evil itself. The “reflections” at the end of the book constitute the most philosophical part of the treaty.”

It this idea of ‘evil itself’ which I find makes me sceptical about the possibility of connecting with a being or concept through games like the Charlie Charlie Challenge. I just can’t bring myself to believe in an objective, universal real life object of ‘evil’ out there, let alone it being able to encapsulate itself anthropomorphically in Mexican demons or deceased high school pupils.

St Augustine of Hippo uses the creation story as his reference point when trying to explain evil.  He was adamant that this world was created good, as it says in Genesis 1:31:

‘God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good’.

Therefore, originally there was no evil within creation. For Augustine, goodness exists where things are in order and harmony, serving the purpose they have been created for. Evil cannot exist in this creation as a quality with its own properties since God created the world good and therefore evil merely ‘exists’ where things do not work in an ordered and harmonious way. In other words, evil does not exist as a substance but is just a privatio boni, a privation or lack of goodness. An example which illustrates this concept that I use when teaching is the difference between light and dark. Darkness is not a ‘thing’, it is not an evil monster gobbling up the sun, it is just a lack of light. In fact, light could not be possible without a lack of light, nor so beautiful. Evil is just like darkness for Augustine, not a thing in itself and, as such, no real challenge to God’s omnipotence or benevolence.

Augustine did not always hold such a view, however. In his 20’s he rejected the Christianity of his childhood in order to become a Manichee[i] which taught that Evil could be explained by Dualism. This is the view that there are two forces present in the universe, good and evil, a significant problem for the theist undermining the power of a monistic God. Indeed, if there exists an equal and opposite force to God he can no longer be called all-powerful.

Later, on becoming a Christian, it was important for Augustine to write against the Manichee heresy.  He recognised that dualism was not a Christian tradition since everything was created by God and hence, there can be no independent power of evil within creation. Thus, Augustine’s theodicy developed as a rebuttal to the Manichaeans  and a development towards the emerging universality of Christian thought gained at the council of Nicaea in 325, which led to the Nicene Creed ‘We believe in one God.. maker of all things visible and invisible’.

Indeed, belief in the realist existence of Ba‘al Zəbûb is not common amongst Christians because of the problems it raises for the nature of God. This is reflected quite well, I think, in William Golding’s 1954 dystopian novel of the same name where evil does not exist in itself, but is brought to life through the acts, choices and paranoid fears of Ralph, Jack and the other boys. There is no beast on their island, no demonic forces, just human agents, full of concupiscence, some with less grace than others, ready to fall just as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Augustine’s defence effectively denies the existence of natural evils, holding that all evils result from the choices of free agents, fallen angels and humans. In a way, I agree  with the kernel at the heart of this theodicy: evil is not a thing. It is not a beast, a devil, a demon or a boy called Charlie. It is a concept, an idea. It might still have some meaning, but only insofar as a tool used to describe the opposite of all that is wonderful in the world.

So, I’m sorry Charlie, I won’t be playing with you today.  

For more on the problem of evil, see my AS level resource it includes some references to the wonderful book ‘The Puzzle of Evil’ by Peter Vardy.

[i] Manichaeism was a quasi-Christian religion based in Gnosticism; Gnostics regard the material world as evil, not created by God and existing before Him. They view that it is with the realisation of a soul/spirit as true reality that one can escape the physical realm and be united with God. They reject Jesus as the son of God.

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at: www.BlogSyncRE.org.uk 

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