What episode from the Gospels fascinates you? For John Kaag, it’s the Gerasene Demoniac. Even now, after leaving his churchy childhood and growing up into an agnostic professor of philosophy, that story still holds his focus.

Apparently it’s grabbed Mockingbird’s attention, too, since the story has appeared a couple of times here on the site. Connor Gwin read the demoniac’s condition in terms of personal shattering, while Zack Verham described the social division and scapegoating inherent in the story. DZ even showed how Stephen King’s Storm of the Century riffs on this strange episode.

Over at Aeon, Kaag offers another angle, focusing on the demoniac’s strange rejection of aid:

This demoniac – a self-imposed outcast from society – lived at the outskirts of town and ‘night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones’. The grossest part of the story, however, isn’t the self-mutilation. It’s the demoniac’s insane refusal to accept help. When Jesus approached him, the demoniac threw himself to the ground and wailed: ‘What do you want with me? … In God’s name, don’t torture me!’ When you’re possessed by evil spirits, the worst thing in the world is to be healed.

Kaag thought that attitude was nonsense. Miracles aside, how could this story be true about human nature? But then, he encountered our favorite Danish existentialist, and he began to reconsider:

In Kierkegaard’s words: ‘One may hear the drunkard say: “Let me be the filth that I am.”’ Or, leave me alone with my bottle and let me ruin my life, thank you very much. I heard this first from my father, and then from an increasing number of close friends, and most recently from a voice that occasionally keeps me up at night when everyone else is asleep.

Those who are the most pointedly afflicted are often precisely those who are least able to recognise their affliction, or to save themselves. And those with the resources to rescue themselves are usually already saved. As Kierkegaard suggests, the virtue of sobriety makes perfect sense to one who is already sober. Eating well is second nature to the one who is already healthy; saving money is a no-brainer for one who one is already rich; truth-telling is the good habit of one who is already honest. But for those in the grips of crisis or sin, getting out usually doesn’t make much sense.

… The demoniac reflects what theologians call the ‘religious paradox’, namely that it is impossible for fallen human beings – such craven creatures – to bootstrap themselves to heaven. Any redemptive resources at our disposal are probably exactly as botched as we are.

There are many ways to distract ourselves from this paradox – and we are very good at manufacturing them: movies and alcohol and Facebook and all the fixations and obsessions of modern life. But at the end of the day, these are pitifully little comfort.

In response, Kaag resolves to give up his distractions, to sit in the restlessness, and thereby “to notice that I am not alone in my anxiety.” It’s a beautiful vision of social cohesion out of pain, but is it really enough?

For a little while now, I’ve been attempting centering prayer. It’s just once a week, and I go if I can wake up. But it exhausts me. We sit in silence for a mere 20 minutes, yet I can’t clear my mind for even that long. I need to be doing or thinking something. I keep at it because I think it actually does help ameliorate some of that restlessness. But I’m still unstable, and I need something more, something external, even beyond the wonderful possibility of connecting with someone else in our shared pain.

And I guess that’s why Mark says that Jesus still heals the demoniac, against all refusal. And instead of crying out in pain, Jesus gave him thankfulness and joy.