After preaching a sermon on Mark 9:14-29, a passage in which Jesus is described as exorcising a demonic spirit from a boy who seems to have epilepsy, you are confronted by a church member. He says: "I just can't buy that exorcism stuff. It's clear the boy in that story had epilepsy. Why don't we just drop talk about spirits and the like?" How do you respond? What (if anything) do you indicate would be gained by the member's suggestion to jettison the language of exorcism? What (if anything) do you indicate would be lost by this suggestion?
Here's my response:
Tough. I think that particular kid probably did just have epilepsy, and the language of evil spirits was all the gospel-writers had. And there are other exorcism scenes that can easily be described in terms of mental illness. But there are other stories that imply much more...mental illnesses and neurological problems don't generally grant one the ability to tell fortunes(Acts 16), nor do they ask to be sent into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8).
I think rather than jettisoning the language of exorcism, it would be better to add the language of healing, including healing of disorders the ancients didn't have a category for. Jesus is Lord also of our synapses and serotonin levels. That is, some exorcism stories perhaps are better understood as healing stories, but not in a way that rules out the reality of spiritual forces opposed to God. Or perhaps the distinction is false, as if problems could ever be just physical or just spiritual...another example of our underlying gnosticism.
As for the hypothetical church member, I think a little soft naturalism on this issue probably isn't the worst of things. And wholesome doubts are perfectly natural and even helpful sometimes, but I would encourage that person to keep in mind the prayer of the father in the story: I do believe; help my unbelief! Or perhaps: I do believe Jesus is Lord over everything, including the spirits and demons who I'm not sure exist. Help me keep my mind open to the possibilities of God's redemption happening in realms I'm not even aware of!