Indiana University Bloomington

Working in Tandem: An Intimate Utilitarian Relationship

Maria Guido, nonprofit management for the religious sector

Written for REL-R389: Religious Relationships

Instructor: Prof. Constance Furey

Because there is no clear-cut way to look at God, the human imagination can spin a higher being into being whatever the imagination needs it to be, whether that be parent, creator, benefactor, or friend. God always means something to the people with whom God is in relation. People like to think that relationships can be either utilitarian or they can be intimate; there is a misconception that the two cannot go hand-in-hand, that there cannot be intimacy in a relationship that is utilitarian or that there cannot be a transactional element in an intimate relationship. In Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints she speaks about demon possession in the Bible. This way of looking at demons (as disorders of the human condition) provides an interesting way to frame relationships, especially relationships with God. By looking exegetically at passages from Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber I hope to show evidence that relationships (with God) can be both utilitarian and intimate.

Before looking into the meanings behind such terms as “demon,” “utilitarian,” or “intimate” it is often best to give the words a working definition. The Collins English Dictionary defines “demon” first as “an evil spirit or devil” and second as  “a person, habit, obsession, etc, thought of as evil, cruel, or persistently tormenting,” (“demon”).  The word “utilitarian” is defined as something “pertaining to or consisting in utility,” which is to say that it is something that is useful, or that emphasizes function over form, (“utilitarian”).  Finally, the word intimate is defined as something that is “associated in close personal relations,” (“intimate”).  The dictionary definitions of intimacy and utilitarianism might not immediately disagree yet there is still some sort of implication that if utilitarian relationships are function over form that then intimate relationships are form over function. In Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints she never defines utilitarian verses intimate but the details of her account dealing with depression and how people must face personal demons allows an interesting view, not of utilitarian verses intimacy but of intimacy and utilitarianism working in tandem.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Denver based pastor known for her tattoos, her blunt nature, and her ability to bring so called hipsters to the church. She is an ordained Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor with a history of addiction and always speaking her mind. She is the type of person that one would not expect to see at the pulpit but more someone you might expect to see in a church basement for an AA meeting. Bolz-Weber instead embraces her past of addiction and pain and uses it to preach; she often says how important it is for her to preach from her scars and not her wounds, meaning that she preaches only from things she has overcome or gotten through, not from the things which she is currently experiencing. This style of preaching from scars allows her to include personal accounts the account of her personal demon (her depression which she named Frances) in her second memoir, Accidental Saints, (Bolz-Weber, 86).

Bolz-Weber dedicates a whole chapter of Accidental Saints to Frances. This chapter allows Bolz-Weber to discuss something that makes many mainline Christians uncomfortable: demon possession in the Bible. Leading with possession allows Bolz-Weber to define what the word demon might actually mean, additionally, it allows her to map what a relationship might look like for a person coupled with a demon to try to have a relationship with God and how God helps to put the demon in their place to get to the person with whom the demon was coupled.

The third page of chapter nine (entitled “Frances”) of Accidental Saints (page eighty-five) begins with Bolz-Weber’s trepidation over demonic possession in the Bible. Bolz-Weber makes it abundantly clear how uncomfortable she is with the concept of demons in the Bible, especially when those demons are given names, personalities, and the ability to turn phrase. These types of demons make Bolz-Weber, and the majority of the mainline Christian population wants to run for the hills. In trying to rationalize this concept of demons Bolz-Weber wonders if the demons presented in the Bible were really people suffering from epilepsy, mental illness, or other mental disabilities who were just misunderstood and so their condition was labeled as demon possession and they were left to fend for themselves. She also speculates that maybe demons were some real fear or illness that “like polio and small pox, . . .were eradicated in modern times,” (Bloz-Weber 85).  In this example, people today would no longer be afflicted with these demons and they would just be a story of the past, used as a teaching tool, much like the rest of the Bible. And yet this is not the example that Bolz-Weber leans toward.

Bolz-Weber ventures to stake this claim: “or perhaps we do actually still have demons today and we just find it more comfortable to use medical and scientific terms to describe the things that possess us,” (Bolz-Weber, 85). Here we see use of the second dictionary definition of the word demon “a person, habit, obsession, etc, thought of as evil, cruel, or persistently tormenting,” (“demon”). It would seem that a modern Christian would be more comfortable using a scientific or medical term to describe something happening to them rather than using the term demon. Yet, there is something about declaring a mental disorder or addiction a demon that furthers it from the person, making it much easier to battle, which is why Bolz-Weber nicknames her depression Frances.

To Bolz-Weber it seems thoroughly plausible that mental illness, addiction, and other things that serve to ruin lives now are really the demons of Biblical times presented as a set of symptoms that are diagnosable by the latest editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Amidst a discussion of mental illness, Bolz-Weber introduces language of possession:

I do know that sometimes things get ahold of us, making us do things we don’t want to or making us think that we love things (substances, people, etc.) that are really destructive. So maybe, if, in part, that is what having a demon is, maybe if it’s being taken over by something destructive, then possession really is less of an anachronism and more of an epidemic.” (Bolz-Weber, 85)

This definition of a demon seems to be in agreement with the second dictionary definition. Using this old turn of phrase to label what psychology and science have helped us see as mental disorders or disability seems to put the human race back a few centuries. Using this terminology allows for the disorder or disability to be separate from the person which puts the person and the demon into a relationship. This puts the person into an intimate relationship with the demon as the demon takes life from the person while the demon is in a utilitarian relationship with the person, using the person for its benefit. These palpable demons work to isolate the people with whom they are in relation so that those people no longer feel that they are loved or cared for, allowing the demon to have free reign over the entirety of that person.

Bolz-Weber asserts that the above fact is the reason that demons work to keep the people with whom they are in relation away from the things or people that strike joy in their hearts. These demons are so afraid of losing the ground they have conquered within the person they inhabit that they do whatever is necessary to make sure the person cannot find the help they need. Bolz-Weber claims that it is this fact that makes demons so afraid of God.

The relationship that Bolz-Weber suggests that the demonized people have with God works like this: the people love God, they receive the grace of God, and they (in-part) love God because they want to have something after this life, they want to go to Heaven. God loves the people unconditionally because they are God’s people. She states that “demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them,” (Bolz-Weber, 87).  The demons fear God because they cannot hold onto a person that fills the holes they leave. Bolz-Weber asserts that these demons, the things that destroy people, work to isolate them and prove that they are unworthy of the love of God.  Depression and other mental disabilities are often cyclical, i.e. “I cannot do this because I am too depressed, I am too depressed because I cannot do this,” and they continue until that cycle is broken. The picture of demons that Bolz-Weber creates suggests that these demons work to keep the people they inhabit in this cycle, she also seems to suggest that Jesus is the way of breaking that cycle, that the people need to know they are loved by God in order to shed the demons who have grown so attached to them.

Bolz-Weber illustrates the effect that Jesus, God and the Gospel can have on different demons.

Maybe my demon of anger knows to steer clear of the gospel, lest I end up forgiving some jackass who I really want to punch in the throat. Maybe your demon of inertia knows to avoid Jesus, lest it be cast off a cliff and you have to start showing up in life. Maybe your demon of compulsive eating knows to not listen to Jesus’s word of love, lest it find itself drowned in a lake and you clothed and fully in your body, sitting at Jesus’s feet. Maybe my demon of always, always, always having to prove myself fears Jesus since if I were to listen to Jesus and not that demon, I may start really believing that I am already good enough and then I’d have to stop overfunctioning. (Bolz-Weber, 87)

This text works to provide the link between the person/demon relationship, the demon/God relationship, and the God/person relationship. The person and the demon coexist while the demon makes sure that there is no room for God in that relationship. The person is bound to the demon but still works to seek the love of God, an effort that is complicated by the demon’s nature of making the person feel unworthy of the love of God. The person is entrapped in an intimate relationship with the demon, sharing all that they are with them. The demon, in an unfair transaction, takes everything it can from the person in order to keep the person submissive. To Bolz-Weber, this is a lie in which “Jesus does not abide,” (Bolz-Weber, 87). Such lies work to keep the people away from what they need most, a utilitarian and intimate relationship with God.

People are hesitant to admit that any relationship is utilitarian. There is such a transactional and cold connotation that comes with the word that makes it unpleasant in a relational context. The word utilitarian solely affirms that something useful, that function is preferred over form. Once the word utilitarian is stripped of its transactional and negative connotation it is easy to see how easy utilitarianism and intimacy could go hand-in-hand.

The relationship from person to demon is intimate and the only thing that becomes important is what is feeding the demon. From demon to person the relationship is utilitarian because the only thing that matters to the demon is the control it can exercise over its host. This control is what blocks the person from feeling worthy of the love of God and loving God in return.

Subsequently, the person enters into a relationship with God and that relationship puts a wall between the person and the demon. There is still an easy way for the demon to get in but the love of God constantly works to combat that. The relationship between person and God is both utilitarian and intimate.

The utilitarian aspect of the person/God relationship seems cold and greedy when it is isolated. The person is essentially in relation with God in the hopes of going to Heaven. It is pretty doubtable that the relationship would still exist without such an incentive. The person also receives God’s love in exchange for nothing, allowing the person to do whatever they want and still, in exchange, be loved.

The intimate aspects of this relationship work in tandem with the utilitarian aspects. The person places their trust in God and loves God. In turn God loves the person. Because of this intimacy, the demons mentioned earlier are pushed out of the picture. This intimacy allows for people to look at their relationships with God like a close friendship, a relationship with a parent, or even a relationship with romantic intent. These types of God/human relationships prove that relationships can be intimate and utilitarian. In this case the utilitarian aspect and the intimate aspect work together to create a loving relationship.

The human imagination makes God into what it needs God to be, sometimes God is a parent, other times a protector, and others a lover. There is always a reason that people choose to be in relation with God and God always means something to the people with whom God is in relation. It is often presumed that relationships can either be utilitarian or intimate, that there is a clear distinction between a relationship that values function over form and a relationship in which things are shared making form much more important. However, it seems that relationships with God are most often both utilitarian and intimate. There is always something being needed from God, something to be gained from the relationship, most often Heaven. The person in the relationship usually also gives a great deal in this relationship, often offering themself up for God and subjecting themself to God’s will.

In the ninth chapter of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints an intimate, utilitarian relationship between God and person is mapped out using the example of demon possession. Through the example of demon possession Bolz-Weber mirrors an intimate utilitarian God/human relationship in which the thing being gained from the relationship with God is not Heaven, yet it is still a form of freedom. This example proves the relationships with God are most often both intimate and utilitarian additionally, it proves that that is not a bad thing. God can be made into whatever God’s creation needs God to be. This allows for humans to make God into the giver and the lover that God is often portrayed to be. Despite the fact that there seems to be a transactional element in most God/human relationships that does not make them any less intimate. One might even venture that the fact that there is such greatness gained from a relationship with God that it makes the intimacy in the relationship even more special and makes the relationship more important. There is no difference between utilitarianism and intimacy in terms of importance in God/human relationships, both work to make the relationship meaningful and prove that the two can work in tandem to create something impactful.

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