Monthly Archives: June 2009

Defining God Buddhistically

While Buddhism generally rejects the notion of a personal creator god or gods, still its descriptions of ultimate reality do not exclude the concept of a divine or godlike Absolute, as the following citation suggests:

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Our final ignorance is to imagine that our final destiny is conceivable.  All we can know is that it is a condition behond the reach of any psychophysical state still tethered to an “I”…  The Buddha would venture only one affirmative characterization.  “Bliss, yes bliss, my friends, is nirvana.”

Is nirvana God?  When answered in the negative, this question has led to opposite conclusions…  The dispute requires that we take a quick look at what the word “God” means…  Defined in this sense [i.e., a personal god], nirvana is not God.  The Buddha did not consider it personal because personality requires definition, which nirvana excludes it.  And though he did not expressly deny creation, he clearly exempted nirvana from responsibility for it.  Finally, the Buddha left no room for supernatural intervention in the natural causal processes he saw governing the world.  If absence of a personal Creator-God is atheism, Budhdism is atheistic.

There is a second meaning of God, however, which (to distinguish it from the first) has been called the Godhead.  The idea of personality is not part of this concept, which appears in mystical traditions throughout the world.  When the Buddha declared, “There is O monks, an Unborn, neither become nor created nor formed.  Were there not, there would be no deliverance from the formed, the made, the compounded,”  he seemed to be speaking in this tradition.  Impressed by similarities between nirvana and the Godhead, Edward Conze has compiled from Budhdist texts a series of attributes that apply to both.  We are told that

Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality; that it is the Good, the supreme goal and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden and incomprehensible Peace.

We may conclude with Conze that nirvana is not God defined as personal creator, but that it stands sufficiently close to the concept of God as Godhead to warrant the linkage in that sense.

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(Huston Smith & Philip Novak:  Buddhism: a Concise Introduction. Harper Collins: NY, 2003, pp. 53-54)

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The Matthean “Blood Libel”: A Pernicious Myth

It has become common practice among (mostly) liberal commentators to shamefacedly exhibit Matthew  27:25 as a prime example of anti-Semitism in the New Testament.  They view this passage as a scandal to be apologized over in the interests of ecumenism and racial-religious equality.  However, a close reading of the Gospel of Matthew shows that the passage in question is not anti-Semitic, but rather anti-priesthood. Therein lies a world of difference.

In Jesus’ day it was entirely possible to be devoutly Jewish and simultaneously opposed to any number of Jewish institutions, parties, and schools of scriptural interpretation, practice, and emphasis.  Historical plausibility suggests that original “Jewish” Christianity’s major conflicts concerned not Judaism, but rather priestly Judaism, the issue being not one of Christians versus Jews, but of a sectarian Jewish renewal movement versus a collaborationist priestly-Temple elite.  Indeed, starting with Jesus, most of the primitive Jesus-movement’s problems – and most of its martyrs – were an expression of a sectarian versus “Establishment” dynamic.  Saul (later Saint Paul), who participated in Stephen’s martyrdom, was a police officer employed by the high priest; Jesus’ brother James was killed at the Temple by a high priest.  The precedent was set clearly and early: something about Jesus and his movement was inimical to priestly hegemony.

And this is exactly the situation that Matthew 27:25 reflects. The scene takes place in Jerusalem at Passover, in a open area adjacent to Roman governor Pontius Pilate’s offices.  A crowd or “multitude” has gathered in that space, and Pilate attempts to have those people choose a prisoner for release: it will either be the brigand Barabbas, or it will be Jesus.

The crowd unanimously selects Barabbas over Jesus.  Pilate, sensing an injustice in  the rabble’s decision, symbolically washes Jesus’ “blood” from his hands, telling the crowd that he is innocent of the blood of the “just” Jesus.  The crowd  – Matthew says “all” the people – shout back to Pilate: “His blood be on us, and on our children!” Barabbas is then released; Jesus is scourged, humiliated, and led out to his death on Golgotha.

From this one scene has been derived the notion of a blood-aspersion, Israel’s so-called curse upon itself, the enthusiastic act of bravado that simultaneously killed the Son of God and brought God’s anger upon his chosen people.  This interpretation has at times flourished in Christianity and has been a source of much Christian anti-Semitism, leading to calumnies such as the “blood libel,” which accused Jews of abducting, torturing, and ritually murdering Christian infants.  But what was Matthew’s original meaning and intention?

For several reasons, Matthew has been called “the most Jewish” of the Gospels.  For the purposes of this essay, Matthew’s Jewishness involves his appreciation of basic Jewish virtues and their close association with the Jewish Jesus.  For this reason, the last thing one would expect from Matthew is a declaration of universal, Messiah-murdering guilt leveled against the entire Jewish people.  And in fact, such a calumny is not to be found in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus’ execution.  A brief examination of Matthew’s Passion story will show why this is true.

As mentioned, it was the “priesthood-scribes-elders,” not “the Jews” generally who engineered the execution of Jesus and some of his prominent early followers, and Matthew mirrors this situation in his Passion narrative:

Matthew does not blame some, or even “all” Jews for Jesus’ death.  Matthew blames the priesthood.

In fact, Matthew states that Jesus was so popular with his Jewish peers that the “rulers” were afraid to arrest him publicly  (Matthew 26:3-5).  Instead, they secretly conspired to arrest Jesus through “treachery” (“subtilty” – KJV).

Matthew does not specify the political, or any other identity, of  “the crowd” gathered in Pilate’s portico.  Certainly they could not represent “all” of the Jewish people, or even all of the thousands who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover.  What Matthew does insist on is that this relatively small number of people were maliciously manipulated by the priests to choose Barabbas over Jesus.  It is this small group, not “all” the Jewish people, who Matthew says were goaded to call for Barabbas’ release, and who so overconfidently dared God’s justice over their decision.  Clearly, Matthew is not speaking of the entirety of the Jewish people, whether in Judea or in the Diaspora.  He is only referring to the crowd present before Pilate and whipped up by the priests.

An explanation for this may be that for Matthew, writing perhaps forty years after the events, “the crowd” probably represents the attitude carried by some – not all his contemporary Jewish opponents.

Once the Jewish Jesus movement had split from the synagogue, as it had by Matthew’s time, the polemic between the two groups had reached an incendiary and vicious level.  This antagonism is  reflected elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly in the Johannine writings with their harsh rhetoric against “the Jews.”  Matthew’s harsh statements vis a vis Judaism are probably best understood as an example of this kind of polemic.

Viewed from this perspective, it is plausible that some of his Jewish opponents were,  in the heat of argument, taunting Matthew with the unpredicted death of his “failed” Messiah, perhaps in terms not unlike those used by the crowd in the Gospel.  This would account for the bravado of the “libel”:  so confident are Matthew’s foes in the falsehood of Jesus’ mission that they can safely call a curse down on themselves – because they know that taking responsibility for killing a false prophet is not the kind of thing that carries a curse with it.  They are, in effect, telling Matthew and his community: “We say that your Jesus was a failed Messiah and a false prophet.  So who cares that the priests killed him? In fact we are so certain of Jesus’ fakery that we can with confidence and impunity ask God to curse us for killing Jesus.   It’s not going to happen. There is no curse for killing a false prophet – which is exactly what your Jesus was!”

It is this kind of Jewish opponent that Matthew implicates, along with the priests, in Jesus’ death.  He never implicates the Jewish people, their valid religious practices, or their scriptures.  Quite the contrary, the Matthean Jesus honors the eternal Torah – for example, the “antitheses” in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are easily identifiable not as contradictions, but rather as intensifications, of Torah.  And he insists that Torah-preservation – not Torah-destruction – is his very own mission (Matthew 5:15-19).

Such examples of  Matthean “Judeophilia” could be multiplied.  But the major poinsts are: 

No legitimate scriptural case can be made for Matthean anti-Semitism.

Anti-synagogue, or anti-priesthood, or anti-Temple polemic is not anti-Semitism.

A vehement insistence that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who fulfilled, intensified and revitalized Torah and the prophetic ethos is not anti-Semitism.

The implication in Jesus’ death of a small portion of the Judean populace (some priests and a small crowd that they goad) is not anti-Semitism.

So one can only puzzle over the kind of masochistic Christian psychology that would call a curse down on itself, its overconfident bravado  loudly claiming – even with the best of  intentions – that Matthew’s Gospel is anti-Semitic.  Like the Matthean “multitude” in Pilate’s courtyard, these Christians have allowed themselves to be goaded by overly-sensitive social considerations into seeing an anti-Semitic text… where there is none.

Why are some Christians so willing, so enthusiastic, to append the spectre of religio-racist hatred to their own most cherished narratives?  What impels them to insist that one of their most revered and celebrated scriptures is anti-Semitic…  when a simple, clear, attentive reading shows that it is not anti-Semitic? Is there a “self-hating Christian,” just as there is said to be a “self-hating Jew?”  Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes – as long as Christians continue to purvey the pernicious myth of the anti-Semitic Matthew.

Flaws of a Fundamentalist God

Some general considerations about the failings of “God” as fundamentalists see “Him”…

The primary fundamentalist opinion that things claimed in the Bible are true, “because the bible is God’s inerrant word,” is completely ineffectual – unless it is addressed to fellow believers. One needs  first to show how  the Bible is the Word of God. Insistent claims to that effect are by definition unpersuasive when one’s targeted audience is non-believing.  Perhaps only those of  a pre-existing fundamentalist mindset can be persuaded by the eternally circular argument, “The Bible is true because it’s the Word of God/the Word of God is true because it’s in the Bible.”

Further, all too many biblical literalists claim to believe the entire Bible but clearly pick and choose what they will believe – and what they will ignore.

An example of this is fundamentalists’ attitude toward sacrificial atonement. The Bible contains many instances of sacrificial atonement-conditional salvation.  But it also contains many examples of salvation not dependent on sacrificial atonement, illustrating the point that the Bible is ambiguous on some central religious issues. Fundamentalist denial of such ambiguiy can only be ascribed to the pick and choose method, which is usually biased toward Protestant fundamentalism. Fundamentalists, following Reformationists such as Luther and Calvin, insist that salvation is by faith alone (sola fides), and they do not like it when it is pointed out to them that the Bible – specifically and especially the Christian Testament – is ambiguous and inconsistent vis a vis salvation by atonement.  For example, even – already – in the Jewish scriptures Yahweh condemns Temple, priesthood, and animal sacrifice, going so far as to ascribe those institutions to sheerly human invention; and in the New Testament (NT) salvation comes not only by grace and/or Jesus’ redeeming crucifixion, but rather by love and good “works.”

In the name of Biblical fidelity fundamentalists ignore non-atonement scriptures.  But in reality they are motivated not by Biblical, but by Reformationist notions of fidelity. This places them – as claimed biblical literalists – in the paradoxical position of denying God’s Word in favor of man’s (Reformationist) theology.  So in a real sense the typical “anti-works” fundamentalists – inasmuch as they claim to base their soteriology solely on the Bible – are really Unbibilical Biblicists.

The Bible (in addition to its pro-atonement soteriology) in other passages explicitly states that observance of Torah ethics suffices for salvation. The Gospel (Matt 25:31-46) attributes this teaching to Jesus himself. When the Son of Man will return as world judge, the Matthean Jesus specifically states that those who have practiced kindness will be saved, while those who have not, will not be saved. Jesus’/the Bible’s statement is clear, stark, and unambiguous. If  fundamentalists were to (correctly) say in response to having this pointed out to them, “Yes, some scriptures say that salvation is based on works and love, while others say salvation is based on ‘faith-alone’ soteriology’ ” –  that would be fair. But they don’t.

Their denial of scripture’s multiple soteriologies invalidates any claim they make to being objective and attentive bible-readers.  They act this way in spite of the fact that scripture at some points plainly contradicts the tenets of Luther and Calvin, in whom fundamentalists’ loyalty really resides.

It can be reasonably said, then, that the Biblical God – even as read literally – contradicts the fundamentalist deity at an number of points.  Using their own terms, therefore, it is the case that the fundamentalist God must be the false one, since that God strays from the scriptural God.

Another fundamentalist flaw is the tendency to champion Yahweh’s worst behavior, based on uncritical, literalist readings of Yahweh’s exploits in the Hebrew Bible. But such examples of divine misbehavior have also managed to creep-and-crawl their way even into the NT, e.g., in the book of Acts where Ananius and Sapphira are struck dead by the ever-vengeful Covenanter, and in the book of Revelation where the returning Christ is prophesied to squeeze out his enemies’ blood like grape juice from his winepress.

Fundamentalists frequently claim their god’s superiority by stating that without the Hebrew God there can be no morality. Yahweh is seen as the font of morality, goodness, holiness.  Yet it is none other thanYahweh who directs the killing of Canaanite religionists, and the burning and vandalism of their shrines… is that moral? Yahweh directs killing even of Jewish magicians… can that truly be said to be  moral? Yahweh demands stoning of adulterers (only females, of course!)… is that moral? Yahweh directs wars of genocide in which even children are not spared… is that moral? Yahweh lies and instructs Moses to lie… is that moral? In one instance, Yahweh demands that a prophet persuade a neighbor to strike down the prophet; the neighbor morally and righteously refuses this violent act and Yahweh permits a lion to kill him.

Such examples go on and on, ad nauseum. “Without God there is no morality.” Better: “With Yahweh as God, morality itself is hopelessly compromised.”

Fundamentalists often ask, in relation to divine morality contrasted to human morality, why (for example) it is immoral for us to kill each other, but not immoral for a lion to kill a hyena.  Such questions are usually asked in opposition to evolutionism: if we are nothing but “evolved matter” (the argument seems to run) then why is killing one another not just as amoral and blame-free as one animal killing another? The reply that I would make is:  human killing human is immoral because, unlike the hungry lion who kills a hyena, we kill not just for survival, but for sport, jealousy, cruelty, power, religious-political domination, etc.

Here again, Yahweh fails the test: he says, “Thou shalt not kill…” – but then in effect he goes on to say, “… except for the Egyptians, the Midianites, the Canaanites, and anyone else I damn well feel like killing.” Since Yahweh – supposedly omnipotent – could invent or frame any other arrangement for pacifying Israel’s enemies, but instead chooses murder as his preferred method, it can reasonably be suspected that – unlike the lion – Yahweh does kill for power, religious-political domination and perhaps, even, sport. (Some “highly moral” god. Enlisting Yahweh as a master of sound morality is a little like enlisting Hitler in support of Jewish child care.)

Fundamentalists typically associate Yahweh’s commandments in the Hebrew Bible with his superior morality.  In the first case, this is to ignore the fact that – except for the requirements to worship only Yahweh and to keep the Sabbath – the rest of the Commandments are derived from the legal codes of nations that neighbored Israel.  And in the second case, it is to ignore the fact that Yahweh’s commands are indeed frequently immoral.  The Hebrew Bible is full of Yahweh’s judgments, commandments, commands, directives, instructions, injunctions, rules, prohibitions (and punishments for violations of same) that range from sensible to savage to downright silly. Not to mention the embarrassing fact that Yahweh himself frequently violates the letter and the spirit of things he has commanded. That he (rarely) “repents” of his own brutality only underscores Yahweh’s deeply entrenched madness and petty cruelty.

The flawed fundamentalist god and flawed fundamentalism mirror each other. The two fit like a glove.  Fortunately for religious studies in general, they are easily seen through and refuted, thereby leaving more time to explore other, more rewarding, issues.

Jesus and “Salvation by Works”

In contradistinction to the extreme Protestant/fundamentalist-evangelical standard of “salvation by faith alone, [not works],” it is important to realize that the NT is ambiguous on the sources of salvation, because it is made up of different strata reflecting different stages in historical, christological and theological development, and the earliest strata suggest a Torah-faithful Jesus whose salvation-teaching was Torahide and works-centered.

1) In certain NT texts, salvation is claimed to derive from sources other than Jesus’ “atoning death on the cross.”

Matt 5:12 Endurance of persecution is rewarded in heaven
5:20  Perfect righteousness permits entry into the Kingdom
25:31-46  At the final judgment, kind works will be rewarded; while unkind works will be punished.
(Note: This is pure Torah teaching. The coming Son of Man will judge by the Torah’s standard of works, not Paul’s standard of grace.)

Mark 10:17-22  Eternal life comes from observing the Mosaic commandments;
giving to the poor;
taking up one’s “cross”;
following Jesus

Luke 7:30-48  An excess of selfless human love calls forth God’s forgiveness

9:23-24  Following Jesus means the action, the procedure and/or the course of “losing one’s life to save it” and it is thought to be a “daily” process. The Lukan description is paralleled in:

John 12:24-25  The act of losing one’s life in this world will “keep it unto life eternal”

John 5:25-29   At the final judgment, resurrection “into life” is granted to those who have done good; and resurrection “into damnation” is given to those who have done bad

Romans 2:5-7  God’s righteous judgment “will render to every one according to his deeds

2:13  “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”

8:24  “For we are saved by hope

2 Timothy 4:14  God will reward (Paul’s enemy, Alexander) “according to his works.”

Revelation 15:13   The blessed dead are rewarded with “rest”  in heaven because “their
works do follow them.”

Even more NT descriptions of salvation without reference to Jesus’ “atoning” death could be adduced, but these suffice to establish the basic fact that not all NT soteriology references Jesus’ “atoning” death. The existence of one white crow suffices to invalidate the claim that all crows are black. Similarly, one example of NT non-atonement soteriology suffices to invalidate the claim that all NT soteriology is centered on the atonement. For that reason, therefore, I have seen fit to provide not one, but several such examples – and as a bulwark against virulent but mistaken fundamentalist claims to the contrary.

That these examples abound is not surprising, since as an apparently Torah-faithful Jew, Jesus realized that Torah is forever, not to be supplanted by any kind of (Torah-prohibited!) human sacrifice – and the earliest Gospel strata as well as the historical situation support the image of a Torah-faithful, Jewish Jesus, for whom in religious matters the pre-existent and eternal Word of God sufficed.

It was only after his unexpected murder that Jesus’ followers tried to salvage some dregs of meaning from this unheard-of and un-prophesied death of their Messiah. This is why later strata increasingly show Jesus making prophecies about his own death, and why the four Evangelists and Paul so desperately seek to project onto the earlier image of the Torah-faithful Jesus their own explanations for Jesus’ otherwise meaningless death.

Simply put: Jesus was crucified – everything else is interpretation.

“Crossianity” emerged out of early Christians’ insistence that, because Jesus (so loved by God), was shockingly murdered by “unclean” minions of darkness, this must have been divinely intended to have happened; it must have been foreordained, even prophesied. So they rummaged through the Hebrew Bible (in a process known as “oracle-hunting”) to locate texts that they could apply like bandages to the gaping wound of Jesus’ sudden, inexplicable death. The further we go from the Torah-faithful Jesus who found his own center and salvation in Torah, the closer we come to the secondary “atoning death” interpretations of his later followers.

The “Bashin'” of the Christ

A few remarks on Mel Gibson’s beautifully photographed but badly flawed film:

1) Gibson’s apparently neurotic religiousity impelled him to think he could tell a better story than the Gospels. That is why he lingered on and relied upon long scenes of graphic sadism, whereas the Synoptic Gospels’ passion theologies – and Paul’s and John’s – do not.  That is why Gibson inserted material from the Roman Catholic hysteric Catherine Emmerich, in order to enhance his story’s brutality. Gibson thus was not retelling the Gospel passion narratives. He was substituting his own morbid vision in place of the New Testament’s presentation.

2) Claims are made that through his masochistic imagery Gibson was showing the evil of sin in all its ugliness. That may be true.  But the existence of sin itself needs to be established prior to intelligible discussion about sin and its consequences.  Saying that the Bible promotes the reality of sin is an argument that can only influence fundamentalists who already believe that the Bible is “the inerrant Word of God”.

Moreover, it is essential to recall that sin is not a moral category. It is a theological category. Sin is said not to be merely morally bad, but to be theologically evil. That is,  sin is commonly not said to be bad behavior based on egoic-psychological factors: it is said to be a personal affront against a creator-deity. This alone renders the concept incoherent because – logic and compassion would dictate –  an omnipotent, omniscient creator-deity would know about sin and sin’s consequences in advance and would have a priori eliminated it from his “creation design.” (Also, any deity that would punish its creations in infinitely eternal Hell for a finite crime, is on the face of it unreasoning and cruel.)

3) Even if sin could be proven to exist, all Biblically-aware Christians should know that Jesus in his ministry paid remarkably little attention to sin (especially the “hot” sins), and such Christians cannot logically interpret his work as chiefly “anti-sin.” To so interpret Jesus’ career is to fall into a fundamentalistic-evangelistic paradigm that does not go back to the historical Jesus, and even in many aspects is a misinterpretation of John’s and Paul’s respective soteriologies. It tends to turn Christianity into “Crossianity”.

4) Significantly, as with most other issues, the New Testament is ambiguous concerning sin. The Letter of James “Buddhistically” conforms to the definition of sin previously described: not as an affront against a hypersensitive-and-angry Creator, but as a normal function of human psychology. And there are many NT passages in which Jesus speaks of obtaining salvation by means completely unrelated to his (purported) “saving death on the cross.” These include salvation by works and by Torah-adherence.

Therefore, the film represents a case of Gibson’s morbid imagination running wild, compelling him to “doctor” the biblical passion narratives with his own dark, twisted vision.  For example, Gibson contrives to stage a slow-motion brawl in Gethsemane, bi-and-homosexual party-goers in Herod’s court, Jesus jailed in an underground dungeon not mentioned in the Gospels (where his telepathic mother senses him to be, Judas chased by child demons, Jesus tossed off a bridge and nose-dived into the dirt when soldiers push over the cross, a compassionate Pilate’s wife who kindly dispenses towels to mop up Jesus’ blood, a raven that plucks out the eye of the “bad” thief, and other cinematic modifications.  Obviously, the Gospels’ stark passion narratives are not good enough for Gibson; so he covered over their plain canvas with some very grotesque colors of his own.

The “Bashin'” of the Christ might be sentimental fodder for many in the fundamentalist-evangelical camp, but it utterly fails to serve the Gospel. In fact it resembles nothing so much as a live-action version of a panel in a Jack Chic crucifixion comic book.

A (Hopefully) Helpful Neologism

I would like to suggest what I believe is a new term, namely, “Creatorism.” I employ it to distinguish between

1)”Creationism” as a fundamentalistic anti-evolution creation theory, on the one hand;

2) and “Creatorism” as any belief in a divine creator, on the other.

Creatorism would of course include Creationism as a subset but would not be limited to that subset. It would include the creator concepts of the Abrahamic faiths as well as some Eastern religious creator-concepts (such as that of Brahma in Hinduism.)

Not everyone who believes in a creator (for the record, I do not believe in a creator) is a fundamentalistic Creationist. And no Creationist – as far as I know – gives credence to non-Judeo-Christian creator-concepts. Therefore one can be a Creatorist and eschew fundamentalistic Creationism. But one cannot be a fundamentalist Creationist and embrace other creator-concepts.

Additionally, Creatorism would include belief in multiple creators, multiple creator deities, or dual creator deities. Again, this would exclude fundamentalistic Creationism which acknowledges only one single creator deity. Creatorism would also not exclude evolution as a means or method by which the creator(s) creates.

Perhaps, even if viable, the two terms are too close in spelling to be useful. But making some separation between fundamentalistic Creationism and non-fundamentalistic Creatorism might offer an easy means of distinguishing the two.

“Legion’s” Phantom Priest

In Legion’s opening credits a man dressed in a cassock (long black robe) of a Catholic priest appears twice as the camera moves down along the dark street;  the original exorcism/MacNeil house appears on the right at the end of the street?

I watched the film several times before I got oriented to the locale – I knew it was Georgetown, but then I finally noticed the MacNeil house on the right. The tree in the yard has grown bigger and there is a dark green fence around the yard, but it’s obviously “the” house, overlooking “the” steps.

Soon after that, I jumped out of my skin when I noticed a dark figure wearing a cassock darting from left to right across the street, then a little later from right to left. You have to look hard and diligently to see the figure, because the large scale “font” used for the credits is so dominating. This scene would work much better without any distracting credits at all.

The chilling thing about this scene is the basic question – here we are approaching the MacNeil house once more, after some fifteen years have elapsed from the original Exorcist novel and the Blatty-Friedkin film. What in the world is a priest doing darting back and forth on this deserted street? Only one answer suggests itself: this person can only be Damien Karras. But what is Karras doing here? Isn’t he dead? What’s going on?

My take on it is that the entire is a dream that the demonically-trapped Karras and the Gemini Killer are sharing – the Gemini’s portion are the supernatural disruptions in the empty church – the “Pazuzu wind” that tears through the church and blasts open the doors; Karras’s part is the memory of  “a rose, and a fall down a long flight of stairs”. In this dream – or psychic metaphor of Karras’s current “lost” condition –  the tormented priest is “haunting” the scene of his partial victory/partial defeat of fifteen years before.

Another interpretation might be that the “darting priest” is a nightmarish reference to the night of Karras’s death when, reanimated by the demon and the Gemini, Killer, he broke free from his cheaply constructed Jesuit coffin. Perhaps he literally – or more plausibly symbolically – “ran mad” in his resuscitated body, now animated – but only tentatively at this early juncture – by the Gemini.

Regardless of the interpretation, I invite all Legion fans who have not yet noticed the running priest to look attentively at the opening credits – you will be rewarded with yet another chilling brush stroke in Blatty’s dark filmic portrait.

(P.S. One other thing is so difficult to see I hesitate to mention it, but just before the opening credits, when the supernatural wind blows through the church, there is a shot from inside the church looking out through the open doors. On the extreme left is a figure standing stock-still that looks like a priest in a cassock. However, this only lasts a nano-second, and it might only be a lighting artifact – as I said, I hesitate to mention it because of its “iffy” quality. But if it’s really there, we can credit Blatty with still another creepy bit.)