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When demons are real

When demons are real

Experiences in charismatic churches in Africa, where demons are regarded as real, inspired this column by Stanford anthropologist T. H. Luhrmann. The essay is concerned primarily with the widespread belief in dark spirits that characterizes much of evangelical Christianity in Africa. But Luhrmann concludes her piece by bringing the issue closer to home.

One way to think about demons (if you happen not to believe in supernatural evil) is that they are a way of representing human hatred, rage and failure — the stuff we all set out to exorcize in our New Year’s resolutions. The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who grew up in Sri Lanka, got a Ph.D. from the University of Washington and, eventually, a job at Princeton, once remarked that all humans deal with demons. (He was quoting Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” — “In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden.”) The only question, he said, was whether the demons were located in the mind, where Freud placed them, or in the world. It is possible that identifying your envy as external and alien makes it easier to quell.

But it is also true that an external agent gives you something — and often, someone — to identify as nonhuman. In West Africa, witches are people, and sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes. In an April poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, over one in 10 Americans were confident that Barack Obama was the Antichrist — and the Antichrist is, as it happens, associated with war in the Middle East. If those people think that demons are real, they don’t mean that Obama is misguided, confused or mistaken. They mean that he is real, inhuman evil.

Do you believe in demons? In the devil?

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www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawllr4vbR4IJI

I do think there are spiritual forces of wickedness abroad in the world that actively work against the Kingdom of God. I think we ignore them at our peril.

Agreed.

They’re called human souls.

Mark Brunson

www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawllr4vbR4IJI

I do think there are spiritual forces of wickedness abroad in the world that actively work against the Kingdom of God. I think we ignore them at our peril.

Agreed.

They’re called human souls.

Mark Brunson

www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawllr4vbR4IJI

I do think there are spiritual forces of wickedness abroad in the world that actively work against the Kingdom of God. I think we ignore them at our peril.

Agreed.

They’re called human souls.

Mark Brunson

I recall M. Scott Peck’s “People of the Lie” and also our renunciation of the “spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” I do think there are spiritual forces of wickedness abroad in the world that actively work against the Kingdom of God. I think we ignore them at our peril.

Tom Sramek

Murdoch Matthew

I copy-edited a book about the demons in an Eastern religion. There were pictures of the demons and descriptions of how to distinguish them. There were many. I wish I could put my hands on it. It was graphic.

I also have a copy of Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, which lists and describes the nine orders of angels and categorizes all the sins from mortal to venial.

Human imagination is fertile, and creatures of thought are known in the same way as dreams and experiences. (As my mother’s memory faded, she couldn’t distinguish between dreaming of her husband or her father and having seen them — she’d wake and wonder where they’d gone.) What we’ve learned with the Enlightenment is to check the narratives we live by against evidence. The physical world accounts adequately for most of our experience, and imagination supplies the rest.

I’ve begun to emphasize that our sense of being a free-floating spirit who animates and guides our body is an illusion. We are our bodies — consciousness, awareness, is a product of our organism, our nervous system. Humankind has developed to seek meaning, to find patterns, and we do so even where none exist. (The stars are scattered randomly, but people are impelled to connect the dots.) There is indeed an immaterial world of wonder and glory — it’s language and the stories we tell. We have to tell stories — it’s how we remember things and understand their working. But because we know reality through story, it’s easy to mistake story for reality. (There are rich people working nowadays to keep people confused.) Liberal Christianity holds a story that leads to good, but there is no way to privilege it over the more authoritarian repressive versions. Both are competing opinions/beliefs.

It’s a truism that even liberal religion encourages belief without evidence. We just have to fall back on the guideline, By their fruit you will know them. What you believe is debatable. What you do makes a difference.

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