Saturday, October 31, 2015

On Satan, demons and Halloween

I spent about twenty years of my life as a fundamentalist Christian (I am still a Christian--and a very devout one at that--but no longer a fundamentalist).  As a fundamentalist, I was taught to be somewhat preoccupied with Satan and demons.  They were "the enemy" and were constantly lurking about, ready to interfere in some nefarious way with whatever good thing God was doing.  A pervasive fear was instilled into us about doing something that would "open us" to demonic influence, attack or even possession.  Of course, participating in Halloween--and thus "celebrating evil"--was one of those things.  I look back now and regret that we denied our son the childhood joy of Trick-or-Treating. 

I have since invested a considerable amount of time researching and studying the origins and development of Christian beliefs regarding the demonic.  A big clue is that there is practically no reference to demonic beings in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call The Old Testament).  Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, in his brilliant commentary on Leviticus, points out how historically unique and profound this ancient Jewish perspective was:

 "The basic premises of pagan religion are (1) that its deities are themselves dependent on and influenced by a metadivine realm, (2) that this realm spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entities, and (3) that if humans can tap into this realm they can acquire the magical power to coerce the gods to do their will. The eminent Assyriologist W.G. Lambert has stated, 'The impression is gained that everyday religion [in Mesopotamia] was dominated by fear of evil powers and black magic rather than a positive worship of the gods ... the world was conceived to be full of evil demons who might cause trouble in any sphere of life. If they had attacked, the right ritual should effect the cure ... Humans, as well as devils, might work evil against a person by the black arts, and here too the appropriate ritual was required.'  The Priestly theology [of Leviticus] negates these premises. It posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with 'demonic' power--the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. ... In this respect, humans have replaced demons. ... [W]hereas the pagans hold that the source of impurity is demonic, Israel, having expunged the demons from its beliefs, attributes impurity to the rebellious and inadvertent sins of humans instead."

Satan makes his first appearance as a character in the Book of Job (a dramatic parable probably written during or after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC), but he is more accurately called "the Satan" which means "the adversary" or "the accuser" and is a member of God's heavenly court--sort of a prosecuting attorney.  It is after their return from exile in Babylon that we begin to see the development of a Jewish belief system in demons and in Satan as a fallen archangel who leads them.  The root of this belief system is Babylonian Zoroastrianism, which speculated a universe in pitched battle between Ahura Mazda (the good, creator god ) and Angra Mainyu (the evil, destructive god)--and their respective minions.  Zoroastrianism (and its later influential offshoot Manichaeism, which was practiced by Augustine prior to his conversion to Christianity) was radically dualistic and this extreme dualism filtered into post-exile Judaism and then into incipient Christianity.  During the time of Jesus, the belief in demons (a belief which, as Milgrom states, was essentially pagan and had been "expunged" by the ancient Israelites) had re-established itself and demonic forces were blamed (and feared) for any calamity that might befall a person.  This trend continued into the early Church, and persisted in certain streams of Christianity, including the 20th century fundamentalist charismatic stream where I encountered it.

As fundamentalists, we imbibed anecdotal stories about demonic activity, which was at its strongest point on Halloween, including that children would be kidnapped and sacrificed in prurient Satanic rituals conducted by a vast underground network of covens. 

What I've come to see is how much of Christian fundamentalism is driven by fear--fear of impurity, fear of others, fear of the demonic and, at the root of it all, fear of a wrathful God.  The response to this fear is to order one's life in a profoundly dualistic fashion, continually preoccupied with maintaining purity and evaluating what is ok to let in and what (and who) must be kept out.  I've grown out of what Lambert in that quote above called a dominating "fear of evil powers," choosing instead "a positive worship" of God.  I no longer believe in demons, or in the devil.  I believe in "one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6); a God "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), and that this God is best characterized not by wrath but by love (1 John 4:8, 16).  I certainly do acknowledge that evil exists, but it occurs as a result of our own choices.  Evil certainly can take on a life of its own (in a manner of speaking) when it becomes systematized and institutionalized.  Walter Wink has written insightfully about this in his books The Powers that Be, Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers.

All of this to say, tonight we will have the porchlight on and the bowl of candy at the ready and the pint-sized minions of the night will be welcomed and appeased.  



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