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.  


Wednesday, October 28, 2015


My friend Dick is 105 years old. When he was a kid, growing up in rural Washington state, he built a crystal radio set. Of an evening he would carefully move the needle, trying to tune in on a station. Sometimes he would pick up a signal from a station in the Midwest bouncing off of the ionosphere, and sometimes--to the whole family's delight--it would be a music program.

When I think of sin I think of that crystal radio set. We can endeavor to be attuned to God's intent in any given moment. God's intent is Shalom, which is goodness, wholeness, flourishing, beauty, peace. Often we "miss the mark" of aligning with God's good intent and, to the extent that we do, we miss (or at least diminish) the Shalom that might have been. But God is always speaking, always "broadcasting," if you will. And so at every moment we have the opportunity to adjust our reception.

I like the way that the Buddhists talk about this in terms of "skillfulness." What a Christian might call "sin" a Buddhist might call being "unskillful." The implication is that we continually have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and become more "skilled" at listening to the Spirit and following Jesus (or, back to my original analogy, more adept at attuning ourselves to God).


"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty." 

-- John Muir

Monday, October 26, 2015

Christianity is not in danger.  However, your cultural interpretation of Christianity might be.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

"That God ‘out there,’ the God of scholasticism and of a Newtonian universe, is precisely what is countermanded by the contemplative experience itself. I enter the cave of the heart and discover that that God is alive and interpenetrating, in, of, and around, illumining and enflaming all. My own heart is a hologram of the divine triune heart, love in motion, and the finite and infinite realms are connected by an unbreakable bond of mutual yearning. This ‘in here’ vision of God is not only closer to the vision of Jesus and the mystics; it is also increasingly confirmed by the discoveries of contemporary scientific understanding. As the popular Episcopal preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, regarding the radical shift in her image of God brought about by her exposure to quantum physics: Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationships that animates everything there is. Contemplation, understood in the light of a hologram universe, is not a special gift. It is simply seeing from the perspective of oneness, or in other words, from the level of our spiritual awareness. It can indeed be practiced, and over time, with sincerity and persistence, it becomes an abiding state of consciousness. At times this unitive seeing may sweep you up into rapt adoration; at other time it simply deposits you powerfully and nakedly in the present moment. Either form is an expression of the same underlying consciousness. It is this consciousness itself that is the attained state of contemplation, and it is neither infused nor acquired, because it was never absent—only unrecognized." 

-- Cynthia Bourgeault

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I drive to and from work up and down Highway 99 in Seattle. It is a business thoroughfare with traffic lights, but is still quicker than the Interstate during rush hour. I tend to settle into my lane and stay there for the 20 mile commute--average speed about 35 miles per hour. I use it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Inevitably, on nearly every drive, I'll encounter some impatient soul bobbing and weaving from lane to lane, tailgating, cutting people off and generally being an ass in order to get ahead. Just as inevitably, several miles later I'll creep up to a red light next to that same impatient soul who passed me with a huff and a flourish earlier. 

There's a lesson in there somewhere...


Friday, October 09, 2015

Two more school shootings today, on the day that John Lennon would have celebrated his 75th birthday, if he hadn't been shot to death. Imagine that.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

On Having Opinions

"Wow, you have lots of opinions," a friend once said to me.  I'm not sure if this was a simple statement of fact or a tactful critique or a mild compliment.  I do indeed have lots of opinions, though I try--for the sake of integrity--to only opine on matters which I have endeavored to research thoroughly in order to arrive at (what I believe to be) a cogent position.  The thing is, I consider it a responsibility to have, and express, informed opinions.  We're all in this thing called life together and each of us only sees small pieces, obscured by our own ignorance and presuppositions and assumptions and projections and cultural conditioning.  

One of the things that being a Quaker has taught me is the value of group discernment; that by giving space for everyone's voice and listening to one another respectfully we can come to a far greater understanding than we ever could have on our own.  So, for me, giving my opinion, my little piece, (for example, on my blog or on social media or in a discussion) is an offering to the collective whole.  

We live in a time and place of great privilege, where we can express what's on our minds without being silenced or persecuted by the powers that be.  So to carefully cultivate and respectfully express one's opinion is, it seems to me, a bit of a sacred obligation.  And to tug and pull and wrestle and (as the Quakers would say) labor together to arrive at points of agreement and discover ways forward is a beautiful human endeavor.  

At least, that's my opinion.

Friday, October 02, 2015

There is a fable about a man who is stranded on the roof of his house after a massive flood.  He prays to God to rescue him.  Before long a neighbor comes by in a canoe and yells "Jump off and swim over to me!"  The man on the roof yells back "No, God is going to rescue me!"  The neighbor paddles off.  A while later a helicopter appears overhead, a rope ladder is lowered and a voice through a megaphone shouts "Grab hold and climb up!"  But the man on the roof shouts back "No, God is going to rescue me!"  The helicopter flies off.

After a little while, the mostly submerged house begins to creak and sway and then collapses into the water.  Entangled in the sinking rubble, the man drowns.  The next thing he knows he is standing before God.  The man is angry, however, and complains to God, "I had faith in you!  I prayed and waited for you to rescue me and you didn't!"  God replies, "I sent you a canoe and a helicopter but you refused to do your part."

I'm reminded of this silly story every time a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. and social media subsequently fills up with heartfelt calls to pray for the victims and their families and the devastated communities.  But like the man on the roof, until we actually do something practical about our situation--in this case the epidemic of gun violence in our nation--our prayers are of little value.  Maybe we're just placating ourselves--giving ourselves an illusory sense that we have done something. 

I recently read a statement by Pope Francis about dealing with the problem of world hunger.  He said, "You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That's how prayer works."  Likewise, by all means pray for the victims and families and communities of gun violence if it makes you feel better.  Then do something to stop it from happening again.  That's how it works.