Friday, January 14, 2011

Angels & Demons 31: Demons, Voodoo, Hypnosis, Hexes, and Psychogenic Illnesses

What do demons, voodoo, hypnosis, hexes, and psychogenic illnesses have in common? They are all physical manifestations of things that do not exist in any realm other than the symbolic. They do not actually exist in the physical realm and they are not truly divine beings. Nevertheless, they do have the power to affect human beings, because humans are by nature symbol-using animals, according to Kenneth Burke. As I stated at the end of my previous commentary, one might even go so far as to suggest that the “false information” itself becomes a spiritual force that affects humans.

Since the author of I John contrasts the Spirit of Truth with the Spirit of Error, we may assume that a spiritual force of false information does indeed exist, according to the Bible. And, as I have demonstrated in “Angels & Demons 23: Angels as the Personification of God’s Word,” the word “spirit” is to be equated with the word “word.” A spirit is a word. Hence, the Spirit of God may be understood as God’s communicative nature. Angels are also God’s spirits, as Hebrews 1:7 claims: “And of the angels he says, ‘Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.’” The author of Hebrews is quoting Psalm 104:4. If we stipulate that, according to the Bible, angels represent the communication of true information, demons represent the communication of false information. The huge difference for the Apostle Paul, as I discussed in my previous commentary, is that the true information emanates from an actual being—the one true God. But, Paul disputes that there is any actual divine being from which the false information emanates. Demons are the same thing as idols—which, for Paul, are nothing/nonexistent.

Kenneth Burke attributes a good deal of power, however, to hexes and psychogenic illnesses. In Language as Symbolic Action, pages 6-7, Burke explains:

“In referring to the misuse of symbols, I . . . think of ‘psychogenic illnesses’ . . . . A certain kind of food may be perfectly wholesome . . . . But our habits may be such that it . . . may be nauseating to us. (The most drastic instance is, of course, the ideal diets of cannibals.) . . . Instances of ‘hexing’ are of the same sort (as when a tribesman . . . finds . . . that . . . those in authority have decreed his death, by magic, and he promptly begins to waste away and die . . . .”

Burke tells of the anthropologist Franz Boas. Trying to establish rapport with a tribe of Esquimaux, he ate from a pot of what he thought to be whale blubber. Overwhelmed by the disgusting nature of this thought, he rushed outside to vomit. When he found out that the food was not blubber—but dumplings—Boas was able to eat the food without vomiting.

Similar to symbolically-induced food-based nausea, hexing, and psychogenic illness, is the practice of casting spells on voodoo dolls. According to the (voodoo-sympathetic) website,, “Voodoo is a powerful mystical practice that can bring spectacular gifts and rewards to anyone who believes . . . .” That much is probably true: that the mystical practice brings results to anyone who BELIEVES. Even though the information is false, if someone BELIEVES it, s/he is under the power of the false information.

As a high school student, I viewed a demonstration of hypnosis. While under hypnosis, a student was given a post-hypnotic suggestion. He was told that there was a bucket on stage in the path of his exit. He would not actually see the bucket as he exited the stage, but that upon taking three steps toward the stairs to exit, he would trip over the bucket. There was no actual bucket on stage. Yet, upon being brought out of the hypnotic state, the student walked toward the exit stairs, and (as suggested) tripped over the nonexistent bucket. The audience exploded with laughter.

Demons may often be understood to be in the same category as voodoo, hypnosis, hexes, and psychogenic illnesses. While there are a few biblical accounts of demons that are difficult to fit into this description, the vast majority of demon-possession cases fit easily. I previously mentioned Mark 19:17-25, which refers to a “speechless spirit,” and Luke 13:11, which refers to a “spirit of weakness.” Both terminologies possibly indicate the type of affliction each spirit visited upon its host. Both physical results—speechlessness and weakness—could be replicated by post-hypnotic suggestion, hexing, or voodoo (for the believers in those practices). David Edwin Harrell, in his book, Oral Roberts: An American Life, states: “Oral was keenly aware of the emotional and psychosomatic nature of much of the healing under his tent. . . . He unashamedly laid claim to psychosomatic healings.” I assume that, so long as someone who believed s/he had an illness or physical condition that DID NOT ACTUALLY EXIST believed that Oral Roberts (or Jesus working through Oral Roberts) had the power to heal that nonexistent physical malady, the symbolic act of healing imposed by Roberts would effectively cure the nonexistent malady. Acts 19:13 suggests that some Jews had the power to cast out demons and Jesus seems to corroborate this fact in Matthew 12:27 and Luke 11:19. One might assume that ANYONE who is capable of persuading someone who believes in the existence of a nonexistent physical malady that the nonexistent malady does not exist might, thereby, effectively cast out a demon.

I, therefore, wonder how many “demons” exist in people as a result of the preaching and teaching of Bible-believing Christians who seek to persuade the populace that (contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul) DEMONS DO EXIST AS ENTITIES! How many novice Christians have been led to believe that they are under the influence of these entities (that Paul says do not exist)? Perhaps, even my writing of this commentary will be capable of exorcising some demons. I will address the more difficult demon-possession passages in the New Testament in future commentaries, but for now, just as is the case with those who believe the “false information” communicated in voodoo, hypnosis, hexes, and psychogenic illnesses, those who are willing to replace such false information with the true information may see their resulting physical maladies disappear.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Angels & Demons 30: Demons as False Entities

The communication of God has elements that stand in direct opposition (“vs.”--in Burke’s shorthand) to elements on the false communication side:

Prophet vs. False Prophet

Spirit of Truth vs. Spirit of Error (or Unclean Spirit or Evil Spirit)

Angels vs. Satan

There is no direct opposite of “God.” This is uncomfortable for the human psyche that derives comfort from identifying such polar opposites. Some religionists have, therefore, attempted to present Satan as the opposite of god. The ancient Persians taught that there was a good god constantly at war with an evil god. See my commentary “Angels & Demons 4: ‘The Great Satan’ of Iran” for my discussion of why Judaism and Christianity rejected this dualism. The huge theological obstacle that blocks such dualism for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the doctrine of Monotheism. Deuteronomy 6:4 states the doctrine: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God --the Lord is one.” The first commandment (found in Exodus 20:3) states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”

Hence, the Apostle Paul is not particularly bothered by the possibility that Christian believers might accidentally eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. He reasons this way in I Corinthians 8:4-6:

“Relative, then, to the food that has been dedicated to idols, we know that no idol really exists; that there is no God but one. In case there are so-called gods either in heaven or on earth,--such as there are gods many and lords many,--yet for us there exists one God, the Father, from whom all things come and who is our goal; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist and through whom we are” (Berkeley).

Paul, then, regards the eating of any meat (whether or not it has been sacrificed to idols) to be innocent (not a sin). Nevertheless, he recommends not eating meat offered to an idol, if a Christian brother might mistakenly interpret the eating to indicate that we are worshipping the idol. He states in I Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore, if my eating causes my brother to stumble, I shall eat no meat forever, so that my brother shall not be tripped up” (Berkeley).

In I Corinthians 10:18-26, Paul returns to the issue of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols, and introduces the way he understands and uses the term “demons”:

“Observe those physically the people of Israel! Are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers of the altar? What then is my suggestion? That an idol offering amounts to anything or that the idol itself is anything? No, but that what they sacrifice, they are offering to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the Lord’s cup and a demon’s cup. You cannot participate in the Lord’s table and in a demon’s table. Or shall we provoke the Lord to indignation? Are we mightier than He? Everything is allowed, but not everything is helpful. Everything is allowed, but not everything is constructive. . . . Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscientious scruples, for the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (Berkeley).

Clearly, the question of whether one should eat meat that has been offered to idols is not a major issue in the Christian world today. I am not citing this passage in order to resolve that issue. I am writing about demons, and whether they exist, according to Paul. Paul has asked a rhetorical question: “What then is my suggestion--that an idol offering amounts to anything or that the idol itself is anything?” When asking a rhetorical question, no answer needs to be given, because the answer is obvious. Nevertheless, Paul actually answers this one—just to be sure that everyone understands: “No, but that what they sacrifice, they are offering to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to fellowship with demons.” In a Burkean sense, Paul has made “idols” equal “demons.” He has stated (rhetorically) that “idols” are “not anything.” Earlier, in I Corinthians 8:4, he had stated, “We know that no idol really exists; that there is no God but one.”

If there is no God but one, and idols do not therefore exist, and offering to idols is the same as offering to demons, we may conclude that “DEMONS DO NOT EXIST.” THEY ARE FALSE ENTITIES. If Paul had thought that there really were true entities called demons, who were at war with God, could he ever have concluded that eating meat he claims is “offered” to them might be called innocent? Could he ever have suggested, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, without asking questions,” if he thought the meat had been associated with an existing entity at war with God? The entire basis of his reasoning that allows the conclusion that it is not sinful to eat meat sacrificed to idols is that idols are nothing. They are like demons—they do not exist.

Now, of course, the carved or sculpted statues that represent the false entities do exist. Paul was not claiming that the graven images, themselves, do not exist. He was claiming that there is no personal identity in existence who is represented by the graven image. Likewise, he was not claiming that the “false communication” about the existence of a god other than the Judeo-Christian God does not exist. He is simply claiming that such an alternative god (or demon) does not exist. One might even go so far as to suggest that the “false information” itself becomes a spiritual force that affects humans. I will follow that thread in my next commentary.