Friday, March 27, 2009

Applied Memetic Demonology 101

One of the things about being a pastor is that you get all sorts of interesting questions. Having been brought up in a slew of moderate to progressive churches, in which social justice talk, service missions, and the life of the mind predominated, not a lick of that experience tells me how to respond when another soul comes up to me and asks about demons.

Demons? The very word is pretty much anathema to progressive Christians. We generally think of demon-talk as the theological kissin' cousin of snake-handling, the sort of thing that only gets taken seriously by large sweaty men in ill-fitting suits who bellow at you in intermittent all caps while they point at a large and OCDetailed hand-drawn chart of demonic names and functions.

"..and THIS is p'a'AArgasheh, the Demon of Excessive CHOCOLATE COATED Macadamia Nut Consumption, who RESIDES in the LOWEST QUARTILE of your PINEAL GLAND..."

As I think back carefully over the seven years I spent in seminary, I can think of perhaps one or two discussions on the topic, always from a clinical remove. We want to approach evil only on psychological terms, as just a manifestation of a clinically treatable disorder right out of the DSM IV. But the concept persists, and tends to weave deep into the theology of many churches. So folks come up to me and ask me about demons. Or about the demons they are sure are assailing them. What to say?

When folks ask, I say that demons are real. And that they are not real. Typically cryptic of me, but that serves a further purpose.

When I say that demons are real, I'm saying that they only exist in memetic form, as memes, those transferable and self-replicating patterns of thought that can be passed from one sentient being to another. They only exist in the shadows cast by human separation from God. The "power" that they have...their reality...does not extend beyond us into the created order. That belongs wholly to God. That doesn't mean that these fragmentary entities don't have power, or a form of reality. Addictions and compulsions and hatreds and bigotries are intense and destructive things. They shatter individual lives and poison whole societies.

Still, theologies that assume that evil goes beyond that, that it's somehow woven into the fabric of heaven or creation, that it has a reality that extends outside of humankind, those theologies are...well...dangerous. If you assert that something has more power than it actually does, then it becomes harder to kill it. And as the battle to establish the Kingdom of God rages across our souls, slaying demons is kinda a priority.