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Life Unknown

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Corporate and individual human life was lived in an environment affected by the character and conduct, the actions and reactions of these other personal beings. It was important to be informed about what they had to do with what was happening to a person or a nation… At times it was needful to communicate with them and seek to influence their purpose and power” (The Oxford Study Bible, page 165).

Other personal beings: “gods and spirits and demons” (164).

I once believed in demons. Then I wasn’t so sure. For years my working answer was a suspension of judgement.

Once, it seemed very risqué to admit I had doubts about the metaphysical reality of living spirits endowed with personhood and volition. Now it seems very risqué to suppose there might be such a thing.

If you believe in a personal God, it’s not as much of a stretch as if you don’t. If one great spirit is alive and personal, couldn’t there be other, lesser spirits too? There certainly are archetypes, and something I remember hearing called memes; these things have a kind of personhood, a kind of life – an emergent consciousness?

It reminds me of the patterns of domestic abuse. While there is no “type” of abusive man, still the tactics and tools of abuse are so consistent from one abuser to another, right down to the script they speak, that it seems too coincidental to be mere coincidence. One could almost believe there’s a spirit of some kind saying the same things over and over through all of these different men. Then again, one could say instead that when you line up the causes just so – this cultural training, these role models, that value system – the dominoes just happen to fall the same way each time.

In any case, where abuse is concerned the solution isn’t exorcism; it’s forced accountability: it’s giving the abusive man no choice but to do the hard, sustained work of identifying what he’s done, acknowledging it’s wrong, ceasing to make excuses for why he did it, and of course, ceasing to do it. So, the last thing I’m suggesting is a “devil made me do it” kind of thing. But the completely unoriginal repetition of these words, those tactics, that memorable incident of horror – it’s really as if all of these very different, very complex people were reading it straight from the same book. Is the phenomenon itself emergently alive? Like a germ, with its own interests and tactics, making everyone on your block sneeze and cough in just the same way? That’s one image of what a demon could be, anyway.

Or that could be just an interesting way to describe a nonliving social phenomenon: an anthropomorphization.

So much for that. Memes are another thing. If I remember right, the word refers to the mysteriously lifelike quality of ideas, concepts, archetypes; it suggests these things can travel from one community to another on their own power, without the help of any human contact, direct or indirect. Are they alive? Could you call them spirit?

“Spirit” is a conveniently undefined word. I use it to mean an entity, not evidently organic but alive. Immaterial? Who knows: evidently, at least.

I like the idea of demons; I do and I don’t. I don’t like the canned malevolent image one gets from This Present Darkness, for instance: out to get you, better be afraid and wage war and so on. And I don’t like the word “demon” so much, either – unless it’s in the Chinese sense, such as in Dragonwings, wherein a demon is a complex being, not necessarily evil, but a force to be navigated. In Western fairy tales, dragons exist to be vanquished; they are flat characters with no redeeming qualities. In Chinese tales, dragons are more nuanced. They may bring you good luck or destruction. I prefer to think of demons in the same way.

But do I believe in them? That’s a different question. I believe that people can drum up some very weird stuff through modern witchcraft, and I’m not about to go invoking paranormal beings in order to flaunt the idea that they’re not real. Because I guess on some level, in some respect, I believe they are. I don’t know what to call this stuff or how to explain it, and I’m not ready to sign on to one paradigm or another. Are they demons? Are they hallucinations? All I feel confident in saying is that they’re something.

And again, when almost everyone in the story of humanity has subscribed to a certain belief, I hesitate to toss it out the window with the comfortable hubris of empiricism. Not to say that if it’s an old enough, or widely enough held, belief, it must be true: there is a time to reject what everyone has always thought. All I’m saying is that this rejection is never a casual matter; that it’s wise to consider it carefully first, however outdated the idea might feel to us nowadays.

I do believe that if you set your intention and strike out boldly toward your goal, the universe has a way of saying “Amen” to you. For instance, I get no work for months. Then I do one day of cold calling. Suddenly my phone rings: it’s not any of the businesses I just called; it’s someone completely unrelated, and they’re offering me a project. Coincidence? Sure, you could say that, but things like this happen too consistently to me for me to write them off as insignificant. But this has more to do with Tao than with demons, I think. A bit of a red herring: I apologize.

I guess the deeper question I’m dancing around is this: what is the nature of the life of the cosmos? Are patterns more than just patterns? Are they also people? Is the sum of the parts alive in a way distinct from the way the parts are alive? Do entities exist within and beyond our immediate experience, or are these just useful imaginations that help us interact with the world more smoothly? If not alive, why do they appear when invoked, and why do they interact as if alive – is this just a human projection on the natural laws by which nature and our experience of the paranormal turn?

My guess is that it’s more than just natural clockwork and coincidence, but that the images we (and the humans of yore) have been using as an alternative are flawed. That there are different kinds of life, and different sorts of “beings” in this regard, but that these don’t fit neatly into the “gods and spirits and demons” wrapper we’ve given them. As the theologian Paul Tillich said, “God is not a person, but not less than a person.” In other words, it’s not like you think – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s just that the two boxes you’ve got on the table – the “either” and “or” you’re working with, aren’t right – are each wrong in different ways. Now, how do we find the right box? I have no idea. I guess just by opening your soul and staying in touch with what you sense and know, even and especially when you don’t have words for it.

I sense and know that everything is alive, that there are different strata on which life can exist, that not all of these are evident to us. To live is to interact in part with the unknown. The unknown is not dead or inert. It is difficult, but real. If you can find images that help you know how to interact with it – how to “communicate with… and seek to influence [its] purpose and power” – good for you. Use those images, but don’t believe they’re the thing itself. Because, by definition, you can’t own the knowledge of the unknown.

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