Speaking of spirits and how certain people in the Bible perceived them, The Oxford Study Bible had this to say:
“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” (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 felt risqué to admit I had doubts about the metaphysical reality of living spirits endowed with personhood and volition. Now it’s 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 there’s something I remember hearing called memes. I’m not talking about an image with some text photoshopped onto it that gets passed around the Internet. When I first heard of memes, if I remember right, the word meant something like an idea that had its own personhood, an emergent consciousness. It referred to the mysteriously lifelike quality of archetypes. The suggestion was that 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: out to get you, better be afraid and wage war and so on. And I don’t like the word “demon” either, unless it’s in the Chinese sense I learned about in Dragonwings, where a demon is a complex being, not necessarily evil, but a force to be respected. In Western fairy tales, dragons exist to be vanquished. They’re 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 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 to flaunt it that they’re not real … because I guess 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? All I feel confident in saying is that they’re something.
Also, when just about 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 a thought is old enough, or widely-enough held, it must be true: there’s a time to reject what everyone has always thought. But I hold that the rejection should never be casual or dismissive. It’s wise to consider it carefully first, however outdated it may seem.
In any case, I think the 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 those just useful imaginations that help us interact with the world more effectively?
If not alive, why do they appear when invoked, and why do they interact as if alive? Is that just a human projection on the natural laws that govern nature and our experience of the paranormal?
My guess is that our experience of these “other personal beings” is more than just natural clockwork and coincidence, but that the images we’ve been using to describe them are probably flawed. It seems credible to me that there are different kinds of life, different sorts of beings, but that they probably 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. That doesn’t mean it’s not real.
So how do you get to the truth of it? 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’s difficult, but real. If you can find images that help you “communicate with … and seek to influence [its] purpose and power,” good for you. Use those images, but don’t believe they’re the whole of it, because you can’t own the knowledge of the unknown.