Sunday, January 24, 2010

Facing Our Demons

Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
January 24, 2010

What in the world is a rational-minded, scientific-oriented naturalist like me doing preaching a sermon on demons! And again – as I prepared – I asked myself, “Why the heck did I send in a topic like that to the newsletter? This doesn’t sound like something I would do? ” I must have been possessed!

Well – maybe I was, and maybe I am. But I’m hoping the demon that encouraged me to make that decision was the kind of demon that the ancient Greeks had. This daemon (often spelled with the addition of an “a” or an “i” in the first syllable to differentiate it from the later meaning) was a guiding spirit. Socrates said he had one. And the most dramatic thing the daemon told him was to not flee Athens when he had been convicted and sentenced to death, which he easily could have done – and with some honor. To do so, however, would have been to betray his divine vocation.

Now Jesus had a demon that tried to persuade him to take the easy way out. But Jesus said, “Get thee behind me,” … and he, too, chose the difficult road.

And I was tempted to use my continuing illness as an excuse to perhaps replace this topic with something else, maybe even warming over one of my really old sermons. But I did not sway to that temptation.

So – like Socrates and Jesus, here I am—and I’ll drink from this cup. (Fortunately it’s just water.)

Folks this is going to be another one of those sermons that is more of a wandering journey through the labyrinth rather than three points and a poem – but bear with me. We’ll get to the Minotaur in the middle and back out again. Besides, I’m trying to overcome my obsession with being so organized.

There’s a wonderful old story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking in the woods one morning, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil, looking very pleased. The friend said, “I wouldn’t think you’d be at all pleased about a man finding a piece of the truth. And the devil replied, “Oh, but you don’t understand. Now I’m going to help him organize it!”

Well, I at least will start as usual when I use religious terminology and give you a summary of the evolution of this term demon.

Etymologically the term daimon (the older term usually spelled as daimon) means 'divider' or 'alloter' and is used mainly in the sense of an operator of more or less unexpected events in human life. In Homer and other early authors, gods, even Olympians, could be referred to as daimones...Later writers saw them as guardians or protectors. A lucky, fortunate person was accompanied by a good daimon; and an unlucky one was with a bad daimon. Plato used all the earlier meanings of the term and introduced others. Completely new was Plato's concept of daimones as beings intermediate between god and men. (And) this notion was adopted by all subsequent demonologies. (Quoted and/or paraphrased from Simon Hornblower & Antony Spawforth, Editors. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Third Edition. Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-866172-X hdbk)

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the term demon was used to translate words that were referring to evil spirits. And that meaning followed in Christian scriptures. The writers of the gospels included many stories – like the one from our earlier reading – where demon is used to mean an evil spirit that possesses someone. The Catholic Church jumped on board and even still has this belief as part of their doctrine – with specially prepared priests that are identified as exorcists. And, although more progressive mainline churches minimize these teachings, more conservative theologies have seen the teachings related to demons increase in recent years. And then – of course – pagan and neopagan and eastern spiritualities and religions have their counterparts. Remember that Buddha had to overcome the attacks and temptations of Mara, "the evil one," before he reached enlightenment.

We see demons or evil spirits in popular culture today in science fiction games, books, movies, and even toys. It’s a big seller. But the concept also has attracted more followers in religious and spiritual settings. And regardless of your own beliefs, some of you probably showed up here today just to see what I had to say about this subject.

As I prepared I wanted to see what other ministers had to say about this topic – and not just UU ministers, and of course there’s plenty to read from more conservative folks on a subject like this. Some of them are so far-fetched that they seem evil themselves. But, I found myself shaking my head some as I read this from Rev. Bill McGinnis, Pastor of the

He writes:

Demons are harmful bundles of negative spiritual energy which exist as negative spiritual entities…. They are the true root cause of terrorism, leading vulnerable people to slaughter innocent civilians. And they have also affected our leaders here in the USA, dulling their minds and leading them into the brutal and hopeless invasion and occupation of Iraq, motivated by the false belief that God wanted them to do it.

Demons try to control, harass, torment us, or drive us to do things we ought not to do or wish we didn't do. Bad temper, anger, depression, fear, various sicknesses, various addictions -- to mention a few -- are caused by demons. Sometimes these demons are able to enter into us and gain control over us because of some flaw in our natural defenses against them, such as problems in our brain chemistry. Other times, we attract demons to ourselves because of our actions or our desires or our beliefs.

Now Rev. McGinnis has links you can click on that will provide prayers you can use to cast out your demons in the name of Jesus Christ – which he believes is the ONLY way to rid yourself of them. And that’s where my head started shaking in the other direction. Now, I myself – do understand the desire to just cast out your demons. You’ve got to do SOMETHING with this negative energy and emotion.

When I was in my 40’s, I was having a tough time with lots of marriage and family problems. But no one knew it. To the outside world, we had it together. The more I stuffed it down, though, the more resentment, jealousy, fear, and anger I felt. I was wishing that I COULD call forth a herd of swine to cast this legion of demons into. It’s a wonder that I wasn’t out on my porch hollerin’ SOOO WEEEE (because our neighbor farmer had some pigs that used to get through the fence). But before you animal lovers get upset – let me share with you that I, too, was always frustrated with that passage from Mark 5 where Jesus put the evil spirits into the pigs. SO – instead, late at night, I’d go out and shout at the trees in my front yard. They were strong and let me throw it to them. They didn’t die either. I sometimes think they now stand around my house – having transformed that energy into a protective shield for me. Now all of this is metaphorical and symbolic of course – me being a rational thinker and all – or is it? Actually, the tree thing didn’t help much because I had to do it every night. I finally achieved some relief by purchasing and reading a book by William Glasser – and doing some self-therapy with this that led me to face reality and make some very good decisions; and eventually getting into some real live therapy. And I know we have some counselors in our congregation, so I’ll give them a plug and say I highly recommend this strategy over yelling at the trees.

Rev. McGinnis of the doesn’t have a lot of confidence in mental health professionals. He states:

"Mental Health Professionals" in our secular society recognize the bad effects caused by various demons, and they have created scientific names for many of these bad effects. But they do not recognize demons as the underlying cause of these effects. So they attempt to control the symptoms of demonic activity, without dealing with the underlying cause, which is the demons themselves.

I disagree with Rev. McGinnis. They may not use “demon” terminology, but mental health professionals certainly do help us examine the underlying causes of our “stuff” if they can. But he MAY have a point in that sometimes medicalizing the terminology may not have as positive of an effect as we might think. Now I’m all for reducing the stigma of mental illness. I’m a member of NAMI and keep up with their stigmabusters campaign, signing petitions to stop people and organizations from using hurtful terminology for folks with various psychological disorders. Even so, I recently read an article in the New York Times about a book that was just released on January 12 that I’m putting on my reading list, because some of the points found in this seemingly well-researched article raise a flag of concern.

In his book Crazy Like Us, leading trend-spotter and science writer Ethan Watters, a regular contributor to the New York Times, shows that America is not only changing the way the world treats and understands mental illness, we are actually changing the symptoms and prevalence of the diseases themselves. He states:

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

One of the findings that really concerns me is that our Western biomedical conception of mental illness has been shown to increase the social stigma placed on the mentally ill around the world.

You know we think if we give something a medical name or put it in a list of disorders - that folks will be more accepting – but that is just not true. Plus, the ideas of what we think are psychological disorders CHANGE as we ourselves change. I could give lots of examples, but I think you can probably think of these yourselves.

So that in some ways opens me to consider using other ways of thinking about this.

But regardless of how we name this “Evil” within us, what are we to do with it? Carl Jung talks about us having shadows of our conscious self that we suppress. And these shadows are often just the opposite of how we experience who we think we are. So someone who identifies as a forgiving person perhaps has a vindictive shadow part of themselves that they are shoving down and denying. Denying it does more harm than good, of course. And that’s why this sermon title is “Facing Your Demons.” For when we deny it we end up projecting on others. Some shadows are good, and we deny them too. Instead, Jung encourages us to journey beyond denial and projection and move toward integration and transmutation.

Can we transform our psyche into something more positive without an exorcist to cast out our demons? The answer is YES. There is no easy formula, though. This is not something the brain scientists can easily figure out with their cat-scans and studies stroke victims, etc.—although there are certainly some glimmers of hope in understanding some things and I’m all for continuing that path. Another book I read recently that I would recommend to you is “My Stroke of Insight” written by a brain scientist who had a stroke herself – with some very revealing insights that perhaps we can look at another day. But even she realized the response she needed was more spiritual than scientific.

One of our members asked me if I was going to cover alcoholism as one of the great demons. And certainly with lots of problems in my own family, I can not ignore this. But most recovering alcoholics will share with you that quitting drinking alone will not solve their problems. Unless they move forward with working something like a 12 step program, which includes some spiritual practice, they will fall off the wagon quickly – or perhaps lead the life of dry drunk. Although I’m very familiar with the program and have read that Big Book, I had forgotten till I was preparing this sermon the role that Carl Jung played in influencing Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought some of the similarities were just coincidental. But now I find that Bill W. gives Jung a lot of credit. It seems that Jung was treating a man whose alcoholism was so hopeless that Jung concluded that only a spiritual experience could help him. And this man, Roland H. started attending Oxford Group meetings and later shared his success with another hopeless alcoholic, who in turned shared with another hopeless alcoholic, Bill W. Later Bill learned through others and incorporated even more about Jung’s views; and wrote Jung what amounted to a Thank You letter dated Jan 23, 1961. Here’s a quote from that letter:

Very many thoughtful AAs are students of your writings. Because of your conviction that man is something more than intellect, emotion, and two dollars worth of chemicals, you have especially endeared yourself to us.

Jung wrote him back a few days later and explained even more of his views – and although these two letters are the only ones I found on the internet, there is documentation that more exist. And you can see how AA’s ideas of facing your resentments and other “demons” (if you will), and determining your own involvement, and working for transformation is very Jungian indeed.

Some of you may be saying – Jane you are looking too internally. Aren’t there just EVIL forces – out there – in the world? Old Pat Robertson has even connected these terrible earthquakes in Haiti with a pact he says the Haitians made with the devil to help them get rid of the French.

One of my seminary professors, Dr. David Bumbaugh (who identifies as a religious humanist), has written some ideas which help separate pain and suffering (like these folks are now experiencing in Haiti) from evil. He states:

Let me begin by suggesting that evil is not the same thing as pain, suffering, tragedy or death. The natural world is replete with pain and suffering, with tragedy and death, and nature seems ingenious in devising gruesome ways to achieve its ends. … (Then he goes on to cite lots of examples of) the ways in which pain, suffering, and death, are used as survival strategies in the natural world.

He continues…. Had such mechanisms been devised by a deliberate, reasoning, rational mind, they might well be called demonic and evil. If, for example, there were a God who deliberately fashioned such a world, it would be difficult to distinguish that god from a demon. The point I would make is that suffering and pain and death are real, but not necessarily evil. Evil is the consequence of a conscious and clear moral sense. It cannot exist except there be the capacity for feeling empathy for the other and the ability to choose between alternative strategies. One cannot fault a water bug for the way it kills and consumes its victim. It has neither the ability to put itself in the place of the frog, nor does it have any other mechanism for survival. Evil comes into the world when the capacity to feel for the other exists and is ignored, when there are alternatives to be considered and they are ignored. In other words, evil comes into the world only when life has reached a level that is human, or very like human. This is not to suggest that evil is unnatural. Human beings are part of the natural world; (but) within humanity, an ethical sense arises from out of the natural world, and with it, the possibility of evil.

Bumbaugh then gives examples through history of how we’ve tried to conquer evil by killing the “Great Satans,” like Hitler. But even when the war is over or evil communism has failed, we are fed constant fear in our local universe. He says:

The papers, the magazines, the radio and the television all feed us a steady diet of stories detailing the existence of evil in our world. And in lurid fascination, we feast our minds on stories of young children sexually assaulted and murdered by quiet neighbors, of babies murdered by their mothers,…. We consume stories of … sexual abuse, of disgruntled employees and religious fanatics acting out their fantasies of revenge and retaliation, of wives and ex-wives and lovers and ex-lovers brutally beaten and disfigured and murdered. …There is an enormous industry at work in this country supplying our appetite for stories which describe the threat of evil which lies all around us. We feed upon it like carp in a small pond when a handful of food has been tossed into the water, and we scare ourselves senseless in the process.

So we cry out: Build more prisons; put them in jail and throw away the key… Kill the incarnate evil among us so that the world may be safe again.

What we seem to miss in all of this, what we have seemed to miss throughout the history of this (past) century, is that evil is not an anomalous consequence of a single individual or group, and therefore, it cannot be destroyed by destroying the person or the group in whom it emerges. Rather, there is (what Bumbaugh calls) an ecology to evil, a structural relationship which involves the entire community. There is a sense in which the criminal, the perpetrator represents a response to the unvoiced, the unexamined, the repressed needs of the community. So long as we need criminals, we will continue to produce them.

Bumbaugh looks hopefully to the ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King to work on changing ourselves in how we respond to what we perceive as evil – to not fall into the trap of playing the game that perpetuates the continuation of vengeance and hate.

So, where is this journey of a sermon going now? I guess it’s time to come to the center of the labyrinth and face the minotaur -- my own demons. And my problem –is that my demons (and maybe some of yours too) seem to start out in goodness – in something that may even be considered as sacred or divine. I feel called to do GOOD things – become your minister, care for my family members, work for peace and justice in the world. GOOD stuff! But I find that in the process of doing this “good stuff” I sometimes shift into a very negative gear, obsessing over it, worrying excessively and trying to control unnecessary details, – allowing perhaps the preparation for a worship service or a pastoral care concern to keep me up night after night; setting ridiculous expectations and pushing myself for no good reason -- to the point of collapse. That’s not goodness, that’s sickness. And many of the other demons we have – like jealousy, envy, and greed – probably start out with the goodness of love, admiration, and a healthy desire to provide for our families. But, the gear shifts – and the balance changes. And when that gear shifts into that other kind of energy, your vehicle, your soul, doesn’t run very smoothly – and can easily head for break down on the road of life.

So that brings us back all the way around to the title of this sermon – “Facing Our Demons” – because that’s where we have to start. We all have them. Can you face yours? One thing I’m thankful for is that I have this community of support, standing with me on the side of Love as I face mine. And we will be here for you too. Just as Bumbaugh warns of an “Ecology of Evil,” the good news, our gospel, is that there can be an “Ecology of Love” that develops in community. I encourage you to really get more involved with this community. Let us study together, meditate or pray or walk the labyrinth together, teach our children together, and, of course, serve our greater community together.

And for our newer folks – if this feels like “home” to you, we invite you to begin on that path toward membership in this wonderful liberal, religious community of healing, support, peace, joy, and LOVE.

I’m sounding like my old Baptist preacher giving his altar call. Maybe those old altar calls were not altogether bad—because they asked people to make a conscious decision to change something in their lives, and to declare that intention to their religious community.

I won’t ask you to do that today – but I will ask you to look into your own hearts and souls and come to that symbolic altar of LOVE where we can commune together. And we, Unitarian Universalists, will welcome you with open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands.

Amen and Blessed Be.


  1. Hi, Jane!

    A friend sent me a quote just a few weeks ago, from Shakespeare's "As You Like It." It was a verse her mother used to recite repeatedly when she lost her short term memory. My friend thought the verse also expressed my own outlook on life and, you might now say that it's my outlook on "daimons." I thought you might enjoy reading it, so I've quoted it below. ~ Ludy

    Sweet are the uses of adversity,
    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
    And this is our life, exempt from public haunt,
    Finds tongues in trees,books in the running brooks,
    Sermons in stones, and good in everything.