Friday, 15 July 2016

The Rise of Superstitions and the Demonic

East Meets West, and West Meets East

The Christian faith drives out demons.  It also drives out superstition.  During the public ministry of Jesus, demonic possession was commonplace.  Modern secularist scholars have asserted that what passes for demonic possession in the Gospels was actually mental illness.  Thus, they interpret the testimonies concerning the demonic in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts to be superstitious ignorance.

There is nothing new in this: it is precisely what one would expect secularists to claim.  Demons, according to the secularists and atheists, don't exist because we can't see, touch, taste, or empirically put them in a lab to experiment upon them.  The Bible, however, is emphatically clear on these matters: the Serpent in Genesis is the liar from the beginning.  Those who don't believe in the existence of the Satan are those most enthralled under his deceit.

Orthodox New Testament scholars and theologians have suggested that the incidence of numerous demons inhabiting people and households in the days of our Lord's public ministry in Judea was likely due to the presence of the Son of Man on the earth, particularly during the time of his public ministry.  The Prince of the powers of the air (to use one of Paul's phrases) throughout Christ's public ministry was running a deliberate campaign, actively working to undermine Him, oppose Him, and draw people away from Him.  The strong influence of the demonic over lives and Jewish culture at the time was one of the results.

In the conflict between the Christ and the Satan, the latter lost the battle, and was, instead, enslaved to serve the ends and purposes of  King Jesus.  Thus, Jesus declared, the Ruler of this world  is now cast out.  [John 12:31].  As the Gospel and Christian faith come upon a people and their culture, the influence of the demonic attenuates and wanes.  You don't find many Christians who fear the Evil One, nor his remaining servants, despite believing in their power and influence.  Where Christians come to a majority within a culture, superstitious fear dissipates.  But, on the other hand, as belief in the Gospel wanes, superstition rises and eventually demonic possession returns.

Oftentimes, those cultures most committed to atheism are riddled with superstition, a belief in "luck" and its amulets, and a fascination with the "stars" and other forms of astrology.  These patterns can be seen in the West.  They are also seen in Burma--one of the most, if not the most, Buddhist nation on earth.  Yet even though over 90 percent of the population profess faith and belief in Buddhism, which is an atheistic and secularist religion, the prevailing culture in Myanmar remains profoundly superstitious.  This comes as no surprise to disciples of Christ.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a leading Buddhist and arguably one of its most consistent advocates alive today.  But in an essay entitled, "My Country and People" she speaks of the pervasive superstition that rules the hearts and minds of the people of Myanmar, even while acknowledging that such beliefs are inconsistent with Buddhist doctrines.
All Burmese know the day of the week on which they were born  The name given on a person's birth horoscope is decided according to the day of birth. . . . The horoscope shows the position of the planets at the time of a person's birth.  Astrologers use it to make predictions about the future.  This practice is not really in line with the teachings of the Buddha, according to which one's future is decided by one's own actions rather than by the stars.  [Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear (New York: Penguin Group, 2010), p. 70.]
Superstitions surrounding spirits and spirit worship are also strong within Myanmar, according to Aung San Suu Kyi.   She writes:
Another side of Burmese life which is not strictly in accordance with Buddhist teachings is spirit-worship.  Like the other peoples of Burma, the Burmese were spirit-worshippers before the arrival of Buddhism.  The Burmese use the word nat  to mean supernatural beings, the good ones who dwell in the various heavens as well as the frightening ones who interfere in the affairs of the human world. . . . There are people who take nat worship very seriously in spite of their belief in Buddhism.  Even those who avoid having anything to do with spirit-worship will not do anything which is know to be offensive to nats.  [Ibid.]
Astrology and superstition remain strong in Myanmar.  But this is not surprising nor unexpected.  Rather, it is precisely because belief in Buddhist doctrines are so pervasive that superstitions and a belief in the power of the stars to control one's destiny continue to be widely held.  Buddhism is an atheistic religion, in the sense that it does not believe in a personal, all powerful, sovereign God. In fact Buddhist doctrine does not proclaim any god.  Into this spiritual vacuum steps the Evil One and his servants.  Superstition and demonic influences gain increasing influence.  The same patterns can be seen emerging in the materialistic, atheistic West.

 Aung San Suu Kyi argues that the continuing strength of superstitions and a belief in demonic influences through spirits is due to the "old" religious beliefs, which held sway before the introduction of Buddhism, continuing to have a hold in the culture.  But, in fact, we would suggest that Buddhism inadvertently facilitates and actually encourages such beliefs.  Suu Kyi herself concedes this is probably the case, although this does not lead her to question Buddhist doctrines, as it ought.
It is often asked why even educated Burmese can sometimes be found taking part in nat worship.  Perhaps the answer lies in two aspects of Burmese life.  One is the strong hold which old beliefs from the days before Buddhism still have on the minds of the people.  The other is the extreme self-reliance which Buddhism demands from the individual. In Buddhism there are no gods to whom one can pray for favours or help.  One's destiny is decided entirely by one's own actions.  While accepting the truth of this, most people find it difficult to resist the need to rely on supernatural powers, especially when times are hard. [Ibid., p. 70f. Emphasis, ours.]
In fact, the more atheistic and secular a society becomes, one of two things happens (or, for a time both):  on the one hand, superstitious beliefs and various forms of spiritism increase their power; on the other hand, there is a growing longing and yearning amongst men to hear about the infinite, eternal and unchangeable, personal God, who so loves the world that he sent his only Son to save it.

At this point in our respective histories, it would seem that Myanmar and the West are very similar.

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