Southeast Portland youth talk at length about ghosts, spirits, haunted places, and they dabble in all of it.  They will do seances, tarot readings, divination of all sorts.  Adults are generally averse to anything under the banner of a church, but are apt to discuss spiritual matters.  The acceptance and fascination with spirituality is detached from the rigors and historical structure of church.  Freed from the arbitrary constraints of church in some ways, and dangerously free in others.  Both were informative for me.  One of the many scriptures I had glossed over for much of my life eventually served to anchor me to God.  There are other ‘gods,’ according to the first of The Ten Commandments.  Depending on how one reads other parts of the Bible, one has the option to read it as, “You shall have no other ‘spirits’ before me.”  There are certainly other spirits — demons and angels in Christianity, jinn in Islam, archons to the Greeks, and so on.  The created, strictly non-physical beings that are working in the heavenlies.  My interactions with the spiritual have been a process very similar to the academic — discerning which sources, authors to whom I ought to subscribe, and why.  I was shocked, as I was so many other times in my life story, to find something new. It wasn’t that everyone dabbling with other spirits was self-deluded.  They weren’t making it up, they were actually hearing and receiving power from something. The problem, even in scripture, is not that these things are a waste of time. The real issue is that they do work — sometimes. People do hear from other spirits when they pray. There was a similar apologetic outside the church as inside, where the methods were a means to a spiritual entity who is then invited to interact with the visible and material world. How was I to know which spirit I was hearing from when I prayed? What if I prayed wrong, and the wrong spirit answered? It got complicated, where I not only had to tune out my own thoughts but the thoughts of the unseen world. These kinds of thoughts, to a more earthly-thinking Christian, would be labeled “temptations” — not some disembodied demon with a voice — or the internal dialogue everyone has. I am saying, there is a distinction, but both are real, and both happen.

In my thoughts and my prayers, I subscribe to the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and God the Father, without exception.  The name of a spirit, in many religions, is a means to control the spirit in question.  In Christian scripture, “use” of our God’s name in prayer, oaths, in prophecy makes a distinction in the spiritual by naming the authority at work. The problem with so many of these kinds of power-seeking spiritual interactions is that the other spirits will lie about the power exchange.  This problem plagues those working in occult circles and other pagan practices — spirits don’t have to tell the truth.  The Christian pursuit, though, plays out the same.  I so want God to give me his power; I want God to do what I want him to do for me. Christians won’t articulate it this way, but the underlying misunderstanding is, to know the scriptures about our God is to know the limitations of God.  I have observed that the experts on theology, the persons who best understood the Bible, were often the villains in the Bible — the demons and the religious scholars who plagued Jesus’s ministry on earth.  The devil himself was a scripture-quoting trickster.  In the Garden of Eden, he quoted God himself, albeit wrongly, to lead humanity into darkness.  The real issue, though, is that the conception of God is not God.  It doesn’t matter how much I understand God, I still won’t “arrive” at a place where I can find his limits — what he must do, or will do, or can’t do.  What ended up happening in my life was that I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been that God worked outside of the limits I had set up for him.

My trouble, presently, is much the same. If God is heard outside scripture, in mine and others’ personal experience, then what is the measure? What is the high water mark, the barometer, the truth? Believing scripture is true, and trusting also that God ordained scientific and other fields of study, do I read these things as a means to the character of God? Far beyond the Roman Catholic apologetic, where those who Jesus’ blood is applied is wholly up to God, I am finding that there’s a mix of spirits both among “insiders” and “outsiders.” Christians hear from spirits that are sometimes Jesus and sometimes not, and conversely, non-Christians can and sometimes do hear from Jesus. It was my personal encounters with both “categories” of people that led me to reflect again on scripture. I see Christians applying the rules of distance, time, and space to spiritual matters by claiming that no other spirit can be in the presence of God, therefore we believers cannot “hear” from those others. It makes me wonder, was there some spiritual plexiglass between Jesus and the Devil out in the desert?  Like most systemic theologies, this idea bends and breaks at the first reading through the Bible.  It’s difficult to reconcile the “sin audience” theory when reading about the temptation of Christ, the book of Job, and plenty more. Real life testifies the same. So, in not throwing out the whole idea, one can see that Christians have both abilities, even when occupied by the Holy Spirit — this is a spiritual way of saying, “You will still be tempted, still sin, after you believe.”  And on the other side, “You might hear something from God out of non-Jesus-follower, or even a donkey.”

With other religions, I again reflect on Jesus’s ministry in the flesh. What was his attitude towards both Jews, the insiders, and Samaritans or Greeks, the outsiders? It was mixed.  I get excited about that, because then I can justify my disdain for Christian-types of people, but it is more likely that I am on the receiving end of Jesus’s righteous frustration. At times, he complained out loud that these Jews were an adulterous generation with little faith. Other times, the Roman soldier had the big, great faith. In both cases, God had no trouble making his voice heard to those operating in the wrong spirits. His trouble came from those expecting him, believing the right things about him, but simultaneously ignoring his personal, literal, material, and spiritual presence. It is not counter to truth, objective and absolute God’s truth, to claim that God is unlimited in his work — in healing, being heard and known, even in salvation — among those who believe the wrong thing. The ones calling on the wrong god’s name? And the ones using the right invocations and methods? There is no scriptural pattern as to how God deals with this, with the only consistency being his total sovereignty. God does not seem to be limited by us, nor is he controlled by us. This is great news.

Christian logic regarding other religions sometimes works like a light switch. It’s on or off, salvation or not. Other times, it applies temporal constructs to spiritual relationships. The distance, linguistically, is too far. The history of that other religion is unforgivable.  The degrees of similarity between Islam, Mormonism, or others to Christianity is a means to determine validity of either. Wisdom, or more importantly, the Creator God-moments found in any other religious practice is thrown out or held as valuable on the basis of their brand, their label. The alternative basis, the one I would advocate, is relationship. God didn’t limit his relationship with any sinner, any religious practitioner in scripture, and he does not now. How does one discern the spirits in any faith? It’s easier to just throw the others out then consider Jesus could have at one time, or ever did speak and make himself known to a practitioner therein. Yes, the similarities could be a misleading imitation, or a universal, broadly known truth. They are sometimes total lies. These spiritual relationships are any spectrum of things. What I am suggesting is the litmus test must begin and end with the Spirit of Christ. There are many other measures, too, but they fall short. Whether the behavioral demonstration matches the proclaimed belief system is not adequate — that standard overwhelms the best of Christians. If it’s logical consistency, then the supernatural events in Christianity have no room, and the religion follows out the door.  Physically impossible events cannot be reconciled, without some serious problems, with rationality. There are other rules. Jesus doesn’t seem to follow those rules; the relationships God started at Creation and continue now through the Holy Spirit break these rules. He talks to all kinds of people, he is present and known, today as he was when he walked the earth.

Looking into the future of my city, I see a return to the days before the French Revolution where spirit things are assumed as a part of the world. Secularism will be overcome, but not by mainstream Western Christianity. Superstition, spirit work, idols, talismans, all of that and more is slowly becoming mainstream. It won’t always be slow, though. The pantheon, today known among strict materialists as “hate,” “greed,” and “lust,” among so many others, will eventually be recognized for what they are: spirits receiving worship, like they do now, with the only change being wider intentionality. We don’t currently call it “worshipping Mars,” or any other name for the god of war, but the USA loves Mars. We love Mammon. We worship the sex gods. Even strict monotheists, who say there is God and no other spirits, do recognize the immaterial reality taking place in sex. This is in keeping with the understanding of sin, curses, blessings, passed down through families, or the simultaneously spiritual and physical act of reproduction. None of this is even news, except that as Christianity moves to the edges, Christians will have to learn how to put the other spirits in their place. Christians will eventually recognize the spirits informing their prayers for more than they need, for popularity, or otherwise invoking Jesus to fulfill their own will. I know I do this, and I am trying to stop. Imagining that I was no longer concerned with the comfortable lines and bounds that make up Christianity, a reality that is not the case in my life at this point, I would only be asking, “Is Jesus with this person?” Or, how is he with me? I am getting less concerned with the religious technology I use to be with Jesus as he is with me. Questions follow, with similar concerns but subtle differences. With respect to my spiritual community, I ask: Is Jesus in this person? Is Jesus coming out of this person, in their words, actions, attitudes, and relationships? How has Jesus been in their story? Certainly not “if” he has, but how. I won’t even consider that Jesus is limited in the means of revelation over time and space. They weren’t in proximity to a missionary? It’s not as if God is an airborne virus, needing a human host to survive, or bound up and locked into the text of the Bible.

God isn’t limited at the minimum end of what he can do. I don’t assume that God shows up in every religion, or religious experience or spiritual person. He can. “God will do X if you ask.” Yes, maybe, if it’s his plan. He also doesn’t have to show up, do, say, and so on, when I get everything right. The safest prayer, I think, is adding “as you will” to any petition. Jesus showed up to resurrect Lazarus — who apparently had no say in the matter, he wasn’t praying for healing from the grave — and everyone in town got it wrong. Those closest to knowing God’s will presumed his plan was to raise believers at the end of days — Mary had the right idea, but got the timing wrong.

In my God tracking and finding, the best indicator of Jesus’s spirit is love. What happens to a church, a relationship, an idea or a system when love is added? Injecting love and truth into a church, surely a supernatural process, may destroy that community. Love may be a stumbling block to some traditions, and an amplifier to others. At that point, it doesn’t matter what the people call themselves, Christian or Sikh, or what sign sits above their door. The loving Holy Spirit bolsters the Jesus work. Rather than the intellectual debate, which is still incredibly important, the spiritual battle is fought and won with love. The demons were terrified of the personification of love. In the Gospels, they didn’t seem to be limited by the Temple walls, just as God wasn’t limited by their physical presence. So what threat would a loving homosexual, Muslim, or Wiccan be among followers of Jesus? The spirit of fear isn’t from God. Love certainly isn’t destroyed by the devil’s plans. All the same with the imperfect expression of love from anyone — if you don’t love, then what spirit is in you? If your words don’t bleed and gush with love, then by what spirit do you speak? Using the “blind taste test,” without the guide of religious branding, Jesus is found in the spirit of love. Discerning spirits is finding love, which is only found in God. What happens to those holding on to their pantheon of gods — this is everyone, by the way, Christians included — is sooner or later, Jesus will take over.  Jesus isn’t overcome by the other spirits, but will be overcome by him. He trumps the false gods, even the ones who pretend to be him, and a whole spectrum of spiritual opposition. Understanding that there are no non-spiritual components of us — all desires, actions, thoughts, and even omissions are both completely spiritual and material — the Holy Spirit overcomes all of us.  It’s a not an argumentative kind of overcoming, but a spiritual relationship by which Jesus works.  This is the love I am talking about, and it’s the best news.