Thesis Interlude: Shad

Work is crazy this week (the students are coming back! Quick, everyone panic!), so I’ve put off the post I want to write on Rene Girard’s “mimetic violence” theory as it applies to Walter Wink’s theology of the powers.  Maybe this weekend.  In the meantime, here’s some song lyrics that really seem to grasp the idea that Satan isn’t just a fallen angel – there are whole systems involved.

Shad isn’t just Canada’s best rapper, he’s also a poet and a prophet in the best sense: he speaks the truth in ways that draw people in and call people out.  I highly encourage you to buy any of his albums, but this track is from The Old Prince; it’s called “I Heard You Had a Voice Like an Angel/Psalm 137” (listen below).

I heard you had a voice like an angel
I heard a strange tale
About a saint that fell
Music became jail
These bars
I hear you rapped/wrapped in em
Wove in the beats
Like the clothing of sheep
Wolves tracks
spin em
dj’s, cd’s
g’s thrown on d’s
we’ll be king like T.I hope
I heard you even sang when you spoke
And the emotion you evoked got you choked
When your beauty struck a vocal chord broke
Boatless dove overboard
Look upon the ocean
Caught your reflection before the Lord’s
I heard you had a voice like an angel
Strange though
You were blinded by the light
shining from your own halo
fell off
sort of like a rainbow when heaven watched
your faint glow fade slow
I heard you had a voice like an angel…

I heard that fame’s a killer
that can murder great princes
like Kurt Cobain singing Purple Rain
From a distance
Hope home aint a virtual game
Nor this cursed place earth
Where the dollars and the karma don’t circulate
The world’s a stage
And you know this play well
Gee I bet you even know how it ends, pray tell
Had a voice like an angel, now you score the drama scenes
The comedy’s the fact
We enact what you want to be
Had some old songs still stuck in your memory
Distorted though
So you sort of re-assembled melodies
And fine-tuning turned ’em into single after single
In this industry you built so sinfully simple for
You to write cuz, a song is what your life was
The destiny of stars is their light must
Fight dusk
With sparks of brilliance to ignite us
and of all the billions of stars
You were by far the brightest
I heard you had a voice like an angel
Now its just a light hush…

Now you keep everybody’s eyes on charts and schedules
And the trends trying to stack gold bars and medals
They want vessels void and dark as space
Fools wanna make stars instead of music that’s smart or special
Because art at a level that’s real can be harder to peddle
Business prefers a market that settles for second rate
Kill the true artists martyr the rebels
That’s the system and it’s straight from the heart of the devil
merchants of dreams
Sold to souls eyes-wide shut
Passin the buck to purchase a pass to buy stuff
Workin’ in this circus get hired up
To walk over half-knots on a tight rope
Tied-up in my gut
It’s a delicate balance
Developin’ the talent
Into persons that we worship
Yo, it’s a hell of a challenge
I heard you had a voice like an angel
And don’t really sing no more
But you still running the game so
If we don’t behave like them
They call us crazy
And if we won’t slave for them
They call us lazy
I’ve started to see why you hate me
Hearin’ this voice it must be painful
To the ears when for years
You had a voice like an angel…

If you don’t behave like them
They call you crazy
And if you wont slave for them
They call you lazy
Well I say…

They wanna take your mind
Turn it into a prison
Lock you inside
Then they call that livin
Well I say…

I heard you had a voice like an angel.

Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera
While they take your children
Smile for the camera
While we rape your women
Smile for the camera
While we make our millions
Smile for the camera
While we make our buildings
Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera

Thesis: Idols, Naming, and the Powers

Forget everything I’ve said about the powers lately, because Kevin says it better.  This is a sermon that lasts about 50 minutes, and it’s well worth your time.

Kevin’s Sermon

There are several points in this sermon that are worth expanding on, but I’d like to focus on the connection between idolatry and the powers, and specifically about how the powers actually come to be.

In my last post I talked about how we do not actually create the powers, because they are created or ordained by God.  This is not completely true, and I repent of this misinformation!  There is a very strong sense in which we are co-creators with God at work here.  We are co-creators with God, and we can see this in several ways: in the way that we continue to care for creation; in the way that we create art, culture, and even science and technology; and in the way that we create more and more human beings!  These are all important ways in which we create things, participating with God in his continual work of creation in both physical and spiritual senses.  And that’s the kicker: we can create things in a spiritual sense.

Think about intellectual property: we take great care to make sure that people get proper credit and payment when they create a poem, a song, an invention, or even simply an idea.  What have we actually created?  We call it intellectual property because it’s just ideas – there’s no physical thing attached to it.  But when we create a culture – and we all play a role in creating culture, and increasingly so in the digital age – have we created “intellectual property”?  Is it just ideas?  No, it is much more – a culture is a spiritual thing, a power, either an angel or a demon at any given point.  So let’s get that straight first: we do create things, even spiritual things.  This is a part of being made in God’s image, a part of our privileged place in God’s creation.

In his sermon Kevin quotes Walter Wink, who points to the angel of the church in Revelation, saying that this angel is a representative of the church, that it actually cannot exist without the people it represents.  So when a church is created, so too is an angel, the spiritual force of that new institution.

Wait – we create angels?!

Kevin points out that we give power to things all the time, using the example of idols.  Actually, he uses the example of his teddy bear (Kev, you need to let it go!): this little bundle of material and stuffing has incredible power over Kevin, drawing a very visceral response from him if any harm would come to it.  He’s spent most of his life investing that little bear with meaning and value, and so (at least to him) it is now much, much more than material and stuffing – but not in a physical sense.  The OT prophets chided people for worshipping idols that they made with their own hands, out of wood or metal or clay, but these people were only doing what we do today with our favourite shoes, or television shows.  Star Trek is not just a television show, it is a spiritual force that holds power over millions, but only because those people have invested it with so much meaning and value and authority that it actually governs them to some extent.

This investing of significance, value, and authority is what Madeleine L’Engle calls “Naming,” and it plays a central role in the second book of her Time quintet The Wind in the Door.  Walter Wink calls L’Engle’s children’s novels one of the best introductions to the concepts of the powers, and for good reason.  The following is an excerpt from The Wind in the Door, in which Meg talks with the cherubim Proginoskes about Naming her principal, Mr. Jenkins:

“Progo!  You said we were Namers.  I still don’t know: What is a Namer?”

“I’ve told you, a Namer has to know who peopleare, and who they are meant to be.  I don’t know why I should have been shocked at finding Echthroi on your planet.”

“Why are they here?”

“Echthroi are always about when there’s war.  They start all war.”

“Progo, I saw all that awfulness you took me to see, that tearing of the sky, and all, but you still haven’t told me exactly what Echthroi are.”

Proginoskes probed into her mind, searching for words she could understand.  “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels.  War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are.  If someone knows who he really is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.  That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth.  When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

Meg said, unhappily, “If I hate Mr. Jenkins whenever I think of him, am I Naming him?”

Proginoskes shifted his wings.  “You’re Xing him, just like the Echthroi.”


“Meg, when people don’t know who they are, they are open either to being Xed, or Named.”

“And you think I’m supposed to Name Mr. Jenkins?”  It was a ridiculous idea; no matter how many Mr. Jenkins’ there were, he was Mr. Jenkins.  That’s all.

But Proginoskes was most definite.  “Yes.”

“But how do I do it?  How do I Name Mr. Jenkins when all I think of when I see him is how awful he is?”

Proginoskes sighed and flung several wings heavenwards so violently that he lifted several feet, materialized, and came down with a thud.  “There’s a word – but if I say it you’ll just misunderstand.”

“You have to say it.”

“It’s a four-letter word.  Aren’t four-letter words considered the bad ones on your planet?”

“Come on, I’ve seen all of the four-letter words on the walls of the washroom at school.”

Proginoskes let out a small puff. “Luff.”


“Love.  That’s what makes persons know who they are.”
-Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door, 111-114.

Naming, as it is called here, is one of the ways in which we can invest significance and value into something or someone.  We have a long history of Naming, ever since God paraded all of the animals before Adam to be Named in turn; Adam’s Naming of the animals wasn’t an arbitrary choice of sounds by which to call them, it was a deeply spiritual bestowing of value on the things that God had created.  If we call it simply “Love”, as Progo pointed out, we’ll only misunderstand – it’s not the same as the way that we love our families, or our mate, or our favourite shoes, which is precisely why Madeleine L’Engle had to use Mr. Jenkins as an example, because Mr. Jenkins isn’t “lovable” in any notable way.  Naming involves seeing who someone really is, seeing their true value, and then declaring to the cosmos that this true value and identity is synonymous with this person.  It’s actually very simple, really: we Name someone when we see them and love them the way that Jesus does.

As I’ve said, Naming someone or something is not the same as loving your favourite shoes, though they are both a form of investing value and significance into something.  The difference is that when we Name something, we’re proclaiming its true significance; when we invest significance into something that it does not actually deserve, if we value it more than it is worth, then it becomes idolatry.  Kevin loves his teddy bear, but it’s not actually his bear that he loves: he’s transferred all of his nostalgia for his childhood, all of the feelings of happiness and comfort he had when he was a kid, into this bear, and it has come to represent all of that to him.  In that sense, this bear has become an idol (though a harmless one).  Not all of our idols are as harmless as our teddy bears and security blankets.

Work is an idol.  Sports is an idol.  Fantasy novels are idols.  Not to everyone, and not all the time, but these Powers will always hold as much power over us as we invest in them.  Some people Name the lottery as their only hope, and though it is an empty hope, to them it truly does seem to be all the hope they have left.  This is a Power that controls them, but they have willingly given that authority to it, turning a game into a demon.  In this sense, we are not only under the control and tyranny of the powers, but we are complicit in their crimes, paying a regular tax of significance and value that we continue to give them which only makes them stronger.

We are the authors of our own misery, and we are responsible for the misery of others, all because we can no longer see the world the way that God does, so we give our spiritual power to things that do not respect or deserve it.  We need perspective – the kind that only Jesus can bring.  We need the Holy Spirit to be the authoritative spirit in our lives, in our churches, in our towns and cities, nations, corporations, not through some sort of Christianizing but through correctly Naming each other and only ascribing value and significance where it is warranted – that is, where God has ascribed it.

When Paul says that we do not fight against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities and rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, he’s not just pointing out that we can’t win spiritual battles with physical weapons.  Human beings, though we are responsible for the powers, are also improperly Named.  God has Named us, ascribed great authority and value to us: He names us his Children, his Stewards, his Friends, because he knows who we really are.  When Paul says we’re not fighting against flesh and blood, he’s pointing out that even though it seems like other human beings are our enemies, we are actually all on the same team, part of the same family, victims of the same plague, and yet we can’t see that because we haven’t been properly Naming each other (or ourselves).  Corporations Name us Consumers, and so we are; Governments Name us Taxpayers, and so we are; God names us Child, Heir, Friend, Beloved, Blessed, Precious, but we’re not listening.  Whether it’s Mr. Jenkins or Joseph Kony, I need to Name my enemies properly, because where I see a jerk or a monster, God sees Precious, Beloved, and Jesus sees Brother.

If you get a chance, listen to Kevin’s sermon and read A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly-Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle.

Front Cover 

Thesis: Wink and The Satan

In response to my last post, my friend Kevin linked me to a sermon he preached on the subject and my friend Ryan sent me a paper he wrote on Satan.  Thanks guys!  Your responses and contributions make it so much easier for me to press on with this stuff!  I’ll address Kevin’s sermon in my next post this weekend, but I’ll address Ryan’s paper now.

Ryan’s paper tracks the character of Satan throughout the OT, apocrypha, and NT, and a distinctive pattern emerges: throughout the Bible, the satan is portrayed as being a creature ordained and directed by God, fulfilling his function of being an adversary.  In fact, the Hebrew word satan means “adversary”, and in its earlier usage it carries the definite article (“the satan”, or “the adversary”).  Satan is portrayed as a courtroom prosecutor, and God is the judge; Satan looks for evidence against God’s people (e.g. Job), and God even lets him use entrapment and sting operations.  Over time, however, the portrayal of Satan shifts from being God’s servant to being God’s enemy, as Satan takes his efforts to accuse God’s people further, breaking the boundaries that God puts on him.  By the time we get to the NT, Satan is God’s enemy, yet unwittingly or unwillingly continues to serve God’s purposes by doing what he always does: entrapping and accusing people.
Walter Wink tracks this pattern as well, and makes much of Satan’s role as God’s servant, also seeing Satan’s fall as the act of going outside of the boundaries that God had placed upon his accusations and adversity.  This is a pattern for all of the fallen powers: they continue to do what they were created to do, but they do it deficiently and for their own purposes and glory.  They’re like a banker who starts to siphon funds, or a politician who uses his influence to pad his own pockets or accept bribes; they still have the same job, and they do it to some extent, but they do it for themselves rather than for their true master.  In a word: idolatry.

I’ve started defining idolatry by a reversal of relationship: the creature demands the service of the creator.  This is certainly true of actual, physical idols: a human being makes a statue of gold, and then bows down to worship it, leaves food out for it, etc.  This is true of the love of money: money is a tool for our good, but we spend all of our time and energy trying to get more of it, to the point where we’re serving it rather than the other way around.  All sin has some form of idolatry in it – not least the sins of the Powers, who were created by God to serve humanity but have instead demanded service from us, setting themselves up in the place of God.  Governments are set up to protect their people, but they start foolish wars and millions are killed; economies are set up to circulate money and increase wealth, but they set up monopolies to hoard the wealth and enslave the people with consumerism; even marriage, perhaps the institution most celebrated as being “Christian”, is a fallen Power as often as not, with people looking for need fulfilment and impossible romance in a relationship that can’t actually provide such levels of service.  For the amount that we spend on books, magazines, and lawyers, all telling us how to have a healthy/happy marriage/divorce, or how much we spend on a wedding with all of the social trappings that come along with it, it’s clear that, at least at times, we’re serving the institution of marriage more than it’s serving us (or from another perspective, perhaps we’re expecting service from our marriages when we should actually be the ones serving?).  Nothing is sacred, nothing is exempt – all of the Powers are fallen to some extent or another, and we have our fingers in it.

But I digress: we’re talking about Satan, that chief of the powers.  Over time, Satan accrues more and more names: Adversary, yes, but also Accuser, Slanderer, and Destruction, among others.  He gets worse, more powerful, more hateful and spiteful – at least that’s how he’s portrayed.  In his paper, Ryan points out that “Part of the tension found throughout the Bible when the topic of Satan is mentioned comes from the ambiguity of whether or not Satan is a real spiritual being of evil nature, or if he is merely a personification of the human adversaries that are faced by the community creating the texts.”  As the Church emerges and faces opposition, they aren’t afraid to call their adversaries, human or otherwise, Satan!  That some scholars see the term referring to a personification or demonization of the Church’s enemies rather than a real personal demon is rather interesting; Wink, on the other hand, takes it a step further.

To Walter Wink, Satan is not just a name to call one’s enemies, but is the personification of all of the powers combined: the Domination System.  Rather than being a spirit in the sky who can deal out plagues and earthquakes and bad luck, or possess people and make them do evil things, Satan is the literary personification of the entire Domination System, which itself is made up of all of the fallen powers of this world.  Individual fallen powers are bad enough, but when they act in concert, it’s pure and utter domination.

Take, for example, sweatshops in the third world: this is a failure of so many different social institutions around the world!  Complicit in the atrocity that is sweatshop labour are the powers of economy (ours, which depends on cheap goods produced in sweat shops, and theirs, which depends on low-wage work that keeps their people in poverty rather than enriching them); government (ours, which should hold our corporations responsible for what they do overseas, and theirs for not protecting their people adequately); culture (ours, for being materialistic and colonialist, and cultures around the world for attempting to imitate ours, often in the worst ways); religion (for failing to speak up, both here and there); and many others.

One of these systems being fallen is bad enough, but when they work together they serve to completely dehumanize people who are made in the image of God.  One of these systems going wrong is adversity – the thing that God allows Satan to bring on us, the thing that helps us to grow and work together for good; all of these systems going wrong at once is domination, is Satan pushing us past any sense of growth in adversity, to the point of utter desolation.  Job, we could say, was pushed that far – yes, that’s true; but Job is supposed to be an extreme case, a hyperbole for the sake of the story and its point, not a depiction of the way things are supposed to be.

So, once again, Wink has taken something we have always characterized as a personal evil spirit and cast it as a social institution gone wrong.  Is the Satan a personal spiritual force?  Practically speaking it doesn’t actually matter, because personal or not, it’s still social and spiritual.  Is the Satan working for God or in rebellion against God?  Once again, practically speaking it doesn’t matter – because God uses its actions for our good, regardless of their intent; and on the flipside, whether God sent Satan to do these things to us, or whether Satan does them out of an idolatrous self-motivation, it’s still adversity that we need to grow through together, and we still have a role to play in how these issues are resolved.

Sorry for the scattered thoughts tonight – far from my best work, but it’s that kind of day.

Thesis: Walter Wink and Systems Theory

Rick had a great question on my last post:

I was actually wondering if in what sense (if any) can the powers (in Wink’s perspective) be conceived as having a distinct orientation or impulse than the the specific orientation or impulse of individual persons? Is there any room for somewhat distinct wills? Is the will of the power/s ever more than the will of the individuals which might make up whatever group is living by the power/s?

It’s an excellent question, and gets to the heart of Wink’s theory of the Powers.  Patrick Franklin (my thesis advisor), without knowing Wink’s theory, made a connection to what I was talking about and Systems Theory, and it fits perfectly, so I’ll use it here.  He was studying systems theory because of its implications for theological anthropology and the question of what makes a person, and I think it’s related but on a different level.

A systems theory scholar can correct me (please do!), but the description that Dr. Franklin gave me involved computers.  Computers are made up of many small components that, when working together, create something that is bigger than themselves – the many parts sending simple electrical signals can, together, make a video game come to life, for example.  We all know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, right?  But the interesting thing is when there is a feedback loop, and the whole is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but the whole actual begins to control its component parts.  A computer’s many small pieces with their simple electrical signals together can create a virtual thing that, once it has been created by the many parts working together, can now control those parts to make new virtual things, even creating chains of feedback loops.  So while the higher-level processes are dependent on the lower-level processes for their very existence, in a sense the lower-level processes are also dependent on the higher-level processes that are now directing the lower-level processes.  In short, the computer takes on a life of its own, so to speak.  Is a computer a living thing?  No.  But it is not just a physical thing, either – it is also a virtual thing.
In the same way, a social institution is greater than its members.  Walter Wink uses the example of a sports game.  Thousands of perfectly lovely, kind, even Christian, people get together for a communal event: a world-class soccer match.  Something happens at that soccer match, and by the end of it those wonderful and gentle people sometimes end up doing things that they never dreamed they could do: riots, senseless violence, destruction of property, etc.  Sports, competition, these are things ingrained in human nature, given by God to bring us together – and they do so, most of the time.  But like everything else in this world, social institutions that were created to bring us together can be fallen, and tear us apart.  Sometimes, wonderful people get together and have a wonderful time; other times, a spiritual force takes over – a large-scale, impersonal possession, if you will – and all hell breaks loose (pun intended).  I think that we can account for the different outcomes (a great game, or a riot) by noting that we, as individuals, contribute to the spirit (the virtual computer) that also influences us; so if a lot of people go to the game looking for a fight, the spirit of the game takes a very different tone than it would have if everyone went there looking for a laid-back Sunday afternoon.  Sure, there are still a lot of people who are looking for a laid-back Sunday afternoon, but from the moment they arrive at the park there’s something different in the air, and some of the people who wanted a laid-back game find themselves itching for a fight by the end of the game too.

I have trouble with this particular analogy, because it not only suggests that such a spirit is not personal (Wink himself fell on the impersonal side, but he claimed it didn’t matter in regard to his theory of social institutions being spiritual in nature), but that it is not permanent.  This is not necessarily the case, though: perhaps the spirit of sport is always there, but only manifests itself at certain times and places, i.e. at the game?  And if the spirit is permanent but only occasionally manifests itself, then it could very well be personal.  What is important is that, though it has great power and influence over all of us individually, it is only collectively that we can have any significant impact on it.  Once it is created, the virtual computer controls the physical components, not the other way around.  It would take all of the physical components rebelling together to shut it down.  At the same time, we can collectively influence the powers for the worse, too: a spirit becomes violent and harmful not because of its own choices (though that may be a part of it: like Wink, I don’t rule it out!) but because we, collectively, bring sin into the equation.

Let’s take another example: politics.  Since Rick is American, I’ll use American politics 🙂

The President of the United States of America is supposed to be the most powerful person in the world, right?  But anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that the President is very limited in their decision-making powers.  Some of these limitations are by design: there are checks and balances in the political system to make sure that no despot can ever rule in the US, and that’s a darn good thing.  Most of the true limitations, however, are not by human design, but are imposed by the powers behind the President.  The Office of the President is greater than any particular person who sits in it, made up of the collective influences, decisions, and legacies of every president who’s come before, but greater than the sum of its parts.  History, precedent, and the collective desires of the people all have incredible impact on what any given president can truly do, even within their legal bounds.  A great politician should be someone who can lead the people, making decisions that make us collectively better, and inspiring the best in us personally; instead, a great politician tends to be someone who can ride all of the factors that influence their decisions, doing exactly what is needed to keep their position.  We can’t fault them for that because we know that if they break any of these unwritten rules, they’ll lose whatever influence they actually still do have over the system.  They’re a bigger component than most, but they’re still just one of the many, and it’s the virtual machine that’s calling the shots.  That’s why Obama is just barely different than Bush, and why he’s not going to change that much even if he beats Romney: because the true power of the Throne is in the Throne itself, not in the person who sits on it.

Now, up to this point I’ve stressed the power relations rather than the personality.  As I mentioned, Wink was inclined to think that these social institutions are spiritual forces, but not personal ones – but he claimed that it could be either way.  If the connection with Systems Theory is correct (this connection didn’t come from Wink, it’s something Dr. Franklin and I put together) then we do have influence over the powers, which are in a sense generated or given power by us.  That might suggest to some that the powers are not personal, that they are (like the computer) an impersonal force born out of the combined spirits of people.  But the influence of these powers on us as individuals does not take away our own personality, even when it takes away our individuality (when we, like everyone around us, start breaking windows because the Canucks lost).  We are personal, spiritual beings who are influenced by other spiritual beings, personal or not.

So, being influenced by humans doesn’t mean that the powers aren’t personal; we may have good reason to believe that they are.  When we think of “personal” we think of “having their own characteristics and will,” and they certainly do have their own characteristics: this is just as true of the computer in systems theory as it is of the powers and principalities.  The virtual machine that controls the physical machine is not like any of the physical parts, and further is not like the combination of all of its parts; so too, the powers and principalities are not like any of their physical representatives – they have their own logic, their own goals, and even their own style or MO.  I think that the reason that we have difficulty thinking of a social institution as a personal spirit is because we associate persons with physical embodiment, and social institutions are embodied in a collective way rather than an individual way; perhaps this is why Wink preferred to think of them as impersonal, even though he spoke of them as having their own will.

What’s fascinating is that our sin can have a major effect on how a spirit manifests.  In the computer analogy, we are the individual components who collectively create the virtual machine that in turn directs our movements; we aren’t functioning the way our creator intended, and so the virtual machine that is created as the result of our collective actions is as fallen as our collective actions are.  Where this analogy breaks down is that the virtual machine, or rather, the spiritual force was created from the beginning as a good thing; it’s not we who created it (though I thought this for a long time about Wink’s theory, and it still intrigues me: can we create a spiritual being by creating a new institution?), but it’s still we who corrupted it through our collective sinfulness.  Theologians, identifying the serpent in the garden with Satan, later wrote stories which place the fall of Satan before the fall of human beings – effectively placing the blame on spiritual beings for the fall of human beings.  If Wink’s theory is correct, and if the analogy between Wink’s theory of social institutions and systems theory is correct, then human sin is just as responsible for the fall of spiritual beings.  Sin is now a chicken-and-egg situation, and we’re all to blame just as much as Satan is.  The only difference is that Satan is in a privileged position of power: we can only influence the powers when we act collectively, while any given power has influence over all of us at once.  In this sense they are more responsible because they have more responsibility, not because their actions are any worse, or because their actions came first (which they may not have).

The thing about the powers, even though they are personal, is that we can’t reason with them.  Christ has already exposed them, and they know that their time is short.  What we CAN do is use our collective influence, because every Jesusy act sends out tiny ripples that, collectively, rock the powers’ boat.

Thesis: Presuppositions I

I’ve finally begun.  If you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I started talking about my thesis not long after I started this blog.  Due to changes in faculty (and thus my thesis advisor) I’ve put it off for a few years.  I’m glad of it, because I’ve learned a lot since then, and had more time to define my thoughts and ideas.

In short, my thesis will compare two theologies of spiritual conflict: those of Walter Wink and Gregory Boyd.  Specifically, it will compare both their theologies (to show how different they are) and their ethics (to show how similar they are) in order to lay the foundation for a Christian ethic that is comprehensible to both the “right” and “left” and rooted in the existence and practices of the Church.  To start with, I’ll have a chapter outlining the background and presuppositions of each of the scholars.  Since I just finished reading Wink a few days ago, I wanted to get some of my thoughts out.  There will be more posts like this to come, and some of them will seem like they’re re-hashing old posts; I hope that they’re still useful as catalysts for thoughts and ideas in you.  Here goes:

Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers and Principalities is a systematic theology in its full sense: it is a theology that describes a system which includes everything.  This is as true of its influences as it is of its outcomes.  Wink draws from the waters of biblical studies, theology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, poetry and other literature, history, mysticism, and even the theologies and wisdom of other religious traditions in developing his theology of the Powers, managing to do so without promoting one discipline over any other without warrant.  That he would choose such a wide array of inputs for an essentially theological task is enough for many to classify him as “liberal”; that he was able to fit all of these pieces together into a coherent image of the world earned him the respect of scholars across the spectrum, a respect he returned in kind.

This broad array of sources make it especially fitting that Wink begins his discussion (at least in The Powers That Be, his last and summarizing volume on the subject) with a discussion of worldviews.  Drawing on the work of anthropologists and missionary-theologians, Wink describes several different worldviews which have dominated civilization over time: a correspondence worldview, which sees events on earth corresponding to events in Heaven; a Gnostic worldview, which sees earth and matter in conflict with heaven and spirit; a naturalist worldview, which disavows the existence of heaven; etc.  Most of these worldviews can be pictured as two spheres overlapping to different extents.  Wink proposed a new(er) worldview, in which the two spheres are completely overlapping and intertwined, in which there is no boundary between spirit and matter: panentheism.  A panentheistic worldview recognizes that spirit and matter are not separable, and that humans are not the only creation with spirit.  While there are varying degrees to which scholars are willing to attribute spirit in matter (see Sally McFague for an argument of the physical earth as God’s body), Wink focuses on the spirituality of another type of created being: institutions.  To Wink, a social institution is a created being with a spirit all its own.  Like other spiritual creatures such as humans, social institutions were created or ordained by God for good purposes.  And like other spiritual creatures, social institutions can and have set themselves up in the place of God, demanding service where they should be serving.  And these fallen institutions, like other spiritual beings, can and will be redeemed, reconciled to God and brought back to obedience to Him.  This is the central idea of Wink’s theology of the powers, and it depends on the panentheistic notion that all created things have a spirit or spirituality.

This worldview is important in several different ways. First, it highlights the immanence of God in ways that previous worldviews have not.  The ancient worldview saw Heaven as being far away; the Gnostics saw it as a place to escape to; and the naturalistic worldview ignored it altogether.  Our knowledge of the universe shows us that heaven is not another realm in the sky, but a panentheistic worldview that recognizes the presence of spirit here on earth allows us to affirm the reality of God in a very near and intimate sense.

Second, a panentheistic worldview is important because it recognizes that we are essentially embodied, and that what happens in the flesh and to the earth is important.  Heaven is not a place to escape to, but is rather the fulfillment of God’s plan for earth.  In this way panentheism lends itself very well to, or even necessitates, certain notions of realized eschatology: if the physical world is also the spiritual world, then heaven and hell, in a certain sense, both exist here on earth today.  While Wink doesn’t dwell on this particular implication it is not hard to see undertones of it throughout his work.  In this respect, the influence of Marcus Borg is particularly evident.

Third, a panentheistic worldview is important because it recognizes the spiritual power and influence that social institutions can hold over human beings, but also recognizes the influence that human beings can have on social institutions, both positive and negative.  This is central to Wink’s ethic of non-violent engagement with the Powers, as we are still responsible for our actions while at the same time being both responsible for and responsible to the Powers.  The Powers themselves are real beings, and are responsible for their actions.  Nobody gets off the hook.  This allows us to focus on our true enemies in our conflicts: we do not fight against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities in the heavenly realms! (Or to put it colloquially, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”)  Violent aggression against human beings is misdirected.  We’ve long recognized that in conflicts between nations it is not nations who bleed and die, but people; it’s high time we recognized that nations themselves are spiritual entities that respond to different types of “weapons.”

Detractors might criticise a panentheistic worldview as being unbiblical; as it was not the worldview of the biblical writers, this is a valid criticism.  This raises another informative point about Wink’s theology: he does not hold to a high view of scripture.  While he certainly reveres the Bible, he does not ascribe to it certain types of infallibility.  I nearly choked when I read in The Powers That Be that Paul, apparently, was incorrect in his use of scapegoat imagery for Christ, and that scapegoating (which was an essential part of Old Testament Jewish religious practice) was never a part of God’s plan.  That Christ was, rather than the final scapegoat, the anti-scapegoat, I am more than happy to concede; but that a central religious function of Israel that Jesus himself took part in was a way to project society’s murderous impulses on innocent victims and actually represented the antithesis to God’s plan, and thus that every use of it (physically and metaphorically) is just plain wrong (even in the Bible) is a bit harder to get over.  That said, Wink’s view of scripture is certainly no more liberal than that of, say, Bultmann, and in many ways much less so: where liberal interpreters see mythology that relates spiritual or social truths or principles through the eyes of primitive or artistic ancients, Wink sees mythological language that accurately represents invisible spiritual realities.  While liberal interpreters of the past discounted such references, Wink finds in them the description and story of this fallen world, the problem to which Christ is the answer.  So while his view of scripture may place him in a “liberal” camp, he is by no means in an extreme fringe, and he maintains consistency in his hermeneutic.  To put it in other terms, Wink seems to affirm that the Bible is true to how its authors “saw” it – but, recognizing the imperfection of its authors, is willing to say that they sometimes “saw” things in frameworks or worldviews which were inherently flawed or incorrect.  So, while panentheism was not the worldview of the biblical authors, Wink would say that even though the Bible was inspired, the worldview of the authors was not, and we have room to adopt a better worldview in our theology today.

The other scholar that I’ll be dealing with in this thesis, Gregory Boyd, also introduces the subject with the topic of worldview.  Using several examples from cultures around the world today, Boyd shows that a “warfare worldview” in which there is conflict between spiritual and earthly forces, remains a dominant worldview, as it was in the ancient world.  Boyd thus affirms this “warfare worldview”, not least because it was the dominant ancient worldview and the worldview of the biblical authors.  Perhaps it is because of his higher view of scripture that he affirms even the worldview from which scripture arose, but I’m inclined (with Wink) to question this; after all, the ancient worldview also saw women as being higher animals at best (dirt at worst), and warfare worldviews today include (as Boyd himself notes) headhunters of the Amazon and other tribes who blame all sickness and misfortune on the spirits of their dead enemies or the demons they invoke.  I support the way that Boyd brings us back to a recognition of spiritual forces and conflict, and I appreciate that he acknowledges that though the worldviews he cites are not completely correct they at least have a common intuition of the spiritual forces at work, but so far he uses the terms “conflict” and “worldview” in a very broad sense.  Admittedly, I’ve only read the introduction; hopefully he gets more nuanced and specific as we progress.