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.

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3 thoughts on “Thesis: Presuppositions I

  1. I am truly looking forward to reading your thesis brother! I find it interesting that you mentioned the influence of Marcus Borg (as that was what sprung to mind for me as I was reading through your description of Wink’s theological perspective on “spirit/s” and the world). In what sense can the “powers” be considered to hold a distinct orientation to the individuals composing such? Is there a sense in which one might perceive (or at least conceive) that there is some power beyond the powers which are manifested? Good stuff!

    • Thanks Rick! You’ll have to explain further though – are you referring to writers like Wink when you say “composing”, and that the Powers themselves may have influence over writings about the Powers? (That’s certainly a distinct possibility, and I would argue that this is actually quite evident in the way that writings about the Powers from the more staunchly Evangelical camps have tended to ignore structural evil altogether – a fact which to some extent both Wink and Boyd were inspired to correct!).

      The orientation of the Powers towards human beings is always one of authority, whether positively or negatively. They hold God-ordained authority over us, yet the purpose of that authority is for service (as any good pastor knows!). When they stop providing service and/or start demanding service from those they would serve, they maintain an orientation of authority, but that authority is no longer just and the power is fallen or demonic – yet they demand obedience all the same. Sometimes this orientation of authority is in a very practical way, e.g. the Police demand peaceful protesters to submit to arrest in Toronto in 2010; in other ways it is indirect and socially enforced, e.g. Evangelicals are strongly encouraged to vote Republican even if nobody says so out loud.

      What’s so important about the Gospel is that it reveals the true Power behind the powers. In his submission to the powers, Christ revealed their injustice. The fact that he was killed because he called them back to obedience to God reveals that their injustice is in fact rebellion against God. The only true authority that the powers have is moral or spiritual, so the moment they begin to use deception and violence to exert their authority, their real authority crumbles away and God is revealed in two ways at the same time: as the judge of the powers, and as the One who is incarnated in solidarity with the victims of injustice. When we act like Christ, taking up our crosses in a literal sense, it has the same effect for us as it did for Christ, to the glory of God!

      • Sorry. My use of “composing” threw a curve into the conversation. Thanks for your great reply though. I guess 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?

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