Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 7, The Spirituality of the Powers

Let's summarize some of the observations from the last few posts in this series:

First, in the biblical witness the language of the Powers conflates the spiritual and the physical. Very often, the Powers are political structures. I've focused on that association but any form of power or influence (e.g., social organizations, social norms, traditions, economic entities) is picked out by the biblical category "principalities and powers."

Second, this association between the physical and the spiritual highlights an aspect of the biblical cosmology: a parallelism between the physical and the spiritual. That is, events on earth are mirrored by events in heaven and events in heaven are mirrored on earth. We used the illustration of the angels of the nations to make this point. Each nation--a physical manifestation of power--had an angel or god that influenced the life of the nation. Further, wars between nations--a physical contest of power--was paralleled by a contest between the two nation gods with the physical and the spiritual battles mutually affecting each other. Here are two other examples of this parallelism in the New Testament:

Matthew 6.9-10
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 16.19
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Third, one of the problems with modern conceptions of the Powers is that the parallelism between the physical and spiritual becomes lost. Demons become disembodied spirits floating in the air, disconnected from physical forms of power. This becomes a missional problem for the church because it creates a fractured dualism as opposed to the parallel dualism of the biblical writers. This was the point John Howard Yoder was making in The Politics of Jesus. For the ancients the dualism was parallel. To address the Powers in the "heavenly realms" one had to address the structural physical manifestations of power. And vice versa. By contrast, many Christians have a fractured dualism. They believe in two realms--physical and spiritual--but these realms have little to do with each other. Demons become, as we noted, hyper-spiritualized creatures that have little to do with political or social power structures. Thus, the "spiritual warfare" reduces to prayer about holding off spiritual attacks from Satan, often in the form of moral temptation. Consequently, "spiritual warfare" collapses into an individualistic and pietistic moral effort (being a self-controlled person) or fanciful notions that demons float around trying to "attack" Christians and that our prayers summon angels to protect us. The clear problem with all of this is that this spiritual warfare is too spiritual, it has no physical, social, structural or political referent. For example, "spiritual warfare", due to the fractured dualism, has nothing to do with, let's say, poverty or human slave or sex trafficking. Christians end up praying about ethereal, airy battles between demons and angels, thinking their prayers are contributing to a "spiritual battle," helping angels beat up demons. But according to the biblical writers, the spiritual battle was also a structural and political battle. For the ancients the dualism between physical and spiritual was parallel, not fractured.

Once this is realized there is a tendency, one I'm often tempted by, to swing too far in the other direction, to focus on the physical at the expense of the spiritual. If "spiritual warfare" refers concretely to issues of political and social justice why not just drop the spiritual language? Why use the language of the demonic at all? Why not follow the Enlightenment and approach political, social and structural power issues with the categories of liberal humanism and politics? It seems that we can easily drop the language of religion.

Again, I resonate with this view. As an experimental psychologist I have scientific sensibilities and my day to day work involves trying to measure abstractions. But I think the language of the spiritual is important for two interconnected reasons.

First, as I argued in an earlier post, modern humans continue to have experiences of the residual, that the categories of science fail to do justice to human experience. My concerns here are primarily moral. Spiritual language names aspects of moral existence that cannot be reduced to genetics, medicine, brain science or particle physics. We might try to describe Auschwitz with the language of particle physics, describing the swirl and quantum interactions of massive clouds of particles. At the physical level that is a perfectly legitimate way to describe "what happened" at Auschwitz. But I think most people would feel that something important was missing from such an account. We might, then, scale up the account, using macro-level scientific accounts such as history and sociology to explain the events. This seems more appropriate. But when we do this we start to make appeals to abstractions: beliefs, ideologies, fears, social dynamics, morality, horror, pain, and evil. Although we feel that this account is more appropriate in describing "what happened" at Auschwitz we should note that we've left science behind. Horror isn't a scientific category. It's a category of human consciousness that science just doesn't have the ability to describe. This is the experience of residual I was speaking of, the aspects of human existence that require the language of the spirit, existential and religious language. Which is the better explanation for Auschwitz? A scientific appeal to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? Or the religious response: "Evil."

A second reason for holding onto the language of the "spiritual" is that it creates a platform for moral and political critique. In Christianity this is called prophecy. Prophecy is needed as it proclaims the emancipation of God from the status quo. God is often captured and enslaved by the Powers-That-Be who use God as a warrant for preserving current power structures--with the Big people on top and the Little people on the bottom--and to justify violence. Prophecy is residual language, proclaiming that God is larger than the current power structures. God is outside the power, God cannot be reduced to the political. The prophet, thus, stands in this margin, proclaiming God's judgment against the Powers. "God isn't FOR you," the prophet cries, "God is AGAINST you."

Without this prophetic space the religious collapses into the political. Most of time I'm perfectly happy with this. It keeps my faith relevant, politically engaged and ethically charged. But I'm keenly aware of the fact that my political engagements are myopic, morally confused and parochial. I don't want to reduce my spiritual life to a vote for a political party. I feel the residual, that God stands outside of my political and social justice efforts. And that location--the place of God--is a constant source of moral criticism and evaluation. God provides me a perch to step out of the moral confusion of my personal crusades and allows me to take in the prophetic view. Is God for me or against me?

Moral philosophers might see in all this the universalizing impulse of ethics, Kant's categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, Rawls' veil of ignorance. God is the vantage point of the universal ethic, what I've called my prophetic perch. So, yes, much of what I've just said could be translated into secular, liberal moral categories. But what Kant's or Rawls' systems tend to leave out are the existential and absolute facets of moral life. Pathos is often missing. The passionate moral life isn't about rational moral calculation ("Can I will that my actions will become the universal law of human conduct?") or haggling behind the veil of ignorance. The passionate moral life is seen in the lives of Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, people whose moral lives were grounded in the religious. Passionate moral engagement demands devotion and worship.

So here we are. To summarize, we need these three things for our understanding of the Powers:
  1. A way of capturing the parallelism of the ancients, of keeping the spiritual harnessed to the physical (socially and politically). No more fractured dualism. Demons and angels are no longer allowed to float in the air fighting each other.
  2. A way of keeping the language of the spiritual from collapsing into the political. Religious categories need to be preserved to speak honestly about human experience (e.g., What happened at Auschwitz?), to provide a prophetic space (so God is not "captured" by power as endorsement and warrant), and to provide moral life with an object of pathos (devotion and worship).
  3. Our means of speaking about the conflation of the physical and the spiritual needs to be coherent to modern people. As noted in the first post, the mythological background of the bible just cannot be entertained by many modern people. And yet, any "updating" of the language of the demonic needs to avoid a demythologizing that simply scrapes off a superstitious religious barnacle.
So, can any understanding of the Powers be found that meets these three requirements? Drumroll please....

Probably not.

But the one that comes closest, for me at least, comes from Walter Wink.

Wink's suggestion is that we reframe how we understand "heaven" and "earth." In the biblical witness these locations were framed in an Up versus Down metaphor. Heaven was above us and earth below. As Bultmann reminded us in the first post, this cosmological arrangement isn't tenable for modern persons. Wink's suggestion is that we reframe the situation using an Inside versus Outside metaphor. The "spiritual" or "heavenly" realm is the "inside" aspect of physical arrangements, the "spirituality" (inner life and logic) of nations, political parties, businesses, institutions, markets, churches, and ideological movements. In Wink's model when we think of the "angel of a nation" we are talking about the inner life of the nation, the spirituality of its inhabitants and political structures. For example, socialism has a spirituality as does capitalism. America has a spirituality different from, let's say, France, Canada or Iran.

So when we talk about "fighting against powers in the heavenly realm" we are talking about waging a war against the spirituality of America or capitalism or other sorts of power arrangements. In this light, for example, consumerism is seen as a demonic power, a form of spirituality, an object of worship, a location of idolatry or spiritual enslavement. Thus, as Paul says, we don't fight against "flesh and blood", the people shopping in the malls this Christmas season, we fight against the Power, the spirituality that enslaves American hearts and minds.

Wink's reframe comes very close to meeting the requirements I listed above. First, it keeps the parallelism of the physical with the spiritual. Second, it retains a robust use of religious language that is coherent to modern people. Even atheists could assent to the assessment that "Americans worship at the altar of capitalism." Or that "The shopping mall is the church of America." Finally, this model resists collapsing the spiritual into the physical. It is difficult for science to describe the demonic power of consumerism. I'm not saying it can't do this, just that the language of religion is often better in this regard. Recall last year's Black Friday incident where customers lined up at Walmart were worked up into such a frenzy that they crashed through the doors and killed a Walmart employee. Sure, the psychology of crowds could be used to "explain" the Walmart incident. But the causes of that death go way back, back to the foundations of the free market and how the media and society create pressures upon us. The causes of the Walmart incident can't be reduced to any single scientific explanation. But when I say that the "spiritual climate of American consumerism" caused the Walmart death we immediately understand this religious explanation to be both cogent and parsimonious.

On to Part 8

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11 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 7, The Spirituality of the Powers”

  1. Richard,
    Your analysis is based on a Marxist mentality. It assumes that the economic realm is THE primary source of "evil". What about framing the situation not in "national terms", but in personal terms, of "survival needs", or "Greed"? This approach individualizes the situation, allowing our nation's "ideals"(life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (or property)) to be of primary importance. This approach also allows us to morally affirm that our Constitutional government is of ultimate universal value AND affirm human rights, individual value, and choice as important.

    Group thinking (meaning, collectivism) is always dangerous in politics, religion, or economics. Self-interest is NOT bad, it is when self-interest lacks a balance of power, as power is the evil. This is why our Founders balanced power, and ensured that our nation would not be led by "one ideological political party".

  2. Have you ever considered offering an online course? I live in another part of the country but I'd love to study in a more formal way what you do on your blog.

  3. I think that being content and not being envious, or jealous of one's neghbor is a "just position, as checking one's heart for greed....This is why there will never be a "classless society", where all get equal distributions of wealth or gifts, or talents. The world is not "fair" in this sense.

    But, being content and not being envious presupposes that one has been treated with justice under a just government. And that is where power is of question, because justice is blind, it gives no priviledged position in regards to 'criminal behavior'. Justice demands that one check one's heart, otherwise that heart will not do justly. One can batter about whether justice means a positive mandate, or a negative regards to Christian faith.

  4. I find parallel dualism -in fact any form of dualism- unconvincing. If a nation changes its heart -for good or bad- does this require a changing of the guard in the spiritual realm? And if so, which comes first, and why? Does a power structure get the 'god' it deserves, or does it reflect the 'god' it has?

    And in either case, what is GOD doing while this power play is being acted out? Playing political chequers with the black and white pieces like a talking head on election night? An active participant or a distant observer?

  5. madgebaby,
    That's nice to ask about. I actually don't teach classes on anything like this blog (I teach a survey course in Introduction to Psychology and statistics courses). But if I ever do offer an online course on material related to this blog I'll let readers here know.

    Based on your question--If a nation changes its heart -for good or bad- does this require a changing of the guard in the spiritual realm?--I think you missed the point of Wink's model. A "change of heart" is interpreted to be a "changing of the guard in the spiritual realm." The two are different ways of speaking to the same reality.

  6. Ahh, understood. More a descriptive 'spirit of' the group than a prescriptive 'spirit over' the group. In which case is there any need for the spiritual overlay apart from it being a convenient metaphor for the collective morality of the group?

    Not wanting to exclude God from the dynamic, but I'm not sure we need the intermediate angels/demons layer to explain or excuse our individual and collective moral environments.

  7. After reading Angie's bitter attacks on collectivism and, indeed, the very notion of a public and a public good I misread the next poster as asking for an "online CURSE."


  8. I realize I'm coming in on part 7 of a series, and probably shouldn't post before going back and reading a bit, so please forgive me... but what about demonic possession and the like? How does that play into all this. I'm on board with the principalities and powers talk, but I've witnessed other forms of demonic happenings, and read about them in the New Testament as well. How do those fit into this discussion? Why are we ruling out the individual and jumping immediately to the political / power structures?

  9. Hi James,
    The goal of this series is to rehabilitate the language of the demonic for those Christians who find the notion of demons, conventionally understood, to be untenable. But if a person already believes in demons then, as you note and I'd agree, he or she wouldn't find much use for this series.

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