Notes on Demons & the Powers: Part 8, The Inner Aspect of Material Manifestations of Power

In the last post of this series I introduced Walter Wink's analysis of demons and the powers. Keeping with the spirit of using these posts as collections of "notes" I want to capture some of Wink's own words from chapter 5--Interpreting the Myth--from his book Naming the Powers:

Wink's main proposal that "the powers" are the "inner aspect" of existence:

What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestation of power...the "principalities and powers" are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the "demons" are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that "gods" are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain...and that "Satan" is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.
Following the biblical writers in keeping the spiritual tethered to the physical:
None of these "spiritual" realities has an existence independent of its material counterpart. None persist through time without embodiment in cellulose or in a culture or a regime or a corporation or a megalomaniac. An ideology does not just float in the air; it is always the nexus of legitimations and rationales for some actual entity, be it a union or management, a social change group or the structure it hopes to change. As the inner aspect of material reality, the spiritual Powers are everywhere around us. Their presence is real and it is inescapable. The issue is not whether we "believe" in them but whether we can learn to identify our actual, everyday encounters with them--what Paul called "discerning the spirits."
Why it might be helpful to retain the spiritual language in speaking about the Powers:
Every organization is made up of humans who make its decisions and are responsible for its success or failure, but these institutions tend to have a suprahuman quality. Although created and staffed by humans, decisions are not made so much by people as for them, out of the logic of institutional life itself. And because the institution usually antedates and outlasts its employees, it develops and imposes a set of traditions, expectations, beliefs, and values on everyone in its employ. Usually unspoken, unacknowledged, and even unknown, this invisible, transcendent network of determinants constrains behavior far more rigidly than any printed set of rules could ever do. It governs dress, social class, life-expectations, even choice of marriage partner (of abstention). This institutional momentum through time and space perpetuates a self-image, a corporate personality, and an institutional spirit which the more discerning are able to grasp as a totality and weigh for its relative sickness or health.

...The institution, however, is the totality of its activities and as such is a mostly invisible object. When we confuse what the eye beholds with the totality, we commit the same reductionistic fallacy as those Colossians who mistook the basic elements (stoicheia) of things for the ultimate reality (Col. 2:8,20). The consequence of such confusion is always slavery to the unseen power behind the visible elements: the spirituality of the institution or state or stone.
How prayer functions as an act of spiritual warfare:
If, then, the church must now make know the manifold wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in the heavenlies, it cannot be content with addressing the material aspect of an institution alone. It must speak to the spiritual reality of the institution as well.

The early church understood this quite clearly. When the Romans archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor's behalf to God. This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been. Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor's power, and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power...prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire's "angel," as it where, before the judgment seat of God.
The Powers and the persecution of the church:
..."Jesus is Lord" shook the foundations of an empire; in the "free" world today "Jesus is Lord" bumper stickers mainly occasion yawns...But there are countries where "Jesus, friend of the poor" can get you killed. Fidelity to the gospel lies not in repeating its slogans but in plunging the prevailing idolatries into its corrosive acids. We must learn to address the spirituality of institutions, as well as their physical manifestations...

...Any time the church has chosen to address the spirituality of institutions in their concrete embodiments, persecution has resulted. Far from a show of gratitude at being recalled to the will of God, the Powers explode in a frenzy of rage and retaliation.
The dual focus of the mission of the church:
...the simultaneity of heavenly and earthly events witnesses to the perception, mythically couched, that there is more to events than what appears. The physical actors and institutions are only the outer manifestation of a whole field of powers contending for influence. Real change, consequently, will be only that which succeeds in altering both their visible and invisible aspects. "For we are contending not against flesh and blood"--though we most certainly join the battle precisely at that point--"but against the principalities, against the powers." against the spirituality of institutions, against the ideologies and metaphors and legitimations that prop them up, against the greed and covetousness that give them life, against the individual egocentricities that the Powers so easily hook, against the idolatry that pits short-term gain against the long-term good of the whole--all of which is manifested only in concrete institutions, systems, structures, and persons.
On to Part 9

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One thought on “Notes on Demons & the Powers: Part 8, The Inner Aspect of Material Manifestations of Power”

  1. Richard,
    As I read the first paragraph, it occurred to me that connecting the spritual to the material intellectually, is not dissimilar to "idols" that spirituality is attached other words, in the attempt to scientize the material, you do to people/brains/organizations, etc. what animistic religions do in spiritualizing the material...don't you?

    You are "creating" something that you cannot prove, other than it seeks to bring affirmation to "myth". What if myth is falisfying reality, by projection of personal needs, fears, etc. and that is all?

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