On Warfare and Weakness: Part 10, And Jesus Went Around Doing Good and Healing All Who Were Under the Power of the Devil

We reach the last post in this series, a series of posts where I tried to sketch out a progressive theology that would be appealing, energizing and richly biblical.

Specifically, I've argued that we should combine the weakness of God with a warfare worldview. The emphasis on the weakness of God gives this theology its progressive appeal, and union with a warfare theology gives it its energy and biblical richness. 

The point in making this connection is that I think in failing to connect with the Christus Victor themes in the bible progressive theology has become too philosophical and abstract. As I said in Part 1, people want a real fight and progressive theology often fails to give them one.

True, progressives are fighters, they fight for peace and justice everyday, they just have trouble connecting that fight to the biblical narrative. Why? Because a lot of the biblical narrative is embarrassing or hard to swallow. In light of that, this series was an attempt to make some connections between progressive thinking regarding the weakness of God and the warfare worldview of the bible to provide a way to speak about and act upon the weakness of God using the "fighting words" of spiritual warfare, words generally found only among Christian fundamentalists.

Because here's the deal. Progressives love Jesus. Love him. The Jesus of the gospels may be the only thing progressives like about Christianity. Jesus is often the only thing keeping progressive Christians in the faith. Progressives love Jesus.

But the truth of the matter is this: If you don't get the battle between Jesus and the satan you don't get Jesus. So if progressive Christians want Jesus they are going to have to figure out a way to get their heads around the fact that Jesus was, first and foremost, an exorcist.
Acts 10.38
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, he went around doing good and healing everyone who was oppressed by the devil.

1 John 3.8b
The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.
You don't get Jesus until you get the battle he was fighting. No gospel makes this more clear than the very first gospel, the gospel of Mark. Highlights from Mark Chapter 1 where the proclamation of the Kingdom is signaled by Jesus' power over demons:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God:

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

[After calling his first followers, Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”

The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”

News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. 
This victory over the satan was the sign of the inauguration of the Kingdom in our midst. Jesus succinctly summarized this:
Matthew 12.28
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 
And this power was also the key sign of the expansion of the kingdom:
Luke 10.1-3, 17-18
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves..."

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."
I'm aware that this facet of Jesus' ministry, this defining feature of the Kingdom of God, makes progressives squirm. But the fact has to be faced that the proclamation of the Kingdom is intimately associated with the casting out of demons. A Christus Victor warfare theology sits at the heart of Jesus' life, ministry and teachings. And if you don't get this about Jesus you just don't get Jesus.

And, incidentally, to bring in another voice, N.T. Wright agrees with me on this. If you've read any of Wright's books on Jesus, scholarly or popular, you know that Wright argues that Jesus saw his real enemy to be the satan, that the battle with the satan was the battle Jesus was fighting and calling his followers to fight. And again, if this is so, then I think by eschewing the paradigm of "spiritual warfare" progressives have pulled the plug on their connection with Jesus.

I'm arguing that it's this pulling the plug on Jesus' battle with the satan that has de-energized progressive theology and set it adrift in a search of alternative energy sources such as postmodernism, Democratic politics or "death of god" theologies (in various guises).

To be sure, progressives are not going to see the work of exorcism the same way a Charismatic faith-healer would. Progressives aren't going to see themselves as casting out literal devils. But as I've been arguing, progressives do need to see themselves as doing battle with dark satanic forces, as participating in a battle between two rival Kingdoms. And as we noted in the last post, this battle isn't about "flesh and blood," demonizing out-group members. The battle is against wickedness in "high places," a battle against the oppressive, violent and dehumanizing mechanisms of the world.
If a progressive pushed me and asked, "What do you think is going on with the demon possession in the gospels?" a sketch of my answer is as follows:

If we bracket the question about the literal existence of demons and demonic possession (I don't want to rule that out for people), I think a lot of our physical, social, political and mental illnesses are produced by internalizing the "spirit of the age," a spirit the New Testament describes as "satan." That is, the cultural air that we breath (the "spirit," "breath," "wind") is toxic and it harms us in a multitude of ways, like breathing in pollution. The spirituality of our world ("the present evil age") creates physical problems like hypertension and obesity. It creates eating disorders, anxiety, depression and addiction. It creates abuse, oppression, violence, and war. It creates economic exploitation and ecological ruin. It creates prejudice and hate. It creates resignation, apathy, and callousness. The list goes on and on.

An all this gets worse as oppression increases. (I'm thinking here of the Roman occupation and the demon "legion.") Oppressive environments have toxic--even lethal--physical, psychological and spiritual effects upon people. Anyone who has walked among the poor and oppressed have seen, first hand, the psychological and spiritual devastation. Oppression creates resignation, despair, criminality, addictions and in-group violence and exploitation. (That's one of the darkest effects of oppression: how it causes oppressed groups to cannibalize themselves while the powers that be sit on the sidelines.) There's a reason the lower classes in America are more likely to be obese, addicted to nicotine, play the lottery, be raped or be arrested. Can we separate the political from the moral/spiritual in these instances?

In short, the "spirit of the age" when it is internalized makes us sick, in all kinds of ways. So it's not surprising to me that in Jesus's day people would manifest, at the very least, these sicknesses in psychosomatic ways that were described as demonic possession in that time and place. And nothing much has changed. Words have changed, but empirically we are facing the same sorts of sickness that Jesus faced. And I think we "cast out" and heal this sickness in the same way Jesus did: radical hospitality. Our sickness is rooted in a fundamental alienation and estrangement. We are "empty" and we fill that emptiness with the "spirit of the age." That spirit then becomes our spirit, the spirit that animates and vivifies us, the spirit that gives us life. But life isn't what we experience. What we experience is sickness.

So healing comes by exorcising this spirit--at every level of causality, from the moral to the structural, as these from a gestalt--and being filled with "the Holy Spirit." This is why we see Jesus breathing on his followers after his resurrection. Jesus is replacing their spirits with his spirit, a spirit characterized by his love, mercy, welcome, community, embrace and solidarity. This is why the inauguration of the Kingdom is associated with exorcism. The Kingdom only comes when the "spirit of the age" is cast out and replaced with the Spirit of Jesus. This is the fundamental practice of exorcism that continues to this very day. When the Spirit of Jesus fills us Satan is cast out and the Kingdom of God is found "within" us and enjoyed "in our midst."]
Here's an important thing to note about all this. In this talk about exorcism I'm not trying to force a pill down the throat of the progressive Christian. This isn't about me "adding on" some mythological mumbo-jumbo to social action and activism. As we've noted, if you take the weakness of God seriously, and many progressives do, you are thrust into this battle. The battle is logically implied by your progressive theology. As we've noted, the weakness of God is what makes the warfare worldview possible.

In short, to be a progressive Christian is to recognize that spiritual warfare is your native and natural language. You were born to be an exorcist. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians have no business talking about spiritual warfare. If you have a high view of God's omnipotent providence and sovereignty you can't have a coherent view of spiritual warfare without implicating God directly in evil and the work of Satan. That is the key point made by Greg Boyd in God at War. And I think he is exactly right.

Warfare implies God's weakness. Weakness implies spiritual warfare.

There are, as we've noted in this series, a plurality of forces in the world. Evils exists in the present age because God is the weak force of love in the world, the power of the cross. And wherever that love reigns the Kingdom of God is in our midst. And the Kingdom comes with the power of exorcism, the casting out of devils, the casting out of the satanic forces of sin, violence and oppression. The Kingdom is found in our midst when we "receive the Holy Spirit." This is a Christus Victor view of salvation where salvation is experienced as deliverance from evil through the power of the cross.

Participating and working for that deliverance is the proper work of the Kingdom and the proper work of the exorcist.

That is what is looks like to follow Jesus, what it means to be a Christian. It means imitating the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God to be in our midst, following one who went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.

May you go, and do likewise.

To explore more on how progressive Christians can come to see themselves as "exorcists" I recommend the following resources:

Ched Myer's Binding the Strong Man
Walter Wink's Powers Trilogy: Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers
John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus
William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land
Sara Miles' Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead
Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity

Please recommend other sources in the comments.

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41 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 10, And Jesus Went Around Doing Good and Healing All Who Were Under the Power of the Devil”

  1. Having tried to hold up a conservative reading of all of this, I'd just make two suggestions: swap weakness for love (even powerful love!), and warfare for victory/overcoming, and this is golden. Over the series, I think you have moved from freedom to weakness to love, and from warfare to victory (Christus Victor.) The process was fascinating, fun to watch, and interesting. But I think the fruit of the discussion is love and victory, and in communicating this clearly, it is helpful to start with those ends in mind (so that people have a map) and then go on the journey to those points. Part of what I find appealing in this series, though, is that the formal characteristics of that journey to love and victory can be mapped onto the actual journey that we are called to take, through real pain and suffering and apparent weakness, and through the difficult, practical process of loving our enemies.

    At any rate, I would like to criticize your Feindbild here: "You were born to be an exorcist. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians have no business talking about spiritual warfare. If you have a high view of God's omnipotent providence and sovereignty you can't have a coherent view of spiritual warfare without implicating God directly in evil and the work of Satan." By this point, I think I have offered a lengthy rebuttal to all of this. I'd suggest that conservatives, here meaning people who hold tenaciously to the absolute sovereignty of God, have the better grip on what the warfare imagery is all about. Through a theodicy of overcoming, which can make space in its big strong arms for other theodicies like weakness, narrative, soul formation and freedom, I think conservatives can retain a strong notion of God's sovereignty while also positively affirming a lot of what you have said, by making these concepts subsidiary to the overarching concept. That is also what Christus Victor theology is all about; it isn't Christus Loser theology. This approach also allows a taking up of a Winkian warfare paradigm that roots spiritual warfare in quotidian life, at both the small scale (individual/familial) and the large scale (governance/nation); although contemporary conservatives in the political sphere have given themselves over almost completely to post-modern truthiness, within the academic discourse of post-modernity the conservative position is to maintain a notion of objective truth (even if it is critically retained, through a conservative view of our capacities for knowledge.) To the degree that you are still in the grip of conservative Feindbilder, I think you are misapplying the warfare framework. However, I'd suggest that at this critical moment of slippage you aren't actually applying the "weakness and resistance" framework you have laid out, but are actually falling back into a pre-critical type of warfare that hasn't been consciously acknowledge. Apply the weak warfare paradigm to your conservative enemies, and you'll do well. Apply a loving and overcoming paradigm, and I think you'll do even better. In fact, you'll probably realize that one of those conservatives has been your ally all along.

  2. Thanks for this series, Dr. Beck. I don't know if I would fall into the Progressive camp or not, but I've become more convinced recently that real angels and demons probably exist. I've found myself struggling with all kinds of temptations and sins that I never in a million years thought would bring me to the depths I've encountered. Alcohol, drugs, sex, and generally reckless behavior that contrasts with the upstanding white collar professional I portray during the day. This warfare thesis has taken on special meaning for me recently because I do feel like I'm in a war. I don't feel my issues relate to some psychological imbalance, disorder, or other modern/postmodern explanation. While progressives may balk, I honestly know that I am in a literal battle over my soul with Satan and demons.

    For anyone who has not personally had to struggle with these things, I could understand why powers and principalities, demons, and angels might seem hard to grasp. It's easy to blame government or social structures (which are no doubt contributing) without recognizing that individuals can be waging a personal battle with Satan.

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for this series, and this post especially. You've put flesh on my practical theology and I appreciate it. To your readers, I would recommend (as I'm sure you would too) Walter Wink's work, but especially his popular level book: The Powers That Be. This book details a battle plan, a way of resisting the Powers. He outlines the tactics of the Way of Jesus.

    I also think it would be helpful to introduce a few categories of resistance so that we can better understand what spiritual warfare should look like. Michel de Certeau (in his book The Practice of Everyday Life) outlines two types of resistance:

    The first type he calls “strategy.” Strategy is employed by those with significant enough cultural power to successfully "delimit one's own place in a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other." So, for instance, someone with enough money or political power may be able to employ strategy. This, for instance, is how Batman is able to do what he does. Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, is an eccentric billionaire capable of leveraging his extreme wealth to create a space in which Batman is effective as a force of resistance. Moreover, strategies are processes—ways of acting—that can be appropriated by those with enough power.

    The other type of resistance that de Certeau discusses is what he calls “tactics.” Tactics are those minor subversive acts in which a powerless or weak agent is able to exercise a small amount of control for a small amount of time: the student sticking gum to the bottom of the table, the homeless man squatting in a house, etc. Tactics do not form a
    grand strategy—they are utterly reactive to the broader strategies to which they find themselves resisting. An example that de Certeau gives is of military force: it is impossible for a large army to invade a country sneakily since trickery is a tactic while the large force employs a strategy. But guerrilla fighters employ tactics to resist the advances of the military Tactics, then, are for the weak.

    Wink argues that Christians, as the weak people of a weak God, must use tactics (like nonviolence, love of enemy, non-compliance, hospitality, sharing of possessions, etc) rather than attempt to orchestrate a strategy (like electoral politics) because the use of strategy requires a higher level of complicity with the Powers.

  4. This has been a fascinating series, Richard. I've often found myself making little adjustments in my head as I listen to some of the things said in church, mentally bridging the gap between how what is said is intended and how I can bear to understand it, given my progressive theology. These posts really helped build on that bridge. Thanks.

  5. Well, I don’t get it, so I guess I’m out. I saw my exit point when were discussing Mark 1. I did love Jesus for a few years, then I started really studying the NT and found passages like these, that simply say, Jesus got rid of the bad stuff. Progressive theology is failing because it can’t sustain logical reasoning backed only by scripture to support arguments for specific actions.

    I would love to see all of Christianity on the moral high ground, but the first step to doing that is to stop claiming that it belongs to you. And saying that it belongs to God and you are just following Him is really no better. You can’t simultaneously say you love everyone and claim your god of love is the only right one.

  6. I want to recommend for starters watching “Lars Svendsen: The Nature of Evil” on You Tube, as well as taking a close look at Terry Eagleton’s book - “On Evil”. All jesting aside, with belated regret for my last post, (actually not) I want to express my apprehension for what you are emphatically suggesting here. Joyfully, I would identify myself as a “Progressive Christian” who deeply believes in fighting the “darkness” that permeates our world by sharing the Love of Christ via food & medicine, The Gospel, Social Activism, Protest and most importantly, Prayer, etc… Not a problem, Jesus commands us that we do these things! Performing a literal "Exorcism" is out of my league and seems a bit "Kitsch" actually. What I’m having reservations about though, is the inherent subjective nature of the “Warfare Framework” that you’re so enthusiastically pushing. Your last post kind of sounded like a sound bite from a Medieval Pep–Rally, where I felt compelled to grab a torch and a pitchfork and go out with the mob and hunt for “Demons”.

    I am not a temperate “Denialist”, there is ample spiritual and scientific evidence out there for the dark self-destructive Satanic forces coming from both within our own evolved character and from without – (Ephesians 2:2). The "BIG PROBLEM" though is - how does one properly identifying exactly who, what and where the “Boggeyman” is? Pointing the finger at an ideology, person or institution that you simply oppose and then labeling it “Satanic” all seems too much like “The Church Lady” from Saturday Night Live. This kind of “There be Dragons” mentality in the past, conveniently led to horrific Pogroms, witch-hunt hysteria and stake burnings of intellectuals who were officially declared “demonically infested”.

    There are those for example who are Bible believing, Holy Spirit filled, on fire for the Lord Christians who are utterly
    and thoroughly convinced that “Homosexuality” is a Satanically incubated and oppressive condition sending Millions to a Fiery Hell for Eternity. Now I ask you, is the case for Transsexuals or Intrasexuals as well, let alone millions
    of “Gay” believers who humbly love the Lord – I would think not, and so do you! Your level of intelligence and introspection raises you far above this cesspool of Redneck thinking.

    “If you have a high view of God's omnipotent
    providence and sovereignty you can't have a coherent view of spiritual warfare
    without implicating God directly in evil and the work of Satan.”

    The “Open View” as I understand it, allows me to have a respect for “omnipotent providence” while at the same time, not holding God responsible fro the “evil” that the world experiences. So, in light of that fact; Look, if you want me to “Pick up my Cross” and start kick’in some spiritual ass, I can do that through a variety of ways and methods. However, I
    damn well better make sure I know exactly what I’m aiming at!

  7. Great stuff. This last post, especially the interlude, really brought it around for me. Perhaps this could be a small book as well, though I'm wondering if you couldn't also put it as a chapter in another book (be that a bigger project of your own or as part of a book series).

    With Dan Heck I am also wondering what a change in lexicon might do to the aesthetic appeal, which, of course, is its own demonic force we must wrestle. Nonetheless, thanks for the series.

  8. Excellent conclusion to the series. Your interlude here is particularly brilliant. Hopefully the chapter we have in Never Pray Again serves as a small contribution to this dialogue - because I very much agree with your analysis of how progressive Christians could be energized and enriched by spiritual warfare.

    Where I think you have to go from here is toward the "how" of it. It is extraordinarily important in utilizing warfare language that we pay close close attention to how Jesus wages war (principally the cross) so that we don't use the metaphor to justify actual warlike behavior which is contra-gospel.

  9. I stand against dehumanization also, and that's why I cannot support your reductionist and essentializing language: It is inherently dehumanizing.

    "if we add together the logic of the heroic with the necessary fetishization of evil, we get a formula that is no longer pathetic but terrifying. It explains almost all by itself why man, of all animals has caused the most devastation on earth-- the most real evil."

    --Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil

    I'll quote one other guy who has had good things to say on the topic in the past:

    This is the dynamic described above, a retreat into a new absolutism that allows us to escape from the existential burden of a relativizing pluralism. This is the allure of fundamentalism in modernity. Fundamentalism helps us cope with the anxiety caused by the relativizing encounter with Otherness in our pluralistic world. At the end of the day, fundamentalism is embraced for the existential consolation it provides.

    As Berger and Zijderveld summarize: This is the great refusal of relativization. The proponents of the various versions of neo-absolutism have very seductive messages: “Do you feel lost in the ‘patchwork’ of religious possibilities? Here, surrender to the one true faith that we offer you, and you’ll find yourself at peace with the world.” Comparable messages are on offer to allay the vertigo of choice in morality, politics, lifestyles. And the message isn’t lying: Fanatics are more at peace, less torn, than those who struggle daily with the challenges of relativity. This peace, however, comes with a price. (2009, p. 47)

    We already know what this price is: worldview defense, the stigmatization of Otherness and difference. These suspicions about out-group members scale up to affect the whole of society. Society becomes ideologically balkanized, with individuals seeking ideological reassurances from the like-minded. These ideological groups and their suspicions about each other make modern societies increasingly unstable and prone to conflict. As Berger and Zijderveld describe it, “The final outcome may be all-out civil strife, between radicalized subcultures and the majority society, and/or between/among the several subcultures themselves” (2009, p. 86).

    --Beck, Richard (2012-01-10). The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience (pp. 256-257). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.

    These people understand the perils of essentializing, and that inflating our concerns to cosmic importance threatens to introduce a violence much greater than that which it is deployed against.

    Then what can we do? We all can and should fight to bring about our view of "the good", but we simply must stop short of raising our desires to the level of cosmic concerns lest we become very much worse than the evil we fear. If as you suggest we view God as weak so that we can each in effect try to take his place, we will find a world inhabited by terrible, horrible, no good very bad little gods.

    I know you know the dangers you're pushing people into here, as you've written about them in other contexts. I feel deeply the tension between the fact that this sort of tribalistic warfare rhetoric can both motivate us to greater things and cause much violence in the process, and I can only assume you do too. I find it a pity that that tension hasn't been well represented in this series.

    (For those of you who may not have heard these ideas before and want to hear more, Ernest Becker's Pulitzer prize winning Denial of Death and his final book Escape from Evil are highly recommended, as well as the documentary Flight From Death which introduces many of the concepts along with the experimental Terror Management Theory research roughly based on it.)

  10. About that interlude...
    I appreciate your point of view. I understand this interlude fits into a larger argument and conception of God's kingdom in the world. I write only to add a serious caution about seeing mental illness as spiritual sickness, or as an internalization of the broken spirit of the world in which we live. From my own experiences, I have observed:

    *not all ill people are poor or oppressed
    *not all poor or oppressed people are ill
    *some physically and mentally ill people are healthier spiritually than many other people who have not struggled with illness
    *everyone sins - why are the sins of sick people different than those of the non-sick?
    *the roots of mental illnesses are complex--and there remains deep mystery about them that neither science nor religion have yet penetrated
    *into that mystery we can write all sorts of facile arguments and self-serving theories--for the mystery will not soon lift to prove us wrong (or right)

    It is very common, at least in my part of the world, for the reaction of churches to people who struggle with mental illness to be shame and blame, dressed in spiritual garb. At some points it rises (sinks?) to the level of emotional abuse of a vulnerable person. Telling an ill person to get a better spirit, to exorcise a demon, or to pray more and fight harder in a battle of spiritual warfare is, at the end of the day, an elaborate form of shaming. It does not bring healing, wholeness, or reconciliation. Instead, shame says, You brought this horror on yourself and you deserve it. It is sad, but this is precisely the tone some Christians take with people who are hurting. I am not saying you have said these words yourself. I am simply pointing out that in other hands spiritual understandings of illness are used like a club to bludgeon ill people, pushing them deeper into guilt and shame for things that they had or have little or no real power over. Shaming is just bullying--and bullying is about exerting one's power, then rationalizing it or concealing it enough so that it looks less like what it really is. Religious garb is quite useful in this respect. God can serve as justification for the worst of our actions--and we turn there in our own self-deceit or our desire to justify our own ugliness.

    If we are to talk of spiritual warfare, let us not forget that the words used for Holy Spirit in the New Testament are friend, comforter, intercessor, adviser. Christians believe in a God of perfect love that casts out fear. For people who are ill, with mental disorders or other maladies, the Holy Spirit comes as love, friendship, comfort, compassion, presence. That is the spirit that casts out demons and devils. You want to cast out a demon? Go sit by the bed of a patient in a mental hospital and listen to that person. Just listen--and let the compassionate spirit within you be fully present in that moment. No blaming, no shaming--just the sweetest kind of love and tenderness for another person. Do it and demons of all sorts take flight.

  11. Thanks for this. Though I really have to disagree with Richard Beck's take on this. :-)

    Your are pointing out real and huge risks to this line of argument I'm making. And those risks might be too large to overcome. That said, my sense is that you might not be getting my big picture, focusing too much on the "warfare" stuff and not seeing how I deconstructed it with weakness and love.

    This series makes the following argument. God is love. And love, being love, is a weak force in the world. Love will not domineer, control, harm, hurt, neglect, or kill. And that means that love is fragile, fleeting, and easily trampled over. So love has to be fought for. Space needs to be created for its flourishing and enjoyment. And yet, love fights by loving. Love goes to war by loving. Love wins by dying for enemies. And yes, love does spiritual warfare by doubting worldviews to make room for the ideological Other. Spiritual warfare, as I'm envisioning it, is resisting those ideological traps, resisting the hero systems of the principalities and powers. And a huge part of that resistance--a key weapon in this spiritual warfare--is doubt, questioning the ultimacy of the hero systems that make us violent.

  12. That's a great chapter. Can't wait to plug the book when it comes out.

    Great point about the "how." My sense is that a lot of readers locked onto the "warfare" metaphor, freaked out, and kept forgetting about the "weakness." They kept forgetting that when I talk about the battle with satan I'm talking about Jesus' victory on the cross. Any "battle" we have with evil has to look like that.

  13. Thanks! We'll see how this material fares for a book. Lots of pushback, so I'd need to add a lot of clarifying stuff.

  14. I think you nailed exactly what he was saying. The spirit of this world IS shame. The "Satan" literally means "the accuser" or "the adversary." It is that voice wafting on the air of our culture that whispers (or shouts), "You need to do more, know more, have more, achieve more, BE MORE. Your best is not enough to give you peace, love, joy, rest, and freedom."

    I know that many mental illnesses involve a mysterious relationship between body and soul (my family has a history of OCD, ADD, anxiety and depression) but in every case, as you said, the love of Christ—to sit beside someone, opposing the Satan by your presence, whispering the Truth that they are loved exactly as they are—heals the soul even if the body may remain ill.

  15. Thanks Nate. Exactly why I wrote this in the Interlude: "And I think we "cast out" and heal this sickness in the same way Jesus
    did: radical hospitality. Our sickness is rooted in a fundamental
    alienation and estrangement."

    A lot of scholars have pointed out that a key feature of Jesus's healing ministry was sociological, how he welcomed the diseased, disabled, and demon-possessed back into community. That's the "exorcism" I speak of.

  16. Great comment. Thanks so much for this. The vision of using tactics of re-humanization nicely casts a practical outworking of all this.

  17. Thanks for sharing your struggle. Your story is exactly why I'm attracted to this way of looking at things and why, while I have doubts about all sorts of stuff, I always want to be open to the experiences of my brothers and sisters.

  18. Indeed. People are always looking for a fight, interestingly enough, even on the issue of "fighting words" like this series suggests. However, there's a kernel here, if not theologically, then at least about the psychological mechanisms being activated through our conception of the universe, which, pragmatically speaking, matters a whole lot regardless of its necessary "truth".

    My original question (posted in part 1 or 2, I think) still stands: how do we define "evil" that we're waging war against, and who gets to define it. This, to me, is the important question. All Christian groups have identified and are fighting against something - whether they want to admit the warlike language or not - so we obviously need to use this strategically.

  19. Swapping love for weakness would have communicated better in many ways. Trouble is, people do a lot of mean and violent stuff in the name of love. So love has to be operationalized. Weakness is one way to do that.

    Thanks for the pushback about the comment about conservatives and spiritual warfare. To clarify, the point I was making is that if evil ultimately goes back to God's omnipotent control then the resistance to evil begins to move toward theological puzzlement and resignation. Because God might have a "plan" for this evil. This was Boyd's whole point summarized in Part 2. And I think it's a point conservatives need to wrestle with. They want the warfare but they don't want the weak God. My argument is that you can't, logically speaking, have both. You have to choose. And, by and large, conservatives with go with a stronger God, undermining the theological foundations of any warfare theology they would like to keep.

  20. Hi Spinkham - I heartily agree with the quotes you shared (and, frankly, am quite surprised that I understood them!). I think though, that you are perhaps being a bit hasty in applying these/his own quotes against him here. Richard isn't trying to reduce all that into smaller neater categories, as I understand, he's doing the opposite, trying to show how the traditional/religious understandings of these categories can be transcended so they shed light on the ever-present struggle AGAINST the shame that causes human persons to fear relativization.

  21. Thanks again for the series and the discussion. I've really enjoyed it :)

    As to the bit on conservatives and spiritual warfare: I hear you as essentially re-stating the logical problem of evil in a different form. That is what I hear when you say: "My argument is that you can't, logically speaking, have both [warfare and an omnipotent God]." I think I've answered this pretty thoroughly, and I think it can be answered simply, without any great philosophical difficulty. To point back to all of that discussion, I'd ask you this counter-question: can an author tell a story that involves genuine conflict, while also maintaining control of their story? Or is that, logically speaking, impossible? If you agree that it is logically possible for authors to tell stories that include conflict, while also maintaining control of the story, then I think you've showed that your apparently tight "logic" was nothing of the sort.

    And if you won't listen to me, perhaps you will listen to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which shows that philosophers of religion have essentially set aside the logical problem of evil, generally considering Plantinga and others' responses to it to be definitive. This still leaves the evidential problem, a lot of interesting ethical questions, and a lively debate about the adequacy of various theodicies...but insofar as those are the actual problems worth discussing, it is demonstrably false to say things like, "logically speaking, you can't have both." Yes, I can have my omnipotent God, and my real evil, too. And far from being the incoherent barbarian with no right to speak, I am the one with the right to tell people to shut up. Which I refuse to use :)


    In addition to all of that, I think I've provided a strong theodicy that I don't think you've been able to refute. To lay it out in a logically tight-ish manner, it runs like this:

    (1) A world in which evil has been completely overcome is better than a world in which it hasn't been overcome.

    (2) Evil cannot be overcome unless it exists at some point in time.
    (3) An omnipotent being, in the process of making the best of all possible worlds, would logically permit evil to exist for the express purpose of it being overcome, in order to arrive at a better possible world in which evil has been overcome.

    If you grant (1), I think I can rather easily get you to (3). God is in control, but I'm not sure "complicit" is the right word for an author that permits the existence of evil so that it can be overcome, and who guarantees that it will be.

    So I'm pretty sure that the weakest point in this theodicy is (1). That point is debatable. But it is certainly not logically incoherent or contradictory or even hard to understand. And I'm willing to bite: I think that (1) is true. Do you?

  22. We agree again, that this is a POE restatement. But you misrepresent the Stanford article. This problem has not been set aside. Neither is it so black and white. The problem with reducing God’s power in any way is at some point God becomes unworthy of religion. He no longer offers any solace for the limitedness of our existence. Religion traditionally has offered a promise of a better tomorrow, an ultimate end to suffering, a world where goodness will conquer all. But Richard has drawn all that into question. Jesus told us to put away our swords but I got the message that the Kingdom was coming. Richard doesn’t seem so sure about that. Apparently we have to fight for it, with love of course.

    No matter what theology he uses, I can’t imagine he can draw a distinction between spiritual warfare in the way of the cross and doing what is right based on the accumulated knowledge of all cultures through all time. Knowing what can happen when you label people as possessed or offer salvation for the soul in exchange for sacrificing your body, why would you consider continuing to do that? Life offers me satisfaction when I do a job well. It offers me the chance to create a future for others by passing on what others gave to me. It’s a lot harder to create a terrorist or make exclusive claims of being chosen or saved with offers like that.

  23. I'm always happy to agree :) I'd be interested to hear in what way I am misrepresenting the article. The article is all about the POE as classically stated. That means that it seeks to resolve questions related to how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God can allow evil or suffering. The consensus is, essentially, that it is not _logically_ incoherent to suggest that a resolution to this exists...at a general level, all that is needed is a notion of some greater good that is being served. Of course, there is a great more to be said; the _logical_ question is somewhat trivial, but worth noting when people reprise a _logical_ argument on the POE. The article doesn't say much about theologians relaxing one of the "three-O's" (as Boyd and Beck do), because that isn't what the philosophical problem of evil is all about. It is an interesting move, and worth discussing ... it just isn't what people usually have in mind when discussing the problem of evil. It is a bit like winning a game of chess by turning your pawn into a checker, then hopping over the king. Fun. Perhaps even a great meta-game move. But it ain't chess.

  24. Hi Richard - I'm a bit of a strange duck in that I grew up in a conservative evangelical church and still attend and am active in an evangelical semi-mega church. Much of the time, I think that (to quote the 20-21st century prophet, Bob Dylan) "If my thought dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine." I don't find it difficult (anymore) to shift between "conservative" and "progressive" ways of talking about God because I'm finally realizing that behind and beneath all the words both sides are actually trying to say the same things. It's just that it seems like sometimes nobody else is able to make the connections and build the conceptual bridges and those who do are the one's who get crucified. I haven't been crucified yet, but here's to hoping. I see you building bridges here and I know that seems like an impossible task sometimes, so... thanks. : )

    It often seems like everyone gets to thinking that if OUR words (aka our linguistic conventions for summing up what it is we believe) are true then THEIRS must be wrong because they are different from ours. It's becoming more and more clear to me that spiritual Truth is not rooted in using correct sets of words, professing cognitive assent (or dissent) to certain historical occurrences, or even in the performance of certain sacred actions (such as helping the poor, reading your bible, etc.), but is the spirit of the heart by which any of these things (and/or any other thing) is done. Am I willing to die for what I believe, but also willing to let them go in any present moment where they lead out of step with the Spirit of Christ's love? Can I speak firmly and boldly when Love demands it, but also remain silent when bid by the Spirit of Love? Can I profess from the rooftops the resurrection of Christ while remaining agnostic when speaking to agnostics, and even doubting when speaking with Atheists? Can I, all the while seeing Truth on both sides of an issue, stand against my own church when Love for the least requires it? Am I willing to disobey the letter of the laws of God to keep in step with the Spirit? I think that it is when (and only when) the answers to these kind of questions are played out in the present moment of being (can't really bring myself to use "quotidian") that our faith in Christ takes form.

    So, anyway, all that is to say that I think that is entirely possible to say that God is simultaneously all-powerful and utterly weak, depending on ones way of looking at it. Sort of like that famous optical illusion that looks like either a duck or a rabbit, or the other with the vase/two faces. It's both, though it requires a flip-flop in your mind to see one when you presently see the other. Flip-flop your mind and Love/weakness/power, in their most pure form, all describe the same thing: The Spirit of Jesus Christ.

    This is great to know, but of course the difficulty comes when speaking about Christ to people who haven't had the flip-flop yet, who don't have "eyes to see" so to speak. At that point it becomes a matter of being with them, flip-flopping your own mind to see things from their perspective, and focusing on the good that they see, waiting for your loving presence to be used to help them become open to seeing more. To say, "no, it's not a duck, its a rabbit" is pointless because it IS a duck AND a rabbit, God is weak AND strong, death is life, and defeat is victory. Tho who see only one must become open to, rather than fear of, seeing the other. This openness comes from seeing someone who sees both sides experience death at the hands of one who does not. One who agrees with what is true in what the other sees, but loves him too much to not say, but therm

  25. I was referring primarily to “philosophers of religion have essentially set aside the logical problem of evil”. I don’t see it saying that. Too much else to parse out today.

  26. I think evil is multifaceted. And I'll admit I haven't been too precise or consistent in my usage.

    But broadly speaking, I'd get a start on a definition by equating evil with suffering. Evil is that which brings about suffering. Broadly, sources of suffering are natural, biological, and social. As for the loci of suffering, these can be physical or psychic in nature.

  27. I greatly appreciate your ability to see and sympathize with what I'm trying to do, the building bridges. And I most definitely agree that too much time is spent on debating words and that we need to focus on, as you say, "the spirit of the heart by which any of these things (and/or any other thing) is done."

  28. I'll agree completely about evil being multifaceted, but I'm wondering how fruitful it is to equate it with suffering. Does voluntary suffering get lumped in with this? What about the useful kinds of pain and suffering - like the bodies warning systems? Certainly I don't have answers to these questions (necessarily), but I worry about the repercussions incurred if we are not careful and people (or even social arrangements or institutions) begin to operate as if suffering and death are to be repressed and avoided at all costs - not unlike McGill's analysis (as well as yours) of American culture (think: "pornography of death"). Are we do deny our own finitude that necessary entails suffering?

    Any ideas about how this tight rope is balanced?

  29. The think a part of the difficulty is that I'm thinking of the start of the story and you are thinking about the end. That is, if evil is finally overcome then we have in hand a decent theodicy. And I wouldn't disagree with that.

    But my focus is on the origins of evil. Where did it come from? Why did an omnipotent and omniscient God create a world knowing, say, an Auschwitz was coming? Even if God planned to overcome evil in the end? Because that might be cold comfort to the victims of the world.

    We also have the questions about the pacing and passivity of God's battle against evil. Why is a loving and all-powerful God delaying in this overcoming of evil? How many more Holocausts will God allow to happen before this "overcoming" takes place? What explains the hesitation, delay and lack of assistance then, now and in the future?

    All that to say, while I prefer, as you do, a theodicy that has a final overcoming of evil that final overcoming doesn't answer any of the questions that I find most pressing and perplexing.

    Which means that, in the end, I don't accept #1. I don't think an Auschwitz made anything better.

  30. First, I'd distinguish between pain (which is often good) from suffering. Suffering, as I'm seeing it, is pain (physical and psychic) that erodes our ability to make positive meaning from our lives. Here I am leaning on Marilyn McCord Adams. From there I'd introduce a continuum. From mild to severe.

    I haven't puzzled through all the connections with McGill. But here's a start on that. I think McGill would agree with the general thrust of this series, that love is really our only response to suffering. His additional point would be that we struggle in this regard in that we neurotically hide from and deny our suffering. Thus we cut ourselves off from salvation. So the dynamic looks like this. We suffer, but in America at least, we neurotically deny our suffering (our weakness and need) and thus create even more suffering. The better path is admitting how we suffer to each other, to become transparent in our suffering, weakness and need so that love and resurrection can be authentically experienced.

    Said more simply, before we can resist suffering we have to admit that we suffer. We have to admit and show our weakness, failure, need, pain, and vulnerability. Behind all of this is death, the great evil behind all this suffering, and the way we resist this evil is through love, confessing that "love is stronger than death." But we can't get there if we deny--per the pornography of death--that death is mastering our existence.

  31. Indeed. My main concern is that when the general "suffering" is abolished (perhaps assumed by such adherents as "unnatural") then pain also gets lumped in there and voluntary suffering is ONLY ever seen as masochistic, which entails its own problems, of course. Complete repression/suppression is always a sin, it seems. Basically, I'm trying to work out (for me, at least) how to thread the needle of both condemning suffering without providing ample warnings for those who would try to assume totalitarian domination in any domain in order to achieve absolute purity of life. I think your work in Unclean can be used well, here, as well as many other sentiments from theologians such as Brueggeman and Volf, not to mention anectdotal evidence from the worst forms of identity politic'ing and theology.

    By the way, did you ever get my email about the forthcoming book?

  32. in response to the statement 'If you have a high view of God's omnipotent providence and sovereignty
    you can't have a coherent view of spiritual warfare without implicating
    God directly in evil and the work of Satan. That is the key point made
    by Greg Boyd in God at War. And I think he is exactly right'

    i flat out disagree (and would suggest augustine and Aquinas would too!). This statement rests on the faulty picture of god freedom and human freedom. the assumption seems to be that these are mutually exclusive. not true. god's omnipotent providence does not 'implicate' god in evil, because god is not another actor in the world. the doctrine of omnipotence, classically understood, doesn't set up a clash between god and any other actor.

    herbert mcacbe's first chapters in god matter (god, freedom, evil) makes this argument irrefutably.

  33. I've read Mcabe and he's really good, but I struggle with him. It seems all his arguments boil down to two steps. First, you can't say anything about God. To try to say anything about God, to try to understand God, is idolatry. Second, since you can't say anything about God you have to trust the tradition, which means only the Catholic tradition (e.g., Aquinas) can say anything about God.

    Basically, I think Mcabe is great but he's a bit narrow and a bit of an apologist for Catholicism. Which isn't the worst thing in the world. Just unhelpful if you aren't defaulting to the magisterium.

  34. Fair enough, and thanks for engaging on it :) I think that is a perfectly reasonable position. I would say that a cosmos in which Auschwitz has been overcome, in which every tear from it has been wiped away, and in which even this has been shown incapable of securing loyalty to wickedness is better than one in which it hasn't been overcome. But at this point, we have an honest but understandable disagreement. I'm just happy to be at a point where it becomes possible to see each others' positions as reasonable and, in some sense at least, small. For all of its annoyances, I think that is some of the most significant spiritual fruit of philosophy: transforming differences that seem massive and incomprehensible into comprehensible and respectable differences, so that people can genuinely work together in solidarity without the sense that it is based on a "dodge" or laziness about things that matter.

  35. Thanks for joining this conversation, Nate :)

    I also totally appreciate what you and Richard are doing. Please don't mistake my broken attempts at discourse for a failure to love and appreciate what you, or he, are doing. I am trying to contribute to that bridge: even building it out, from the other side.

  36. One other thought on beginnings and ends: yes, I think you've touched on something at the heart of the matter. I would say that, theologically, you can't make sense of the beginning without the end, but in light of the end, the beginning can make sense as well. But if we restrict the discussion to beginnings only, or even anything up to the present (which I think we should sometimes do, at least as an exercise), then I would tend to agree. I can't think of any backwards-looking theodicy that I would want to defend; some of this relates back to our previous conversation about backwards-looking and forward-looking justification. Backwards-looking justifications tend to be karmic, and tend to justify the status quo; I think forward-looking justifications tend to do the opposite. To go back to Job: what is God thinking when he lets Satan test Job? It is true enough that the text doesn't say explicitly. But, in light of the whole story, I think there is an available reading that suggests that he was thinking this: "Satan is bound to lose." Not the only available reading, of course, but I think it is a good one, and one that accords deeply with a great deal of other scripture.

  37. Richard, thank you for this most excellent series (which I stumbled on when 2000 words into a blog post on theodicy and which has made me rethink in all sorts of directions.

    I'm horribly late to the discussion, but a few jumbled thoughts:-
    1. While Jesus' death may have been a statement of weakness, his resurrection is a statement of strength.

    2. Apparent weakness may emerge from a refusal to exercise power on grounds of principle (this is where I'm inclined to see the reality of the situation).
    3. The exercise of power against an evil power has a tendency to turn you into something less good than you were previously (or at least so it has seemed to me in the cases of democracies waging war).
    4. There is a difference between the aggressive use of power and the passive use of power, e.g. to resist strongly (rather than merely be steamrollered).
    5. Being steamrollered individually achieves nothing except, occasionally and fortuitously, giving an example to others; being steamrollered in bulk almost always has an effect.
    6. It may be that weakness is something which is best intelligently applied - e.g. weakness when resisting may have been better applied in removing oneself.
    7. However weak God may be, groups, whether angelic or diabolical (most are a bit of both) are not as weak even as individuals.
    8. A sufficient amount of the Spirit can make you a much bigger bump in the road...
    FWIW, I probably qualify as progressive, liberal and radical. I had mysticism foisted upon me many years ago by a capricious deity, so am extremist about immanence. And transcendence. And not getting hung up on the fact that logic has difficulty with things spiritual.

    I like the fact that you speak to emotion as much as to reason, therefore.

    But I'm a pragmatist, so:-
    9. How well does this all work in practice?

  38. Just as one simple, practical aspect of this: I am close to several chronically ill people, and they all suggest that their chronic illness is only mildly problematic in their life, but people's responses to their chronic illness is debilitating in their lives. Hence, "the satan" is not in the illness in isolation, but in the way that the illness affects social space (as in the people whom Jesus healed, e.g., the woman with the flow of blood that made her perpetually outcast). "Healing" here is primarily acceptance, though it may also involve various other transformations.

  39. Hi Richard, I know I'm a little late to the party here but just wanted to say thanks for these really well thought out reflections- I really enjoyed them. I have a question though (forgive me if you've answered this in another comment).

    How does this help us understand the vicarious nature of Jesus death and resurrection? I struggle to understand how Jesus dying and rising again means anything for me personally- how this action completed 2000 odd years ago can accomplish something for me today that I can't achieve for myself any other way.

    I'm not totally sure if this question makes sense but if it does and if you can shed any light on this I'd be really appreciative!



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