On Warfare and Weakness: Part 9, Spiritual Forces in High Places

We started this series with a focus on spiritual warfare (Parts 1-3). But we ended up taking a theological detour in the middle posts when we recognized that a warfare theology required rethinking God's power in the world (Part 4).  We did this by taking a cue from John Caputo's The Weakness of God where we posited that God's power in the world is manifested as weakness--as the power of the cross, as the power of love (Part 5). But while a focus on the weakness of God resolves some theodicy issues, it places some pressure on conventional readings of God's power in the biblical narrative, particularly how God's power relates to the origins of evil (Part 6) and to the ultimate defeat of evil (Part 7). Using a creation theology of the quotidian, we followed the Wisdom books and left those questions unresolved, focusing on the experience of spiritual struggle in the everyday (Part 8). Which brings us back to spiritual warfare.

So in the final two posts of this series we want to come back to the issue of spiritual warfare and Greg Boyd's God at War.

My argument is that progressive theology will be energized if it adopts a Christus Victor framework. Not only will this make progressive theology robustly more biblical, it infuses the spiritual experience with a sense of adventure and excitement. Two things that I think are critical if progressive theology wants to have broad popular appeal.

However, the Christus Victor framework is going to need to be recast if it is to be acceptable to progressive and liberal Christians. This was the issue we mentioned in Part 3, which we now return to.

Specifically, as regular readers know, Christus Victor theology views the salvific work of God as being primarily about our emancipation and liberation from dark enslaving forces. Biblically, these forces go by a variety of names--sin, death, Satan, the principalities and powers. In the book of Galatians Paul even describes "the Law" as an oppressive force.

You can run, at this point, in a variety of different directions in how you think about this spiritual conflict. Some might anthropomorphize these spiritual forces, positing literal demons and a literal Satan. And like I said in Part 3, that's fine if you want go in that direction. But many progressive and liberal Christians will struggle with this move. Does that mean progressives won't be able to work with a robust Christus Victor theology?

That's what it often looks like. It seems to be that progressives have been so spooked (pun alert) by the vision of a literal Satan and demons that they have rejected any hint of anything that smacked of "spiritual warfare." And this, in my estimation, is why progressive theology often looks so insipid, unexciting, and boring. In rejecting "spiritual warfare" progressive Christianity gave up on offering a vision of a "real fight."

This is not to say that progressive Christians gave up or lost a fighting spirit. Far, far from it. Progressive Christians are fighting everywhere, tooth and nail, for justice and peace. The problem, as I'm articulating it, is that this fight has been largely divorced from the biblical imagination. I think that is sad as the connections here are so obvious and rich.

For example, last night Jana attended an event at our church that was supporting the ministry of those fighting against sex trafficking in India.  What is going on in the world of sex trafficking is truly demonic and satanic. Thus I think those working in these places of the world can be properly described as "exorcists," as agents of the Kingdom casting out devils. Just as Jesus did.

Because the problem of sex trafficking isn't just about "lust." It's about the spirituality of our age, a spirituality deeply entwined with nations and economies and politics and cultures and worldviews. A hurricane of dark forces that catch up and crush young women. How do you liberate those young women? How do you liberate a world caught up in the hurricane of that dark spirituality?

The battle against these dark forces is what Christus Victor theology is all about. Which is why I think progressive Christians would be energized in taking up the warfare theology of the New Testament. I think progressive Christians would benefit by being a bit more Pentecostal in this regard. Jesus commissioned his disciples to be exorcists. And I think progressive Christians need to start seeing themselves as so commissioned.

Dear progressive Christian, take a pass on Derrida, the micro-brews, the hipsterism. Be an exorcist. Start casting out devils.

Of course, such language is going to make a lot of progressives uneasy. But let me make a strange claim. I actually think, if progressive Christians started to think and talk this way, that they are well-positioned to help us better recover a more biblical notion of what spiritual warfare is supposed to look like.

Because if you look at the language in the bible regarding "the principalities and powers" you quickly see that these forces were often distributed and/or hierarchical forms of power. Yes, these were both spiritual and physical forms of power, but they were often conflated in ways that made them hard to separate. Caesar, for example, as a "son of God." Political power simply was an expression of spiritual power. And the point for our purposes is that the battle against "demons" is less about spooky spirits inhabiting human beings than in confronting the way the world works. I don't know if Adolf Hitler was literally demon possessed. But there was something demonic about how he was able to rise to power and do what he did. He couldn't have done it alone. The demonic forces at work in the rise of Nazism are not so easily localized. Nor are they in the fight against sex trafficking. Or in the battle against poverty.

In short, what is corrupted is, to use biblical language, "the present evil age." What is demonically infested is the way the world works.

And this is why I think progressives can help recover this biblical insight about the principalities and powers. Progressives have always focused on corrupt power arrangements and systems, on the way the world works. Thus, progressives are well-positioned help us see that "our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

Confronting the wickedness in high places is the proper work of spiritual warfare.

And let me make one final observation.

While it is true, as I've been arguing, that progressives can help us recover central aspects of spiritual warfare by focusing us on "wickedness in high places," I also think the paradigm of spiritual warfare can pull progressives toward a more holistic practice of Christianity. That is, I think the paradigm of spiritual warfare can help ameliorate some of the weaknesses of progressive Christianity.

Specifically, spiritual warfare can help up link up the political/structural with the moral/personal. Generally, these spheres have been divided up between liberal and conservative Christians, with liberal Christians focusing on the political/structural and conservatives on the moral/personal. But I think this divide can be bridged if progressives adopt a spiritual warfare framework as it allows us to do battle with "the present evil age"--to become exorcists--at every level of the problem, from the personal on up to the structural. For example, the battle against sex trafficking is both a battle against lust (personal) and great structural evils. Same goes for poverty. For progressives it's not just about famines in Africa and global economic inequity. It's also about opening your home and life to poor people.

In short, our battle against the principalities and powers is both political and pietistic. Progressives have tended to be dismissive of piety, and yet some of their greatest icons, from St. Francis to Gandhi to Mother Teresa to Dorothy Day to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were extraordinarily pietistic. And that piety is what gave their social witness such potency. And this is, in my opinion, another part of the reason why progressive theology has become insipid and uninteresting for many people. Liberal theology is intellectually stimulating, but holy lives connected to a social witness are what will attract people.

In short, there are devils to be cast out all over the place, from the personal to the structural. There is addiction and economic inequity, there is lust and sex trafficking, and there is forgiving each other seventy times seven and global peace-keeping.

So calling all exorcists. Progressive Christian...I'm looking at you.

Part 10

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15 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 9, Spiritual Forces in High Places”

  1. As I see it, the biggest peril of a Christus Victor language is that it lends itself to Christian triumphalism and the warfare metaphor, however well-meaning and 'redefined,' suggests the vanquishing of all other modes of religious thought. Sorry, I don't think our culture or Christianity needs more warfare metaphors or framing to be engaging and exciting. In fact, I think the notion that casting things in terms of warfare (us. v. them) will make it more appealing is part of the problem.

  2. I can see where you're coming from, but isn't there a BIG distinction between battling against other people and battling against that which oppresses other people? Christian triumphalism and what Richard is talking about here are entirely opposite. There is no "us" and "them," we are all one in Christ, and battle together against all that Christ is not.

    I don't know about you, but I don't see how my struggle to be Christ-like every day can be anything but a war, though as this series has shown, it is a war won when I am unified into the great strength of Christ's weakness.

  3. One aspect I don't believe you have discussed in this series is the difficulty of distinguishing spiritual enemies and spiritual allies. That is, angels and demons (however conceived) work by the same means. Eve thought the serpent was an ally. "Lust" is the other side of "Eros", a legitimate component of marital love. The knock on Derrida suggests to me that you are thinking that spiritual warfare will involve _recognizing_ the evil quality of the enemy, but I am afraid that the attempt to do that inevitably leads to quibbling in the swamp ... the Serpent asks, "Is that _really_ what God said? Is prostitution _always_ an evil to be eradicated? Come, let us reason together." Whereas it seems to me that demons must be exorcised individually and locally. Not by launching against the Armies of Darkness, which (corrallary of Theory of Weakness) empowers them through collateral damage, but if at all by hand-to-hand combat, a specific somewhat arbitrary commitment made from within a situation . Just because things really are relative doesn't excuse.

    The other problem I have with "Christus Victor" is the implication that Christ has already won. But if it's a real fight (and particularly if the angels and the demons are known to change colors), then we don't know how it turns out. Not just real excitement, also real fear.

    ... reading this over, just want to say yes, agree, people (eg, me) need to be making (more) such commitments, in the face of fear/defensiveness/laziness/cheapitivity/frustration/etc. Christianity is hard work.

  4. Good comment man. It is very easy to say "I'm against EVIL!" But much more difficult to specifically say what it is that is evil.

    Ecclesiastes 3:1-12
    Chapter 3
    A Time for Everything
    For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
    a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.
    The God- Given Task
    What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;

  5. “Not only will this make progressive theology robustly more biblical, it infuses the spiritual
    experience with a sense of adventure and excitement.”

    Wow! Exorcism with “Adventure
    and Excitement” – Sounds Cool!

  6. There is BAD cultural relativism ... you've got to go along to get along ... and in certain circles this was its anthem. There's a great plenty of keeping silent, breaking down, and killing going around. Rather, discrimination, choice, commitment. "Preserve me from the enemy who has something to gain: and/from the friend who has something to lose./Remembering the words of Nehemiah the Prophet: 'The trowel/ in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster.' " -T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

  7. I totally agree, insofar as you are saying that you want to ensure that any inclusion of angelic language and warfare language shouldn't lead to a "spiritualization" of struggle, meaning a turning of material and practical struggle into "just praying about it." I think Richard, Boyd, Wink et al would totally agree with this; in that sense, I think a recovery of the angelic language as quotidian language is essential to an accurate reading of Scripture. Here, the process of recovery is meant to lead us, precisely, to things like voting and bandaging the wounds of people, based on the claim that this was the ancient understanding of spiritual language. The problem, on this reading, is not the ancient concepts, but the modern (really, Enlightenment) turn that internalized all transcendent language. In light of this, it becomes clear that what you are considering conservative is, in fact, novel (and wrong), and that what you are considering non-conservative is actually the position that conserves and recovers the tradition. I'm much more comfortable with what Richard is doing here, because I have all of that in mind. He's not calling for anything like the canonization of Frank Pareti, or for Pentacostalism gone wild; in fact, the folks he is drawing on provide a major corrective to all of that stuff, and reclaim the Biblical heritage from people who have not understood it or applied it properly. So I think, in the context of the blog and the conversation, precisely those dangers have been pretty thoroughly addressed...I think that's what makes this project so interesting.

  8. Glad we agree on some points. I don’t think Richard or Boyd do though. What I have read of them always leads to the answer being in Christ, not in any action or anything tangible. I might be missing what you mean by “internalized
    all transcendent language”. That should be a GOOD process, of making the language part of our wisdom, you make it sound bad. The remainder of what you have to say are just claims that Richard is on the right track. I think we
    agree that the arc of history is toward justice, but your claims that Biblical or spiritual language supports that movement needs a lot more backup.

  9. While I'm not sure that is what they are saying, I'd go at it this way. Saying "the answer is in Christ" must be understood as something actionable and tangible, or it has not been understood. The fact that it appears to be anything else is a product of transcendent language being internalized...i.e., spiritual language (like, the answer is in Christ) is taken to refer simply to an internal, personal, psychological process, rather than an external, interpersonal, historical process. Among the writers being referenced here, N.T. Wright, in particular, makes the point the most strongly that to refer to Christ is, necessarily, to refer to real, visible, activity and real historical processes. The Enlightenment and a fair amount of Protestant theology are, I think, at the core of this internalization, which makes it possible to contrast "being in Christ" with "action," as if "being in Christ" didn't entail action (such as caring for the poor and engaging in effective political advocacy). Regardless of what you think of the goodness or badness of that Enlightenment shift, as a purely descriptive matter, it causes contemporary people to read Christian scripture in a way that gives it meanings that are dramatically different than the meanings that would have been ascribed to it by normal readers at the time they were written.

  10. I don’t separate these forces the way you do. We are
    products of our culture and our internal processes. Christ said and did
    whatever he did and people interpreted that and some of that interpretation has
    been lost in translation and time. You can’t possibly know how it was taken at
    the time it was written. I need no more evidence than the myriad definitions of
    “sin” that are out there now. If Christian teaching always led to caring actions,
    then we wouldn’t even be discussing this, but we know that is not true.

    I don’t think spiritual language is either purely
    psychological or part of a historical process. It’s symbolic. The problem is
    the same symbol is used to mean vastly different things. I suspect you and I
    would agree on most concrete actions needed to make the world better today, but
    you and someone from your own church would probably have disagreements about
    who Christ was or what Romans 13:8 means.

  11. Adopting the language of "spiritual warfare" will also help progressives be Christians WITH the poor and non-Western believers that they now only minister TO, as these Christians are often drawn to or more culturally familiar with the charismatic.

  12. I'm glad you don't separate them in that way; I don't either. At any rate, if you don't separate them, then this sentence should sound incoherent to you: "What I have read of them always leads to the answer being in Christ, not in any action or anything tangible." It should sound incoherent in the same way that it would be incoherent to say this: "He just wants to go for a run, but never wants to get any exercise." I'm pretty confident that Richard Beck and Greg Boyd are on the same page with you, then, in considering both statements incoherent. And I'm pretty confident the New Testament authors were as well. It's true that we don't know anything with absolute certainty, but I actually think these kinds of matters can be determined to a relatively high degree of confidence.

    Now on the symbolic nature of religious language: on this, we are also in agreement. That is great :) I'd add that it is a feature of all language. Language is a symbolic system. Even at its most precise, scientific language is also still part of a symbolic system; even the very best map is not the same thing as the territory.

  13. One often neglected area of spiritual warfare is "The Spiritual Ambush." See how a U.S. Army Ranger took what he learned about dealing with ambushes in the physical jungle and applied it to the spiritual jungle at www.spiritualjungle.org.

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