On Warfare and Weakness: Interlude, Revolutionary Spirits

The person who finally got me to sit down and read John Caputo's The Weakness of God is Jonathan McRay. Jonathan is the author of You Have Heard It Said: Events in Reconciliation, and he's my go to source for all things Wendell Berry or with anarchist theory. Jonathan was the co-host of the anarchism panel I presented at a few week ago at the CSC.

Last week Jonathan sent me a quote from David Graeber's book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology about the relationship between inner, imagined worlds of conflict versus external, interpersonal/social forms of conflict.

As an anthropologist with interests in societies and cultures that are egalitarian and peaceable in nature Graeber makes a connection between what we've been calling "spiritual warfare" and the associated peace a society enjoys. Graeber argues that societies that are haunted by spiritual war tend to be more peaceable:
Of course, all societies are to some degree at war with themselves. There are always clashes between interests, factions, classes and the like; also, social systems are always based on the pursuit of different forms of value which pull people in different directions. In egalitarian societies, which tend to place an enormous emphasis on creating and maintaining communal consensus, this often appears to spark a kind of equally elaborate reaction formation, a spectral nightworld inhabited by monsters, witches or other creatures of horror. And it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war. The invisible worlds surrounding them are literally battlegrounds. It's as if the endless labor of achieving consensus masks a constant inner violence--or, it might perhaps be better to say, is in fact the process by which that inner violence is measured and contained--and it is precisely this, and the resulting tangle of moral contradiction, which is the prime font of social creativity. It's not these conflicting principles and contradictory impulses themselves which are the ultimate political reality, then; it's the regulatory process which mediates them.
Graeber goes on to describe some anthropological cases illustrating this dynamic among various egalitarian societies. In each case he notes this disjoint between the violence in the spirit-world with the placid processes of communal consensus building: "Note how in each case there's a striking contrast between the cosmological content, which is nothing if not tumultuous, and social process, which is all about mediation, arriving at consensus." A few paragraphs later he concludes, "the spectral violence seems to emerge from the very tensions inherent in the project of maintaining an egalitarian society."

We might pause here and reflect on the psychological and sociological dynamics of all this. As a psychologist I'm intrigued by this notion that internal, spectral, spiritual, and mythological war creates the social and psychological capacities to create an external peace amongst ourselves. Perhaps the demons have to be internalized for peace be experienced in our midst. Is the devil the shadow of peace? That's a point that we all might debate.

But Graeber pushes on to connect these spectral worlds with the "counterpower" necessary to promote social change in oppressive contexts. Graeber discusses his own experiences in Madagascar noting how within Malagasy history rapid changes took place in social attitudes in relation to the institutions of monarchy and slavery. For generations these institutions were considered to be legitimate, moral and justifiable. But within a short span of time they became rejected as illegitimate and oppressive. What created the imaginative capacity for such a radical realignment in the Malagasy moral consciousness?

Graeber answers the question by going back to the spectral world:
The puzzling question is how such a profound change in popular attitudes could happen so fast?...[S]omething about the implosion of colonial rule allowed for the rapid reshuffling of priorities. This, I would argue, is what the ongoing existence of deeply embedded forms of counterpower allows. A lot of the ideological work, in fact, of making a revolution was conducted precisely in the spectral nightworld of sorcerers and witches; in redefinitions of the moral implications of different forms of magical power. But this only underlines how these spectral zones are always the fulcrum of the moral imagination, a kind of creative reservoir, too, of potential revolutionary change. It's precisely from these invisible spaces--invisible, most of all, to power--whence the potential for insurrection, and the extraordinary social creativity that seems to emerge out of nowhere in revolutionary moments, actually comes.
There is a lot here to digest and object to. I put it out here simply to stir the pot some more about this notion of "spiritual warfare." Thanks again to Jonathan for the head's up.

Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 48, Reading is Work

In Chapter 48 of The Rule of St. Benedict Benedict turns to the issue of daily manual labor. He starts off with this:
1Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor and well as for prayerful reading.
What's interesting is how, here and throughout the chapter, Benedict describes reading as work, as a way to fend off idleness. Reading is considered to be a spiritual discipline. Benedict says that "the brothers ought to devote themselves to reading." Later Benedict connects reading to the observance of Lent:
15During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through.
To make sure the monks are doing their reading: "Two seniors must surely be deputed to make the rounds of the monastery while the brothers are reading. Their duty is to see that no brother is so apathetic as to waste time or engage in idle talk to neglect his reading..."

As a reader all I can say is A--freaking--men. Reading is work.

Personal pet peeve in this regard. To non-readers reading looks like idleness and not work. If you are reading you aren't doing anything. You're "just reading." This drives me crazy. For example, when people see you reading they feel free to interrupt you. Why? Because you're not doing anything, you're just reading.

But excuse me, reading is doing something. So when I'm reading you should leave me alone. I'm working here. Ask St. Benedict.

On Warfare and Weakness: Part 8, The Quotidian

This post is the last post of our theological detour before wrapping up next week with the final two posts of the series when we return back to the theme of spiritual warfare. And for those of you still squeamish about the metaphor of "warfare" if you missed it be sure to check out another Interlude--In Memory of the White Rose--I posted yesterday.

In Parts 6 and 7 we drifted away from our discussion of warfare theology (Parts 1-5) to ponder the weakness of God in light of the visions of God's power in Genesis and Revelation. The take home point was that there is a way of reading both Genesis and Revelation as being consistent with the weakness of God. Mainly this involves bracketing questions about "the beginning" and "the end" as topics that the bible never addresses.

The practical upshot of this bracketing is a focus on the present moment, right here and right now. However, such a move may strike many Christians as odd and, thus, make them feel a bit uncomfortable. So what I'd like to do in this post is to find a simpler and more straightforward theological framework for what we argued for in the last two posts. Specifically, rather than speculate about readings of Genesis and Revelation a progressive theology should have a more straightforward and positive creation theology.

What we need is a theology of the quotidian.

If you are like me, you might want a quick peek at the definition of quotidian. Here it is:
1. Of or occurring every day; daily.
2. Ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane.
I'm using the word quotidian because Captuo uses it in The Weakness of God and it's a key term in the creation theology described by David Kelsey in his book Eccentric Existence, the creation theology I'd like to borrow to help re-package the last two posts.

I'm going to be taking a cue from Kelsey who bases his work in Eccentric Existence upon the creation theology in the OT Wisdom literature rather than upon Genesis 1-3. And as Kelsey notes, the Wisdom literature "teaches no dogmatic formulation about creation." Regarding origins and endings these are questions that the Wisdom literature seems uninterested in asking and answering. The world just is. Existence is just taken for granted.

There are a variety of reasons why Kelsey grounds creation theology in the Wisdom books, why he doesn't think Genesis is concerned with creation, but the main one is this: Genesis, as a part of the Pentateuch, is primarily about God's rescue and deliverance. You might say that Genesis is a soteriological book rather than a science book, a book about salvation history rather than about the beginnings of the cosmos. In short, Genesis 1-3 isn't trying to say much of anything definitive about "the creation." Genesis is mainly setting up the story of the Exodus.

Feel free to debate Kelsey on that point, and on his other points. You'll find his arguments against reading Genesis 1-3 as a creation account on pages 176-189 of Vol. 1 of Eccentric Existence.

Okay, so if we turn away from Genesis 1-3 as a creation account what sort of creation account do we find in the Wisdom literature?

First, Wisdom's creation account is focused on the quotidian, not the future or the past but on our daily existence. The here and now. Kelsey describing this:
[W]hat does "the creation" mean? The theology of creation through which canonical Wisdom thinks suggests the answer: "the creation" denotes the lived world as the quotidian, the everyday finite realities of all sorts--animal, vegetable, and mineral--in the routine networks that are constituted by their ordinary interactions...What God creates is the quotidian.
If I'm reading Kelsey right what he is suggesting is this. If you accept the argument that Genesis 1-3 is about salvation rather than about cosmic origins, then the only real "creation theology" in the bible is from the Wisdom literature. The books of Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Song of Solomon. These books theologize about creation, but the focus in always upon daily existence, the quotidian. A great example of this is Ecclesiastes 2.24-25:
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 
The creation theology here isn't the creation theology of a "Big Bang" or of cosmic beginnings. The theology here is focused on the here and now, the quotidian--the enjoyment of eating, drinking, working and giving thanks to God for giving these good gifts. That's the creation theology of the quotidian--thankfulness and enjoyment for the gifts of the day. Nothing more, nothing less. That daily life exists and contains good gifts is what we mean by "God's creation."

And what is interesting to note about the creation theology of the quotidian is that it doesn't address cosmic beginnings and endings. As Kelsey notes:
Wisdom creation theology's focus on the quotidian entails several differences from many doctrines of creation, classical and modern...First, mainstream Wisdom's creation theology generally lacks any account of cosmic origins...It simply does not touch on the question of how creation came to be...Nor is God's creation a future state of the world, a state to which God will eventually bring the world through the ongoing movement of history. Wisdom's theology of creation lacks teleology.
Again, what this means, as argued in the last two posts, is that biblical creation theology is not focused on cosmic beginnings and endings. The creation theology of the bible is focused on the quotidian, the events of daily life, the here and now. Kelsey:
[T]he basic thrust of canonical Wisdom's creation theology is that what God creates is humankind's lived world in its concrete everydayness.
Biblical creation theology is about the goodness found in the "stuff of life." Creation theology is interested in the day you had today--with your work, your food, your relationships. Creation theology is not interested in Big Bangs or cataclysmic apocalypses.

And just as important, beyond being quiet about cosmic origins and endings, the creation theology of the Wisdom literature is also quiet about the origins of evil, ontologically and morally. Kelsey:
Because canonical Wisdom's creation theology is relational and not generic, it does not even gesture toward explanation of the genesis of evil's intrusion into what God creates. In offering no account of the genesis of creation or of evil, it focuses entirely on the relation between God as Creator and world as creation, and on the difference that relation makes to the creation. If Wisdom guides us in our effort to construe as creation the contexts into which we are born, it requires us to be absolutely realistic about the moral ambiguity of these contexts. And it suggests we leave the fact of evil's intrusion into creation unexplained, acknowledging it as mysterious.
I think this sets up our warfare theology quite nicely and it also chastens any dualistic thinking that might emerge because of that theology. The creation theology of Wisdom takes evil as a given and as something opposed to God's right ordering of the world. This gets us to where Greg Boyd wants us in God at War: Evil isn't a theological puzzle but a force to be resisted in the world. Adopting Wisdom's creation theology supports that assessment. More, regarding any temptations to dualism, evil in Wisdom isn't a cosmic force outside of creation--an evil god opposed to YHWH. Rather, evil is experienced as a result of the ontological and moral features intrinsic to the quotidian.

Regarding the ontological sources of evil, the creation theology of Wisdom recognizes humans as finite and, thus, susceptible to damage and death. As Kelsey writes:
The realm of physical creatures, which is the context into which we are born, is inherently accident-prone, as creatures inescapably damage each other...One consequence of the finitude of creatures is that the quotidian is inherently ambiguous experientially. This ambiguity is rooted ontologically--that is, in the creatureliness of the quotidian...

[W]hat God relates to creatively, ourselves and our everyday worlds, may be experienced by us in delight and pleasure as, from our perspective, (relatively) good for us. On the other hand, the finitude of creation means that creatures are inevitably vulnerable to damage, deterioration, and destruction. The context into which we are born simply is the condition of the possibility of our undergoing hurt, loss, and death. 
A couple of points about this. First, our finitude--our susceptibility to damage and death--isn't explained in the creation theology of Wisdom. Our vulnerability and eventual deaths are simply assumed, taken as a given. God's goodness in Wisdom is, therefore, expressed within and through this finitude. God's creational goodness isn't the removal of our finitude--being made immortal and invulnerable--but in the daily gifts of work, food, drink, friendship and love as these are experienced in the midst of our damage and deaths.

Beyond the evils we experience ontologically, due to our being inherently finite creatures, Wisdom's creation theology also describes moral evil. There is a great deal of focus in the Wisdom literature regarding human violence, bloodshed and injustice. In the face of this moral chaos the Wisdom literature asserts that God is at work within the quotidian restoring moral order.

And yet, the witness of the Wisdom literature is that God's providential acts are often ambiguous and hard to discern. (Which is why cultivating wisdom is so important.) As Kelsey notes, "Wisdom warrants at most exhortations to keep alert for occasional signs of God's arcane providential hand at work morally ordering the quotidian." One reason why it is so hard to recognize God's work in the quotidian is that the establishment of God's rule is often spotty and temporary. Kelsey:
Signs of God's providential righting of the moral balance are not a steady-state feature of the quotidian. Rather, according to canonical Wisdom's creation theology, signs of God's providential preservation of a moral order break out in the quotidian like a small rash: patchy, intrusive, and unpredictable. God's providential action in creation is often eruptive...These occasions are but patches on the broader spaces of the quotidian stained by violence...
All this, in my opinion, though Kelsey would begin to beg off at this point, sets up a nice and robust creation theology that interfaces well with a theology regarding the weakness of God. The creation theology of Wisdom does many of the things we need, in a supportive role, to have a warfare theology rooted in the weakness of God. As a creation theology it is biblical. It is uninterested in cosmic beginnings and endings. It focuses on the everyday. It is agnostic about the origins of evil. And finally, it sees God's providential actions as "patchy, intrusive, and unpredictable." All of this, it seems to me, works well with a warfare theology based upon the weakness of God.
The theological detour has ended! In the final two posts we return to discussing a warfare theology bringing this series to a close.

Summarizing, then, all the posts to date, the progressive theological vision I've been sketching is based on three things:
Wisdom's quotidian creation theology:
We have a creation theology that is quietistic about cosmic beginnings and endings and about the origins of evil. The focus is on daily existence where God's providential goodness is experienced in the simple gifts of life and as patchy "outbreaks" of the Kingdom, as interruptions, disruptions and eruptions in an experientially and morally ambiguous world.

The weakness of God:
The reason the quotidian is morally and ontologically ambiguous, the reason why the Kingdom of God is "patchy, intrusive, and unpredictable," is that God's power in the world is the weak force of love.

A warfare theology:
Because God is a weak force in the world we live among a plurality of powers, with the weak force of love arrayed against the satantic forces of death, destruction, and dehumanization. As a consequence, the Christan life is experienced as a battle between these forces, between the Kingdom of God and the dark forces arrayed against it. The Christian calling is to participate in this battle to establish outposts of the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven."
Part 9

On Warfare and Weakness: Interlude, In Memory of the White Rose

I know many of you are just hating the whole "spiritual warfare" metaphor of this series. In the last post of this series (Part 10) I'll give my big Jesus-driven argument as to why progressives need to recover this metaphor, despite our squeamishness.

But for today let me give another reason about why I'm drawn to the spiritual warfare metaphor.

In a comment today to Daniel, whose comments I uniformly enjoy and learn from, I said that while many of us are struggling with Boyd's use of warfare as a theodicy I really do think the kernel of his idea is worth talking about: resistance is our only theodicy.

True, in the face of the forces of violence and dehumanization maybe the dichotomy between resignation and resistance is too simplistic but, for my part, I'm drawn to articulations of resistance, "warfare" metaphor and all.

In his comment Daniel brought up the Holocaust. I don't know how any theodicy could be given in that face of that horror. In fact, I don't think we should be trying to get God off the hook for that. Nor do I think, and I agree with Daniel on this, that appeals to divine solidarity help all that much.

Which is why I'm drawn back to Boyd. If not to his theology then to his goal: resistance is our only theodicy.

For example, I wish there had been a bit more militancy in German Christianity during the rise of Nazism. Which is why I tire a bit to reactions such as "I don't like seeing myself in a battle. I just want to love people."

For my part, I take inspiration to keep using the spiritual warfare metaphor from people like the White Rose martyrs.

If you don't know about the White Rose they were college-age students, most were Christians, who began resisting the Nazi regime by printing and dispersing subversive leaflets. They were one of the few Christian voices speaking out against Hitler. They are spiritual heroes of mine and too few people know about them.

A selection from the famous fourth leaflet of the White Rose:
Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking maw of hell and his might is fundamentally reprobate. To be sure, one must wage the battle against National Socialism using rational means. But whoever still does not believe in the actual existence of demonic powers has not comprehended by far the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the tangible, behind that which can be perceived by the senses, behind all factual, logical considerations stands The Irrational, that is the battle against the demon, against the messengers of the Anti-Christ. Everywhere and at all times, the demons have waited in darkness for the hour in which mankind is weak; in which he voluntarily abandons the position in the world order that is based on freedom and comes from God; in which he yields to the force of the Evil One, disengaging himself from the powers of a higher order. Once he has taken the first step of his own free will, he is driven to take the second and then the third and even more with furiously increasing speed. Everywhere and at every time of greatest danger, people have risen up – prophets, saints – who are aware of their freedom, who have pointed to the One God and with His aid have exhorted the people to turn in repentance. Mankind is surely free, but he is defenseless against the Evil One without the true God. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler...

We will not keep silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not let you alone!
For dispensing this and their other pamphlets the leaders of the White Rose were beheaded by the Nazis.

In memory of the White Rose I'm sticking with the spiritual warfare metaphor.

Part 8

On Warfare and Weakness: Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb

Our theological detour in thinking about power and the weakness of God in the biblical narrative continues.

Let me say a couple of things to start this post.

Yesterday's post (Part 6) might have freaked some people. It wasn't intended to. To be sure, Caputo takes his creation theology into that freaky direction. Boyd less so. Regardless, they both make a similar move, which is all I really wanted to draw attention to. And that move is this: the bible doesn't really have a lot to say about the origins of evil. Evil seems to predate the biblical story. It's the "void" of Genesis 1.2 or the snake in the Garden or the missing backstory about the satan. To be sure, we can sketch in some of these details, and Christians have. But I wonder, and this was the general point I wanted to make in the last post, if we shouldn't follow the bible's lead on this and not speculate overmuch about the origins of evil. Perhaps the most biblical thing we can do is do what the bible does: assume evil exists and confess that God is that Spirit that moves over creation bringing order, beauty, goodness and light. We can confess at least that much. Why evil exists, I can't say. But I can confess that the Spirit of God is, right now, bringing light into the darkness. And maybe that's the only "creation theology" we really need.

Having considered origins in the last post we turn to endings in this post. And again, the point isn't to be provocative but to reach a conclusion similar to the one from the last post. To be sure, these two posts leave a ton of threads loose and hanging. To help with that tomorrow I'll try to pull those threads together into a more straightforward, simple and less speculative theological picture.

Okay then, if in the last post we talked about how we might think about the power/weakness of God in the creation narrative in this post we swing over to the last book of the bible to think about how the weakness of God might be viewed in the power displays found in the book of Revelation.

Unfortunately, neither Boyd's God at War or Caputo's The Weakness of God are of much use to us here. In God at War the victory of God over evil in the book of Revelation is, according to Boyd, a fairly straightforward display of power. So that's not helpful given how we are thinking about the weakness of God. As for Caputo, he doesn't much get into eschatology in the The Weakness of God (likely because he doesn't believe in eschatology traditionally understood).

So we are flying bit solo on this. But we can borrow from a host of recent insights about eschatology generally and the book of Revelation specifically. What follows are a three interconnected observations to mull over in thinking about how the weakness of God relates to eschatology.

First, regarding the violence in the book of Revelation I think we simply lean on the many non-violent readings of Revelation. I'd recommend Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman. The key insight in these readings is that the victory over evil in the book of Revelation is won by the weakness and non-violence of God as seen in the enthroned Lamb Who Had Been Slain in Revelation 5:
I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders...
In short, any victory of God is won by the weakness of the cross. This is also seen in the book of Revelation in how the martyrs wage war with the weapons of the Lamb:
Revelation 12.7-12
Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.

Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens,

“It has come at last—
salvation and power
and the Kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters
has been thrown down to earth—
the one who accuses them
before our God day and night.
And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb
and by their testimony.
And they did not love their lives so much
that they were afraid to die..."
Note how the "war in heaven" is fought by the saints. The saints defeat evil "by the blood of the Lamb," "by their testimony," and, finally, by the sacrificial giving of their lives like Jesus on the cross.

The point being, I think the weakness of God can be made consistent with the book of Revelation.

To my second observation.

I think the recent work of scholars such as N.T. Wright (see his Surprised By Hope) have encouraged us to see the eschatological vision of the New Testament as being more this-worldly than other-worldly. The eschaton and "eternal life" have much more to do with the quality of today's life than with a judgment at "the end times." Our prayer is the same as Jesus': "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

In this view, "the end" is less about a literal, future apocalypse than it is the goal state and the divine, prophetic perspective on our world, right here, right now. We are an eschatological people when we live with "the end"--the vision of God's ultimate rule where Jesus is Lord--ever in view

The point being, as we did in the last post, we can bracket questions about "the end" like we can bracket questions about "the beginning." We can be agnostic about those things yet still have a rich, energized and biblical eschatology.

Finally, I would like to make an observation about the ending of the biblical narrative and its similarity to the beginning.

Recall from the last post that, given a certain reading, chaos pre-dates creation. Creation assumes the raw material of chaos, the formless clay that God shapes and calls "good." (An activity we are called as God's image-bearers--as Adam was called--to emulate, the creating of goodness out of chaos.) Genesis, in this view, brackets the question about where that chaos--that raw material--came from.

What is interesting is that Revelation ends on that same open-ended note. Specifically, in the description of the New Jerusalem, a restoration of Eden's Paradise, there are few curious things. First, it's a city with walls. Why do you need walls? Why not the whole earth restored as a garden? Second, the doors of this city are always open. Why are doors open if no one is on the outside?

On this point--Are there people outside the walls of the New Jerusalem?--the text seems mixed. In 21.6-8 it appears that the "outsiders" are consigned to death in the Lake of Fire. But at the end of the text in 22.12-15 it seems like their are people living outside the city. The simple resolution to the paradox is to say that, right now, there are insiders and outsiders, but that at the end of time the outsiders get thrown into the Lake of Fire.

Which is fine as far as that goes, but unless you are an annihilationist most Christians actually do believe there is an "outside" to the New Jerusalem. It's called hell.

The point being, according to most Christians the ending of the bible brings us back to where we were at the beginning. Which isn't with a vision of total, universal goodness. In Genesis there is chaos and, in the midst of that chaos, the Garden of Eden where the Kingdom of God is experienced. And in the book of Revelation there is a city--the New Jerusalem--where the Kingdom of God is experienced and, outside of those walls, there remains an eternal chaos, like at the beginning, which most Christians label as hell. In both visions there are two basic territories. In Genesis it's the formless void versus Eden. In Revelation it's the Lake of Fire (Hell) versus the New Jerusalem. And in both cases evil is associated with the territory opposed to the territory where the Kingdom of God is experienced.

Now am I saying that evil is co-eternal with God, that evil existed alongside God in the beginning and will exist alongside God forever?

No. All I'm saying is that the biblical narrative doesn't get into that question. From beginning to end the bible simply assumes two locations--a location where God's rule is experienced and holds sway (Eden, New Jerusalem) and a location which is "outside" God's rule. Biblically, that's all we can say for sure. Anything more is metaphysical speculation that can't be adjudicated with the bible. Which means that, in my opinion, biblical Christians can be agnostic about all this.

More, if I can circle back to my second point above, if an eschatological perspective is more about today than "the end times" then such agnosticism might have salutary effects upon Christians and the church. This agnosticism keeps us focused on what is most important:

Waging the War of the Lamb to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.


On Warfare and Weakness: Part 6, Let There Be Light

Summarizing our work to this point. A warfare theology--a theology where God in not implicated in evil but wholly opposed to it--presupposes limits on God's power, control, and influence in the world. While there are various indirect ways to envision these limitations (e.g., Greg Boyd in God at War posits the free will of angelic creatures), in the last post we took a cue from John Caputo and posited the weakness of God more directly. This, I believe, sets up a warfare theology that should, theologically, resonate more with progressive Christians.

But a strong vision of the weakness of God is going to create quite a few questions about how we understand God's omnipotence, particularly the show of power at the start of the biblical narrative. If God is not force and power how was the world created by God ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing)?

There is an interesting convergence on this question in Boyd's God at War and Caputo's The Weakness of God. Both authors focus two different readings of Genesis 1.1-3 (KJV):
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good...
The issue has to do with how Genesis 1.1 relates to 1.2 and/or 1.3. In traditional readings 1.1 sets up 1.2. In this reading the first act of creation (1.1) is God creating a chaotic and formless world--the deep (found in 1.2). From there God begins to impose order on the chaos (1.3 and following).

But there is a second reading of these opening verses, one that originated with Jewish theology, where 1.1 is not read as an act of creation but read as a sort of Preamble or Chapter Title: "This is the Account of How God Created the Heavens and the Earth." The formal creation account then starts in 1.2 rather than in 1.1. Such a reading sets up like this:
This is the Account of How God Created the Heavens and the Earth:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
What is interesting about this second reading--where the creation account formally beings with Genesis 1.2 rather than with 1.1--is that the chaos and void are there with God at the beginning. To be clear, this is not to say that chaos is co-eternal with God. Simply that chaos pre-dates the biblical creation narrative in Genesis 1.

More evidence for this reading is found in that the timing of creation is synchronized with the artistic acts which start in Genesis 1.3. The clock doesn't start with Genesis 1.1 and 1.2. We don't read: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The first day."

So in this reading first act of creation occurs in Genesis 1.3: The bringing of light. And this is less a creation ex nihilo than bringing order to chaos. Chaos is sort of the raw material for the Creator, like a lump of clay. Creation is bringing artistic order to that clay, the making of something beautiful and "good" out of that which was previously "formless."

In short, the creative acts of God recounted in Genesis 1 are less acts of creation ex nihilo than the artistic and moral ordering of chaos. Creation, biblically understood, is turning chaos into something "good."

Of course, this raises some questions: Where did the chaos come from? Did God create it or not? And when did God create it?

Those are interesting questions, but on this reading we can't answer them. On this reading, these aren't biblical questions as the biblical account of creation assumes the raw material of chaos and recounts God's ordering of that chaos into something beautiful and "good." Beyond that, we can't really don't know what else to say.

Maybe the source of the chaos was, as Boyd speculates, the cosmic battle of Satan's fall from heaven, a battle that destroyed the pre-Genesis world. Boyd suggests, speculatively, that Genesis 1 recounts God's "re-creation" of the world after this cataclysmic battle. Or maybe you go in scientific directions and think of the chaos as the primordial void or vacuum prior to the Big Bang. Opinions will vary about "the void," but the answers don't much impinge upon the theology of creation found in Genesis 1.

I think progressive Christians will find this bracketing helpful. It allows them to reconcile their sympathies with science with their desire to root their faith deeply in the biblical narrative.

And most importantly for our purposes, such a reading of Genesis allows us to praise God as the Creator of all Good Things in a way that is consistent with a robust understanding of the weakness of God.

God is creating goodness out of chaos, but that chaos isn't eliminated. That chaos is still with us, always there in the background, the raw material of physical existence. God is "at war" with this chaos, seeking to order, structure, shape, tame and redeem it. Even as the chaos resists. All of creation groans, as in childbirth, indifferent to or actively resisting the work of God and God's children.

For both Boyd and Caputo, creation is broken at deep structural levels. Just why the bible doesn't say. The bible simply takes as a given that there are chaotic forces at work in the world, forces untamed and hostile to the good ordering of God's Kingdom. The bible confesses that God is not the creator of this chaos. God is the creator of order and goodness. "It is good, very good." And God's children are called to participate in this creative work, bringing order and goodness into the chaos. God's children are called to participate in this battle, called to speak with their Father the primordial words of creation into the satanic and chaotic darkness around them:

Let there be light.

Part 7

On Warfare and Weakness: Part 5, The Weakness of God

The goal of this series is to articulate a theology for progressive Christianity that is energetic and has popular appeal. To this point I've made two big observations.

First, I believe the energy and appeal for a progressive Christian vision comes when we recover a warfare theology, a theology of revolt grounded in the biblical witness. People want a real fight and a warfare theology gives them that.

Second, as I argued in the last post a warfare theology presupposes a weak God, presupposes limitations on God's power and control in the world.

This is the interesting connection--warfare and weakness--between books like Greg Boyd's God at War and John Caputo's The Weakness of God. It's a connection not many have noticed because readers have tended to focus on Boyd's answers rather than upon the question he's trying to answer. Specifically, a warfare theology presupposes that evil is renegade, outside of God's control. This view extracts God from the evil in the world, placing evil outside of God's sphere of influence. When this happens evil is no longer a theological puzzle ("Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?), but a force to be opposed.

To get to this point you need to let limits on God's power in the world. Boyd does this by appealing to free will. For a variety of reasons I don't think that works, but I agree with the goal of the free will appeal: for a warfare theology to work you need a weaker God.

And it's here where we can now turn to John Caputo's book The Weakness of God.

The crux of what I want to argue in this post is this: If we need a weaker God to extract God from evil and create a warfare theology, why speculate indirectly about the volitional capacities of angelic beings (e.g., that demons have free will) when we can posit the weakness of God more directly?

To be sure, conservative Christians won't want to go in this direction--toward the weakness of God--but we don't care about conservatives right now. We are sketching out a progressive theological vision. And many progressive and liberal Christians are already on board with visions like Caputo's in The Weakness of God. So I don't need to convince them of this view. All I need to do is show the connection between the weakness of God and the warfare worldview as described in Boyd's God at War.

Because, let's be honest, Caputo's The Weakness of God doesn't have broad popular appeal. It's too steeped in post-modern deconstruction and Continental philosophy to energize a congregation of Christians. Basically, if you're talking about Derrida or Lacan you're screwed, pastorally speaking. Again, people want a real fight. They don't want a lot of post-modern philosophication.

And so that I might practice what I preach, let's not start with Caputo in talking about the weakness of God. Let's start with the bible.

The phrase "the weakness of God" comes from 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age?

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
The weakness of God is associated here with the cross of Jesus. The cross is weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world, but it is the power and wisdom of God. Paul immediately goes on in the next verses (vv. 26-28) to show how the weakness of God is at work among the Corinthian Christians:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are. 
The power of God is here associated with things that are foolish, weak, lowly and despised. This is the power/weakness of God in the world, the power manifested on the cross.

In short, the power of God in the world is the power of the cross. The power of weakness, powerlessness, and lowliness.

The power/weakness of God in the world is kenosis, self-emptying donation for others:
Philippians 2.5-8
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The power/weakness of God is manifest in "being made nothing" in the world. The power/weakness of God is found in failure, loss, and humiliation.

And this power/weakness isn't just about theology. It's about the ethics of the Kingdom, how Christians are to practice the powerlessness and weakness of God:
Mark 10.42-45
Jesus called them together and said:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.

Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 
The power/weakness of God is being the last and the least, the servant and slave of all. In Luke 22, the parallel to Mark 10, Jesus adds the stunning phrase:
"I am among you as the one who serves."
God exists among us "as the one who serves." Servanthood is the power of God. Want to see God? Look for a servant. There you will find God living amongst us. Phrased in the language of 1 John, the power/weakness of God in the world is found in love:
1 John 4.7-8, 11-12
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love...Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 
Love is the power/weakness of God in the world. If you love you have been "born of God." If you love you "know God." If you love God "lives in" you.

You add all that up and what you have is a radically different view of God's power. God does not exercise top-down power and control from on high. God doesn't "lord over" the world. The power of God works in the opposite direction, from the bottom-up. God's power is the power of the cross, the power of weakness and powerlessness, the power of loving servanthood and self-giving. This is why we must become like little children--become weak, lowly and despised as those described in 1 Corinthians--if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not characterized by top-down power but by being the one in the "last place." And when we step into this loving and powerless way of living we become born of God, we come to know God, and God comes to live in us. As Henri Nouwen has written,
Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God...As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God's love and empower them with the power of God's Spirit.
Most progressive Christians, I imagine, are already on board with this view of God, a view of God's power/weakness that I think is wonderfully summarized by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Okay, so far, so good. All of this material from the bible is well-trodden territory, and while some of my formulations above might be too strong for some conservatives most of these texts and the takeaway points I've made are generally agreed upon by both progressives and conservatives.

So what's the rub? The rub is this. As argued by theologians like Caputo in The Weakness of God the texts above and the interpretations I draw from them are all that is to be said about the power of God in the world. God's power is weakness. Straight up. There is no Big Power sitting behind the weakness of the cross backing it up with a reservoir of force. The weakness of God exhausts the meaning of what it means to say God is "powerful." As Caputo writes,
God is the source of good and its warrant. That is the stamp or the seal that God puts on creation; that is God's covenant with us. But God is not the power supply for everything that happens.
At this point, most conservatives will balk. That is, while they make accept, on one level, the cross of Jesus and the path of servanthood, they don't think the power of God is limited to those things. Behind the cross, they would contend, is power and awesome force, a power and force that can push people around, can push the entire cosmos around, can with the snap of a finger obliterate anything and anyone. God is more than weakness, God is power. Awesome power.

But in his book The Weakness of God Caputo rejects all that. Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. Key those words, "the only way." In this view there is no other power but powerlessness. No other form of control than weakness. And this is the only way. There is no Big Stick, no Big Power Switch sitting in reserve. The weakness of the cross is the only way God rules the world. The. Only. Way.

Another way to say this is to echo a church father (I can't remember who right now) who said, "There is no force in God."

Some from Caputo on these topics:
The strong point about weak theology is that it is a theology of the cross...The divinity is rather that [Christ's] very death and humiliation rise up in protest against the world, rise up above power. Under power, I include both Roman power and a God of power who has the power to intervene, as if God is like a hurricane who could descend on the scene and send the Roman soldiers hurtling through the air were he of such a mind. The perverse core of Christianity lies in being a weak force. The weak force of God is embodied in the broken body on the cross...

The power of God is not pagan violence, brute power, vulgar magic; it is the power of powerlessness, the power of the call, the power of protest that rises up from innocent suffering and calls out against it, the power that says no to unjust suffering, and finally the power to suffer-with (sym-pathos) innocent suffering, which is perhaps the central Christian symbol.
The effect of situating God on the side of vulnerability and unjust suffering is not, of course, to glorify suffering and misery, but to prophetically protest it, to give divine depth and meaning to resistance to unjust suffering, to attach the coefficient of divine resistance to unjust suffering...The call, the cry, the plaint that rises up from the cross is a great divine "no" to injustice, an infinite lamentation over unjust suffering and innocent victims. God is with Jesus on the cross, and in standing with Jesus rather than with the imperial power of Rome, God stands with an innocent persecuted for calling the powers that be to task. The name of God is the name of a divine "no" to persecution, violence, and victimization...

On this scheme...the transcendence of "God" does not mean God towers above being as a hyper-being. Rather, God pitches his tent among beings by identifying with everything the world casts out and leaves behind...God withdraws from the world's order of presence, prestige, and sovereignty in order to settle into those pockets of protest and contradiction to the world. God belongs to the air, to the call, to the spirit that inspires and aspires, that breathes justice. God settles into the recesses formed in the world by the little ones, the nothings and nobodies of the world.
To be clear, before going on, I don't think every progressive Christian has worked out the logic of the cross to this sort of conclusion. Nor do I think every progressive Christian would agree with pushing the logic of the cross to Caputo's conclusion.1

But I do think many progressive Christians already agree with this sort of conclusion or, at the very least, operate as if this conclusion were, in fact, the case. Progressive Christians tend to be highly skeptical about the use of power, even from the Deity. Also, given their general worries about robust metaphysical accounts, many progressive Christians don't make appeals to God's power, asking God to do this or that in the cosmos. Most progressive Christians see God in terms of solidarity and love. God is with us in love. And we are called to live as the Imago Dei, standing with each other in love, particularly with the weak and outcast. As Caputo writes,
God chose the "outsiders," the people deprived of power, wealth, education, high birth, high culture. Theirs is a "royalty" of outcasts, so that, from the point of view of the aion, the age or the world, the word kingdom is being used ironically, almost mockingly, to refer to these pockets of the despised that infect and infest the world. For this is a kingdom of the low-down and lowborn, the "excluded," the very people who are precisely the victims of the world's power.
In short, most progressive Christians are relating to God, thinking about God, and living as if the metaphysical account described above is the case. So all we are doing is making explicit what has been largely implicit within progressive Christianity.

And with that understanding in hand we can now circle back to the warfare theology articulated by Boyd in God at War.

Again, we've seen in Boyd how we need a weak God to go to war. That's the only way to extract God from complicity in evil. Evil has to be outside of God's control, an independent force or power outside of God's own. Boyd achieves this limitation of God's power with an appeal to the free will of angelic and human beings. But we've rejected this as an option (at least for many progressive Christians). But we aren't stuck because we have another way to get to the same conclusion: we can posit more directly the weakness of God.

Theologically, this gets us what Boyd was after--a weaker God--without positing 1) the existence of angelic beings and 2) that these beings have free will. 

In short, progressive Christians can get the warfare theology they want by simply making explicit their views regarding the weakness of God. This is the connection between God at War and The Weakness of God. As Boyd argues, a warfare theology assumes a plurality of forces in the world in combat with each other. A weak view of God assumes this plurality, that in the world there are a variety of forces often working at cross-purposes. Among these forces is the "weak force of God," the force of love. And insofar as love abides and "rules" then the Kingdom of God is instantiated. Christ is made "King" and "Lord."

And insofar as love is overthrown by force then the Kingdom of Satan holds sway.

Waging spiritual warfare, then, is using the tools of Jesus (love, servanthood, self-giving) to establish and expand the Kingdom of God in the face of competing, hostile and evil forces. Spiritual warfare is "binding the strong man" in order to inaugurate, on earth, the Kingdom of Heaven.


And yet, other questions remain as this view of the weakness of God challenges traditional views of God's power, particularly the displays of God's power at the start (Creation) and at the end (New Creation) of the biblical narrative. Those two events--creation and new creation--seem to involve a lot of power. How are we to think about those events in light of the weakness of God?

The theological detour continues. More to come.

Part 6

1. Because Caputo does go quite a bit beyond a theology of the cross. In The Weakness of God Caputo argues that the category of "being" doesn't apply to God. Caputo argues that God is an event rather than a being.

On Warfare and Weakness: Interlude, Weekend With Greg Boyd

Some of you have wanted Greg Boyd to take notice of this series. While I'm not on Twitter I get incoming links and can follow them back. Today Greg sent out a few tweets about this series.

So a head's up about that if you'd like to engage Greg on Twitter about this series. And thank you Greg for the social media attention.

Social media attention always brings in people who are unfamiliar with you or you blogging culture. Today I posted the following to a commenter who felt that my analysis of God at War was "shallow and superficial." Good grief. As a part of my response I wrote this:
And let me end with this by way of extending an olive branch.

Caputo's theology of weakness does bother me. I'm not totally on board. And if you are new to this blog you might not get me or the sort of blog this is. So being new, let me introduce you to the way things work around here. I'm just thinking out loud, seeing if Caputo (as problematic as he is) can--against all odds, which is the intellectual challenge in all this--connect with Boyd (as problematic as he is). And if you're not interested in thinking experimentally and hypothetically, if you aren't interested in pondering through a line of argument, to see how it looks and how it goes, then this really isn't a blog for you.

And there is more. I don't disagree with Boyd's vision in God at War as much as feel the need to create a bigger tent for his theology of revolt. This isn't an either/or in my mind. (Though it may be for you. You may feel the burning need to sort things into "right" and "wrong.") Because I have no problem with anyone positing angels and demons. This isn't an attempt to refute Boyd but a means to broaden the theological scope of his book. That might be foolish or impossible, but it can't be taken as anything other than the deepest compliment I could give a fellow academic.

Greg Boyd has made me think. So has John Caputo. And I am thinking. Enjoy the ride. Or not. 
I repost this here to underline that my goal in this series isn't to refute a literal belief in angels or demons. My goal is to broaden the appeal of God at War to Christians who struggle with these beliefs.

As a part of Greg's Twitter response this was a follow up Tweet he sent out:
Since I'm not on Twitter I'd like to say something about this here.

Really? Greg, you really don't get this?

Because where I sit the empathic, perspective-taking and imaginative capacities to get this aren't all that significant. For example, I can perfectly well imagine why somebody does believe in literal angels and demons. And I can perfectly well imagine why someone struggles with this belief. And I can perfectly well imagine why some people seem on the fence.

That is, I find it remarkable that someone couldn't imagine why this sort of belief is just a wee bit of struggle for many modern Christians.

But the thing is, I think Greg can imagine it. I think his disbelief in the Tweet is hyperbolic. He's pushing against the default metaphysical assumptions of modernity. And I get that. That's a battle worth fighting.

So let me repeat what I said in the comment above. This isn't an either/or for me. My goal in this series isn't to refute the belief in literal angels or demons but to create a bigger tent for Boyd's theology of revolt. Because like I'll argue in the last post of this series, getting Jesus right means getting his battle right. And I think God at War is a good articulation of that battle. True, while I'm more progressive than Greg, we both share a love of the Christus Victor paradigm. Can't I try to build a bridge between us?

And on a final note, Greg also Tweeted about this label "progressive":
For what it's worth, here are my definitions for the purposes of this series.

Progressive Christianity is the popular expression of liberal theology (e.g., Bultmann, Tillich). Emergent Christianity is an ecclesiology of progressive Christianity as an off-shoot of Evangelical Christianity (which is why emergents generally have the same theology as mainliners but usually start with Evangelical, rather than mainline, forms of church expression).

Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 46, The Confession of Public and Private Sins

In Chapter 46 of The Rule of St. Benedict there is an interesting distinction between the confession of public and private sins. If a monk commits a public sin--"If someone commits a fault while at work"--there must be a public display of confession--"he must at once come before the abbot and community of his own accord and admit his fault".

But this changes for private sins:
5When the cause of the sin lies hidden in his conscience, he is to reveal it only to the abbot or to one of the spiritual elders, 6who know how to heal their own wounds as well as those of others, without exposing them and making them public.
What is interesting to me is how this seems reversed in many churches. Many public sins are rarely acknowledged while most of our public "confessions" and "testimonies" have to deal with private sins. For example, someone might get up and confess sins of addiction, to drugs or pornography. According to Benedict those sorts of sins should be confessed privately.

What's going with all this?

It seems that for Benedict public confession and repentance is inherently a communal and relational activity. Public confession is about a rip in the communal fabric and the attempt to mend that tear. Public confession is less about airing your dirty laundry than about being reconciled to your sisters and brothers.

Thus I wonder if our public confessions of private sins isn't symptomatic of something wrong in how we approach church. Church is just a group of disconnected individuals each on private moral journey. Public confession in this instance is just an update on my particular moral journey, and really doesn't have a whole lot to do with you and our relationship. Confession as we tend to practice it is not about the fabric of our relationships and the mending of that fabric. Largely because that fabric doesn't exist.

On Warfare and Weakness: Part 4, To Go To War We Need a Weaker God

I have argued over the last two posts that progressive Christianity needs to recover a theology of revolt--a theology of spiritual warfare--as described in books like Greg Boyd's God at War.

However, in the last post we noted two issues about God at War that might make it problematic for progressive Christians.

First, progressives will need a way to think about spiritual warfare that doesn't require a belief in literal angels and demons. And please note that I used the word require. If a person has no problem with the vision of spiritual warfare presented by Boyd in God at War then no translational work is necessary. But given that a lot of progressive Christians are liberal theologically, my hunch is that many aren't going to be able to accept Boyd's account as it stands. Progressives will need another way to envision spiritual warfare. But as I've said, I think this "translation" is fairly straightforward as a lot of work has already been done in this area by thinkers like Walter Wink and William Stringfellow.

The second and more difficult question that comes from God at War has to do with the origins of evil. In day to day life a theology of revolt takes evil as a given and joins God in waging battle against these manifestations of evil. Evil, in this view, is wholly opposed and antagonistic to God. Evil plays no part, no part whatsoever, in God's providential plans. Evil is never willed by God.

Such a view tends toward dualism, where the forces of good and evil are viewed as locked in eternal combat. In practice, the warfare worldview is very dualistic. But there are some theological tensions we need to wrestle with as Christians don't espouse dualism. Christians believe God created the world and that it was good. Good pre-dates evil and evil is not co-eternal with God. More, given God's omnipotence evil is not a real rival or equal to God. And God will eventually defeat evil. But if all that is the case, where did evil come from? And why is an omnipotent God reduced to fighting much weaker spiritual forces?

The point here is that, while I think the warfare viewpoint works as a day to day theology of revolt, it stands upon a shaky theological foundation. So for this warfare theology of revolt to work we are going to need some decent answers to these foundational questions. To be sure, these foundational questions aren't really practical, the answers here aren't going to help you be a better person or Christian. But the questions and answers here do provide the theological framework that will support and inform the praxis of spiritual warfare. That is, in battling evil in the world I don't need, in the moment of crisis, a deep theological account of the origins of evil. All I need to know is that evil exists, right here, right now, right in front of me. And facing that evil I engage in spiritual combat (as we will come to describe it). That's all we really need to know, most of the time, to make a theology of revolt work. Evil is a given and so we fight it. We see oppression, we resist it. We see violence, we bring peace. We stand by a grave, we weep and rage. That is all that is required of us in this fight. So don't theologize, fight!

But later, in more reflective moments, we may ask questions about how evil got here in the first place. And why evil is so hard to eradicate. And why it seems that evil is often winning. Answers to such questions aren't really all that practical, but they do provide a theological foundation for practice.

For Boyd, the answer to these questions regarding the origins of evil is given by describing a pre-historical angelic fall, a fall that did not originate with God as these angelic beings--Satan the foremost among them--were exercising their free will. As Boyd argues in God at War this view, if taken as correct, seems to answer many of the questions posed by a warfare worldview.

You might find Boyd's answers to be persuasive. Or you might not. But for our purposes, it really doesn't matter. If we aren't going to be assuming the literal existence of angelic and demonic beings (although you can, that's cool), we aren't going to have recourse to the free will argument that Boyd makes for the origins of evil and spiritual warfare in the world.

And so, before we turn to the praxis of spiritual warfare (and the work of people like Wink and Stringfellow), we need to take a theological detour to address some of these foundational questions. But let me be clear. The vision of spiritual warfare, the theology of revolt, is where the excitement and popular appeal is to be found. This theological detour we are about to go on for a few posts isn't all that exciting. It's pretty nerdy and, thus, won't be appealing or necessary for many people. But insofar as it is necessary for certain individuals, we have to take this detour.

Besides, if you've read this far into the series you are most definitely a nerd. So let's keep going. Theological detour ahead.

Here is the big thing we need to wrestle with. The root theological issue at the heart of the warfare worldview is why the world is so out of control. To make the warfare worldview work evil has to be renegade, a wild, untamed, and free force in the world. How did this renegade force come to exist and why does God allow it to continue?

Again, Boyd answers these questions by an appeal to the free will of angelic beings. According to Boyd, free will allows evil to be renegade in the cosmos and in our world.

So that's Boyd's answer to the question, but I'd like to focus less on Boyd's answer and go back to the fundamental question he's trying to answer: Why is the world so out of control?

In short, the critical issue that needs to be resolved isn't the issue of free will. The critical issue that needs to be resolved is God's lack of control. The critical issue isn't about free will or the literal existence of angelic beings. The critical issue has to do with God's power and its limitations.

Specifically, a warfare theology is rooted in the premise that God isn't wholly in control of the world. A warfare theology presupposes that there are things that happen that God doesn't will, that there are things that happen that are wholly opposed to God's will, that there are things that happen that God would like to stop but doesn't stop or can't stop and that there are things that happen that are outside of God's providential control.

In short, for the warfare theology to work there needs to be limitations on God's power.

For Boyd, free will is what sets those limitations. Because of free will God's power is not absolute. Nor is God's knowledge of the future. And this is what drives some Calvinists crazy about Boyd's work with openness theology, that it sets limitations on God's ultimate sovereignty. That debate--between the Calvinists and openness theologians--need not concern us here. What does concern us is how Boyd's appeal to free will is, at a deeper level, an attempt to limit God's power in the world.

That limiting God's power/control/influence in the world is the underlying issue in God at War is made clear by Boyd throughout the book. For example,
[The warfare] thesis requires a willingness to think about the power of God, the reality of evil and the influence of Satan in some rather untraditional ways.
Christian orthodoxy, of course, has always taught that God is omnipotent, and for good reason. Scripture is unequivocal on this point. But the question that needs to be asked is this: Does the omnipotence necessarily entail that God is all-controlling, as the classical-philosophical tradition after Augustine has been inclined to assume? Does affirming that God is omnipotent commit one to the view that a good divine purpose lies behind all particular events...?
This central scriptural theme...presupposes that evil exits for God as well as humans, that God does not will it, and thus that some beings (those who are evil) have the ability to act against God's will. It requires the understanding that it is possible for some beings (angels and humans at least) genuinely to resist, and even to thwart, whatever blueprint God might wish their lives to follow. It requires accepting the view that God, for whatever reasons, designed the cosmos such that he does not necessarily always get his way, and may, in fact detest the way some things are turning out. It requires the view that God does not monopolize power, and hence that omnipotence cannot be equated with meticulous omnicontrol.
[I]n contrast to the later church, neither Jesus nor his disciples seemed to understand God's absolute power as absolute control.
In summary, for the warfare theology to work we need a God who is less powerful. I disagree with Boyd on how he makes that happen1 (i.e., by positing free will), but I agree with him at a more fundamental level:

If we are going to create a theology to support spiritual warfare we need to wholly extract God from the experience of evil in the world. And the only way to do that is to see God as less powerful in the world. And while we might debate why God lacks control, at the end of the day spiritual warfare only makes sense if we have a less powerful God than the one we've typically assumed.

It's as simple as this: To go to war we need a weaker God.

Part 5

1. Ultimately, I think Boyd's appeal to free will breaks down. Basically, for the free will argument to work you have to make an additional assumption: that God has chosen to unilaterally respect free will, that God has chosen to never, ever, no matter what, override the free will of an angelic or human agent. But that assumption raises a host of questions. First, we have biblical evidence that God "hardens hearts." And if that is so, why would God not, from time to time, harden angelic or human hearts to prevent horrible pain and suffering? Second, God can protect humans while respecting the free will of human or angelic beings. God could block these beings or simply banish them to another realm. For example, I can tackle, restrain or lock up anyone trying to do harm to others. And these protective efforts of mine don't violate the free will of the perpetrator. The point being, I don't think an appeal to free will gets the job done.

On Warfare and Weakness: Part 3, About Those Angels and Demons...

In Part 2 I argued that a warfare worldview--a theology of revolt against evil--is a vision that can infuse progressive Christianity with energy, excitement and popular appeal. A great depiction of this warfare worldview is found in Greg Boyd's book God at War.

And yet, progressive and liberal Christians are going to have a lot of questions and objections about God at War. The vision of a battle against all the manifestations of evil is exciting, but some issues need to be resolved if the warfare worldview of God at War is going to be palatable to progressive Christians.

These questions swirl around how Boyd tries to explain the origins of evil. Again, in the warfare worldview creation, at a deep structural level, is in revolt, warring against God. God isn't controlling everything. The situation is more chaotic, unpredictable, fluid and free. The vision here flirts with dualism, something that Boyd wrestles with and we'll have to wrestle with. And yet, the benefits of shifting toward this dualism is that evil is fully extracted from the actions and character of God. God is no longer seen as the ultimate cause of evil. God is that which opposes, resists and fight evil. That is something I think progressive Christians can get on board with. Death? God is waging war against that. Disease? God is waging war against that. Injustice? God is waging war against that.

Again, God is that which opposes, resists and fights evil.

And yet, this shift toward dualism--good against evil--creates some theological pressures given the belief that God created the world.

Basically, how did this warfare come about?

According to Boyd, the origin of evil is to be found in the rebellion of angelic beings exercising their free will. Creation is structurally corrupted and infected because there was an angelic fall from grace, a fall the pre-dated human history.

Theologically, the benefit of that view--an angelic fall that corrupted and now oppresses the world--is that it draws a bright line between God and the forces of evil waging war against God. The practical upshot of this theological move is that it sets up a theology of revolt for the church. When we walk out the door we will encounter evil--deaths, diseases, injustices. This is a given. And God is whatever is opposed and in opposition to that evil. Simple as that. So to join the fight you join in the Kingdom of God, you join up with the resistance movement to fight and rage against evil in all its satanic manifestations.

And yet, in order to pull off this vision of warfare you have to accept some things that progressive and liberal Christans might be uncomfortable with. Specifically, you have to accept the literal existence of supernatural creatures--demonic and angelic beings.

If you struggle, as I think many progressive Christians do, with belief in the existence of angelic beings constantly interacting with our world, God at War can be tough to swallow. The theology of revolt is exciting and energizing, but it rests upon some metaphysical assumptions that many will find difficult to accept.

But I don't think this is going to be too much of a problem. I think--if we rely on the work of people like Walter Wink and William Stringfellow--that we can recast the theology of revolt in more acceptable terms. My ruminations about the demonic and the principalities and powers on this blog have been forays in this direction. And rather than repeat all that material here in this post, if you are wholly unfamiliar with the work of Wink, Stringfellow and Yoder regarding the Powers, start with this post and click through each post in my series "Notes on Demons and the Powers" (which can also be found on the sidebar). In fact, my post last week "On Anarchism and Assholes" is a pretty good one-post summary of how Wink helps us think about the Powers.

So going forward in this series I'm going to assume that when I talk about demons, satan or the Powers that you and I have this body of ideas in mind. So if you need to catch up, read those posts and keep following along in this series.

No doubt that Boyd is going to disagree with this move (i.e., Wink, Stringfellow et al.) and strenuously object. He's aware and appreciative of Wink's work, but Boyd ultimately rejects Wink's attempt to describe, for example, the demonic as the "interiority" and "spirituality" of power arrangements. Yet that's the direction we'll be going. This move should help rehabilitate God at War for liberals and progressives. And while I think Boyd is going to hate this move, I think God at War is too interesting and exciting to be left on the shelf by progressive Christians.

The point being, I think we can use people like Wink and Stringfellow to retain a robust theology of the demonic and the satanic in order to create a theology of revolt acceptable to progressive Christians.

So that part seems easily done. At the end of this series we'll talk more specifically about spiritual warfare, a vision that will be greatly informed by Boyd's exegesis in God at War but theologically recast by the work of Wink and Stringfellow. If you are a regular reader you likely know how all that will look.

But before we get there, with a vision of spiritual warfare for progressive Christians, we need to lay some theological groundwork. Before we get practical we need to step back and wrestle with the big question: Where did evil come from in the first place? And why is God not stopping it? 

In the next few posts we'll start trying to answer those questions.

Part 4

On Warfare and Weakness: Part 2, A Theology of Revolt

I argued in Part 1 that if progressive Christianity is to have broad appeal it needs to help people see that they are in a real fight. And I think Greg Boyd's book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict is a great book to help us describe this fight.

To be sure, there are many things in God at War that will make theological progressives and liberals squirm. We'll get to those issues in the next post and try to address them when we turn toward John Caputo's book The Weakness of God. But for now, in this post, we simply want to get a taste of the "warfare worldview" described by Boyd in God at War.

At its heart God at War is a theodicy, an attempt to explain evil in the world. This is important for a progressive to keep in mind when reading the book. Throughout the book Boyd argues for the literal existence of spiritual agents like angels and demons. And again, that might be hard for many progressives to swallow. More on that in the next and coming posts. But the heart of God at War is focused on the problem of evil and how the Kingdom of God is to stand with God in opposition to evil.

A key biblical observation for Boyd is that the problem of evil wasn't a problem for the OT and NT writers. Evil wasn't a theological conundrum. Evil wasn't an intellectual puzzle. Evil was a given, it was taken for granted. Evil was expected, and its existence didn't cause a theological crisis.

That's a stark contrast with our time where evil is the number one theological problem many of use face and wrestle with. So what's the difference between then and now?

According to Boyd, the difference is due to changes in theological worldview. Specifically, there has been a shift away from the warfare worldview of the bible to what Boyd calls the classical-philosophical worldview. According to the warfare worldview of the OT and NT life is experienced as a battle between the good and evil. Much of creation is in revolt, rebelling against the rule of God. Given that perspective, evil is an expected and regular feature of the world. We encounter evil all the time, from moral evil to evil within the created order as seen in disease and death. And given this warfare view--that evil is to be expected--the encounter with evil doesn't create a theological problem for the biblical writers.

By contrast, the existence of evil is a dumbfounding question within the classical-philosophical worldview. This worldview was created in the fusion of Christian theology with Greek categories of thought, where God was defined by categories like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. In light of these Greek categories the problem of evil becomes a real theological puzzle as God is assumed to exercise what Boyd calls "omnicontrol." In the classical-philosophical worldview, where God is believed to be providentially in control of every event, the existence of evil is a real theological problem. God, in this worldview, seems to be the origin, creator and source of evil. Or, at the very least, God uses evil for some higher, providential purpose. Consequently, rather than raging or revolting against evil Christians peer into the tea leaves of tragedy trying to discern "God's plan" for all the pain we are suffering.

But in the warfare worldview there is only rage, resistance, and revolt in the face of pain and suffering. According to the warfare worldview, there is nothing good in the death of a child or a cancer diagnosis. To try to discern "God's plan" in such things gets God very, very wrong.

My hunch is that progressives will thrill to that notion.

Here is Boyd making these contrasts:
In a nutshell, the way in which classical-philosophical Christian theists have approached the problem of evil has generally been to frame evil as a problem of God's providence and thus of God's character. Assuming (rightly) that God is perfectly loving and good, and assuming (wrongly, I hold) that divine omnipotence entails meticulous control, the problem of evil has been formulated within the classical-philosophical theistic tradition as the problem of locating a loving and good purpose behind evil events. [This] represents an impossible task, and hence the problem of evil becomes simply unsolvable within the framework.

By contrast, the warfare worldview is predicated on the assumption that divine goodness does not completely control or in any way will evil; rather, good and evil are at war with one another. This assumption obviously entails that God is not now exercising exhaustive, meticulous control over the world...

In other words, a warfare worldview is inherently pluralistic. There is no single, all-determinative divine will that coercively steers all things, and hence there is here no supposition that evil agents and events have a secret motive behind them. Hence too, one need not agonize over what ultimately good, transcendent divine purpose might be served by any particular evil event.

If the world is indeed caught up in the middle of a real war between good and evil forces, evil is to be expected--including evil that serves no higher end...Only when it is assumed that the world is meticulously controlled by an all-loving God does each particular evil event need a higher, all-loving explanation...
According to Boyd, the great benefit of adopting the warfare worldview is that it creates a posture of revolt and resistance in the face of evil. Evil is simply evil and it is always opposed to God and God's plans. Consequently, the stance of the Christian toward evil is uncompromising hostility and aggression. Evil isn't to be puzzled over. Evil is to be fought and raged against. We are at war.

Boyd describing this:
Once the intelligibility of the war itself is accepted, no other particular evils require explanation. Hence Scripture gives none. This shift away from the classical-philosophical monistic perspective is empowering in terms of confronting evil...Put succinctly, the classical-philosophical assumption that a mysterious, loving, sovereign, divine plan lies behind even evil events in our world encourages an approach to evil that defines it as an intellectual problem to be solved rather than a spiritual opponent to be overcome. If evil is believed to serve a higher purpose, then clearly one's sense of urgency in fighting it is compromised, while one's ability to render it intelligible is diminished...[T]he New Testament exhibits a church that is not intellectually baffled by evil but is more spiritually empowered in vanquishing it, [by contrast] the Western tradition has more frequently exhibited a church that is perpetually baffled by evil but significantly ineffective in and largely apathetic toward combating it.

Within a warfare worldview, however, particular evils are their own ultimate explanation: they flow from the wills of creatures, hence there need be no higher "good" divine reason for their occurring. Thus evil must be understood as being what God is unequivocally against, and thus what God's people must also be unequivocally against. Whereas the classical-philosophical theology of sovereignty encourages a theology of resignation, a theology rooted in a warfare worldview inspires, and requires, a theology of revolt: revolt against all that God revolts against.
Here, with this theology of revolt, is where I think we'll find our real fight mentioned in Part 1. The heart of this idea is that evil is wholly antagonistic to God, is not willed by and has no part of God. God is unequivocally against all forms of evil--from death to disease to violence to oppression--and, thus, God's people must also be unequivocally against these evils. Death is never good. Suffering is never good. Violence is never good. Evil is simply evil. And God's only plan for evil is its ultimate eradication.

This is what I think progressive Christians need: A theology of revolt. Evil, in my estimation, sits at the heart of the liberal theological experience. There is a sense that something is very, very wrong with the world. At deep, structural levels we sense that the world is broken and hostile to goodness.

As so we rage. By gravesides. By hospital beds. By the side of victims of all sorts. The world is a broken, heartless and shitty place. And so we rage.

The point being, I think progressive Christians are itching for a fight. They don't need to give up God for Lent or have church in bars. Though those are great things. What I think progressive Christianity needs is a biblically grounded theology of revolt, a theology to focus, articulate and motivate the fight many are already fighting.

So we start with this: A theology of revolt. We need to see our rage reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus. We need to use our rage as fuel for activism in the Kingdom of God rather than as firewood for doubt, cynicism and ironic distance. We need a rallying cry. We need a real fight. And I think we have one.

And yet, if you are a progressive Christian you likely have a few questions and objections about the warfare worldview in God at War. We'll turn to those questions in the next post.

Part 3