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

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11 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 3, About Those Angels and Demons...”

  1. I think for the purposes of interacting with Boyd's work "supernatural creatures--demonic and angelic beings" refers to, in a quick sketch: 1) non-corporal beings 2) with mental faculties like volition, memory, and selfhood 3) that regularly have causal effects upon this world 4) and who are, for some reason (in the case of demons), antagonistic to human flourishing and willfully seek to disrupt it.

    The assumption I'm working with in this series is that many people have trouble positing the existence of such beings. For those who believe in such beings they don't need any translational work and can accept Boyd's approach straightforwardly. Which is perfectly fine. I'm writing for those who have difficulty with being in literal angels and demons.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. The inclusion of #3 and #4 makes sense to me as making the whole package a challenge to accept; I think I often hear the denial of only #1 and #2, which seems less self-evident.

  3. This all makes a lot of sense to me, and it correlates well with the excellent book by John Swinton (Raging with Compassion) which pitches lamenting as the more faith-filled alternative to theodicy.

    I think another complication is the question of what all gets included in evil, and this can paradoxically (but admittedly not with any easy clarity) mitigate the problem of dualism somewhat. One way into this aspect are the Biblical examples of God being implicated in evil (hardening Pharaoh's heart, sending evil spirits, etc.) and, of course, creating a world/ecosystem which necessitates death. One could say that Boyd's view requires not only a little Wink but a little Jung as well. Can we still passionately fight evil while also (like the philosophical view) seeing there is some necessary good in evil too? Even this whole blog series seems to assume that evil is valuable in creating the whole need to create a passionate purpose. Yet, at the same time, I would want to think that there may well be some really evil evil (absolute negation?) about which this is not true.

  4. Richard,

    Thanks so much for this series, and the link to your previous posts on Demons and Powers. I came to your blog through the fellows at Beyond the Box Podcast, and have been fascinated with all of the connections I find to Becker, Girard, Hardin, which all represent angles I've been in pursuit of in my peacemaking & reconciliation PhD studies. I've since read Unclean, and look forward to your next book!

    I wanted to ask you three things: 1) which of Stringfellow's works are you specifically referencing in Part 9 of the Demons and Powers series? (I'm acquainted with Wink and Yoder, but this is my first exposure to Stringfellow.); 2) have you written anything previously that linked Wink, Yoder and/or Stringfellow's works on principalities and powers from a theological perspective with Zimbardo's "Lucifer effect"?; 3) what awareness do you have of Wilfred Bion/Tavistock Institute, and their work on group dynamics, specifically associated with the idea that the primary task of any group is survival, and the "basic assumptions" (combined hidden agendas) contributing to conflict in a group?

    I'm in a course currently on "Conflict Management in Groups: the Overt and Covert Dynamics" (which is based on Bion/Tavistock Institute principles), and I'm considering doing a paper that would tie together some of the ideas you've been sharing here and in the Demons/Powers series with Bion, Zimbardo, Stringfellow, etc. So I'd be interested in any summary thoughts you might like to offer, or direction you'd encourage me to pursue. A tall order, but nevertheless, I'd appreciate your time and input!

  5. Hi Ron,

    1) Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, that's his go-to book on the Powers.

    2) Nothing else. That CSC paper is the only thing I've written that makes that direct connection with the Lucifer effect.

    3) I'm unfamiliar with the Wilfred Bion/Tavistock Institute. While I know some basics about social psychology I don't know a lot about group dynamics or group conflict and little about conflict resolution overall. Sorry I can't be of more help with that, but it does leave the area wide open to explore!

  6. Thanks for the quick reply! I'll start reading Stringfellow with An Ethic..., re-read the CSC paper (which I've already referenced is some of the discussion we're having for the class), and see where it takes me!

    Just read the entry for Stringfellow on Wikipedia... fascinating... with links to Barth and Ellul, and the fact that he was a lay theologian, I'm intrigued and will explore more. And now I notice that you've blogged extensively about him, so I have some catching up to do.

  7. At the risk of sounding simple, why must rebellion through free will begin with angelic beings? What is the necessity accept for ones belief in the supernatural world and the desire to see it as a good place to start? After all, the Psalmist says that we mortals are a little less than God (RSV), so with the glory that God has placed on humanity's creation why would that not be the crowning of CHOICE?

    Paul said "What can be known about God is plain...because God has shown it...since the creation of the world God's eternal power and divine nature have been seen and understood though the things God has made". This is not a Christian doctrine Per se, but ancient wisdom, full and mature. If we, in our self awareness can see God through creation, we then are asked to choose.

    I am looking forward to your future posts.

  8. Having not read Boyd's book myself, I'm not sure if this is right, but from what you've written about it I'm not sure he actually describes the "origins" of evil. What he's said is functionally identical to appealing to human free will as the origin of evil, which--and I think you agree--is a nonstarter. Seeing darkness and hearing silence indeed.

  9. "...lamenting as the more faith-filled alternative to theodicy."
    Walter, would you please elaborate on this: If not lamenting, then...(?)

  10. Swinton suggests that theodicy could well be a form of idolatry, trusting in the god of reason to be able to solve or at least understand an unsolvable mystery. Lament is a better option since it is an honest expression of our pain and frustration as we cry out in faith that God will answer. It relationally fights through the season of not knowing rather than either giving up or philosophically justifying (pretending we understand) the reasons for our suffering.

  11. Thanks, Walt. That's very helpful. I just went through a similar 'shift' to lament after caring for my Mom until she passed. This relates to that, too, I think. Again, thanks!

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