an experiment in blogging as intellectual discipline and spiritual practice

Month: February, 2015

what is the opposite of hierarchy?

the term “hierarchy” has developed a negative connotation in the modern world, particularly among the intelligentia. it has become associated with sanctified systems of oppression and violence in need of deconstruction and dismantlement by various forms of “critique” (feminist, womanist, liberationist, queer, environmentalist, communist, postcolonial, etc and so forth). it is the enemy, accordingly, of democracy and egalitarianism, which would stand — presumably — as its ideological opposites. as a matter of activity, hierarchy is opposed by rebellion and resistance, populist movements of various sorts, diverse forms of nonconformity that call into question the dominance of the sacralized symbol system. hierarchies thus do not fare well in the modern world, but rather are persistently pulled down into the complex chaos of modern life and the bewildering Babel of popular culture

yet of itself, “hierarchy” is “sacred order:” hierarchy is each rank and each individual pouring out on behalf of the uplifting of those beneath it and entrusted to it. it is the common project of each lifting up all as far as is possible for the betterment of the whole, to participation in the very life of God, which is an abundant life and and infinite freedom. accordingly, a bad hierarchy is not properly hierarchy at all: it undermines the principle of its authority, and erodes the quality and the capacity of the eschatological (or at least teleological) reality it symbolizes.

given the dehumanizing pressures of the modern world, it is understandable and forgivable that we would be drawn towards various sorts of “resistance movements.”  but let this resistance be specific in its critique, calling to account those hierophants that have distorted or abandoned their function to the detriment of all. or else let them vision forth a better hierarchy, if the existing arrangements are inevitably corrosive and inherently destructive. but let us revere the sanctity of hierarchy — in principle, if not in fact. indeed, if we must destroy the so-called “hierarchies”  — the corrupt and controlling structures of domination and destruction (as well we may!) let us do so for the sake of Hierarchy, for the true sacred order that has been distorted under terrible and habitual, traditionalized and institutionalized abuses of power.

the opposite of “hierarchy’ as sacred order is profane chaos. it is destruction and the abyss. it is “egalitarian,” perhaps, but only because everything is nothing. it is “democratic,” but only because kratos has annihilated, and all have a share in powerlessness. it is “freedom,” but only as the freedom of death, as those who are dead who are free from the law.

there is certainly virtue in democracy when it aligns the kratos of the demos with the sacred arche. but democracy set in ontological opposition to hierarchy goes beyond this: it is not democracy but demonocracy. kratos has been ceded, not to the deme but to the demons — those forces set up against goodness itself, desiring to kill and steal, divide and destroy. under their sway, our well-meaning warfare against corrupt orders and corrupt powers subtly transmutes into a warfare against what is sacred, and ultimately against being itself.

a right view of the sacred orders, then, is essential: not just in defense of a status quo, or in interest of the nostalgic resurrection of some ancient system, but in every moment of political actualization. all true revolutionaries are prophets: they have beheld an interior reality mediated by the unseen hierarchies which they strive to bring into being with every fiber of their person. the true prophets have beheld those symbols that correspond to the true alignment of the interior and exterior; jacob’s ladder, joining heaven and earth. others are false prophets – mislead by the demons into fantasies which dismantle sacred symbols in interest of confusion. others are anti-christ, and deceptively employ the sacred symbols and holy, God-given longings for the destruction of the very realities that these longings were meant to correspond to.

if we are not consumed by the holy longing of the saints, may we at least attain to their vision, which is the birthplace of every good and holy thought.

is spiritual warfare a dead metaphor?

a superb essay by E Janet Warren in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology prompts us to ask this question. the essay is both well-argued and well-written, and is one that anyone who is prone to use the phrase ought to consider carefully. unfortunate that her voice was not included in the conversation that Beilby and Eddy curated, of which i have been making a systematic study. but given they were published the same year (2012), it is unlikely they had time to interact with one another.

it will be interesting to see how and the extent to which Warren’s insight will trickle down into pentecostal practice and conversation. my intuition is that pentecostalism as a tradition is especially unresponsive to academic trends – which can be helpful in some instances (academic theology has caused a number of problems in the last century) — but is in this case quite unfortunate, as Warren is addressing an important imbalance in patterns of charismatic thought.

i am sympathetic to a number of elements of Warren’s argument, although i think it might be a little hasty to follow her conclusion. (she does indeed rule the metaphor dead.) she points out that spiritual warfare language can be problematic on several levels:

  1. it has been so frequently invoked that it is in danger of becoming merely conventional
  2. it favors some Biblical passages (actually, just one — Eph 6:10-17) over others, and makes that passage the lens through which the whole phenomenon of demonic activity is understood
  3. it favors one Biblical image over others, making “warfare” the interpretive key to the Scriptures
  4. it is highly prone to dualism, and makes the demons appear much stronger than they actually are
  5. it has problematic psycho-social implications as violence-favoring language
  6. it has limited appeal as a model – ie, it would not be very effective to use with someone with anger issues, it tends to be less effective with women and children (particularly if they have experienced violence), etc.

given these difficulties, Warren suggests, attention should be given to developing and promoting other images alongside (if not in place of) the warfare model. she develops a robust list of alternatives:

  • the “purity / impurity” model, with “healing” or “cleansing” as the operative term for deliverance from evil spirits
  • the “boundaries and space” model, which separates good from evil and assigns each its proper place
  • the “authority” model, where the spiritual “warrior” is portrayed as a “parent” or “shepherd” with non-military authority to protect their charge from evil influences
  • the “light / dark” model, where the christian is called out of darkness and into light

in passing, she also mentions metaphors of clothing, metaphors of the body, and metaphors of astrophysics. i find this to be an excellent list, and in my own reflections, i realize that i came to appropriate the term “spiritual warfare” only after having developed a more robust picture of evil through these other trajectories.

the heart of Warren’s essay is a lengthy excursus into the nature of metaphor, lamenting the lack of discussion of metaphor theory in the spiritual warfare literature. Warren intimates (but does not directly say) that there is a problem of overliteralism in the charismatic imagination: believers resist describing any aspect of their faith system as “metaphorical” because this would seem (to them) to admit it is something less than “real.” yet, as Warren points out, “metaphorical” does not mean “unreal” — it simply means that we are aware that we are using a term or an image to represent a reality that we recognize is not coextensive with the reality we are describing. indeed, acknowledging that our language is metaphorical prevents us from the error of thinking that the realities we are describing are exhausted by the words we use to describe them.

this discussion was quite helpful for me — i am attracted to these kinds of linguistic arguments, but “metaphor theory” is not a direction i have pursued at all in my research. i have been prone, rather, to think of spiritual warfare on the imaginal plane, where the “imaginal” can be explicitly distinguished from the “imaginary.” coming at the question from this angle, i have been prose to criticize things like slsw as being insufficiently self-conscious about their use of the imagination. this may account for some of the rhetorical force and effectiveness of their movements on the one hand (as “veiled” speech, where the veils make misty allusions to the mechanisms of secular power and history) — on the other, because they are free-playing with public terms, they end up looking quite foolish to outsiders.

in any case, my imaginal studies have prevented me from even seeing the metaphorical possibilities. it is not helpful to describe an imaginal reality as “metaphorical,” since it is perceived; albeit, the mode of perception itself is pliable and even “metaphorical” as interior, rather than exterior sight. (i will have to hammer out this distinction in greater depth.)

still, as Warren herself admits, “spiritual warfare” is “model” more than a “metaphor,” and as such, it is complex and multivalent network of images, symbols, beliefs, and practices. this is why i don’t ultimately think spiritual warfare can be described as a “dead metaphor” – the “warfare” dimension of the term is still actively titillating imaginations, and actively generating and regenerating practices, beliefs and behaviors.

my tendency, accordingly,  has been to want to explicitly extend the model of “spiritual warfare,” rather than challenge or dispose of it. it would take massive amount of intellectual energy to create and propagate an alternative model; it is far easier to add nuance and complexity to a category that exists, is prevalent, and is so gripping to a broad public imagination (for better or for worse). in this respect, the extent to which “spiritual warfare” has become a merely conventional term is quite helpful for me: it means that when i teach on it (as i am planning to in a couple of weeks) i can populate it with Biblical imagery that actually point away from “warfare” and thus undermine the problematic aspects of the term.

Warren’s paper has a number of other limitations: she does not discuss

  1. the apocalyptic context and connotation of “warfare” imagery
  2. the ascetical tradition, which was also strongly “warfare” oriented, but was better balanced with other imagery, and more focused in its psychological application
  3. the broader angelological schema in which spiritual warfare has been historically articulated
  4. theological syntheses drawing on the ascetical tradition to bring “warfare-ish” spiritual practices into harmony with a larger theological system

yet all of these can be summed up as elements of her limited scope speaking to a pentecostal audience standing in a particular “spiritual warfare” trend that has its roots in the 1970s. what i would really like for her to do is explain this google ngram for me:

Spiritual Warfare ngram

the gravity of the flesh

Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, Full of compassion, Long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

our “sin-nature” is rather like gravity: it creates always an inclination of “downward” motion, where for us “downward” is our entanglement in the things of the flesh, obtuseness to the subtler things of the air, and total blindness to the things of God. yet like gravity, of its own, is ambivalent: though a tendency towards evil, it is not itself evil. like gravity, the sin-nature causes many to fall — indeed, as gravity is always the efficient cause of a physical fall (whether a person trips, skydives, or leaps suicidally from a precipice) so the sin-nature is always the efficient cause in sin (to whatever degree our own “volition” is involved in the sin.) for this reason, we might add to the many definitions of the “sin-nature” (which has indeed been described many different ways in many different theologians at many different times) as the “gravity of the flesh.”

this gravity is an omnipresent and unavoidable force, but it is also not necessarily crushing or domineering. it is simply a reality. in the phenomenal world, men have learned to live with gravity: they bury and marry and raise their children, they conduct their business, and amble about safely — indeed, they have even learned to fly — under the relentless pressure of the earth’s downward pull. in the same way, the spiritual life is not impossible while in the body to those who tend to their maturation in it. the only way to be utterly defeated by the force itself is to capitulate to it: to lie on the ground, and make no effort to move because it takes too much effort and too much imagination.

of course, sin is more subtle and more complex than that: the gravity to sin is not the sin, but its efficient cause. those who are incautious towards such efficient causes  reap terrible punishments accordingly. it is not the gravity of the flesh that is to blame, so much as the errors of judgement and will colluding with this divergent force to bring destruction to itself and others. at its (if there can be such a thing) the formal cause and the final cause of sin are the same – that is to say – nothingness, chaos, dissolution, privation; it is “causeless” in these aspects – although by our errors in judgement we import a final cause to the sin that cloaks its nothingness to us and causes us to mistake it for a good. likewise, there is always a proximate formal cause as well – the pursuit of a form that is in fact fantasy, the misattribution of reality onto a mere constellation of chaos.

for this reason, when we succumb to the pressures of the “gravity of the flesh,” we do more injury to ourselves and others than when we fall by physical gravity. falling by the gravity of the flesh necessarily creates a network of illusions to protect us from encountering the true nature of our error.  imagine if our accidents in the physical world opened tiny black holes in addition to any immediate damage! this is a better picture of the terrible omnidestructive potential of sin. our sins are not merely added one to the other as a weight of liability, but they are multiplied, like an infection – and not only in our souls, but throughout humanity.

still, so long as we are alive, there is hope for healing, by the grace of God. the invisible world is somewhat more immediately maleable than the visible — indeed, it is capable of experiencing total conflagration and rebirth, and of being imparted a life that is durable by grace and intertwined with the achievements of Christ and all the angels and saints even as it stretches forward to perfection. this bespeaks the inherent weakness of evil: it is powerless and pitiful even (paradoxically) as it seems all pervasive and omnipotent. as a privation, it is easily dealt with by simply returning one’s gaze to the unchanging Good, and this Good, though hidden from us in its secret essence, and often distorted in our glancing through the deforming haze of sin, has been once-for-all revealed in fullness ever-exceeding fullness, as grace ever summoning onward into grace, in the face of Jesus Christ — a force that at once is more powerful and more irresistible than the blind pull of gravity, and yet also must be fully chosen by those who embrace it.

but even when this vision has been fixedly attained, the gravity of the flesh remains inexorable. it is most inexorable and most cruel in its pulling us toward dissolution. the material of our flesh returns to the chaos from which it was fashioned: ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we should, indeed, meditate upon our death and remember that we were made from dust, and that thence we are bound to return. in the midst, then, of being dust contemplating in its return to dust, we also enjoy the promise by faith that our dust shall be taken up and transfigured yet again in the miracle of new life as resurrected both in Christ and by Christ. this is how death can at once be defeated, and yet still remain to be the last enemy conquered: even in the midst of the hopelessness of our fate spoken, we look forward to the alteration of the laws that have become connatural to us under the dominion of sin, where the gravity of love overwhelms the gravity of the flesh and sin, rather than being as near a law of nature as things falling, becomes the impossible possibility for as captivated as we become with the all-beauteous love of God.

foreseeing the great shift in gravity, many contemporary charismatic theologies build a framework of participation with God on the foundation of “desire.” in the best of circumstances, this can serve as a short cut to insight into the overwhelming ultimacy of God’s love transfiguring what we now experience in the gravity of the flesh. but on the other hand, this emphasis is dubious for flattening the drama into mere emotional immediacy. in this way, invoking divine desire can end up reinforcing rather than transfiguring our connatural desire that is gripped by the gravity of flesh. in this way, it can become one of the many and multifarious illusions that cause us to confuse intermediate things with things final, and so remain satisfied with shadows rather than yearning for the things behind them.

when the true flame descends, may we find by his grace that we are not merely consumed and left a smoldering pile of ash. the divine intention is that we while burned may not be consumed. this also mystically signifies the transformation of the gravity of the flesh, for the flame — contrary to all inclinations of gravity — yearns upward.

a Bultmann out of the blue…

i’ve generally managed to avoid reading any Bultmann. the whole notion of “demythologization” is simply repugnant to me on the surface of things, and so i accordingly feel no compulsion to fight my way through the german thinker whose face appears on the top of the search results if you google the term. Bultmann’s ideas have of course been immensely influential in mainstream 20th c theology, but i am for my part far more likely to suppose the whole of 20th c theology is a mistake than to dabble in such waters. in any case, this seems to be a wise course – for all its frantic and herculean efforts to the contrary, that “mainstream” has dried up to scarcely a trickle.

being that i am working with angels and demons, however, i finally broke down and concluded it would be irresponsible for me not to have some personal exposure to his thinking, and to at least dabble in the questions he raises. the book i picked up was his Kergyma and Mythwhich appealed to me as both containing a tight methodological essay and a dialogue with his critics (to say nothing an appreciation of the whole conversation by Austin Farrer). and hey, the price was right at at $ 0.01 plus shipping and handling.

to my surprise, i’ve found Bultmann to be considerably less objectionable than i expected. which is not to say he is not objectionable, just that he is less objectionable than i thought – particularly as i have been able to come to appreciate his good intentions.

Bultmann operates on the assumption that the “mythological worldview” of the New Testament has been thoroughly dislodged from the modern mind; it has become “obsolete,” and accordingly, the kerygma that is embedded in it has become incredible. “Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world – in fact, there is no one who does” (4). nor is this natural science the only culprit: modern man’s awareness of himself and his own psychology, moreover, further subverts the assumptions of the NT, making notions like “original sin” and “atonement;” the division of “body” and “soul” hopelessly unintelligible.

facing these as realities, Bultmann desperately wants to preserve the kerygma: he wants to preach faithfully and with consistency the fundamental message of the faith, making the necessary correspondences that enable modern people to locate themselves within the field of faith. as Butlmann rightly identifies, attempts to grapple with these questions from the mid-19th c have demonstrably gone too far: deconstructing the christian message to such an extent there is nothing left to believe. Bultmann, however, is firmly committed to retaining the “event” of Christ – his centrality and uniqueness – even if he must be carefully extracted from the mythological worldview in which he is embedded.

in this respect, aspects of Rahner’s approach to angels owes quite a bit to Bultmann – which i would have recognized right away if i had bothered to read any of him in my education. as i noted in my evaluation of Rahner, building the correspondences between ancient categories that appear in the Bible and contemporary assumptions is certainly a worthwhile project, as we do need to compare those things which we ought to believe to those things which we happen to believe on the basis of the spirit of the age — not just in order to make our faith credible for the outsider, but even simply to understand what it is we believe. certainly we ought not stop believing if we do not understand, but believing implies that we ought to seek understanding. it can wear on a person, however, to seek understanding and find only more darkness; and it is difficult to despair of understanding, and yet remain in faith. this is the journey of a lot of modern atheists, and this is Bultmann’s essential insight – it is difficult to sustain life-giving faith when that faith also requires us to adopt a “mythological” framework that is no longer the common property of the culture.

Bultmann’s solution to this problem is existentialism, i guess presuming that the existential approach to reflection human being has some kind of transcendent (or at least, contemporary and durable) value that the Scriptures lack. at the very least, he notes that existentialism is already highly indebted to the christian proclamation through Luther and Kierkegaard, and that more contemporary expressions still rely on christian assumptions for their scaffolding, while not themselves invoking Christ. yet apart from Christ, Bultmann forcefully suggests, these post-christian christian attempts to understand being (such as Heidegger) in fact reduce to a council of despair. and here is where Bultmann and i would find our strongest ground of agreement: except that i would go further and suggest that something of the like is inevitable when one way or the other you attempt to take the Christ out of christianity.

first of all, the assumption that the “mythological” worldview of the NT is inherently incredible to us moderns is … well … just that — an assumption. von Balthasar points this out in his comments on angels as dramatis personae in the Theo-Drama. if some people complain about this very loudly, and seek to reshape christian doctrine around the “givens” of modernism, there are many, many more who are content to rest in childlike faith rather than connect all the dots with modern knowing, and indeed, are more likely to maintain a skeptical or cynical stance with regard to the latter rather than let it impinge upon the territory of their faith. more than that, increasingly interested in the power of “myth;” that even in the spiritual deadness of the modern world our psychologies are more attuned to the imaginal contours of the “mythical” than some killjoy germans want to admit.

reports of the death of the “mythical” worldview have been greatly exaggerated, and more still, modernism itself seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse. even from within the system, there is a rumor of angels, as Peter Berger has observed; somehow, modernism lumbers on as a cultural force even though most of us have awakened from our slumber and cast off the shackles of its imaginative imprisonment in one bizarre way or another. there are still some gate-keeping cultural institutions that, by operating on thoroughly modern assumptions, prevent modernism’s from a full experience of its own interior poverty, but even still, the foundations of these assumptions are being consistently undermined from several directions. still, i do not rejoice at the prospect of the collapse of its edifice: the tower is a Babel, and as it falls, chaos and confusion will follow in its wake. i do, however, trust the Lord of history, whose good purposes will be served all the same.

secondly, i find Bultmann’s alliance with existentialism somewhat puzzling – in my estimation, it is far less powerful and far reliable than he assumes it to be. in fairness, this is at least in part due to the fact that i have never been all that attracted to existentialism. as near as i can tell, the overall effect of “demythologization” is to transpose the compelling, immediate, visceral language of the New Testament into a string of tortured abstractions. i have no doubt that this effort has enabled some sophisticated people to retain something like faith without giving up their vaunted sophistication, but i seem to remember the apostle Paul proclaiming that the foolishness of God has overcome the wisdom of the world…

most of all, Bultmann profoundly underestimates the extent to which the whole judeo-christian tradition relies on the maintenance and impartation of a narrative identity, which cannot happen except by a stable reservoir of stories and symbols (ie, the canonical Scriptures in their traditional exposition) consistently traditioned. when we don’t anxiously pick at it, these resources are quite resistant to the pressures of history — which is not to say they transcend them and are free from change (we do have to grapple in one way or another with the reality of the development of doctrine, and all the inevitable unseemely features of christian agents, agencies and institutions) — but these are always changes that unfold according to their own prophetic history, and not by self-conscious adaptation to or synthesis with outside cultural forces. it is always development from within: from spontaneous rediscovery of our second brithright, from insight emerging from obscure and ancient stories in which we locate ourselves. the inspiration we find strikes us as leaping over the centuries and speaking directly, immediately, authoritatively to our hearts, without being mediated by any kind of complex demythologized, existential non-sense. here the Yale school, narrative theology, etc is very much on the right track.

but what really makes Bultmann so pernicious is the very fact that he is so winsome, and seems so reasonable. Bultmann managed to convince a whole generation of good little evangelical Barthians to commit countless anxious hours to the demythologizing existentialization of the faith once delivered, with the promise they were some how preserving the kerygma. but perhaps this is not so much pernicious as is simply tragic. it is like believing that the only reason critical scholarship keeps throwing out the baby with the bathwater is that it has not yet used fine enough surgical knives to disentangle the two. our best defense against such absurdity is simply to chuckle at it an go about our business. which is mostly how the Church has reacted to him. the google ngram of his appearance in books seems to confirm he’s been something of a flash in the pan even among academics — even more so in german. if he was popular from about 1960-1975, that conversation is largely over now – we’ve moved on. (except in brazil, for some reason, where it seems people are about three times more likely to google him)

in any case, the real challenge before us is not “demythologizing” the faith so that it can be credible to modern people, but to develop a language and mystagogy that can enable consensus to emerge between those who take an uncompromisingly realistic approach to the Scriptures, and those (both christians and non-christians) who mock them for doing so. this requires a critical ownership — not a jettisoning — of both the Scriptures (as a curated artifact) and the implications they have for how we understand the world we live in (their “mythology”)

calculating the lifespan of angels

How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours. (Psalm 139:17-18)

there’s a delightful little section in Plutarch’s moralia called “On the Obsolescence of Oracles,” which takes as its key subject of interest why it is that so many of the oracles whose prophecies recorded in ancient greek literature are no longer active. in answering the question, one of the interlocutors Cleombrotus (who is introduced as having made an impressive road trip visiting shrines down through egypt and persia and india in order to collect data in order a compose a speculative theology) argues as follows: “between gods an men, there exist certain natures susceptible to human emotions and involuntary changes, whom it is right that we, like our fathers before us, should regard as demigods [daimons], and, calling them by that name, should reverence them” (12).

Clembrotus is quite energized by this principle – doubtless it would have served as the basis of his theological system, if he ever managed to get it down (or if it managed to get down to us). he notes that in mediating between the immutable, immortal gods and an ever changing human world, this category of intermediate spirits has the capacity to relieve a number of philosophical / theological “perplexities;” and moreover, is “a force to draw together…and unite our common fellowship — whether this doctrine comes from the wise men of the cult of Zoroaster, or whether it is thracian and harks backto Orpheus, or is Egyptian or Phrygian” (10).

so far so good – i can follow Clembrotus on all of these points. unfortunately, the fact that these ambivalent “daimons” ultimately became the malevolent christian “demons” makes the doctrine a little less savory — but Philo (whose demonology i hope to comment on soon) has no problem making the equation – “what the philosophers ‘daimons‘ the Scriptures call angels.” that is about right, later tradition notwithstanding; this insight ultimately reemerged in Christian angelology under the concept of the “angels of the nations.” in any case, what we are resourcing here is a natural theology of angels, not a specifically christian angelology — and for this purpose, these arguments are quite helpful.

perhaps most helpful is Clembrotus’s argument against those who would do away with the category of intermediate spirits:

Those who refuse to leave us the race of daimons make the relations of gods and men remote and alien by doing away with the ʹinterpretative and ministering nature,ʹ as Plato has called it (see Statesman 250D, Symposium 202E); or else they force us to a disorderly confusion of all things, in which we bring the god into menʹs emotions and activities, drawing him down to our needs. (13)

this really hits the nail on the head and gets to the ultimate purpose of both recovering christian angelology, and for reinvigorating the natural theology of angels. angels are the intermediate components of participation, imaginal beings that mediate symbolic correspondence between the specific consciousness and meta- / super-human realities. as such, they have the capacity to serve as a key to unlock certain mysteries in semiotics, social psychology, theory of cognition — to say nothing of their relevance to mystical theology, liturgy, theology of science, theology of revelation, etc. (although, this angelic model does create some Christological issues – many of which were initially presented and worked through in the letter to the Hebrews — but we will leave this issue aside for the time being.)

but Clembrotus’s system has a couple of implications that might strike us as a bit surprising given our standard assumptions about angles — viz., it requires that the daimons be neither impeccable nor immortal. Heracleon, one of the conversation partners, finds Clembrotus’s system of intermediaries otherwise compelling, but is offended that such beings would be thus constrained. however, Clembrotus out that without these limitations, the daimons would not differ in any substantial way from the gods. later christian angelology will solve this problem by positing a distinction between creator and creation (or, if you prefer, uncreated / created), which makes it possible to preserve traditions of angel veneration that presuppose their immortality and basic impeccability (after some moment of primordial “choice”) — but the older assumptions were preserved in a number of folk traditions, as well as the jinn that appear in islam.

moreover, angelic mortality is implied in one of the essential axioms that Rahner offers in his preliminary thoughts on what the natural theology of angels would need to look like in order to correspond to the philosophical framework that undergirds modern science. since we have abandoned platonism, Rahner argues, we cannot have “pure spirit” angels, unrelated to the material world. there must be some fundamental correspondence between angels and materiality to be meaningfully “real.” (which implies the question of angelic “bodies” would need to be revisited, but it does not mean they need to be “embodied” the same way that we are.) insofar as the material world is bound by the forces of entropy, any material principle of the angels would also be subject to decay and dissolution — and they would, accordingly, be “mortal.”

Clembrotus ponders the mortality of the daimons by interpreting some passages in Hesiod, and concludes that they would have a natural life span of 9720 years; or else (following Pindar) approximately equal to that of a tree. his method, of course, is not especially credible by modern reckoning; even if it were, we don’t have any oracles (to my awareness) that deal with angelic lifespan that we can work with.

so how would we go about determining the lifespan of angels? it’s not exactly as though they have birth certificates or death certificates by which we can calculate the average length of their lives; indeed, their lives are so subtle that they often escape our notice, and their lifespans are so long that (notwithstanding some interesting stories in the On the Failure of Oracles that give some examples of how the death of a daimon is experienced on the level of social-cultural pheomenon (17-18)). is it possible, moreover, to determine when an angel meets its natural end, and when it comes to an unexpected or even violent death? and what does it look like for an angel to “die?” Clembrotus suggests that as the daimons are purified, they are transmuted to a higher form of spiritual being — or else, if they have fallen into materiality, and become more directed by passion, they descend into a material form (a la the Watchers of Enoch).

the major source for such a project would be historiography: indeed, the ancient historigraphies often have an angelological caste. this is because encoded within these ancient histories are essential clues to how men of different ages interpreted and symbolized their experience of continuity and change in human culture and experience. discernible, than, should also be the succession of “angels” whose influence and activities would run like a golden thread through a particular age, especially visible in inspiring particular patterns of imaginative leaps, and in making connections that seem unusual or unlikely. this is obviously something quite different that modern history, with its assumptions of horizontality and homogeneity — but i would suggest (1) angelism is a more interesting assumption (2) this is a more “classical” way of conceptualizing history, and (3) such narratives are more “human” – which is to say that they are more attractive and captivating of human attention.

the succession of angels involved in human activity might also be related to Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” model. indeed, the paradigm shifts themselves might be reinterpreted as a kind of natural angelology; although, of course, it would require a “paradigm shift” to allow the assumption of angels (as real personalities, not as symbols or unconscious emergent phenomenon) to slip through the (rather outdated) reductionistic matrix upon which so much scientific thought still built. but (though i am not a prophet, nor a prophet’s son) it seems that the angel of modernism has become old, and is ready to pass away. its about time.

David Powlison and spiritual warfare in “classical” perspective

i’m continuing to work my way through the four perspectives on spiritual warfare offered in Understanding Spiritual Warfarei commented previously on Walter Wink’s contribution with intrigued reserve, and i am moving on here to that offered by one David Powlison, whom i had not previously come across. this is unfortunate, as it seems that we share some interests, and Dr Powlison is a lucid writer, whose perspective i find both invigorating and challenging. evidently, he is the editor of the Journal for Biblical Counseling and a teacher and counselor at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). he’s also penned a book on spiritual warfare, which i’ve added to my reading list. i infer, from what little i have read of him / about him, that he adheres to some form of Reformed-Calvinistic perspective. i don’t necessarily adhere to such a perspective, but i also don’t feel the need to spit after saying it.

Powlison articulates what he calls the “classical” view of spiritual warfare, by which he evidently means focusedly Biblical, sticking close to the contours of this historic confessions of faith (three Creeds and the Reformational confessions), and emphasizing the “normal” aspects of the christian life (repentance, confession, community, Scripture study, etc) over any obsession with the “weird” manifestations of things paranormal, which in their exaggeration risk degenerating into “doctrines of demons about demons” that put us in bondage to a chaotic, animistic worldview that distracts us from the centrality and supremacy of Christ. and he presents this view both persuasively and eloquently.

it is tempting to characterize Powlison’s perspective as “unimaginative.” certainly, Powlison colors very neatly in the lines, both congratulate him on his faithfulness to the Biblical and confessional standards, and also [lightly] chastise him [with a generous smile] for being quite so cautious. over the course of my own study and my own journey, however, i’ve come to realize just how much imagination it takes to appropriate the Biblical text so vividly, and submit to the patterns we have received so thoroughly. clearly, Powlison is not just clinging to a dead and deadening orthodoxy: he feels what he professes, and gives it lively and livening articulation. Powlison not only believes but proves the sufficiency of Scripture on this issue by the satisfying comprehensiveness with which he treats both the Bible and the phenomenon of spiritual warfare, and by the confident, compassionate, “normal” way in which he narrates how this perspective works itself out in pastoral practice.

indeed, on a personal note, i can say that it is quite liberating to know that i don’t need to answer some of the questions i am working on in this field. i will probably work on them anyway – hey – it’s what scholars do! gotta write the dissertation on something! – but it’s OK for some (or all!) of these issues to be left unresolved or unresolvable, to languish in the “fog of war” that Powlison compellingly identifies. there is a great comfort in the thought that the reason that Scripture doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about the demons is that we might not need to know it, but that it does tell us what we need to know, and that is enough. i am happy that Powlison’s model easily explains why there are so many semi-literate, baptist grandmothers who are more effective spiritual warriors than i am. i don’t trust any theological system that cannot account for that fact.

still, this is not to say that i am totally sold on the way that Powlison uses his imagination. something just isn’t there for me. and unfortunately, the critical responses to Powlison’s piece didn’t really help me figure out exactly what that was. Wink’s comments were almost offensively off topic: i’m not sure in what universe Powlison could be thought to be contributing to the “myth of redemptive violence” — only if we hold up the Powers trilogy as the true standard of orthodoxy (perish the thought!) does this critique seem to have any salience. i tend to agree with Boyd that it is important to highlight the volitional dispositions of created intellects in order to avoid making God the cause of evil, but i’m not convinced Powlison was saying that. it was amusing to hear Wagner admit slsw is basically built on an animist worldview, even though he was quite specific about how he defined animism; it’s worth pointing out that Powlison is using a “lump and dump” strategy. i’m hardly ready to sign up for the spiritual warfare network, but i think that he’s on to something in citing Ramsay MacMullen’s thesis in Christianizing the Roman Empire that christianity’s power over the demons was essential to its spread. (i haven’t read MacMullen, but Peter Brown makes some similar arguments, as does David Frankfurter in a way – i’ll have to reflect more on this.) still, none of this really helped me to grapple with what in Powlison’s essay didn’t satisfy me.

i think one of the issues for me is the way in which Powlison defines and maligns “superstition,” “animism,” and the “occult.” he doesn’t do much to define these terms, so it ends up being a kind of “i know it when i see it” situation — and Wagner is right to feel a little “consternation” at this, as things like slsw are clearly in his crosshairs. the closest he comes to a definition is this : “Animism exaggerates the personhood and autonomy of the forces of darkness. It locates the human drama within a haunted universe. It diminishes the significance of personal and sociocultural evils” (91). these attitudes, Powlison asserts, are consistently “demythologized” in the OT, and associated religious practices based on these assumptions are “systematically undermined by Scripture’s revelation of evil.”

Powlison is offering a worthwhile caution here, but he is also overreaching both what he can absorb in the definition of “animism,” and what can be said to be “systematically undermined” by the Scriptures. these are extraordinarily complex issues, and if boundaries need to be set, they cannot be established by common sense and expressed in a mere paragraph, i first began to realize this when i read Gideon Bohak’s masterful study of Ancient Jewish Magic. where do the boundaries of Scripture lie? it seems very clear on the surface of things, but when we consider the long history of the judeo-christian tradition, it becomes clear that these boundaries are quite pliable. assertions of where they are drawn are necessary as a matter of “canon law” (for lack of a better term) and the organization of community life. but for us thinking types, this makes the question of how such boundaries are drawn extremely interesting, and extremely important.

i’ve been coming around to the conclusion that “imagination” is the key to this problem. unfortunately, through the breadth and persistence of his rejection of superstition, magic, talismans, animism, etc., Powlison forcefully (if rather tacitly) forecloses on the possibility that any imaginal project could be useful in understanding or conducting spiritual warfare — and on this point, i would have to disagree. this is too “unimaginative.” i qualified this term above to take the teeth out of it: i do have a great deal of admiration and respect for what Powlison accomplishes, and i want to be totally clear on that. but now i need to put the teeth back in. as lively as Powlison makes it, his program basically amounts to “figuring out” what the Bible means and stick to it. this is an extremely static picture, and as such, threatens to become … well … kind of boring. christianity of this sort has the tendency to degenerate from being a life to being a gnosis and/or a techne. of course the gnosis and the techne are necessary aspects of the life, but it is pointless (and in fact impossible) to abstract them from the life and impart them outside of it. Powlison is not doing this himself — he palpably shares in this life — but the path that he is walking on angles in this direction.

we are insulated from such dangers, to a certain extent, by an awareness and acknowledgement of created spiritual beings (demons, angels, saints) and the way in which we are joined to them in creation and in the Body of Christ. it is with and in and through them that we come to know a spiritual terrain that has been conquered and redefined by the victory of Christ. there is a robust tradition of theory and imagery that can help us to access and enter this world, and experience for ourselves the ways in which the angelic hierarchies help us to understand, own, communicate, and moderate spiritual experience, interpret Scripture, and relate with the unseen world. there is a delightful ambiguity about angels and demons that just invites speculation: that lifts us up into contemplation, and enervates the spirit. and there is a therapeutic quality in this to a world that has become spiritually blind and has so profoundly lost touch with the reality of unseen personalities

Powlison would be correct – and in fact, quite patristic – to point out the ways in which this can be a dangerous path. the imagination is a delicate instrument, and easily collapses from perception to fantasy when it becomes unmoored from sensory experience. more still, when it does come into contact with spiritual entities, it is easily impressed by light and sound and grander — the demons know this, and are wont to take advantage of it. the imagination should be accordingly disciplined to reject such images, and commune with God imagelessly — or else through a controlled channel of imagery (provided by Scripture and (to some extent) tradition).

i would simply concede to Powlison on this point. our hearts and minds and imaginations should be captive to the Word of God. the Scriptures are the first, final, and ultimate authority, and there are times when it is right to use them as a machete to slice through the grotesquely multiplied layers of speculation and human accretion to restore the simple, sovereign grace of the Gospel message. i anticipate that i will diverge from Wagner at this point, as i suspect that Wagner’s techniques of spiritual mapping have produced too vivid, too literal an imaginative framework, with the consequence of looking like sheer creepy foolishness to the uninitiated (consider his 2011 interview with Terry Gross).

i would synthesize my own interests with Powlison by acknowledging the importance of differentiating between what we know for sure (on the basis of the Holy Scriptures) and what we establish by imaginative speculation. the intermediate task then becomes understanding the imagination and defining the role the imagination has in the encounter with spiritual realities, and it can the be brought to bear in a more fulsome manner on these questions of spiritual warfare.

Milbank: myth, fairy tale, magic

John Milbank is certainly one of the most frustratingly delightful characters on my reading list. besides the sheer difficulty of penetrating into his prose, one then has to deal with the fact that he will throw out there tantalizing ideas, some brilliant thought or profound connection, and then just leave them hanging there, as totally ancillary to his larger point. such indeed is the case in his bewildering response essay “on the invocation of Clio” in his Future of Love. indeed, this essay may be more obtuse than many, since it ties together a number of disparate strands of conversation into one formless, unfolding argument. Milbank published the volume with Wipf and Stock, and i can’t help but wonder if this isn’t in part because no other publishing house would touch so extraordinarily loosely organized. but then again, if your John Milbank, it seems people usually put up with it.

in an oblique response to Wetzel on the question of evil (with particular reference to Augustine, since that is Wetzel’s area), Milbank makes some fascinating comments on the relationship between christianity, myth, and fairytale. christian mythos, Milbank suggests, is more “purely myth” than the pagan mythos, because in the latter, the “purity of subjective focus is always paradoxically and tragically undercut by a shadowy objectivity, whether of chaos or of obscure fate.” it is somewhat difficult to trace out the ground of Milbank’s claim here, but it would seem to be that he is arguing from the fact that Augustine and Dionysius managed to fulfill of the neoplatonic impulse to reconceptualize evil as privation in a way that their pagan predecessors had not. having satisfactorily perfected that theory, christianity was accordingly capable of rediscovering myth ‘without fated violence.” because of the impact of the Gospel, “myth no longer relates itself anonymously, but is the word of God, the kingly instigator of hero and myth.”

after touching on this only briefly, Milbank moves on to the question of fairy tales — where he follows Georges Dumezil in understanding the fairy tale as (a particular sort of myth?) more concerned with objects than with subjects…whose circulations move the plot.” accordingly – and this is key – “myth appears to be about glorious subjects but is really about the tragic undermining of personhood by fate, whereas the fair-tale is apparently about the tricky behavior of objects…but is actually about the final triumph of misty subjects over objects, the ciphers of a pagan fate now somewhat tamed and subordinated.

Milbank suggests that christianity was the mechanism responsible for elevating fairy tale over myth: creating stories in which the tragic elements of human experience are given some play, but are “finally subordinated to forgiveness, honoring the other, and peaceful order.” this is possible because the mythos of Christianity is in fact rather more like a fairy tale; less proto-philosophic because it is not directed by impersonal necessity. “Christianity elevates narrative. Here, performers truly are ultimate and not undermined by a process that invites conceptualization.”

but if christianity is more of a fairy tale than a myth, how than does Milbank say that it is more purely myth than the pagan mythos? this would seem to have to introduce ambiguity into Milbank’s definition of myth. Milbank attempts to resolve this issue by positing that there is a kind of “fall” from fairy-tale into myth: in the narrative of Adam and Eve in the garden, “there is a proper relating to an object which is later transgressed, so giving rise to intersubjective hostilities.” this allows evil to be a reality without being a “thing” – “since evil is contingent privation, only a story, only a mythos and not an ontology, can account for its arising.” he summarizes, “mythos is a tale of eternal fatality, or else of the fall into the illusion of such fatality. A fairy-tale is a tale either of personal creation or of interpersonal redemption.” from this ground, Milbank is poised to “extend [his] theory of Christian philosophy into a theory of Christian literature.”

this is an intriguing conversation, although Milbank has certainly not ironed out all the ambiguities. perhaps he is priming the pump for a retirement career as a literary theorist, so he can give to literature people the same kind of headaches he’s given to theology-ethics-social sciences people (although i think literary people have already been reading him).

one of the big questions that is left in my mind, however — what about magic? is magic — like the “objects” of the fairy tale — part of the “shadowy remnant” of pagan fate? is it attached to the enchanted “objects” of the fairy tale, from which the subject is ultimately liberated to the freedom of a higher order and peace? i think that is a plausible reading of what Milbank is implying, but i don’t know if it works as a theory of magic. magic takes the subjective triumph of the fairy-tale and moves it a step further, pronouncing the ultimacy of the practitioner, who stands in the position of manipulating the inter-subjectivity of created spirits to achieve particularized ends. magic is not the darkness of fate, but the shadow of will. yet at the same time, of course, magic is often (if not always) subordinated to a framework of fate: after all, magic “always comes with a price.”

as much as Milbank is provoking and enriching imaginative resources in this essay, then, it doesn’t seem that he has the tools to control it. but perhaps that is the point: perhaps Milbank’s larger purpose here is to bring us to a place where the cultivation of the imagination is again a worthwhile pursuit. to that end, we need to structure our philosophy differently, we need an alternate history of ideas; to elevate the “Proclean-Dionysian” strain of neoplatonism over and against the dominant “Plotinian” strand that has established itself through Avicenna, Bacon, Henry of Ghent, Peter Olivi, Scotus, and Kant.

the is are not all dotted, nor all the ts all crossed, but i think it is a start…

Dionysian angelic dynamism

besides his obvious extreme debt to neoplatonism (which in the post-Harnackian world is always extremely suspect, along with all incursions of “hellenism”), there are two major complains about the theology of pseudo-Dionysius.

the first is the rather extraordinary extent to which his theology is bound up with the notion of “hierarchy.” indeed, not only does it saturate his writings – as near as we can tell, Dionysius invented the term. for Dionysius, hierarchy is the beneficent and indeed necessary structure of perfection; in our culture, however, it has come to assume a mostly negative connotation, becoming inextricably bound up with notions of dominance, oppression, and the systematic, ideological maintenance of the social infrastructure that enables these morally abhorrent relational patterns to persist and propagate. as such, Dionysius is imagined as the spiritual architect of all that is evil; as the initiator of a backward, medieval attitude which we as moderns are trying so frantically to resist and permanently overturn.

this objection is barely worth interacting with, rooted as it is in a poor reading of the Areopagite which simply imports contemporary ideological struggles onto ancient terminology. the logic by which such a position is established is worthy of a caveman:

  • Dionysius thinks hierarchy is good.
  • we know hierarchy is bad.
  • therefore, Dionysius is both wrong and evil. we should not read him. and we should hit him with heavy objects.

such a perspective does not pause to consider what, precisely, Dionysius means by hierarchy, and if there may not be in fact some good communicated by the term that is worth reclaiming and recapturing, even if we must (consequent to our contingent historical experiences) be more sober about the possibility and reality of hierarchical abuses.

hierarchy is, for Dionysius, written into the fundamental order of things (being, as it were, “sacred order” from the beginning) – but moreso, it is a self-emptying order, where the role of the higher orders is to pour itself out in love on behalf of the subordinate ranks. As Denys puts it, hierarchy is “a holy order and knowledge and activity which, so far as is attainable, participates in the Divine Likeness, and is lifted up to the illuminations given it from God, and correspondingly towards the imitation of God” (CH 3) hierarchy lifts up to pour out in infinite regress, because the infinite depths of God can never be reached, and neither is universal perfection a leveling of differentiating rank.

what is cloaked as a sophisticated social critique is in the end, then, simply laziness with respect to evaluating terms. indeed, if anything, i would suggest that the weight of the critique actually swings in the other direction: demonizing hierarchy does very little in doing away with it; the anti-hierarechical attitude – if successful – usually only serves to replace one hierarchy with another that is more in tune with the fashionable idioms of egalitarianism – and accordingly, less self-conscious about its hierarchical structure, and therefore less able to comprehend its hierarchical responsibilities. in fact, then, the alternative to hierarchy is perpetual violence, as the oppressed continually rise up against the oppressors, installing in their place new oppressors, who accordingly need to be overthrown once more. and somehow, in the midst of this, history is supposed to be guided by some providential hand towards the indwelling of mutual recognition (Hegel), or an egalitarian paradise (Marx); or the heterogeneity of ends, in which the common good is somehow to be achieved by everyone seeking his own good (Smith). all of these fashionable opinions amount to nothing more than some kind of bizarre, heretical mysticism that has lost its bearings in reality.

more perceptive critiques of Dionysius’ angelology, however, draw attention to the rigidity of his structures of thought; his metaphysical idealism, his ironclad commitment to a stable cosmos that we modern people no longer believe in, and are not required to believe in by the christian faith. our awareness of such things as evolution and historical process, the dynamism of nature and natural history, has become simply instinctive, and along with it, the stable realms of Dionysius angels seem a fully incredible fantasy. (this is central to Rahner’s critique of traditional angelology, on which i have already commented.)

there are two responses we can make to this objection. first, we should consider that there is a dynamism implicit in Dionysius’ ranks and orders. certainly in the earthly hierarchy, which mirrors the heavenly, men move from one rank to another by the grace of God and according to their various places, functions and appointments within the body of the Church and the body of humanity. it is not totally inconceivable that there could be analogous motion within the ranks of angels. Dionysius’ staicism manifests itself in that it does not entertain such a possibility; “perfection,” “impassibility” and “immovability” all seem to be inter-related, although provocatively, “nothing is self-perfect nor absolutely unindigent of perfection” (CH 10), and the sight of each angelic order is described as “pure receptivity without passion” (CH 15). so there is room here for a theory of angelic promotion, although this is not something that Dionysius himself develops.

but even if we can develop some kind of theory of movements within the ranks, we are still faced with the problem of the fixity of the ranks themselves. here there is no clever workaround. Denys links his hierarchical angelology in the fundamental philosophical principle of first –intermediate– last.  indeed, we have established such a fixity by opening up the possibility that a spiritual creature might pass from one rank to another, since movement between ranks would necessarily presuppose ranks to move between. but here too Dionysius demonstrates much more pliability than he is given credit for.

first, Denys readily admits that “none but the Divine Creator by whom they were ordained is able to know fully the number and the nature of the supermundane Beings and the regulation of their sacred Hierarchies; and furthermore, that they know their own powers and illuminations and their own holy supermundane ordination” (CH 4). Dionysius is thus very much self-aware of the operation of his own interpretive imagination, which he binds to what he has been taught “by God through his ministers,” and to the consideration of the “angelic visions which the venerable theologians have beheld” (Ibid). there remain “hidden Mysteries which lie beyond our view” that he honors with silence; he readily acknowledges “we do not possess the supermundane knowledge of some [of the angels], or rather that we have need of another to guile us to the light and instruct us” (CH 15). he readily invites his reader to give him some better interpretation for how angelic ranks symbolize each other in their ministering activity, as in Isaiah’s vision of the Seraphim (CH 13). moreover, this fundamental unknowable dimension of dynamism may hide within the innumerable number of angels; there vast legions of thousands upon thousands, and tens of thousands upon tends of thousands (CH 14).

interestingly enough, here is an angelology with no demonology, no strife, conflict or agonism – although he does dabble in the demons in the EH, and purification might seem to imply some necessary source of impurity. instead, it forms an interpretive matrix of ascent: it is “a sufficient account of those sacred symbols” that “falls far short of their full interpretation,” but still might “contribute to prevent us from lingering basely in the figures and forms themselves.” the hierarchies might be rethought in this key as the imaginative work of perpetual resymbolizing of one reality into the next, while maintaining fundamental faithfulness to the Vision and to the Names which the angels bear; and thus be easily resolved to the dynamism that haunts the modern mind (if more work would need to be done to adjust them to modern categories).

this is why Denys’ system climaxes in the apophaticism of the mysticial theology: if the hierarchy is necessary to begin to perceive and imagine the ineffable, dynamic center which orders it and towards which it is ordered, the infinite vitality and ineffable Life which pulsates at its center is so inexpressibly dynamic, so unspeakably beyond powerful, that it at once seems still to us, and makes our obsession with dynamism impossibly shallow. and here i think i would even be so bold as even go a step further than Lossky, who brilliantly points out the role of cataphatic “steps” of revelation which usher us up into the mystery, and note that even this is not sufficiently expressive of the life creating energies entrusted to them from the fatherly light. in addition to the angels transmitting the law (in a downward motion), the angels also coordinating the interpretation of the law with the true heavenly law of which the earthly law is an image (the upward motion) (CH 4). these corresponding motions then add an essential axis to the classical apophatic-cataphatic distinction, although not necessarily in a practical way, since it is impossible to nail down the ministrations of angels within a methodology.

for all its seeming rigidity, then, Dionysian angelology is quite amazingly dynamic and capable of dramatic (if not openly kaleidoscopic) reappropriation and reinterpretation. this is something that the ancient interpreters seemed to understand about Dionysius much better than the modern ones, as they felt entirely free to adapt and reconceive Dionysian angelology according to their imaginative integration of their reading of Scripture and experience of these realities. we see, accordingly, some substantial variation in the angelic hierarchy. (i might even venture that it was this dynamism, rather than the identity of the supposed author, that was the source of their perennial popularity through the middle ages!) by contrast, the brightness of the Dionysian system illuminates the darkness of our modern assumption that “the only constant is change” as the most violent, puerile, and disgusting heretical fantasy to pollute the eyes of men and rob them of their spiritual vision. and seven demons even more wicked have entered this swept house, as our imagination becomes captivated by the countless fantasies running unchained and unchecked through the many multiplied mediums at our disposal, all throbbing (in one way or another) with the death-dealing myth that “better” is just beyond the horizon, and is reachable by the capacities of the modern hero.

but of course, if we have demonstrated a dimension of angelic dynamism in Dionysius, we face another difficulty, as this dynamism presents its own problems. does it not then smack of Origenism? or even gnosticism, with its endless genealogies of the ages, and the doctrines of angels? here i have to shrug and say “perhaps.” i admit that my own spiritual sight is not mature enough to make this distinction with any resounding confidence. for the time being, however, trusting in Christ and knowing the precariousness of my own escape from beneath the overwhelming pressures of the powers and principalities of the world we live in, i would suggest that whatever we can spit into the eyes of men to cleanse them from the blindness of this age is a worthwhile salve. let us first restore the sight, and then be concerned that it can properly perceive objects according to their kind.

on “biblical culture”

i’ve been struggling recently with the phrase “biblical culture,” which i have seen crop up a couple of times in popular evangelicalish literature, and heard dropped in a couple of conversations. it is a provocative juxtaposition, not so much for its inherent value, as for its apparent problems – indeed, on the surface, it seems to me so problematic that it almost bothers me it would be used at all, much less that it would have currency within a particular community. so i am left with the double task of exegeting both the phrase, and my own rather intense emotional reaction to it.

the immediate problem with “biblical culture” is that it seems to be a category mistake. “culture” – the term a human construct (technical term used by anthropologists  and sociologists) of a human construct (the phenomenon of culture itself) – bespeaks a network of shared values, beliefs, symbols, practices, experiences.  the Bible, being an anthology of literature composed over a period of at least a thousand years, does not contain a culture so much as it is reflective of the influence of many cultures over the period of many generations and many circumstances. as such, it is very much the locus of a deep reservoir of shared symbols, patterns, ideas and themes, but these resources are in constant need of reinterpretation and re-embodiment. there is no automatic “culture” associated with these items – nor would we want there to be, as there are some aspects of every culture reflected in the Bible that we would find repugnant, and would not want to revive or emulate.

the Bible is a cultural artifact, both in the sense that it is the product of culture(s) and it also a cultural resource that persistently creates and recreates a culture among its pious readership. observing this as a human phenomenon does not need to detract from the Bible’s revelatory content and supernatural properties, but it does require acknowledging, at least tacitly, that the Bible is not a cultural “blueprint” – a set of perspicuous instructions that, if followed with earnest and straightforward exactitude, produces a single, inevitable cultural phenomenon. speaking of a “biblical culture” uncritically fuses text and interpretation together in a way that is quite difficult to pry apart; not only that, in proffering a particular set of values, customs, and beliefs, it presents a particular interpretation (and often, extra-bibilcal assumptions) as somehow demonstrably more “biblical” than its alternative. the notion of a “biblical culture” leverages the power of the concept of a “culture” to circumvent issues of “interpretation,” and (concomitantly) issues of preconception and precommitment. paradoxically, then, those who speak of a “biblical culture” are in danger of creating a culture that is in fact impervious to the transformative influence of the Bible, rather than (as intended) one that is persistently drawing from it and renewed by it.

it makes sense to have a culture that treats the Scriptures with extraordinary reverence, that builds study and interpretation of the Scriptures into its practices and patterns of life, that draws persistently on the Scriptures as a source of guidance and renewal, that listens – indeed – to hear the Spirit of God speaking in the Word of God written. this is a good thing – it is the culture of a healthy church. i would not, however, call it a “biblical culture.”

it makes sense, moreover, that a particular movement at a particular moment in history might discover and own a certain insight from the Scriptures with particular zeal, making a certain constellation of verses an essential part of its dna. this is the culture of that particular movement, and as such, it is a good thing. such movements have had and can have an immensely salutary effect on the life of the Church, and bring to our attention deep truths that have been neglected or forgotten. again, however, it is not “biblical culture.”

of course, the christian doctrine of the Bible requires that the Scriptures do have power and immediacy, and i believe (as a matter of tradition, experience and commitment, not a matter of demonstration as this cannot be logically demonstrated) that they do have such a quality. however, i do not find speaking of a “biblical culture” to be an effective matrix for communicating this immediacy. “culture” would seem to imply a static, corporate ideal towards which we are aspiring, and our progress can be measured. by contrast, my own knowledge of the power of Scriptural immediacy is better understood as a transformative dynamism – ancient, but always reviving; never changing but always new; the living and breathing Word of God, Jesus Christ, communicated by the power of the Spirit through the word of God written.

angelology provides a good test case for this difficulty. “biblical culturists” (if i may coin a term) are prone to believe in angels and demons because they are in the Bible – they are an aspect of “biblical culture” and so come packaged inevitably with the faith. but what are angels? where do they come from? what do they do? the text of Scripture makes some insinuations here, but it does not develop a comprehensive picture. the “biblical culturist” is thus required to make a series of assumptions (or assertions!) about how the pieces fit together.

moving away from the culturist model, however, we can recognize that the existence of angels is not so much taught by the Scriptures as it is assumed – and indeed, that what is assumed by one Biblical author is not necessarily the same as what is assumed by another. we can recognize, then, that understanding angelology will require a concerted activity of imagination and reason to fill in the gap between our own natural knowledge of spiritual creatures (or lack thereof) and the Scriptural accounts of them. we can be accordingly humble with the framework we construct to this end, as self-aware of our construction of it. and when that explanation no longer works, we can build a different one. we’re always making sense of the same data, but our conclusions vary – and vary legitimately! – by what we bring to the text.

biblical culturists seem to me to foreclose on the possibility of interpretation of this kind, instead opting to do the hermeneutical work behind closed doors, in a sealed box, and passing down as a finished project what ought to be believed and practiced on the basis of the Bible. there is a stability and a certainty to this product that is perhaps necessary and foundational, but it is not the ultimate end, and we should not bind ourselves exclusively to that purpose. would that all the Lord’s people were prophets! – the ultimate end is mystagogical – self-aware interpreters who do neither spurn nor upset the necessary stability of standard interpretations, but are constantly aware of their acts of obedience and interpretation, and in the midst of them, the persistent, dangerous possibility of encountering within them the ineffable Presence of the Living God.

winking at spiritual warfare

i’ve been working my way through the four views of spiritual warfare in the book Understanding Spiritual Warfare edited by James Beilby and Paul Eddy, which turns out to be quite excellent and offer a number of starting points for further reading and research. (it also confirms that i’ve hit on most of the best literature so far in my own preparation, and that the particular questions i am asking will make a productive contribution to the conversation, but more on that later.)

as the editors point out in the introduction, this kind of book is a rarity: much of the conversation on spiritual warfare tends to take place as parallel monologues, rather than a dialogue. demonology and spiritual warfare is an unavoidable aspect of interpreting the Scriptures and their implications for our understanding of the world and of life, but beyond that basic point of agreement, there are ongoing and heated debates about how exactly the demonological content of the Scriptures should be interpreted and appropriated. indeed, even coming to that point of agreement can be a challenge, as for a lot of modern people, the whole issue is just too weird to touch.

beyond this, the introductory does a fantastic job at putting the whole issue philosophical, Biblical, historical, and pastoral context, and is a highly worthwhile essay in its own right. really, the book is worth its purchase value just for this essay and its extensive footnotes – it almost upstages the book as a whole. of particular benefit to me was encountering for the first time the thought of the rising pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, who considers spiritual beings under the broader project of a pneumatological cosmology capitalizes on the notion of “emergence.” this would seem seems to have some important resonances with my own project.

the first place essay is given to the late Walter Wink, an immensely creative thinker whose justly lauded Powers trilogy has done much to generate conversation about spiritual beings as much among conservative evangelicals as liberal protestants. Wink’s essay is exciting, as much in the sense of “unsettling” as in the sense of “inspiring” – full of powerful turns of phrase, provocative theses, and highly imaginative interpretations of both the world and Scripture.

Wink is the odd man out in the volume in the questioning the value of ascribing “personality” to the demonic, as well as seeking to deflect speculations as to its “ontological status.” accordingly, his musings seem to want to reinterpret the whole field of spiritual warfare as manifestations of collective consciousness and imagination, in a way significantly erodes the reality of what they describe. the other contributors are quite helpful putting the finger on what seems amiss and unsatisfying in Wink’s approach, while at the same time acknowledging the benefits his trailblazings have brought. most stunning is Peter Wagner’s comment that Wink’s aphorism, “history belongs to the intercessors,” is oft repeated in pentecostal/nar circles – although he does note that they mean by it something slightly different.

quite pertinently for my own reflections, i wonder if Wink has read Corbin: in addition to the headlining role that imagination takes in his exegetical footwork, he even use the term “imaginal” to describe the character of spiritual beings. but this is not a particularly deep use of the term and collapses without difficult back into mere fantastic “imagination.” given what i know of Wink’s intellectual pedigree, it seems this would be more likely a Jungian impression than a Corbinian one, as Wink shares Jung’s reluctance to attribute a more-than-subjective reality to these beings, as well as his tendency to psychologize them. Wink also openly channels Morton Kelsey – it’s been a while since i read him, but Kelsey plays upon similar themes; it’s possible the he might get his concerns from that direction as well. this question will take quite a bit more digging.