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Category: reading

some notes on Philo’s demonology

there are only a couple of places in Philo’s sprawling corpus that he interacts directly with the notion of “demons:” the most important of these being his De Gigantibus, a short commentary on Gen 6:1-4. as a distant second, we have a passing comment in his treatise on dreams (and also prophetic inspiration), De Somniis – which goes only so far as corroborate an equation between the greek “daimons” and biblical angels he makes in the former. in a couple of scattered places, he also makes a couple of very brief allusions to the devil and possession / exorcism, but these are not especially substantial, nor are they sufficiently detailed to draw much from.

fortunately, the De Gig gives us a lot to work with; in fact, a patient reader could use it as a lens to construct a fuller demonology from Philo’s broader corpus, given the points of intersection it gives us with his theology of created spirits, his theory of inspiration and interpretation, and his psychology. this goes beyond the scope of these brief notes, however — for the time being, i want to just make a few comments on the demonology of the De Gig itself.

it’s worth noting, first of all, that Philo seems to be completely unaware of enochic literature or enochic traditions. i’m sure that some scholar, somewhere has managed to make a connection by squinting in just the right way. but you’d think, if undeniably there are points of contact, Philo would be a bit more transparent about it. more than that, Philo seems to be operating with a much narrower canon of Scripture: his commentaries cover only the five books of Moses, and draw sporadically from the Psalms. whether this is an intentional oversight, or an accident of what they happened to have in his synagogue library, we cannot determine absolutely on textual grounds. given his caliber of thought and scholarship, however, it seems unlikely that he would have been isolated from the rest of the jewish community and the trends of his day — and accordant with those interactions, he would have had some familiarity with the associated texts. his selection, accordingly, likely reflects a belief that the Torah is primarily and properly “inspired,” and everything else is really just commentary. all of this is just speculation, however — who knows how Philo himself thought this through. and in any case, such speculations would stray quite far from the point.

Philo begins by establishing that virtue presupposes its opposite – or at least some great background of mediocrity against which it might shine – and accordingly, for the virtue of Noah to be made manifest, wickedness had to multiply extensively across the face of the earth. here is already a kind of implicit theodicy with perhaps a Jobian resonance, although what Philo has phrased sounds more like the philosophers obsession with the virtuous man than that of the student of the Scriptures. in any case, a demonology could be founded on this principle, which is probably how this comment came to headline Philo’s thoughts on this passage. the corrupt mass of humanity doomed to die later in the flood serve their purpose as a “dark mirror” for Noah, his family, and all their virtues; as such, they are the most explicitly “demon-like” being in the passage (in the sense that they are unambiguously vicious) — though Philo does not dwell on this point.

confirming the stoic leaning of his thought on the matter, Philo continues by offering a psychological commentary on the second part of 6:1 – “daughters were born to them:” the begetting of women signifies the descent into the passions and the accordant beginning of “womanlike” attachment and vice, rather than “manly” virtue. by contrast to the debased production of “daughters,” Noah is mentioned as producing only “sons,” signifying his uprightness in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.

this is the first of several psychologizing allegories that Philo offers in these verse: similarly, the descent of the angels represents the attachment of the wicked to the “mortal” daughters of self-indulgent pleasure, rather than the divine daughters of reason, knowledge and virtue,

in the psychologizing vein of Jung, Wink, Kelsey, we might latch on to these sections as central, and use this feature as the pivot around which we interpret the whole of Philo’s demonological system. but while Philo is strongly psychologizing here, he is not merely psychologizing. Philo very plainly preserves a coordination between the soul, the city (less explicitly in this passage) and the cosmos which has more depth than merely a free play of symbols a psychologizing reading might want to overlay. what Philo advocates, moreover, has a strongly ascetical bent, tying in to Philo’s larger interest of presenting Judaism as “true philosophy.” and we might wonder if it might be this feature of his thought that caused him to be so carefully preserved and read by christians over the centuries.

so much, then, for the psychological aspects of Philo’s demonology: what about his demonology proper? Philo begins this line of thought, not by identifying the origin of demons (the enochic strategy), but by arguing that some such beings as “angels and demons” ought to exist. for this purpose, he draws on the “pleroma” argument: the earth has “earth creatures” (viz, terrestrial animals), the waters have water creatures (fish, etc), the heavens are full of heavenly creatures (the stars), fire begets fire creatures (but mostly only in Macedonia) — so there must be another category of beings that inhabit the air. because of their affinity with the air (wind, spirit, breath), they are invisible to the eyes, but nevertheless have been endowed by God with a special vitality; indeed, they bear the “seeds of life” (and here Philo defends his point by noting the various sorts of potentially salubrious, potentially destructive effects of various “winds.”) this argument is common among the middle platonists: you’ll find Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, and Apuleius all saying similar things.

Philo gives no indication that the demons might be “fallen angels” — indeed, quite the opposite.  “if you realize that souls and demons and angels are but different names for the same one underlying object,” Philo tells us, “you will cast from your mind that most grievous of burdens, deisidaimonia” — which we should take to mean something on the negative side of the spectrum of piety, religion, superstition. (the Loeb translation (LCL 267:452) interpolates “fear of the demons,” which i like for clarity, though it may go a bit too far.)

emphatically, angels and demons are not morally distinguished. demons are not evil angels: Philo labors to make the point that either angels or demons can be either good or evil, just as either a soul can be good or evil. “The common usage of men is to give the name of “demon” to bad and good demons alike, and the name of the “soul” to good and bad souls. And so, too, you will not go wrong if you reckon as angels, not only those who are worthy of the name, who are as ambassadors backwards and forwards between men and God and are rendered sacred and inviolate by reason of that glorious and blameless ministry, but also those who are unworthy of the title.” he substantiates this by noting that the Scriptures do speak of “evil angels” in, for instance, ps 77:49 (and examples could be multiplied).

“what the philosophers call demons, the Scriptures call angels.” Philo, then, is evidently writing in a period before demons had been properly “demonized;” they are for him still ambivalent intermediary beings. this is especially interesting given that Philo must be living right on the cusp of that shift. in reading the NT, there is no danger that a reader might come the impression that demons are anything other than malevolent: the demons are minions of the Evil One, opposed to Christ and his Father and all that is good and holy, seeking only to kill, and steal and destroy (jn 10:10). the apologists beginning with Justin Martyr would continue to push this logic, solidifying in the Christian mind an equation between demons, fallen angels, and pagan deities.

of course, in some ways this shift was already underway in Plato’s critical tolerance of the old cultus; as philosophy popularized and spread, it was really only a matter of time before the energy poured into the old cults withered away – even if some of the mythology persisted (although, as it turns out, it was supplanted – unlikely though this may have seemed to Philo’s pagan contemporaries). Philo offers a philosophically “chaste” image of the spirits: they do not need to be propitiated with bloody sacrifices, elaborate rituals, and fragrant odors: they are simply “there” as one of the phenomena of the created order.

Origen’s ecclesiology and the “heresy” of heresy

When [Christianity was] beginning, they were few and were of one mind; but since they have spread to become a multitude, they are divided and rent asunder, and each wants to have his own party. For they wanted this from the beginning… they are divided again by becoming too numerousand condemn one another; they only have one thing still in common, so to speak, if indeed they have thatthe name [of Christian]. And, in spite of all this, this alone are they ashamed to desert; in other respects, they are at sixes and seven

thus charges the pagan Celsus in his extended critique of christianity, The True Doctrine, written sometime in the 2nd c. the work is no longer extant, unfortunately, but we have fragments preserved in Origen’s reply, Contra Celsum, which he wrote around 100 years later. this specific quotation is from Book III, Chapter 10 and 12.

it is not surprising that Celsus would use the divisions within christianity as one of the marks against it. this is a perennial challenge, rightly perceived as a scandolon and felt within the Church as a painful and uncomfortable reality, particularly given Christ’s manifest will that “they would be one” (Jn 17).

the way that Origen answers this charge, however, is rather surprising. his first move is to argue that christians have had important differences of opinion from the beginning, and he points to a number of nt disputes to make his case (divisions between jewish and gentile communities in acts, divisions within the corinthian community, and the errors within the churches that Paul corrects in his epistles). these examples “show that from the beginning there were certain varieties of interpretation, although there were not yet, as Celsus thinks, many who believed.” so much for some lost golden age of christian unity! Origen in the 3rd c. — before any of the divisions emerged that we recognize as enduring to this day — recognized that there was no such thing — on the basis not only of his own experience, but of the of the the nt.

so how does Origen recommend that we interpret christian division? “any teaching which has had a serious origin, and
is beneficial to life,” he suggests, “has caused different sects.” accordingly, divisions among believers serve to corroborate the Scriptures and preaching of the Gospel as true and useful knowledge, rather than undermine it. no one would bother to make a counterfeit of something that was worthless, or try to integrate the power of a powerless belief into another system of thought. Origen goes on at length to explore the analogy with other familiar sociological groups:

since medicine is beneficial and essential to mankind, and there are many problems in it as to the method of curing bodies, on this account several sects [Gk: hairesis] in medicine are admittedly found among the Greeks, and, I believe, also among the barbarians such as profess to practise medicine.

And again, since philosophy which professes to possess the truth and knowledge of realities instructs us how we ought to live and tries to teach what is beneficial to our race, and since the problems discussed allow of considerable diversity of opinion, on this account very many sects [hairesis] indeed have come into existence, some of which are well known, while others are not.

Moreover, there was in Judaism a factor which caused sects [hairesis] to begin, which was the variety of the interpretations of the writings of Moses and the sayings of the prophets.

So then, since Christianity appeared to men as something worthy  of serious attention, not only to people of the lower classes as Celsus thinks, but also to many scholars among the Greeks, sects [hairesis] inevitably came to exist, not at all on account of factions and love of strife, but because several learned men made a serious attempt to understand the doctrines of Christianity. The result of this was that they interpreted differently the scriptures universally believed to be divine, and sects [haresis] arose named after those who, although they admired the origin of the word, were impelled by certain reasons which convinced them to disagree with one another.

from here, he interprets Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:17 – “it is necessary that there be division [hairesis] among you, so that what is approved may be made manifest” — a word that was frequently a source of meditation for the Fathers on the nature of church life. “Paul’s words on this subject are quite admirable,” Origen notes, for

the man who is qualified in medicine is he who is trained in the various sects [hairesis] and who after examining the several schools of thought with an open mind chooses the best; and a man who is well advanced in philosophy is he who by having known about several schools of thought is trained in them and follows the doctrine which has convinced him. So also I would say that a man who looks carefully into the sects of Judaism and Christianity becomes a very wise Christian. Anyone who criticizes Christianity on account of the sects might also criticise the teaching of Socrates; for from his instruction many schools have come into being, whose adherents do not hold the same opinions. Furthermore, one might criticize Plato for his doctrines on the ground that Aristotle left his instruction and introduced new ideas.

so then there is a benefit to the divisions among christians which can be asserted without compromising the ideal or the end of unity, which lies in the integrity of the doctrine, its effectiveness, and its accordant aim of universal propagation.

Origen’s understanding of the relationship of christian sects is so different than our own that it creates a difficulty in translation. he uses the term “hairesis,” the obvious source of our english “heresy” — but there are no negative connotations embedded with the term whatsoever. for Origen, the term “heresy” basically describes a school of thought, and can be applied to medicine or philosophy (we might say science or literature generally) just as well as to religion[1]. Chadwick helpfully uses the term “sect” in his translation to avoid confusion; except in those instances where the “sect” in question is “heretical.” a good example of a translator doing interpretive work.

i do not know precisely how or when the change in the definition of the term occurred — but it seems reasonably safe to assume that this change would have occurred alongside christianity’s political ascendency, within 100 or 200 years of Origen’s lifetime. if the goal in the imperial religion is unity and uniformity that testifying to the unity of the imperial structure, it certainly makes sense that the existence even of relatively benign “schools of thought” would become inherently problematized.

but this isn’t just a problem introduced by big bad Constantine and the consolidation of the Church and the christian faith that he enabled. if Origen’s understanding of the term “heresy” is more neutral than our own, this does not mean he has no sense of “heresy” as we understand it . he does believe that some sects are better than others, and that other sects — while they might have their roots in christianity, have gone so far from the fold as to lose any purchase of the name completely.

I think that Celsus has come to know of certain heresies which do not share with us even the name of Jesus. Probably he got wind of the so-called Ophites and Cainites, or some other such doctrine which has entirely abandoned Jesus. But this is irrelevant to a criticism of the doctrine of Christians.

christians have more in common that Celsus gives them credit for, viz., that in confessing Jesus Christ and receiving the Scriptures, the different christian groups have a strong foundational unity, even if some of their doctrines (or apprehension of those doctrines) differs.

our agreement is based on an important foundation, or rather not on a foundation but on a divine action, that its origin was God who taught men by the prophets to wait for the advent of Christ who would save men. In so far as this is not really refuted, even if it may seem to be refuted by the unbelievers, so much the more is the doctrine established as the doctrine of God, and Jesus is proved to be Son of God both before and after his incarnation. But I affirm that even after his incarnation he is always found to be most divine in character by people who have very sharp eyes in their soul, and to have truly descended to us from God, and not to have owed his origin or development to human sagacity but to God’s manifestation; for it was He who by varied wisdom and various miracles established Judaism in the first place, and later Christianity.

this is part of what makes historical theology so interesting. it is not particularly meaningful to decry “nestorianism” or “monophysitism” by force of habit (or canonical obligation). but it is enriching to understand how the Scriptures were being interpreted and appropriated; how these marginalized (and often extinct) sects understood their doctrine over and against the imperial ecclesiastical norms; and what, from the point of of the established Church, was understood to be permissible, what was considered dangerous, and why. it does seem, in retrospect, that the lines of “heresy” were drawn a bit too tightly; and often they are today as well.

of course, on the other hand, some moderns would prefer to completely ignore such boundaries, which is another problem. Walter Bauer’s notion of the “heresy of orthodoxy” has tended lead people to project the celebration of the apathetic pluralism of modernity onto the early Church, when really, the both the Fathers and their opponents were quite rigorous about establishing the boundaries of their teachings.

as a matter of contemporary appropriation of Origen’s ecclesiology, it does seem that we stand under what Peter Berger has described as a “heretical imperative” — what is needful is the courage to make interesting mistakes in the name of Christ and with tenacious faith in his ultimate power and goodness; but ultimately, to keep searching, learning through the process, to the infinite goodness of Christ which as been poured out upon us without limit in his Son.

[1] we find the same usage in Josephus, who speaks about the jewish “heresies” of the 1st C — again, meaning only particular groups with a particular way of teaching the Scriptures and living the faith.

Apuleius and angelic bodies

Apuleius has got me thinking again about the tricky issue of angelic bodies. his treatise On the God of Socrates is quite clear in laying out the question – although, of course, he is thinking of daimones rather than angels, but this category translates fairly easily into christian angelology the way that he uses it. i’ve added to my reading list his Discourse on Magic, which should provide some further interesting grist for the mill. (a decent translation of his works is conveniently located on google books).

the question of angelic bodies first became a pressing issue for me when i read 1 Enoch for the first time. obviously, if angels are producing offspring with the women of earth, this implies a fairly high degree of “real” body. 1En is hardly canonical, of course, but it raises the question, nevertheless, of why we should assume that angels are “bodiless,” or “pure spirit.” this question has only intensified as i have realized (with the help of Rahner, and others) just how reliant upon neoplatonism such conceptualizations are. as such, they are not by any means required by the faith, and indeed, the assumptions upon which a doctrine of bodiless angels are not shared in our present cultural context. a contemporary natural theology of angels accordingly begs to be rebuilt upon a different foundation. on the other hand, such angelic speculations may have the tendency to drift in the direction of Origenism, whose doctrine of primordial intellects is rightly judged problematic by the Holy Fathers and the Councils of the Church. many avenues for such thoughts have thus been foreclosed in the history of doctrine. however, if we begin with the intention of integrating the Biblical data on angels according to the framework of a natural theology of angels that is more suitable to a modern cosmology (to the extent that this is possible), we can circumvent these questions for the time being. (although it would be most appropriate to bring a newly developed understanding into conversation with the historical pattern of teaching.)

Apuleius presents an argument for the necessity of intermediary beings between the gods and men shared with Plutarch in On the Obscelescence of Oracles (which i have reflected on viz-a-viz the calculation of angelic lifespan); he also makes an argument from pleroma that resembles one that Philo raises in On the Giants. the former argument seems to be an immensely important development in middle platonism, rooted in Plato, but not developed in him. Plato, after all, began to glimpse the mystery of transcendence and identified this as a proper aspect of divinity, but was not uniform in his identification of divinity with the term “god.” the notion of “gods,” for Plato, still had quite a bit of pluriformity – middle platonists were trying to tighten up the language. it is beyond my ken to parse the particular history of this conversation, but certainly, a new monotheistic pressure driven by judeo-christian enthusiasm on the one hand and a homogenizing imperial imagination on the other likely contributed to this interpretive trajectory.

as to the second argument, the argument from pleroma – that this is shared between Apuleius and Philo is probably indicative of a common source, rather than any direct or indirect influence of the latter on the former. and indeed, my copy of On the God of Socrates helpfully footnotes Aristotle On the History of Animals as the source for this notion. the basic idea is that, in interest of imagining a proportionate and harmonious universe, there ought to be “aereal” beings, just as there are “terrestrial” beings and “aquatic” beings – given the nature of air, it is not surprising that such beings would be invisible to us. but even if we grant the ancients their supplanted four-element metaphysics, this argument is still dubious, as it relies on the existence also of some kind of “fire” being. Aristotle apparently had some sensible evidence of this, or credible reports of such sensible evidence – as on his authority, both Philo and Apuleius accept the existence of such beings as a commonplace for the purposes of the argument. to my knowledge, christianity doesn’t say much about the existence of such “fire-beings,” although its likely belief in them persisted well into the middle ages. eventually, fire-spirits will reappear as a facet of authoritative belief in the arabian-islamic notion of the jinn – whence as an oriental motif it will become a fascination and constant inspiration for western fantasies.

comprehensively, Apuleius understands daemons (and we can extrapolate from this to angels) as “in their genus animals [ie, created souls], in their species rational, in mind passive, in body aerial, and in time perpetual.” the first three qualities are shared with humans; the fourth is unique to them, and the fifth is shared with the gods. as such, they are intermediary in several senses:

  1. locationally – as dwelling between the heavens and the earth
  2. elementally – as standing between the lightness of celestial ether and the heaviness of earth, and being mingled / participated in each
  3. with respect to temperature – they do not bear the heat of fire, which would cause them to ascend further upward, yet neither the coldness of earth or water, which would cause them to sink downward
  4. psychically – sharing the immortality of the gods but the susceptibility to passions that characterizes human intelligences
  5. officially – transmitting the prayers of men to the gods and the gifts of the gods to men

there is much to reflect on in this layering of mediating features – in particular, i want to return at some point to the question of the metaphorical “height” of angels (which needs to be revisited given that it presupposes an outmoded cosmology), their “passions” according to this schema (of course, christian angels share in divine impassibility; the passionate angels are generally considered demons), their relationship to humans, the ways in which the diversities among the daemons accounts for the diversity of human cultic life, etc. for the time being, however, we will keep our focus on their bodily properties.

by Apuleius’ reckoning, reflecting their “middle nature,” the bodies of angels must be “adapted to the middle condition” that they inhabit. accordingly, their bodies must be neither “so heavy as terrene, nor so light as ethereal bodies, but after a manner separated from both, or mingled from both, whether they are removed from, or are modified by, the participation of each.” as Apuleius notes, however, it is easiest to imagine them as being mingled from both, rather than mingled from neither, as some other “thing.”

these bodies “will have a little weight, in order that they may not proceed to supernal natures; and they will also have something of levity, in order that they may not be precipitated to the realms beneath.” Apuleius substantiates this picture by reflecting on the composition of the clouds: “the clouds coalesce in a way not much different from this tenuity of body.” however, the analogy breaks down: the bodies of the angels would be much less dense, and therefore, much more attenuated than clouds. he describes them beautifully:

no terrene solidity occupies in them the place of light, so as to resist our perception, since the energies of our sight, when opposed by opaque solidity, are necessarily retarded; but the frame of their bodies is rare, splendid, and attenuated, so that they pass through the rays of the whole of our sight by their rarity, reverberate them by their splendour, and escape them by their subtlety.

unfortunately, however, as delightful and as satisfying as this angelic vision is, it rests upon a physics which is so problematic as to be largely incomprehensible to moderns.

interestingly, Aquinas – although he resolutely insists upon the total immateriality of angels (he argues resolutely that they are purely spiritual-intellectual beings; ST I.50.1-2) – retains a mechanism for angelic embodiment that very much resembles what Apuleius lays out here. assumed angelic bodies are made of “condensed air” organized by the divine power for the purpose of creating a visible manifestation whereby something might be sensibly communicated to a human audience.

Aquinas’ angelology is quite robust and complete for delineating such mechanisms, and reading through it is an excellent speculative exercise. unfortunately, however, he very much relies on neoplatonism in describing the angelic substance, and even includes a version of the pleroma argument: there must be incorporeal creatures, because since God as Creator (the uncreated, incorporeal intelligence) fashioned the physical world (a world populated with bodies), and that world has as its pinnacle embodied intelligences, there must also be unembodied intelligences to mediate between the embodied intelligences and the unembodied Intelligence of the Creator. if this solves the problem of invoking “fire-creatures,” it still presupposes that some entity (other than God) is a purely spiritual creature existing absolute abstraction from the physical world and yet exercises autonomy within it. such an assertion is quite repugnant to modern sensibilities.

to a certain extent this weakness is overcome, however, in that Aquinas suggests that there is a fundamental, created correspondence between the angelic intelligences and the corporeal entities with which they are associated. to this end, Aquinas puts forth the opinion that the angels were created simultaneously with the visible creation (ST I.61.3). from here, it is a relatively short step to suggest that angels (as emergent from complex material constellations) are immanent within yet irreducible to the social-material patterns with which they are associated. this task, however, i shall leave for another time.

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

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…

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.

how Swedenborg became a thing

without a doubt, Henry Corbin’s dense little book Swedenborg and esoteric Islam is the strangest one on my bibliography, yet the deeper i go down that rabbit trail, the more useful and interesting it seems to become. Corbin, as it turns out, is one of those extraordinarily 20th c european intellectuals; he was a friend and close associate of C Jung and M Eliade, although as an islamicist with swedenborgian tendencies attracted towards the mystical side of that religion, and as a philosopher with an interest in rediscovering the unseen world, he was certainly the most eccentric of the bunch. indeed, perhaps Corbin has been relatively forgotten precisely because he actually believed in the spiritual beings he investigated – unlike Jung who psychologized them, and Eliade, who tried to peek behind them to discover something about humanity.

it is refreshing to find such a dense intellectual apologia on behalf of believers, and what we might style as “simple belief.” still, i can’t help but be a little bit wary of Corbin’s project. on the one hand, there is the swedenborgian dimension – and Corbin enthusiastically points the way towards a kind of international, swedenborgian illuminati by drawing the connections he does. he mentions, for instance, a japaneese buddhist monk he conversed with, who had translated four volumes of Swedenborg into japaneese, and refered to him as “the buddha of the west.” (it occurs to me, however, that there really is no reason to believe this story until i have tracked down said volumes. given Corbin’s penchant for imagining sacred history, i can see how he might come to offer such a story as a means of creating a reality that does not yet exist. certainly this happened with another 20th c figure influenced by Swedenborg – Sadhu Sundar Singh [1].) regardless, it is certainly the case now that you have a whole bunch of islamicists, shiites, and sufis who think about Swedenborg in these terms; as the lone voice for a mysticism verging on perennialism in the face of the rising tide of modernism that flattened out the dimensions of consciousness and fanatically quenched the smoldering flax of mysticism.

perennialism, then, is the other problem – and i am trying quite desperately to wrap my head around how one could accept Corbin’s basic tenants without falling into some version of something that amounts to perennialism. perhaps perennialism isn’t as much of a problem as i instinctively think that it is, and i just haven’t thought all the way through it – i suppose might consider accepting that solution if it comes down to it, but only kicking and screaming.

the problem is that we as christians believe that Jesus Christ has uniquely, absolutely, and irrevocably effected all of reality; that through him all things were made, and all things find their purpose, their fulfillment, an their end in him; that he is the source and locus and way of redemption, without whom no man can come to the Father. committed to this truth at the ground of my being, it is not really an option for me to reinterpret Christ as a kind of mystical cipher such that people of other faiths might have access to the same reality through a different name. God’s ways in the world are mysterious, certainly, and i would not rule out the possibility that they have access to profound and transformative truths that perhaps we in our culture have lost connection to. that is fine, but it is my responsibility in appropriating those insights to rediscover them in the holy Scriptures, and also to remain resolute in my commitment to and articulation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe.

as Corbin provocatively articulates a universal and objective reality of the mundis imaginalis, then, this creates something of challenge. as we perceive the imagination becomes an organ of potential perception of a particular kind of reality, not merely a screen on which to project our fantasies, we begin to cultivate the possibility of encountering created spiritual beings in a natural manner. this is not merely superstition or demonism, as popular evangliecalism is rightly wont to dismiss dangerous dabbling in new age and the occult. it is an epistemology that restores to us a natural mode of access to a quite sophisticated unseen world.

the way to handle this, it seems, is to move away from the assumptions that we have developed as Christians over the last several hundred years, that we have a monopoly on access to the supernatural. if this was true at the advent of modernism, it is decreasingly so as people discover their own “spiritual paths.” our definition of the supernatural needs to shift in order to make room for natural, unseen beings, encountered outside of the guidance and the vocabulary of christian experience. if we can accommodate that, we can begin engage in an active and creative reconceputalization of other modes of thought in response to the overwhelming spiritual gravity of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord; of the mysteries that we have come to know and have come to define us – not allowing the world to interpret them according to its scheme, but interpreting the world in the light of so great a salvation.

finally, it is possible that Corbin’s own imagination was quite so profound and effective – not because of, but in spite of some of its influences. Swedenborg may not be the driving force of his work after all: it could be that Corbin is building a framework out of attempting to retranslate an abrahamic tradition, and Swedenborg is simply incidental to this. certainly, Milbank seems to be reading a very different Swedenborg when he can claim that Swedenborg is equally and similarly modern to Kant’s deangeling of the supernatural. [2] Corbin finds Swedenborg a source of life-giving mystagogy and spiritual hermeneutics; Milbank sees him as a somewhat eccentric fellow who wrote the 17th c equivalent of “Heaven is for Real.” the only way to settle this is to sit down and work through Swedenborg, which is somewhat low on my priority list, even if he seems to keep cropping up.

1. See Eric Sharpe The Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Intercultural Publications, 2004. the swedenborgian influence in Singh is tacit — appropriately, Singh assimilates it to himself without mentioning his influence. but Sharpe makes the connection undeniable.
2. See the short section on “Kant and the Angels” in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009. 187-197.