Saturday, April 3, 2010

The bogey of the spiritual

In late 2005, a few months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast of the United States, five people from my church in Iowa, including myself, drove the church van down to Thibodaux, Louisiana, to do relief work through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Thibodaux had largely been spared from the devastation of the hurricanes but was near areas that had been severely hit, the bayou country to the south and New Orleans to the east. We worked for a week in a warehouse that received truckloads of donated goods coming from all across North America. Aid was then either shipped out to nearby areas or, in a few cases, representatives for communities in need could come and pick up supplies themselves. It was in this way that I heard the story of Tony and his wife, Linda.

Tony was 100% French Cajun and came on behalf of an Assemblies of God congregation deep in the bayou country. For Tony, the ordeal of not only surviving the hurricanes but also seeking to provide leadership and assistance for his faith community was an outright spiritual battle on the field of lived experience. Even driving up to Thibodaux that day, Tony and Linda were dodging the slings and arrows of the Devil. Sharing with us an experience that nearly ended their trip to pick up aid, Tony said, “It was a close call, but I rebuked the Devil, said, 'Devil, you ain't gonna stop me from God's work!'”

This experience marks for me an important turning in my own faith, from one that attempts to rationalize and demythologize all such experiences as Tony related to one that takes such experiences seriously, and on the grounds of a biblical Christian theology that is neither na├»ve nor uneducated, as many (including myself) have been tempted or conditioned to believe. The topic of this paper is “spiritual warfare” and the frame is my position on said topic. At this early point in this short reflection on such a huge topic, my position can best be described metaphorically as standing on shifting sand. I locate in my own understanding a shift through time on a topic that is not only interesting to me (for indeed, it is) but holds the potential to profoundly alter the meaning of not only my own faith but also my conception of reality itself. In other words: These are not children's toys I'm playing with. Read on after the break to see how I'm attempting to deal with these questions...

Given that this is serious business, I must now acknowledge that my reflections here will be grossly inadequate. The scholarly material I will use for this reflection will be slim, relying only on Greg Boyd's God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (1997, InterVarsity Press), and an incomplete reading of it at that. I will attempt to not lean too heavily on Boyd's work, but it might appear that I am doing just that. Further, since it was a narrated experience from a fellow believer that helped start this turn in my own understanding of the topic, it seems like ripe territory for qualitative research-style interviews and reflection. Alas, given these constraints and shortcomings, my intent here is to simply stake a marker on my own journey and hopefully invite some fellow sojourners in this territory, perhaps foreign land to some or familiar pathways to others. My audience for this reflection is mostly Christian (certainly my frame of reference), but I do not want to shut out other voices.

At the heart of a discussion of spiritual conflict lies the question of what is meant by “spiritual?” From here we proceed to what is meant by “conflict” or the stronger term “warfare?” These questions, while they may seem obvious, are worth pausing to reflect on as they are surely the source of much disagreement and divergence of thought, belief, and subsequent behavior. Indeed, it is not a stretch whatsoever for me to imagine a person (outside or inside the Christian faith broadly defined) who at the very mention of the term “spiritual warfare” immediately, without hesitation make the mental leap to “religious fanatic” or “fundamentalist,” both in the pejorative sense. Perhaps we see too many news stories about religious violence (another topic I'm actively studying and am inclined to vigorously argue), or maybe we grew up in an oppressive environment with a religious framework, where all things we negatively experienced were given spiritual blessing by those wielding power. Of course, then, the simple conclusion is that these people are wrong and their thought and belief system(s) are wrong. As a young adult American Christian in the 21st century, it is perhaps redundant to state how prototypical this prior hypothetical scenario really is.

A less-common scenario are Christians within the “peace church” tradition who, if they are committed pacifists, see the word “warfare,” immediately think “uh oh,” remembering that God is not coercive much less violent, so how on earth could there be such a thing as spiritual warfare in the first place? So for either of the hypothetical scenarios just described, however stereotypically, the topic of spiritual warfare presents major problems. In the little space remaining, I will summarize Boyd's arguments which make extensive use of Scripture as well as the history of philosophical thought, and offer a few clues on where to go from there. (Hint: I'm anticipating more questions than answers.)

Problems of the type I just described are also described by Boyd and diagnosed as being part of the classical-philosophical “intellectual problem of evil,” manifested in the timeless question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This question is underwritten with a sense of injustice packed into the word “why,” and implies the use of criteria to judge good from bad, for both the people and the things that happen to them.  Of course, the reverse of this question is “Why do good things happen to bad people?”

Boyd attributes this problem to ancient Greek philosophy inherited by Christian thought after Augustine, and makes the case that all biblical authors knew of no such “problem.” Rather, Boyd argues the biblical authors held a cosmology that not only comfortably accepted as reality, but also reported countless sightings and interactions with spiritual beings, referred to in Scripture as “angels” or even “gods.” Not only that but these beings are also reported to have free agency, with some choosing to work with their creator, Yahweh, and the rest of creation, while still others choosing open rebellion against God and creation. While Boyd marks the cultural-historical shift of biblical cosmology, tied to the move from Old Testament to New/Hebrew to Greek, he insists that a broad worldview acknowledging, as real, such phenomena is inextricable from all the pages of the Bible and the world from which they were captured.

I wasn't able to get as far into Boyd's work as I would like, stopping mid-way through God at War, just before he starts getting into New Testament material. It's also worth noting that God at War is the first volume in a two-volume set on this topic. Still working in the background material, I missed where Boyd starts getting into the positively-constructed, practical-for-contemporary-use material, but he does offer a few clues. I don't think it's fair to say that Boyd is advocating flat-literal, ahistorical interpretations of Scripture, or a “return to go” approach (to borrow a term from John Howard Yoder). Rather, I get the impression that he's asking our (post)modern minds to take spiritual realities seriously, and all that entails.

For me, there has always been room for acknowledging and perhaps even observing spiritual realities, but I also have to acknowledge how post-Enlightenment rational thought systems and their progeny have tried to breed this out of me. This deep ambivalence is quite common in the West and shows up in myriad ways. The Church (again, broadly defined) in the West would do well to listen to non-Western voices that are within the past 50 years becoming increasingly prominent in theological circles. These voices, rising largely though not exclusively from the global south, are often much less reluctant to spook at the bogey of the spiritual. It is, in the words of my friend and fellow seminarian, Aaron Kauffman, from our second episode of the parody on church history, a fine time to “Shut up and listen.” More than listening, though, we should also be watching and participating constructively in a world that by all outward signs appears to have gone horribly wrong. Our problem is not asking God why this is. Our problem is that we are not working with and on the behalf of God to help right it.

Boyd, Gregory A. God at War : The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Gumm, Brian. "LaFourche Pt. II." November 28, 2005. (accessed April 3, 2010).
Kauffman, Aaron et al. “Millennium Update, Ep. 2, Pt. 3: Shut Up & Listen.” April 25, 2009. (accessed Aril 3, 2010).

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