Identifying the Powers


“The world is, to a degree at least, the way we imagine it.”

Near the beginning of the first chapter of The Powers That Be, Walter Wink makes this statement to highlight the need to understand “worldviews” before tying into a discussion on the “principalities and powers.” Wink claims this understanding is the key to escaping the control the Powers have on our minds, though he makes the point that there is remarkably little discussion of worldviews. It may be, he proposes, because we are among the first in history to identify a variety of worldviews, and correspondingly, be able to choose between them.

He lays out a typology of five worldviews over Western history:

(1) The ANCIENT worldview: The worldview of the Bible, but also the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians, and Chinese, where every event has both an earthly and heavenly counterpart (e.g. war breaks out on earth, then war breaks out in heaven).

(2) The SPIRITUALIST worldview: The worldview of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, as well as the stereotypical sexual attitudes of Puritanism, where spirit is good, but matter is evil. Religion’s job, therefore, was to rescue humanity from the “flesh.”

(3) The MATERIALIST worldview: The worldview of the Enlightenment and commonly associated with science, where the spiritual is rejected as an illusion and matter is ultimate.

(4) The THEOLOGICAL worldview: This worldview came as a reaction to the materialists and, in effect, created a separation of theology and science. Earthly reality was conceded to science while “spiritual matters” were reserved for theologians.

(5) The INTEGRAL worldview: This new worldview is emerging from a variety of places, including feminist theology, many Native American religions, Carl Jung, and more. This view is not radically different from the ancient view, with all things having both an inner and outer reality, but in this case there is not the view of heaven, et al, being somewhere “up in the air” with correspondents on planet earth. To use the spatial metaphor, the spiritual aspect is less “up” and more “within.”

And, of course, most of us subscribe to parts of each of these in our individual worldviews.

Now why this matters…

If we are to discuss angels and demons, devils and gods, principalities and powers, we need to establish a way to carry on a real conversation. For example, a MATERIALIST believes all of these words are superstitions that intelligent people no longer discuss while one holding the ANCIENT view may get all aflutter reading Frank Peretti’s novels depicting angels fluttering around the skies in a fencing duel above an abortion clinic. This dichotomy makes productive dialogue near impossible.

Wink suggests moving the spiritual conversation away from angels/demons dueling in the sky to a more integral view and frame discussions around the very institutions where we encounter evil. He does so, not to avoid reality, but instead to avoid our tendency to personalize evil. When we center our thoughts on battling Satan in a tight red leather jumpsuit or, say, “the boogey man,” we separate evil from the actual places we “experience” evil (e.g. terrorist cells, racist organizations, gender discriminatory policies, etc.).

Allow Wink to illustrate: “Think, for example, of a riot at a championship soccer game. For a few frenzied minutes, people who in their ordinary lives behave on the whole quite decently suddenly find themselves bludgeoning and even killing opponents whose only sin was rooting for the other team. Afterward people often act bewildered and wonder what could have possessed them. Was it a ‘riot demon’ that leapt upon them from the sky, or was it something intrinsic to the social situation: a ‘spirituality’ that crystallized suddenly, caused by the conjunction of an outer permissiveness, heavy drinking, a violent ethos, a triggering incident, and the inner violence of the fans? And when the riot subsides, does the ‘riot demon’ rocket back to heaven, or does the spirituality of the rioters simply dissipate as they are scattered, subdued, or arrested?”

Wink argues that such a “spiritual” reality cannot be separated from its material counterpart.

So the question finally becomes, not whether or not there is such a thing as a spirit of an organization for instance, but whether or not we can identify them, and better yet, whether or not we can engage the ones that become “demonic” and keep them from wreaking havoc on the world around us. Wink argues that this is a task given to ekklesia (church) in Paul’s writings (Ephesians 3:10), while confessing the church to be “as fallen and idolatrous as any other institution in society.”

Wink also turns to Paul to point out that the “principalities and powers” were created for good (Colossians 1: 16), but that they are regularly fallen and in need of redemption. To illustrate, Wink refers to capitalism’s philosopher, Adam Smith, to remind us that capitalism’s original purpose was to serve the general welfare, not care only for the bottom line. When “capitalism” falls (which it most obviously has), it needs someone (or something) to call it back to its good intention.

To conclude for now, I’ll let Wink speak for himself: “The relevance of the Powers for an understanding of evil should by now be clear. Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution ‘and’ its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed. Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.”

Can we all agree with that?

(Next week: “Transforming the Powers”)

8 Responses to “Identifying the Powers”

  1. Sandi Says:

    I think this is pretty radical stuff for most Church of Christ folks. 🙂 I definitely subscribe most to the Integralist worldview, at least my more sentimental side does, and secondarily the Materialist. So I definitely agree with what he’s saying about not personifying evil. Growing up in the church, I feel that I was encouraged to picture the guy in the red suit, although fortunately I was not generally asked to personify evil in the form of human beings, as some churches do. Bravo to him for bringing in the structural stuff — it’s not what politically conservative folks want to hear, since they want to believe that everything is within the control of the individual, but it’s much closer to truth than anything I ever heard in church.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Not to be difficult, but I don’t quite buy the typology. Maybe I just don’t understand what he’s driving at. Numbers 3, 4, and 5, I’ll go along with. I’ll buy #2, but with the proviso that it is pretty much orthodox doctrine in all of Christianity; hardly unique to Puritanism.

    I’m not sure what to make of his Ancient category. While the Bible has a great deal in common with other religions of the ancient world, the precise mirroring in heaven of what happens on earth (or vice versa) doesn’t seem to be one of them. Warfare is a good example. This is due in large part, I would guess, to the Bible’s monotheism; you can’t very well have the gods warring with one another, as they do in Indian cosmology or Graeco-Roman myth and epic, if there’s only one god. Nor do I know of anything in the OT that posits battles in the spirit world (e.g., between angels and demons) corresponding to the Hebrews’ battles.

    Also, based on what little I know of them, I’m not aware that the religions of China and India had/have anything like the Graeco-Roman and Egyptian notion of the afterlife.

    It seems to me there should be a #6, too, for those who recognize science, but, unlike the Theological view, don’t concede the material world to it. I don’t see how Evangelicals would fit into any other category. Well, they would fit in #2, but, and this is another problem, a lot of people would fit in both 2 and 4 (or 2 and my proposed #6).

    Maybe the types are meant to be grouped: 1 & 2 cover the prescientific world, and 3-5 address the world since the rise of science. That would make more sense, but I’d still have the same problems with #1.

    What am I missing, Al?

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You’re missing first of all (and most importantly) that I’m not the best at explaining things. This, of course, doesn’t bode well for my trying to answer your question.


    I think #1 is better understood without my example (or better yet, seeing my example as just “an” example of something that would fit into this type of worldview). The emphasis in this worldview instead is that the spiritual is “up in the sky” somewhere yet related to “things down here” (for another example, the whole Greco-Roman god system). The major difference between #1 and #5 is spatial.

    Wink explains that tons of folks today still subscribe to this Ancient view.

    Anyway, his major point isn’t so much the accuracy of his typology. Instead, he doesn’t want our discussion to become relegated to either “pie in the sky” stuff OR practical “how to fix the world.” There are both spiritual and material parts to discussing the “powers of this world” and both must be in the discussion. His point with the typology was to break down any barriers so we can ALL be involved in the discussion.

    Bottom line: There are spiritual aspects to world powers/organizations/systems, no matter which perspective we are coming from.

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Okay. I’ll move on, then.

    Wink suggests moving the spiritual conversation away from angels/demons dueling in the sky to a more integral view and frame discussions around the very institutions where we encounter evil. He does so, not to avoid reality, but instead to avoid our tendency to personalize evil.

    How does he propose to persuade those who hold the personalized view of evil to move to his integral view? ISTM that most of the people in that category are there because they are biblical literalists, and they are not going to move off their prooftexted view of evil (and, by extension, their understanding of “principalities and powers”) just because Wink has given them a place in his discussion.

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Excellent question. Here’s my try at an answer:

    He does not try to persuade them to the integral view per se (he favors it, but not exclusively). In fact, he sort of leaves the demon/Satan question (sorry for the pun) up in the air. When I said he tries to move the discussion away “not to avoid reality,” that was meant to concede that maybe those with the ancient view are right, but that it accomplishes little conversing about what’s happening in the air somewhere.

    He writes, “The New Testament insists that demons can have no impact on us unless they are able to embody themselves in people (Mark 1:21-28; Matt 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26), or pigs (Mark 5:1-20), or political systems (Rev 12-13)… For the present, I have set aside the actual status of these Powers, and instead have attempted to describe what it was that people in ancient times were EXPERIENCING when they spoke of ‘Satan,’ ‘demons,’ ‘powers,’ ‘angels,’ and the like.”

    Bottom line: So you think Satan wears red Spandex? Fine. But instead of discussing where he does his shopping, let’s instead discuss how he works through groups like Al Qaeda, or the United States government, or the Church of Christ, or Starbucks (just to name a few).

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’m for it. But I was for it to start with. I just don’t see much in his argument that would move the Peretti/Left Behind crowd.

    Assuming they did come along this far, I think they would respond to your discussion invitation thus:

    — Al Qaeda is Satan’s tool from first to last; their very existence is evil, given that they are unbelievers, false teachers, and opposed to Christianity in every possible way.

    — Satan works through the U.S. gov’t by getting the Supreme Court to legalize abortion, outlaw the 10 Commandments, nativity scenes, and ban prayer and bible study from schools. He causes the Congress to vote down the gay marriage ban amendment and the flag burning amendment. These are chief among the evils of the U.S. gov’t. It needs to be redeemed so this nation can [once again] be the nation whose God is the Lord.

    — Satan works in the CsofC when he causes them to depart from true worship, from clear biblical teaching on the role of women, and from the tried and true CEI hermeneutic.

    — Satan works through Starbucks by causing them to extend insurance benefits to unmarried partners, even same-sex partners, and to create a haven for deviant styles of dress and music, etc.

    Where would Wink suggest we go with that discussion?

    (BTW, my own opinion is that Satan has caused blogspot to go plumb apey with the security restrictions they put on what html one can put in a comment. It’s evil, I tell you. Evil!)

  7. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Despite the strong desire to puke, I think he’d day, “Okay, good, now you’re ready for my next chapter!”

    (Which means I need to scrape together another post.)

    Today’s word verification: markofthebeast


  8. Al Sturgeon Says:

    To my last comment, I suspect he’d “say” and not “day.”

    But who knows now-a-days, what with all these new-fangled ideas floating around…

    Word verification: sixsixsix

    This is starting to freak me out.

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