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Archive for the tag “spiritual warfare”

Of egregores and angels

In the New Religious Movements discussion forum a couple of weeks ago Matt Stone introduced me to the concept of an egregore. Well, not so much the concept as the term, since the concept was already familiar to me.

It came up in a discussion about the cults of fictional deities, such as Yog Sothoth and Cthulhu, from the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Matt suggested that these might be examples of egregors or egregores, which have been described as:

…a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in. However we should free ourselves from non-essential egregores. If this process is continued for a long time, the egregore will take on a life of it’s own, even if all the members should pass through transition, it would continue to exist on the inner dimensions and can be contacted even for centuries later by a group of people prepared to live the lives of the original founders, particularly if they are willing to provide the initial input of energy to get it going again. These thought-forms are created reality by an individual or a group. They exist in the exoteric and esoteric realms. They are created by groups such as societies or cultures, professions and trades, or any group. They can be accessed by all members of that group. They change as the group contacting them changes. The egregore is prone to change, either to evolve or degenerate as members of that group change. The group then reflects the changing “egregore”. This contact of group members to their “egregore” is automatic in most cases, when the member actually feels that he/she is a member of that group. Most members are unconscious of this process. There are also instances where some groups deliberately use the egregore for the spiritual development and well being of their members. This is true of various mystical organizations.

Now this takes me back to when I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, taking Theology II and New Testament II and the lecturer talked about “principalities and powers”. I’d not given these much thought up till then, but when he started expounding a theory of the atonement in which Jesus defeated the “principalities and powers”, I asked what on earth he was talking about. In my mind, “principalities” were places like Monaco, and the “powers” were the USA and USSR (back then engaged in the Cold War).

The lecturer, Vic Bredenkamp, referred me to a book by G.B. Caird, called, unsurprisingly, Principalities and powers. From reading this I gathered that behind the nations like the USSR and the USA were spiritual powers — national spirits, if you like — and that the ancient Romans actually worshipped this spiritual power of the nation in the form of the genius of the Emperor, and it was their refusal to participate in that cult that got some of the early Christians into trouble with some of the Emperors.

Now in the description of an “egregore” quoted above, we are told that It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in. This links up with Deuteronomy 32:8-9: When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. For the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. “Sons of God” in this case (Hebrew “bene elohim”, literally “sons of gods”) means gods as in Psalm 82 (81 in the LXX numbering), which is is sung boisterously with much stamping of feet and banging on benches in Orthodox Churches in the Holy Saturday Liturgy while the priest scatters bay leaves all over the place, with the oft-repeated chorus “Arise O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations”. Jesus announced the fulfilment of that prayer when he said (John 12:31-32) “Now is the judgment of this world (judge the earth), now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth (Arise O God), will draw all men to myself” (for to Thee belong all nations).

There is an ikon of the scattering of the nations at the tower of Babel that often goes with the ikon of Pentecost (I have not been able to find an example, otherwise I would have put it here) that shows the nations with their angels leaving in different directions. And the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 says that the Most High set the bounds of the nations “according to the number of the angels of God” (kata arithmon angellon Theou). All nations were given their gods, or angels, except Israel, which had a hot line to the Most High, and did not have to go through angelic intermediaries. According to Psalm 81/82 the gods messed up and ruled unjustly, and with the death and resurrection of Jesus all nations became eligible for the hot line (John 12:31f).

These gods/angels are not simply of the nations. Individuals have their guardian angels. Families and communities have theirs. In Reveleation St John saw the angels of the churches. Business firms may have them too, and even ideas and ideologies can have them. In other words, the characteristics of “egregors” may also be the characteristics of angels, and they may be good or evil. As they become evil, they more and more resemble the characteristics of fallen angels, or demons.

Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.

There is one theological problem in all this. As Charles Stewart says in his book Demons and the devil

“The main doctrinal point is simple: NO DUALISM. Satan is not to be regarded as a power equal to God. He is God’s creation and operates subject to divine will.” Other points:

  1. Satan is immaterial; this no excessive concern with his form or geographical associations;
  2. as he has no real power, there is no reason to appeal to him. All rites, sorcery, black magic, astrology and the like that appeal to demons or the devil are fruitless;
  3. Satan’s field of operations is narrow, and the harm he can provoke is limited;
  4. Satan is strictly and intrinsically evil. The Church does not accept the existence of intermediate or ambiguous fairy-like creatures such as neraides, gorgones and kallikantzaroi;
  5. Satan is singular. He is the leader of demons who are fallen
    angels of the same order as himself. There is no real concern
    for the names of demons
    (Stewart 1991:148).

This seems to exclude the idea of spiritual powers, such as angels of the nations that may turn from evil to good and back again, for example when South Africa abandoned apartheid in 1994.

See also Angels, demons and egregores.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Having read a great deal about Pan’s Labyrinth on other blogs several months ago (for example Theofantastique), I had to wait impatiently for it to be released in South Africa, and wondered if it ever would be.

I finally got to see it last night, and it lived up to expectations. Even my wife enjoyed it, and she is not normally a fan of horror films, and this one, as those who have seen it will know, is a blend of fantasy, horror, and stark brutal realism.

It probably had a greater impact on me because I’m in the middle of reading George Bizos’s Odyssey to freedom, a memoir of his time as a human rights lawyer in the apartheid era. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, where Franco’s fascist forces are mopping up the remaining groups of Republican insurgents hiding out in the woods.

The villain of the film, Captain Vidal, could stand in for just about any of the police witnesses that George Bizos had crossexamined in court, when any evidence of torture of political detainees was denounced by prosecutors, and sometimes by the flagrantly biased judges, as attempts to besmirch the good name of the South African Police.

I wonder if the release of the film in South Africa wasn’t timed to coincide with the release of Bizos’s book. In the torture scenes in the film I kept thinking of the lonely death of Steve Biko, or the defenestration of Phakamile Mabija, a church youth minister who was being interrogated by the Security Police in Kimberley. The day we heard the news of his death, I was with a group of people who were saying Anglican Evening Prayer, and the Psalm set for the day was Psalm 94, which seemed most appropriate, especially verses 20-21:

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condemns the innocent to death.

About 10 years ago I tried to write a children’s fantasy novel set in the apartheid era, with a similar blend of fantasy and reality. It wasn’t very good, and was probably too dark for a children’s novel, so I abandoned it. But one thing different about Pan’s Labyrinth was that the this worldly and other worldly realms appeared to have different agendas, which coincided quite coincidentally, as when the little girl’s ailing mother gets better following the advice of the faun who sets her tasks for the other world. In this there are echoes of Narnia, where the young Digory Kirk is seeking an apple from Eden to heal his sick mother.

But there are also sharp contrasts with Narnia. In Narnia the faun, Tumnus, regrets and repents of his role as a Security Police informer, and ends up being detained himself, but in Pan’s Labyrinth the faun turns out to be not much different from Captain Vidal, demanding unconditional obedience in the same terms and in the same tone of voice.

I go out to see films about once or twice a year, and Pan’s Labyrinth was well worth seeing. Thanks to all my blogging friends who wrote reviews of it and made me want to see it. If it weren’t for that I would probably have missed it.

Christianity and horror

Thanks to Elizaphanian: a Christian perspective on horror for pointing to this very interesting interview: FilmChat: Scott Derrickson — the interview.

Speaking of film, Derrickson says that the horror genre “distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre” and when asked about the fantasy genre, Derrickson said:

The evil within the fantasy genre tends to be threatening to the heroes within the story, but not to the reader — or not to the viewer, in the case of cinema — and that’s why I think it’s more palatable, and something that is more easily embraced for a lot of people. Because it does deal directly with good and evil, but it doesn’t serve to actually render feelings of fear and terror within the reader, in the case of literature, or within the viewer, in the case of cinema.

I’ve enjoyed horror films and horror literature since my youth, a taste perhaps fostered by two English teachers I had when I was about 9-10 years old, Murray Bissett and Wilfred Noriskin, both of whom encouraged creative writing and imagination. Murray Bissett, in particular, read us ghost stories, and the boundary between ghost stories and horror stories is often hard to determine. One of the first stories he read us was The ash tree which sounded considerably more horrific to our ears than the author intended, since we pictured a ghostly undead revenant tree, which had resurrected itself from the ashes in the grate, or a forest fire, and planted itself, grey and ghostly with blackened branches, outside a house to haunt the inhabitants. It was only much later that I learnt that there were living, green and growing trees called “ash”.

When I was in high school I discovered a two-volume collection of short stories in a book case at home, edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, mystery, horror. The detection section went unread, the mystery section I read once, but the horror section I read again and again. Two stories in the collection stood out, The Wendigo and Couching at the door..

Not long after that I discovered Dracula, and The devil rides out, by Dennis Wheatley, both classic horror stories of their time. But after leaving school I read very few horror stories, mainly because they were so difficult to come by. There was a film, The innocents based on Henry James’s ghost story The turn of the screw.

The genre has various names, or perhaps there are overlapping genres — horror, supernatural fiction, ghost stories. “Supernatural fiction” seems to cover most of them. And in that category most of Charles Williams’s novels seem to fall, with All Hallows Eve and Descent into hell being ghost stories, and Many dimensions having elements of classic horror.

But as I got older, perhaps my taste got jaded, and most of the “horror” stories ceased to horrify. There was a sort of “I’ve heard it all before” feel. Horror films were even less effective, with too much reliance on special effects and distracting one from the plot with “I wonder how they did that” thoughts.

Of these authors, Charles Williams was Christian, and so was Sayers, though she was an editor rather than an author when it came to horror, and did not write much herself.

Among more recent authors associated with the horror genre is Stephen King, but many of his books are thinly disguised science fiction, where the source of the horror seems to be something that came from outer space (Desperation, It, The tommyknockers). His Pet sematary, Needful things and Salem’s lot are closer to classic horror in the sense of supernatural stories. But even these seem to be nihilist rather than Christian, as far as the examination of evil is concerned. The supernatural evil is just there, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythos. The actual struggle between good and evil takes place at a much more mundane and human level, in the lives of the characters. And when one sees it in that way, it can actually throw some light on the Christian understanding of , as discussed in the recent . So, for example, in Pet sematary the family of the protagonist is visited hy evil revenants, but the battle is not fought primarily between the protagonist and these, but within the heart of the protagonist himself. It is the devices and desires of our own hearts that lead us astray.

This can also be seen in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampire, for all his evil powers, cannot enter the house and harm the inhabitants unless one of the inmates invites him in. Or, as St Peter puts it, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

But for all its value in showing the battle between good and evil, horror is limited, because one becomes sated. Myth and fantasy go deeper, despite Derrickson’s reservations. But I would like to issue a challenge to Derrickson: make a film of a novel. That would be a real achievement.


More thoughts on spiritual warfare

After reading some of the synchronised blogs relating to spiritual warfare I have a few more thoughts on the topic.

There are two points in particular that I want to comment on. One is the desire, expressed by some, to find a different term to replace spiritual warfare.

Related to this is the linking of spiritual warfare to the idea that non-Christian religions are “demonic”, and thus the notion that spiritual warfare is warfare against the adherents of other religions.

My view is that the second of these is a dangerous distortion of the Christian understanding of spiritual warfare, but that it will not be corrected by simply substituting one term for another. A rose by any other name will swell as sweet, and a sewer by any other name will smell as foul. The solution is not to change the name, but to correct the misunderstanding.

Some Biblical references

One problem with the idea of finding another term for “spiritual warfare” is that the concept is embedded in the Scriptures and the Christian worldview, and any term we may devise will probably be inadequate, and may give rise to more serious distortions than those it seeks to prevent. Here are just a few of the scriptural references to the concept of spiritual warfare.

  • II Cor 10:3-5 – Though in the flesh we do not struggle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but powerful to God for destroying strongholds, demolishing arguments and every high thing that rises against the knowledge of God.
  • I Peter 2:11 – Brethren, I beseech you as sojurners and aliens to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.
  • II Tim 2:3-5 – Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

Christians and pagans

The last scripture reference ((II Tim 2:3-5) also relates to Christians and pagans. As the historian Robin Lane Fox has pointed out:

In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life (Fox 1987:30).

This heavenly battle, between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, is one in which there is no peace and no neutrality (see Luke 11:14-26, esp v. 23, “He who is not for us is against us”). If there is no neutrality, then the pagani, those who have not enlisted as soldiers of Christ, must be soldiers in the army of Satan, whether they know it or not That seems to be a logical conclusion, and yet Christians have adopted different views, and ambivalent views, towards non-Christian religions. The stark opposition in Luke 11 is countered by the different view in Mark 9:38-41, “He that is not against us is for us”.

At this point I cannot speak for Western theology, because since Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury and Calvin of Geneva the West has tended to have a different understanding of sin, and notably of original sin. Western theology has tended to see original sin as a macula, a stain on the soul, transmitted from generation to generation, original guilt being transmitted along with original sin.

The Orthodox understanding is somewhat different. I was born in South Africa, and so I am a South African citizen by birth. But there is no mark on my soul to say that I am a South African citizen. Similarly, South Africa is part of the world and the world lies in the power of the Evil One, and so I was also a citizen of the Kingdom of Satan by birth, but in baptism I renounced my citizenship of that Kingdom and was born again as a citizen by birth of the Kingdom of God (Heb 12:22-24). Thus Western theology has tended to see original sin as a matter of heredity, while Orthodox theology has tended to see it as a matter of the environment. Western theology has tended to see sin and evil primarily as something God punishes us for; Orthodox theology has tended to see sin and evil primarily as something God rescues us from.

Having made this qualification about sin in general, and original sin in particular one can see that at the Fall, man lost the likeness of God, but not the image of God. Orthodox theology does not accept the Calvinist theory of total depravity. Human beings, and human society, and human religion became corrupt, but did not become wholly, purely and totally evil.

So Christians (or at least Orthodox Christians) approach pagans from a double point of view. If there is a polytheistic society (and Christianity grew up in a polytheistic society, and most of the religions it encountered inside and outside the Roman empire for the first few centuries were polytheistic) then Christians believe that they do not worship God the creator, but lesser deities, created deities. Most of the pagan creation myths speak of the gods being created. A common word for lesser deities in the time of early Christians was daemones. Daemones inhabited the atmosphere, between earth and heaven. Their primary characteristic was not (at that stage) to be evil, but simply to be lesser gods. We can see this in Psalm 82 (LXX 81). And this is the picture given in the New Testament. Pagans worship creatures rather than the creator. They worship underlings rather than the great God above all gods. Nations have gods, national spirits, as described in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, and can be seen in the Orthodox ikon of Babel when contrasted with the ikon of Pentecost.

So in the New Testament the gods of the pagans are described as demons and idols, not so much to indicate that they are purely evil, but to indicate that they are lesser. “I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.’ Arise O God, judge the earth; for to Thee belong all the nations” (Psalm 82:6-8)

That last verse, “Arise, O God, judge the earth” is sung, accompanied by noisy banging and stamping of feet, by Orthodox Christians on Holy Saturday, and it is a prayer fulfilled by Jesus when he said “Now is the judgement of this world (judge the earth), now shall the ruler of this world be cast out (like any prince), and I, when I am lifted up from the earth (Arise, O God) will draw all men to myself (for to Thee belong all the nations)” (John 12:31)-32).

Later in Christian history the distinction between angels and demons hardened. Angels were good spirits, demons were fallen angels, and strictly evil, to be resisted in spiritual warfare, and yet there is also a sense in which Christians mourn for them and their loss, and even the Archangel Michael did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment against the devil (Jude 6-10).

So the deities of the pagans are daemones, in the sense of being lesser spirits, creatures rather than the creator, and their cult is, like all human worship, fallen. The deities may be angels or demons, (in the good and evil sense) as well. Human religion is corrupt, but it is not completely corrupt, and in Christian mission is not necessarily to be eradicated, but restored and fulfilled. And even Christian worship, undertaken as it is by sinful men in a fallen world, is likely to become fallen and corrupt itself. So we, as Christians, do not necessarily say to pagans “Your religion is bad and ours is good, therefore abandon your bad religion and join our good one.” But we rather say “Come to meet the One who who supersedes all religion, yours and ours, and who calls us to worship in Spirit and in Truth.”

Fr Michael Oleksa notes that the teaching of St Maximus the Confessor gave Orthodox Christianity a more positive view of non-Christian religions than Western theology did. “St Maximus the Confessor wrote that the Logos became embodied not just once, but three times – in the creation of the world, in the Holy Scriptures, and finally and most perfectly as a human being” (Oleksa 1992:38).

It was St Maximus’s opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years. “Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus’ theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed ‘logoi’ related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined” (Oleksa 1992:61).

So when a pagan diviner (in South Africa called a “sangoma”) casts out a demon, should we, like those who accused Jesus, say that he casts out demons by the prince of demons, and denounce it as a satanic deception? If we do, we are seduced into making of accusations, and that is the most satanic deception of all.

See also:

Thoughts on Spiritual Warfare (synchroblog)

The term “spiritual warfare” expresses something fundamental about the Christian worldview: that there is a heavenly battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan.

Such views were not uncommon in the world in which Christianity first appeared. Zoroastrianism was based on the idea of such a battle. Gnosticism has a similar idea, only it was based primarily on a dualistic conception of matter and spirit — spirit was good and matter was evil. Later Manichaeism also promoted such views. But Christianity differed from these in that it rejected the idea that evil was an equal and opposite force to good. Christianity taught that God was good, and his creation was good. While good can exist without evil, evil cannot exist without good, just as good money can exist without counterfeit money, but counterfeit money cannot exist without a system of good money. Evil cannot create anything. It can only twist and pervert the good things that God has created.

While Western theology later saw an important distinction between natural and supernatural, Orthodox theology maintained that the primary distinction is between created and uncreated. The significant thing about angels, demons and the devil is not that they are “supernatural”, and therefore different from us, but that they are created, and therefore, like us, are dependent on God. The devil has indeed rebelled against God, but remains a creature, and therefore distinct from and certainly not equal to the Creator.

The devil has sought to draw the whole earth into his rebellion, and so St John tells us that “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (I Jn 5:19). The world is therefore enemy-occupied territory. But in Jesus Christ God himself has entered the enemy-occupied territory, and begun to reclaim it from the usurper, Satan.

In describing this process, Christian theology has often used military imagery and terminology. One could say that by his death and resurrection Christ has created a liberated zone within the enemy-occupied territory that is the world. When we become Christians, therefore, we enter the liberated zone of the Kingdom of God.

The Orthodox baptism service is preceded by no fewer than four exorcisms. By being born into the world we are citizens by birth of the Kingdom of Satan, possessed by Satan. But possession is not the same as ownership, and so the exorcisms are to liberate us from the power of the devil. Only then are we free to renounce him, facing the West, the direction of darkness, unshod. Then turning, literally “converting” to face the East, the direction of light, of the “Orient from on High”, we unite ourselves to Christ, and acknowledge him as our King and our God. Then we are baptised, and transferred from the authority of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Lk 22:53; Col 1:13-14). Baptism is therefore analogous in some ways to an earthly naturalisation ceremony, when we renounce our alliegiance to one country and pledge it to another. The difference, however, is that most states in the world distinguish between citizens by birth and citizens by naturalisation, but by baptism we are born again by water and Spirit, and so become citizens of the kingdom of God by birth.

In our baptism, Christ snatches us out of the clutches of the devil, out of Hell itself. But though we have been taken out of Hell, Hell has not been entirely taken out of us. We are made citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, but much of our thought and behaviour has been shaped by our sojourn in the kingdom of Satan. We therefore need to put off the old man and put on the new, we need to walk worthy of the calling by which we have been called, as St Paul puts it. We need to become godly. And it is at this point that our ascetic struggle, our spiritual warfare, becomes most fierce, because the devil will try by all means to recapture those who have escaped from his prison.

In almost every one of St Paul’s epistles, he begins by saying what God has done for us by saving us from the power of the devil and bringing us into his kingdom, and then about halfway through there is a “therefore”, and he then describes the kind of behaviour that belonged to our old life that we must put off, and the godly ways that we must put on. God has done all these things for us, therefore we need to change our lives and live like this. It is important to see what the therefore is there for.

As I see it, there are three aspects of spiritual warfare, or three main ways in which we may become engaged in spiritual warfare:

The ascetic struggle against the passions

The ascetic struggle (Greek ascesis, Russian podvig) is compared by St Paul to the training of an athlete to win a race. It is also analogous to military discipline and training. Discipline and discipleship are related words. The podvizhnik is a spiritual athlete who is becoming fit. As we put off the passions and embrace dispassion (apatheia) we draw closer to God, and become more godly.

Deliverance from demonic oppression

When we read the New Testament we see that our Lord Jesus Christ devoted a considerable part of his earthly ministry to casting out unclean spirits from people who were oppressed by them, or were demonised (eg Mk 1:22-24; Mk 1:35-37). This is also part of the ministry of the followers of Jesus (eg Lk 10:17-20).

Deliverance from political and economic oppression in the world

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So said Lord Acton, the 19th-century British Liberal and Catholic historian.

There are three Greek words in the New Testament that are sometimes translated into English as power. Dynamis, exousia (authority) and kratos (force). Political, economic and religious power are abstract forces, but they nonetheless have concrete effects on people’s lives. St Paul tells us (in Romans 13:1-7) that rulers and authorities are instituted by God for our good, and yet also says (in Eph 6:10-12) that we are engaged in a struggle against them, and that they are “the world powers” (kosmokratores) of the darkness in which we find ourselves.

How these three aspects of spiritual warfare are linked

Each of these three aspects of spiritual warfare deserves an essay on its own, and cannot be dealt with fully here. What follows is a few thoughts that have occurred to me as I have read other blog entries on the topic recently.

The ascetic struggle is primary. It is part of the training and discipline we need in order to engage in other aspects of the struggle.

This sometimes causes problems for Protestants, for whom the language of the ascetic struggle sometimes sounds like Pelagianism — the idea that we are not saved by God’s grace, but by own own efforts to live a good life. The spiritual basis of Pelagianism is summed up in the aphorism “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is very far indeed from the spirit of Christian asceticism.

The difference can be seen in the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, which in Christian typology is regarded as a foreshadowing of baptism. The people of Israel left Egypt unwillingly. Not only was Pharaoh reluctant to let them go, but they themselves expressed misgivings, and found it hard to choose between the security of slavery and the uncertainties of freedom. The crunch came at the Red Sea. With the sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them, the choice seemed to be between recapture and drowning. Then God opened the way through the sea. That was pure grace. It was not dependent in any way on the efforts of the people of Israel. It was only on the far side of the Red Sea that the people went to Mount Sinai and God gave Moses the ten commandments, and God said, in effect, “You are no longer Pharaoh’s slaves but you are my people, and if you are my people you are to live like this.” Obeying the ten commandments would not get them across the Red Sea. But having been brought through the sea by grace, and abandoned Pharaoh’s kingdom for God’s kingdom. they were asked to adopt a way of life that befitted the citizens of God’s kingdom. Most of them failed to do so and their corpses littered the desert (I Cor 10:1-4).

Christian asceticism is not undertaken to placate an angry God who wants nothing better than to punish us if we disobey; it is undertaken in gratitude to a loving God who has delivered us from the authority of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13).

And so, to extend the military metaphor a bit, just as the soldiers of the armies of this world will fare badly against the enemy if they are untrained, don’t know one end of a rifle from the other, go straight from being a couch potato into a 100 kilometre route march with a 40 kg pack, and don’t even know what the enemy looks like, so in spiritual warfare we need to be trained and equipped. But our warfare is spiritual. We are not equipped with Molotov cocktails and AK 47s. The equipment listed in Ephesians 6:13-17 makes this quite clear. And it is the ascetic struggle (podvig/ascesis/jihad) that supplies us with these weapons and teaches us how to use them.

Bishop Hierotheos of Nafpaktos says that “occupation with social problems presupposes that a man has been cured, otherwise, instead of solving problems, he creates still more”.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The primary aspect of spiritual warfare, therefore, is the struggle against the passions leading to theosis (divinisation, godliness). As St Peter says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (II Pet 1:3-4).

And also, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (I Pet 1:14-15).

And “I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (I Pet 2:11).

The aim of this aspect of the struggle therefore is dispassion (apatheia), not so much that passions are suppressed, as that they are transfigured by communion with God. A passion is something undergone passively, something that we suffer. So passions like anger, lust, hatred, jealousy, envy, malice etc. take control of us, and we become slaves of our desires and passions. Spiritual growth means that instead of being controlled by our passions, we control them.

When we consider things like political, economic and religious power, as I hope I have shown above, we need to purify ourselves by the ascetic struggle in order to be able to handle them, otherwise, as Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos points out, we shall simply end up as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

These powers are related to human institutions, and what our Lord Jesus Christ said of the Sabbath applies to them, mutatis mutandis. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Like the passions, therefore, the new man in Christ will control them, not be controlled by them.

This can be seen in the early Christian response to the Roman religion of emperor worship. In the emperor cult, the power of the state became sacrosanct. Note that the power is not evil in itself. Lord Acton’s dictum is often misquoted as “all power corrupts”, but that is not what he said. He said that power tends to corrupt. It is only when power becomes absolute, when it is worshipped and idolised, as in the emperor cult, that it corrupts absolutely.

This applies not merely to political power, but to economic power. It is when economic power is idolised and made absolute that it becomes evil. This can be seen in two apparently conflicting ideologies: Free Market Capitalism and Marxism Leninism. At first glance they seem quite different. When one examines them more closely, however, they turn out to be two denominations of the same religion. The difference is that for the Free Marketeers the name of the deity is “the free rein of the market forces” and for the other “the dialectical forces of history” but both are agreed that man must be dominated by economic forces.

The same can be seen with religious power, and the power struggles in many religious organisations and groups are sufficient evidence of this.

Many people may think that this is remote from them. “I am not a politician, a businessman or economist or trade union leader, I am not a bishop or other church leader”, one may think. But most of us have some authority (exousia) at some point in our lives, the authority of parent over child, teacher over pupil, older sibling over younger sibling. Abuse of power can be seen as much in domestic violence as in detention without trial, and it too comes from failure to control the passions, but being controlled by them. So domestic violence too is spiritual warfare, and involves the struggle against passions like anger.

Recognising that such battles are spiritual warfare also protects us, to some extent, from self-righteousness. A wicked ruler may oppress people, but we can recognise that the enemy is not the oppressor, but oppression itself. Otherwise it is all too easy to seek to overthrow a tyrant and put ourselves in his place.

This notion, however, is sometimes difficult for atheists and secularists to grasp (see, for example, The Atheologian: Acton: power and corruption). It seems like a cop out, to offer the excuse “the devil made me do it”, and so wriggle out of personal responsibility. But the podvizhnik will recognise that “I let the devil make me do it, I invited the devil to make me do it.”

St Michael the Archangel, who battles with the devil and expels him from  heaven

St Michael the Archangel, who battles with the devil and expels him from heaven

But who, or what, is the devil? The devil, or satan, is primarily the accuser. “Satan” is not really a name, but a noun, and it means accuser, and specifically someone who brings accusations in a court of law. In the Old Testament this is what Satan does — he accuses Job (Job ch 2) and the High Priest Joshua (Zech 3:1-5) before God. The Christian Church interprets these typologically as referring to the accusation of Christ our high priest, and Satan is tossed out of court for making false accusations — “The accuser of our brethren is thrown down” (Rev 12:10) and “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

The most satanic activity of all, therefore, is the making of accusations.

There are some Christians who are very concerned about Satanists, and believe that “spiritual warfare” is concerned with battles against Satanists and other practitioners of “the occult”. But that is really quite far from the truth. Satan is not particularly concerned about Satanists. They have voluntarily entered his prison and have promised that they will not try to escape. Satan is much more concerned about those who have escaped, and that means Satan is far, far more active in churches than he is in Satanist circles. And if he can get people accusing each other and everyone else, he will be very satisfied indeed.

That’s probably more than enough, so I’ll end with three quotations, or summaries, from a couple of books.

The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin; sin in turn places one closer to the Devil… Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force (Stewart 1991:146).

Asceticism – prayer, fasting and the like, are required of all Christians, but monastics seek to live a life of prayer in order to become prayer. They renounce pleasures, not because they are evil in themselves, but to demonstrate the Christian perfection is attainable in this world. It is the development of a merciful heart and compassion for all. “And what is a merciful heart? The burning of the heart on account of all creation, on account of people and birds and animals and demons, and for every created being.” There is no escapism here, no denunciation of the world or hatred of society or of sinners, but only compassion, patience and love. Prayer is an essential component of this spiritual struggle (Oleksa 1992:73-75).

“The main doctrinal point is simple: NO DUALISM. Satan is not to be regarded as a power equal to God. He is God’s creation and operates subject to divine will.” Other points:

  1. Satan is immaterial; thus there is no excessive concern with his form or geographical associations;
  2. as he has no real power, there is no reason to appeal to him. All rites, sorcery, black magic, astrology and the like that appeal to demons or the devil are fruitless;
  3. Satan’s field of operations is narrow, and the harm he can provoke is limited;
  4. Satan is strictly and intrinsically evil. The Church does not accept the existence of intermediate or ambiguous fairy-like creatures such as neraides, gorgones and kallikantzaroi;
  5. Satan is singular. He is the leader of demons who are fallen angels of the same order as himself. There is no real concern for the names of demons (Stewart 1991:148).


  • Oleksa, Michael. 1992. Orthodox Alaska: a theology of mission. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  • Stewart, Charles. 1991. Demons and the devil: moral imagination in modern Greek culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Links to other blogs synchroblogging on Spiritual Warfare

Note: since this synchroblog was a long time ago, some of these links may no longer work. Some have been abandoned, and some may have been deleted.

  1. Phil Wyman – Witches, and Spiritual Warfare
  2. John Smulo – Portraits of Spiritual Warfare
  3. Mike Crockett – Sufism: How the Inner Jihad relates to Christian Spiritual Warfare
  4. Steve Hayes – Thoughts on Spiritual Warfare
  5. Marieke Schwartz – Grace in War
  6. Cindy Harvey – Spiritual Warfare. (?)
  7. Jenelle D’Allesandro – The Militancy of Worship
  8. Mike Bursell – Spiritual Warfare: a liberal looking inwards
  9. David Fisher – Spiritual Warfare: Does it have to be loud and wacky?
  10. Brian Heasley – Something from Ibiza via Ireland
  11. Webb Kline – Webb Kline
  12. Sally Coleman – Sally Coleman
  13. Mike Murrow – Mike Murrow

Another synchro-blog: Spiritual warfare

Last month a group of us posted a “synchroblog” — several blogs dealing with the same general topic. Proved quite a stimulating exercise, and Phil Wyman has proposed that we do another one in January, this time on the theme “Spiritual warfare”.

This is not an exclusive game — anyone can join in. All you need to do is post something in your blog on the theme of “spiritual warfare” on 10 January, and let Phil know so that he can add you to the list.

The result is a number of posts on the same topic from different points of view.

There have already been a number of separate discussions on the topic (for mine, click on the “spiritual warfare” tag in the labels for this post, and it should bring them all up). The idea is to try to draw the threads together.

Hanging Saddam Hussein and loving enemies

Hanging Saddam Hussein will do as much for Iraq as hanging P.W. Botha would have done for South Africa — see my earlier post: Notes from underground: What to do with old dictators.

Pastor Phil Wyman makes some interesting points on treating people as enemies in his blog Square No More: Those Who Pray Together Slay Together.

In the recent obituaries on Gerald Ford, the former US president, it seems that for many the biggest mistake he made was pardoning Richard Nixon.

St Paul warns us (in Eph 6:10-12) that our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness. Hanging oppressors does not get rid of oppression. Yet we persist in thinking that we are fighting against flesh and blood, and so the cycle of vengeance continues.

It appears the US president George Bush wants Saddam Hussein to hang — but if Bush is ever brought to trial for his war crimes, will there be any to plead for him to be pardoned?

I have heard that at the war crimes trials of Nazi leaders at Nuremburg one of the difficulties faced by the court was convincing the accused that they were not on trial for losing the war, but for starting it. That Bush would lose the war in Iraq was a foregone conclusion; his crime was starting it in the first place.

PW Botha, so far as I know, went to his death unrepentant. Would hanging him have made things better? Did Jesus make loving enemies conditional on their repentance? It seems to me that in demanding vengeance we demonstrate that we have been infected by the same virus as those we seek to kill. Killing people does not kill the virus, it just causes it to seek a new host. And the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies behave very much like viruses in that respect — C.S. Lewis called them “macrobes” rather than “microbes”.

People with secular values find this difficult to understand. They believe it is letting people off the hook, denying responsibility, and letting them get away with it using the excuse “The devil made me do it.” But for Christians that excuse doesn’t wash. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” That is the real spiritual warfare — resisting the devil when he tempts us, and especially when he tempts us with the relatively undemanding exercise of confessing other people’s sins and ignoring our own.

Rulers and authorities, territorial spirits, spiritual warfare

Phil Wyman has blogged quite a bit about spiritual warfare and territorial spirits recently here, and here and here.

I think this might be a good topic to discuss in the Christianity and society discussion forum, and I hope that Phil might write a kick-off article there, but I thought I’d put down some more personal thoughts here.

For me I suppose it started at a Biblical Studies lecture at university, when the lecturer talked about the “principalities and powers” of Ephesians 6 as if they were spiritual forces. I had assumed that “principalities” referred to places like Monaco, and “powers” referred to states like the USA, the USSR and so on. They were called “world powers” in newspapers, and the New Testament Greek kosmokratores seemed to be an exact equivalent. The lecturer exposed the limitations of my view by pointing out that St Paul had said that these powers were “in the heavenlies” and were not just earthly powers. He referred me to a book by G.B. Caird, Principalities and powers, which, he said, would explain all this.

I read Caird’s book, and a couple of others on the topic, which dealt with the connection between Ephesians 6:10-12 and Romans 13:1-2, and began to look at other uses of the words archontes (rulers) and exousia (authority) in the Bible. This led to the Dionysian Nine, and a whole lot of things suddenly fell into place, including Charles Williams’s novel The place of the lion, which I re-read with new eyes.

It also made sense of things like the Roman religion of emperor worship, and why Christian opposed the emperor cult, which was based on the idea that behind human authority was a spiritual authority, which could be recognised by its symbols, for our conflict is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies. A flesh and blood traffic cop who steps into a fast-moving stream of traffic wearing his pyjamas is likely to be ignored or run over. In his uniform, it is a different matter. It is not his flesh and blood that stops the traffic, but his authority. If he tried to stop a 26-wheeler with his flesh and blood, the result would be painful to behold. And the emperor cult did not involve worship of the flesh and blood emperor, but his genius, his authority. A couple of emperors did think they were divine in their flesh and blood, and most of their contemporaries recognised that they were nuts.

Passages like Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and Psalm 82 (LXX 81) suddenly made more sense in the light of this. There are such things as national spirits, and it is possible for a country to become demonised. The political struggle against apartheid was more than just a struggle against flesh and blood rulers. If the struggle were just against a Verwoerd, a Vorster or a Botha, then it should be possible to solve the problem by assassination – tyrannicide. But our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, the authorities…

Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educationist, put a new slant on this in his somewhat turgid book Pedagogy of the oppressed, when he said that oppression makes the oppressed feel less than human, and to the oppressed the oppressor seems more fully human. So the oppressed tends to internalise the spirit of the oppressor. When the oppressed overthrow the oppressors, they tend to become oppressors in turn. What needs to be overthrown is not so much the oppressor as oppression itself.

We saw a paradigm case of this in South Africa in 1976. Seventy years before, after the Anglo-Boer War, Alfred Lord Milner, the instigator of the war, tried to Anglicise the Afrikaners by forcing them to learn through the medium of English. Seventy years later Andries Treurnicht and Ferdi Hartzenberg tried to force black school kids to learn though the medium of Afrikaans. They had internalised the spirit of their ancestral oppressor, Milner. And the result was the Soweto riots, and the massacre of school kids.

What was needed was not so much the overthrow of the flesh and blood oppressors, as the exorcism of oppression. And that, of course, begins with me. It is not just Hartzenberg and Treurnicht who have internalised the spirit of the oppressor, but I have too. That is where the theological concept of nepsis (watchfulness) comes in. Spiritual warfare fought without nepsis and apatheia (dispassion) is apt to lead to prelest (spiritual delusion).

I wasn’t much interested in exorcism of places until there were police riots in the Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town: police chased demonstrating students into the cathedral and beat them up inside. I asked the publications department of the Anglican Church if they had an exorcism service, and they sent me their entire stock, saying there had never been any demand for it. But I was disappointed to see that that service was only for the exorcism of persons, not places. I thought that after the police riots a public exorcism of the Cathedral would have been a good thing.

Are there territorial spirits? Is there a need for exorcism of places? I believe that there certainly has been a need for the exorcism of the White House and the Pentagon since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There seems to have been no earthly reason for it, only an infernal one. And perhaps going back even further, to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

Going back further still, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the wars of the Yugoslav succession, seemed to turn formerly good neighbours into demonised furies from hell.

This post is a bit scrappy and disconnected. It probably needs to be a lot longer to join the dots, but perhaps the last word can be given to G.B. Caird, from his Commentary on the Revelation of St John the Divine (Caird 1966:163-164), when writing about the beast from the abyss in Revelation 12:

But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less: more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, ‘God’s agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender’ (Rom. 13. iv) .


Some of these themes have also been covered here:

Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Powers, # 2)Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence by Walter Wink
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first glance I thought he had written the book that I always wanted to write, but on closer
examination I saw that he hadn’t. But there is sufficient overlap that most publishers would not be willing to look at another book on the same subject

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