The Importance of ‘Spirit’

This may be a little dense, or ‘meaty’, but I think it’s important to deal with these ideas. So thanks in advance for your time – whether you end up agreeing entirely with my take or not.

Corrupt institutions are all around us, and range from families through schools, workplaces, city government, large corporations, churches at all levels, media systems, and national and international governmental agencies. How should Christians respond to such institutions, i.e. to such corruption? Should we cooperate? Ignore it and its malign influences? Fear and cower? Hate? Undermine? Try to take over?

Christian philosophy is very much about ‘spirit’, so it makes sense for Christians to consider carefully the inner “spiritual” realities of what is going on around us. My simple definition of “spirit” is “the non-physical but morally influential part(s) of us and of the universe around us.” We should expect any deeply Christian answers for our current public dangers to lie largely in that realm of spirit – whatever the precise definition of ‘spirit’ really is.

So. If humans are partly spiritual beings, then groups of humans working or living together are probably also spiritual – as groups – in some ways or other. I personally am sure this is so – that groups have, as groups, very significant spiritual aspects. This can be felt intensely at certain public events like some sports contests, large concerts, or convention meetings. It is more gently felt in certain classrooms, conversations, churches, homes, etc. It may feel good, bad, or just ‘different.’ But it often feels almost physical in its obvious presence.

A human group, by the very fact of being a human group, has a spiritual presence in the world, a power to influence the spirits of people within and around it. And since there is power in that group spirit, “powers” does not seem a bad name for that aspect of human life and experience. It’s a term Paul uses in the New Testament (“principalities and powers”), and a term we often use without entirely penetrating the implications of it, as in “the powers that be.”

Where Does God Fit In?

Where does God come in? Well, these “powers”, and their abilities, are all created (indirectly, but deliberately) by God, since the human beings (each with their own spirituality) within these groups are each created by God. That is, God created the spiritual dynamics – human spirits – that cause these larger “powers” to exist; thus they are ultimately created by God. I believe further that the “powers,” created by God, have important responsibilities to that Creator.

In addition, we know that human individuals can subvert or deny God’s creative gifts and calling. So also any human gathering or institution can likewise subvert or deny God’s gifts and call. When that happens, “there’s trouble right here in River City.” Things do not work as designed, and sometimes literally “all hell breaks loose.” Usually the trauma is less massive, but it is not pretty in any case.

To sum what we’ve seen so far: Human groups, whether long-lasting institutions or temporary gatherings, are spiritual powers in this world and are held responsible by God for the use of that power. That fact of human groups’ accountability to God is a big part of the message of the Old Testament prophets. (These insights have been analyzed at some length by Walter Wink, Auburn Theological Seminary, NYC, and I am drawing on his work here [1].)

Ambiguity, and Accountability Anyway

Now we come to two big factors in all this.

First, an individual human can easily be seen to have crucial characteristics that are also shared by institutions, or “Powers.”

    Any person has a least a little of each of these three characteristics:

  • 1) goodness,
  • 2) badness, and
  • 3) redeemability, or correct-ability.

For example, I’ll bet each of my readers sees within themselves some real good, some aspects that could use at least “some improvement”, and some real possibility of change for the better. Every human is thus morally or spiritually somewhat ambiguous (not totally good, not totally bad, and not entirely stuck in their bad patterns). Each of us is a somewhat confusing, ambiguous mixture of good, bad, and real possibilities for repentance & / or growth.

We can see the same ambiguous but somewhat hopeful situation in almost all human institutions – whether the local school system, the pipe factory, the church down the street, or our own family – there is good there, there is bad there, there is (usually) some realistic hope for important improvements.

Second, God’s gifts, vocation (assignment), and thus accountability, are present on every human institution, just as with every human person. We have all seen those abilities and responsibilities – in persons and in groups – deeply perverted and made profoundly deadly. But that is in violation of their purpose and of God’s requirement. The original intention and vocation are astoundingly good.

So We Can Love AND Confront Institutions, Including ‘Secular’ Institutions

What are the implications of this? We can love our enemies! To “confront” does NOT mean to exploit, dominate, brutalize, or execute. Those are not Christian values, though they are the strategies of both the neocon philosophy dominating our government and the dominionist theology held by leaders in the ‘religious right.’

Wink writes:

“By acknowledging that the Powers are good, bad, and salvageable – all at once – we are freed from the temptation to demonize those who do evil. We can love our enemies or nation or church or school, not blindly, but critically, calling them back time and again to their own highest self-professed ideals and identities.”[2]

You can see here an opening for resistance and reform efforts by religiously motivated people – but not necessarily using religious terminology, metaphysics, or arguments. It’s in Wink’s line, “Calling them [the powers] back … to their own highest … ideals.” Virtually every institution does have some “highest” “self-professed ideals,” and these ideals usually indicate where the call of God lies on that institution.

Take the “news media” for example. We don’t have to quote the Bible or church authorities when we approach a corrupted news source to point out the corruption. We may if it’s appropriate, but we can feel a call of God to get on their case time and again, or to launch resistance or corrective activities against them in response to their dishonesty, corruption, or conflict of interest, and do it in their terms.

We don’t have to ask them to be like us, or to adopt our theology or philosophy, but to be what they know they are supposed to be, what they in fact claim they are being. And we can feel Divine support in so doing, and in cooperating with others so to do, whether those others share our personal theology or philosophy or not.

“We can challenge institutions to live up to the vocation that is theirs from the moment they were created. We can oppose their actions while honoring their necessity.

Of course, we can also make explicit the Christian morality and Divine calling involved. This nation especially, has historically had a special sensitivity to such arguments, so they could no doubt often be used to advantage.

Hope

That I bother to write about this means I think the profoundly dangerous corruptions in the highest levels of American government and media are not necessarily terminal. They could be, of course; but there are also some hopeful signs around.

(I know: “Like what?” Well, for one, the majority of the people who actually tried to vote really really wanted Bush out of there! That’s a big chunk of America. Another, increasing and increasingly effective activity on the internet and blogosphere. Another, Howard Dean, and some backbone showing up in prominent Dems. But I know there are lots of negatives ou there too.)

I’m trying to help justify, motivate, and provide from a Christian philosophical perspective some hope for resistance, for creativity in finding effective ways to resist, and for energetic, intelligent cooperation by Christians with a broad range of resistance efforts.

Such efforts can be Christian – by drawing strength from

  • seeing God’s creation within and among us of great ‘powers‘ and from
  • seeing the on-going accountability of all humans and human institutions to that Creator.

Such efforts can be democratic – by seeing and helping to release the strength of “the people” for high mutually affirmed goals.

Thus we get Christian democratic action – supporting institutional efforts whenever possible, free of institutional domination (“open source”), honest about where the good and the evil show up, energized by significant theological understanding, and cooperating very actively with others – an activism on behalf of the highest values of both the Christian and the American traditions.

Loose Ends

Wink makes three other valuable points to balance his teaching here:

A. Institutions, or “Powers,” are a basic part of God’s plan for the human race. “It is God’s plan for human beings to cooperate in fulfilling basic needs. To this end God wills that there be subsystems whose sole purpose is to serve human need.” “The Biblical understanding is that no institution exists as an end in itself, but only to serve the common good.”

B. This “does not imply that God endorses any particular Power at any given time. God did not create capitalism or socialism, but human life requires some kind of economic system.”

That is, as I take it, God created economic systems in a generic sense by creating humans to be such

  • that they would need economic systems, and
  • that they would use their creativity to come up with economic arrangements.

Thus God “created” economic systems in principle (or intra-societal communication systems, education systems, etc.) but any specific instance could be profoundly beneficial or profoundly corrupt in its formulation and use of those powers. In fact, it is true that each institution is some ambiguous mix of those extremes of benefit and danger – some being much more beneficial, some much more dangerous.

C. “Some institutions and ideologies, such as Nazism or sexism can be reformed only by being abandoned or destroyed and replaced.” It takes wisdom and courage to recognize those, but they must be recognized and dealt with.

Conclusion

If we care to honor God’s interest in human growth and blessedness, we need to pay attention to the institutions and structures of our life as a society. It is very much the work of the Kingdom of God. True – attention to one’s personal spiritual vitality is foundational to such work; but as Christians trying to live the Gospel (what Jesus called “the good news of the Kingdom”) in the real world, we have to go beyond personal spiritual reformation.[3]

What further questions or issues does this raise in your mind?

Notes:

1] For those of you with a theological bent: please note that I am very much not “Wink-ian” in my Christology or in my philosophy of revelation and the Bible. But I see the two little books mentioned in note [3] as extremely valuable for issues of church and state (or other institutions), and also issues of truth, justice, and reconciliation where the powers have gone berserk. And The Powers That Be ranks pretty close behind them.

2] See The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium, Galilee / Doubleday, 1998. (The Wink quotes are from pages 30-34 of this book.) I am also indebted to Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, Herald Press, (1953) 1977, and John Howard Yoder, For The Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical, Eerdmans, 1997.

3] I strongly recommend, in addition to The Powers That Be, these two smaller books by Wink: (They are little books and accessible, but very substantial.) Jesus and NonViolence: A Third Way, Fortress, 2003, and When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations, Fortress, 1997, 1998.