Revisiting Spiritual Warfare as a Progressive Christian

Lectio divina on this morning’s second reading from the Daily Lectionary.

Click here to read it.

you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. (1 Thess 5:5)

Of course, Indigo Girls fan that I am, I immediately started singing this song in my head:

My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark
and I do not feel the romance, I do not catch the spark.
By grace, my sight is growing stronger
and I will not be a pawn
for the Prince of Darkness any longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about spiritual warfare lately. You know, angels n’ demons n’ stuff.

When I was part of the charismatic movement in college, I obsessed over this topic in a literalistic sense. Once I left behind the conservative theology I formerly held, this is one of the things I stopped thinking about.

In recent years, I have been returning to the language of my tradition with a new set of eyes. This has come as I have re-engaged with traditional liturgy, mostly through the Book of Common Prayer and the Rule of St. Benedict.

The funny thing, especially for one who identifies as a theological “liberal”, is that the transformation process is a two-way street. Yes, I am a bit revisionist in the way that I engage with the language of my tradition. I read a lot of Marcus Borg and use catchphrases like, “I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”

My worldview shapes the way I interact with the liturgy. But the opposite is also true: The liturgy also shapes ME and the way I interact with my worldview.

I am not a strict religious naturalist. The philosophical term that most closely aligns with my personal belief is panentheism (Google it). I believe that the mythical language of my tradition gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not accessible (for me, anyway) through the rational processes of the scientific method. As one sister is fond of saying, “There’s a THERE there,” when it comes to theology.

(EDITORIAL NOTE: Dr. Renee Lee Gardner, Formation Minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo and my personal source for this quote, has informed me that the phrase originates with novelist Gertrude Stein.)

It has been quite easy to affirm that idea in pleasant matters related to God, Christ, and the Sacraments. But what about the darkness: i.e. sin and the demonic?

Several recent events have coalesced to lead me back to the language of spiritual warfare.

On a personal level, I have sat with dear friends who wrestle with addictions and broken relationships. On a social level, I am watching with deep lament the bitter hatred that seems to have taken hold of my country and manifested itself through the Trump campaign.

My partner recently attended the Why Christian? conference in Chicago and participated in a breakout session on Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare for Progressive Christians led by Richard Beck, author of Reviving Old Scratch.

Other thinkers who have been informative for me on this subject have been my seminary professor Bob Ekblad, Walter Wink, William Stringfellow, and Rene Girard.

There seems to be a real substance to evil that exists at the personal and social levels. These forces of darkness do not bow to human reason or willpower. In short, they are stronger than we are. So, how do we resist them?

I am still working that out. Do demons possess the quality of objective, personal existence, as I do? I don’t know yet. Can these forces be ultimately tamed by discipline, legislation, education, and non-violent direct action? I tend to think not. There is much about which I remain agnostic.

I have no problem seeing demons, as they are portrayed in religious art, as psychological projections of these forces. But that does not mean they are mere fantasies. I cannot deny that the struggle itself is real. There’s a there there.

Liberalism, in its justified excitement about the universe and human nature, has not “given the devil his due” when it comes to the reality of evil. As C.S. Lewis famously commented in The Screwtape Letters, the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he did not exist.

G.K. Chesterton, in his critique of modern theology in Orthodoxy, wrote:

“If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”

I think the time is coming for liberal and progressive Christians to take sin and the demonic as seriously as we take the reality of God.

More importantly:

I do not believe we enter into this struggle of spiritual warfare alone. I believe I have touched, at the heart of the universe, a loving presence that is constantly leading us in the direction of shalom: peace and justice.

When we dream of a world that is free from hate, exclusion, greed, and indifference, we are not making this up. This is not liberal idealism; it is truth.

I believe that God is at work in us and in the universe itself, harmonizing the discordant noise of the tohu va bohu (Heb. “formless void”) into a symphony that reflects the beauty of the Trinity.

This is the work that Christ came to earth to complete: “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

The Church, Christ’s Body on earth and in heaven, has been given the necessary weapons to effect this warfare. But how do we do this? How do we wage war on war itself? How do we exclude exclusion? How do we oppress oppression? How do we kill death?

We have a spiritual arsenal at our disposal. We have the prayers and the Scriptures. We have the sacramental rites of Anointing, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Reconciliation. Each deployment of these weapons plants a flag on the battlefield against death, indifference, isolation, anarchy/oppression, and bitterness (respectively).

The primary difference between these weapons and the weapons of the world is that they bring life, rather than take it. We wage a very different kind of warfare than that of the world. St. Paul writes:

“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

And again:

“The weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

More importantly, we have the Sacrament of the Eucharist as the “principal act of worship,” according to the Book of Common Prayer. In this celebration, we return tangibly to the truth that we are one with each other, for we are all one in Christ. The Eucharist is the ultimate act of resistance against the forces of darkness, within and without.

The Church might even think of the Eucharist as our “nuclear option.” Its effect is 180 degrees opposite to that of an atomic bomb:

In a brilliant flash of light, the vaporous forms take on solid substance and come to life. Communal structures are formed and built up by a shockwave that makes no distinction between man, woman, and child; soldier or civilian. The fallout creates a radioactive zone where sickness is healed and life enriched. When people remember this event, they will celebrate the many lives that were saved.

Finally, in the Sacrament of Baptism, the Church has its D-Day on the soil of the world. In a world-system based on institutionalized injustice, Baptism is treason. In it Christians pledge their allegiance to new a new regime, the kingdom of heaven. It is an Exorcism and the beginning of an invasion against the occupying powers of darkness.

In the baptismal rite of the Book of Common Prayer, we recite:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do.

Above all, I trust in the divinity that I have experienced, as a Christian, in the person of Jesus Christ. God becomes real to me in the story of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Whether all of this turns out to be literally factual or mythic symbolism is beside the point, I experience it as true and believe it.

I trust that the presence of the living Christ is at work in me and the world to bring us inexorably toward the goal of union with God.

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Until then, the peaceful insurgents resist:

5 thoughts on “Revisiting Spiritual Warfare as a Progressive Christian

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