Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

principalities, powers, and the technical boy

I have a suspicion that my earlier posts on idolatry — one and two — bear a significant relation to the recommendation of Pynchon’s spectral Walter Rathenau that we should simultaneously reject “secular history” and “look into the technology of these matters.” But explaining the connection won’t be easy. I’m going to take a first shot at it in this post. Also, this will be kinda weird.


One: Gods

One of the oft-noted peculiarities of the biblical depictions of “false gods” or “idols” is their ambiguous ontological status. As Gerald McDermott points out,

The idea that there are other “gods” who exist as real supernatural beings, albeit infinitely inferior to the only Creator and Redeemer, pervades the Bible. The Psalms fairly explode with evidence. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, [you] gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1, my trans.); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3, my trans.). And so on.

And yet we also hear, immediately after the passage from Psalm 96 that McDermott quotes, that “all the gods of the nations are idols; but the Lord made the heavens.” Taken out of the context that McDermott provides, this passage would seem to be saying that the gods worshipped by the nations do not exist, are made up, are nothing but pieces of carved wood or stone. But within that context we can see that they exist indeed, and have power — but power derived wholly from the one God who made the heavens.

The key to this puzzle is the extraordinary account of a cosmic council in Psalm 82:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

As Walter Wink points out in his groundbreaking book Naming the Powers — on which I rely pretty heavily, though not uncritically — there is fairly strong evidence in canonical and extracanonical books for an Israelite (and, later, Christian) belief in “angels of the nations”: angels charged with the stewardship of nations, some of whom executed that stewardship faithfully, but others of whom rebelled, seeking not stewardship but absolute rule. Thus the strong ancient tradition that Lucifer is the Angel of Rome: it is in the corruption of this role that he becomes the “ruler of this world” — the archōn tou kosmou — and the “god of this age” — the theos tou aiōnos.

(This same model of delegated authority appears at a higher level in the medieval notion of Intelligences, the governing or guardian angels of the planets who move them and thereby create the music of the spheres. This idea is, famously, central to C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, in which there is but one rebelling Intelligence, the “god of this world”: Satan there rules not just the nation of Rome but the whole planet, which alone is dark and silent and cut off from the cosmic light and music.)

The “divine council” of Psalm 82, then, narrates the decisive intervention of the One God to judge the lesser gods who have abandoned their duty and sought independent power — though, and this is surely important, the Lord does not pronounce judgment of death upon them for that rebellion as such, but rather for their “partiality to the wicked” and indifference to “the right of the lowly and the destitute.” The vision is of course an eschatological one: an event certain to occur but not yet in “this age” — in what Paul calls “this present darkness”: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers [archas], against the authorities, against the cosmic powers [kosmokratoras] of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The cosmocrats have not yet been deposed, though their ultimate ruin is sure.


Two: Ancient Unities

One of the recurrent themes in the work of that oddball genius Owen Barfield is his emphasis on linguistic — and phenomenological, and ontological — unities that have now suffered severance and consequent diminishment. So, for instance, in his first book, Poetic Diction, he notes the curious fact that in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alike the same words (respectively, ruach, pneuma, and spiritus) seem to us to mean, in different contexts, breath, wind, or spirit. But Barfield thinks we have that wrong.

We must, therefore, imagine a time when spiritus or pneuma, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified – and no doubt into others also, for which separate words had already been found by Greek and Roman times.

Not “all three of these things” because that formulation presumes distinctions that, Barfield believes, were simply not present in the minds of those who spoke ruach, or pneuma, or spiritus: those words signified something that we are tempted to call “unified,” but even that presumes that there are separate meanings to be brought together. It is in an attempt to avoid this implication that Barfield writes so vaguely of “their own old peculiar meaning.”

I mention all this because it is, I think, immensely relevant to a discussion of those biblical “principalities and powers” (archai kai exousiai). In his preface to Naming the Powers, Wink writes quite openly about how he wanted to read such passages in the Bible: “The three volumes comprising this study are themselves the record of my own pilgrimage away from a rather naive assurance that the ‘principalities and powers’ mentioned in the New Testament could be ‘demythologized,’ that is, rendered without remainder into the categories of modem sociology, depth psychology, and general systems theory. The Powers, I thought, could be understood as institutions, social systems, and political structures.” And indeed, “Much of that proved true. But always there was this remainder, something that would not reduce to physical structures — something invisible, immaterial, spiritual, and very, very real.” And only gradually did Wink come to realize that when he asked whether, in any given case, words like archai referred to human rulers or angelic/demonic beings, that was simply the wrong question: “These Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural.” One might even say, by analogy to Barfield’s analysis, that Wink’s pairings here, while perhaps necessary for the modern reader, are intrinsically deceptive, presuming the existence of distinctions that only “crystallized” later on.

Let me pause for a brief note here on a very important point which I will have to develop more fully later: Wink demonstrates, compellingly I think, that the Powers were made by God and granted stewardly authority by him and are therefore, like the rest of Creation, in need of redemption. In Colossians 1:16 we are told that in the Son “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him”; and in Ephesians 3 that Paul’s appointed task is “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [again, the archai kai exousiai] in the heavenly places.”

Wink’s later treatment of these matters, in his book Powers That Be, emphasizes that the biblical language of “principalities and powers” limns what he calls the Domination System, which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much identical to Michel Foucault’s much more famous notion of the “power-knowledge regime”: a regime in which power is diffused with infinite subtlety, concentrated in no identifiable place — rather like the Hermetic notion of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. (Surely someone has made that analogy before?) The Powers are not God, cannot be God, but in our experience are like God in that they just omnipresently are: as Bob Marley taught us, it’s a matter of “spiritual wickedness in high and low places.”


Three: New Gods

The relevance of all this to an Anthropocene theology might become a little clearer by a look at Nail Gaiman’s American Gods. What follows is pilfered with few small changes from an essay of mine.

At one point in the story Shadow, the novel’s protagonist, is watching TV in a hotel room when Lucy (the truly archetypal figures are always mononymic) begins to speak directly to him:

“I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”...

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

And Lucy seeks to win Shadow over, to bring him into the fold of her worshippers:

“We’re shopping malls — your friends are crappy roadside attractions. Hell, we’re online malls, while your friends are sitting by the side of the highway selling homegrown produce from a garden cart. No — they aren’t even fruit sellers. Buggy-whip vendors. Whalebone-corset repairers. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends aren’t even yesterday any more.”

But Shadow has heard this kind of rhetoric before, from a rather different figure of modern power, a pudgy young man in a black coat who had said to him, “You — you’re a fucking illuminated gothic black-letter manuscript. You couldn’t be hypertext if you tried. I’m ... I’m synaptic, while, while you’re synoptic.” Shadow, remembering, asks Lucy, “Did you ever meet a fat kid in a limo?”

She spread her hands and rolled her eyes comically, funny Lucy Ricardo washing her hands of a disaster. “The technical boy? You met the technical boy? Look, he’s a good kid. He’s one of us. He’s just not good with people he doesn’t know. When you’re working for us, you’ll see how amazing he is.”

Lucy’s words are confident, assured, but the existence of “the technical boy” serves to remind us that, among the New Gods, television is old stuff. Later we see the technical boy again. To the claim that a “mighty battle” between the Old and New Gods is coming he sneers, “It’s not going to be a battle.... All we’re facing here is a fucking paradigm shift. It’s a shakedown. Modalities like battle are so fucking Lao Tzu.” Lucy thinks the technical boy is on her side; it’s not clear that the respect is mutual.

More important, though, is a key difference between Lucy’s language and that of the technical boy. Lucy seeks to persuade, to win over; the technical boy has nothing but contempt for Shadow or indeed for anyone else who’s not already on board with the inevitable “paradigm shift.” The technical boy is a god who doesn’t need worshippers, because he’s confident that he can make all the puppets he needs.

These New Gods are the archai kai exousiai, the rulers of this world and this age. Romanitas can be just glimpsed way back there, through our rear-view mirrors; it’s on the far side of a paradigm shift; what late in his life Foucault called “governmentality,” the body of techniques by which persons and societies are rendered governable, is differently constituted now. The Powers have shifted their ground, and we can’t understand that unless and until we follow Walter Rathenau’s advice and “look into the technology of these matters.” If we follow Wink’s intuition that such “Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural,” we will understand precisely why Pynchon’s Rathenau can commend technological inquiry and simultaneously declare that “secular history is a diversionary tactic.”

In the long run the One True God will judge those Powers. But before that happens, it’s the task of the church to make known to them “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things ... the wisdom of God in its rich variety.”

I told you this would be kinda weird.

5 comments:

  • Your posts following this theme of idolatry and technology have been great and helpful. They remind me of Exodus 32:23 "For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us..."

    I've thought on that passage a lot in my own thinking about technology and Christianity. Make us gods. Technology and what I would call a type of priest figure are both necessary for idolatry.

  • More weird please ... :-)

    I think you can make the argument that God has already defeated one set of gods with the collapse of the Roman empire and the pagan world that sought to destroy the people of God. The martyr church was proven right in their belief that King Jesus would ultimately defeat the pagan world and that that same world would acclaim Jesus as Lord and King. The question now is the role of the church and the people of God after Christendom. Most evangelicals seem to have turned these questions into abstractions or spiritual issues disconnected from the physical world (the battles happen in our hearts and minds not in politics and war). But technology, individualism, consumerism, secularism, etc. are not so easily divorced from history and politics and theology.

  • I have always heard that "in the midst of the Gods" from Ps 82 as a continuation of the psalter's motif of existing in the middle of the enemies of God/the righteous (23:5) which is bundled with praising God in the assembly (22:22). The great revelation of Jesus regarding the psalter is that the assembly and the enemies of the righteous are collapsed together as the messiah dies.

    A recurring theme of the OT psalms and prophets is the impermanence of the wicked. I am wondering if a similar thing is meant to be communicated in Ps 82: that God taking his place in the divine council exposes their triviality and impermanence.

    Observing the nature of God lets us sort of laugh at the present systems of Powers because we see that they will be crushed by the stone cut out by no human hand. And yet the fact that this stone is Jesus, the lamb, means we cannot worship God as power qua power. For this would abstract out an attribute of God and we would essentially worship only a tiny reflection of him.

    With regard to the redemption of the Powers, I really don't think we can speak of redeeming them in any similar way. Creation and humanity can be redeemed by Jesus taking on flesh and becoming part of us. It's not clear to me that anything similar is fitting (I almost said possible) for Jesus to have done with angels etc. And there seems no hint of angels being redeemed - only exposed and put in appropriate places. I think of the resurrection as a great clarification, when the relationship of each entity to God will be entirely revealed and will no longer be clouded by lingering sin.

    In terms of governing powers, I have been thinking recently about how we have moved to increasingly specific policies and rules because human judgement is fallible and sinful. But what this has mostly done is replace a fallible person with a fallible text or algorithm (i.e. lending policies, mandatory minimums, speech codes). And a text or algorithm is psychopathic in practice. It can't be argued with because it has no will and no connection with the exact situation in hand.

    The problem, in sum, is that Powers cannot repent. Humans exercising power can. I think this is at the root of my concern about Facebook, the NSA, self-driving cars, and so on - people love to push their moral responsibility into a system and will protect that system. The more powerful and integrated the system is into society, the more difficult it becomes to cast that Power out.

    I think this is why the gunslinger-cattle/railway company, or the hacker/cyberpunk corporation motif works so well. The individual doesn't have to be a perfect or even a good person. Simply by being a person who exercises power and moral agency, they are a rebuke to the reigning Power of the day.

  • I had always been taught that Psalm 82 is set in the far past rather than the future. (I like the eschatological read, though.) From James Kugel's THE GOD OF OLD:

    It describes a scene in highest heaven that must have taken place long ago, even from the psalmist's perspective, a time when the skies were still full of active, efficacious gods...What Psalm 82 is saying is that, sometime long ago, God stood up in the 'adat 'el, the council of the gods, and fired everyone. The reason He did so was that they were not doing their job competently -- failing in what the psalm seems to hold is the most important area of a deity's functioning.

    This line, in the post, is wonderful: "The technical boy is a god who doesn’t need worshippers, because he’s confident that he can make all the puppets he needs."

    In a weird way, this reminds me of the difference between earlier American racisms and today's "racism without racists." Racism used to have racists: people who espoused ugly beliefs and hatred and were easily identifiable with the ideology of racism. More and more, though, racism does not inhere in blameworthy individuals (or at least not in ways as straightforward as in the past). Instead, racism is distributed invisibly across society. In this strange sense, maybe racism (race?) is likewise a god without worshippers, and it too is confident that it can make all the racists that it wants.

  • Great post and comments. Newbigin's chapters on the powers in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society were my introduction to these "weird" ideas. Newbigin is downstream from Wink, but I commend his exposition of these ideas to all.

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