March 4, 2010

Forces at Play in the Garden of the Lord

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What “Forces” operate in your world? I don’t refer to institutional forces, such as the rule of law or the IRS, but to invisible supernatural Forces that are not understood and cannot be controlled. Through time a plethora of threatening and/or helpful spirit Forces have been loose in the world. People needed to protect themselves from the hurtful and petition the helpful. In the ancient Greek and Roman traditions twelve traditional Gods and Goddesses needed to be appeased through animal sacrifices and other means—as did the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the ancient world people believed that daimons, some good and others bad, affected human wellbeing. Such spirit forces are possibly indicated in Ephesians 6:12: we contend not against “flesh and blood” but against “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.”

An impersonal Force at play in the ancient world was destiny or “fate.” Everyone including the gods had a personal destiny. The concept grew out of the Babylonian idea that our lives were written in the stars, and no one, not even the gods, could escape their inevitable destiny—their due apportionment. One’s destiny cannot be predicted, changed, or understood—except in hind sight.

In the Graeco-Roman world following Alexander the Great new deities and spirit Forces emerged, such as Luck (i.e., Tyche or Fortune). Under Tyche nothing was determined; everything was always at risk. She was a fickle deity, who treated everyone capriciously—one never knew how she would react to entreaty.

Satan (the Devil, or Beelzebub) was an evil opponent of God brought into Judaism from Zoroastrianism. Satan became the Yin to God’s Yang—a personified evil entity against whom God competed in the world (Eph 2:2; Matt 25:41; Luke 11:14-20). Demons were evil Forces thought to cause sickness (Luke 11:14), insanity (Mark 5:1-20), epilepsy (Matthew 17:14-21), spiritual failure (Eph 6:10-12), and more. Angels from God (or the Devil, Matthew 25:41; 2 Corinthians 11:14) helped (Acts 12:11) but sometimes harmed (Acts 12:23) human beings. An assortment of different spirits were thought to come from God to influence the human psyche, either for good (John 16:13) or for ill (Judges 9:23).

From the early Christian period through the middle ages an explosion of demons, angelic beings, and new greater-than-human Powers threatened the human condition. They could be “managed,” people believed, by spells and other magical practices—even Christian spells, curses, and amulets for protection against the supernatural existed in this period.

With the rise of modern scientific thought and reliance on human reason in the eighteenth century the idea that the universe was inhabited by unseen spirit powers, Forces, and deities was successfully challenged. Modern science was able to explain what was previously attributed to these Forces as due to natural causes. For example, the scientific theory that unseen organisms (germs) caused disease led to a cure for tuberculosis and other diseases. Science, not prayer, had triumphed over disease-causing demons!

Where do things stand today? It depends. People who are heirs of Western secular education can live without practical fear of the spirit Forces—they consult physicians rather than resort to magic spells. They rely on human reason and the successes of modern science in explaining what was once attributed to the spirit Forces. Nevertheless, even in Western culture some still live with a medieval mentality and for them the spirit Forces remain a practical and very real threat. The medieval mindset is encouraged by religious institutions around the world through the use of holy books where such spirit Forces abound. Christianity’s holy book, for example, originates in a primitive and naïve age, and bears the marks of its primitive and antique culture—and one indication of its antique culture is a belief in the existence of angels, demons, and spirits.

Truth be told: if any of these greater-than-human Forces ever existed, they still do. How can any spirit Force ever possibly be eliminated? The logical answer is: stop believing in it, and that effectively neutralizes its influence and its power. Zeus, for example, may still dwell on Mount Olympus, but since no one believes in him any longer, he receives no sacrifices or libations—and hence he has no practical influence in the world. Unseen supernatural Forces feed on fear and intimidation.

What supernatural Forces inhabit your world?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:33am

I think the title should be "Gender and the Spirit of God."
Posted by Charles Hedrick, Jr. on 3/6/2010 at 11:50am

I enjoyed that. It made me think of the book American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Have you read it?
Posted by Charles Hedrick, Jr. on 3/4/2010 at 8:05pm
No I have not read it, but since I am nearing the end of a novel, I will get a copy and read it. For those wondering about the book, it appears to be a fiction novel. How do you find so much time to read as widely as you do? You probably don’t spend the time you should on your class preps?

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 3/5/2010 at 8:37am