A Fairly Short Primer on Antisupernaturalism and Why It’s Inadvisable

At the beginning of my first semester at seminary, I was assigned to write a ‘theological integration’ paper for my Systematic Theology class. I chose ‘demonology’ as a topic to write about, primarily because I don’t care about demonology.

Because I’m a fairly by-the-numbers Protestant, and Protestants don’t care about demonology, because Protestants don’t care about the supernatural. Which is an overgeneralization, but all statements are, all the time.

And we really, really don’t. There are some outliers, mostly Pentecostal in orientation, who devote extended attention to the question of the supernatural, of spectral assailants and unholy ghosts – entities that St. Paul generally refers to as ‘principalities and powers’. Generally, though, even when their work is stellar (and it often is), it goes largely unnoticed by the broader Protestant community.

There are good reasons for this. We (allegedly) dislike speculation. We are (allegedly) devoted to speaking boldly where the Bible is clear and keeping quiet where it isn’t. We (allegedly) prefer to keep the gospel front and center in our preaching and discipleship and peripheral curiosities in the background.

Indeed, prospects of retrieving ancient emphases on the ‘principalities and powers’ has been marred by associations with the less-than-careful approaches of thinkers like C. Peter Wagner. His work is undeniably illuminating, but has often been guilty swallowing the bones along with the meat. Premodern notions of ‘territorial spirits’ and so forth have been devoured uncritically, luring intelligent and devout believers into varying degrees of baseless superstition.

“The devil made me do it” is a familiar mantra for those living in the post-Christian West. For those whose religious devotion outruns their familiarity with theology, such claims were, perhaps, the most natural way to understand their continued struggle with sin after experiencing salvation. It’s plenty natural to be ambivalent about integrating ancient demonologies into a contemporary theological framework.

Our grandparents insist that there is already a “responsibility crisis” of sorts in modern-day America, and not only in the youth culture. The notion that each individual is responsible for her own actions is eroding, we are told, and one may suspect that adding in the notion that demonic entities exist who are capable of significantly influencing our thoughts and actions can only compound this.

Of course, the notion that human wrongdoing can be chalked up to demonic co-opting is only rarely entertained in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and never in the scriptures themselves. With the noteworthy exception of the demons that are subdued by Jesus during the itinerant portions of His ministry, we are never given the impression that demons can be responsible for human behavior.

Neither does the notion gain serious traction among orthodox believers in the Patristic period, insofar as can be verified, or even among the medieval Scholastics, whose tendency toward eisegetical flamboyances was one catalyst for the eventual break from the established Church in the Reformation. “The devil made me do it” is a backwater theological error with no substantive connection to the historic Christian emphasis on dethroning the principalities and powers. But the threat of lapsing into such obscurantism is there, and so Protestants remain (allegedly) cautious about giving sustained attention to the supernatural elements of scripture.

There is, of course, another reason. Martin Luther had no qualms about acknowledging the role of the devil in kneecapping the world, but Harry Emerson Fosdick certainly did. What changed?

As the “New Atheists” like to remind us, we are not many centuries removed from the days when cases of what are now known to have been treatable mental illnesses were treated as devilry. Schizophrenics were tortured inadvertently and locked away, often after being put through arduous ceremonies to exorcise the demons believed to control of them. It would not be unreasonable to want to do away with the notion of malicious spiritual entities all together, gravitating instead toward more quantifiable disciplines like the social sciences as the chief lenses through which we examine societal issues.

The West did not abandon belief in devilry because the supernatural was proven to be superstitious, nor even because satisfying explanations were provided for the phenomena that used to be attributed to Beliar. Instead, it has long been assumed that human religion was subject to an evolutionary process by which it gradually became more sophisticated. Animistic religion was, perhaps, its irreducible form, and there wasn’t much to it. Slowly, these religions would mutate and take new shapes, each more vibrant than the last. Eventually, the pantheon of human religious experience grew so variegated that it could hardly be cataloged. The underlying assumption, of course, being that we have now seen the birth pangs of a new religious epoch – namely, secularism. The functions that religion once served are now usurped by more capable tools, most notably the sciences.

In his unfortunately-titled volume, Man’s Rise to Civilization, Peter Farb examines the variegated native tribes that spread out across the Americas as a launching pad to test hypotheses about evolutionary trajectory of early human societies. He notes what ought to be surprising: native tribes whose religion was basically animistic harbor a rich complexity that the wealthy, educated, and white conquerors who gave us the earliest accounts of their lifestyle were incapable of detecting.

Western academia has conditioned itself to look for certain elements, to attribute ‘high culture’ to certain factors, most of which are notably missing in what were ultimately deemed the “least developed” tribes. As such, they were mistakenly deemed “primitive.” They were not. What we presumed to be barbarism was simply unfamiliar, including their religious expression. Animistic, polytheistic, pantheistic religion, etc. were hardly undeveloped, or simple, or primitive.

They were, instead, ceremonially and intellectually rigorous, even inductive in character. The specters presumed to haunt their prairies were not simply products of an overactive and under-stimulated shared imagination, Farb suggests. Even if they were not real, such beliefs were the product of careful investigations by critically adept investigators. He goes as far as to suggest that animism and its distant cousins are approximately as complex as monotheism – and approximately as complex as secularism.

At risk of sounding relativistic to a fault, he points out that much of what one presumes to be “common sense” in a secular society deconstructs to little more than “inherited ritual.” The sciences have illuminated our understanding of the natural world in certain respects. But alongside such ‘objective’ illuminations, we are prone to invent mythologies, incorporating demonstrated facts with baseless but deeply held cultural sentiments. These mythologies become ingrained over generations, sometimes long after being debunked. In this respect, the “secular city” is not unlike every other culture that has ever existed. Human culture has always been incalculably complex, gloriously nuanced, remarkably civilized. Our confidence regarding the non-existence of angels and demons rests not on scientific advancements, but uncritical presumptions of superiority to cultures that we have deemed primitive. It may be too inflammatory to say that antisupernaturalism is simply embodied colonialism, but it’s only half wrong.

In the absence of any falsifiable method to prove or disprove the existence of such supernatural forces as are chronicled in the Christian scriptures, or the Upanishads, or Qu’ran, or native American lore, religious people are left to do the inductive work of searching their respective traditions to understand how such entities have been characterized by their communities through the ages. For those connected at the bone to the Christian community, the scriptures are the primary source by which one comes to terms with the nature of the “principalities and powers.”

*

Recommended Reading:

Harvey Cox: The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Peter Farb: Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. 1st ed. Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1968.

John Shelby Spong: Why Christianity must change or die: a bishop speaks to believers in exile. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999.

[Each of these books are problematic, but helpful. Farb is an interesting source – he swallows up much of what is wrong with contemporary Western antisupernaturalism, generally falling back on the wrongheaded consensus of the post-Kantian elite, but manages to step out, ever so slightly, as the result of his extensive studies in Native cultures. Looking closely at the seemingly otherworldly lifestyle of the many-splendored and endlessly diverse Native cultures that spread across the Americas aeons before Columbus, he unmasks the irredeemably reductive and untenable caricatures of “premodern” cosmogonies – and the “mythologized” understanding of the natural world that comes with them.

Spong, on the other hand, represents the worst of contemporary antisupernatural hermeneutics, regularly returning to this as a rationalization for discarding what is less-than-palatable in the scriptures. Whether the Canaanite conquest, Covenant exclusivism, or his pet issue, sexual ethics, such infractions are chalked up to ancient Israel having been in one or the other transitionary stages in the process of religious evolution.]

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Saint Nietzsche, Strange Apologist

Friedrich Nietzsche’s been on the receiving end of some rather unfair accusations: That he was a Proto-Nazi; That he was a crude nationalist; Or a militarist: Or a nihilist.

And some very fair ones: That he was misogynistic; That his disorganized, aphoristic  writing style was infantile and self-indulgent; That his mustache looked stupid.

But he’s an important figure. Not only for modern Christians, but for everyone. Much of what dominates contemporary discourse has its roots in Nietzschean thought. Derrida, especially, clung to threads previously oft-ignored by Nietzsche’s readers, which made up, perhaps, the better part of his philosophy: That there are no individuals, not really, but only subjects; We are all, always, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of arbitrary cultural constructs that we had no part in forming, which to a large extent determine our attitudes and prejudices; That our thoughts are not our own, not really. They are the thoughts of those men (always men) from ages past who managed to impose their perspectives on the populace, both in their own day and ours; That we do not “acknowledge” reality, we “constitute” it. We “construct” reality; That there is no “shared reality” that we can all acknowledge together. Or, if there is, we’ll never see it clearly. Especially not together, because there is no “we.” There is only a multitude of you’s and I’s, never us’es. There is simply a plurality of individuals who interpret the world according to somebody else’s constructs, which has co-opted our bodies and minds, somehow, and now compels us to see things through eyes that are not our own; That we do not see the world as it is, but as we were “conditioned” to see it.

One may be surprised to find that such ideas are older than they had thought. And these did not originate with Nietzsche either, but he has certainly been a contact point through which we have retrieved them. None of this, of course makes him a particularly good Christian apologist. But it is important groundwork to understand why he is, in fact, a one of the best.

As Nietzsche recounts (primarily throughout Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, human creatures are, irreducibly, a “pack of savages,” a “race of conquerors.” There is no such thing as “cooperation,” not really. There is only “conquest.”

There are only “interest groups,” some “powerful,” and others “powerless.” (In summarizing, I am sometimes using language that he did not employ). No one becomes “powerful” without taking power from others. It’s a zero-sum game. There are no truly “mutually beneficial” agreements or “cooperations” to be made. There is only the combined power of certain “interest groups” submerging the interests of other disparate and powerless “interest groups.”

Naturally, certain interest groups hold certain “values” and others hold other “values.” The “contest” between interest groups is a “contest” between irreconcilable “value sets.” Ultimately, the combined power of the victorious interest groups crystallizes into the “dominant culture.” Meanwhile, the “value sets” that dominant interest groups hold become “normative” over all others. Those who belonged to the disparate, powerless, “conquered” interest groups are “subjected” to the values held by the powerful, “conquering,” dominant interest groups.

When such a thing happens, however, the conquered and powerless groups grow to resent their “disenfranchisement,” holding their “conquerors” in contempt – simply by virtue of their having been conquered. They come to envision themselves as “victims” rather than simply as “vanquished contestants.” As such, they come to envision their conquerors as “villains,” simply for having “won” the “contest.” The conquered learn to see themselves as “morally upright underdogs” who deserve “liberation” from their conquerors and the values that their conquerors have imposed onto them.

The “dominant group” is reframed by the “dominated groups” as being the source of the their suffering, at which point what Nietzsche dubs the “slave morality” is born. As Nietzsche frames it, Christianity is the epitome of “slave morality.”

Plenty of groups are conquered, He says. Plenty of groups are victimized, sure. Plenty of groups are “submerged.” But this is simply the result of the inevitable “contest” between the irreconcilable “value sets” of competing “interest groups.” One of the groups will dominate, and the other will be dominated. That’s simply how it goes, always.

But Christianity, which during Nietzsche’s lifetime was generally believed to have began as a movement among the poor that only later spread out to the bourgeois, had, from its inception a distinct “egalitarian spirit.” It was riddled with “contemptible ideas,” as Nietzsche saw it, including the notion that the all-powerful Creator of the universe had, for some unconscionable reason, taken on human flesh and become a peasant – a “slave,” to use more Nietzschean language – in solidarity with what Christians called the “least of these.”

When Christianity became the unlikely religion of the Empire, it overthrew the Greco-Roman “will to power” – the “master morality” – and translated these unprecedented “egalitarian values” into the structure of the Western mind. Heretofore nonexistent concepts, like the “absolute value of the human person,” wholly regardless of their usefulness, strength, honor, or “virility” were thus “inscribed” into the “moral framework” of the West; Slowly, of course, in fits and starts, but inevitably.

Thus, Christianity had embedded, seemingly irrevocably, a “slave morality” into the Western consciousness (in fairly radical contradistinction to the cosmic frat party that was the pre-Christian Roman Empire).

This won’t be particularly impressive to those with revolutionary proclivities. For those post-modern and post-post-modern folks who haven’t collapsed into a kind of formless and void nihilism (the sort that Nietzsche predicted would be our undoing), the fact that the “Christian revolution” didn’t eliminate all sexism, racism, xenophobia and otherwise during the lifetime of the Apostles (or at least their Patristic proteges) renders the whole thing null and void, more or less.

Which is fine. Christianity has always been anti-revolutionary, and therefore never palatable to that particular demographic. Even Barabbas, the revolutionary who was set free by Pilate instead of Jesus (who is traditionally believed to have become a Christian after being released) supposedly put away his revolutionary mindset once he “took up his cross.”

But for those willing to accept it, it’s entirely worth noting: Western progressivism, all of its forms, both good and bad, are ultimately tributaries that run off from a great river that flows back to the incarnate Christ and the Apostles whom he trained. This ought to embarrass, for example, the “religious right,” whose mission, it seems, has long dwindled into painting up progressives as enemies of the Almighty. But it also ought to remind us that whatever “egalitarian impulses” we might have we owe chiefly to the “Christian revolution.”

It did not purge the world of injustice overnight. Some people will never forgive it for not having done so. Fair enough, I suppose. But if Nietzsche is correct, we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that what massive strides we have made, even over the last century, are due to our having liberated ourselves from Christianity. And more: If Nietzsche is correct, even those philosophies that often challenge and sometimes reject Christaity out of hand – whether it’s the Women’s Liberation movement, or LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups – ultimately “live and move and have their being” within the “moral vocabulary” – the “slave morality,” as Nietzsche would have it – bestowed upon us by the “Christian revolution.”

Yes, the West was (and is) an imperialist monolith who has subjected hordes of colonized provinces to a multitude of horrific wrongs. Yes, the West carried out these atrocities both before and after the so-called “Christian revolution.” And yes, the West has yet to fully own the blame and make due reparations to many of the wronged parties. All of these things are positively true. But only within the strange, egalitarian moral imagination that Christianity literally pioneered.

That is, if you believe that imperialism is wrong, or sexism, xenophobia, or racism, you’re already at least half-Christian. These very sentiments are what Cornelius Van Til calls “borrowed capital,” inherited from the Christian imagination. What wrongs the Christian world has inflicted – and they are many – are only actually wrong within a Christian moral framework.

Which is to say that if Nietzsche is correct, then Christianity’s most elucidating critics – feminist critics, for example – amount largely to groups who have applied their Christianized moral imagination more acutely to particular social ills (such as misogyny and “the patriarchy”) than the rest of the Christian or post-Christian world has bothered to as of yet.

I have, I assume, thoroughly upset both Christians who object on principle to feminism, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, critical race Theory, et cetera and non-christians who identify strongly with these particular advocacy groups, who feel that I am appropriating their interests to make a cheap case for Christianity. That much can’t be avoided, I guess. As I mentioned before, it’s only natural to be unsatisfied with whatever pretenses of moral authority the Christian religion still has after not having prevented the following two thousand years of rampant misogyny, brutality, and more.

But your liberative aspirations – what Nietzsche calls your “slave morality” – came from somewhere, and Christianity is that somewhere. And as “deconstructive” models of interpreting culture become increasingly mainstream – as normal folks, rather than simply professional academians, adopt previously avant-garde notions about the “arbitrariness of meaning,” and the “inherent violence of ideas” themselves, warming, as it were, to the notion that all of culture really boils down to the imposed power of certain interest groups over the conquered powerlessness of other interest groups – it’s entirely possible that it’s not wise to cut at the roots of the “slave morality” that has (at an admittedly glacial pace) brought us this far.

A disenchanted West, drunk on extreme relativism, probably will not blossom into a bastion of progressive values. However regressive one believes the Christian religion itself to be, it remains the “bank” from which our favorite liberation ideologies continue to make withdrawals – at least, if Nietzsche is correct. I’d rather we didn’t close the account.

A Very Short History of Who Said What About the Pentateuch, and When

The author of the Pentateuch was virtually unanimously believed to be Moses until the 17th century. And even then, it was not until the 19th century that skepticism regarding Mosaic authorship caught on like wildfire so that the traditional view quickly became the minority view. Throughout the 18th century, serious debate regarding its authorship was waged by heavy hitters like Witte, Astruc, Eichorn, and Ilgen, who ultimately paved the way for the more substantive departures to come in the 19th century by positing the existence of a ‘Jawist’ and an Elohist, on the (rather anemic) basis of the variation throughout the Pentateuch of ‘divine names’.

Through the 19th century, a number of hypotheses were offered to replace the traditional view. Geddes suggested that the Pentateuch was the synthesized product of a multitude of fragments. Franz Delitsch posited a process whereby an initially straightforward sacred tradition was gradually supplemented until finally arriving at its canonical form, somewhere in the Exile period. Hupfield and Graf were pioneers of what has come to be called the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’, which taught that a definite and identifiable group of sources from varying Hebraic cultic traditions, were ultimately brought together into what we now know as the Pentateuch.

Wellhausen ingeniously took this notion and ran with it, presenting a ‘coherent’ reconstruction of ancient Hebrew history. He suggested that Israel’s religious history developed like all religious histories supposedly develop: They began, he said, very simple, with little cultic flair, disorganized and decentralized. By the time of the Deuteronomist, however, there was a push for a unified Temple worship, or, at least, the birth pangs thereof, and so the Pentateuchal sources were further redacted to reflect this (although, apparently not particularly well, since the ‘evidence’ for the previous, ‘decentralized’ religion of ancient Israel is supposedly still plainly visible in the text).

Finally, by the time the Priestly redactor came around, there was little left of the old Prophetic faith, with its emphasis on ethics and such. In its stead, we are told, there is an almost obsessive attention devoted to cultic practice – an elaborate sacrificial system, a colorfully defined Temple, and, most importantly, a ‘central sanctuary’.

Wellhausen’s reconstruction, or at least some variation thereof, has become more or less axiomatic in mainstream academia. Although he largely popularized the Documentary hypothesis, there are a few glaring methodological limitations, not least that its conclusions are largely unverifiable and, worse, unreplicatable (irreplicatable? Unreproducible? Irreproducible? Words are difficult.)

That is, of the manifold scholars who have followed in the footsteps of these skeptical trailblazers, few of them have arrived at terribly similar conclusions about the particulars of the formation and authorship of the Pentateuch. Generally, if a theory is good, it should easily replicated by those who go through the same process whereby it was reach.

But because the Documentary Hypothesis and its various cousins are almost entirely conjectural, they are impossible to work with. As a purely conjectural foundation, they back scholars who operate from them into a corner in which they are forced to content themselves with building entire careers on little more than glorified guesswork.

Nevertheless, the Pentateuch is complex. At some points, Moses is said to be meek, whereas he is elsewhere said to be mighty and bold. Contextually, these hardly need to be contradictory, but they do present a challenge. And, too, the Law codes, especially of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) have their share of seemingly irreconcilable commands, but often this appears upon closer examination to be a case of non-overlapping casuistic scenarios. Even in cases in which apodictic commands appear to grate against one another, they do not, upon closer examination, need to be read as contestants in a zero-sum duel.

Moreover, reading through the Pentateuch, one is struck more by the remarkably theological consistency between even apparently disparate passages. The uniform witness of the Pentateuch is to God’s unique identity. He is the only Creator – the only one who can bara. He shares no common ground with the pagan deities, and has no difficulty dispatching them – and their subjects – when necessary. Whatever apparent diversity there is to be found in the beautifully complex books of Moses only underscores the broad theological unity thereof.

Thus, given the well-nigh unanimous testimony of the Church through the ages regarding Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, we ought to defer to those who have gone before us in regards to its Mosaic authorship and accept that the man himself was behind it – especially given the flimsiness of the skeptical objections by 17th-19th century elites.