Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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Our Totalitarian Lives

I stand in awe of Karl Barth (1886-1968), generally acknowledged as the greatest theologian of the 20th century and one of the greatest of all time. My awe is not simply at his theological depth and understanding of Scripture; I’m awed at the sheer quantity of what he wrote and published. His greatest contribution to Christian theology is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, a multi-volume work of over 9,000 pages (in its original German). When I consider this huge work and the countless other books and papers that he contributed to a deeper understanding of our Christian faith, I cannot help but think how meagre our own efforts are. Today, with all the tools that technology has given us to make research and publication so easy, what theologian produces one-tenth or one-hundredth of what Barth produced with only a typewriter and printed books at his disposal? As I said, I stand or sit in awe of Barth – and other men like him of bygone eras who produced books for the ages instead of idiot tweets that our own era will be known for.

The recently published book, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, contains precisely what its title signifies, transcripts of various public “conversations” in which Barth participated and in which he answered questions posed to him by a variety of people – not just professional scholars and clergy, but also journalists and even prisoners! Barth was very fond of visiting prisons and having group conversations with prisoners. When he toured the United States in 1962, he insisted on visiting some major prisons, including San Quentin in California. The greatest theologian of the century was no aloof elitist.

One of the most fascinating conversations in this collection is one that took place on June 24th, 1962, with Protestant book dealers, in the Alpine village of Flims in his native Switzerland. One of the questions posed to him was as follows: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Certainly an important question to ask at that time, when Europe was divided between a totalitarian East and a democratic West, but also an important question to ask in any modern era; very much including our own. Barth’s answer was long. A few quotes are worth sharing:

“Totalitarian” – that somehow refers to something whole, comprehensive. And when one says “totalitarian state,” one apparently means a state that demands something in its entirety from humans….that they place themselves without reservation at the disposal of its teaching and its will and its purposes. The total state is a state that says, “You shall love me with your whole heart, with your whole mind, from the entirety of your soul, and from the entirety of your strength” (and here Barth is clearly alluding to God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:5 as being demanded by the state). And there we have the mystery: the total state, even when it poses as being atheistic, is a state that arises in the shape of a deity and wills to have from humans that which only God can will to have from humans. That is the imposing thing about such a totalitarian state: it is, so to say, a caricature of God. Even when it wishes to be atheistic, it somehow has to represent God in a distorted form on earth….a curious contradiction: the godless atheistic state that presents itself, reveals itself, and represents itself as divine.

Is it clear to all of us that not only the Communist state and also not only the Hitler state, but rather every state has something of the totalitarian state in it, that every state, even the finest and freest and most democratic, thus resembles a large cat, which has fine paws to be sure, but whose paw has claws stuck in it somewhere? And the claws in the cat’s paw – that is the totalitarian element in every state: and one can never be entirely certain just when that totalitarianism will appear. As I say, in every state!

After giving a couple recent examples in Swiss history, he goes on to some startling statements which should give us pause to reflect on our own habits.

You know, that’s how it is with the totalitarian spirit: it doesn’t begin with the state. Human society, if you will, is totalitarian as such. Society around us automatically demands certain things from us. It doesn’t make much noise, as long as one goes along with it. But when one doesn’t go along, when one swims against the stream, things get nasty….What “they” believe and think and do – this “they” governs “in the air” (reference to Ephesians 2:2 and Paul’s teaching about powers and principalities in Ephesians 6:12). Without police! No one lands in prison. But everyone has to do and has to approve what “they” do and approve….Because society is always based on this “they”, there is also occasionally a totalitarian state, and then its claws become more or less apparent….

Now, you see, something much larger stands behind the totalitarian society and then the totalitarian state. I would say it is a totalitarian world. Yes, what the Bible calls “the world” is a being full of totalitarian demands. When the apostle Paul spoke of it, he spoke of those powers and authorities that rule. He named them “thrones, principalities” and so on. And that is not mythology. That is the truest reality. (Further passages in Paul that explain what Barth is referring to: Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 1:16, Colossians 2:15)

You can guess what this is leading to: Barth’s itemization of some of the social constructs that define our lives: fashion, media, sports, money. He even makes a humorous reference to his experience in the United States in the previous months:

Or take something else, what we now call “traffic”. Take a look at our streets with all these cars! I have just had this experience in America….four cars next to each other in one direction and four in the other direction! And nonstop, day and night. You ask yourself, what’s going on here? What are they all rushing to? Yes, they must rush. Things are in a hurry, yes, in a hurry. And so they hurry along. And then to realize that cars like this are rushing and racing all over the world! We wouldn’t have it any other way. No, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It must be so. But when something must be so, then it is something totalitarian. Modern people have mostly become car people, and to be sure, not in the sense that they govern cars, but rather that cars govern them.

So now it should be evident to you that we live within an entire spiderweb of such powers and authorities, and you have before you what I call the totalitarian world.

If I were present in an audience listening to this methodical exposure of the totalitarian instinct I would have become breathless. How true Barth’s words ring, and even more today than 55 years ago. Because how much further we have traveled down the road of totalitarianism!

What would Barth say about today’s digital world, and especially social media and the power they hold upon a growing majority of the “world”? Hardly a day goes by that we are not reminded of the power social media exerts in our lives, even defining how many of us receive our news, influencing even elections in democracies such as ours. How free are we, truly? The things Barth used as examples of society’s totalitarian instinct are still with us – fashion, money, media, sports – but now we have an even more powerful force in the prevalence of social media. His image of “traffic” and cars applies even more to the digital world that now controls so much of our lives. The Guardian newspaper included a devastating article on New Year’s Day: Take it from the insiders: Silicon Valley is eating your soul.

A pre-Christmas statement by Facebook claimed that although “passive” use of social media could harm users, “actively interacting with people” online was linked not just to “improvements in wellbeing”, but to “joy”. “In short,” the Guardian article states, “if Facebook does your head in, the solution is apparently not to switch off, but more Facebook.” So if you’re not happy, it’s because you’re not using Facebook enough! Don’t be a light user of Facebook and social media, immerse yourself, find happiness online with Facebook!

The former Facebook president Sean Parker warned in November that its platform “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” God indeed only knows – or we will know when it will be too late, after we have created a few generations of robots ready to be assimilated into a Big Brother corporate totalitarian state such as those depicted in movies of dystopian futures. Another former Facebook executive was quoted to say: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth … So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.” But he still loves the company! So must we all, despite what it’s doing to our brains and our social interactions. One Stanford University lecturer and tech consultant pontificates with statements like this: “For new behaviours to really take hold, they must occur often.” But even this devotee came to realize the truth of what he was promoting and eventually installed a device in his home that cut off the internet at a set time every day. Nice that the elite can have such digital solutions to digital sickness. Most people are not so lucky. Even Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPad, was quoted in 2010 to say that his children do not use the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he said in an interview. Again, the elite have options that the majority of the people who will become drones in a dystopian future do not. I’m not exaggerating.

The scariest part of all this and the reason why I want to relate it to the biblical teachings about powers and principalities is that the owners of these companies – Facebook, Google, etc. – do not have control over what their digital platforms are doing. It’s all done by bots – pieces of software that perform automated tasks – and other such digital entities which follow their own rules and probably create or will create their own realities. Tristan Harris recently told Wired magazine: “Right now, 2 billion people’s minds are already jacked in to this automated system, and it’s steering people’s thoughts toward either personalised paid advertising or misinformation or conspiracy theories. And it’s all automated; the owners of the system can’t possibly monitor everything that’s going on, and they can’t control it.” The same Tristan Harris asserted: “Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts.” I don’t care about governments – I don’t trust them – but I do care about religion, especially my religion. So in a sequel to what I write here I want to look at Barth’s answer to the question originally posed to him: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Can the Christian church have any resistance to the multiple threats of totalitarianism?


Behind the Curtain

The Guardian newspaper published an article today about the super-rich of Greenwich, Connecticut, and how they benefit from a tax code loophole called “carried interest”. As a result of this loophole, they pay taxes at a much lower rate than most Americans. People are beginning to wake up, and today’s article in the Guardian was provoked by peaceful demonstrators who upset the morning quiet of Greenwich neighborhoods this past Saturday. These super-rich are mainly Wall Street tycoons and hedge fund owners. Many of them have personal wealth in the billions of dollars.

I have very little or no understanding of such things as hedge funds. And I’m not particularly interested in learning about the esoteric practices of Wall Street manipulators. I’m not interested because I understand these practices and their practitioners by the rubric of the “powers and principalities” that Scripture speaks of:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [meaning the cross – but many translations finish the sentence as “over them in him,” which makes no sense]. (Colossians 2:13-15)

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Who are these powers and principalities? Are they mythical beings like demons and angels? That probably was the understanding of the early Christians who read these letters of Paul. But even within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is another stream of understanding. Consider Chapter 10 of Daniel:

In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks…. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, give heed to the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, so I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia…. But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I am through with him, lo, the prince of Greece will come.

What we have here is a peek behind the curtain. Behind the wars and struggles of our worldly existence there are battles in the heavenly and spiritual realms. Who are the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece that this passage refers to? They are angels that personify the character of each nation. They are appointed by God as guardians of the nations, according to Deuteronomy (32:8-9): When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

According to the “number of the gods” – now that’s a strange statement to find in one of the five books of Moses, the Torah! And the Hebrew of this phrase can be translated in other ways, “the sons of God” being perhaps the most popular. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Septuagint, translates as “angels of God”, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.

The non-canonical Book of Jubilees goes further: … For there are many nations and many peoples, and all are His, and over all has He placed spirits in authority to lead them astray from Him. But over Israel He did not appoint any angel or spirit, for He alone is their ruler, and He will preserve them and require them at the hand of His angels and His spirits, and at the hand of all His powers in order that He may preserve them and bless them....(Jubilees 15:31-32)

The highlighted phrase, “to lead them astray from Him,” is very challenging. Is it a statement that reads history in hindsight? To the Hebrew mind, everything was under the control of God, so if some nations resisted God or fought against Israel, it must be because God ensured that they would be led astray! The Book of Jubilees was written a little before the year 150 BC, roughly around the same time as the Book of Daniel was written. The important thing about Daniel and Jubilees is that they portray the angels (or spirits) of the nations in a negative light. The demonization of these angels of the nations would follow naturally from such depictions.

So when Paul came to write his letters from which I quoted earlier in this article, there was a whole plethora of spiritual beings that came under the broad label “powers and principalities.” Clearly, from the writings of Paul, these powers and principalities were viewed as evil and enemies of God and Christ. In every generation, in every stage of history, the powers and principalities take different form. For Jesus, the powers and principalities were three: Satan (who tempted him three times); the Jewish religious class (who challenged him at every turn); and the authorities of the Roman Empire (who crucified him). All of them celebrated their apparent victory at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm, the victor was Jesus!

Clearly the entire apparatus that I have summarized here is primarily mythical and belonging to a different cognitive age than our own. Today I don’t have to think of demons and angels who represent the nations. The nations do a very good job of destroying life without any help from angels or demons. But nevertheless, there is still a “spirit of the age”; there is a spirit of a nation; there is a spirit of the marketplace; there is a spirit of Wall Street.

And that’s what today’s Guardian article represent for me: the spirit of the marketplace. And without any help from angels, the marketplace has done an excellent job of making the rich super-rich and the rest of us… well, the rest. Hedge funds and the other contortions of the financial sector are foreign to most of us. Perhaps the practitioners themselves don’t fully understand how they work, since so much is done in millisecond transactions by computers. Is this how today’s powers and principalities operate, in the hidden realm of billions of dollars moving along fiber optic highways at the speed of light? Have the powers and principalities of our age triumphed where previously they failed? Has the cross of Christ finally met its match? Don’t bet on it.

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O Canada! O Quebec!

O Canada!
Terre de nos aïeux…

Canada is one of the most open and welcoming countries in the world. As an immigrant to Canada in 1963 I know that first-hand. The demons of division and hatred attacked Canada last weekend in the guise of a gunman’s attack on a Quebec City mosque.

Intolerance, religious and ethnic hatred and genocide have become almost daily realities, and they are to be resisted in any and all forms they take. The world’s democracies have been under assault from Islamic extremists for many years now. But Muslims don’t have a monopoly on radical extremists. The Quebec City incident was an attack on Muslims by a white racist nationalist. All forms of attack are despicable, regardless of who is being attacked or who is committing the attack.

For a democracy, however, the key lies in how we as a people and our government responds to such attacks. Will Canada be more guarded, less tolerant because of the Quebec City attack? Early signs say No to that question. According to the New York Times:

The response of Quebec’s premier, Philippe Couillard, is worth noting. “Every society has to deal with demons,” he said. “Our society is not perfect. None is. These demons are named xenophobia, racism, exclusion. They are present here. We need to recognize that and act together to show the direction we want our society to evolve.”

There is a profound Christian teaching about the powers and principalities that work behind the scenes in human affairs: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Call these “powers and principalities” by any other name that is understandable to you – demons, religious extremists, governments, CEOs – whatever is your preferred source of evil in the world. The question – the challenge to us – is always the same: Do we acquiesce or do we resist? Canada and Quebec choose to resist. Let’s hope their response is contagious to other countries and governments.