Monday, November 28, 2016

Christ, the Conquering Conqueror: The Universal Struggle of Spiritual Warfare

As I've written elsewhere, the original monastics differed wildly from what would later become identified as monasticism, particularly in the Latin West. The former did not seek to run from the difficulties of the world, needing tranquility and support to seek Christ in earnest. Rather, these monks sought a crash-course in the fundamental realities of a Created Earth besieged. The Desert was not a place of tranquility, but the haunt of demons. The monks were training and battling for Christ's Kingdom, overcoming the lusts of the Flesh, turning their flesh into instruments of spiritual war.

Warfare is a reality that scars the pages of the Bible. While the Creation of all things was a speaking into being, and not a warfare narrative, the Fall of Man represents a departure into violence and chaos. In a way, without the light of divine revelation, this was a reality that the Pagans saw and understood, yet they retrojected it back into the ontology of Creation itself. The workings of Life are scarred by violence and the threat of it. The Snake's mission is to see all engulfed by darkness, a return to the primordial nothing of non-being.

This warfare narrative continues throughout the Scripture, whether in Abraham and the Patriarchs, Israel's struggle against the magic and slavery of Egypt, Moses' battle for faith in a trying Desert, the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the many wars of the Judges, the kings of Israel completing the driving out of Canaan, or the many other occasions. The New Testament unveils that this battle is not really against flesh and blood, but against spiritual darkness and wickedness in high places. This is the darkness that not only destroys the lives of the oppressed that flock to Jesus, but a darkness that bolsters the reigns of Herod, Caiaphas, and Pilate. As St. Paul repeatedly says and warns: the Christian's life, following in the footsteps of their master, is a life of war.

Quite clearly, this is partially what it entails for Jesus to be the Christ. As God and Man, He represents the Christic figure of David who slayed the serpentine Goliath, and also the Angel of the Lord, Captain of the Armies, who heralds Joshua into battle. In Christ Jesus, the figure of the Angel of the Lord, as Captain of Angels, and the figure of Joshua, as Captain of Israel, God's Nation of Men, become one. Christ goes to war with His band of disciples. Even the cross, the moment of ultimate despair, is actually a triumph, the moment where He tramples death by death.

Yet this victory is not yet complete. Christ conquered death, sin, and the devil, triumphing over the corrupted elements of This Age, resurrecting from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascending into Heaven at the Right Hand of God. But that's not the whole story. Quite explicitly, the Scripture tells us that Christ will reign until He places His enemies under His feet.

The first few centuries of the Church saw this doctrine as a difficult one to understand. The Apostles stood as warriors, facing death in many ways similar to their Master. They overcame the threat of the sword through a courageous and difficult faith. Yet, a Neo-Platonism wedded to a vision of Pax Romana complicated the Christian Church as it became tolerated, and established, in the Roman Empire. Quite a few influential converts turned their gaze to the motionless perfection of Plotinus' One and read that back over the Christian God. They reconceptualized the world into a stable hierarchy, the great Chain of Being, that transformed the nature of Christian warfare.

Warfare was revised into, to put it crudely, a game of chutes and ladders. The goal of the Christian was to attach to Christ and ascend the Chain of Being, being more and more perfected, becoming even greater to the Angels. The end goal, as I've said elsewhere, is a vision akin to death, much more similar to Buddhistic notions of Nirvana than the Resurrection of the Dead. Along these lines, a monasticism formed that sought to overcome the fraility of the Flesh, a quest to triumph over finitude.

This completely negated the original intention of the monks (starting with Anthony) who saw the Desert as a real warzone. There, alone and in the dark, the demonic assaulted the Christian more forcefully. The problem in Creation was not the threat of individually falling down the ladder of Being, but to be seized upon by Devils. Their assault would drive you into madness, eviscerating our Humanness. In Human society, this process usually is slower and more subtle. But the war of the Serpent is to drag Mankind out of its intended Nature, attempting to transform Man into a beast or a bearer of the demonic.

The liberation of Christ is not a liberation to transcend our finitude, but to become more fuller and more truly Human. This implies a state of being that is open to the transformative light of God, but there is a subtle difference between this vision and the Platonized vision of the Origenists. The functions and faculties of Humanity were not to be overcome, but to be fully realized.

This is the glory in St. Athanasius' metaphor of the effects of Christ's Incarnation. Imagine a village where a great and glorious king takes up residence within. The individual body of the King is small and individual, but radiates glory. From this the whole village is transformed into a lush capital, expanding and revealing the majesty of the figure who resides within. Christ is this King and the village is the whole collective of Humanity, where individual villagers represent individual men, and the village as a whole representing Human Nature. As the Image of God by nature, Christ reactivates the same image, activating Man's destiny by grace.

But more importantly, this realization should unproblematize the warfare texts that many Atheists and Christians are embarrassed to deal with. This is because tranquility and stasis have become prized values, but this is certainly absurd. We live in a world where people are broken over the wheel of self-interest and manipulation, crushed under economic inqequities and spiritual bondage. In the US, it was the strange circuit preachers, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals that, at times, were awoken by the Spirit of God to see the cosmic battle afoot. Those fully situated into the comforts of Middle Class values were unable to comprehend the battles.

But lest this become mistaken for a form of Social Gospel, the purpose is not to transform the social structures that we see around us. This is fundamentally mistaken. Rather, the Kingdom of God comes not to clean up what is, but to set fire to the Earth. The warfare of the Gospel is much more radical than this. The Social Gospel was a liberal reform effort, an attempt to clean up Christendom, the convoluted compromise between Christian convictions and Pagan structures.

No, a much more radical notion is required. Firstly, this is the process of mortifying the flesh. It is chopping off the unfruitful roots of the soul. It is struggling to gain mastery over the insane desires that constantly plague us. The Desert Fathers spent many years memorizing Scripture, reciting, singing and praying it, to learn Christ's commands as a salve for the wounds of sin. It was through rejecting the cravings of the body that the flesh might be healed. The objective was not to erase the body, but to restore sanity and health to the flesh. The same goes for the mind. Spiritual warfare meant a restorative for the Christian, and a following of their Master in fighting off the demons that assault mankind.

Secondly, it is reflective of the early disciples giving up claims to private property, giving their money to the poor and to the Apostles to redistribute, and allowing themselves to live together. But the fact is that this passage embarrasses many, or is misunderstood to be merely a kind of proto-Communism. This passage does describe economic redistribution, but it was for the purposes of relinquishing false claims upon the Earth. God owns the Earth and yet He gives it to Man to live upon and rule. The kings of Israel had claim upon all of Israel, and yet their claim was as vice-regent to God, and their design was to consistently redistribute landholdings for the needs of Israel. The practice of relinquishing owenrship is a spiritual one and a material one, for it teaches how man is to relate to God, fellow man, and the Earth. God is the Master, not Man; all men have equal claim to the Earth under the kingship of Christ; the Earth is not for plunder or enrichment, but for sustenance and rest.

In our times today, this is a difficult and radical move. Many who claim the name of Christ would rather live with an impoverished soul than feel the liberating light of the Gospel. The darkness clings tight and many Christians, including myself, struggle to get free. But that is why it is written that Christ will reign until all of His enemies are placed under His feet. Christ has conquered and Christ is conqueror, but He is still conquering. The demons are not done with. He is still waging His War.

The universal claims of Christ upon the Earth are claims that have yet to take effect. As John Howard Yoder argued, Christianity makes Universal claims, but unlike the Platonized forms that Post-Modernism attacks, Christianity begins from the particulars, namely God's incarnation, and is a movement of conquest. Christianity is a peculiarly imperial mission. The violence of Christ is the awakened man seeking to rip off his chains. Or, per Charles Wesley's hymn, the peace of the man coming to wake in his unshackled chains is followed, inevitably, by the struggle to escape the dungeon.

But I must argue that all of this must be understood in the much more radical (as in at the roots) sense than many worldly iterations. The above readings of Scripture have been twisted to justify the figure of the Crusader, a reinstantiation of Saul, the worldly king who misunderstood the point of Canaan's conquest. This figure has appeared all over history, harshly in the actual Crusades or in the extreme slaughter of the "Holy War" of the First World War, and softly in the Social Gospel. This is an attempt merely to scrub the pillars of the Devil's domain, rather than reject the Serpent's trick.

May the holy light of the Gospel awaken you to this reality, dear reader.


  1. Where could I go to learn more about the fathers?

    1. I think Rowan Williams has a good introduction and discussion of the Desert Monks in his book "Silence and Honeycombs". It is an analysis of the fathers and mothers, but in a way that tries to make them more accessible to a 21st century audience.

      But the source material is recorded by John Cassian. There is also Athanasius' wonderful and challenging biography of Antony. Some of the sayings can be off-putting and extreme, but it takes time and analysis of how what they are saying is actually manifested in Scripture. It's not always right or correct, but I blame misunderstanding the Desert Fathers as the perversion in what most people imagine as monasticism. Perhaps its better not to call them monks, or even ascetics, but rather as athletes for Christ. If their exploits are run through the prism of the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, it comes out to be something radically different, even if there are formal similarities.