Engaging the Powers, Part I: Five Worldviews

[Cross-posted over at Street Prophets]
In his recent widely-discussed Call to Renewal speech, Senator Barack Obama dropped a throwaway reference to “powers and principalities”…

I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities.

This phrase may be unfamiliar, but it was deeply resonant for me because of a book that had a huge impact on both my own personal spirituality and my understanding of this historic-political moment, Walter Wink’s 1992 Engaging the Powers. This is one of those books that you come across that just seems like it needs to be out there more. I’ve recommended it countless times, even bought copies of it for folks, but it is a heavy, serious read, grand in scope and meticulous in its details. There are 77 pages of footnotes and 9 single-spaced, 3 columned pages of biblical citations alone.
Because of this – and because I believe this book offers a progressive historical narrative that our movement is starving for…

…I’m going to finally try something I’ve been wanting to do almost since I read it, which is extract out some of the tastier and more politically relevant morsels into something of a summary. Reading back through my dogeared, heavily notated and now falling apart copy (when I opened to the footnotes a few days ago, I found a boarding pass from my trip to Croatia in 1996), I’m realizing that my memory served correctly – it’s just that amazing. There’s good stuff on practically every page, so summarizing it is going to be very difficult. If you’re remotely interested in what a progressive, Christian worldview looks like from the personal to the political, it is absolutely worth reading the whole thing, even a bit at a time.
I’m going to go a little bit out of order, to try to cut to the parts that are most substantial and relevant for the movement. Part I will be on the model of five worldviews he lays out in the introduction. Part II will be on the progressive historical narrative that Wink presents, a bit on the domination system itself and what the political and deeply personal domination-free order that social movements are working towards looks like. Part III, when I get to it, will backtrack a bit and talk about naming and unmasking the system. This will cover the first half or so of the book. The second half of the book is as good of a primer on strong and practical nonviolence as I’ve ever come across. I can’t recommend that enough but pulling out a summary of that is going to have to wait.
The good stuff starts immediately. The introduction is essentially a description of five worldviews. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the five diagrams he uses into one, and the descriptions of these five follow.

Ancient: “…everything earthly has its heavenly counterpart, and everything heavenly has its earthly counterpart.” This is the worldview most often reflected in the Bible, it’s the understanding that humanity had of reality at that time in history. (p.4)
Spiritualistic: This worldview “…divides human beings into “soul” and “body”… in this account, the created order is evil, false corrupted. Creation was itself the fall. Matter is either indifferent or downright evil… The body is a place of exile and punishment, but also of temptation and contamination… (Something of the same picture would fit some forms of Eastern religions, except that they would see the world not as evil but as illusion.)” (p.4)
Materialistic: The worldview of hard atheists. The spiritual world simply doesn’t exist, and any suggestion of it is just illusory.
“Theological”: A modern reaction to materialism, this worldview posits a complete seperation of heavenly and earthly realities, with the religious realm “hermetically sealed and immune to challenges from the sciences.” This is the worldview most commonly understood by modern evangelicals.
Integral: This worldview “…attempts to to take seriously the spiritual insights of the ancient or biblical worldview by affirming a withinness or interiority in all things, but sees this inner spiritual reality as inextricably related to an outer concretion or physical manifestation. It is no more intrinsically “Christian” than the ancient worldview, but I believe it makes the biblical data more intelligible for people today than any other available worldview, including the ancient.” (p.5) The “Powers” of the title are this inner dimension.
With this approach, rather than thinking of spirituality, and in particular the story of the New Testament, as mythology, it becomes a key to understanding the problem of structural evils. Beyond that, the integral worldview is compatible with so many other systems of thought. It seems to dovetail nicely with particle physics, and string theory has become more widely understood since this was written, but it certainly fits into those worldviews as well.
Wink also beautifully describes the process of how two narratives compete in people’s minds:

When people speak to me about their experiences of evil in the world, they often use the language of the ancient worldview, treating demons and angels as separate beings residing in the sky somewhere, rather than as the spirituality of institutions and systems. When I suggest restating the same thought using the new integral worldview, they often respond, “Oh yes, that’s what I meant.” … I can only explain this anomalous behavior, not as woolly thinking… but as an indication that this new integral worldview has only just come of age, and that the old conceptuality is repeated merely for lack of a better one… I conclude that a very rapid and fundamental sea change has been taking place in our worldview that has passed largely unrecognized but is everywhere felt. A new conceptual worldview is already in place, latently, and can be triggered by its mere articulation.(p.7)

Emphasis there mine, because this is the power of framing and successful communication, the power of telling our story. Examples of this abound. Conservatives have successfully made so many junctures of history about their narrative. Take the Boston Tea Party, which for conservatives have always been an example of tax resistance. It takes a Thom Hartmann to come along (in What Would Jefferson Do?) and explain how in fact it was one of the first recorded instances of protest against a multinational corporation.
The tension between the ancient and the integral worldviews is everywhere. Wink discusses a novel by Frank Perretti, a predecessor to the wildly popular and politically disturbing Left Behind series:

The author is welcome to his politics; but it is one thing to regard the United Nations as a dangerous idea, and another to portray it as a conspiracy of the Devil. We have here a case of the total projection of evil out on to others. The view of evil is scary but finally trivial…the really mammoth and crushing evils of our day – racism, sexism, political oppression, ecological degradation, militarism, patriarchy, homelessness, economic greed – are not even mentioned.” (p.9)

If the Perretti worldview sounds familiar, it is because this is the worldview that the President and conservatives have done everything in their power to establish since September 11th. This is the worldview of the axis of evil. It sits wrong with anyone who thinks critically about it; progressives may not have put forth a single monolithic alternative, but people have chipped away it enough that they are asking questions and voting for alternatives.
For me personally, this explanation of different worldviews was a total revelation. It brought spirituality to life for me in a way that it hadn’t been. Suddenly it went from being a bunch of disconnected Sunday School stories to a tool for understanding the world, humanity’s place in it, even the true nature of reality. It seems obvious to me, common sense even, that reality has an internal and unseen aspect. I was talking with a friend some time ago about the percentage of Americans that believe in angels. Thinking of Wink’s arguments and the three spheres illustrating the integral worldview, I had to answer honestly that I was among them.
My early exposure to Eastern religions caused similar revelations. As a slightly maladjusted high school kid, hearing “desire is the root of all suffering,” even in the highly nonreligious context of a public high school comparative religions class, was helpful to me in a day to day sense. But the rest of the story Wink tells brought me around to a full reconsideration of Christianity.
Searching around to see if anyone had already undertaken this task or anything like it (no such luck, although the following link is awfully good), I came across something kind of amazing: an interview with science fiction author Neal Stephenson, on the libertarian website Reason, talking about Walter Wink, somehow, and major props to the interviewer for pulling this question together. It’s a long, incredibly thoughtful answer but here’s part:

Wink’s interpretation of the New Testament is that Jesus was not a pacifist milksop but (among other things) was encouraging people to resist the dominant power system of the era, that being the Roman Empire. Mind you, Wink is no fan of violence either, and he devotes a lot of ink to attacking what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes.
Carrying that forward to the present day, Wink takes a general interest in people in various places who are getting the shaft. He develops an empirical science of shaftology, if you will. (Of course he doesn’t call it shaftology; that’s just my name for it.)

Building off the story of the integral worldview, Wink then lays down the nature of the domination system and what a domination free order would look like, which I’ll be describing in Part II. But here’s a preview:

“…failure to acknowledge the central reality of [the gospel’s] emancipatory message has often rendered the gospel politically reactionary and spiritually repressive. In the face of the collapse of communism in the East and secular optimism in the West, perhaps we can now see the gospel for what it has always been: the most powerful antidote for domination the world has ever known.
Only against a backdrop so vast do we see the world-historic significance of the liberation struggles that have come to fruition especially these past two hundred years:

  • the rise and spread of democracy as a check on centralized power wielded only by a few;
  • the abolition of slavery;
  • attempts to develop alternative economic systems;
  • the women’s movement;
  • the nonviolence movement;
  • the civil rights movement;
  • the human rights movement;
  • the ecology movement;
  • liberation theology;
  • the gay rights movement (rejecting yet another way sexuality is used to disempower people and deprive them of choice).

The sheer density of these efforts in the past two centuries suggests that our conflict-ridden times are in fact part of a larger groundswell of protest against domination.”(p.49)

My copy of Engaging has a bunch of notes from the first time I read it on this page: stars, arrows and a dogear with more arrows pointing to this passage. Growing up as a Washington Post reading news junkie under the tail end of the cold war and shouldering all the cryptic nihilisms of Reagan, I’d gotten a little hopeless and cynical about humanity’s prospects. But when I read this first I thought: “wow, maybe we’re not completely screwed.” Here was a profoundly hopeful understanding of history, a historical continuity that tied together the Gospel to the various social and political revolutions which sometimes seemed like the only things going right in the world.
But looking back at it now, something else jumps out: this is the narrative arc of progressivism. Conservativism is about defending moral orders, progressivism is about breaking through them, and the stories of these movements combined is that of the expanding circle of substantial freedoms that result from winning battles against the domination system. And this is the narrative arc that conservatives everywhere, from Dinesh D’Souza to Osama bin Laden to Arnold Schwarzenegger, are on the wrong side of. More on this in Part II.