William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part III

In his chapter, ‘Christ and the powers of death’, Stringfellow continues to identify and speak to the principalities and powers, what moderns call ‘ideologies’, ‘institutions’ and ‘images’, the latter  being a variety of angelic power manifest in the cultus of celebrity and exists independently of actual persons . So when someone like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Adolph Hitler dies, the image does not die but goes on to ‘a new and, some would say, more vigorous life’ (p. 53), and those who pay homage to the image are literally possessed by it.

The principalities of institution – corporations, government agencies, ecclesiastical organisations, unions and universities – demand uncompromised worship no less than do the images: ‘Everything else must finally be sacrificed to the cause of preserving the institution, and it is demanded of everyone who lives within its sphere of influence … that they commit themselves to the service of that end, the survival of the institution’ (p. 56). The principalities of institution offer invitations to bondage.

Having named the idolatrous powers of personality cult and principalities, Stringfellow then turns to the ideologies – totalitarian, democratic and capitalistic – all of which are given to nation-survival at all cost, all of which claim a person’s ‘loyalty, service and worship’ (p. 60), and all of which live in conflict not only with one another but as enemies of human being and flourishing. Indeed, ‘the separation from life, the bondage to death, the alienation from God which the fall designates’ (p. 62) is manifest in humanity’s bondage to the principalities and turn to them for salvation:

‘When a principality claims moral pre-eminence in history or over a man’s life, it represents an aspiration for salvation from death and a hope that service to the idol will give existence a meaning somehow transcending death’ (p. 64).

These are the very principalities and powers – ‘the awesome and manifold powers of death’ (p. 71) – that are confronted and overcome by Jesus Christ in his resurrection victory, ‘not for himself, but for us … His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death’s works, safe and free from death’ (p. 72). In his cross, Jesus bears the full brunt of the hostility of the principalities and powers towards him, submitting to their condemnation, accepting their committal of himself to death, and, in his resurrection, exposing, undoing and bringing to nought the false lords of history and the powers they represent.

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Knowing, Toleration, Mythology and the Disturbance of Christian Faith

ideology‘Knowledge of God in the sense of the New Testament message, the knowledge of the triune God as contrasted with the whole world of religions in the first centuries, signified, and still signifies, the most radical “twilight of the gods,” the very thing which Schiller so movingly deplored as the de-divinisation of the “lovely world.” It was no mere fabrication when the Early Church was accused by the world around it of atheism, and it would have been wiser for its apologists not to have defended themselves so keenly against this charge. There is a real basis for the feeling, current to this day, that every genuine proclamation of the Christian faith is a force disturbing to, even destructive of, the advance of religion, its life and richness and peace. It is bound to be so. Olympus and Valhalla decrease in population when the message of the God who is the one and only God is really known and believed. The figures of every religious culture are necessarily secularised and recede. They can keep themselves alive only as ideas, symbols, and ghosts, and finally as comic figures. And in the end even in this form they sink into oblivion. No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like Him. All the permanencies of the world draw their life from ideologies and mythologies, from open or disguised religions, and to this extent from all possible forms of deity and divinity. It was on the truth of the sentence that God is One that the “Third Reich” of Adolf Hitler made shipwreck. Let this sentence be uttered in such a way that it is heard and grasped, and at once 450 prophets of Baal are always in fear of their lives. There is no more room now for what the recent past called toleration. Beside God there are only His creatures or false gods, and beside faith in Him there are religions only as religions of superstition, error and finally irreligion’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 444.