The Spiritual Powers of Darkness and The Powers of Revelation
As the news are causing many to grapple with the current shakeup and distribution of power in the world, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the notion of power we have inherited from the Gospel.
Everyone believes to understand the common sense truth that all earthly power is evil. The very concepts of earthly power and evil are far from simple and hardly unanimous. They possess a history and unfold in time as well as in the simple three-dimensional space of the physical order under the powers of earthly authority.
The Power of Classical Earthly Authority
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing discloses an important principle of distinction between the plastic arts and the poetic (linguistic) arts in his contemplation of the group statue of Laokoon that can be applied to the distinction between the powers of darkness and the powers of revelation. He composed his reflections on the statue of Laokoon in response to the intellectual trend of his time that attempted to restore the perfection and beauty of the presumed lost Greco-Roman civilisation known as neoclassicism.
In the eighteenth century great classists like Winckelmann, who laid the foundation of modern aesthetics after the Baroque failed to establish Christian aesthetics as mainstream practice, subordinated life on earth to the classical principles of proportion, beauty, and perfections he found in the visual arts of Antiquity. He even went as far as to subordinate language and poetry to the ideals of visual perfection.
Lessing was disturbed by this proposition. As a poet and dramatist he viewed language arts not only as superior, more demanding, and truer to life in all its dimensions and multiplicity than the plastic arts, but as a Christian he had a problem with the subordination of the word of God to anything, especially the earthly authority of classical beauty.
He illustrated his arguments in the form of an ekphrasis, a Greek practice of delivering a lengthy rhetorical argument through the observation and contemplation of a visual work of art. Lessing wrote a polemic on the ancient Rhodosian group statue Laokoon and his sons ensnared by the Serpents of Poseidon from 40 BC, which has been housed and curated in the Vatican since 1506 when it was found in the Esquiline Hill of Rome.
Laokoon was the Trojan prophet who warned his fellow citizens not to accept the gift of peace from the Greeks, the infamous Trojan Horse. Poseidon and Athena, the Greek gods of the sea and of war respectively, were on the Greek side, so they caused giant serpents to rise from the sea to punish Laokoon and his sons for warning the Trojans. His fellow citizens took that as a sign that his prophecy is false, accepted the Greek gift, and their city was leveled with the ground.
The statue, Lessing argued, depicts the moment of suffering, before the fate of the prophet and of the Trojan people was decided. It is a moment snatched from the claws of time, perfect and beautiful in its three-dimensional glory, and frozen for the memory of eternity. But this perfect moment lacks truth because it lacks the dimension of time. Only language and linguistic arts have the power to represent the truth of time. It is interesting that a tragic play by Sophocles titled “Laokoon” is purported to have existed but has been lost. Sophocles was the undisputed master of perfection in representing time through dialogue.
Laokoon’s story appears to be rather a polemic that could have strengthened Winckelmann and not Lessing, because the prophet, whose medium is language, had failed to persuade his fellow citizens and had been punished for telling the truth about the future by the gods themselves. Winckelmann loved the Laokoon group because it illustrated and justified his argument for neoclassicism. He argued that earthly beauty is all that matters, that language and prophecy must be subordinated to it. His proposition was ironically affirmed and dramatized by none other than the English Romantic poets.
But the story does not end with the demise of Laokoon and Troy. The founding of Rome by a survivor of the sack of Troy, Aeneas, carried forth the legacy of the ancient pearl of Greek civilization. From the ashes of Troy rose the most powerful eternal city, Rome, the cradle of Roman civilization and eventually of Christian civilization. Rome became the eternal city of God, one could argue, because it was born of the Word, of literature. Whatever the fate of Rome may be, Troy most certainly survived and lived on after death as it were.
It is interesting to note that the founding of Rome by a Trojan survivor is not a historical fact, but a literary fiction, Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the founding document of Roman civilization, the very heart of its identity. This fact underscores once again the superiority of language over the plastic arts. The question is not only about declaring a winner of the contest between physical beauty and poetic beauty, but the heart of the thematic that preoccupies us today, the nature of the relationship between the earthly power of beauty and the spiritual power of language. A chiasma opens between the two instances, that gives both equal shares in good and in evil.
The authorities that destroyed Laokoon and Troy not only proved him wrong, but also brought about the resurrection of Troy in Rome. His prophecy had been limited to the earthly events surrounding the fate of Troy, much like the statue depicts a moment in time and not the entire story. Laokoon’s prophecy was fulfilled only within the limited time-frame of earthly mortality. It doesn’t look beyond the horizon of physical transience and has no knowledge of the resurrection and recreation of Troy in Rome. In a sense, the statue preserves his existence beyond the grave and despite his linguistic work, his prophecy.
The resurrection of Troy in Rome is not carried out in a visual medium, however, but in the very medium of Laokoon’s prophecy, language. Nevertheless, Virgil’s “Aeneid” powered actual historical events. A literary masterpiece became the highest expression and emblem of Roman identity and though the empire itself was doomed, the city lived on. Virgil’s epic is the only dimension within which Troy survives and thrives. Literary creation, which, unlike visual creation, exists only in the temporally multi-layered dimension of language, is neither earthly nor mortal nor bound to the laws that structure reality and order on earth, but becomes the cradle and justification of history, reality, and authority.
A similar truth unfolds in the Bible. Contrary to popular misconception, the adversary of God’s children is not simple earthly mortality, as Laokoon also assumes, but “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” In Ephesians 6 we read:
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God, so that you can make your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Mary presenting Jesus at the Temple, Cranach the Younger, Wittenberg Cathedral
The Power of the Order of the Snake
Simple understanding attributes the powers of darkness to sin or evil in the world. The ten commandments and the slew of regulations recorded in the Old Testament were intended to maintain order in the carnal body and in the body politic of the people of God and sealed the premise that evil resides in sin.
The design of the law is to maintain harmony with the order of the Creator. Yet the law was never meant to represent a conclusive stage of human history nor the ultimate order of human existence. The law is a stage in human development, the stage at which what was good in the garden Eden became evil and what was bad, the temptation by the Snake to know good and evil, became good.
We are told that the wages of sin are death. The law was introduced to increase the power of sin in the world, that is, the power of mortality, which is not natural among humans, but became so after the fall. Fallen nature, the natural body after the Fall and expulsion from Eden, is the body ruled by the Snake, symbol of the forbidden knowledge of good and evil, sin and virtue.
Adam and Eve were never simple creatures like the rest of creation. They were endowed with language from the beginning. The power to name and organize all creation crowned them rulers of all creation. Adam and Eve were co-creators of the world by virtue of their possession of language.
But their fall also caused nature and all their creation to fall. Fallen nature, human and animal alike, is of the order of the Snake in the Biblical narrative, which is why the Snake is so important to Moses. Not all knowledge was declared evil, only the knowledge of shame and sin, the knowledge of the law.
Those who did not know the law were not free from it, but are not held accountable before God. Likewise, those who received knowledge of the law from Moses were held accountable and every sin caused them to perish for all eternity.
Since the Greeks and Romans had no knowledge of the law, their co-creation of the world was spared and the later Kingdom of Christ preserved their knowledge, whereas those who had received the law left no trace of their works and perished definitively.
Language is authority. Language is human responsibility for all creation. Through language God gave us the authority to rule the world. The Gospel clearly states that flesh and blood is not the enemy, refuting any claim that the pure creaturely state of being, the world, is inherently evil. It does state, however, that evil resides in authority, not all authority, but that which is governed by the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” in the very knowledge of evil.
All human authority, all systems of governance that regulate human justice are powers of darkness. They belong to the order of the builders in Psalm 118 who rejected the boulder that will become the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. Christ tells his disciples repeatedly that He begins where human knowledge fails, not all human knowledge, but the very knowledge of the law and of justice.
Literary creation and, historically, the Christian crown and scepter, are the only exceptions to the rule that the authority of the builders is spiritual darkness, because they exist in a world beyond good and evil and beyond and above authoritative systems of knowledge. The power of literature and of the Christian crown is good when it seeks eternity. Their power does not perish, whereas the authoritative systems of knowledge define the boundaries and horizons of transient existence. The power of death resides in the power of evil. The truth of eternal goodness is the telos of the Old Testament that was doubly revealed in the Gospel when we were freed of the power of the law and instructed to become slaves of righteousness.
The Gospel was written for simple farmers, slaves, fishermen and fairly uneducated folk. Only the Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13) understood that the power of Christ is beyond the physical and temporal limitations of the created world and accepted His Word as the ultimate “spiritual” authority. Two thousand years later we have a number of sophisticated signification systems like the scientific-technological complex at our disposal that require ever new translations and reinterpretations of the Gospel, even as its simple truth remains unequivocal.
The most convincing philosophical system to date that placed language at the origin of being is the linguistic ontologist Martin Heidegger’s (Derrida followed in his footsteps), but it suffered the limitations of a classicist, Winckelmannian definition of both language and technology. What the simple mind perceives as “spiritual” is nothing other than the power of language to determine being at a latent, fundamental level of signification that is not immediately available in unidimensional sign systems, but unfolds in the process of philosophical linguistic contemplation. Goethe called it unfolding, Heidegger unconcealment, Derrida deconstruction , the Bible simply revelation.
Though paradisiac man possessed language and though we now understand spirituality to be the concealed creative power of the living Word, language itself is not beyond good and evil. In its function of naming fallen, mortal creation, which constitutes all systems of knowledge, it is in fact evil, as the myth of the Fall of Adam and Eve also tells us. In the service of pure knowledge language is at the core of the spiritual powers of darkness and evil.
Moses was the first prophet to recognize this. Hence he organized the system of the law to mirror the order of the Snake and commanded his followers to stare at the Snake to be saved from its mortal bite. (Please see illustration above: we see the temple of the Snake depicted in Cranach’s interpretation of Mary’s presentation of the infant Christ.) Of course, no human was able to obey the law Moses commanded and all perished.
Moses understood his power, symbolically represented by the snake become scepter, to reside in the order of fallen creation. But Moses also prophesied the arrival of the Messiah who would deliver all creation from slavery to evil — fallen nature — much as God had delivered his followers from slavery to the Egyptians by parting the Red Sea and thus defeating the earthly, authoritative laws of nature.
When we are told to submit to slavery not to the law, but to righteousness, we are encouraged to commit to the fundamental, essential, latent power of language to bring being into existence. Language that operates at the level of eternity is filled with grace, kindness, and forgiveness, because it knows itself to constitute the imperishable power of the only good and the only virtuous authority in the world. We are encouraged to submit our lives to eternal language, the spiritual powers of goodness and beauty. This “righteousness” is not opposed to the spiritual powers of darkness — knowledge of the law: knowledge of good and evil — but it is free from darkness even as it includes all shadows in the greater grace of Christ’s kingdom.
In nature there’s no blemish but the mind
None can be call’d deform’d but the unkind
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
America is Doconstruction, America is Revelation
To understand the historical role of the United States in the linguistic evolution of the people of God, we must understand that it was not of the order of the builders, which are governed by the spiritual powers of darkness, but of the order of the boulder the builders left behind (Psalm 118). The boulder the builders rejected represents the power of deconstructive language.
Socialism put the United States on the path of the builders. The nation is at a crossroads and must decide whether it will follow the earthly authorities and their powers of darkness or the authority of goodness and the revelatory powers of eternal language.