Where Do Spirits Belong in Modern Christianity?

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Where Do Spirits Belong in Modern Christianity?
By Daniel K. Darko 30 April 2020

The Clash of Two Worldviews

On the hills of Mukono at the outskirts of Kampala stands the campus of Uganda Christian University; here we observe the intersection of the life of the mind, beauty in nature and the pursuit of academic excellence within a Christian framework. 

Four Americans walk past the historic Anglican chapel. One thing leads to the other, and the conversation narrows to the topic of development in Africa. One posits that Africa’s problems are primarily due to its polytheistic and superstitious religious traditions while another argues that several factors, including religious beliefs, are to blame. The protagonist argues that reason, science and monotheism engineer prosperity, whereas polytheism and African superstitious practices engender poverty. It soon becomes apparent that some perceptions and definitions of Africa’s challenges are shaped by stereotypical assumptions deriving from differing worldviews. 

As an African native in this conversation, I could not help but try to bring to light the misguided projections of outsiders who possessed a limited understanding of Africa. However, I gathered that not even John Mbiti or Kwame Bediako could render adequate apologetic responses that would persuade my colleagues. As in many instances, African spirituality and stupidity are alleged to be the twin engines propelling her disastrous fate. 

Conversely, Christians in the Global South tend to portray Westerners who do not share their worldview as ignorant of spiritual matters and their consequences. They have characterized them as spiritually dead, liberal performers who like to hide behind God while engaging in acts of discrimination and hypocrisy. Sometimes, the prevalence of mental health issues and alcoholism among professionals are perceived to have spiritual linkage. Fatalities and maladies experienced by unjust leaders are regarded as the effect of a curse or the result of spiritual vengeance enacted by their victims; it is believed that God hears the cries of the weak and avenges on their behalf. Praying for God to punish one’s enemies is commonplace.

It is not far-fetched to surmise that most Asians, South Americans and Africans share beliefs in the idea that spiritual beings are constantly active in human affairs – for good or evil. This in no way undermines their belief in human responsibility. Evidently, protagonists and antagonists in the assessment of the role of spirit beings in human affairs find a common culprit – spirits. 

Co-pastoring predominantly Caucasian churches in Croatia, the UK, and the US exposed me to the manner in which congregations with diverse racial compositions could reflect radically diverse worldviews. I found the culture in which people were raised to be the primary influence in shaping their worldviews. What people call a Christian worldview is often their own cultural constructs. Some invoke logic and science to substantiate their beliefs, even when logic and science have no bearing on the subject matter.

I have witnessed conversations with people who sincerely believed that something is out of place with other church members who did not share their particular views of the spirit world, witchcraft and eschatology. I once heard a Christian scholar opine that Jesus dealt with his ignorant parents, neighbors and popular culture in Palestine the way he did, just so they would understand him; his actual theology would be akin to that of my white American friend. The irony is that no Christian seems willing to admit that their theological framework is heavily influenced by their cultural sensibilities.

We all stand guilty of ignorance and arrogance in the attempt to force the Christian gospel to fit our mold, mores and social norms. Somehow, where we stand in God’s world, the condition of the air, the sounds we hear, the climate and social forces manipulating our senses and sensibilities do affect what we think God’s world should look like – not necessarily what it really is. 

We all stand guilty of ignorance and arrogance in the attempt to force the Christian gospel to fit our mold, mores and social norms.

For some, every aspect of human life is permeated by activities of spiritual forces. In extreme cases, people see demons or witchcraft behind every misfortune, and the Holy Spirit at work directing every decision they make – with minimum human responsibility. 

On the other hand, some of my Caucasian former church members would intimate that they do believe in spiritual activity in the world, but only as far as God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are concerned. The notion that evil spirits have potential influence in human affairs would be a real cause for consternation. In this framework, evil spiritual powers are real only in the imagination of superstitious Christians with no scientific and logical acumen. 

Arguably, scientific advancement and economic prosperity have engendered a deep sense of pride in the Western hemisphere. Historically, Christians in these regions that have benefited from the slave trade and colonization assume that their counterparts in Africa and South America are still ignorant and stand in need of their guidance on what to believe. Inadvertently, some have presented themselves as arbiters of authentic Christianity. 

Is it possible that early missionary participation in the slave trade in sub-Saharan Africa, and the agenda to dehumanize black persons, still underlies the notion of ignorant and inferior Christians on the “Dark Continent”? If not, should we continue to characterize church growth in Africa as experiences among the ignorant that could not be replicated in the “civilized” West? Or should we first address the worldview differences that seem to influence the reception and commensurate praxis of the Christian faith? 

Looking Back to the Early Church

I suggest that we do not get blindsided by the differences in our worldviews but revisit our origins to recapture how the early Christians managed and adapted to a diversity of cultures and thought in their communities.

Jesus was born and raised in first century Palestine. Circumstances leading to his birth suggest a worldview in which spiritual beings were deeply involved in human affairs. His birth was announced by an angel. His mother was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. His name and mission were divinely determined. Jesus’s baptism received divine attestation when the Holy Spirit came upon him and a voice from heaven affirmed his divine status. Jesus was tempted by the devil, and his ministry included proclamation, exorcism and miraculous deeds, even the ability to raise the dead. 

The reader is made to believe that God’s power was evident in the ministry of Jesus as he dealt with people across the region. Demons and demonic activities were real to him in the same way that the power of the Holy Spirit was real to him. 

Notwithstanding the fact that Christianity stands or falls on the belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15), it is almost impossible to reconstruct historic Christianity without the activity of spiritual beings engaging in human affairs. The very notion of salvation by grace is premised on the intervention of a spiritual agent to save sinful humanity from impending doom. However, post-enlightenment Euro-centric Christianity creates a version of Christianity that ostracizes the concept of spiritual forces involved in human affairs. 

It is almost impossible to reconstruct historic Christianity without the activity of spiritual beings engaging in human affairs.

Thus, a Western worldview has affected Western Christianity in much the same way that an African worldview has impacted Christianity in Africa.

The early Christians up to the period of the church councils (from the fourth to the sixth century) took for granted that the material world and spiritual world are part of the same cosmos. Christian doctrines and council decisions were rooted in these beliefs. Creeds and statements were composed to articulate unequivocal beliefs in this regard. 

The Rise of Western Reason

However, by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we observe changes in this trend. An increasing appetite for philosophical reasoning in matters of faith paved the way for the rise of scholastic traditions. By the time of the Reformation, faith-reason integration, promoted by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, had greatly increased. 

It is important to note that Christians did not give up their convictions in the interplay of spiritual activity and human responsibility in God’s world. The words of Martin Luther in regard to the Scriptures gives us a glimpse of this: 

"We ought not to criticize, explain, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate thereon, and seek their meaning. The devil and temptations also afford us occasion to learn and understand the Scriptures, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listened to them. The Holy Ghost must here be our only master and tutor." (Table Talk IV)

Christian doctrine holds that our very Scriptures are inspired by a spiritual agent. That God would ultimately judge people to determine their fate in heaven or in hell. We need not forget that Christian prayers presume the existence of a God that is able to intervene in human affairs. So, when did we start pushing back on the activity of spiritual beings in human affairs?

The epoch of reason in the eighteenth century and the epoch of science in the nineteenth century left indelible marks on Western civilization and on humanity in general. These two centuries saw a rise in critical inquiry into the origin of the universe, probity into matters of faith and an incredible amount of inventions. 

Over time, scientific answers were aptly given to superstitious practices. Faith in God eventually diminished as society witnessed the rise of faith in reason/science. Christians continued to hold their church affiliations but began to explore rational explanations for their doctrine and praxis. 

Two events in the twentieth century cannot be left out in this timeline: the two World Wars. The wars also prompted a re-evaluation of theodicy and the need to explore concrete actions to mitigate human suffering. God was slowly being pushed to the background as humans explored existential answers for global issues. After World War II, theologians who focused on an existential theology of hope, and the demythologization of supernatural claims in the Christian faith, attracted the most attention. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

We are where we are today because concrete experiences across the world in a variety of churches are shaping varied theological constructs. 

The Christian church could easily become a Christian club where the power of God is inactive, where “no spiritual consequences” becomes a license for licentiousness and where preachers are emboldened to use the name of God to exploit the poor and most vulnerable among us. 

Christian origins remind us of God’s ability to empower people for service, check immorality and enrich communal living with the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

Let us engage in constant dialogue – to strive to embrace the whole gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Against Principalities and Powers by Daniel Darko

The Majority World worldview may be closer to that of the early Christians, yet ascribing to spirits what ought be ascribed to humans would be dangerous. Conversely, is it consistent to believe in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit while denying the existence of evil spiritual powers? The early Christians did not model such a convenient selection of belief systems. 

Too much spiritual presence, one-sided spiritual belief, and no spiritual activity in human affairs are all incomplete theologizing of the historic faith of the early Christians. 

Let us engage in constant dialogue – to learn and strive to embrace the whole Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and endeavor to exhibit fitting Christian conduct in God’s world.


Daniel K. Darko is the author of Against Principalities and Powers. He has a PhD in New Testament Studies from King’s College, London, and is Professor of New Testament at Gordon College, Wenham, MA, USA. A native of Ghana, he has served in executive and pastoral roles in Ghana, Croatia, England, and the United States. He is also the Executive Director of Africa Potential and author of No Longer Living as the Gentiles (T&T Clark), among other publications.

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