our idolatry

The most developed presentation of the spiritualizing of our institutions and social structures and systems is in Walter Wink's "Powers That Be" series. It's been very popular in some Christian circles over the past twenty years. He takes up the New Testament concepts of "rulers, authorities, powers," rejecting the usual interpretation that these refer to personal spiritual beings (such as demons), and interprets these "powers" as living spiritual entities within our social institutions, structures and systems. His main thesis is that since these are created entities, they are intrinsically good, though badly fallen, and so are in need of redemption. That's his challenge for us: redeem the powers.

It's hard to argue about "rulers, authorities, powers," since these concepts are rather vague, not clearly explained by the epistle writers, and as far as I know Jesus didn't speak of them. But in some of the clearest passages, Paul presents them as spiritual enemies (of both us and Jesus), and predicts that Jesus will eventually destroy them:

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6.12)

Then comes the end, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Cor 15.24-26)

So I don't see much value in trying to "redeem the powers." There may be some connection between social institutions and "the powers" spoken of in the New Testament, but if so it doesn't look good for them.

The more troubling problem of spiritualizing our institutions existed long before Wink promoted the idea (it appeared in the novel I quoted yesterday, for example). It seems to me that if we create social structures or institutions, and then as they grow in power we become dependent on them, then because they seem to take on a life of their own we attribute actual spiritual life to them, then we begin to feel controlled by them and even fear them... haven't we created idols? The work of men's hands that we treat like gods? This is nothing new.

Certainly we do this with our institutions. I've seen it often. But it's false, a lie. Definitely not something we should legitimize with our theology, affirming that there are such spiritual entities among us, in our institutions and social systems. We create our institutions. We invent our social structures and systems. But spiritual entities, we do not create those. Because we cannot. Except in our imagination, because we want gods to care for us and protect us, but gods that are made in our image and that we can control (though when they get big they tend to get out of hand...). Yes, our governments and corporations and organizations are very much like this. But that only makes them idols, not gods.

And idols have no spiritual power—except in the minds of those who believe in them.