“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
—Colossians 2:8-15 (ESV)
In Colossians 2, which I’m preaching through now with my congregation, Paul talks about thestoicheia, the “elemental spirits” or “elemental powers” who were believed by many in those days to control the natural world; the church in Colossae had gotten into a form of false teaching that was telling them they needed to pay homage or tribute of some sort to those spirits in order to progress in their spiritual lives. Paul, of course, will have none of that, and so he’s at pains to make it clear to them that Jesus is above all such powers and all such authorities that may exist, and that he’s the only source of the fullness of life they’re seeking.
Now, obviously, our culture doesn’t believe in those elemental powers anymore, but I don’t think that means it no longer believes in stoicheia; we just have different ones. Several weeks ago, I mulled this over in a post for a bit, and came to the conclusion that one such force in our society is sex. I didn’t come up with any others, though there are no doubt quite a few. In the comments thread, Doug Hagler named another one—and one which, I must say, makes him sound quite prescient in retrospect:
I almost shouted it, reading this—ECONOMICS. That is clearly our stoiche (not sure on the singular, its been a while), far more than sex is, IMO. When we wonder what to do as a nation, we listen to our economists. It is everyone’s fundamental concern going into a national election. It is our national obsession and our clearest deity. Everyone treats economics as a science, which in our culture, means a truth-discerning and truth-telling method, when it is in fact a value system of subjective measurement.
Anyway, that’s my vote for America’s “elemental spirit of the world”. Really, it probably fits better as a ‘ruler and authority’.
I don’t think it’s fair to say “far more than sex” as a general statement—for some people, certainly, while for others, it’s the other way around—but there’s no question, this is another power with overarching dominance in our society; and I can’t think of anything that could have illustrated or emphasized the truth of Doug’s point to a much greater degree than the crash of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the whole chain of events which they precipitated. And in retrospect, given the saga of the rescue bill and the initial failure of the markets to respond to it as hoped, this part of his comment (emphasis mine) looks particularly telling:
Everyone treats economics as a science, which in our culture, means a truth-discerning and truth-telling method, when it is in fact a value system of subjective measurement.
That’s why we get things like this post of Hugh Hewitt’s considering the possibility that the stock market drop is not a rational response, but is in fact an irrational panic (which he says, incidentally, could mean a relatively quick rebound, at least to some degree): it’s the collision between our assumption that economics is a science and the reality of its fundamental subjectivity that produces, or at least is largely responsible for producing, bubbles and panics. A clearer illustration of the stoicheia in our culture and the way they affect our lives you would be hard-pressed to find. Kudos, Doug: good eye.
Of course, this raises the question (which Doug himself raised in his comment): if Christ has rendered all rulers and authorities impotent and has put them on display in his triumphal procession, what does that look like with respect to economics? Paul calls the Colossians, and by extension us, not to serve the stoicheia but only to follow Christ; how do we do that in the economic arena? The answer to that question is, I suspect, very large; one standard answer is the avoidance of materialism—not spending more than we can afford, not letting our lives be driven by owning and possessing things, storing up treasures in heaven, not allowing our belongings to become our idols—the prophets taught on this, Christ taught on this, the rest of the NT writers taught on this, and the church down through the ages has taught on this, and it’s nothing new. But when it comes to economics as a whole and its influence over us, that’s only part of the answer, and I’m not sure what the rest of it is. I suspect Doug or perhaps others might point in a socialist direction, away from the free market, but I don’t think that actually addresses, much less solves, the problem—as far as I can see, it just changes the terms. The real answer lies elsewhere.