A thought on elemental powers, courtesy of Doug Hagler

“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.

Posted in Economics, Religion and theology.


  1. Heh. Good guess, but no. For economics, I go old-school for some pre-modern communalism. I think we should form our own social collectives, pool our resources as a community, and care for each other. That’s about as complicated as it gets. I think that an *actual* socialist system, in the Marxian sense of the people who make stuff deciding what happens to the stuff rather than a detached oligarchy, would be a step closer than what we have now, but I don’t want socialism as America is socialist – that is, control by a governmental oligarchy of profession politician-millionaires rather than an oligarchy of plain ol’ billionaires.

    Given that, capitalism actually is more conducive to my idealistic vision because things are less regulated overall – there is less in the way of our communalism. The problem I have with our system (one of oh so many) is that it is not actually capitalism. Adam Smith would probably have apoplectic fits if he saw what we were doing while calling it capitalism. What we have is selective redistribution – and contrary to the polemics, Democrats and Republicans both redistribute, and do so, for the most part, unjustly.

    What confuses people is that, given the choice of Republican redistribution, a’la Reaganomics, which favors the rich and powerful (a rising tide lifts all yachts after all), and Democrat redistribution, which favors the poor (or at least tries to), the choice is easy for me. Of those two sub-optimal situations, I favor the one that seeks to help people who actually need it.

  2. Except that in the real fallen world, look at what the attempt to follow Marx produced, and what any “soft” attempt to do the same (what you identify as “Democratic redistributionism”) has produced: simply a less-efficient oligarchy. The idea that “Reaganomics” is about the rich and powerful (rather than removing government hindrances to people helping themselves) is a political talking point, not reality; that’s why these days, the large majority of our billionaires vote Democratic. They already have theirs, and they have the lawyers to enable them to keep it, whatever the government does to the tax code.

    That’s why, on the political level, I continue to believe that what we need is a move back in the direction of freeing the market (even if you do deride that as “Reaganomics”). On the spiritual level, yeah, taking care of each other, working on more of an Acts 4 model, is definitely part of the picture. My wife would say that recognizing the essentially illusory nature of the whole system is part of it as well; you’ll probably see a post from one of us following that out at some point here soon. As to how to connect the two levels–a political theology of economics that recognizes economics’ position as one of the stoicheia of the modern age–that’s another interesting question.

  3. We’ll have to agree to disagree about Reaganomics. I definitely can’t agree that the entirety of Reagan-esque economic policy was to even-handedly remove restraints on people helping themselves, but I obviously agree that Democratic redistribution has led to an oligarchy of its own (I’m not sure I buy “less efficient” – I think efficiency is another value judgement when talking about human systems. Republican pundits regularly identify as “government waste” programs that are vital to people working in social services among the least-advantaged)

    I’m also not sure that billionaires voting Dem reflects the correlation you think it does – you could just as easily say that they see the Dems are the better party for helping those who are least-advantaged. Really, I’d have to ask billionaires why they vote Dem, compare present voting habits to past ones (pre-billions), and so on.

    As for a political theology of the stoichea of economics and the Christian response – I think that’s a fundamental task here and now. I think the “technology” or maybe just “techne” of economics, which you allude to in your follow-up post, has outdistanced our capacity to be refelctive and moral about its use (much less theological). It is a big dangerous game played with other people’s money (when I say money, to some degree I mean “lives”), where you are rewarded for “success” (out-thinking others in the near-zero-sum game and profiting at their expense) and you are also rewarded for failure – with things like government bailouts and golden parachutes. Its a win-win for the players, who do not risk their own assets or, in most cases, their livelihood.

    When “economic growth” is the only stated value, what I see is everyone trying to build a better cancer – because when something grows without a sense of its own limits in the body, that’s what we call it.

  4. As an aside, I realize I’m also not sure what “moving back” to freeing the market actually means. The result of total lack of regulation in the past seems to have been monopolies – I mean, “trust-busting” was *regulation*, not de-regulation. I would say that we should have clearer and more broadly agreed-upon justifications for the limitations we place on “the market” (which is of course, itself, illusory).

    I still don’t see any good reason why widespread deregulation for its own sake would result in anything but a return to huge trusts controlling everything and dominating the “free” market. Or, to put it another way, if by “free” we mean “fair and equally acessible”, then we definitely need regulations. If by “free” we mean “free-for-all survival of the strongest”, I’d say that is undesirable at best and probably immoral.

  5. The entirety? No; but philosophically, that was much of the reason for it. As for efficiency, I don’t think it’s a value judgment so much as you think, though it’s definitely a matter of fuzzy logic; but the diversion of money to such things as, say, professional lobbyists represents a clear inefficiency in the system, no?

    As for moving back toward a freer market, I think you hit the nub of it. No one’s arguing for a totally deregulated market, because that would be no freer than a totally regulated one–it would simply be anarchy as opposed to central planning. The freest market, I think, would be one in which all regulation was aimed at process–ensuring equal access, ethical behavior, the same rules for everyone, etc.–and none at result.

    The last two paragraphs of your next-to-last comment are, I think, important. I particularly like the analogy of trying to build a better cancer–I think that’s a good point (and a vivid image). Inherent in that image, I think, is the beginning of a better approach.

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