“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”
In a comment on my latest post, Bruce Charlton says that “secular / non-religious explanations” are a partial, and therefore duping, explanations of the great conspiracy. They enter but do not reach the bottom of “the rabbit hole.” I agree and cite St. Paul’s memorable line from Ephesians. Here I will venture some remarks upon its meaning.
When Paul says that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, he does not simply mean that our enemies are demons and not men. I am sure Paul would agree that men (and women) are in many cases the proximate causes of our temptation to wrath, avarice and concupiscence. He means that that with which we wrestle is not motivated by carnal lusts, or what Paul elsewhere calls lusts of the “flesh.” This is Charlton’s point and the reason why ordinary carnal passions like anger, greed and lust are not the ultimate explanations at the bottom of the rabbit hole. They are explanations by which we are duped.
The words “principalities” and “powers” may be more readily understood as princes and potentiates, and these princes and potentates are, of course, officers in the army of fallen angels. The point to be taken from this is that the spiritual powers with which we wrestle are an organized alliance that has divisions, a command structure, and a plan. C.S. Lewis represented it as a great bureaucracy that he called the Lowerarchy. Asking after Wormwood’s success in perverting the sexual taste of the young man he is charged with luring to damnation, Screwtape writes:
“In a rough and ready way, of course, this question is decided for us by spirits far deeper down in the Lowerarchy than you and I. It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual “taste”. This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely” (Screwtape Letters, chap. 10).
Screwtape’s “great masters” are Paul’s “principalities” and “powers,” they are lodged “far deeper down” the rabbit hole, and they exercise their dark art through the proximate causes of flesh-and-blood “artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers.” What is more, we see that their aim is not to satisfy any carnal lust in themselves—not to enjoy great riches, fine foods, and beautiful women. Their aim is to ruin humans as spiritual, social and biological beings, and by so doing to savor human misery.
The “darkness of this world” is evil and Paul’s point is to say that evil is not the absence of order and design. This darkness has its rulers and it acts on their commands. We should take this as a warning against the notion that spiritual warfare is a simple matter of order versus chaos. As Charlton often observes, order can be evil and evil is in many cases an excess of order. The end of the plan may be the ruin and damnation of men and women, but the means to this end are highly methodical. Indeed Screwtape repeatedly admonishes his nephew, the novice tempter, to follow the approved methods and stick to the diabolical plan. Part of that plan is to encourage humans to be likewise orderly and methodical, and to rebuild the Babylonian Tower.
“So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or ‘science’ or psychology, or what not” (chap. 28).
“Spiritual wickedness in high places” is often taken to mean spiritual wickedness among the high and mighty, although this reading contradicts the plain sense of the opening statement about wrestling against something other than “flesh and blood.” This last statement is in fact the counterpart of the first and it brings us back to the question of the meaning of spiritual as opposed to carnal lusts. I do not know the full answer to this question, but think we can see the beginning of the answer in perverse and gratuitous self-denial rooted in pride. “Spiritual wickedness in high places” is not indulgence in forbidden fruits. It is, rather, abstention from wholesome and permitted fruits in a bid to make oneself more pure and “spiritual” than other men.
As Screwtape tells his nephew, spiritual pride is “the strongest and most beautiful of the vices” and “false spirituality is always to be encouraged.” The example Screwtape gives is helpful.
“On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer,’ humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick” (chap. 27).
It is a beginning of “spiritual wickedness in high places” to suppose oneself too spiritually advanced to pray for the vulgar (but necessary, good and permitted) fruits of food and health. Such needless abstention in what might be called the low places of the flesh—from good things that are needful and not wicked or forbidden—is the beginning of “spiritual wickedness in high places” because it ends with abstention from the source of those good things. This is obvious in those highly spiritualized atheists who are not at all worldly or carnal, but who pride themselves in having transcended the vulgar need for God.