A World Without Window: Christians and the Disenchanting of the Universe

A World Without Window: Christians and the Disenchanting of the Universe

A World Without Window: Christians and the Disenchanting of the Universe

In our modern, scientific world, there is always the temptation to believe that the world is purely material. Many reject as naive the “myths” of ancient cultures with their pantheon of deities and the unending desire for union with the divine.

Our scientific coming of age has made all of those beliefs unacceptable, we believe. We now know about the water cycle and can reject the infantile belief that a god or God sends rain from heaven, we say. For many, belief in angels and demons outside of our material universe is nothing but superstition; our world has no window since there is nothing to see outside of it.

This materialistic account of the universe – what Charles Taylor called “disenchantment”[1] – even came into the church in the 20th century as people like Rudolf Bultman tried to demythologize the Bible. They tried to explain away the miracles of Scriptures, including the most important one – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

You would think that religion, by definition, necessitates enchantment – that supernatural beings exist. However, the pressure of naturalism and materialism encroaches upon religious faith and seeks to undermine it by reducing it to a merely human affair.

But this is not what I am primarily concerned about here. I am more concerned about many of us who are not confessionally naturalistic – we won’t say that supernatural beings don’t exist – but tend to live that way.

Jake Meador, commenting on Taylor’s thoughts, wrote: “We believe in the supernatural; we just don’t think it interacts with us regularly or in a way we can control or understand. So we ignore it … We believe we are closed-off individuals, self-defined and self-determined. So we believe in the supernatural in some limited way. We just don’t think it affects us in ordinary circumstances.”[2]

Consequently, we may believe in God but don’t live as if he does exist or affect anything. Similarly, we may believe in the devil but live as if all he does is “sleep and snore.” Moreover, there are many who are not guilty of the former but are guilty of the latter.

This article aims to show that naturalism, in faith or in praxis, is incompatible with Christian orthodoxy by considering some common ways that Christians live as though the world is disenchanted.

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Is prayer unnecessary?

In an attempt to encourage people to work and not only pray, many of us have come to the place where we see prayer as unnecessary, at least in practice. This attitude manifests itself in many ways.

First, there are those who believe that since unbelievers get what they want without praying, prayer can’t be all that necessary. These are the ones who are quick to remind you that the world’s richest man is an unbeliever and that hard work (among others) are the real sources of success and riches. For them, your life is in your hands and you are responsible for the results you see; so stop disturbing God and get to work.  

Second, there are those who believe that we should only pray for the big things and concentrate on doing the small things ourselves. Related to this are those who say that our prayers should revolve around “spiritual” things instead of bugging God with material needs that we can sort out for ourselves.

Though these views are often motivated by good impulses – the desire to encourage human responsibility – they often end up cultivating a disenchanted (deistic) view of the universe where we are captains of our ships and masters of our own destinies.

Prayer as a recognition of God’s sovereignty

The first view above is right in affirming that unbelievers get what they want without praying and that many unbelievers are more successful than believers.

However, what it gets wrong is that the BIble itself affirms that God is the one who provides even for the unbelievers. He sends his rain and sun on the unrighteous (Mathew 5:43-48) and supplies the needs of all nations (Acts 14:17 [including pagan and secular ones]). As James affirms, “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17).

Rather than serving as a proof of his indifference, the blessings of unbelievers is a proof of God’s kindness (Acts 14:17) and his concern for the world that he has created.

One of the differences between a believer and an unbeliever is that the former recognises and acknowledges God as the giver of all good things while the latter does not. Unbelievers neither glorify nor thank God for his blessings because they believe they are living in a disenchanted world where human choices and actions are sovereign.

When we pray, we are acknowledging, first of all, that God is the kind giver of all things. We are confessing with David that everything comes from him (1 Chronicles 29:14), with Paul that there is nothing we have that we have not received (1 Corinthians 4:7), and with Qoheleth that “without him, who can eat or find enjoyment” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25). As Douglas Moo puts it, “God, whose benevolent character is unchanging and unchangeable, is the source of everything that is good.”[3]

Secondly, when we pray, we recognise that God is sovereign over all things. We don’t live like unbelievers who believe that man proposes and man disposes; rather, we believe that every proposition of man is subject to God’s sovereign plans and purposes. For unbelievers, whether A happens or not is mostly a matter of human ingenuity or luck. But for believers, we know that God is the one who disposes.

James, confronting the disenchantment mindset that often plagues us, warns us against boasting about tomorrow: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:13-17, cf. Proverbs 27:1, Job 7:7-16).

“What must be recognized is that this world is not a closed system,” comments Douglas Moo, “that an influence quite outside the material sphere ultimately determines the success and failures of plans – indeed, the very continuation of life itself.”[4] When done right, prayer is one of the ways we acknowledge this truth.

Praying for “mundane” things 

The second view is also wrong because the Bible calls us to pray for the so-called mundane things. The Lord’s prayer includes a plea for daily bread (Matthew 6:11). In fact, for Paul, anything that can make us anxious is an appropriate prayer point (Philippians 4:6).

Some verses later, Paul himself prayed for God to meet all the needs of the Philippians (verse 19). He also prayed that the Corinthians will be “enriched in every way” so they can be “generous on every occasion” (2 Corinthians 9:11).

Praying for “mundane” things is our way of acknowledging God as the supplier of all needs and the sovereign over all creation. It is also our way of acknowledging our entire dependence on God. He is not an absentee landlord that comes to visit only when things go out of the way; he is living right here with us. He who gave us his son, said Paul, will give us all things (Romans 8:32).

Miroslav Volf puts it this way: “But none of our endeavors and concerns are too small for God. God wants to empower us to succeed. God is the power of our being and therefore also the power of our succeeding.”[5]

Nevertheless, it’s true that God’s desires for us believers goes beyond the supply of our material needs even when it doesn’t exclude them. God wants to conform us to Christ in the process of sanctification (2 Corinthians 3:18), a process that will end in our glorification. Because this sanctification is his priority, God often subordinates our material needs to it (which is why it is irresponsible chastising believers because an atheist is the world’s richest man). To learn contentment, he allows us to experience both lack and plenty (Philippians 4:13) and to produce holiness and a harvest of righteousness, he allows us to go through various trials (Hebrews 12:7-11).

This is why the NT teaches repeatedly that the kingdom of God is more primary than food and clothing (Matthew 6:25-34), that we should live by the Word of God and not bread alone (Matthew 4:4), that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15), and that gaining everything in this world and losing eternal life is a fool’s bargain (Mark 8:36-37).

Prayer and our relationship with God

Christians don’t pray in vain. Our prayers are not just theological statements that affirm one or two things about God. When we pray, God listens and he answers in accordance with his sovereign will because he is actively involved in his world.

This is a privilege that unbelievers do not have (1 Peter 3:12, Proverbs 28:9; 15:29; John 9:31).

As I wrote in another article, “Everything God does for unbelievers, he does it in spite of them. For example, he raised Assyria to punish his people. He exalted Pharaoh to reveal his power through him (Romans 9:17). If God is doing something for the unbeliever, it is because that thing is exactly what he has chosen to do, not because the unbeliever “asks” for it.” In contrast, “God does things in response to the prayers of his people. He hears our prayers, and if they accord with his will, he does them. God supplies our needs within a loving, joyful relationship that we have with him.”[6]

Does prayer make us irresponsible   

If we pray for all things, does that not make us irresponsible, expecting God to do what is our responsibility to do.

After asking this same question, Volf answers, “We would be if receiving God’s blessing meant that God did things that otherwise we would have to do. But that’s not the case. When God blesses, God does not create finished products; God works through human means to achieve God’s ends. With regard to our success in work, we pray not so much for God to miraculously bring about a desired result but to make us willing, capable, and effective instruments in God’s hand—which is what we were created to be in the first place.”[7]

In other words, God works through means. When we pray for provision, he does not usually allow manna to fall down from heaven. Rather, he sends us help through other humans. When we pray for the grace to excel at work, he does it not by magically filling our blank PPT. file but by giving us the strength, wisdom, and creativity needed to create those slides.

However, God does not only work through means, he also prepares the means he uses to achieve his ends. Many people believe it is irrelevant praying for Nigeria to be better because we lack the leadership, righteousness, patriotism, etc. required for the country to prosper. Responding to this mindset, I commented “Yes, the peace and prosperity of a nation depends on the righteousness, justice, wisdom, and thirst for knowledge of the ruler, among others, but who says that God doesn’t give all those? Have we forgotten that the heart of the king is a stream of water in the Lord’s hand that he can channel towards his ends (Proverbs 21:1)?”[8]

More often, God supplies ends by supplying the means that are necessary for the accomplishment of those ends. Therefore, praying for ends that depend on our own choices and actions is not irresponsible. Abdicating our responsibilities (the means) and expecting the end is irresponsible but depending on God to enable us to be the means to the ends we desire is not irresponsible.

Because God supplies both ends and means, believers cannot live in the world as if it is disenchanted. This was why God warned the pilgrim Israelites that once they have become wealthy in Canaan, they must not forget that it is him “who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). Israel got wealthy by normal means of wealth production but the ability to work within those means was supplied by God; hence, as the supplier of the means, he is the supplier of the ends. So, when James said that every good and perfect gift comes from God, that includes both means and ends.

However, because God is sovereign, he sometimes works outside of the means-ends dynamics by performing miracles. Even though miracles, by definition, are rare, they confirm to us the reality that we live in an enchanted world where God is sovereign.

Nevertheless, to live as if it’s only miracles that confirm God’s involvement in our world is to live as a practical atheist even if we say the creeds and partake of the Lord’s supper.Through the outworkings of natural law and the paradigm of means-ends, God is actively involved in the preservation of the world he made.

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Demons: Fiction or reality 

Similarly, our naturalistic and anthropocentric posture makes us deny the existence of demons or evil spirits. Even Christians who believe (in word and deed) that God exists live as if the devil and his agents don’t. Recently, people were debating on Twitter if money rituals and, by extension, juju are real. Most people believe that believing in evil spirits who act in the world is backward and belong to the infantile period of African mysticism, something we have dropped when we encountered western civilisation.

So, are demons fiction or reality?

Satan and evil spirits exist

It’s impossible to read any of the synoptic gospels without recognising the existence of demons.

For example, in Luke 13:16, Jesus said that the woman who had been crippled for 18 years was kept bound by Satan. In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus said a parable about evil spirits leaving and entering a person. We also find Jesus casting out evil spirits and sending them into pigs (Mathew 8:28-34). And throughout his ministry, we find him exorcising demons.

In the OT, we see Pharaoh’s magicians repeating the first three miracles that Moses and Aaron performed (Exodus 7:10-8:6) and a medium speaking with dead Samuel (1 Samuel 28). We also see God warning his chosen people against mediums and spiritists (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6).

Simon was a popular sorcerer that Philip met in Samaria (Acts 8) and Elymas, one that Paul met in Paphos (Acts 13). When the sons of Sceva attempted to imitate Paul by casting out demons, they were beaten to stupor (Acts 19). A fortune teller followed Paul in Acts 16 and won’t stop until he sent out the evil spirit in her.

Jesus said that the devil is the prince of this world (John 14:30), Paul warns against “the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12), and Peter warned against the devil who prowls around looking for whom to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And in Revelation, we see evil spirits working miracles (Revelation 13:13-14; 16:13-14). 

Furthermore, Paul warned that the idols worshipped in Corinth are demons (1 Corinthians 10:20) and that demons are deceiving spirits who seek to take people away from the faith. Infact, unbelievers are captive to the devil (2 Timothy 2:25).

From the foregoing, we can know the following: demons are real, demons can inhabit humans, they can do supernatural things, their primary tool is deception, their aim is to make people remain in darkness and to drag those who have seen the light back into darkness.

While demons are active generally in the world, they are more active in places where idolatry and paganism are rampant. This is why Paul said that the Corinthians who were worshipping idols were worshipping demons. Where these demons are worshipped through idols, the manifestation of demonic power will be widespread as the devil seeks to keep them in darkness. And as we have seen above, this manifestation includes the working of “signs and wonders.” However, even in places where paganism is not rampant, the devil is still active in many ways, holding captive all who are seperated from God.

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Demons and the believer

First, we know that demons cannot inhabit a true believer (1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16). Nevertheless, they are out to deceive (1 Timothy 4:1), discourage (1 Peter 5:8-9), and oppose (Ephesians 6:12) believers. We must therefore pray for God to deliver us from the evil one (Mathew 6:13) and trust in God’s promise that not even demons can separate us from Christ’s love (Romans 8:38).

Second, we know that Jesus has gained a decisive victory over Satan (John 12:31). Because of this victory, the devil is bound and cannot deceive the world the way he did before Christ (Revelation 20:3). Before Christ, all the nations of the world were enthralled in the gross darkness of idolatry and paganism. But now, the light of the gospel has been shining on the nations and the deception of Satan is being exposed. Nevertheless, the gospel has not gone into all nations and even in some nations where the gospel has gone to, many people are still in the hold of Satan’s deception. Though bound, the devil is still active among the nations, seeking to oppose the light of the gospel. The devil and his hosts will not be destroyed until the consummation of all things (Revelation 19, 20).

Third, demons are not sovereign, God is. The devil cannot override God’s sovereignty over the universe (Job 1, 2). This can be easily seen in the way Christ and his disciples regularly chased out demons and the way the demons tremble before him (Mathew 8:29).     

Fourth, since the greatest threat to the devil’s power is the gospel, our responsibility is to shine the light of that gospel everywhere. The devil depends on holding individuals and communities in darkness to keep his control over them. Therefore, instead of acting as if the devil does not exist, we should confront him in his territories through the power of the gospel. When the light shines, the darkness is overcome and demons will be forced out. Remember, if the evil spirit leaves and the place is still empty, he will come back with more evil spirits (Matthew 12:43-45). Therefore, liberation through faithful gospel preaching will always be more important than exorcism. The more liberated people are from paganism and idolatry, the less control the devil has.

On the one hand, we must not assume that only God and good angels exist and that the devil is passive. The devil and his agents are anything but passive; they are fighting against believers and strengthening their hold on unbelievers and to achieve the latter, they can indeed do “signs and wonders,” which can include giving them money or taking them deeper into sin until it has gained control over their will or doing all they can to prevent the entrance or reception of the gospel.

On the other hand, God is sovereign. The devil will never be victorious over any believer and for the unbelievers, he has promised that the light of the gospel will shine in every nation (Matthew 24:14) and that uncountable multitude from every tribe, language, nation, and people will rule and reign with Christ (Revelation 5:9).

Conclusion

To deny the presence of the supernatural is to move outside of the realm of Christian orthodoxy. God is intimately involved in his creation to sustain and save it and the devil is active in that creation to destroy God’s works.

Amidst the modern hubris of naturalism and materialism, those of us who believe in the supernatural must not only say so, we must live as if we believe so.

This means praying to God for everything, acknowledging him as the source of every good and gracious gift, and recognising his sovereignty over everything.

It also means putting on the whole armour of God to oppose evil spirits who are against us and are seeking to perpetuate their hold on those that have been subjected to their dark powers.

Christian, seek not yet repose,

Cast thy dreams of ease away;

Thou art in the midst of foes:

Watch and pray.

Principalities and pow’rs,

Must’ring their unseen array,

Wait for thine unguarded hours:

Watch and pray.

Gird thy heav’nly armor on,

Wear it ever, night and day;

Ambushed lies the evil one:

Watch and pray.

Hear the victors who o’ercame:

Still they mark each warrior’s way;

All with one sweet voice exclaim,

“Watch and pray.”

Hear, above all, hear thy Lord,

Him thou lovest to obey;

Hide within thy heart his word,

“Watch and pray.”

Watch, as if on that alone

Hung the issue of the day;

Pray, that help may be sent down:

Watch and pray.

Amen.[9]


[1] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

[2] Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 116, Scribd.

[3] Douglas Moo, James, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 145, Scribd.

[4] Ibid, 288.

[5] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), Page 42, Scribd.

[6] Why Christians Should Have No Problem With An Atheist As The World Richest Man, Why Christians Should Have No Problem with an Atheist as the World Richest Man (therenewedmind.org)

[7] Volf, A Public Faith, 43, Scribd.

[8] Is It Finally Time To Stop Praying For Nigeria?, https://therenewedmind.org/praying-for-nigeria/

[9] Charlotte Elliot, Christian, Seek Not Yet Repose, Trinity Hymnal (Pennsylvania: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1961), Hymn #471.

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