Further Reflections on Paul Hiebert’s “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle”
Paul Hiebert is best known for his ability to integrate anthropology, theology, and missions. Perhaps no article illustrates this better than “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” 1
The notion that magical powers could mysteriously influence human life was one of the beliefs the author of the Creation account was challenging. The text could not have been more explicit.
About a year or two before he passed away, Professor Hiebert called me to comment on an article on spiritual warfare I had published in the Fall 2000 issue of Direction. 2 The article, which offered a critique of the Third Wave movement from a worldview perspective, had caught his attention. His comments were very encouraging and affirming, but more importantly, it was his observation that the article provided a possible way out of a profound theological dilemma that engaged me. Many Christian anthropologists, missiologists, missionaries, and pastors experience a high degree of ambivalence as they seek to reconcile their belief in rationality and empirical science with the apparent reality and predominance of magic and occult phenomena in many non-Western societies, and with the rise of the New Age in Europe and North America. It is in great part in response to this conversation that I offer this short reflection on the problem Hiebert outlines in this important article.
The question that occupies Hiebert is linked to the divergent interpretations that are offered to explain and to deal with a variety of phenomena such as illnesses and other afflictions in settings where missionaries are in contact with cultures that have not assimilated the Western worldview and the scientific method. He offers the following example:
One day, while teaching in the Bible school in Shamshabad, I saw Yellayya standing in the door at the back of the class. He looked tired, for he had walked many miles from Muchintala where he was an elder in the church. . . . When I asked why he had come, he said that smallpox had come to the village a few weeks earlier and had taken a number of children. Doctors trained in Western medicine had tried to halt the plague, but without success. Finally, in desperation the village elders had sent the diviner, who told them that Maisamma, goddess of smallpox, was angry with the village.
To satisfy her and stop the plague the village would have to perform the water buffalo sacrifice. The village elders went around to each household in the village to raise money to purchase the buffalo. When they came to the Christian homes, the Christians refused to give them anything, saying that it was against their religious beliefs. The leaders were angry, pointing out that the goddess would not be satisfied until every household gave something as a token offering—even one paisa 3 would do. When the Christians refused, the elders forbade them to draw water from the village wells, and the merchants refused to sell them food.
In the end some of the Christians had wanted to stop the harassment by giving the paisa, telling God they did not mean it, but Yellayya had refused to let them do so. Now, said Yellayya, one of the Christian girls was sick with smallpox. He wanted me to pray with him for God’s healing. As I knelt, my mind was in turmoil. I had learned to pray as a child, studied prayer in seminary, and preached it as a pastor. But now I was to pray for a sick child as all the village watched to see if the Christian God was able to heal. 4
Hiebert then wonders why he felt so uneasy in this situation and concludes that there was something about his own worldview and assumptions that could not adequately deal with the reality that confronted him at that time.
This incident is helpful for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the extent to which humans strive for coherence whenever they face phenomena that are beyond their control. Second, it underscores the acute cognitive dissonance and the lack of confidence Christians often experience in these kinds of situations. In this instance, the Christians refuse to participate in the pagan exercise and justify their decision by alluding to some vague scruples stemming from their religious beliefs. According to Hiebert’s account, the Christian villagers offered no cogent rationale! Later, some of them eventually relented, mostly to avoid being harassed, rationalizing their change of position by assimilating their participation in the ritual to a folkloric expression. Reflecting on this situation, Hiebert suggests that this kind of embarrassing incident may be the result of epistemological “blind spots” that are intrinsic to the Western worldview.
The situation described in Hiebert’s article is not unique. In fact, as he readily points out, such ideological tensions regularly occur whenever native Christians and Western missionaries face traditional beliefs and practices. His observations on the conceptual incongruity experienced by recent Christian converts as they attempt to calibrate their response to traditional healers are revealing:
What happens to villagers who become Christians? Most of them take problems they formerly took to the saints to the Christian minister or missionary. Christ replaces Krishna or Siva as the healer of spiritual diseases. Many of them in time turn to Western allopathic medicines for many of the illnesses they had taken to the doctor and quack. But what of the plagues that the magician cured? What about spirit possession or curses or witchcraft or black magic? What is the Christian answer to these? 5
The next lines highlight the core of the dilemma and the issue that leaves so many Christian leaders without a place to stand.
Often the missionary evangelist or doctor has no answer. These do not really exist, they say. But to people for whom these are very real experiences in their lives, there must be another answer. Therefore, many of them return to the magician for cures.
This survival of magic among Christians is not unique to India. In many parts of the world, the picture is the same. In the West, magic and witchcraft persisted well into the seventeenth century, more than a thousand years after the gospel came to these lands. 6
For Hiebert, structural differences in the articulation of the one and the other worldview lie at the heart of the issue. On the one hand, we have the traditional religionists who view the physical world in an “organic” fashion, “in terms of living beings in relationship to one another.” 7 Hiebert further describes it as an animistic worldview, a world he characterizes as “relational” rather than “deterministic.” On the other hand, the Western worldview is portrayed as “mechanistic.” 8 “Western sciences see the world as made up of lifeless matter that interacts on the basis of forces.” 9 This model he further describes as “deterministic.” 10
Although one could debate whether organic/relational and mechanistic/deterministic are the best terms to describe these plausibility structures, Hiebert’s criticism of the Western worldview is essentially correct. It offers no categories to deal effectively with what he calls the “middle-level” issues. This chasm between traditional religion and Western science has often left missionaries empty-handed in terms of dealing with the animistic aspects of the cultures to which they were to bring the Gospel. Hiebert writes,
As a scientist I had been trained to deal with the empirical world in naturalistic terms. As a theologian I was taught to answer ultimate questions in theistic terms. For me the middle zone did not exist. Unlike the Indian villagers, I had given little thought to spirits of this world, to local ancestors and ghosts, or to the souls of animals. For me these belonged to the realm of fairies, trolls, and other mythical beings. Consequently I had no answers to the questions they raised . . .” 11
In that respect Hiebert’s critique of missionary activity is caustic:
It should be apparent why many missionaries trained in the West had no answers to the problems of the middle level—they often did not even see it. When tribal people spoke of fear of evil spirits, they denied the existence of the spirits rather than claim the power of Jesus Christ over them. The result, Lesslie Newbigin has argued, is that Western Christian missions have been one of the greatest secularizing forces in history. 12
The consequences of this worldview deficiency can be quite devastating for Christian outreach. If the missionary has no answers to what constitute critical issues in the culture, those he or she is trying to reach will either view Christianity as a woefully inadequate option or, if they have embraced the Christian faith, they will eventually, as Hiebert points out, return to the “diviner who gives definite answers.” 13
Hiebert refuses to leave the question unanswered and proposes an outline of a theological model that comprehensively deals with all aspects of human existence. His proposal is helpful and adequately reflects the essential elements of what a Christian worldview should seek to address. 14 But above all else, Hiebert cautions, this theological system must avoid two pitfalls. The first is secularism, i.e., a denial of the reality of the spiritual world. The second is an inadvertent return to a Christianized form of animism “in which spirits and magic are used to explain everything.” 15
AN ISSUE OF CLARITY AND CONFIDENCE
I could not agree more with Hiebert’s proposal for a comprehensive theology. But I am not convinced that the missionaries’ inability to deal effectively with the supernatural dimension of traditional religions lies in their uncritical acceptance of modernist assumptions. For one thing, thorough-going modernists don’t become missionaries! Most missionaries believe in God, prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit. They believe in God’s ability to perform miracles and to intervene in human history. In this respect, Hiebert’s diagnosis needs further calibration. I suspect the vast majority of missionaries would be in full agreement with Hiebert’s proposal.
My own assessment of the problem is slightly different. The difficulty does not derive as much from an undiscriminating concession to Western assumptions as from a lack of clarity about how the biblical worldview addresses the supernatural and, consequently, a chronic lack of confidence in it. This theological ambivalence has led missionaries to deal with animism and spiritism in one of two ways. Some simply refuse to take a firm position in regard to the more explicitly animistic elements of the culture. These people, contra Hiebert, are not necessarily parsing the assumptions of a scientific model that characterizes the universe in mechanistic terms. They are simply unsure as to their own premises and cannot decisively deal with the culture’s expressions of magic. Others have chosen to deal with magic and superstition by adopting wholesale the assumptions of the spiritual warfare paradigm popularized by the so-called Third Wave movement. 16
Either one of these approaches entails severe difficulties. The first fails to address serious cultural and spiritual realities. The second may result in legitimizing beliefs that do not adequately reflect a biblical theology framework and may contribute to effectively creating models that exhibit various degrees of syncretism or, as Hiebert puts it, “a Christianized form of animism.” 17 How can we intelligently avoid one extreme or another? While Hiebert’s article spells out the problem, and though he hints at a possible way out of the dilemma, his proposal remains perhaps somewhat too tentative to be of concrete assistance for missionaries who are facing urgent problems that need to be addressed with a clear strategy.
A BLUEPRINT OF ULTIMATE REALITY
At this point, I would like to offer the basic blueprint of an approach that may provide some direction in dealing with supernaturalism. First, missionaries must address the worldview issue in a more focused manner. They need to determine more precisely what constitutes a biblical worldview and be in a position to parse its implications for an animistic culture. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this first step and the need to engage in this exercise independently of the issue of cultural sensitivity. Analytical work and cultural respect are both essential aspects of missionary activity, but they must not be indiscriminately intermingled. While missionaries are well advised to avoid unnecessary cause for offense, it is paramount to distinguish between critical analysis and outreach strategy. The first step is an academic exercise where one articulates the basic structure of the biblical worldview, analyzes the plausibility structure of the target culture, and compares the two in order to highlight those elements that need to be critiqued. Then and only then can missionaries be in a position to develop the best strategy to confront their audience with the biblical claims.
I too frequently observe the reverse. We allow matters of cultural sensitivity to cloud our analytical work and dictate our conclusions. The more political freight is attached to an issue or a particular people group, the greater this threat becomes. In other words, we should never let the potential for offense dictate our search for truth. As a colleague wisely said to me the other day, “. . . but what is society missing in its search for truth and what are we missing when we let society dictate our [the Christian academic community’s] priorities?” The first and foremost concern of the Christian thinker is to discern truth and confront the world with its claims. If we consciously or unconsciously fail to fulfill this task, there is no longer any compelling purpose for us. We become just one more meaningless voice in the cacophony of post-modernity. We need to take to heart God’s warning to Ezekiel:
If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life (Ezekiel 33:8-9 NRSV).
Second, missionaries must consciously and very intentionally choose to trust in the most basic assertions of the biblical worldview. The relationship between exegesis and biblical theology, on the one hand, and “practice,” 18 on the other, needs to be more linear. In a sense, the methodology found in a field such as engineering, where the relationship between theory and application is indeed linear, is an approach that may prove helpful for missionaries and theorists. When an engineer builds a bridge, there is absolute certainty as to the load such a structure can bear. There is in fact nothing haphazard about bridge building; the process is based on scientific principles that are implicitly trusted.
I realize that some of my readers will dismiss me as unbearably naïve and impossibly unsophisticated epistemologically speaking. In this post-modern era, it is no longer fashionable to think in terms of a body of truth that functions as an absolute point of reference. But, as with any other things, post-modernism will eventually prove to be another fad that will collapse under its own epistemological inner contradictions. If more Christian academics could exhibit a little more resolve in this area, perhaps we could hope to have a significant influence on the ideological devolution of the Western world. I for one refuse to get on that sinking ship. 19 Once we have ascertained with a reasonable measure of certitude the outline of a biblical worldview, we should move with confidence.
While it is not possible in the context of this article to examine the entire spectrum of a comprehensive biblical worldview, I would like to address one point that is critical for our discussion. 20
As Hiebert has shown, the issue of magic and occult practices is a source of much vexation for missionaries who, for the most part, tend to have a very equivocal stance towards those practices and their underlying assumptions. The question that needs to be clarified, however, is remarkably simple: Is there real magic in the world and is there any physical reality to the powers behind occult practices? Judging from the near-consensus found in the spiritual warfare literature, the vastly popular appeal of the Left Behind series, and the fascination for the occult and the New Age in popular culture, a majority of lay people, missionaries, and other practitioners would probably answer in the affirmative. 21
How do we address such a question? We can collect stories and various reports purporting to document supernatural incidents. 22 We can submit supernatural claims to scientific testing. 23 As Christians, we should first seek to answer the question from the perspective of biblical theology. But what should be the starting point of such an exploration? From a form critical standpoint, such an investigation should begin with the Creation account found in Genesis 1-3.
The Creation narrative represents an ideal starting point, for it represents the theological foundation of the entire Bible. The first chapters of Genesis contain the basic theological DNA of biblical revelation and must therefore be given precedence in the development of a biblical worldview. The reason behind this audacious statement is linked first and foremost to the kind of literature Genesis 1-3 embodied. The Creation account, by virtue of its literary genre, was designed to provide the blueprint of a new worldview. Its primary function was to propose an alternative to the Canaanite/Mesopotamian 24 plausibility structure the Israelites had absorbed in 400 years of captivity in Egypt. The notion of constructing something as ambitious as a worldview from such a narrow range of texts will no doubt come as a surprise to some. I would, however, argue for the legitimacy of the approach by appealing to the specific nature and function of the text as a Creation narrative.
As for the reality of magic and occult powers, the key passage is found in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NIV). This deceptively simple sentence can best be described as a cosmic “vacuum cleaner.” It is a thundering declaration that rids the universe of the multitude of gods and demons that populated the ancient world.
For ancient Mesopotamians who lived under the constant threat of hostile deities and who sought to immunize themselves against these powers and gain some control over their destiny through the use of magical formulas and rituals, the opening sentence of the Creation account is earth shattering. By draining the physical universe of its divine essence, this text performs an extremely important task. It annihilates the conceptual framework that made belief in magic possible. In the ancient world, the power of magic derived from the willingness of the gods to act upon wishes expressed through the performance of magical acts: fertility, protection from one’s enemies, etc. Although scholars have long held that ancient men believed that curses, blessings, and magical rituals were contingent on the inherent power of the word, there is no evidence to that effect. 25 Ancient Near Eastern documents consistently link the effectiveness of magical incantations, curses, and blessings to the intervention of the gods, not some mysterious power of the spoken word. Magical formulas had no power in and of themselves.
The notion that magical powers could mysteriously influence human life was one of the beliefs the author of the Creation account was challenging. The text could not have been more explicit. By emptying the physical universe of its deities, the author was in fact destroying the theoretical foundation for the existence of magical power and, by extension, the possibility of manipulating it. It was a way of stating: “A piece of wood is just a piece of wood!” 26 No gods . . . no magic!
But the old text does not simply dissolve the underlying structure needed to support the belief in magic in the ancient world. As importantly, it fulfills a similar function in our culture. It effectively leaves no room for the kind of underlying psychic energy grid that is presumed to give real effectiveness to magical and occult practices or any other kind of supernatural phenomena.
I am not suggesting we live in a world where miraculous acts never occur. The biblical witness certainly records many instances of such, not the least of which is the resurrection of Christ. But these supernatural acts are exclusively within the purview of God’s intervention in history.
CONCLUSION: THE POWER OF BELIEF
If Genesis 1:1 provides an accurate portrait of ultimate reality, how should missionaries then address the issue of superstition and occult practices in the culture?
First, the missionary must understand what the Creation account teaches about the nature of the basic fabric of reality. He or she must have a clear grasp of the author’s portrait of the universe and its implications for magic and the occult. The Creation account effectively portrays a universe where there is no effective space to permit the objective expression of magical phenomena. Before anything else is done, the missionary must have crystal clear premises in respect to the fundamental nature of the universe.
Second, the missionary must be willing to follow to their logical conclusion the assumptions set out in the Creation account. While a voodoo curse may have a devastating impact on a villager, the missionary must always remember that this apparent effect is brought about, not by the use of some real underlying grid of psychic (or demonic) energy, but through the overwhelming power of suggestion, which can be as lethal as a loaded gun for people who embrace the assumptions of the plausibility structure of that culture. For those who are prisoners of such a worldview, the occult powers of the voodoo priest are as real as the ground on which they walk. The missionary should entertain no such fears. Any uncertainty should immediately trigger a reexamination of the biblical data.
Third, once the missionary has articulated a clear theoretical foundation, he or she must develop a strategic plan that incorporates a thorough knowledge of the people group with whom he or she works in order to address the issue of superstition in the culture. There are no easy formulas to determine the best approach to adopt. But at the very least, when a person becomes a Christian, he or she should be introduced to the Creation account and be given the opportunity to integrate the basic elements of the plausibility structure it proposes.
The astute reader may have concluded that I have myself fallen prey to the “flaw of the excluded middle” by failing to take explicitly into account the reality of the demonic world. Not so. While the New Testament leaves no doubt as to the ontological reality of Satan and demons, it carefully, particularly so in the Gospel of Mark and 1 Corinthians, delineates the parameters of the powers they wield. In and of themselves, demons have no effective power over the physical universe, for real power and substance can only be derived from God. Since demons are separated from God, the only power they can possibly have is the power human beings mistakenly and naively attribute to them.
The power of demons ultimately hinges on the belief system of the culture in which they navigate. This factor accounts for the variations in the frequency and intensity of overt demonic manifestations between cultures. The prevalence of demonic manifestations in Africa, Haiti, or India, and their relative and apparent scarcity in the Western world, are linked to a worldview that cultivates belief and interaction with spirits in the former but generally ignores their existence in the latter.
Demons can only terrorize those who attribute to them the power to do so. In that respect, the Third Wave model tends to perpetuate a common and dangerous misperception of the demonic world. By structurally reproducing a non-biblical model, 27 it inadvertently and ironically reinforces a worldview that offers a false representation of the physical universe and may in fact result in the empowerment of demonic forces.
The New Testament does not, however, portray demons as inoffensive and harmless. The most basic inclination of these entities consists in opposing God and generating chaos in the world. But their power to do so is ultimately contingent on the willingness of human beings to consciously embrace these spirits and/or espouse the ideologies of death and chaos upon which they feed.
- This article was first published in Missiology: An International Review 10, (January 1982): 35-47 and reprinted in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books, 1994), 189-201. Citations will refer to the latter.
- Pierre Gilbert, “The Third Wave Worldview: A Biblical Critique,” Direction 29 (2000): 153-68. It should be noted that professor Hiebert had also published, in the same issue, an important article on a related topic entitled “Spiritual Warfare and Worldviews.”
- The paisa is the smallest coin in India, now worth about .03 of one penny.
- Hiebert, 189-90.
- Ibid., 191.
- Ibid., 191-93.
- Ibid., 195.
- Ibid., 195-96.
- Ibid., 195.
- Ibid., 196.
- Ibid., 197.
- Ibid., 198.
- Hiebert views the development of an adequate theological model on three levels. On the highest level, it should include a theology of God in cosmic history: creation, redemption, purpose, and destiny. On the middle level, it includes a theology of God in human history: divine guidance, provision, healing, pain, and suffering. On the lowest level, it includes an awareness of God in natural history in sustaining the natural order of things (ibid., 199).
- Ibid., 200.
- C. Peter Wagner, of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission, Tom White, founder of Mantle of Praise Ministries (now Frontline Ministries), John Dawson, Southwest U.S. director of Youth with a Mission, and Frank Peretti, author of the popular novels This Present Darkness (1986) and Piercing the Darkness (1989) have been among the most influential leaders in this movement. The phenomenal popularity of Frank Peretti’s novels and the publication of a multitude of “guides” on spiritual warfare have contributed to shaping a very sophisticated understanding of the demonic world and an elaborate methodology to deal with demon possession. While the issue of spiritual warfare, as such, is not as prominent as it used to be, the reality is that there is now a near-consensus on the nature of demonic activity, the relationship between the human and the demonic spheres, and the strategies to be implemented when dealing with the demonic or the occult. There is presently a “residual” theology of spiritual warfare that remains and which is broadcast in popular theology and Christian fictional books such as the Left Behind series. This theology is often unquestioningly implemented whenever an issue related to the demonic arises.
- Hiebert, 200.
- I never feel completely comfortable using the term “practical” to denote praxis, since whether it is explicitly formulated or not, ministry practices and skills always assume, require, and express a theoretical framework.
- Those who wish to pursue this issue further will want to read Alvin Plantinga, “Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in Christian Philosophy at the Close of the Twentieth Century, ed. Sander Griffioen and Bert Balk (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok, 1995), 329-53.
- This issue is examined in detail in my forthcoming book, Demons, Lies and Illusions. A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason (Kindred Productions, 2007).
- See Richard Kyle, The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America (InterVarsity, 1993) and The New Age Movement in American Culture (University Press of America, 1995). Stanley J. Grenz is atypical of where many Christians stand on the issue of magic and the occult. While he acknowledges the reality of demons and the absolute necessity to abstain from engaging in superstitious activities, he also believes that these “powers” are non-realities. Though the rationale proposed is not as clear as one might wish, Grenz is nevertheless among the few who attempt to distinguish between the ontological reality of demonic beings and the actual efficacy of their powers (see Stanley J. Grenz, “Superstition: A Christian Perspective,” The Asia Journal of Theology 8 , 365-78).
- There is no lack of such stories in the spiritual warfare literature, but the objective verifiability of these claims is exceedingly difficult to establish.
- For instance, the James Randi Educational Foundation has for years been investigating supernatural claims, and the organization offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event such as moving objects through the power of the mind, predict the future, read thoughts, levitate, etc. Not only has its founder, James Randi, successfully debunked various occult claims over the years, but the million-dollar prize has been sitting in the bank since 1996, and is still there as I write these lines! In spite of the widespread reports of real supernatural powers or events, when tested these claims consistently appear to be a case of the man who saw the man who saw the bear!
- I use the terms “Canaanite” and “Mesopotamian” somewhat interchangeably, since Mesopotamian culture was widely diffused in the West. See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), xliv.
- This thesis, at least as it pertains to Israel and its environment, was first proposed by J. Pedersen (Israel. Its Life and Culture, vol. 1 [London: Oxford Univ. Press; Copenhagen: Branner OG Korch: 1926 ) and is nearly universally accepted by the scholarly community. As attractive as that thesis might be, there is simply not a shred of evidence to support it. In a comprehensive study of the curse in the Ancient Near East, I have demonstrated that the effectiveness of the curse is always contingent on the intervention of the gods (see Le motif imprécatoire chez les prophètes bibliques du 8è siècle A.C. à la lumière du Proche-orient ancien, unpublished doctoral dissertation [Université de Montréal, 1993], 25-133). T. G. Crawford independently reached the same conclusion as regards the Syro-Palestinian region in the Iron Age, in Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age, AUS, series 7, TR, vol. 120 (New York: Peter Lang Pub., 1992).
- Isaiah makes a similar observation about idols made out of wood in 44:13-19.
- See Gilbert, “The Third Wave Worldview,” 164.