I’ve been doing some reading on the very early Christian piece of writing known as the Shepherd of Hermas. It was considered a very important piece of work in he early centuries of the church, and before the canon of Scripture was codified, many authorities (such as Irenaeus of Lyons) considered it to be inspired Scripture. (As an aside, I’m about to enroll in a minor thesis in patristics, so there may well be more blog posts inspired by these early texts as I work my way through them. Stay tuned!)
Anyway, like many Christian works, and indeed Jewish works before them, Hermas presents some of its ethical considerations in the form of the Two Ways moral tradition. In broad terms, this presents the ethical decisions of a person as dualistic; one chooses life, or death; good, or evil; light, or dark. There are problems with this kind of framing of ethics, and I might consider them another time, but what caught my attention in the reading I was doing was that in Hermas, as in many other works, the choice between the two ways is shown as being influenced by spirits, whether evil or good. (This too is not unique to this work, and indeed is well known in the pop culture image of an angel and a demon sitting, one on either of a person’s shoulders, and each murmuring into an ear).
The idea of spirits, whether good or bad, influencing a person is thus not really remarkable. More liberal Christians have updated it a bit, and instead of literal angels or demons will consider the “powers” in terms of social systems, family dynamics, biological and psychological impulses, and all sorts of other external influences. That too – while interesting – is an argument for another time.
What caught my attention, though, was that the author I was reading, Carolyn Osiek, almost as an aside, commented that this attribution of external forces at work in human decision-making is important because thus “the responsibility of the individual becomes more diffused and generalised.”
I find that a very interesting point. On the one hand, human beings are moral agents; we don’t just suffer from the illusion of making choices, that is a fundamental part of our nature. On the other hand, the field in which we make choices is often restricted in a variety of ways, and all sorts of influences play into our capability to make those decisions with true and complete freedom. It seems to me that so often our attempts to make better choices ourselves, and to encourage and enable better choice-making in others, fail to take adequate measure of this impaired freedom.
I’m not sure what the answers are; a range of disciplines from social work to deliverance ministry each have some wisdom to contribute. But perhaps it’s a starting point – whether we think of the “powers” in spiritualised or more systemic terms – to begin to take them seriously, not simply as aspects of cosmology or anthropology or sociology, but as having a moral dimension, and being attentive to that dimension and how it plays out for us.