Minister: N, Dost thou forsake the devil and all his works?

Answer: I forsake them.

Minister: Dost thou forsake the vain pomp, and glory of the world, with all the covetous desires of the same?

Answer: I forsake them.

Minister: Dost thou forsake the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

Answer: I forsake them.

Book of Common Prayer 1549, Order for Baptism

Whose Fault is it?

It is usual in everyday speech to attribute faults to impersonal things like, it’s my computer fault that my work was lost, or it’s marina barrage’s fault that the flood in orchard occurred. Of course no one takes seriously the idea that one can attribute responsibility or guilt to a computer or structure. But then the line begins to blur when we speak of things like, it is the fault of capitalism whereby there is exploitation and greed, etc. Or it is the fault of socialism whereby the government controls so much of the wealth in the nation and is tyrannical. Or it is the fault of nationalism which lead to the Nazism and the horrors of WWII.

But like computers and structures and volcanoes, capitalism, socialism and nationalism aren’t people. They aren’t agents with brains or bodies, they are simply ideas and concepts. How can we hold an idea responsible for something? Yet as strange as it might sound, these ideas are very powerful and do lead people to do the most unimaginable things.

As Tolstoy pointed out in his War and Peace, Napoleon is but one man. His success is simply the summation of hundreds and thousands of people who believed in him, and carried out his orders. Likewise is it with Hitler. By himself, he is just one man, but it is because the German people believed his message and his ideas; i.e. his ideas of German destiny, Aryan superiority and the glories of Germany, whereby thousands, and millions of Germans, who are educated in Kant, the Enlightenment, and the best German philosophies, who listen to classical music, Wagner, Beethoven, etc., could go on and slaughter hundreds of thousands of Jews in the holocaust and wage a war of an unimaginable scale, simply because these ideas held their grip upon the German people.

Of course, in one sense, ideas by themselves means nothing. But as J.S. Mill once said, and was quoted by Anders Behring Breivik before he performed his solo mass execution upon the Norwegian youth camp, “One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.” And he certainly demonstrated this point by his life when he acted upon his beliefs and convictions.

The question then becomes, where do these ideas come from? Of course in some cases, it comes from other people, you get this idea by reading or hearing someone tell you about it. But yet, that does not settle the question of the origins of these ideas, who was the first to come up with it? And it is in dealing with this question whereby we can see the link between ideas and the spiritual world.


Those of us who have done higher mathematics or tried their hand at fictional writing will understand that sometimes, the solution just seems to “occur” to ourselves. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and suddenly, an idea comes to us as to how to connect various theorems to the proof required, or an idea as to how to resolve some plot or character difficulty. No doubt most novel scientific or mathematical discoveries are made that way, they were suddenly “inspired” and the solution just came to them. This is of course not to discount all the necessary hard work in learning the proven theories and concepts which have gone before, or the hard work in reading and understanding literature which has gone before, but new discoveries always or new creative artistic work always come, as it were, almost like a prophetic inspiration, and suddenly a systematic connection between previous theories or solution or scheme just occurs to one out of nowhere, where no one has thought of it before. The Greek myth of the “Muses” is perhaps apt to describe this kind of activity, which essential truth is that the idea comes as it were “from the outside”.

If this is certainly true of the hard sciences, it is also definitely true of philosophy and theology as well. You can almost say that it is by an “inspiration” whereby Karl Marx saw connections between capital, labour and the economy, etc. and wrote his work on capitalism. Adam Smith was no mere observer of empirical facts; his Wealth of Nations contained important and novel theories which linked together individual economic interests to the larger economic system of the whole and the relationship between money, wealth, labour, interests, etc.

In the Bible it is said in 2 Peter 1:20-21 that, “…no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. ” In a sense mathematicians do not invent mathematics, they discovered it, so in a sense, no mathematical theory came about by the mathematician’s own will or interpretation, but they wrote and proved as they were carried along by the flow of the mathematical proof or deduction. The mathematics itself drew the attentive mathematician onwards towards the solution or proof. Sometimes when I’ve proven a theorem, I could barely understand my own proof itself, I only know that the deduction works, but I’ve no idea what it really means!

The same point also holds for ideas, art and philosophies. Suddenly an idea about the connection between different aspects of the human reality occurs to one, and one starts working out what that connection means or implies on the greater scheme of things, whether in philosophy or in literature. The great sculptor Michelangelo once said that he did not so much as make up the sculpture but that it was already found in the veins within the block of marble and all he did was to remove the unnecessary bits away!

Plato conceived of a realm full of these “ideas” or “forms” whereby somehow the empirical reality “participates” in, i.e. there is the perfect form of “beauty” whereby all beautiful things “share in”. But Plato thought of this realm of “ideas” or “forms” as essentially atemporal or static. Of course in Greek metaphysics, change was bad and if this realm of ideas or forms is are to contain perfect “forms”, then it must be eternally unchanging. But the Hegelian insight to this realm of ideas or forms is that they change and develop in real time. They are not atemporal but also change in response to empirical reality. Those who read my notes will for example be familiar with how the concept of “marriage” evolved and change through time from contractual relations defining property relations to existential union, etc.

Holy and Unholy Spirits

Hegel called these ideas which “dwell in time” and which evolve and change as human history progresses “geist” or “spirit”. As human interaction change and society changes, the ideas necessary for defining society and giving it it’s being and health also change, the “spirit” which binds society together changes too and develops. This point can be easily seen when we consider how the police force works. There can only be so many police personnel for an entire society. If everyone within that society decides to disregard the law and go against the police, the police would be utterly helpless. The power and efficacy of the police is inherently dependent upon members of society, or at least, the vast majority of them, believing in the authority and legitimacy of the police and therefore submitting to the police.

Of course the authority and legitimacy of the police is derived from the legitimacy of the government, and the government from whatever political system which that society is part of, whether it is a nation or a trans-national union or being part of a colonial empire, etc. And people believe in the authority of the police only because they believe in whatever political system or claims of that nation/empire/transnational union, etc. Of course the idea of a nation, like any other ideas, is not static but also develops and change in time. How is that particular nation defined, what constitutes that nation, i.e. a constitution, colonial power, royal legitimacy, tradition, a republican representation, etc., depends on the individual history of those nations or societies in question. As is obvious a nation or culture can change through time, change forms of government, i.e. the Roman Republic ruled by the Senate to an Empire ruled by an Emperor, etc.

As I’ve demonstrated, these ideas can be very powerful and many are necessary for human society and cooperation. It is because you are Singaporean and are likewise subject to Singapore law whereby I can safely enter into a contract with you, because being a Singaporean will mean that you are likewise subject to Singapore law and regulation regarding contracts, etc. When Germans start believing in German destiny, in the Third Reich and the superiority of the Aryan race, they will go about discriminating against Jews and wage glorious war for the greater glory of Germany.

It is here whereby we can speak of “holy” and “unholy” spirits. I shall reserve the term “Holy Ghost” to refer to the third person of the Trinity, whilst “holy spirits” (plural) I shall use to refer to good and godly ideas and notions.

We can see from the creation account of Genesis how the first “unholy spirit” works. The serpent introduces an idea into Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” He introduced the idea that God did not really say that. Then he introduced the idea that if she ate of the fruit, “You will not certainly die… your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” Then he introduced the idea that eating the fruit would “open their eyes” and make them as God. Now God did not say that they would be as God or that their eyes would be opened. The serpent gave them that idea. This is perhaps the first recorded incident of an “unholy” inspiration, a truly novel and new idea which did not occur to them.

Of course we know where did this “unholy inspiration” lead to. But I think the point should be clear by now. By itself, ideas can’t do much, but when they are believed and acted upon, they can cause great harm or benefit, depending upon the quality of the idea, or to put it another way, where the idea comes from. When Hitler became “inspired” by the idea that the Germans are to be the “Master race”, that spelt disaster for all Europe, but when the Emperor Justinian was “inspired” by idea of a uniform code of law to facilitate and clarify legal processes, the result was great benefit for all mankind.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

In Plato’s Republic, Plato said that there were three parts to the soul, the desiring part, the reasoning part and what he would call, “spiritedness” or thymos. We have natural appetites and desires, food, sex, shelter, etc. And we adapt our reasoning to acquire and satisfy these desires. But they also seek to be “worthy”, to be persons of “value”, or to use more traditional language, they seek honour and glory for themselves. As Francis Fukuyama explains,

It is like an innate sense of justice. People believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion of anger. Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth, they feel pride.

Hegel would later explain this aspect of the human condition as the desire for recognition. Whether this recognition comes from one’s friends, family, society or the nation state, or even God is dependent upon the geist of that historic locality. Because ultimately, questions of how “worthiness” or “human value” is determined is dependent upon the prevailing ideas or geist of that time. According to the Christian faith, “worthiness” is not dependent or derived from one’s works, but from God’s action upon us and adoption of us as his children. But according to some other idea or ideological scheme, “worthiness” or value is determined by how much money you make or how well you’ve performed in school or your political convictions, etc.

It is for this reason for which all baptismal candidates are asked to forsake and reject the devil and all his works. The devil is of course, simply the short hand for the “unholy spirits”, the source of all ideas and ideology which contradicts the Will of God and the revelation in Christ. The devil’s “inspiration”, as history shows us, can be very powerful, many ideas were hatched which has lead to some of the greatest cruelty in history. From the French Revolution’s idea that the “People’s Will” was supreme and therefore had the right to execute all “enemies of the people” to the communist idea that that their utopian ideal justifies any amount of bloodshed and brutality, the devil has been very busy concocting and inventing new ideas, gods and false ideals by which to “inspire” humankind and lead to more death and destruction.

Thus, the devil’s works are these ideas which contracts the will of God, which he is constantly trying to inspire and implant into mankind since the beginning at the Garden of Eden. It could be something as grand as the superiority of the Aryan race to something as mundane as, it’s not adultery if you love your mistress and don’t love your wife, but at all levels of human reality, and in all mankind, the unholy spirit has been busy trying to subvert good and holy spirits which inspire us with noble and charitable thoughts with false reasonings and ideas. This is why the devil has been called a liar from the beginning, for he introduces false thoughts and lies which contradicts the truth of God’s will and God’s creation.

If the devil is the source of false ideas and thoughts, then the flesh and the world are simply the desires of the flesh for the things of the world, which are not lead by good and holy spirits in the will of God and through the  inspiration of the Holy Ghost, but instead want to do the leading and guiding instead. That is why baptismal candidates are to vow not to follow or be led by them. They are instead to follow the will of God and be lead by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and capture every desire to the obedience of Christ.

Conclusion: Test the Spirits

It is for this reason whereby St John exhorts us to “test the spirits”, to test all ideas and concepts and to subject them to the obedience of Christ. Because if we’re not vigilant or careful in our examination of our thoughts and ideas, one of them might in fact be from the devil and which if believed and acted upon, could lead to grave disaster and consequences. And so with in his own words,

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

1 John 4:1-3

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