On Angels

I'm reading Rowan Williams' book Tokens of Trust. Given my skeptical stance toward metaphysics I've tended to ignore the biblical accounts of angels, but this passage by Williams in Tokens gave me much to think about:

God has made what we can see and manage and what we can't see and can never manage, a universe some of which we can get a grasp of and some of which we can't. This isn't a recommendation not to try to understand, but simply a reminder that not everything is going to be made sense of from our point of view. We don't get to the end of being baffled and amazed. I sometimes think that this is the importance of talking about angels in Christian teaching. Odd as it may sound, thinking about these mysterious agents of God's purpose, who belong to a different order of being, can be a least a powerful symbol for all those dimensions of the universe about which we have no real idea. Round the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things, of which we know nothing. We're so used to sentimentalizing and trivializing angels--they are often reduced to Christian decorations, fairy godmothers almost (as in most of the extraordinary flood of books about angels in recent years). But in the Bible angels are often rather terrifying beings occasionally sweeping across the field of our vision; they do God strange services that we don't fully see; they provide a steady backdrop in the universe of praise and worship. They are great 'beasts,' 'living creatures,' flying serpents burning with flames, carrying the chariot of God, filling the Temple in Jerusalem with bellows of adoration, echoing to one another like whales in the ocean. Those are the angels of Isaiah and Ezekiel--anything but Christmas card material. And sometimes a human form appears to give a message from God and something in the event tells the people involved that this is a moment of terror and truth, and they recognize that they have met an angel in disguise.

Now whether or not you feel inclined to believe literally in angels--and a lot of modern Christians have a few problems with them--it's worth thinking of them as at the very least a sort of shorthand description of everything that's 'round the corner' of our perception and understanding in the universe--including the universal song of praise that surrounds us always. If we try and rationalize all this away, we miss out on something vital to do with the exuberance and extravagance of the work of God, who has made this universe not just as a theatre for you and me to develop our agenda, but as an overwhelming abundance of variety and strangeness.
"Round the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things..."

"...the universal song of praise that surrounds us always."

"...this universe...as an overwhelming abundance of variety and strangeness."

More and more, it seems, I'm being drawn into the language of the angelic and the demonic for the reasons Williams describes. These words, for me at least, are helping me pick out aspects of my life with great precision and clarity. They seem to name something for me that had no name before.

For example, in teaching my bible class on Sunday I compared a worship service to an exorcism. I said, basically, that for a moment in that service it seemed like the demonic forces of dehumanization so in control of our world--social, political, and economic forces--suddenly seemed to evaporate; that it was like an exorcism had taken place and with the retreat of the demonic there was a glimpse of the Kingdom Coming, that heaven came close to earth and the sunlight of God's grace broke through the clouds. God's will in heaven was being done on earth.

To be honest, I really don't know what is happening to me. I've never talked like this. But more and more I'm using this language to describe my life.

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12 thoughts on “On Angels”

  1. I recently read some of Walter Wink's writing on the powers. His interest in this area apparently originated with his curiosity about why - in Revelation - the heavenly visage of Jesus speaks to "the angel of the Church at ____" instead of "the Church at_____." He has a great section on cosmic worldviews that explains why ancients would think that Churches have "angels" and why nation-states can have "demons."

    The beauty of his approach is that it is largely indifferent to the metaphysical details. In short, you don't have to have the metaphysics of the powers and principalities (or angels, for that matter) worked out to understand how the phenomenon of the angelic and the demonic is experienced within the material world.

    Good stuff, that.

  2. I've just started leading a discussion about the idea of the soul and concepts of an afterlife. In that discussion, we're delving into ideas about memory, perception, decision-making, neuroscience and how these concepts impact our ideas of "mind", "spirit", and "soul" - especially in the traditional Western religious sense.

    Some folks have asked and grappled with the need to "pick things apart" and why we can't merely "accept some things on faith" without question. We've discussed why our faith should be based on reason and rational thinking. But we also discussed that faith need not be constrained to purely empirical or logical constraints.

    That is, while we have (I believe) an intellectual obligation to think and behave rationally with regard to our beliefs, these rational, reasoned, logical ideas form something like "breadcrumbs" along a path. And while we have something of an requirement to follow the breadcrumbs where they lead (i.e., we can't, if our belief is to be rational, see the breadcrumbs lining up in one direction, then believe something contrary to the direction of the path the breadcrumbs are tracing), we don't have to "wait" for new breadcrumbs to appear beyond the end of the current path to believe something further up the "line". That seems to me to be something like what faith may be: based in reason & rationality, but not entirely constrained by it; capable of extrapolating beyond the "known" and "verifiable" into the "unknown" and "mysterious" - not into the irrational or unreasonable, but perhaps a bit beyond ideas of rationality and reason - warranted, but speculative.

    Without this capability, life devolves quickly into nihilism, logical positivism or other hopeless, self-defeating, incoherent ideologies.

  3. Your description of heaving coming close to earth reminds me of the myth about the 10th century conversion of Kiev. Sent out to find the best religion for Kiev, Vladimir's envoys experienced Byzantine worship and could no longer tell if they were in heaven or on earth. And perhaps it's no coincidence that the Eastern church invokes angels in their worship far more than in the West.

    It seems that the figures of the angelic and the demonic are finding their way into everybody's vocabulary lately. It's a cultural thing, I think. In case you're interested, a cultural analysis is provided in a chapter of Graham Ward's Cities of God, and another excellent read is Michel Serres, La légende des anges, unfortunately translated into English as Angels: A Modern Myth (very expensive, but available for free on www.scribd.com). In a different vein, chapter 6 of Giorgio Agamben's Il Regno e la Gloria explores the link between angelology and bureaucracy (though I believe Agamben is blind to the emancipatory potential of the figure of angels). I think an English translation is in the works, but it is available in French, German, and Spanish. And I've been doing some research lately that has involved constellating early medieval popular hagiographies of angels, shifts in political power, and postmodern discourses of power and Empire (particularly Hardt and Negri).

  4. What an unfortunate mistake to make in the first sentence! That was supposed to be "heaven," not "heaving coming close to earth." My apologies.

  5. Richard,

    Two poetic observations. The first, a warning about taking angels casually from the opening lines of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies":

    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
    Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
    take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
    stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
    the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
    and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
    to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
    And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
    of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can
    we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
    and resourceful animals see clearly
    that we are not really at home
    in the interpreted world.

    The second set of lines is from Francis Thompson's "Kingdom of God":

    The angels keep their ancient places;--
    Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
    'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
    That miss the many-splendoured thing.


  6. I wonder if the fascinataion with angels among Christians is the flip side of the draw to Harry Potter, Dresden Files, Shannara books, etc. Humanly, there's a fascination with unseen powers beyond, whichever way you go, which Hollywood and the publishing industry find lucrative.

  7. It is written: A woman shall compass a man and create a new thing in the earth (Jer 31:22), the man is Satan(Isa 14:16), the new thing is turning the hearts of the fathers to the children. Satan has deceived the whole world (Rev 12:7), until the heel of time(Gen 3:15). Check out the bruising of Satan at http://thegoodtale.blogspot.com or at http://thegoodtale.wordpress.com please read all posts before you make a judgment.

  8. This is, in my mind, a wonderful thing to experience. The one thing that has always prevented me from "going agnostic" is that I need the depth provided by religious language to communicate my engagement with the world. The forces we're facing aren't just "greedy" or "cruel," they are downright demonic in character. I mean, look at the Nazis - the depth of their cruelty didn't only destroy most of Europe but it also destroyed themselves. From a self preservation perspective, the demonic makes no sense. It's not just mean, it's stupid. It doesn't just hurt others, but it reduces its own influence and power.

    Here's the thing though. Here's the thing that bothers me every time. The Abrahamic religions especially are not open to understanding and incorporating the religious language of others into their vocabulary. We are all playing roughly the same "game" here, but people go berserk when the Bishop is called a Yogi instead.

    As for the existence of these angel creatures, I find it impossible to believe they don't exist. Of course, they are in my mind part of a greater classification of non-human (and perhaps non-material) intelligences such as faeries, djinn, kami, devas, aliens, and all the rest. It becomes easier to have a leg to stand on with regard to these anomalous beings when you take all the reports seriously instead of sticking to your own cultural interpretation and ignoring the rest. I recommend the work of Jacques Vallees, who has been writing for decades about UFOs. He believes in an "interdimensional" interpretation; that "aliens" have been visiting us for our entire recorded history in various guises and they are essentially non-material, non-corporeal sentient beings with their own unguessable agenda.

  9. Hello. Thank you for this post, and the proceeding comments. It's really given me some food for thought, and I appreciate your comparing a time of worship to exorcising demons. This is a perfect pairing.

    You may very well be interested in the book The Testings of Devotion http://www.heavenlyhostbooks.com/Heavenly_Host/About_the_Book.html by Cheryl Dellasega. It's the first in a series called The Heavenly Host, and it explores the lives of angels, their roles both in spirit and with mortals. It's certainly biblically-based Christian fantasy that allows the reader to go on a journey. It describes things felt more than seen by ourselves here on earth, and the tone is one of truth about a subject of much speculation - Angels.

    Thanks again for your post, and I wish you blessings as you travel on your path.

  10. All I have to say is that was a wonderful article. I love the idea that a time of worship should be an exorcism of the world's systems that often distract us from Christ Jesus and Grace. Thank you so much for this blog.

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