Thursday, February 03, 2011

Spirits above, spirits below

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, angels

Former friar David Albert Jones has the same curiosity I do about human nature and what people are thinking. He has tackled the archetype that is at once the most beloved and the most paradoxical in his book Angels: A History. While this little book delves into the sources of angel beliefs found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran, in the end our beliefs about angels say a lot about ourselves.

To many in the "Christian West", angels are blond, ambisexual, winged and humanlike; they intervene in human affairs under the direction of God, who is thought of as somewhat distant, an enthroned, elderly deity who gives the orders and sits back to await results. The source of Western angel beliefs is a small set of poorly-remembered stories in the Bible. Yet it is remarkable what the Bible does not tell us about angels: the color of hair, skin, or eyes is never mentioned; neither is height or whether they possess facial beauty, or have wings; they are not described as either material or immaterial, though three apparent angels ate with Abraham, two of them took lot and his wife and two daughters by the hand to drag them from Sodom, one kicked Elijah in the side, and the same one or another did so to Peter 1,500 years later. Jacob wrestled all night with "a man" who is universally understood to be an angel.

Among the few things upon which the Bible is clear: Both the Hebrew and Greek word for "Angel" means "messenger", and are sometimes applied to humans. Angels primarily carry messages from God. At least a few angels have authority over other angels, as implied by the title "archangel" applied to Michael. Angels are not the only "spiritual creatures", whatever that term may mean. There are cherubim (singular, cherub), seraphim (singular, seraph), and entities called "evil spirits" which may be the same as demons, or maybe not always. While theological theories devise seven or nine "choirs" or ranks of angels that include seraphim, cherubim, principalities, and so forth, it is not clear in the Bible that all these terms refer to the angelic order of creation. In this I differ with Jones, whose Catholic sensibilities remain with him in considering them all to be different kinds of angels. I see that angels primarily speak for God, while cherubim and seraphim primarily worship.

I won't discuss at length whether demons are fallen angels; I happen to believe they are not, though for this essay I'll confine myself to noting that the province of angels seems to be the air and the heavens above the air, while the province of demons is the abyss, the waters, and the waters of a human or animal body that is possessed.

Beginning, then, with these matters of the history of angels in sacred literature, and continuing to popular culture, Jones finds that what we think about angels tells us much about what we think about ourselves, as revealed in the phrase, "the better angels of our nature" (from Lincoln's inaugural address). Angels are usually thought of as lacking human free will, but, paradoxically, being able to "fall". As the Bible tells us, one-third of the total number of angels are in rebellion against God and instead follow their leading angel, formerly named Lucifer, but now called Satan (always "the Satan" in Greek or Hebrew). "Satan" means "adversary", and has the connotation of a family member who has turned against the family, a "dear enemy".

Few people give any thought to the fallen angels. Angels are mostly considered do-gooders, who encourage humans to do good also. They reflect the belief that we're just barely able to control our baser impulses, and need external motivation to do so. They externalize the conscience. But a few seem to prefer the fallen ones, becoming Hell's Angels, perhaps, or following Gothic culture icons like Black Sabbath or any of the heavy metal rock groups (KISS is, to me, emblematic of the whole). It seems only a few die-hard atheists deny angels entirely.

I have to this point nearly ignored Judaism or Islam. This is deliberate; I don't know enough about them to have useful opinions. But Jones treats of the range of beliefs about angels found in both these religions, and just hints at the non-Abrahamic religions such as Hinduism in which angels are not needed because there are gods aplenty to take their place. A Hindu who watches any episodes of the old TV show Highway to Heaven finds the Michael Landon "angel" character puzzling at best (at least that's true for the ones I've asked).

Half of the archetypes upon which our folklore is based are stories that let us consider, "If I were such and such a being, how would I behave?" Setting aside the tendency to call any pretty woman an angel, we may sometimes think, "If I had more direct contact with God, and knew what He wanted right now, and I was as un-killable as an angel, what kind of message would I carry?" To be perfectly honest, when I ask that question myself, the answer is a decided, "I truly don't know." To answer any other way is to invite martyrdom.

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