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Credo: The Nicene Creed

Of All Things Visible and Invisible

Blessed Matter of the Universe"Blessed be you, universal matter,immeasurable time,boundless ether,triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God. Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.

Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.

Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile,ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.

I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured--a mass of brute forces and base appetites--but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature.

I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word." ("Hymn to matter" by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from Examiner, http://www.examiner.com/religion-culture-in-long-island/teilhard-de-chardin-hymn-to-matter)

As a student and teacher I have been fascinated with words and ideas, but I’ve always been in love with matter. As a child I would read and read and read, and most avidly I read about real, substantial things—dinosaurs, rocks, stars and galaxies. Besides reading I spent time with things, collecting and getting to recognize different kinds of minerals and fossils, getting to know the strength and weakness of tree branches so I’d know where I could climb and where I couldn’t. I wanted to be close to things. When I walked down the hall at school, I would drag my fingers against the wall. Later I learned the importance of keeping some distance from things, not making too much of a mark, as it became clear that many of the beautiful things of this world are in danger from the activities of people like me. That distance too is a part of my love for material things. So in this writing, which has to be about both material and spiritual things, I’ll be careful to stay always in touch with the material side.

When I started writing about the Creed, I wanted to say that the first whole section, which ends with the words in the title above, was something that most believers in one God could go along with. I reasoned: We haven’t gotten into anything specifically Christian yet, no incarnate God in Jesus, no Holy Spirit, no Blessed Trinity, no Church, only God, whom many religions name as Father. Before long, though, I had to change my mind. Not everyone among the religions—or among non-religious people, either—goes along with 20th-century Teilhard’s beautiful “Hymn to Matter” or 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi’s equally intense love affair with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, Little Sister Nature, and (not too contemptuously) Brother Ass, his own body. Francis’ hymn of praise with all these creatures echoes the praises that nature sings to God in the Psalms and the joy that the Bible says God feels in all of creation. But not every believer in God sees material things as a sign of God or thinks that God even cares about material things.

The Church had to contest early on with elements in society, including some Christians, who despised all these beautiful things. So Part One below is about the goodness of the visible and earthly part of the created world, a theme that many church bodies are turning to with the ecological crisis upon us. Part Two brings in the spiritual side of creation, the “things invisible” of the Creed. It’s basically about angels, and it follows the hints of several modern theologians that, if angels are not simply unreal creatures of myth, then we must think of them as having essential connections with the world that we see. That leads me to some surprising conclusions.

I was thoroughly enjoying the place in this material world that I love best, the mountains of Glacier National Park, when the conversation with my hiking partner turned to my writing about the Creed. She asked me a question that had me stumped for a while: How do you feel about God? She’s not a believer. She is an organic farmer who has written about her experience in that work and obviously is in love with this same good material thing that I call creation. She insisted that I put myself and my feelings into what I was saying; otherwise, it wouldn’t mean anything to anybody. But I had trouble identifying any feeling about God at all. I knew that, among other things, gratitude, love, and respect are among the attitudes that a person should have toward God, but it was hard to identify these as feelings toward a God whom I had never seen. As I continued hiking, I began to think about the feelings I have toward the things around me—the rocks that I met on the way, the streams of water that first sounded and then gleamed in my awareness, the wind that sometimes cooled, sometimes chilled, and sometimes struck with determined force and provoked an equal and opposite determination from me. It occurred to me that all these things are in the Bible as symbols of God, and the feelings I have toward them are feelings about God as well.

I feel most familiar with rocks. They are dependable. I know them well. I know whether they will support me or not--usually. They can be a firm foundation on which to stand but also a challenge—to climb over or build upon. With water I feel a kind of peaceful longing, especially with moving water. I imagine how fine it would feel just to flow along to an unforeseen destination. But I don’t take that plunge. With water I always hold back a little; after all, water’s a bit scary, so the longing remains a longing, unfulfilled. Wind is the most unavoidable challenge. It’s easy enough to go around a big rock. It’s very easy to watch the flowing mountain stream for a while and then move on. But you can’t very well get out of the wind when you’re on a hike. The wind won’t leave you alone. When it’s strong, you have to like it or hate it. I like it. I like God in all of these ways. 

PART I: It’s a good material world.

In the phrase that closes the first section of the Creed, “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” we come to things that are not God. We have to take this not-being-God seriously. The world is not part of God, not a natural emanation from God, not even a child of God. The world is the result of God’s free decision to “make” something. (“Make” in the last sentence is a metaphor. A Pagan writer helped me understand why we should not take making too literally. Making is something humans do for the purpose of using. Thinking of the world as made in the natural meaning of that world tends toward thinking of the world as something to be used, as opposed to treasured. He prefers "emanation" and "birthing" to "making."  Making is a metaphor the Creed uses, but other metaphors are found in the Bible, including emanation and birthing, letting be and calling forth. Here I want to stress only the freedom in which God operates.) Only because this world is God’s free choice could God be said to love the created world in any other way than a narcissistic self-love.

The Creed names these things that are not God, but which God loves,  twice—“heaven and earth…things visible and invisible.” It’s as if the Creed’s authors wanted to be sure we get the point. But which point? Which part of the things that are not God is the Creed most concerned about?

We moderns are inclined to doubt the existence of anything we can’t see and touch. We naturally assume the emphasis in the Creed, and all of religion, must be on the heavenly and the invisible. In the world to which the early Church belonged, though, the doubt and the emphasis would have been the other way around. Gnosticism, a philosophy that craved spiritual things and questioned the value, if not the reality, of anything material, was the rage among the intelligentsia. Some Christians proposed that Jesus was a pure spirit with only the appearance of a human body. The true God, in this way of thinking, created only spiritual things; and the material world was the work of some lesser, maybe even evil, being, sometimes referred to as the God of the Old Testament, upstaged in New Testament times by the God of Jesus.

Gnosticism encouraged opposite extremes of behavior. Some attempted to distance themselves as far as possible from corrupt matter by denying themselves all physical pleasures, especially the pleasure of sex. Others, with exquisite logic, felt free to engage in all the pleasures of the body without limit, reasoning that our bodies don’t have anything to do with God so God doesn’t care what we do with them; let the devil have them. If you produced a child in the process of enjoying bodily pleasures, you were committing a sin—you just imprisoned another soul in evil flesh. But sex itself, including one-night stands, was no problem.

Other Christians, the ones eventually recognized as orthodox, responded: God created this material world and it is valuable in God’s eyes. At its best the Church chose a middle way in its attitude toward material things and pleasures—between being ruled by them on one hand and despising them on the other. The Church preaches conditions on our use of the goods of this world: sex only between a man and a woman within the context of the permanent marriage commitment and open, or at least not actively closed off, to the possibility of new life; days of fasting and abstinence and other forms of self-denial. Without necessarily agreeing with every particular of its teaching, I can see in these negatives a Church that respects bodily things, including sex.

I also suspect strongly that this Church exists in a world that in many ways despises material things, a world that likes consuming rather than the things that it consumes, a world that uses sex for power, financial profit (I’m thinking mostly of advertising), or security more than it likes sex, a world where people are taught not to like their own bodies but rather “improve” them according to the latest dictates of fashion. In comparison to this the Catholic Church comes off as positively in love with bodily things even when it asks us to make sacrifices and not be caught up in material pursuits.

The best sacrifice the Church ever required is also the hardest in this day. I mean giving up work on Sunday. It’s a gift that the Jews bequeathed to Christianity and the world. The nearly complete neglect of this gift today--I admit to being as much at fault as anyone--flows naturally from a belief that the material world is there only to be worked on, mastered, and put to use. The consequences of this disdain for the intrinsic value of material things are only too obvious—polluted air, water, and land, xhaustion of resources, extinctions, climate change, and people who are too busy and too short of energy and insight to do anything about these problems.

But I have spoken too glibly about the Church’s attitude to the material world. Today some people say that the Bible is the major force behind the ecological crisis. The first chapter of this Bible tells us to “fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) Christians certainly have taken this precept to heart. Christian feminists, minority advocates, and those concerned about the environment (along with similarly concerned non-believers) notice a pattern: The male, powerful, white God has dominion over everyone and everything; men have dominion over women, people in power over those without power, the white race over everyone else; and finally, the human race dominates the entire non-human world. And the Bible is said to support this hierarchy, this domination system.

Elements of this system can be found in all human cultures. The subjugation of women by men in Jewish and Christian history is milder than that found in some other cultures. The Bible doesn’t fundamentally alter, but it does soften that and other forms of discrimination. But it’s undeniable that in the Christian world dominion and, not to mince words, tyranny over nature has been exercised to an extent far beyond what any other culture ever dreamed of. Is this really what the Bible envisions?

The possibility of dominating nature simply didn’t exist in ancient Palestine, in the lands of the expanding early church, or anywhere else, until the scientific revolution in the days of Galileo, Newton, and others. So it's hard to read modern relationships toward nature back into the Bible. Besides that, the Bible speaks with more than one voice; it presents a mixture of ideas about the relation between humans and the non-human world. The idea of dominion in that verse of Genesis is reflected in Psalm 8 (“You have given them [humans] rule over the works of your hands, put all things at their feet.”) But alongside this is the idea of care-taking. Adam is put into the Garden of Eden “to cultivate and care for it.” (Genesis 2:15) Stewardship and limits on our use of the things of this world, is well-represented in the Bible—from the idyllic vegetarian diet prescribed in Genesis Chapter 1 to the forbidden fruit in Chapter 2 to the familiar Israelite prohibitions of working on the Sabbath and eating pork. The story of the Tower of Babel is a reflection on the proper limits to human power and pride. Finally, looking at the entire context of the Bible, it’s clear that, even when the Bible speaks of dominion, nothing like the way we treat nature today is meant. Opposed to this reckless domination are two important—I’d say ecological—Bible themes—the goodness of creation and a new and radical idea about dominion, or leadership.

After each day of creation in the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) God pronounces the results of his work “good.” Humans aren’t even around until the sixth day, so this goodness has nothing to do with being good for us. It’s not a utilitarian kind of goodness. These things are good in themselves. This theme is developed further in other parts of the Bible, where the natural world is said to sing God’s praise. Worship didn’t start when people invented religion. We just joined the song that was going on all along. God rejoices in all his creatures, including, Psalm 104 says, the sea monster Leviathon, of no benefit at all to us, “whom you formed to play with.” (I like that translation.)

The  theme of dominion in the Bible, is first seen when God tells the sun and the moon to govern the day and night. It’s a model that gives scant support to dominion as enslaving a race or a sex or destroying nature in the pursuit of wealth. At the other end of the Christian Bible we find the words of Jesus about dominion:

You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve…. (Mark 10:42-45)

Jesus didn’t make that up entirely. He was reflecting on traditions that were handed down to him. He was discerning the essentials of his scriptures, the Hebrew Bible, our Older Testament. He saw the direction that they were heading by a not very straight path. True, the Older Testament in its human way sometimes presents a picture of a domineering God, but the direction of the whole, which we can see too if we look, was toward a God who participates in the struggles of the created world, a God who loves it and nurtures its inherent goodness and gets upset when humans don’t act accordingly. 

You can’t go on long about the goodness of creation before you come up against the role that humans have played in it, and here the plot thickens. In the non-human world you see a mixture of pleasure and pain. But with us on the scene you see good and evil, comedy and tragedy, hope and despair, joy and sorrow, a mixture of sin and grace. Both Catholics and Protestants, who used to imagine that they disagreed on this point, see evil as so pervasive in individual people and in the human world that, when we think about God’s love for us, we have to let go completely of any thought of our being worthy of it. More recently theologians have realized that the focus of this teaching is not on how rotten we are but on how gracious God’s gift is. Some people go through the depths of depravity or helplessness and despair and then turn to God as the only way up. Their experience is genuine, and so is their faith; but it’s not a very helpful model for understanding humanity or Christianity. Depravity and complete helplessness isn’t the normal experience. We sway back and forth, sometimes good enough to get by sometimes getting by in spite of ourselves. We don’t stray very far from lukewarm or luke-cold. Usually the worst thing we know for sure about ourselves is that we’re pretty much wrapped up in ourselves. Christianity lives by the fact that sometimes that the wrapping isn’t perfect; sometimes it gets completely undone. One way or another, subtly or overwhelmingly, God’s love comes across to us as a free gift that we didn’t deserve. Only then does sin become an issue. Then our vacillating back and forth strikes us as dreadfully wrong, even if we weren’t thinking of ourselves as abject failures before. Once we’ve gotten a glimpse of goodness itself, the slightest wrong, no less than total depravity, looks like a rebellion—and even our best qualities are at least slightly wrong.

“If thou must love me, let it be for nought . . .”

Human beings are a very important part of the Christian story, out of all proportion to our place in the universe as science sees it. That looks like pride to some atheists, but the story really isn’t about human beings. It’s about God. And it’s not with pride but with astonishment that we connect the stories of God’s love with our own lives. Why does God love sinful, rebellious me?

I used to take what I understood to be the Catholic position on this issue. I used to tell myself that sin hasn’t completely destroyed the good that God created in us. God loves us and, I figured, God doesn’t love crap, so God must love the good qualities that remain alongside sins. That might have been pride, though I knew the Christian thing to do is to give credit to God for all the good that might have been there in the first place. A couple years ago I decided to memorize some poems, just to have some beautiful things in my head in case I might need them some day. One of the poems is a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I think it may have been subtly pushing my ideas about love in a different direction. (I recorded the poem here.)

The speaker in this poem doesn’t want a condescending love that looks down and sees a poor, weak, abased creature and loves it anyway just because the lover is so kind. But she doesn’t want to be loved for her good qualities, either. How strange! But also strange is the question lovers sometimes ask, “Why do you love me?” In my relationship the answer could very well be, “Because, Marleen, you are a very good cook.” It would be a true statement, but it wouldn’t be a true answer. There are lots of good cooks that I don’t love. Marleen might even be the best of them all, but that only puts her in a place comparatively better than the rest; and love doesn’t measure and compare. It’s the same for any of Marleen’s qualities I could name. There is no quality that explains my love for her. If there were, it would be like saying, “I really love that quality that you happen, temporarily, to possess, not you.” I might even be saying, “I love myself because of my broad taste in culinary things: I can enjoy dishes you make even if I never had them before.” You see how our best qualities, such as love, can be “at least slightly wrong,” full of pride.

In the process of getting to know Marleen, I found several things about her that I could appreciate. At this point I’m still loving myself. I have to get beyond that to the discovery that here is someone who is not me. Then all those qualities that I thought I knew and appreciated become mysteries because they are not mine. They’re someone else’s, and they have her unique flavor, not quite what I thought before.

Theologically, the most amazing thing about a creature is not a set of really great qualities but the fact that there is something that is not God. God loves this creature’s great qualities, but they’re God’s anyway (and in humans the best of them cannot escape the tragic effects of sin). What’s amazing is that God gives them to a creature that is not God. So we’re back to the simple but amazing fact that there are things, visible and invisible, that are not God. They show us why there can be such a thing as love, God’s love or our love—because there is something that is, not necessarily a 9 or a 10 on our standards of excellence, but something for which we have no measure, “something else." 

There is evil in the world, and some people make of religion an escape from the world because of it. For Christians escapism is not an option. They have to affirm the world as good. But on what basis? Do we stand apart from the world, with some objective standard, and, measuring, judge that the good outweighs the bad? We place ourselves above something when we judge it, even if favorably. There's more self-affirmation than world affirmation there. Praise has this ambiguity about it, as if it's half put-down -- unless it's from someone, like a coach, to whom we have granted the right to judge. 

Jesus didn’t accept praise: “Why do you call me good," he says. "No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) Christians regularly do call Jesus good. If there's a right way to do that, or to call anything good, it's by putting the object of our adulation in the context of something greater. The poem whose first line heads this section pleads: Don’t love me for my good qualities or for your good qualities, either. Just "love me for Love's sake." Christians are familiar with such a context. When they say, “This world is good” and mean it, they're saying something about the world (including themselves) but much more about the source of that goodness. The Christian Creed recognizes that source as the creator God.

PART II: Where are all the angels?

The symbol “angel” and the myths surrounding that symbol give us a clue to the meaning of that abundant reality that the Creed refers to with its "things visible and invisible.” But people have taken angels literally and the result is that angels no longer challenge us with the mystery of one reality but simply allow us to imagine another world when this one seems too much for us. We’ve domesticated angels into themes for country western songs: angels above us and angels who take us by the hand and lead us home when it’s our darkest hour and we’re lost in the woods alone. It’s no good putting down people who find comfort in religion. (Aren’t we all in need of comfort?) But these are very tame angels compared to the ones you find in the Bible or in the Church’s subsequent traditions.

In the Bible you find angels that wave a fiery sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Another angel wrestled with Jacob and dislocated his hip. Angels are charged with destroying the earth and the heavens. In the stories angels often scare the people to whom they appear. For St. Paul angels—and demons too—are cosmic creatures, very much involved in this world. Later Christian traditions envisioned angels in nine choirs, a picture that draws on more than the Bible. These angels look a lot like the Pagan gods of the natural and human worlds. 

The following table compares Greek or Roman mythological beings with Christian angelic choirs. The descriptions of the angelic choirs are from Wikipedia and Catholic Online:



Mythological beings

Christian angels

Aphrodite (Venus), Goddess of Love

Seraphim. They are attendants or guardians before God’s throne. They burn eternally from love and zeal for God.

Apollos (Sun), God of Wisdom

Cherubim. They have intimate knowledge of God and continually praise Him.

The Demiurge (a mythical being in one of Plato's philosophical dialogues.) He constructs the world by putting eternal forms into previously formless matter.

Thrones.  They reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape.

Zeus (Jupiter), King of the Gods

Dominions. They regulate the duties of the angels, making known the commands of God. They are the angels that preside over nations.

Various gods of the sun and planets. Astrology assigns different metals to different planets, e.g., iron to Mars.

Virtues. They are spirits of motion and control the elements. They govern all nature. They have control over seasons, stars, moon, sun, planets, keeping the cosmos in order.

Ares (Mars), God of War and Chronos (Saturn), God of Time.

Powers. They are warrior angels, who fight against evil spirits. They are the bearers of conscience and keepers of history.

The Muses, goddesses who preside over the arts and sciences.

Principalities. They bequeath blessings to the material world. They are the educators and guardians of the realm of earth. They inspire the arts and sciences.

Hermes (Mercury), Messenger God

Archangels. They are God’s messengers. They are the ones most frequently mentioned in the Bible. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are archangels.

Plato's demon. (Another myth in a philosophical work.) This spirit warned Plato when he was in moral danger.

Just plain angels. They are closest to human beings. They deliver our prayers to God and God’s answers to us. They are the most solicitous over human needs.

The parallels aren’t exact, but close enough, I think, to indicate a lot of borrowing. (Or were the two traditions simply reading from the same book of life.) At any rate, though Jews and Christians demythologized the Pagan gods, there was still a lot of spiritual power left in their view of the material world, and it lasted for quite some time. Christians didn’t worship these powers, but they felt how close they were and they feared some of them.

Today for most of us who believe in a spiritual world, that world is separated from the world of matter by a wide gulf. The gulf is crossed by guardian angels, but we can’t see them; at least, I’ve never seen mine. Some of us believe in ghosts and associated paranormal phenomena, but they don’t really belong in this world. Supposedly, they’re caught in between, not able to let go, and we should help them get on to the next world. They should abandon our world. Since the end of the Middle Ages, when Galileo was busy changing our views, science imagines our world as spiritually dead, not a good place for spirits.

A little science history. To understand how this spiritual deadening in our view of the world happened, you need to know more about the conflict between the Church and Galileo than just their fight over whether or not the earth moves. Copernicus had already proposed the theory that the earth orbits around the sun and had gotten a mixed reaction from churchmen. Some ecclesiastics actually liked the theory. And when Galileo first proposed his version, his friend Pope Urban VIII was willing to give it a hearing. But two things got Galileo in trouble.

First, he wasn’t very smart politically; in fact, he really ticked Urban off. This papal friend had asked him to write a treatise giving both sides of the argument. Galileo did so in the form of a dialogue. Unfortunately he put the Pope’s traditional ideas into the mouth of a character named Simplicio. He said he got the name from that of a venerable ancient astronomer, Simplicius, but in Italian it sounded a lot like Simpleton. I guess Galileo just couldn’t understand the negative reaction he got from clerical circles.

Second, Galileo was enormously smart mathematically and scientifically. He’s been called the father of modern mathematical science, the science that uses mathematics to explain how things happen. Galileo explained why the earth goes around the sun, something Copernicus never tried to do.

Aristotle, apparently without trying it out, taught that a heavy body would fall faster than a light one. The  famous  leaning  tower of Pizza experiment, proving that they both fall at the same speed, probably never occurred. Galileo worked with balls rolling down inclined planes

Scientists had already begun using mathematics. Galileo used it to explain the behavior of falling bodies, proving that a heavy body and a light one would fall at approximately the same speed.

This was the beginning of the end for the scientific use of teleology—the idea that there is  purpose in nature, that things do what they do guided by some purpose. For example, a heavy body falls down because it belongs down there, and the heavier it is the more strongly it “aims” to go there.

Teleology was an important idea in the ancient and medieval world. Purpose in the natural world supported morality in the human world. Natural things do what they’re supposed to do, and so should humans. Societal structures also found support in a natural world arranged according to higher and lower realms. The four elements, earth, water, air, fire, have their various natural places in the hierarchy. Earthen matter sinks to the lowest places, and fire strives for the highest. Popes and kings could feel secure, or at least justified, in such a system. Somebody had to occupy the higher spots. When mathematics started making inroads into science, things started leveling out. All material things, no matter what their composition follow the same mathematical laws. This was a much bigger challenge than simply saying that the earth goes around the sun.

Until Galileo no one had pushed this leveling beyond the earth. The heavens, even in Copernicus’ system, were thought to contain a different, higher kind of matter, given the name “aether.” Teleology reigned in the heavens. The heavenly bodies were there because they were supposed to be there, and they moved, according to the perfection of their nature, in perfect circles. (Copernicus made a gallant and unsuccessful attempt at reconciling these perfect circles with what he observed. Actually, the planets trace ellipses, not circles, around the sun.) Galileo realized that the same mathematical laws that explained the movement of falling bodies on earth could explain the movements of the planets around the sun – and four of Jupiter’s moons, which he discovered. These aren’t two radically different kinds of matter.

Eventually, Galileo’s view won out, and a new view of the world arose. No longer did people find the things they considered most human supported in the non-human world. Purposeful behavior did not exist there. Higher and lower did not exist there. The spirit had gone out of nature. All that was left was a mechanism. Previously the natural world was described in organic terms, as if it were a living, sensitive being. Now it was described as a giant machine. Even living things, including the human body, were thought of as machines operating by mechanical laws. But the mind and the products of the mind—ideas, purposes, works of beauty, the sciences, ethics, and the arts—these were something else, a completely different kind of thing, spiritual as opposed to material. Human being itself was split into two realms, body and spirit (a “ghost in a machine”), which didn’t quite belong together. Instead of a multi-dimensional world stretching from rocks to the heavens and beyond, in which humans occupy several dimensions at once, being mineral, vegetable, animal, and spirit, there are now only two dimensions and what is specifically human is only the spiritual part.

René Descartes, with his “I think, therefore I am,” put the finishing touches on this separation of the material and spiritual worlds, identifying human beings with their spiritual minds. Everything in the world outside the mind is merely matter. He thought the new development was great for both religion and science. Each could now operate unencumbered in its own sphere.

My best philosophical joke: Did you hear what happened to Monsieur Descartes? His daughter asked him, “René, can I have the keys to the chariot and go to the chalet for the weekend with my boyfriend?” And the dad  answered, “I think not.”

Back to today. I don’t know if this de-mystifying of the natural world is in any way responsible for the ecological crisis we are now in, as some more spiritually inclined environmentalists claim. We have less respect for nature than we might have if we could see gods all around us. But has belief in the gods has ever stopped the human race from doing what it could to “have dominion” over the places where has it lived. More likely it’s just that we can do a whole lot more now.

We’re powerful enough now to imagine that we really are on our own in this world. We don’t often think of help coming from powers other than our own, and even less do we imagine ourselves fighting any superhuman power. But there are exceptions. I’d like to highlight one.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a leader of the black Freedom Democratic Party in their 1964 campaign to be seated at the Democratic National Convention for the state of Mississippi. Up to then Mississippi had excluded blacks from the national convention. I remember it as one of many dramatic moments in the America of the 60’s. The black delegation marched into the meeting hall and challenged the white delegation for the right to represent the state. The convention had to decide. They came up with a compromise which the Freedom Democrats could not accept. Their success came later when the national party forbade discrimination on the basis of race by any state party. That put an end to the era of “Yellow Dog Democrats,” southerners who would vote for a yellow dog provided it was a Democrat—and white, of course. Here’s what civil rights leader Hamer said on that occasion in 1964:

We have to realize just how grave the problem is in the United States today, and I think the sixth chapter of Ephesians, the eleventh and twelfth verses help us to know what it is we are up against. It says, ‘Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. This is what I think about when I think of my own work in the fight for freedom. (Quoted from Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, p.  419)

She could have drawn a picture of a struggle against individual bad guys. But I think the way she put it, even with its mythology, it is more accurate. The epic struggle for civil rights was (and is) not just against individuals. There are larger things—patterns, structures, systems, institutions, ideologies, ways of thinking, roles in society. These are bigger than any or all of us. We imagine that they are under our control, that we have created them and we can change them. But we grow up within them. They make us as much as we ever made them. These are the “principalities” and “rulers of the darkness of this world.”

The way I will be interpreting angels and demons comes from Leslie Newbegin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 198-210, in a chapter called “Principalities, Powers, and People.” Other authors I’ve read recently speak in much the same way. The things that Paul says we are to fight against are not floating above us in some world of their own. They are realities existing in flesh-and-blood instances at particular times and places, but not limited to any one or combination of these. The same thing that fighters for black rights fought and won some victories against appears again recently when an American soldier is hazed and driven to suicide because he is Chinese. The same thing that found expression in Roman military, economic, and religious imperialism at the time of Jesus appears again in different form in the imperialism of the financial systems, with their military support, of our day. If a thing is composed of matter, it can’t appear in two different places at the same time or two disconnected stretches of time. That’s practically a definition of materiality. Whatever these realities, these powers, are, though they always come materially embodied, they’re more than material. Among the many names that Paul used for them is “angel.”

I agree with Mary Lou Hamer. We absent ourselves from the largest part of the battle if we think we’re only fighting individual creatures of flesh and blood. When we stop fighting each other and start talking across divides, we often find that we can’t so readily demonize our former adversaries. It becomes much harder to locate the evil in the other individuals. We see them as people who are doing what they think is right or else people who simply feel powerless to change anything. Not, of course, in every case. There are evil people doing evil things. But good people also do evil things and, to speak mythologically and perhaps truly, good people doing evil things is the best indicator of the power of the devil. It’s a power that is embodied in human individuals and how they act and think, but it’s not limited to any one or combination of individuals. Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas were responsible for murdering Jesus. Yet Paul says the powers that killed Jesus will be destroyed. That was after all three of those actors were dead. He was speaking of powers acting through them and still active in his day—and ours.

I’ve been describing bad “angels” and how they may be interpreted, following as well as I can Newbegin’s ideas. They are powers operating within our world. That leaves several questions:

1.    What about good angels?

2.    Where do the bad ones come from, assuming that God only creates good things?

3.    Finally, what about the non-human world? Is the human world with its angels, or spiritual side, disconnected from the rest of reality, as Descartes would have it; or are there angels of the non-human world, too? Does our human world get any support—or opposition—from the non-human world, as ancient thinkers believed?

First question. When we think clearly about patterns, structures, systems, institutions, ideologies, ways of thinking, and roles in society, it’s obvious that they’re not just evil. In fact, we couldn’t live without them. They are what make community possible, and, contrary to a lot of political thinking in America, we are members of a community before we are individuals. We talk about communities as having a certain spirit, “school spirit,” for example, a spirit that molds the characters of the individuals in the community. A nation similarly has something which is not just the sum of the attitudes of its individual citizens, something which can foster ordinary decency or inspire acts of heroism. It would be hard to live without the roles or patterned behaviors that our institutions provide, like the roles of parent and child in the family. We can be creative with these roles. (As the chief diaper changer in my family back in the 1980’s—and enjoying those moments of closeness—it seemed to me that I was stretching the role of fatherhood for that time. We can also rebel against established norms, but, whether creating or rebelling, we’re always operating from within a context larger than us.

Again this is a context of realities embodied in but not limited to particular instances. They’re spiritual realities, realities with power for good, but also power for evil. That’s the answer to the first question, about good angels. Paul knew this answer, too, because he says these things, the “principalities” etc., were created through and for Christ. (Colossians 1:15-17)

The second question is, How do these angels turn away from good toward evil? There’s a somewhat biblical myth that deals with this question. I say “somewhat biblical” because, though I was taught it in grade school Bible History classes, it’s not really in the Bible. It’s hinted at, probably assumed as background by some biblical authors; but they never actually say it. Here’s the story:

Lucifer, whose name means bearer of light, was the most beautiful of God’s angels. This was before ever there was a universe. Angels’ chief duty and joy was to reflect God’s goodness and beauty, but Lucifer wasn’t content with that secondary role. He wanted the glory to be his own. So he rebelled. Michael the Archangel led a host of loyal angels against Lucifer and his like-minded minions and drove them out of heaven. They were forced to make their home in the fiery depths of hell. From there they have been making sorties into our world ever since it was created, attempting to turn us also away from God and get us to serve and glorify them.

It seems unlikely to me that this story could be factually correct, if we can even speak of facts before the creation of the world. If it’s a true story, it’s true in the way myths are true. Lucifer’s sin was idolatry. Idolatry is what turns the powers—the systems, institutions, ideologies, etc.—from good to evil. They don’t idolize themselves, as in the Lucifer story, but they do tempt us to idolize them, and we often fall for it. We serve a limited good as if it were an absolute good. What was a gentle power for good, capable of being directed by us toward even greater good, as when I pushed the limits of the role of father, becomes a tyrannical power for evil. There are many ways this can happen:

  • In politics, love of country becomes an idol when I say, “My country right or wrong.”
  • In economics, private property becomes an idol when I imagine that I deserve what is mine and no one can tell me what to do with it or when justice means only “to each his own,” supported by sayings like “law and order,” i.e., whatever preserves the current distribution of valuables.
  • In science, the theory of evolution can become the Third Reich’s idolatry of the “superior race” and eugenics; the pursuit of knowledge can also become an idol, justifying needlessly cruel experiments on animals.
  • In families, roles that ought to be flexible, allowing for give and take, can become frozen patterns of behavior. That’s also an idol.
  • We Worship social cohesiveness when we segregate ourselves and reject alternative lifestyles.
  • Worshiping a religion or a religious institution instead of God leads to persecution of “heretics” both within and outside of the institution, or forced and manipulative conversions.

Atheists like to quote physicist Steven Weinberg’s saying about the demonic potential of religion: “with or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I’d say it takes idolatry rather than true religion, and idolatry can crop up in many areas besides religion.

In every one of these cases a relative good is mistaken for an absolute good. People can believe they are serving God or the greater good of humanity when they are actually serving an idol, worshiping something like an institution or ideology; and the angel becomes a devil. The overarching context of patterns, structures, systems, institutions, ideologies, ways of thinking, and roles in society—this good world of ready-made meanings in which we live, making us what we are—becomes demonic; and, unfortunately, it keeps on making us what we have thus become.

There remains the third question: Are there good or bad angels of the physical as well as the human world or . . .

Are we alone in the universe?

Scientists are hard at work investigating this question, searching for (and recently finding) Earth-like planets and listening for radio signals from possible alien civilizations. Imagine the excitement if another intelligent “life form” is discovered, even though travel and even communication back and forth will be completely impractical. I suspect part of the excitement is due to the fact that we feel otherwise so misplaced in the universe. In the present scientific picture of the world, it’s practically dogma that there’s nothing like human meaning out there, nothing except what we make for ourselves. If we do find alien life and civilization, we’ll still be quite alone down here. A few days after I wrote these lines I read an opinion column that put this point more eloquently:

As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. For all the excitement, however, the search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence. (Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, 12/30/11)

Are we on our own or could there still be a kind of support for things that we value most, for morality and the sense we have that our lives have meaning and purpose? Does the material world, apart from the specifically human context, have its own angels and potential demons? I think there are at least three angels or, perhaps, choirs of angels. I’d name them the Intelligibility, Morality, and Beauty.

Angel of Intelligibility. It’s an axiom among scientists that nature does not give us her secrets. To find out anything dependable about reality, beyond mere appearance, you have to work at it. We experiment, using the scientific method: ask a question, make a hypothesis, predict what new phenomena will be observed if the hypothesis is true, then arrange a test to see if the predictions are observed (the hypothesis gains credibility) or not (the hypothesis is falsified). In this process meaning does not just go from the world to our minds. It starts out in our minds, as a hypothesis.

The universe has no natural propensity to reveal itself any more than bricks naturally seek to go down or fire to go up. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that we can understand the universe at all. The structures of our minds, especially logic and mathematics, are amazingly suited for application to reality. Reality never contradicts itself, and when we finally understand scientifically what reality does, it always gets expressed in mathematics. The universe doesn’t give itself to our knowledge, but its structures are fundamentally intelligible. The universe supports the human activity of knowing.

Angel of Morality. The time is gone when we could look at nature and find rules for our behavior. “Look at the industrious ant,” used to be a reason not to be a sluggard. But what if we looked at a lion instead. She sleeps 22 hours a day. In nature there is cooperation and competition and many more analogues for human behavior, but no way to derive what we’re supposed to do from that. In nature there is no “supposed to.” But there may be other ways than showing us how that the world outside the human supports morality.

Teilhard de Chardin imagines a paradoxical kind of support we get from the matter of the universe in his hymn quoted at the top of this essay. He addresses and blesses matter:

You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate…. Without you, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile…..

This is not an easy partner to live with, but partner it is; and only because we live with such a partner can our actions have any meaning.

The 1956 movie “The Forbidden Planet” gives one of its characters the ability to control matter with his mind, but not the ability to control his mind. It’s a great early science-fiction movie with one great special effect, Robbie the robot. 

Imagine a world without the stubborn resistance that matter, whether of our bodies or anything else, offers—a world in which anything is possible, knowledge is easily obtained and always perfect, travel is instantaneous, mere thought accomplishes every purpose. All you have to do is will it to make it so.

In such a world nothing a person does would make any difference. There would be nothing to connect anybody’s actions to anybody else since each person could make his or her own world. Even in a single person’s life there would be no connection between past, present, and future. Each new moment would have its own possibilities independent of anything that happened in the past. There would be no such thing as consequences. There would be no movement, either forward or backward, since nothing builds on anything else and nothing limits anything else. You can almost define life as movement, so in this world there is no life in any meaningful sense.

Without matter, without the limitations that matter imposes on us, we would be, everyone of us, isolated in each one's own world. I think if people thought this through they would take seriously the fact that we live with limits; they'd even rejoice in that fact. We’d stop saying ridiculous things to our children like “You can be anything you want to be.” There’d be no ads saying, “If you can imagine it, you can do it.” We’d start thinking that our actions do have consequences, for our world, for ourselves, and for other people; and science doesn’t work miracles. We want to think science can fix every environmental problem that our behaviors cause even while we steadfastly refuse to change. That’s a myth because matter remembers. Matter connects present with past and future, actions with consequences, and—most blessedly—one person with another and people with a world. The universe doesn't tell us what to do, but it does force us into moral situations.

Angel of Beauty. I’ve always thought that the saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is backwards. If anything, ugly is in the eye of the beholder; beauty is what’s really there.

To be beautiful a thing has to have a definite form. Infinity is not beautiful. This fact connects the Angel of Beauty to the other two angels. An infinite world is not intelligible. Scientists sometimes end up with infinities in their equations. This immediately tells them that something is wrong. A scientific theory is supposed to be beautiful (in a sense that probably only a scientist can appreciate). A moral world, too, is a world with limits. Within those limits a story is possible—movement with beginning, middle and end (not like a soap opera). A good story is not only good; it’s also beautiful, and true in its way.

All three of these angels, and perhaps more, are real features of our world. There is truth even if nobody knows it. There is good even if everybody violates it. There is beauty even if no two people can agree on it.

These angels of the non-human world can become demonic like the others. It happens when we put the wrong one first. For example, a scientist so bent on some moral quest that he cannot be objective makes an idol of the Angel of Morality; and that demon then ruins the science without actually serving morality. The same thing can happen in the artistic world. Many a bad story has come from trying to inculcate some moral instead of simply telling a good story. A good story communicates a moral without trying to, but a moralistic tale turns people off.

On the other hand, when the context is the moral field of action, including politics, then the other two angels can turn into demons. How much money should we spend on sending people to Mars? How far should we go in experimenting on animals, or people? Are there some technologies that we should not pursue or should not have pursued—nuclear weapons, performance enhancing drugs? What limits should we observe in areas like genetic manipulation? If we ignore these moral questions we turn science’s angel into a demon. Other moral questions face the world of literature and art. What counts as art and what limits should not be crossed here? Courts may not be able to define pornography or spell out when there has been an improper assault on cultural or religious sensibilities; but the moral issue remains, and artists who assume they have absolutely free reign because “it’s art” are calling up another demon.

It might not seem obvious that the word “demon” fits these cases. Maybe we should just be talking about bad people. But in every one of these cases you probably can find bad people, but you’ll also find good people—good people doing bad things and believing that they’re doing good things or at least justifiable things. This is the criterion for the demonic, for powers larger than human, powers for good that when idolized become powers for evil.

The Goddess Fortuna

We shouldn’t imagine that these powers have us in mind. They just are, and we embody what they are—in their true natures or in the demons that we make of them. Because the angels don’t act toward us but just are, our relation to them—embodying them in particular instances of our lives—preserves our identity. We are not the playthings of the gods.

The name Fortuna, or Lady Luck, is a symbol for the fact that the universe does not exist to serve us or to confound us. It does both, as Teilhard’s prayer says, but without thinking about it. When the benefit we accrue or the pain we endure is out of proportion to the effort we put in, that’s the luck of the draw, or else cheating.

Science places something like luck, which it calls chance, in a prominent position. Chance variation explains the origin and variety of life on earth. But that’s not dumb luck. It’s the predictable result of innumerable tries. Likewise the fact that we live in a universe fine-tuned for life is the predictable consequence of the huge number of universes that are supposed to exist—if the Multiverse Theory is correct.

It’s possible to worship the Goddess Fortuna. People who do are among those who are quite satisfied with the lot this god has dealt them. Lady Luck deals unequal hands. The science of statistics precisely categorizes this inequality: a large middle area where most of us reside, the rest distributed in one or more standard deviations up or down from there. On a graph it’s a bell-shaped curve, but without the dinger.

I read an article some time ago about a computer simulation (a kind of game that scientists play with computers) that began with a wealth distribution according to the normal bell-shaped pattern. A few people were rich, a very few were very rich, and likewise for the poor and very poor. The largest part of the bell encompassed the somewhat comfortable people in the middle. The program controlled for everything else. Factors like intelligence, social background, personality, etc. were made the same across the board. After a relatively short playing time the wealth started moving dramatically toward those who were already at the top. In other words, the rich got richer, the very rich got very much richer, and the rest got further and further behind. Unfortunately I didn’t save the article or I could be a little clearer about how it works. The conclusion, though, was that, even if we didn’t have factors like family background, well-funded special interest groups, bought and sold legislation, and everything else that now favors people who are already rich—even if it were just chance and not systemic injustice that determines how wealth travels—we would still see the kind of dramatic shifting of wealth toward those who are already rich that we have seen in the last 30 or 40 years—unless we worked hard to prevent it, unless we had in our laws and in our social institutions, something like what many religious figures call “a preferential option for the poor.”

The Bing online dictionary says the invisible hand is the “force behind open market: the unseen force believed to drive market economies, where each participant pursuing his or her own private interest theoretically benefits all participants.”

That slogan, plain social justice straight out of the Bible, is blasphemy for those who worship Fortuna. These include followers of Ayn Rand, libertarians, and anyone who believes in the “invisible hand” of the market. The article I mentioned concludes that rich people can easily salve their consciences about escalating inequality if they can just say, “It’s nobody’s fault that some people are poor, especially not mine. It’s just the roll of the dice.” And who can argue with Goddess Fortuna or with the bell-shaped curve that decrees there will always be poor people.

Idolatry and true religion both have all sorts of political implications. Newbegin says:

This…invisible power ruling over human affairs…is one of the key arguments of the religious right…that one cannot speak of justice or injustice when describing the huge differences between rich and poor in our society. These…are not the work of conscious human agency but the result of chance. Thus in our economic life we are no longer responsible…for economic life has been handed over to the goddess Fortuna. It is not hard to recognize that as one of the principalities and powers of which Paul speaks. (Pages 206-07)

One sure sign of the devil at work is good people doing evil things. Now we have another sure sign: good people declining to do good things, opting out of the struggle for justice.

What are angels, then?

In fairness I can’t leave the topic of angels without committing myself, for the moment at least, to a few statements about what they are. Chance, ideologies, roles, and structures, truth, goodness, beauty—these and other larger-than-life realities may seem like strange candidates for the list of invisible things that God created. They don’t seem like things at all. Not one of them exists by itself. They all require some embodiment either in material objects or human ways of thinking and behaving. But they find their concrete realization not in just one but in many different instances, and they have a kind of identity through them all. They’re not at all like material things, which can’t be the same in two different places or two separate stretches of time. I’d say they are real things with real power over us. We have some power over them. We can be creative or even rebellious with our structures, roles, ideologies; and we can make creative use of the limited power science gives us. Without them, without the way they circumscribe our thoughts and our works, we would have no power at all. Among their powers over us, on the other hand, is the temptation they offer us to worship them, and that idolatry changes them from friends into fiends, into false gods.

I don’t know of any philosophical or theological reason why angels have to be more than this non-material, “spiritual” reality that we mean by culture, institution, ideology, and so on. Still, an extra dimension of personhood, with intellect and will (perhaps without the wings) is possible. That’s what a long tradition in many religions claims, and we depend on traditional interpretations of experience. We live within a tradition as we interpret our own experience. It’s not like a scientific explanation, which is either true or false. An interpretation is more or less adequate to the experience it interprets. When you’re interpreting, as I have, classic symbols like the stories of angels and gods, symbols that have survived the test of time and continue to speak to people in many different settings, it’s never appropriate to say, “I now have the final interpretation. This is all it means.” A classic in literature or oral tradition is the sort of thing whose meaning is never exhausted. There’s always more to it.

The Bible and Christian imagination through the ages do present angels as persons, beings endowed with intellect and will. Pagan religion does the same for its gods. These ancient witnesses, including the ones in the Bible, are not compelling. The angels who guard the Garden of Eden occur in a biblical folk tale or tale-like story. Its author may have made it up or taken and adapted a story from oral tradition. There’s a story of the Angel Raphael who guides Tobias on a journey, uses the heart and liver of a fish to save him from the demon that had haunted his bride, and on returning home cures his father Tobit’s blindness with the fish’s gall bladder. My Catholic Study Bible calls that story in the Book of Tobit a religious novel, not meant by the author to be historical. The infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have all sorts of familiar angels. The most thorough study of these narratives has been done by the Catholic Bible scholar Raymond Brown. He concludes that these also are not meant to be historical. Their authors use symbols from Jewish literature, Christianity's Old Testament, to introduce the themes that they intended to emphasize in their longer stories of Jesus.

All of these authors knew that they were making up stories—and so, I imagine, did their first readers. They believed angels are real. No contradiction there: It’s common enough even today to make up a story about a real person. To believe angels exist does not mean you have to take any of these stories as history. To believe there are devils you don’t have to assume there really was a war in heaven in which Michael and his troops cast out Lucifer and his minions. Also, in my opinion, to believe that angels are spiritual persons you don’t have to believe that devils are the same. And you don’t have to believe there are devils in hell to believe there is a hell.

OK, here’s my final answer, for now—my more or less tentative belief statements about angels:

1.    Angels and devils, in the limited sense of whatever it is that exists across various manifestations in institutions, ideologies, etc., are real; and they have the kind of power over us that these things have. This belief is more philosophical than it is religious.

2.    Angels are spiritual persons existing independently, but not in a far-off world of their own. They are related to their material manifestations, the sorts of things listed several times above, but not by causing them. Rather, it’s what philosophers call participation. (Above I used the word “embodying.”) Nations, ideologies, etc.  participate in the being of their angels. They are their angels in the same way that a block of wood is a cube by participating in cubeness. There’s no scientifically detectable causality involved in either case.

3.    Statement 2 is a religious belief. I’m depending on a religious tradition of interpreting experience and on the sure fact that no interpretation (like in statement 1) can exhaust its meaning. It’s not in the same category as the basic beliefs of my Catholic faith. Like a scientific theory, it could fail and the rest of physics—or theology—would be fine. I accept the tradition about angels partly because many of the stories about them go contrary to human expectation. When people in the stories meet an angel, they fall down on their knees in fear and trembling, and the angel says, “Don’t worship me” or “Fear not.” It’s a story, of course, but that particular part is so insightful and so unexpected—whether in an ancient world that worships many gods or in the modern world, where we kneel before our own set of powers—that I’m willing to credit the story as being in touch with something real. I wish we had more stories like that.

4.    Devils are not persons like angels. Devils are powerful with the power that we give them. A devil happens when we take something good and make it into a god. Sin is basically idolatry. We don’t choose evil; we choose a good inordinately. One reason I, tentatively now, don’t credit devils with any greater kind of existence is that in the stories devils, like the one that tempted Jesus in the wilderness, say exactly what you would expect: “Fall down and worship me.” This story is, indeed, in touch with something, but it’s only the pull of the many things that all the rest of us make into our false gods.

5.    Blame for evil falls on human beings, no one and nothing else. The snake in the story of Adam and Eve does not represent an eternal principle of evil opposed to the good God, as it might in some mythologies. It is not a creature created evil by God. The snake is also not the same as Lucifer, the beautiful, fallen angel. These two stories have nothing to do with each other. The most you can read into the snake is that human freedom is not absolute. We are not so free that we can choose evil for evil’s sake. We choose evil as a result of desiring something good inordinately, falling down before the altar of a false god. That is the origin of the evil principalities, powers, and whatever other dark rulers of this world there are, and that is the source of their power over us.

6.    The good angels sing God’s praise, not their own, and the created world joins—participates in—their song to the One who is other than they. This is being rather than doing—being the song, being love, being knowledge, being virtue, being beauty. The way Christians classified their choirs of angels or Pagans described some of their gods makes pretty good sense to me. There’s no detecting them scientifically. They don’t cause our song, but our song participates in theirs when it’s a song of love, knowledge, virtue, or beauty.

Worshiping the true God means not worshiping false gods. I’ve heard that atheism is very much like Christianity because the atheist disbelieves in all the same gods that the Christian disbelieves in—and one more. Atheism, it is said, completes the journey of disbelief that Judaism and Christianity began. That is to misunderstand the way the Jewish prophets and Jesus related to the false gods. They didn’t disbelieve in and ignore the false gods; they fought them. Their descendants in worshiping communities still do.

Faith in God is saying, “I believe in you.” When we say that to another person, we’re not saying, “I think you exist.” We’re professing our respect, trust, loyalty, and love. We’re professing all these things when we say we believe in God. It’s the same also with disbelieving in false gods. It doesn’t mean these don’t exist. It means refusing respect, trust, loyalty, love. It takes effort, it’s a real battle to do that. And we’re not very good at it because these are not just enemies out there; they’ve gotten inside us, even to the point of being the thoughts that we think with.

The second part of the Creed, "I believe in Jesus Christ...." tells us something about the armor and weapons we will find useful in this fight. They make for an odd sort of strategy.


Catholic theologian Karl Rahner writes about Angels. These are some thoughts I found quoted in a blog by “Crystal.” The quotes are from Rahner’s A Concise Encyclopedia of Theology, pp 11-13. The blog is called “Perspective: Thoughts of a Catholic convert.” (http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/)

[...] The Thomistic speculation regarding the metaphysical essence of angels (DS 3607; 3611) is an opinion which one is free to hold or not. At all events their relation to the world, which is both material and spiritual, must be thought of in such a way that they are really understood to be "principalities and powers" of the cosmos in virtue of their very nature and do not merely intervene in the world by arbitrary decision contrary to their real nature, and in certain cases out of sheer malice.

Further speculation in scholastic theology about their spiritual nature was based on neo-Platonic philosophical theories about non-material pure spirit and is not theologically binding. The same probably applies to the natural superiority of the angelic nature to man. All such theses, when they claim theological validity, go beyond the basis of all dogmatic angelology and the limits it sets to our knowledge of the angels. Similarly the classification of the angels, which like everything created are rightly to be thought of as different in nature from one another, into definite "choirs" and "hierarchies" is arbitrary and has no real foundation in scripture. 

Angels exist, but are merely creatures .... Angelology makes it clear that the evil "principalities and powers" are a condition of the supra-human and relatively universal character of evil in the world and must not be trivialized into abstract ideas, but at the same time that these supra-human and relatively personal principles of wickedness must not be exaggerated in a Gnostic or Manichean way (as often happens in unenlightened popular piety) into powers opposed to the good God who are almost his equals in might. They are not God's rivals, but his creatures. And as with man, even evil freely chosen in a definitive state is the purely relative corruption of a natural, permanent being who has a positive function in the world; for something absolutely evil would be self-contradictory.

On to 6, Interlude on Truth