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Credo: The Nicene Creed
Of All Things Visible and Invisible
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
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.
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
We have to realize just how grave the problem is
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
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
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:
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
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.
theologian Karl Rahner writes about Angels. These are some thoughts I found
quoted in a blog by “
[...] 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.