The Feast of the Archangels always makes me—and others, I suspect—acutely aware of the divide between contemporary and ancient religious sensibilities. Angels—once as present in Christendom’s social imaginary as microbes in our own—no longer loom large. Perhaps mothers still say the “Angel of God” prayer with their children before bed (as my own mother did with me), but such devotions usually do not outlive Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
The ostensible explanation of our disenchantment with the angels points to technological progress. Bultmann perhaps made the point most famously:
From the time that we have known of nature’s power and laws, belief in spirits and demons has been extinguished… We cannot make use of the electric light and of the radio, or in case of illness employ modern medical methods and treatment, and at the same time believe in the world of spirits and the miracles of the New Testament.
But the angels of old were not invoked simply to fill the ever narrowing “gaps” in scientific and medical explanation. Pious Jews and Christians also saw angels as the foundation of communities. The angelology of the first members of the Society still bore this regional stamp: Bl. Pierre Favre, for instance, while en route to Speyer from the Diet of Worms, recalled in his journal:
As you drew near to some place and looked at it or heard it talked about, you received a method of asking grace from our Lord that the archangel of that region with all the angel guardians of its inhabitants might be well disposed toward us.”
Archangels, in other words, coordinated all guardian angels, who in turn presided over individual persons. The Archangels functioned as something like a regional “soul”—and have been seen so to function from ancient times.
We see this throughout Scripture. Deuteronomy reports that when God “gave the nations their inheritance,” he allotted their territories “according to the sons of God” (32:8). “Sons of God” was a standard circumlocution for angels. By the time of the book of Daniel, St. Michael was seen as the angel of the nation of Israel. At the close of the Apostolic Age, Revelation mentions letters written to the “angels” presiding over various Churches in Asia Minor. In each case, the angels serve as the natural foundation for communal life.
This understanding of society as an organic unity survives even today in such phrases as the “body politic.” There, of course, society is compared to an ensouled body, whose organs all exercise a role both proper to themselves and subordinate to the good of the whole. The organism, moreover, operates on different plane from any one—or even the aggregate—of its members. Just as a living animal is clearly distinct from a mere heap of parts, so is a legitimate polis clearly distinct from a mere band of brigands.
But how does a collection of individuals become a body politic? When does a community attain legitimacy so that it can morally require obedience, sacrifice, and revenue? How, in other words, does a community receive its “soul.”
These are the questions are foreign to our time, mostly because the scientistic reason prevalent in the West sees only with difficulty that society is more than heap of parts. Our founding myth portrays citizens as free agents who contractually bind themselves to a nation for mutual benefit—not as organs who draw their very life from the vitality of the whole. The economic image of the “invisible hand,” which smoothes and harmonizes the individual projects of enlightened self-interest, clearly moves away from the aforementioned organic model. Instead, citizens interact in society much like excited gas molecules in a flask. Naturally, such a one-dimensional mode of interaction requires no more comprehensive explanation.
Though I’m sure that technology contributes to some degree to the evanescence of the angels, I often wonder whether the atomistic communities that modern technology makes possible are not more to blame. For only when sex, family and nation still represent the substantial and immutable categories in which human identity rests; only when membership in society is felt as constitutive rather than elective; and only when communal obligation is felt so strongly and nakedly as to require the explanation of divine sanction; only then does the question of the angels arise in an existential way.
Modern technology, then, has not really replaced the angels with better explanations. Perhaps it has instead allowed us to conceive of our life together in such a way as to suppress the questions that the angels once answered.