The Angels as a Political Problem


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.

9 Responses to The Angels as a Political Problem

  1. crystal says:

    Interesting post. I’ve come to a different appreciation of angels since I’ve been reading about the discernment of spirits.

  2. bill bannon says:

    I can only say that angels are quite real to me as are demons since I reject the Western artistic depictions of them. To use Aquinas’ terminology…they have no dimensive quantity. thye are no huge nor tiny. If they look like anything, they look like the air that lingers right before your eyes at all times. They have no noses, eyes, ears, tails in the case of demons, no wings in the case of angels. They are without bodies and without the members that bodies have. Think of intelligences drifting with intent here and there and you now have a more accurate picture of them than Hieronymous Bosch burdened us with. They are part of my everyday because I long ago rejected the artistic symbols for them. It remind me of the ark of Noah. It is always depicted as fat. Augustine noted that it is slender when you work out its proportions because the ark for Augustine was a hidden prophecy of Christ and like Christ had a hole put in its side. It’s length was ten times its depth and six times its width which is the proportions of a slender man whose depth at his chest times ten is his height and whose width at his torso multiplied by six is his height also. Yet seemingly til the end of time, the ark will be depicted as fat and thus the hidden prophecy will be obfuscated.

    Artistic depictions of the demons and angels have contributed to the difficulty in experiencing them as real.

  3. Needed reminder of this mysterious component of
    the Divine dispensation at creative work in
    Kronos history, at times doing Kairo events,
    like the Annunciation, initiated by God through
    the instrumentality of an Angel.

    Aside from this externalized assessment of the
    topic, we can also gain insight plus understanding
    from the inside: human existential angst keeps
    relating to, not avoinding, angels!

    And one key ingredient always, is to look at a
    culture’s musical stream of consciousness:
    today we have an exemplary one in Sarah McLachlan’s
    chart hit song “Calling All Angels.” (I get mystical
    goose bumps every month when contemplatively
    re-listening to it, and others, in my own spiritual journey….)

    To believe, is to have faith, which is to know
    we are never alone!

  4. Since the topic of physicality is raised, there’s
    merit to pursue some more on this topic:
    much in theology stresses the communicative role
    played by Angels, their instrumentality in
    conveying aspects of the Divine intervention
    at times in human history.

    My best recollection places them to embody our
    human form: normatively “strangers!” And not
    necessarily un-embodied spirits….

    Separate from such a direct role, we have our
    religious understandings of personal angels, etc.
    which in my Catholic understanding places this
    function as secondary to the above primary one….
    Herein is where Sarah’s song comes in: pure genius
    in the lyrics, displaying deep spiritual understanding, whoever wrote it!!!

  5. bill bannon says:

    They appear as human for example in Tobias but it is understood that they have disguised themselves therein. In Ezekiel, they are given an entirely different figure which you would not want to look at in a painting as a child or as an adult:

    Ezekiel Chapter one regarding what are later in chapter 10 called cherubim:

    “Within it were figures resembling four living creatures that looked like this: their form was human,
    but each had four faces and four wings,
    and their legs went straight down; the soles of their feet were round. They sparkled with a gleam like burnished bronze.
    5 Their faces were like this: each of the four had the face of a man, but on the right side was the face of a lion, and on the left side the face of an ox, and finally each had the face of an eagle.
    Their faces (and their wings) looked out on all their four sides; they did not turn when they moved, but each went straight forward.”

    Hence none of us would feel a bond with such creatures so that the intent in Ezekiel is symbolic content and not the reality of what chrubim look like because after the disguises (Tobias) and the iconology (Ezekiel)…they are pure spirits as Aquinas notes in the Summa Theologica (1st Pt./question 51/art.1):

    ” Consequently not all intellectual substances are united to bodies; but some are quite separated from bodies, and these we call angels.”

  6. Well put, Bill, and I concur, insofar as that
    illustration goes.

    My own spiritual approach, plus understanding,
    is generic:
    Angels, being from heaven and therefore
    pure spirits (which we’ll never define due to
    the inherent limitations of reason, as reason)
    are used by God the Father for his own
    purposes, and in intervening in world events,
    sends them in any guise He so chooses, but
    normatively to normal events, in the form
    of a human so that we as humans can relate….

    Thus we move and live in The Company of Strangers
    more than we realize, putting us on notice
    that the deeper we spiritually grow, the more
    we can expect to contact and interact with
    The Stranger since we never know whether real
    or in the status of a sent Angel known only
    to Divine Providence evolving the mystery of
    Salvation History.
    In sum, my understanding from core theology
    remains that God uses Angels as His normal means
    for communicating intervention in Kronos time,
    doing at times Kairos things…. My own biblical
    favourite remains the strangers who visited
    Abe and Sarah in the desert: what a TV story today!
    Today’s culture would freak out on that and
    shoo them away!!!

    The word “God” is he or she but infinitely
    beyond the finite reference point of the
    masculine or feminine, while at the same time
    being the Infinite ground of the masculine
    or feminine.
    He is the metaphor for the Infinity of the
    mystery the present moment manifests!

  7. Link to the song “Angel”

    Spend all your time waiting
    For that second chance
    For a break that would make it okay
    There�s always one reason
    To feel not good enough
    And it�s hard at the end of the day
    I need some distraction
    Oh beautiful release
    Memory seeps from my veins
    Let me be empty
    And weightless and maybe
    I�ll find some peace tonight

    In the arms of an angel
    Fly away from here
    From this dark cold hotel room
    And the endlessness that you fear
    You are pulled from the wreckage
    Of your silent reverie
    You�re in the arms of the angel
    May you find some comfort there

    So tired of the straight line
    And everywhere you turn
    There�s vultures and thieves at your back
    And the storm keeps on twisting
    You keep on building the lie
    That you make up for all that you lack
    It don�t make no difference
    Escaping one last time
    It�s easier to believe in this sweet madness oh
    This glorious sadness that brings me to my knees

    In the arms of an angel
    Fly away from here
    From this dark cold hotel room
    And the endlessness that you fear
    You are pulled from the wreckage
    Of your silent reverie
    You�re in the arms of the angel
    May you find some comfort there
    You�re in the arms of the angel
    May you find some comfort here

  8. Gregory:
    Much thanks for the song lyrics!
    Some words I’d never clearly heard so it was
    nice to read the real thing!!!

    The song “Calling All Angels” though, I don’t
    really know authorship for, except having copied
    it in the ’90’s from a relgious programming station.
    For me it’s a close equal both in lyrics and musical
    content that speak to the soul, as good music
    should….and the singer “sounds” like Sarah but
    I’m probably wrong?
    Anyway, here’s the best transcription I could
    “Santa Maria, Santa Teresa, Santa Anna,
    Santa Suzanna, Santa Cecilia, Santa Capilia,
    Santa Dominica, Mary Angelica … (various other
    muffled names).
    Oh, a man is placed upon the steps
    and a baby crys: high above
    you can hear the church bells start to ring.
    And as the, heaviness, all the heaviness all around
    as the body settles in….
    Somewhere you can hear a mother sing.
    Then it’s one foot and the other
    as you step out on the road
    of hope, step out on the road.
    How much weight, how much. Then it’s how long
    and how far and how many times?
    Oh, before it’s too late?!
    Calling all Angels! Calling All Angels!
    Walk me through this wild, don’t leave me alone!
    Calling all angels, Calling All Angels,
    we’re trying, we’re hoping, but we’re not sure how!

    Oh, and every day you gaze upon the sunset
    with such love, intensity -why- it’s almost
    as if you could only crack the code, you could finally understand what this all means!
    Oh, but if you could, you think you would,
    trade in all, all the pain, and suffering…
    Oh, but then you miss the beauty of the Light
    upon this earth, and the sweetness of the meaning!
    CALLING ALL Angels, Calling All Angels!!!
    Walk me through this wild, don’t leave me alone!

    Calling all Angels, Calling All Angels,
    we’re trying, we’re hoping, but we’re not sure HOW!

    Calling all Angels! Calling All Angels!
    walk me through this: don’t leave me alone!

    Calling all Angels, Calling All Angels:
    we’re trying, we’re hoping, we’re hurting,
    we’re loving, we’re crying, we’re calling
    ’cause we’re not sure how this goes!”

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