Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Angels I: Prehistory in the Cosmos

[Note: I started this series elsewhere but have decided to finish it here. This will be the first of three posts which I'm pasting verbatim]

Several summers ago I was at Loome Theological Booksellers in Stillwater, Minnesota, and bought several books including Robert Hugh Benson's eminently practical book, The Friendship of Christ (a book, I think that could only have been written by a Catholic who had been raised Protestant). I also snapped up a little study by Jean Daniélou entitled, The Angels and their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church (a steal at $5!).

This post is the first in a series which offers tidbits from Daniélou's patristic study. I'd like to share my journey through this book with you, gentle reader, but also entice you to add this jewel to your collection.

Daniélou begins properly with the onset of salvation history in "the election of the people of Israel" (4). But before this, he can't resist talking about what he won't be addressing in the study: the place of angels in the cosmos. He quotes Thomas Aquinas: "All corporeal things are governed by the angels. And this is not only the teaching of the holy doctors, but of all the philosophers." And then here is his remarkable and concise digression:

"This, then, is a doctrine which is solidly established in tradition and in reason. With all due deference to the rationalism of certain of our contemporaries [1953], the intelligent and forceful government to which the order of the universe bears witness might very easily have heavenly spirits as its ministers. This bond between the angels and the visible universe, furthermore, could very well give us the key to certain mysteries. But there is nothing to be gained in beginning this study with a thought so bold that it would startle even the best disposed readers and perhaps keep them from taking seriously the more important things that will be mentioned later."

This passage is vindicated a bit by recent quirks in the history of science. Consider for example, this line from Isaac Newton to a Protestant minister: "To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent." Now, Newton's belief in intelligent agents was not directly Christian, but came from his secret studies in alchemy and hermetic wisdom. Although Newton's "intelligent agents" were contradicted by Albert Einstein, Einstein himself held to a curious Jewish-agnostic-deism which affirmed the reasonable order of the universe. And not directly related to intelligent agents is the case of Georges Lemaître, who discovered the Big Bang. I'm no scientist or philosopher, but I offer these examples as a suggestion, which you may find provocative — or not.

At any rate, the prehistory of angels is significant in reminding us that their mission precedes human subjectivity. Angels are not to be reduced to the subjective interior illuminations or shifting moods of holy people or the insane, but instead are the messengers of the reasonableness of the cosmos — which is created by the one God whose law is goodness, truth, beauty, love and stability.

The Fathers of the Church knew what every peasant knows about how the world works (to paraphrase Augustine). They were also bright, intelligent, reflective observers of life. Even though their ideas often disturb our comfortable preconceptions, over time dialogue with them will bear fruit and help us to deepen our understanding of the Christian signs, sacraments, mysteries.
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