Angels – secret agents of the heart
I need a sign, to let me know you’re here
– Calling All Angels, Train
The idea of angels as mediators between God and mankind is widespread. Angels aren’t confined to seminary schools. They’re in the movies, pop music, self-help books, video games, and just about anything else that will sell.
But most people don’t see angels as the stuff of myth and legend. About 66-78% of North Americans believe in angels. And 10-29% believe they’ve encountered an angel or heard of someone who has.
Okay, all very interesting. But as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato once put it, a given belief isn’t necessarily a true belief. And in today’s world where religious belief can lead to insidious human rights crimes, it’s important to step back and rationally assess our convictions.1
The power of love
At one extreme, materialist thinkers try to squash spirituality by reducing angels to cultural projections. Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud say angels are fantasy formations, and images of angels portray nothing more than subjective experiences and desires.
In 1966, two American sociologists, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, became academic hotshots by saying that reality is a “social construction.” Like much of sociology, Berger and Luckman put a new spin on an old idea—in this case, conceptualism. Postmoderns quickly followed suit, designating just about everything under the sun as a social construction.
The early postmoderns emphasized the role of power in the social construction of reality. But they had little to say about the nature of power, itself—whether, for instance, power contains moral and spiritual elements. Postmoderns also focus on language and its connection with power. Accordingly, the French postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault,talks about “discourses of power.”
But what does this have to do with angels?
Well, postmoderns make some astute observations, but they usually overlook the power of love. Also, they also don’t really see how heavenly love might help to shape our lives and the world around us.
Normally, we associate the word power with billionaires, movie stars, politicians or maybe motorbikes and muscle cars. But as an adjective, the word powerful can also apply to love.
The word angel derives from the Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” But angels aren’t just messengers like the friendly neighborhood letter carrier. Angels are said to mediate heavenly grace, which in essence is love. And being God’s love, this mediated grace is more powerful than anything in the known universe.
Peter Berger, himself, came to study the supernatural side of angels in his book, A Rumor of Angels (1969). This book is no dry, reductive sociological treatise. It’s a sincere, open-minded investigation into the possibility that spiritual belief doesn’t merely arise from materially oppressed or deranged minds.
Western religions tend to see angels as pure and humble servants created by God. But theologians have debated the finer points of angels for centuries. In The Celestial Hierarchy Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (or Pseudo Dionysius, c. 500 CE) speaks of three choirs of angels. According to his model, each choir embraces three angelic tiers. The lowest choir of Angels, Archangels, Principalities, along with the middle choir of Dominions, Virtues and Powers, are in contact with humanity. The highest choir consisting of Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones sings an eternal hymn of praise to God.
St. Thomas Aquinas‘ (c.1225-1274 CE) Summa Theologica supports Pseudo Dionysius’ idea of an angelic hierarchy. Aquinas also believes that fallen, evil angels (demons) have their own ranking system, with the lower being subservient to the higher demons. The belief in evil angels is also found in the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Ávila, who wrote, “In the end my good angel prevailed over my evil one.”
The popular American evangelist Billy Graham writes about angels. And in contemporary Catholicism, angels are described as spiritual beings without physical bodies. Catholicism teaches that angels
- Were created by God from nothing
- Possess freewill
- Have a higher standing than mankind
- “Have been present from creation and through the history of salvation.”2
On guardian angels, St. Ambrose says:
Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.3
But, again, not only theologians talk about heavenly messengers. Stars like Patsy Cline, Annie Lennox, Jane Siberry, Hank Williams Sr. and David Bowie depict beings of Divine Love whose raison d’être is to guide and protect.
Hardly exemplifying humble servants of God, fallen angels are usually portrayed as nasty and narcissistic. And Satan, once God’s brightest angel, allegedly manifests as an “angel of light.”4
This could partially explain those who are mislead by astral and demonic beings posing as God or God’s angels. They’re literally “blinded by the light.” But is it a phoney light? And how would we be able to tell the difference if a beautiful angel came to us, full of warmth and promises of love.
Evil angels, they say, try to degrade, depress, deceive, confuse, titillate and flatter. Alleged holy men and women promoting themselves as ‘perfected incarnations’ likely fall into this vanity trap. Egomania and self-aggrandizement run rampant among false prophets.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew: 15-20).
And in a more contemporary vein:
Luke, you don’t know the power of the Dark Side (Darth Vader)
Not a few people claim to possess spiritual powers (siddhis) and fantastic psi abilities. Some indicate that they “know it all” or, at least, “know better” than everyone else. While many of these folks may be decent and well-meaning at heart, they often blind themselves to the fact that interior perceptions can be flat wrong.
Sincere seekers try to recognize, admit, and correct intuitive mistakes whenever possible. But the sham seeker won’t acknowledge (or, perhaps, just admit) mistakes and continues on a path of deception, allowing the ugly weeds of lies to choke out the beautiful flowers of the soul.
Perhaps a sure way to spot a person informed by fallen angels is to look for those callous, cowardly souls who grasp at power as a means to manipulate the psychologically weak and vulnerable.
To complicate matters, it appears that the predictions of fallen angels may contain partial truths. Demonic influences, experts say, want to disturb and oppress the gullible through a calculating mix of truth and falsehood. And their predictions are said to be ultimately geared toward exploitation and tearing down the good.
Accordingly, William Blake (1757-1827) wrote that spiritual powers devoid of sincere, humane practice are “thieves and rebels.”5 And both St. Augustine (354-430 CE) and St. Aquinas agree that evil angels, although fallen, possess a keen otherworldly intelligence. As agents of Lucifer, their thoughts apparently operate on a higher level.
St. Paul writes:
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.6
And St. Aquinas echoes St. Paul’s belief that perceptive individuals can blow the cover of people who allow intelligent demonic beings into their lives.
Those who are spiritual discern all things.7
Aquinas, in fact, borrows from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) when suggesting that
The virtuous man is the rule and measure of all human acts.8
The above focuses on Christian angelology, but the belief in heavenly and hellish agents is embedded in most world religions. From the ancient Egyptian Hermes, the Chinese shên, the Greek Iris, the Zoroastrian amesha spentas, the Hindu devas and asuras, and the Jewish elohim, the idea that mankind lives within a larger cosmic battleground of good and evil forces is nothing new.
While it might not be fashionable to talk about good and bad angels, this doesn’t stop many people from believing in them.
True, representations of spiritual beings like angels are most likely colored by personal and cultural biases, but it seems possible that angels do exist. In any kind of study it’s often hard to draw the line between subjective bias and clear perception. And the study of angels is no exception.
1. Some New Age thinkers say that anything we believe is real. But it’s doubtful that 1,000 different individuals could all be, for instance, sole reincarnations of Julius Caesar, Napoleon or Cleopatra.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday 1995, p. 96.
3. Ibid., p. 98.
4. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15.
5. (a) William Blake, cited in Clark, Stephen. “Where have all the Angels Gone?” Religious Studies 28: 221-234, p. 228 (b) Widely respected in Medieval Europe, the legal writer and scholar Jean Bodin believed that Satan and his minions could nullify the pain that so-called witches – and their demon possessed young daughters – would naturally experience from “Godly” torture. For this and many other truly horrific ideas camouflaged by perverse reasoning, see Jean Bodin, On the Demon-Mania of Witches, trans. Randy A. Scott, Toronto: Victoria University, University of Toronto, 1995 .
6. Ephesians 6:12.
7. 1 Corinthians 2:15.
8. Aristotle cited in Pegis, Anton C. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas Vol. 1, New York: Random House, 1945, p. 1016. This, of course, reflects the sexism of the time.
Angels - secret agents of the heart © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.
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