a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media

Donate to Harvard Square Library

Sign Up for Updates
Home » Theology & Philosophy » “Our Enemy: Angelism”

“Our Enemy: Angelism”

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 34, Fall/Winter 1993

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 1: “Our Enemy: Angelism”

It is said that when Emerson Hall at Harvard College was being built, the question as to what motto should be carved over the main entrance was vigorously discussed by members of the faculty. Emerson Hall was to house the departments of psychology and philosophy. It was the building in which we human beings were to be studied. At the end of the spring semester, the faculty had presumably agreed upon the Protagorean maxim: Man is the Measure of all Things. During the summer a motto was carved in the appropriate place, but when the faculty returned in the autumn, they discovered that President Eliot had authorized a different motto from the one expected. President Eliot had selected a line from the eighth Psalm: What is man that Thou art mindful of him? This interrogation, as you might suppose, met with general satisfaction. The essence of the Protagorean maxim was not necessarily denied, but the new motto was properly felt to be a little more in keeping with the humility that befits human beings, even the scholar.

For that matter, scholars have described human beings in many ways. Some have said that we are tool-making animals; others have said we are the laughing animal; others have asserted that we are the political animal, and others have deemed it sufficient to say that we are an animal, with the qualification that we—homo sapiens—are perhaps the only species that organizes mass murder of itself. Certainly all these definitions are relevant, though perhaps none of them is adequate.

The first chapter of Genesis would seem to suggest still another answer, that we are a creature who tries to be more than human. Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit which would give us the knowledge belonging to God alone. As a result, she incurred the divine wrath and was, with her poor excuse-making husband, expelled from the garden. This primitive story reminds us of the Greek view that humanity is tragic and that our tragedy issues from the fact that we are prone to invade the realm of the gods, thus committing the sin of hubris, the excess exhibited when we try to go beyond mortal bounds. However, the strangest definition in human history is the one the psalmist gives, that we are a little lower than the angels.

Of course, this definition of the human estate sheds little light unless we know what an angel is. Hence we must, in order to understand the psalmist, consider the question, “What is an angel?” Some of you need only to be reminded that when theology was still regarded as the queen of the sciences, one of the branches of this science was called angelology, the science of angels’ nature and functions. Many of you may suppose that the study of angelology ended with the Middle Ages. Are we not told that the medieval doctors of the church made a specialty of discussing how many angels can stand on the point of a needle? But angelology has had a part in American higher education also. The Mathers of Boston wrote at length on the subject, and they had distinguished successors. When Timothy Dwight was President of Yale University, he gave a fully course of lectures on angelology to each class of students at Yale.

Perhaps some of you believe in the existence of angels, but those of you who do not believe in angels will inevitably raise the question: Why should I be asked to abandon my mind to the subject of angelology? I hope that you unbelievers will for a moment engage in a willing suspension of disbelief so that I may offer an apologetic for at least a brief consideration of angelology. This science need not, perhaps, be revered, but it possesses at least the value of nonsense poetry. Why does one read Alice in Wonderland ? Our main reason for reading it is the sheer delight in nonsense, but beyond this I think we may say that there is no better way of coming to appreciate what is than by contemplating precisely what is not. By seeing the world as it is not, we become aware of the obvious that we have too much taken for granted. Nonsense verse and literature contrive to give one new perspectives. We may say, then, that although the theory that angels exist may be wholly fantastic, yet, like many other fantasies, it suggests something to us about the real world. Perhaps if we consider what the theologians have said about the angels we may the better understand what human beings are not and in this way, be reminded of what we are.

The medieval philosopher was eagerly concerned to find the answer to the question, Who are we?, and one way in which the answer was sought was to determine what we are not. This was done partly through the study of angelology. We need not pause to stress the fact that the medieval philosopher, under the influence of the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation, believed the universe to be continuous from God to the lowest form of existence. If there were no angels, there would be a great gap in the universe. Moreover, it was thought that God, anticipating our infinite capacity for sinning, had created an innumerable host of angels in order to insure that the universe would always for the most part be good. More significant for our purpose are the attributes assigned to the angels, for example, by Thomas Aquinas. According to Aquinas, four major attributes characterize the angels. (1) They have no bodies. They are disembodied spirits or intelligences. Hence they have no senses. (2) All of their knowledge is innate. By divine illumination it is given them directly by God at the time of creation. Therefore, the angels cannot reason. They do not need to draw conclusions from premises. They have angelic knowledge by divine fiat. (3) There exist no two angels of the same species. Each individual angel constitutes a separate species. (4) The angels exist independently of things. They stand between the pure being of God and our own material and spiritual being. From this general characterization, the medieval thinker brought into bold relief the fact that our knowledge of the world comes through the medium of the senses. Since we must learn by experience and try to remember what we learn, we run the danger of forgetting valuable experiences. Moreover, we must establish community with other members of our species, and we do not live independently of things. We live with other people and we live in and through and with things. We have a mind and a soul, but they are in a body. In short, we are a little lower than the angels.

I suppose that most of us would say that all of these propositions about human beings are perfectly obvious. We all know that we live in a community and that we have bodies as well as minds. We know that what we learn is learned from experience in the body and in the world of things. We know that, though our children are at times assigned by the poets the role of little angels coming from heaven, which is their home, trailing clouds of glory, still their bodies need care, their minds need to be developed. We try to show them how to use their eyes, their tongues, their ears, their hands. We do not treat them as though they were pure spirits. We sometimes are even tempted to agree with the Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who called them “little vipers.”

Indeed, through most of our lives we act on the principle that we are a little lower than the angels. We remember that we are dust, that our physical hunger must be satisfied, and that we must maintain social order or perish. To some people, however, these concerns seem to be worldly matters. Hence they speak of a spiritual life that is only beyond the material order. Nevertheless, even our so-called spiritual life depends upon our bodies and requires the resources of the material order. One of the most spiritual things we know is music, but music is heard through the ears, and it requires wood and steel and horse hair and cat gut and finger technique. Bach is not simply a synonym for heavenly and angelic sound.

Nevertheless, when we turn to consider our life in society, we find many people who seemingly forget that we are a little lower than the angels. Religion is thought of as being something wholly spiritual and individual, as lifting us to higher levels of apprehension and enjoyment than are possible in the world of things and rites and ceremonies. Sometimes this yearning for spirituality resorts to such extravagance as to claim that religion is something purely inward, that it needs no outward forms or social institutions. Indeed, we are frequently told that outward form only kills religion, that outward forms are mere trappings, that religion is only what we do with our solitariness.

Here again, as well as with music or poetry or architecture, religion must be seen, touched, heard, in order to be expressed or identified. A religion that has nothing to do with the community, that has nothing to do with the body, with the life of the senses, with outward forms of expression, does not exist except in the imagination. Religion must express itself through communal forms, through books, music, the spoken word, spoken prayers, as well as through buildings and sacrificial action. To claim to be religious and also not to be interested in these things is like saying that one is interested in poetry but in no specific poems; it is like saying that one is interested in government but not in legislatures and ballot boxes. There is no such thing as poetry apart from poems; and there is no such thing as government apart from constitutions or courts or police.

The religion that is purely spiritual is purely non-existent. We often hear it said that the greatest enemy of religion is materialism. This is by no means true. The greatest enemy of religion is sham spirituality, pure spirituality. It is angelism, an indifference to the needs of the body and especially of the body politic. Indeed, it was precisely the false spirituality of the Russian church which bred the needed materialism of the revolutionists. The German churches tried to be purely spiritual; they got fascism as their reward. One is reminded of Gibbon’s dictum that the virtues of the clergy are much more dangerous than their vices. Religion must be realized in particular acts in order to insure its continuing life. With reason T. S. Eliot has said, “The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life.” In short, angelism can kill religion.

I am not especially concerned here to derive a defense of institutional religion from the medieval angelology. The general principles implicit in the human condition have a far-reaching application to the whole of our life. The good life must be realized in particular acts in order to exist at all. The angel is already perfect, being only commanded to maintain appropriate status to avoid falling into the pit; in short, to avoid becoming, like Lucifer—a fallen angel.

The point is that human beings must express themselves through the institutions of the community. There is no such thing as a good person as such. He or she will be good only as a good husband or wife, a good health professional, a good lawyer or legislator, a good citizen. Anyone whose goodness does not take form in the institutions of family, school, church, and state is a person who is good for nothing. Human virtue and happiness require a local, a communal habitation. We are considerably lower than the angels.

The state of the world today helps us to understand why John Calvin asserted that despite our being created a little lower than the angels, we are now but little higher than the devils. If this seems a harsh judgment, we may at least say that anyone who sets out to be an angel by ignoring the fact of having to learn from experience, by ignoring the fact that we are members of a species, by ignoring the fact that we live in a world of things and that only through things can our spirit express itself, will end where Satan wants us to end. As Pascal put it, we are neither angels nor beasts but whoever sets out to be an angel will only end by becoming a beast.

Today we are discovering that we are so much lower than the angels that we cannot escape history. It has a way of catching up with us. We have been living in an era that thought self-interest through some pre-established harmony would create community, but we are now learning that selfish interest on the part of individuals and societies brings only chaos and death in its train. Unless we believe that Demon Chance rules the world, we recognize now that we have just the sort of world we deserve. World history is world judgment.

Yes, that is true, but this fact is only the obverse side of the human condition in the historical dimension. For us, if not for angels, history is also an arena in which divine fulfillment is possible. We are confronted with the possibility not only of judgment but also of fulfillment. This is our greatness as well as our misery. We need to act to create a world community. This will involve struggle, for peace is possible only in the teeth of strife. Peace is possible only through organized power. Civilization is always a combination of love and power. Love without power is obviously impotent. Power without love and justice is tyranny.

Today, when a great democratic revolution is under way, a great counter-revolution is also again on the move. We must not deceive ourselves. We are caught in a struggle, and we can exercise positive choice only if we accept the responsibility of making our will count. Every angel may be an island unto itself, but human beings must cooperate—or perish!

I don’t count and you don’t count very much as individuals alone, but together we can count if we are now willing jointly to do the humdrum work, the spade work of democracy, the work that can alone bring liberty and justice for all. To do this we must be seized by a love that will not let us go; we must be seized by the primordial love that was expressed when the morning stars sang together at the dawn of creation, the love that alone can recreate the world. If we are not grasped by this love, we shall only contribute to the poverty and insecurity of women, men and children throughout the world, and the wrath of God will be upon us.

An example of what I mean comes from my experience of a man who was working with a group of us from churches and synagogues considering the problem of relief. This man identified himself as a “conservative” and spoke in protest against there being any relief at all.

“I have worked hard,” he said. “I have saved my money, and now the government comes and takes my money and gives it to these people who don’t want to work.”

Nevertheless, the man was persuaded to call personally on the people across the tracks who were on relief. He visited family after family, saw children without proper food or housing, without shoes, saw fathers who could not find work or who were ill, saw emaciated mothers trying to maintain something of human dignity in the midst of poverty and degradation. Gradually, his attitude began to change. Finally, one evening at a meeting of the people in the neighborhood, he heard a young mother on his list tell her story again. She was only 35 years, but she looked as though she were 50; she was poorly clad; she had few teeth left; and she was already hunchbacked from her strenuous life.

Suddenly the former pseudo-conservative jumped to his feet and almost shouted: “Why do you stand for this, you people on relief? I wouldn’t take it. I would steal first. I want to know why you don’t have the spunk to start a revolution?”

Hyperbole, you say? An emotionalist, you say? Yes, he indulged for a moment in undisciplined thinking, in undisciplined sobbing. But that evening a man was converted. He got mad about our inhumanity to other human beings. Let us hope that he did what all who know they are a little lower than the angels must do. Let us hope that he stayed mad and went on to organize his indignation.


Series Navigation<< Festschrift: Presentation to Paul Tillich
Tagged with:
Categories: Theology & Philosophy