Monday, March 22, 2010

Angels: A Short Overview

Too many articles on angels rapidly bog down. The become historical. They try to explain the twelve angelic orders and their arrangement into four angelic choirs. They delve into biblical references. They deal with the celebrities among the angels. And so on. They almost never touch the core issue that interests a traveler of the frontier. Are angels real? How do they fit the scheme of things.

Every culture believes in angels, but to make the differences clear, let me suggest the following. Only the Judeo-Christian-Muslim cultures—they are genuinely monotheistic and adhere to a belief in a single, all-powerful God—view angels as a distinct category of beings. They project three kinds of conscious beings: humans, angels, and God.

In most other cultures angels are classified as gods and goddesses; they are celestial beings. The higher gods are higher by degree, not in kind. The angelic form, therefore, is not specifically differentiated. Two examples. The equivalent of an angel in Hinduism is a deva, a god or goddess. The word itself is rooted in the concept of the celestial, shining, or luminous. In Mazdaism all beings are conceived to have a fravarti, thus a celestial counterpart; we are twinned with our guardian angel, as it were. And angels of collectives exist as well. Mazdaism might be considered an angelology. In all systems, not least in the Christian, these spirits may be good or bad, and the bad ones are demons.

Staying with the Asian approach for just a moment longer, we see there that the distinction between humans and higher spirits is continuous. Humans are fallen sparks of the divine. The devas are the same sparks at a higher level. The difference is one of condition, not of essence. Only in the western conception are angels a specially created order. And in the Muslim conception (but notably not in Muslim mysticism, e.g., in the writings of Rumi) angels are functions; they’re strictly messengers of God without a will of their own.

The Asian view, which happens to be the view of the majority of humans, has only two rather limited parallels in the West. Swedenborg—and the churches that follow his teaching—hold that angels are simply highly advanced humans, that all angels began as humans—as did all demonic souls. Here is a quote from Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell which makes this point succinctly:

People in the Christian world are totally unaware that heaven and hell come from the human race. They actually believe that angels were created in the beginning and constitute heaven, and that the devil or Satan was an angel of light who became rebellious and was cast out together with his faction, and that this gave rise to hell.

Angels are utterly amazed that there can be this kind of belief in the Christian world, and even more so that people know absolutely nothing about heaven, even though this is a primary doctrine of the church. Knowing that this kind of ignorance is prevalent, they are profoundly delighted that it has now pleased the Lord to reveal to us so much about heaven — and about hell as well—and so as much as possible to dispel the darkness that is rising daily because this church [Swedenborg means this era] is drawing to a close. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, §311]
One faith that arose from the Muslim, and strictly-speaking the Shi’ite branch of Islam, has views almost identical to Swedenborg’s. They are the Baha’is.

Interesting, isn’t it? We have a rather ancient grouping of Asian traditions—and tiny minorities in the west—both of which suggest an interestingly parsimonious explanation of the angelic phenomenon. Together these views suggest that a single created conscious agency suffices to explain higher created beings existing beneath the Ultimate creator’s throne. And we belong into that category right alongside angels. The division of this community—which I like to call the soul community—into three parts is based on the operation of our free will. Some are demonic because they’re headed downward, some are embodied, and some are celestial because they are moving upward through the infinite reaches of reality. The explanation of that status in the middle, thus of the souls encased in bodies differs. The Asians view it as part of a descent; we were drawn by the desire for limited experience; in Swedenborg’s view we are experiencing the first state of life as newly created souls.

This will serve as a very general introduction to this subject. To see a much more sophisticated view of the place of the angelic in the order of creation, as described by the immortal poet, Jalal’ud-Din Rumi, a Sufi, I suggest that you read the next post.

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