Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: September 2013

The perfectly practical discipline of angelology

I’ve got to admit, and perhaps this is the wrong way to start a sermon on St Michael’s day, but to be honest, not much place was given in my training at seminary for angelology. In fact, when I see a new picture book of angels in the gift shop window, or hear someone on the radio talk about their daughter as ‘my angel,’ the truth is I’m probably suppressing a bit of an inward sneer. And I don’t think it’s just me: angels don’t seem to feature much nowadays in ‘respectable’ Christian discourse. They sound too abstract, too much like a game for theologians discussing how many of them will fit on a pin.

I suppose a fairly typical modern Christian worldview is that there’s God in heaven and there’s the created universe, but not much, if anything really, in between. But – don’t we say in the Creed at Mattins and Evensong, “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible?” May I suggest that it’s the ‘things invisible’ that tend to get exorcised from our modern imaginations. We can conceive of a creator God and the visible, tangible creation we live in; so far so good. But an invisible creation, a created realm beyond the possibilities of scientific exploration and understanding? A bit more tricky. What might such an invisible realm of things be? St Paul gives us what seems to be the consensus of his times. He starts, “by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible” and then he goes on to list what those invisible things are: “whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1:16) Anyone who has ever sung ‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones’ will instantly recognise these strange titles as the ranks of angels.

St Paul’s belief in angels was completely mainstream among the Jews of his time, although they were given various interpretations. They feature quite prominently in the Old Testament: you’ll remember the cherub with the flaming sword guarding Eden, the angel going before Abraham, Jacob’s dreams of the ladder and the angelic hosts, Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s visions of the seraphim worshipping God. But let’s not dismiss them as primitive fantasies: they feature quite heavily in the New Testament, too, and not just in bit parts. They announce the birth of Our Lord and John the Baptist, appearing to Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi – and that’s all coming from Luke, not a Jew, but a gentile writer, so we can’t just dismiss it as some Jewish superstition. They release Peter from prison, they minister to Our Lord in his temptations in the desert, appear to Him in Gethsemane, announce His resurrection to the women at the tomb, proclaim His second coming at the Ascension. And of course, the entire Revelation of St John, that mindbending final book of the New Testament, is based on his vision of the angels. The Christian story would be rather shorter without them.

So what could they be? Well, today’s Gospel, which harks back to the vision of Jacob’s ladder, describes them ascending and descending between heaven and earth, as some sort of spiritual agents of God. And that is pretty much how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes them: as “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14). Saint Gregory the Great builds on this and gives a helpful description: “the word ‘angel’ denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message.” We may have learnt at school that ‘angel’ means ‘messenger,’ form the Greek ‘angelos.’ What Gregory is saying here, is that there are spiritual, created beings, whom we call angels when they take on this function of bringing us a message from God, revealing something about Him. We cannot see God face to face and live, our created minds cannot contain the sheer unspeakable vastness of the uncreated God, so He sends created beings, spiritual intelligences, which take on a form we can – just about – cope with. I say ‘just about’: pretty much the first thing these spirits say when mortals encounter them is ‘do not be afraid.’ And afterwards, when those who have seen them try to describe them, they come out with gobbledigook, creatures with six wings, or the heads of lions, or just indescribable light. They push people’s powers of description to the limit, as though they can be described only in poetic terms, because prose is too blunt an instrument.

The angels are pictured as God’s messengers, His Hosts, or armies, in warfare against the fallen spirits, a choir of worshippers around His throne. But they are not meant to be just an object of theological curiosity. We’ve got to do more than just describe them: we’ve got to join them. We’ve got to find our place in the heavenly harmony as we sing their song: Holy, Holy, Holy. We’ve got to join in their warfare against sin, taking our place in the ranks of the Lord God’s Hosts. By doing so, we can help them in their work as messengers, angels, bearers of the Good News that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Jesus on the pecking order: equality and human rights

“All people are born equal:” so runs the Gospel according to certain followers of Karl Marx (Groucho’s less funny European cousin). To which we might reply with the question: “equal – in what?” We’re obviously not born equal in body weight or eye colour, so in what, exactly, are we born equal? In wealth? In social class? In life expectancy? In intellect, in talents, in mental or physical health?
It doesn’t take much thinking to work out that in fact, we are not born equal at all. There is simply no sense, in any of these terms, in which a baby born of a drug-addicted single mother with AIDS in the filthy hospital of a south African slum can be called ‘equal’ to most babies born in this country, for example. It’s not just that they are born physically unequal, their prospects are utterly unequal, too, which is what Marx rightly protested: but to say that they are born equal is an idealistic fiction. It is more realistic, surely, to say with William Blake that:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
Not in the frankly wicked Calvinist sense, I hasten to clarify, that God chooses before people are born whether they are destined for heaven or hell: that is a grotesque distortion of the Gospel, making God responsible for sin and so an agent of evil Himself, which He cannot be. But in the simple and real sense that children are born every day into the endless night of pretty much inescapable circumstances; children are born every day into slavery, the slavery of their genetic makeup, their physical and mental limitations, not to mention the slavery of poverty, malnuourishment, disease, the product of oppressive social constructs stacked against them. We cannot say in any worldly sense that everyone is born equal.
In any worldly sense. Marx was famously an atheist and his philosophy is famously materialistic: for him, the world is really all there is. And on those grounds, as I’ve said, I don’t think there is any way we can say that everyone is equal. The worldly obsession with equality has no real foundation. In particular, the human rights mantra that somehow we are born with natural liberties earned simply by emerging from the womb is quite evidently untrue. It’s a helpful legal fiction which we can maintain by mutual consent, and even as such it can do a lot of good. If we all signed up to it, it could save thousands of lives, not least in Syria at the moment. But it only stands up as long as everyone plays along, as long as we all engage in an act of collective makebelieve. And the bare fact of the matter is that not everyone does play along. Governments of entire nations – Syria, Egypt, Turkey, China, Iran to name but a few – refuse to play the game, so that only a minority actually enjoy the benefits of this ideal. The majority continue to live in the terrifying reality, the truth, that they have no rights to anything at all. And as long as the blessed minority that does share and apply the doctrine of human rights fails, as we do now, to articulate it in anything more than worldly terms, those powers which reject our ideology can quite legitimately protest: why should we agree with you? Why should we consent to a moral system made up by a committee of mid-twentieth century Europeans? Why should we accept that humans have fundamental rights just because you people say so, when the evidence in front of us says so clearly that this just is not so? You’ve got to admit, they’ve got a point: in worldly terms.
There’s the problem. Wordly terms. The world isn’t the way we fondly imagine it, and no amount of wishful thinking will make it so. If we want to insist that yes, really, humans are all equal, we’ve got to ground it in more than a collective fiction. We’ve got to ground it in truth, in reality.
The idea is grounded in a reality, albeit a reality that our political masters find embarrassing and would prefer to forget. You see, it’s no coincidence that the prevalent ideas of human rights and equality, and even Marx’s thinking, came out of Europe and not somewhere else. It’s fashionable to suppose that such modern ideas emerged despite the influence of the Church rather than because of it, but history tells a different tale. It is because Europe is made up of Christian nations that we have these ideas which we take for granted as being universal. But the truth is, they’re not universal. They’re Christian, an embarrassing little fact that secularists like to ignore. But as soon as you cut these ideas off from their Christian foundation, from the reality of God, they’re nothing but a house built on sand.
We can shout as loudly as we like that human equality is an inalienable, natural right, but it isn’t. It is a Christian doctrine. The reason Jesus is so harsh on pecking orders, on social stratification, on picking and choosing your company is because humans truly are equal. Equal not in worldly terms, of wealth or health or prosperity, because that is clearly not true; no, rather, equal in the eyes of God. Equal because we are all made in the image of God, we all share in His divine glory, however tarnished the image in us may be, however deeply the light may be hid.
We are called, as Christians, to let God open the eyes of our souls with His Spirit so that we can see this, so that we can see things as they really and truly are, see the image of God, the face of Christ in all people, and so treat them as what they really are, which is Christ. Christ is the truth, God is the reality which underlies and binds all things, and makes a mockery of our petty social divisions. This is the Kingdom of God: the unity of all things in God’s love, and it’s not just makebelieve. Seeing this truth really does make it true. I really do think that if we truly saw the face of Christ in other people, we would find it far harder to drop bombs on them, to abort their lives in the womb, to leave them wallowing in poverty.

The human rights advocates are right, but for very, very wrong reasons. As far as I can make out, there is no credible atheist justification for the belief in human equality, a helpful fantasy though it may be – and, indeed, a fantasy with which we Christians may find it expedient to collude. But we are here today to see truth. To see and so to know Christ’s body and blood in mere bread and wine. To see and so to know our unity with Him and one other, despite our difference from Him and one other. But it’s not enough just to see the truth here. We must keep wearing these spectacles of faith once we are outside the church doors. We must train our inner vision to see Him in all things, and show Him due reverence wherever we find Him, but particularly in those whom we would never dream of inviting to dinner. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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