Thursday, June 09, 2022

theological pushback: angels

I've seen some YouTube pushback, for a while, now—related to how biblical angels look. The idea seems to be to bring us back to a more biblically accurate rendition of angels which, according to Old Testament descriptions, don't look at all like the robed, haloed, gentle, song-happy humanoid beings we normally see in depictions these days. It's true that, in hardcore texts like Isaiah and Ezekiel, angels come across as scary and/or confusing looking, more the product of a drug trip than the gently glowing, vaguely extraterrestrial visions we moderns normally think of. So some YouTubers have taken to making videos about real biblical angels, and the video below is one example of that larger effort:

Here's another video on the topic:

While I don't believe in the literal existence of angels, I can understand their symbolic importance, as well as the need of the early scriptural writers to impress upon their readers/listeners the fact that, when it comes to the Absolute, we simply can't understand what's going on. While I consider myself more of a scientific skeptic, these days, than any sort of "believer" in the traditional sense, I'm susceptible to feelings of awe and fear when confronted with phenomena like black holes—objects that can infinitely stretch the fabric of space-time itself. It's hard for me not to think of black holes in a somewhat mythological way. And since we, as a race, are no closer to answering questions like "Why is there something instead of nothing?", I think it's safe to say that this universe contains a layer of mystery to it. Awe, fear, mystery, and fascination are ingredients of the holy according to scholar Rudolf Otto: his famous formulation for the sacred was mysterium tremendum et fascinans.*

Here's a passage from Isaiah (6:2-7):

Seraph angels stood around him. Each angel had six wings. They used two wings to cover their faces, two wings to cover their bodies, and two wings to fly. The angels were calling to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD All-Powerful. His Glory fills the whole earth.” The sound was so loud that it caused the frame around the door to shake, and the Temple was filled with smoke. I was frightened and said, “Oh, no! I will be destroyed. I am not pure enough to speak to God, and I live among people who are not pure enough to speak to him. But I have seen the King, the LORD All-Powerful.” There was a fire on the altar. One of the Seraph angels used a pair of tongs to take a hot coal from the fire. Then the angel flew to me with it in his hand. Then he touched my mouth with the hot coal and said, “When this hot coal touched your lips, your guilt was taken away, and your sins were erased.”

And this from the book of Ezekiel (10:1-22):

I looked, and I saw the likeness of a throne of lapis lazuli above the vault that was over the heads of the cherubim.

The LORD said to the man clothed in linen, “Go in among the wheels beneath the cherubim. Fill your hands with burning coals from among the cherubim and scatter them over the city.”

And as I watched, he went in. Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the temple when the man went in, and a cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple.

The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the LORD. The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far away as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks. When the LORD commanded the man in linen, “Take fire from among the wheels, from among the cherubim,” the man went in and stood beside a wheel. Then one of the cherubim reached out his hand to the fire that was among them. He took up some of it and put it into the hands of the man in linen, who took it and went out. (Under the wings of the cherubim could be seen what looked like human hands.)

I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. I heard the wheels being called “the whirling wheels.”

Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. Then the cherubim rose upward. These were the living creatures I had seen by the Kebar River. When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side. When the cherubim stood still, they also stood still; and when the cherubim rose, they rose with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in them.

Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the LORD’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.

These were the living creatures I had seen beneath the God of Israel by the Kebar River, and I realized that they were cherubim. Each had four faces and four wings, and under their wings was what looked like human hands. Their faces had the same appearance as those I had seen by the Kebar River. Each one went straight ahead.

Confusing representations in the face of the divine are not unique to Judeo-Christian thinking. Here is a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, in which the god Krsna reveals his divine cosmic form to Arjuna, the story's protagonist:

In that cosmic form, Arjun saw unlimited faces and eyes, decorated with many celestial ornaments and wielding many kinds of divine weapons. He wore many garlands on His body and was anointed with many sweet-smelling heavenly fragrances. He revealed Himself as the wonderful and infinite Lord whose face is everywhere.

If a thousand suns were to blaze forth together in the sky, they would not match the splendor of that great form.

There Arjun could see the totality of the entire universe established in one place, in that body of the God of gods.

Then, Arjun, full of wonder and with hair standing on end, bowed his head before the Lord and addressed Him, with folded hands.

Arjun said: O Sri Krishna, I behold within Your body all the gods and hosts of different beings. I see Brahma seated on the lotus flower; I see Shiv, all the sages, and the celestial serpents.

I see Your infinite form in every direction, with countless arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes. O Lord of the universe, whose form is the universe itself, I do not see in You any beginning, middle, or end.

I see Your form, adorned with a crown, and armed with the club and disc, shining everywhere as the abode of splendor. It is hard to look upon You in the blazing fire of Your effulgence, which is radiating like the sun in all directions.

I recognize You as the supreme imperishable being, the Ultimate Truth to be known by the scriptures. You are the support of all creation; You are the eternal protector of Sanātan Dharma (the Eternal Religion); and You are the everlasting Supreme Divine Personality.

From what I learned from my professors back in undergrad and grad school, none of this was meant to be taken absolutely literally, and even the people of that era would have known better than to have said these visions were an accurate description of something concrete. No: these visions are important because they come saturated with meaning; they point the believer in a particular direction, as any good symbol might.

One last video for your enlightenment:


*Otto's definition is what scholars would call phenomenological, i.e., related to how we experience things. Notice that Otto's definition is about how we feel in the presence of the holy. It says nothing about the nature of the holy itself (though there is an implication that the holy causes or conjures these feelings). This use of the word phenomenon dates back at least to Kant, who made the distinction between the noumenal (from Greek nous, meaning "mind"), i.e., the thing-in-itself, and the phenomenal, i.e., the thing-as-experienced. In discussions of John Hick's vision of religious pluralism, people talk about Hick's Kantian contrast between the noumenal Real (the Real as it objectively is) and the phenomenal Real (the Real as we experience it).

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