From Angels: A History
Jacob and the Angel
And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the name of the place, Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face-to-face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:24-30)
The angel in this story does not come as a messenger, like Gabriel, or as a healer, like Raphael. The angel does not come to test Jacob’s hospitality, as do the three angels who visit Abraham. This angel comes in the darkness of the night to contend with Jacob, to test his spirit and his resolve. Jacob prevails and lives to see the sun rise, though we are told that later he survives limping. The whole encounter is somewhat mysterious. Jacob meets God and is blessed by God, but before he is blessed he has to grapple with God. The angel is not an evil spirit, but is a formidable spirit.
This scene was rarely portrayed before the nineteenth century. Rembrandt is an exception. However, the imagery has a great resonance in the modern world. Just as Paul Klee struggles to see angels that are other than “incomplete,” “forgetful,” and “still ugly,” so a variety of nineteenth- and twentieth century artists were inspired by this struggle between man and angel. Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Moreau, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, Jacob Epstein, and Marc Chagall all produced memorable images of this encounter. In the case of Gauguin, the painting is called Vision After the Sermon. The picture features a group of women in Breton costume talking and praying. The figures of Jacob and the angel, pictured against a vivid red background, are not naturalistic, but the contest has more Earthly vitality than it has the stillness of an icon. It occurs in their imagination, but is nonetheless real for that.
The title, “wrestling with angels,” has been adopted for several modern collections of poems and short stories, and for works as diverse as: a history of Jews in Los Angeles; a study of Jewish attitudes to the use of military power by Israel; a reflection on surviving cancer; a discussion of sexuality and the church; and many more besides. It provides the title of a biography of the New Zealand novelist, Janet Frame, and also of the biographical film of Jewish playwright and gay-rights activist, Tony Kushner, which features, among other things, Emma Thompson as an angel who crashes through a ceiling. Wrestling With Angels is also the title of a book by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is subtitled, Conversation In Modern Theology.
These works of art and literature depict a spiritual struggle that is characteristically modern. The image of grappling with the angel expresses a common experience. The religious meaning of the past is not denied, but this meaning is elusive and comes only with difficulty. Jacob wins the day and receives his blessing, but he enters into life limping.
Holding Up a Mirror To Humanity
A running theme in this book has been that reflection on angels can illuminate aspects of human existence. In the Abrahamic traditions, serious discussion of angels has often been a roundabout way of talking about human beings: angelology as disguised anthropology.
Angels frequently highlight moments of human significance. Angels are present at sacred moments at the beginning and the end of life. Not only the birth of a child but already his or her conception is the beginning of something new. This is revealed by the presence of angels at conception. People rarely reflect that they did not always exist. Yet each person’s life is something radically new, something never repeated, something mysterious. It has human meaning from the very beginning.
Angels are also present at the end. Their presence reminds us of the need for spiritual care at the end of life. Thanks to the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and others, there has been a revival of interest in “dying well” among psychologists and heathcare workers. The association of angels with dying expresses hope not just for life after death but for meaning in death. This is a great challenge and is a context where people may well speak of wrestling with angels.
In addition to marking the great transitions of beginning and ending, angels also bear witness to the overlooked significance of human life. This is true of overlooked lives, of people who are marginal in terms of social standing or human capacities. Not only does each and every person have a guardian angel, but the examples of Saint Martin of Tours and of Dorothy Day show that “entertaining angels” can help people to recognize the stranger in front of them.
Angels can also call attention to the significance of events within life. This is the theme of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life. The angel, Clarence Oddbody, shows the despairing George Bailey the true effects of his actions. This helps George see the impact of many small and ordinary acts of kindness and the cumulative effect of a good life on those around. More importantly, it reminds him what and who he values in life. His despair had been inward-looking. The angel shows him his connectedness with others and gives him hope.
The significance of human experience is also explored in the beautiful German film, Wings Of Desire. This shows angels in Berlin watching and accompanying the people of that city. The story is of one angel who gets fed up with watching eternally “from above” and who wants to immerse himself in the river of time – to experience the “now and now,” and to touch and taste and feel the world. The angel acts as a mirror by way of contrast. Human beings are not angels and recognizing this can lead to a new appreciation of the richness of human life.
A Time Of Angels
Lynn Townsend White, in an influential essay in 1967, accused Christianity (and by implication, Judaism and Islam) of bearing “a huge burden of guilt” for the emerging ecological crisis. The root problem was alleged to be that Christians saw human beings as the peak of creation. Only human beings were made in “the image of God,” and are thus given “dominion” over the rest of creation. This idea all too easily flowed into an attitude of domination or exploitation. Other living things had value only if they were useful for human beings. This utilitarian attitude towards creation has led to a crisis that is threatening the whole planet with disaster.
While the anthropocentric arrogance detected by White may have its roots in a distortion of Christianity, this problematic attitude is further amplified in some strands of secular thinking. For atheist philosophers such as Ludwig Feuerback or Bertrand Russell, the existence of God and of spiritual beings “above” human beings represents a threat to human freedom. Human beings are and ought to be in control of the world. Nature is an object to be controlled. Nothing is sacred. This is seen even in the writings of Philip Pullman, for whom God must be killed and angels overthrown so that Heaven is no longer a kingdom but a “republic of Heaven.” Human beings then become the source of all value.
Reflection on the angels can help remedy this. If human beings are “a little lower than the angels,” then we are midway up a chain of being, not at the top looking down on everyone else. Similarly, the idea of an angelic “song of the spheres” expresses the beauty and integrity of the whole cosmos. Human beings take their place in this whole and not over and against the rest of creation. This is also seen in the tableau of Raphael, Tobias, and the dog, which is an image of the microcosm, of angelic, human, and other animal life. The tableau shows a shared journey, a spiritual pilgrimage. It is not a journey that is complete nor can it be completely understood before it ends.
Angels have taken different forms in different times and places. They have carried different cultural meanings. Nevertheless there are recurrent patterns. Angels are liminal figures at the threshold between the visible and the invisible worlds. The stories of angels are often playful or ironic. In the words of Chesterton, “angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”
Images and ideas about angels have moved easily between different religions and into contemporary culture. This is another reason why Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have sometimes been ambivalent about them. Angels do not stay safely in the confines of any one religion. Talk of angels has always flourished more in folk culture than in official categories. They help illuminate the limitedness of those categories and teach us to be suspicious of easy rationalism, whether of a secular or of a religious kind. The world is not tidy, and it is neither fruitful nor honest to tidy it up artificially. Angels help show up the mystery of it all.
The elusive character of angels helps explain why they remain popular in an age that finds faith difficult. This is why Iris Murdoch described this age as a “time of angels,” and even wrote that, if there is no God, the angels are set free. Yet, if the angels have been “set free” in our modern irreligious culture, as their popularity seems to attest, then nevertheless, like homing pigeons, they should be allowed to circle and return to their source. One aim of this book has been to encourage people to see angels in their original habitat. This is not in an attempt to constrain the significance that people find in angels. It is rather an invitation to add to this and to trace the meaning of angels back to the spiritual tradition that begins with Abraham, whether through its Jewish, Christian, or Islamic forms.
Until the end of the book I have avoided, as far as possible, asking directly about the evidence for angels. So what do I think? Do angels really exist? It seems to me foolish to seek to prove the existence of angels. It would be like deliberately testing a friendship – something likely to do more harm than good. The desire to test everything stems from a preference for knowledge over trust. Yet we cannot live unless we sometimes trust. On the other hand, if attempting to prove the existence of angels is folly, attempting to exclude the possibility of angels a priori seems to me a greater folly. Denying the possibility of angels can be done only by reducing all reality to physical categories, to matter in motion. Yet human beings possess an inner life, are aware, come to understand, act freely, make moral judgments, commit themselves to one another and to greater causes. This cannot all be expressed in purely physical or quantitative terms. For the sake of humanity, then, it is necessary to defend the human spirit, and this implies keeping an open mind about the existence of other, immaterial, spirits.
The contemporary preoccupation with angels is an embarrassment to many religious believers and an affront to many atheists. Yet this is a time of the angels. The visitors who once sat at Abraham’s table are still here. They show no sign of taking flight from modern culture. They prefer to remain, whether to inspire us, to console us, or to wrestle against us.