Sunday, December 29, 2013

The History of Heaven and Earth 13: Visits from Angels

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again..

Rise liquidly in liguid lingerings,
Like watery words awash; like meanings said

By repititions of half-meaning. Am I not,
Myself, only half a figure of a sort,

A figure half seen for a moment, a man
Of the mind, an apparition appareled in

Apparrels of such lightest look that a turn
Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?

- from The Necessary Angel, by Wallace Stevens

Two of the scriptures that spurred the conversation that initiated this series of blog posts along are about angels. They are Job 1: 6-7, and Daniel 1: 6-7. They were quoted in the introductory post of this series, HERE. In Job, Satan had come from earth to “present himself before the Lord.” In Daniel 1, the angel “came to” Daniel. The questions that arose from them were discussed in that blog post, but to summarize briefly: what does this traveling by angels mean, exactly? The scriptures indicate that the angels came from somewhere, but does that mean they came from a different geographically locatable place? Did the angel cross a measurable distance to reach their destination?

The problem with this reading of the text is that we are projecting our human, bodily, sensed perception of space and time (when we aren’t on the telephone or watching TV, lol) onto angels. As Thomas Aquinas says it in his treatise on angels in Summa Theologica – mentioned previously in this series HERE - “Angelic substances…are above our intellect; and hence our intellect cannot attain to apprehend them, as they are in themselves, but by its own mode…and in this way also it [our intellect] apprehends God.”

Angels are spiritual, intellectual beings. As Thomas Aquinas says it, their substance is intellectual. They do not have bodies. It is bodies that exist in a geographical location and can be measured quantitatively and dimensionally (including sound waves). This would obviously imply that angels are not in a place in the same way as us humans.
A figure half seen for a moment, a man
Of the mind, an apparition appareled in

An angel, however, can be said to be located where a body is or in a physical location. When the angel is located in relationship to a body, it can be said to appear. The act of locating the angel, however, doesn’t define the existence of the angel’s being in the way that it would define that of a body. The appearing body by which we might be said to sense the presence of the angel does not define the angel, if we were to come into the presence of one who appeared to us in bodily form. This is because, by definition, an angel is a spiritual or incorporeal being.

Aquinas expounds more clearly on this idea by saying that “an angel is said to be in a place which is corporeal, not as the thing contained, but as somehow containing it.”
Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again…

By repititions of half-meaning. Am I not,
Myself, only half a figure of a sort,

Aquinas also more clearly expresses the relationship between a physical, dimensionally measurable and locatable place by describing the contact of an angel with a place as virtual. The definition of “virtual” to which he is referring is: “Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name.”

In other words, if you were to come into contact with an angel who appears as a body, you come into contact with its essence and are effected by it, but you would not be coming into contact with the angel in the same way that you come into contact with a human and his or her body when you have a conversation with them in person. This is because the body contains the person, whereas the angel contains the body. This also means that I misspoke when I referred above to the bodily form of an angel. Where the body of a tree simply appears in a new form as a wooden table, the substance of the angel does not simply change forms when it effects or comes into contact with physical reality. This is precisely because the substance of the angel is not contained or circumscribed by the measurements of the table, or whatever body by which it appears to our senses.

All of this obviously means that when the angel came to visit Daniel, he did not travel from one geographically locatable place to another in a measurable period of time. It was already here when it got here.

In terms of the relationship between angels and bodies, the basic idea of everything stated here so far applies to God, as well. The difference is an angel has the hierarchically ordered power to have an effect on one thing in one place at a time. God has no such limit. Aquinas stated it in the following way: “An angel's power and nature are finite, whereas the Divine power and essence, which is the universal cause of all things, is infinite: consequently God through His power touches all things, and is not merely present in some places, but is everywhere.”

From this it would follow that Satan didn’t need to travel a measurable distance to a particular dimensionally locatable place to meet with God. This is both because Satan, an angel, isn’t contained by a place where he may potentially appear, and because God is everywhere anyway.

These conclusions only contradict scripture if we take it very literally, as though scripture were a Wagnerian program that determines the story of a play or as Wagner’s operatic sheet music corresponds literally to the actions and moods of the characters in one to one fashion (discussed previously in this series HERE).

The correspondence between scripture and the conclusions of this blog post serve as a case study of the relationship between the literal, the abstract, and the concrete. On the other hand, this blog post’s demonstration of the overly literal nature of our habitual reading in the above discussed scriptures in Job and Daniel exposes the forgetting of concrete reality - in this case the concrete reality of angels - that occurs when the teachings of the Enlightenment reign, which is when literacy predominates. By concrete, I mean something that is actually here, as opposed to a conceptually significant, abstract referent to something that is actually here.

When we live in the world of signs (literary referents), and when the Enlightenment confuses what is present and absent by making our identity a mental one (“I think, therefore I am”) and by projecting to empirically (by the senses) know everything, including what is not apparently here, then we tend to get lost in a literary world of abstract, significant referents that can easily forget their relationship to what they signify (actual reality). A literal interpretation will, then, obviously predominate, and the relationship between metaphors and analogies, on the one hand, and the concrete reality to which they point, will tend to be forgotten.

An example of this problem is when my nursing text books offer lists of “clinical manifestations” of certain conditions or diseases, and I often can’t figure out whether they are referring to symptoms caused by the condition, to a “manifestation” that would appear and would itself cause the condition or disease in question, or to a statistical oddity. My book (a literary piece, I might add) then leaves me with no actual picture of the concrete reality of what is going on with the disease or condition. After the Enlightenment, our only understanding of the relationship between sign and signified is modeled after the mechanical operation of a copying machine. Back to my example found often in my nursing textbooks, a simple, mechanically generated list of “clinical manifestations” of a condition or disease, then, is supposed to provide a complete picture or representation, to my dissatisfaction and extreme annoyance.

Other examples of our modern forgetting of concrete reality for the reasons discussed above, more pertinent to the topic at hand in this blog series and significantly less personally annoying for me, is our tendency to totally miss the actual concrete reality of what is going on in Leviticus 16: 20-22 and Leviticus 4: 13-21. Both of these examples were discussed previously in the third post of this blog series HERE. The Leviticus 16: 20-22 example even explicitly states the actual, concrete reality of what is happening, which was assumed to be understood to the original audience and therefore not commonly laid out in the open like that in the Torah’s explanations of sacrificial rituals. These examples from Leviticus differ from the mechanically generated lists in my nursing textbooks, however, in that the ancient rituals are examples of our misinterpretation of the concrete reality represented by ancient pieces of literature based on our modern abstraction of the self, whereas my nursing textbooks are generated by an abstracted self and leave a very incomplete picture of concrete reality.

We read that the priest “lays the sins of the people on the head of the goat” and that the goat “will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land”, and, yet, we still tend to think that the goat, in ACTUAL, concrete reality, did not receive the sins of the people and carry them out into the wilderness.

It is possible that - just as Jesus’ clearing of the Temple symbolically pointed to his identity as the sacrificial lamb (by curiously stopping all temple animal sacrifices for a couple of hours) and his identity as the authoritative King of Israel (by showing who had the authority to stop the sacrifices and why he would do so) - the Levitical rites symbolically pointed to the saving character and action of God. If the Levitical rites were only or merely symbolic pointers, then the concrete reality of the sins of the people being mediated by the Priest (the role of the ancient priest was as Israel's mediator to God) and extended to the head of the goat is minimized. I think it should be remembered, though, that, like the action and/or essence of an angel, the character and action of God is still an actual, concrete reality rather than merely an absent abstraction. In any case, caught up in our world of literacy, we tend to interpret systems of signs with minimal to no reference to actual, concrete reality. And, ultimately, the saving acts of the King of the universe on the Cross and in his resurrection, as actual concrete events, are the said concrete events to which the Levitical rites would have been pointing. My point is, there is a concrete reality involved, not to be lost in the fraccas of abstract, literary signs in our book as we read it. We should not misinterpretat the concrete reality represented by ancient pieces of literature based on our modern abstraction of the self.

On the other hand, we mechanically generate a relatively meaningless list of “manifestations” of a disease or condition that leaves no possible interpretation or picture of an ACTUAL concrete reality that was absent to begin with, obviously leaving no room for a concrete reality to be synthesized in the mind of the reader of the abstract list found in the literary work of my nursing textbook. The list is merely a mechanically generated copy of what we observe when someone presents with what is presumed to be the disease or condition in question.

The point I am driving at is that, when we read the Bible (which is a literary work), we tend to look back on a time of oral tradition when humans were much more connected to actual, concrete reality, and we tend to misinterpret what we are reading based on, well, the fact that we are reading! On the other hand, my nursing textbook was generated by people whose identity was already wrapped up in a complex and presupposedly completed system of literary signs, and so we read it as such.

With my nursing textbook as a good example, then, we generally expect sign and signified to be perfect, mechanically generated copies of each other. The copy machine is the model for our generally held literal interpretation. Metaphors and analogies don’t “work” that way. They are not mechanical copies but, instead, assume an approximated relationship between sign and signified, in which the sign does not contain the whole of the signified (there is not a 1 to 1 relationship), but in which the sign points to and paints a picture of the concrete reality that must be grasped separately and probably not fully or in its entirety using the signs alone.

For that reason, along with thinking that these scriptures about the “comings” of angels being good case studies on the literary, abstract, and the concrete, I also think that these scriptures, especially the one from Job that doesn’t describe a scene witnessed by a human, are giving words to a truth that either has no words or very much pushes hard against the boundaries of our language. Because angels aren’t defined by bodily measurements or understood on their own terms by human intellect, the words about them in scripture do not tell us the story of the angels in their own terms, but, instead, give us a framework by which we can make reference to them in our language. This defies a mechanically projecting copy machine model for the relationship between sign and signified by which our habitual and usual literal interpretations work (in which a one to one relationship between reality and representation is expected).

The reign of the literalist, mechanical, copy machine model with a one to one relationship between reality and representation – exposed as problematic by the interpretation it lends to the examples of angels “coming” in Job and Daniel - is exemplified by the Fundamentalist belief that God, like the old wizard behind the curtain with the film projector in “The Wizard of Oz,” literally dictated the scriptures to its human authors. The Fundamentalists constructed that proposition in order to affirm the inerrancy of the scriptures, which itself was constructed as a zealous defense against modern liberal “Christians” who zealously rejected the basic tenets of historical Christianity, reduced the bible to a human, historical document, and attempted to “free” Christianity from superstitious belief in the supernatural.

Notably, this modern liberal Christian movement against which the Fundamentalists were reacting was spearheaded by the Deists (previously mentioned in the 10th post of this series HERE), who believed that God created the universe, gave it laws by which it was to work, and then stepped away and watched it operate mechanically like clockwork (and Moses noted in conversation that he could accept a version of the creation story much like this one, but not the evolutionist version that leaves the origin of life to pure chance). In reacting to an overly mechanical model of reality, we ended up with a very similar, overly mechanical model of interpreting it. The moderns held up a naturalist mirror, and the Fundamentalist Evangelicals reaction to it generated a supernaturalist response that, by losing itself in a literary machine that forgets actual, concrete reality, ended up looking all too similar to that against which it was reacting.

Rise liquidly in liguid lingerings,
Like watery words awash; like meanings said…

Apparrels of such lightest look that a turn
Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?

Along similar lines about the role of language in general being to give us a framework by which we can make reference to a given reality rather than to mechanically copy it, N.T. Wright, in What St. Paul Really Said (p. 90), in talking about Paul’s reaction to seeing the resurrected Jesus, says:
"[I]t should be clear that Paul’s gospel to the pagans was not a philosophy of life. Nor was it, even, a doctrine about how to get saved. It was a list of facts; not uninterpreted facts of course, since no such things exist, but a list of events set within a framework which makes their import clear."

“Objective” and uninterpreted facts are a figment of the Enlightenment imagination. Paul was not being “objective.” Paul was framing the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred in an unexpected way, within the specific context of the covenant narrative of Israel. In other words, Paul was doing what more contemporary Jewish Christians have said they do:

“In 2001 the Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed this issue expressly in The Jewish People and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible (#21). That document says the Christian community believes that Jesus fulfills the Jewish Scriptures, but ‘it does not understand this fulfillment as a literal one.’ In addition, ‘fulfillment is brought about in a manner unforeseen....It would be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some kind of photographic anticipations of future events.’” – from an online article on the Cross’ fulfillment of Psalm 22, referenced HERE

All of that is to say, Job 1: 6-7, and Daniel 1: 6-7 do not say nor support the idea that heaven is “somewhere else,” unless “somewhere else” is not taken to mean a geographically locatable or measurable “somewhere else” but, instead, simply some “place” that is not apparent to human sense. I guess one could say that this other place from which the angel came when he visited Daniel, conceivably heaven, can’t be known by or spoken about adequately by humans, as discussed above.

To couple that statement with the position that heaven, which is the home of angels and the throne of God, is not here, however, would be to divorce sensible from insensible reality, as accomplished in the modern project between Descartes and Compte, and historically onward after that. It would also seem to imply that God is not here. Let us not forget that, in the model for reality by which ancient man, and thus, scripture, spoke of heaven and earth, there was NO SUCH THING as the “somewhere else” that we now think of as somewhere else based on our model of reality borrowed partially from photographs of the earth taken from outer space.

Much of the above was also to explore how we got to our generally held literal interpretation of the scriptures in question in Job and Daniel, and how those interpretations relate to our habit of thinking of heaven as “somewhere else.” As discussed in detail above, our evangelical interpretations of scripture (evangelical being nearly synonymous with Fundamentalist) tend to vacate actual, concrete reality and replace it with a literalist system of abstract referents. In such a case, heaven would obviously be thought of as elsewhere and as divorced from what appears to us. Seeing as how the topic of our idea of the location of heaven is related to our eschatology, this leads us to our next topic, which is the second coming, or the second appearance, of Christ.

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