Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Seeing Angels



The central thesis of Christianity, viewed from a particular perspective, is that all humanity is connected. That God, the spirit of perfect love utterly pure and without guile, can be in all of us and that through oneness with this love we can all be joined. The metaphor for the church of Jesus is one body, one new person. Through Jesus we are unified in love and have the same spirit, one mind and heart. The mystery of this is that though we are joined, we do not lose our individuality. In fact as we become more joined with Christ we become more ourselves, more who we were intended to be.

The test of the reality of this is how much our lives are shared, in spirit and truth not just in theory. The substance of the kingdom of God is shared lives, and this is how we become one body - our lives and hearts are mingled and life moves freely amongst us. A people alive in God and God alive amongst us.
Romans 12:4-5
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
So the idea of Christianity depends on the deeper parts of the human psyche being joined. This is an idea that Carl Jung, one of the modern fathers of pyschoanalysis called the "collective unconscious". Jung traced the evolution of the collective unconscious through common elements in the culture of apparently unconnected societies. He also traced common elements of the human psyche he called "archetypes". These elements are abstract because they have no concrete existence, but personified because they are elements common to disparate human personalities. They are qualities of humanity and so are "human" (or perhaps better "supra-human").

Have you ever met someone who you "recognised" (at least parts of their personality) without having encountered them before? Been naturally suspicious of someone because of their behaviour, or known how to flow and interact with someone even on first meeting? You're interacting with common elements of humanity made concrete in individuals. In fact our personality is created from our experiences of dealing with others and our interaction with the world around us, and the same is true of everyone else. Even our DNA, our biological foundation, is substantially the same as everyone else. Being shaped by the same forces it would be astonishing if we didn't share much in common, in behaviour and personality, with others. Spirituality is merely an understanding of who we are as humans; in one sense nothing more esoteric than the dull and sometimes dirty reality of being a person.

Close to the centre of Christianity are the concepts of angels and demons. These are spiritual beings, distinct from humanity but nonetheless "alive". We possess physical bodies and free will whereas they are pure spirit. Understanding these spiritual beings, their place in the cosmos and their relationship to humanity, is difficult and one of the deeper mysteries of Christianity.

In common Christian thought and discussion there tends to be a difference between the way we talk about demons and the way we talk about  angels. Even the terms "angelic" and "demonic" are so culturally loaded with associations that it makes it hard to think about them dispassionately. As you read this essay please cast all thoughts of ghouls and monsters, along with all ideas of glowing disembodied messengers, out of your mind.

In Christian circles it is common to talk of "a spirit of fear" or a "spirit of hate". These are obviously demonic as they represent negative elements of the human psyche. The key phrase here is "elements of the human psyche". The Christian understanding is that the demonic spirit can influence human behaviour, effectively they become part of the subject personality.

When talking about angels it is common to visualise floating androgynous beings. However, just as we talk about a spirit of fear we should talk of a spirit of peace, a spirit of joy and so on. As you are motivated to love, as compassion moves through your personality, as joy takes over a meeting, this is the angelic at work.

These spiritual beings are spirit, so they move in and through the human spirit. (Your spirit is who you really are, as distinct from your soul which is your memories and emotion (etc). See Dividing Between Soul and Spirit for more discussion of this.) So how are you likely to encounter and sense the spiritual but in yourself and through other people.

In particular we encounter angels as pure (both in the sense of unadulterated and the sense of holy) elements of humanity. So if your kind friend commits an act of pure generosity and love, you just had an encounter with an angel! As we manifest the qualities of Christ, individually and corporately, we manifest the angelic amongst us - these angels, although abstract and distinct from us, are part of us and expressed through our personalities and character.

Angels and demons are alive because they are made of the same stuff that is our "life". They are part of us, but wider than any individual, and we recognise them as having human qualities because in a sense they are human qualities (although perhaps our categorisation needs work - maybe we could look to Jung's work on archetypes for inspiration).

To think of the spiritual in these terms is not to discount its reality, nor to limit it merely to part of the subconscious. Instead it is to acknowledge that we, the reality of who we are, are part of something greater and to understand what that means. The angelic, and the demonic, are more than any one of us but as real as any of us. Distinct but part, just as in the body of Christ we are distinct from one another but part of one another. Love and the works of love are both greater than us and external to us, but also internal and part of us. Love in us and from us, with us and through us.

In fact this view of the spiritual sheds light on our understanding of spiritual warfare. The constant struggle between good and evil, between the angelic and the demonic, is played out spiritually all around us. There is a corresponding struggle, all around us, played out in culture and society, people groups and individuals. Spiritual warfare is not entirely abstract and separated from humanity and our daily experience, but inextricably entwined. The spiritual is a continuous spectrum from humanity to God, not a separate realm. Heaven is all around us.

As these elements of the human psyche are "common", they are expressed in everything that humanity does. "Common grace" is the concept that the basic goodness in humanity is not restricted to Christians (something abundantly obvious I hope). So angelic spirits, spirits of love and generosity, are present in everyone. These common elements are visible in the culture around us. The good elements of our shared culture, the social movements for love and acceptance, the message of hope in films and music, are evidence of the angelic at work in the world around us.

This is why the plastic charade of halloween, that Christian superstition loves to hate, is not something that should really concern us. The real demonic forces of our age are greed and fear and loneliness and hate. All the common elements of our psyche, like sexism and racism (and sickness), that do so much damage. The ghouls and goblins of popular culture have no power. Likewise it is such a tragedy when Christians reject movements of love and acceptance (see The Liberal Agenda) that are a movement of God we ought to celebrate!

Note: a further exploration of some of these ideas, and what it means about the nature of God and our own nature, is in An Evolutionary Spirituality: A Personal God?

3 comments:

  1. Why not accept demons and angels as real beings with independent existence? That doesn't exclude other aspects of human consciousness.

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  2. Why not accept demons and angels as real beings with independent existence? That doesn't exclude other aspects of human consciousness.

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    Replies
    1. The short answer is I do! Nothing I wrote here precludes here, quite the opposite. I think that the world of the psyche (spirit) is "more real" than we allow it.

      A longer answer would be, and I don't intend any rudeness, I'm pushing for a deeper understanding. To have spiritual sight, to *see* the operation of the spiritual, we need understanding.

      We know that humanity is not separate from God. We know that angels are not separate from God. We know that we are spirit and they are spirit, and we know a little of their operation. Everything I wrote flows from that. At least that's my intention and my understanding.

      If by "independent" you mean unrelated to human consciousness, then that's *not* how we understand their operation - in terms of spirits of fear, or spirits of joy, moving in a person and an atmosphere. So I think I have the edges of an understanding consistent with their nature (spirit), our nature, and what we experience of spirit. Any understanding unrelated to our *practical* experience of spirituality is of no value (and my big problem with "theology" in general).

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