Blog Archives

I Ain’t Got No Body, Revisited: Rethinking Angels

Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings.  In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us.  Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with.  I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head.  What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are.  This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.

In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits.  In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body.  An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body.  Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind.  Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example).  Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans.  The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.

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Was It…SATAN??!!

The title, of course, refers to the catchphrase of Dana Carvey’s iconic 90’s Saturday Night Live character the Church Lady.  This post, however, is a little more serious than that.

I went to the vigil Mass yesterday, and the first reading, from Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24, struck me (my emphasis, of course):

God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.

That got me to thinking about some of the themes I’ve discussed in this series, and indicated to me an actual Scriptural warrant, slim though it may be, for them.

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So Why Did God Make the World, Anyway?

003_william_blake_theredlistTo which I can answer only, “Beats me.”  I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see.  I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.

I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos.  I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity.  In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t.  Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge.  In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer:  God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.

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A Letter from Evagrius Ponticus

Evagrius Ponticus

Long-time readers may recall that in the course of my “Legends of the Fall” series I discussed Evagrius Ponticus and his worldview.  Recently I’ve been perusing this fascinating website dedicated to him.  In fairness I have to point out that while the website refers to him as “Saint”, with which I’m willing to agree, I don’t know if any church ever formally canonized him, especially in light of the posthumous accusations of heresy.

In any case, the best thing about the website is that it gives online translations of Evagrius’s major works.  These translations, by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O. S. B. of St. Andrew’s Abbey of Valyermo, California, are public domain.  This is a really good thing.  Good translations of Evagrius are fiendishly difficult to get hold of.  There are several that translate part of his corpus–many such books are rather expensive, to boot.  There are some cheaper editions–you can get Jeremy Driscoll’s translation of the Ad Monachos in relatively cheap paperback editions–but they usually cover only one or two of Evagrius’s writings.  By contrast, Fr. Dysinger is gradually putting up and revising translations of all of Evagrius’s works, and they are freely available.

This is important because Evagrius is important.  His works have been enormously influential in both the East and the West of the Christian world.  He was one of the first to organize the sayings of the Desert Fathers and his ascetic, moral, and theological works were widely studied for centuries.  He also shares with his predecessor Origen (whose works influenced him, and whom I’ve also referenced) a somewhat ambiguous status in later Christianity.  Like Origen, he is enormously influential, even to the present; but also like Origen, he was accused of holding heretical beliefs after his death, and at least some of this teachings were condemned.  As with Origen, it’s rather difficult to sort out his exact beliefs and to determine whether the beliefs he was accused of holding were things he actually believed.  It is evident, though, I think, that in at least some respects his thought does push the boundaries, and it seems to have some affinities to Gnostic thought.  This is especially interesting to me, as I try to tease out the commonalities between orthodoxy and Gnosticism.

I’m interested in reading as much of Evagrius as I can, since as I’ve said before I don’t have an in-depth firsthand knowledge of his work.  There’s a book or two of translations I’m eventually going to get; but this website is a good start for now.  Unfortunately, reading HTML on a computer screen gets old fast, even on a laptop.  Therefore, I’ve done a conversion of Fr. Dysinger’s translation of “The Great Letter to Melania” to PDF format.  In such format it can be read on an iPad or Kindle Fire very easily and conveniently.  It’s not hard to do conversions of PDF’s to MOBI files (the ones Kindles use) or to EPUB formats; but that often results in other issues, so I’m sticking with the PDF format for now.  The motivation for the selection is that the “Letter to Melania” and the Kephalaia Gnostica give clearer and more systematic discussion of Evagrius’s theology than most of his other works, and in them the similarities to both orthodox and Gnostic thought are more clearly visible.

I have uploaded the “Letter to Melania” to my media library–you can find it there or go directly to it here, to read or download.  I do this to make it more widely available in a more user-friendly format; please, if you pass it on, give appropriate credit to Father Dysinger.  I hope those who are interested will find this interesting and useful.  From time to time I will be posting more of Evagrius’s works from Fr. Dysinger’s website.  I want to do the Kephalaia Gnostica next, but it may be awhile before I have time.  I will note when I do so with it and with further documents.  Meanwhile, enjoy!


How to Make a Universe


It occurs to me that during the course of the various religious and philosophical musings I’ve posted here, there are some concepts which I have used very frequently, but which I haven’t really elaborated.  In short, I’ve just tossed them out with a link, if that, and plowed on.  One such example in particular is the concept of emanation.  Emanation is a highly important concept in both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, in which they both differ from orthodox Christianity.  The mode in which the universe came into existence has implications for one’s theology, cosmology, and philosophy, so I think it’s worth revisiting these different views on the origin of the cosmos and looking at them in greater depth.

First, it’s important to look more generally at how the universe came into being.  First, one might maintain that the universe did not come into being at all, since it has existed and will exist eternally.  Both some atheists and some theistic systems assume this model.  The universe may change or go through cycles (which may or may not repeat), but it has no discrete origin.  It’s worth pointing out that even this perspective doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of creation.  As Mortimer Adler pointed out in his book How to Think About God, one can still think of God “exnihilating”–holding in existence–a cosmos without linear beginning or end.  As I’ve explained in more detail here, God, properly understood, is completely outside of time and space in the sense in which we use those terms.  A linear infinity of time–going infinitely into the past and likewise into the future–is still far “smaller” or “less” than the true atemporal eternity of God.  To re-use the image I used in the earlier post consider:


Eternity, in this depiction, really shouldn’t be a separate sphere, but the entire plane–or better, the entire space–within which the comparatively tiny line of time lies and by which it is supported.  Thus, God can easily be thought of as creating spacetime in all its linear infinity as a mere drop in the higher-order infinity proper to Him.

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Quote for the Week

In the same way that someone who

mounts up round a wheel would end

up low again,

so those who exalt their words have been

humbled in them.

–Evagrius Ponticus, Ad Monachos, translated as The Mind’s Long Journey to the Holy Trinity, by Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.

Saved from What?


People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.–The Impressions

I did not know we’d ever quarreled.–Henry David Thoreau, when asked on his death bed if he’d made his peace with God.

Atonement means literally “at-one-ment”:  coming back to oneness with someone or something.  In the Christian context, the someone is God.  Of course the implicit assumption is that we are not “at one” with God, and so we need atonement.  To put it another way, we somehow need to be redeemed or saved in order that we may brought back to oneness with God–to expereince atonement.  We speak of “atonement”, “redemption”, “being saved”, and so on, hardly thinking about it at all.  Let’s try to look at this with fresh eyes–or what Shunryu Suzuki would call “beginner’s mind”–and ask:  saved from what?

In this regard, I quote from A. Sinner, referred to in an earlier post, my emphasis:

I’m afraid tendencies to move away form the language of anger or wrath also mean moving away from the fact that Hell is right at the heart of the Christian mystery. Indeed, if we deny Hell and its centrality, how can God descending INTO it have any meaning at all? If we aren’t being saved FROM something, then what’s the point of salvation? 

This, indeed, is an excellent question.  Here I’m going to examine it from the Gnostic and Evagrian perspectives.  I’ll look at orthodox views in future posts.  Read the rest of this entry

Reincarnation: Index

I’m planning a post soon that deals with reincarnation, but which is not part of any of my ongoing series.  It occurred to me as I thought of it that I’d done quite a few posts on that topic.  Looking back through the archives, I realized that I’d done even more than I’d remembered, especially if you count postings of poetry and music with reincarnation as a theme.  I decided, therefore, that the topic deserved its own index.

The first two posts deal with pre-existence.  That’s a separate topic, but some of the philosophical issues are related to those involved in reincarnation, so I’ve put them in, too.  They are part of the “Legends of the Fall” series, and there are two because I’d forgotten that I’d written the first, and wrote another post with the same theme.  I decided not to take the second post down; each makes its point in slightly different ways, so they’re both here.

This series won’t be ongoing in the way that some of my others are, but I will add posts related to reincarnation to this index as I put them up.  Enjoy!

Interlude:  Pre-existence, or Déjà Vu All Over Again

Excursus:  Pre-existence

Reincarnation:  The Ultimate Recycling

Reincarnation:  Haven’t We Been Here Before?

A Reincarnation-Oriented Video

A Poem by Emerson for the Weekend

Another Reincarnation-Oriented Poem for the Weekend

Some Head-Banging for the Weekend

An Original Poem

Reincarnation:  The Disadvantages

Another Perspective on Reincarnation

Synthesis, Part 2: Humans, Elves, and Mortality

So, if we can’t assert that Adam and Eve were the original ancestors of all humans, and thus cannot assert the traditional Western explanation of Original Sin, then what do we do?  What I want to do is take ideas from some of the various sources I’ve cited over the course of this series (and some from J. R. R. Tolkien, in this post in particular) and try to see an alternate way of viewing Original Sin and the Fall of Humanity.   A good place to begin is to look at various ways of what we understand the Fall to be.   Read the rest of this entry

Synthesis, Part 1: I want your ugly, I want your disease

Hey, it’s a change of pace from all the Adam and Eve scenes, and it might get the post more hits!  😉  Actually, there is  a logic here, as I’ll show later.  Seriously, we’re going to take all the ideas we’ve been developing about the Fall of Man and try to start putting things together and see where that gets us.

For those who may not have read the series thus far, it begins here and proceeds thenceforth (there are too many links to embed at this point).

Last time, we looked at criteria that any successful account of the Fall of Man must meet if it is to be taken seriously.  Given its strong mythological and allegorical tendencies, I think the Gnostic view could satisfy them all; and the Evagrian view no longer exists as a living theology in any branch of Christianity that I know of.  As to the orthodox Christian understanding, I think most non-fundamentalists have long since made peace with evolution and a massively old cosmos.  The two points that I think are the crux, because they are not addressed by traditional Christian theology are points three, that evil pre-existed mankind; and four, that human origins may be polygenetic.   I think the first of these is the less problematic, so I’ll save it for later.  The second I want to talk about here. Read the rest of this entry