Creating a profound, intelligent vision of angels based on evolutionary science and the best of the Western religious tradition, Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake chart new territory in the relationship between religion and science. When was the last time a scientist and a theologian discussed angels together? What are angels? Many people believe in angels, but few can define these enigmatic spirits. Their discovery: Angels are far greater and more powerful beings than we ever knew, and our belief in them can revolutionize our lives and have profound implications for the future.
An excerpt from Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake's Physics of Angels.
It may seem unlikely that a scientist and a theologian would discuss angels in the twenty-first century. Both disciplines at the end of the modern era appear equally embarrassed by this subject. For theologians it became an embarrassment for three hundred years even to mention angels. During the Newtonian-Cartesian industrial age, angels were banished, trivialized. The Baroque churches built in the seventeenth century, the same century that science and religion split, depicted angels as chubby, cute, little babies that you want to pinch. Basically, religion took the soul, which became more and more introverted and puny, and scientists took the universe.
Through the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the universe was mechanized, and at the same time the heavens were secularized. They were made up of ordinary matter gliding around in perfect accordance with Newtonian laws. There was no room in them for angelic intentions. Angels had no place in a mechanistic world, except perhaps as psychological phenomena, existing only within our imaginations.
But this mechanistic worldview is now being superseded by science itself. And although the scientific and theological establishments have ignored angels, recent surveys have shown that many people still believe in them. In the United States, for example, over two-thirds believe in their existence, and one-third state that they have personally felt an angelic presence in their lives.
We are entering a new phase of both science and theology, where the subject of angels becomes surprisingly relevant again. Both the new cosmology and the old angelology raise significant questions about the existence and role of consciousness at levels beyond the human. When the two of us held our first discussions on this subject, we were fascinated by the parallels between Thomas Aquinas speaking of angels in the Middle Ages and Albert Einstein speaking of photons in the last century.
The traditional Western understanding of angels is much deeper and richer than the more individualistic modern angel literature would suggest, and far more concerned with community and our common development and our relationships with one another, God, and the universe. These values fit with a more holistic or organic understanding of nature and of society.
Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge common experiences that emerge in all world cultures and religions when we are living in an ever-shrinking global village. All cultures, including our own, acknowledge the existence of spirits at levels beyond the human. We call them angels, but they go under different names in other traditions (Native Americans call them “spirits”). Angels constitute one of the most fundamental themes in human spiritual and religious experience. It is difficult to imagine deep ecumenism or interfaith advancing among the world’s cultures and religions without acknowledging angels in our midst and angels in our own traditions.
Experiences that we human beings face together, including the ecological crisis, require all the wisdom we can muster. Angels may be able to assist us in this work and may well prove to be indispensable allies, truly guardian angels, instructing us in safeguarding our inheritance of a once healthy but today endangered planet.
For all these reasons it is important to return to our own spiritual tradition to examine what it tells us about angels, and to connect that wisdom to today’s evolutionary cosmology. This is necessary in order to set the stage for deeper explorations in the future—a future we believe will be characterized by a more eager effort to examine consciousness on this planet and beyond.
To assist us in this task of exploring our own spiritual tradition, we have chosen to concentrate on three giants of the Western tradition whose treatment of angels is particularly broad, deep, and influential. They are Dionysius the Areopagite, a Syrian monk whose classic work The Celestial Hierarchies was written in the sixth century; Hildegard of Bingen, a German abbess of the twelfth century; and St. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher-theologian of the thirteenth century.
Dionysius the Areopagite made an amazing synthesis of the currents of the Neoplatonic philosophies of the Middle East in the light of his own Christian theology and experience. Hildegard of Bingen, though she called on the tradition of angelology handed down through the monastic tradition of the Western church, nevertheless worked especially out of her visionary experiences with the angelic realms. Thomas Aquinas created a synthesis of the study of angels, including the views of the Muslim philosopher Averroës, the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, the science and philosophy of Aristotle, and the biblical tradition. He also raised profound, speculative questions that are provocative even today, and are especially interesting in light of the cosmology now emerging from today’s science. It is likely that these three thinkers devoted more of their intellectual labor to angelology than any other three major thinkers of the West.
You can find their book online.