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Monday, June 11, 2018

Philosophical Angelology (Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien)

Guided by Sulamith Wulfing

This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.

The theological study of angels is known as "angelology", and philosophical angelology is angelology studied with the methods of philosophy; that is: with the use of logic and argumentation. 

In Christianity, angels are agents of God, based on angels in Judaism. The most influential Christian angelic hierarchy was that put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 4th or 5th century in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy).

During the Middle Ages, many schemes were proposed, some drawing on and expanding on Pseudo-Dionysius, others suggesting completely different classifications. According to medieval Christian theologians, the angels are organized into several orders, or "Angelic Choirs".

Pseudo-Dionysius (On the Celestial Hierarchy) and Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) drew on passages from the New Testament, specifically Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16, to develop a schema of three Hierarchies, Spheres or Triads of angels, with each Hierarchy containing three Orders or Choirs.

In fine art, angels are usually depicted as having the shape of human beings of extraordinary beauty; they are often identified using the symbols of bird wings, halos, and light.

The term "angel" has also been expanded to various notions of spirits or figures found in other religious traditions. Nearly all pre-modern culture has believed that something like angels (superhuman spirits) exist and are prior to man both in rank an in time. We find them at the beginning of the real world and also at the beginning of Tolkien´s fictional world in The Silmarillion. We also find them inspiring the beginning of Tolkien´s writing of this fictional world, during World War I, when he was haunted by a single line in an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem by Cynewulf entitled “Crist”. The line was: “Hail Earendil, brightest of Angels, over Middle-earth sent unto men.” Tolkien wrote, “I felt a curious thrill as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond the ancient English.”

The word “angel” means “messenger”. It tells the angels´ job description, not their essence. As to their essence, the mainline Christian tradition says that angels are pure spirits, with no kind of bodies, while a secondary tradition says they have “spiritual bodies”. Whichever of these is Tolkien´s view, it is clear that the angels in The Lord of the Rings (who are the Wizards, the Istari) did not get their bodies from nature, from sex, or from parents. They have no parents and no children.

In The Silmarillion the angels are named “the Ainur”. Those who enter the created world are called “the Valar”. The lesser ranks of the Valar are the Maiar. Some of the Maiar become Istari, or Wizards, like Gandalf. They are guardian angels, and they carry out divine providence by guiding and guarding man, just as in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures and traditions. In all three traditions, and in The Silmarillion He then uses the angels as instruments in creating the material world. This idea, while not a part the mainline Christian tradition, is not heretical. Kreeft says that it is a theologoumenon (a possible theological opinion) that is found in some of the Church Fathers. And it helps to solve a difficult aspect of the “problem of evil”, the problem of reconciling real evil with an all-good and all-powerful God. Moral evil can be traced to human sin, but where did physical evils come from? If God entrusted the shaping of the material world to angels, then since the fall of the angels came before the fall of man, they may have had a hand in the world´s “thorns and thistles”.

In The Silmarillion, the Ainur can put on human bodies as we put on clothes. This is also a theologoumenon. Certain biblical passages seem to imply it: the Nephilim in Genesis 6, the three angels eating Abraham´s food in Genesis 19, and Tobias being guided by the angel in disguise (Tobit 5-12).

In The Silmarillion, those Ainur who enter the world became the Valar, the Powers of the World, and remain with it until the world´s end. These, Tolkien says, “Men have often called Gods” (p. 25), thus offering a more-than-psychological explanation for ancient polytheism.

Angels can bilocate. They can live both in Heaven and on earth at the same time. The most important angel in The Lord of the Rings, next to Gandalf, is Elbereth, who also bilocates, for she saves Frodo at the Ford of Bruinen and again in Shelob´s lair, but she is also Varda, Lady of the Stars.

The angels are the main protagonists of the first two parts of The Silmarillion, and Hobbits are the main protagonists of The Lord of the Rings. The Wizards, including Gandalf and Saruman, are angels, of the lower order of Maiar; Sauron and also the Balrogs are fallen, evil Maiar (Silmarillion, p. 31); and Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are quite possible the Valar Aulë and Yavanna (ibid., pp. 27-28, 39).

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