Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Angels Unawares

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

In accepting the truth that there exists a world of spirits, a unseen reality beyond that which we can observe and quantify, we open ourselves to a range of possibilities we are far from equipped to explore intelligently.

How does a Christian process such a thing?

Superstition or Agnosticism

On the one hand, we may become superstitious, jumping at shadows and seeing everything in life as a product of the activity of spirit beings. I’ve seen that. It’s kind of spooky actually, watching people swoon and overreact to things for which there are plausible non-supernatural explanations.

On the other hand, I wonder if there is not a danger that our belief in principalities and powers can be so constrained by the data gathered through our earthly senses that we become functionally agnostic. Is my assumption that I am incapable of perceiving activity in the spiritual realm essentially my way of dismissing its relevance? I hope not.

I am probably more disposed to the latter error than the former, but that’s because I think it’s a lesser error. It is possible to thoroughly believe in the existence of angelic beings without attributing to their influence any specific event we encounter. But the species of belief that lives or dies on the basis of weekly doses of “miraculous” evidence is not worthy of the name: it is sight, not faith (and more hallucination than sight in most cases).

Do Not Neglect

Note that the writer to the Hebrews does not emphasize our need to be more alert to the possible presence of angels in our midst. Those who entertained angels did so entirely unaware of it, and were not the less blessed for their acts of faith and generosity despite the fact that these gestures turned out to be superfluous. Rather, scripture reminds us we should be hospitable. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, perhaps, our guest will be an ordinary stranger in need. If we misidentify the angelic outlier when he arrives, we have not lost much because of it.

It is hospitality we must not neglect, not the pursuit of intelligence about angels.

Becoming obsessed with the specifics of a reality we cannot currently investigate beyond the few sparse hints given us in the word of God is not only a waste of our energy, as Paul instructed Timothy, it can lead us into fantasy rather than faith:
“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship [or edification, or building up] from God that is by faith.”
Myths may turn out to be at least partially grounded in fact. Genealogies may be perfectly accurate. But the problem is they cannot be substantiated this side of eternity, they hold no value in witnessing or worship, and little even in personal meditation. The net effect of pursuing these more esoteric aspects of the Christian faith is to “promote speculations”.

Emanations, Demiurges and Archons

William MacDonald is not the first to suggest Paul is primarily concerned here with false teachers of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed in “lesser divinities” they called emanations, demiurges and archons; basically “principalities and powers”, but speculative ones. I bet some Gnostic teaching was thoroughly fascinating to newcomers. Now and then in the midst of their flights of fancy they may have even hit accidentally on a truth or two.

Such things have their appeal to me too. I’d love to see what’s behind the curtain. But I have to guard against the danger of being caught up in things not yet fully revealed, and for good reason: it is faith that builds up. Faith is not sight, but it is not speculative either. It is a settled trust firmly grounded in truth that HAS been revealed.

Building Up By Faith

Faith recognizes that angels exist and interact with us because scripture records such occurrences, but it does not become over-occupied with things that are not currently the Christian’s primary concern. Instead, faith contents itself in the knowledge that there is greater eternal significance to our service for Christ than may be immediately observed by our senses.

For the time being, that will have to do.

No comments :

Post a Comment