Angels at Peckham Rye

by
13 March 2007

Don’t close your mind to miracles, suggests Rowan Williams

The two most celebrated miracles in the story of Jesus are the virginal conception of Jesus and the empty tomb: the claim that Jesus’s birth was an act of God independently of the usual means of reproduction; and that, after his death, his body was not in the grave, but appeared in transfigured or altered form to his friends.

Many people have problems with these. Belief or disbelief in them is sometimes used as a sort of test of full and acceptable Christian orthodoxy. I am uncomfortable with this kind of test — simply because there isn’t a lot of point in isolating the stories and asking for a yes or no in a vacuum.

But I am equally uncomfortable with those who simply take it for granted that the idea of miracle is empty and indefensible, so that these stories can be no more than metaphors. If we don’t take this for granted, and if we begin from a robust idea of God’s action burning intensely in every moment of the world’s existence — always just around the corner of our perception — we may be less inclined to be completely sceptical.

Just what would the trust of Mary have had to be like for the door of life itself to open in her body? What must the faith of Jesus and his closeness to God have been, that death was unable to close its doors on him and relegate him to the past?

These considerations don’t, of course, settle the question. But they are worth thinking about as we make up our minds. Believing in these stories doesn’t have to commit you to a magical view of miracle, to a God who simply decides: “Here I’m going to interfere, and here I’ll let things take their course.”

God has — mysteriously — made a world in which what human beings do can help or hinder what he achieves at any point in the world’s history. When we give him space, through our prayerful consent to and identification with what he wants, things may happen that were otherwise unpredictable.

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A prejudice against any sort of miracle may be a buried uncertainty about the unfailing presence and action of the Creator; about that burning intensity of divine action that is always around us. It may reflect a version of the watchmaker image — a world wound up by God long ago and ticking steadily on, uninterrupted.

But that is hard to square with the faith of the Bible and the Christian tradition, according to which we live in a world where God’s active presence is both invisible and inscrutable on the one hand, and, on the other, almost unbearably close, wherever we are and whatever is happening.

The poet William Blake, who had a vision of trees full of angels at Peckham Rye, is a safer guide than William Paley to a world that may not be secure, but is pulsing with something unmanageable, terrible, and wonderful, just below its surface.

That might prompt a few thoughts also about how we actually conduct ourselves in the world. In the Nicene Creed, we say that we believe in a God who creates “heaven and earth and . . . all things visible and invisible”. The phrase is a helpful reminder that creation is more than we can get our minds around — more than what just happens to be on hand for us.

A similar idea occurs in the 16th Sura of the Qur’an, which says that God has made creatures for purposes that have to do with us and our welfare, and creatures about whose purpose we have no idea at all. There is obviously something here that Christians and Muslims — and probably people from other faiths, too — can agree about.

The world is not simply what we can manage and use for ourselves. There are unfathomable dimensions to it: hidden realities, hidden connections (or connections that we discover only too late, like the effect of carbon consumption on the atmosphere). Things in the universe exist in relation to the Creator before they exist in relation to us, so that a degree of reverence and humility is appropriate when we approach anything in the created order.

Our present ecological crisis, the biggest single practical threat to our human existence in the middle to long term, has, religious people would say, a great deal to do with our failure to think of the world as existing in relation to the mystery of God — not just as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.

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God has made what we can see and manage, and what we can’t see and can never manage — a universe some of which we can get a grasp of, and some of which we can’t. This isn’t a recommendation not to try to understand things, but simply a reminder that not everything is going to be made sense of from our point of view. We don’t get to the end of being baffled and amazed.

I sometimes think that this is the importance of talking about angels in Christian teaching. Odd as it may sound, thinking about these mysterious agents of God’s purpose, who belong to a different order of being, can be at least a powerful symbol for all those dimensions of the universe about which we have no real idea. Round the corner of our vision, things are going on in the universe — glorious and wonderful things, of which we know nothing.

We’re so used to sentimentalising and trivialising angels — they are often reduced to Christmas decorations, fairy godmothers almost (as in most of the extraordinary flood of books about angels in recent years). But, in the Bible, angels are often rather terrifying beings, occasionally sweeping across the field of our vision. They do God strange services that we don’t fully see; they provide a steady backdrop in the universe of praise and worship.

They are great “beasts”, “living creatures”, flying serpents burning with flames, carrying the chariot of God, filling the Temple in Jerusalem with bellows of adoration, echoing to one another like whales in the ocean. Those are the angels of Isaiah and Ezekiel — anything but Christmas-card material. And sometimes a human form appears to give a message from God, and something in the event tells the people involved that this is a moment of terror and truth, and they recognise that they have met an angel in disguise.

Whether or not you feel inclined to believe literally in angels — and many modern Christians have a few problems with them — it’s worth thinking of them as, at the very least, a sort of shorthand description of everything that’s “round the corner” of our perception and understanding in the universe — including the universal song of praise that surrounds us always.

If we try to rationalise all this away, we miss out on something vital to do with the exuberance and extravagance of the work of God, who has made this universe not just as a theatre for you and me to develop our agenda, but as an overwhelming abundance of variety and strangeness.

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I realise that taking angels seriously probably raises a few eyebrows these days, but it’s more than just picturesque fantasy that’s at stake. Anything that puts our own human destiny a bit more into perspective isn’t a waste of time in this obsessional and addictive age, where we are so tempted to think that, if it’s nothing to do with me, it isn’t significant.

This is an edited extract from Tokens of Trust: An introduction to Christian belief by Rowan Williams, to be published next month by Canterbury Press (£9.99; 978-185-3-1180-3-6).

To place an order for this book, email details to bookshop@chbookshop.co.uk

 

 

 

This is an edited extract from Tokens of Trust: An introduction to Christian belief by Rowan Williams, to be published next month by Canterbury Press (£9.99; 978-185-3-1180-3-6).

To place an order for this book, email details to bookshop@chbookshop.co.uk

 

 

 

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