The Great Protest of Our Time
Marking the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, Pope Benedict XVI warned audiences of the West's great malaise, secularism.
"Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual 'desertification,'" said the Pope. "We see it every day around us. This void has spread."
The barrenness called to mind by a word like void is fitting. Secularism is the cultural expression of naturalistic materialism, an impoverished view that allows no room for the spiritual, one that flattens the heart and shutters the mind from anything otherworldly -- including angels.
I recall some years back when Pope Benedict fell and broke his arm. At the time he joked that, instead of protecting him, his guardian angel was "certainly following superior orders." God, it seemed, wanted to provide the Pontiff some extra lessons in humility.
The world was free to evaluate the comments however desired. Some saw them as a reflection of pious belief, others as silly and backward. The latter are those in the desert.
These desert dwellers are in the minority, as belief in angels is widespread (some 77 percent of Americans profess belief, according to an AP-GfK poll late last year). But they seem a proud minority, wearing their denial and disbelief with a badge of superiority.
One striking example comes from Aaron Sorkin's show, Newsroom. While skewering the notion that America is a great nation, Jeff Daniels' character, Will McAvoy, rattles off several lagging indicators followed by a mocking reference to the fact that we lead the world in "number of adults who believe angels are real."
More than a TV show, this clearly reflects the worldview of Sorkin and many others. While interviewing Sorkin and Daniels, Charlie Rose affirmed it too.
It's easy to see why. Not only is there a certain intellectual clarity in materialism that many find appealing, but there is a certain credulity among believers that understandably repulses.
Besides that, who doesn't like feeling superior? Some people, after all, believe in angels the way they believe in lottery tickets, their faith amounting to little more than comforting superstition. It's easy and presumably satisfying to look down on such gullible rabble.
But that's hardly everyone who believes in angels. In fact, a serious consultation of church tradition -- as I have done for my book, Lifted by Angels -- leads to the conclusion that a measured and considered view of celestial beings has been held by people of great intelligence and erudition.
These angels are not the saccharine creatures of greeting-card illustrations and TV shows. And lights as bright as Irenaeus, Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, and Ephraim the Syrian -- not a rube in the bunch -- all assumed their existence and active participation in the world.
Truthfully, I think any serious conversation with a serious believer today stands to elicit the same conclusion. The serious conversation is the hard part. As evidenced in Sorkin/McAvoy's dismissive jab, for some of us the conclusions have all been reached: If you believe in angels, you're a moron.
It's relatively easy for Christians to fall into a similar trap. In writing the foreword for an edition of Athanasius' On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis noted that we tend to think like our contemporaries. Even if we don't agree on good many things, we agree on far more than we realize, including things that might stand to ultimately undermine our beliefs.
A false superiority is one of those treacherous overlaps. It's easy to believe the answer to the Problem of the Rube is to distance oneself, to think oneself better, more nuanced, more knowing. As a sometimes weak and insecure person, I fall prey to this temptation all the time. It's a dangerous game.
Pope Benedict cautioned his listeners that Vatican II represented the start of "dialogue with the modern world" but that "many embraced uncritically the dominant mentality." They proved Lewis' theory true.
It seems to me the choice is relatively stark. There is, on the one hand, blank materialism and all the haughtiness you can cram into the void. On the other, there is a belief in the spiritual that can be tutored, cultivated, and elevated-that can be brought into the great stream of the classical Christian tradition.
As I see it, an intelligent and considered belief in angels is a protest against secularism, the great protest of our time. That belief can be nurtured and trained by a thoughtful interaction with the Christian minds of the past -- the theologians, homilists, and poets whose belief in angels was deeply ingrained in their thoughts.
If we are going to stand against the encroaching desert or find the breeze in its stifling atmosphere, don't dismiss the angels. They're not just in the architecture. They're all around.