“Why is it the angel, particularly..?” David Robertson asks Tehri Utriainen in their recent RSP interview, “Not fairies or dragons or Thor..?”
Dr. Utriainen’s answer to the above is doubtless the primary reason. “Those who consider themselves or identify primarily as Lutheran—they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something they allow in their lives.” Despite its recent decline, Christianity is still predominant in most Western countries, and fairies, dragons, and Thor simply do not have a place in the symbolic and doctrinal systems that mediate most Western people’s spiritual experiences. To the extent that, as Stewart Guthrie has argued, perceptions of such agents is a “culturally universal” phenomenon, iconographies and traditions of angels are the only socially-affirmed cultural resource most Western people have for interpreting these natural experiences[i].
Whether in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, however, angels have never been merely one-way messengers. In a general survey of religious attitudes and practices, such as the one from which Utriainen’s studies developed, the role of angel spirituality in mediating spiritual phenomena and esoteric practices to the Christian majority will surely be the most important facet. From the perspective of Pagan Studies, however, additional reasons for angelic pre-eminence in the West’s spiritual discourses become apparent. I have known Witches who would not touch anything they perceived to be “Christian” with a ten-foot pole, but who nonetheless freely invoked the archangels in the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. I have walked into metaphysical bookshops where Christian materials were strictly taboo, but Raphael and Gabriel could be found among the statuettes (the latter, interestingly, often depicted as female). These are big, brand-name angels, whose Hebrew etymologies and Biblical references could conceivably be troublesome; nameless generic angels, more readily assimilate to new contexts, saturate Pagan shops, homes, and Tumblr feeds, often keeping merry company with fairies and dragons (and, occasionally, even with Thor).
It is not simply, then, that angels provide the West’s only “orthodox” veneer for cross-culturally common folk beliefs and practices, such as many of the divination and healing rituals described by Utriainen. It is also that they stand virtually alone among the symbolic forms of Christianity in being largely acceptable in post-Christian spiritual circles. They have thus, true to their name, assumed a vital mediating role not only in moving ideas and practices from the esoteric, occult, New Age, and Pagan peripheries into the Christian “center”, but also in “reclaiming” aspects of popular and folk Christianity by modulating them out into Pagan, New Age, and other post-Christian communities.
The reasons for this are several. The nineteenth century freely syncretized angelic iconography and Pagan subjects, bequeathing us visual traditions in which valkyries, for example, look very little like their textual descriptions in the Eddas. Pagan and New Age books and websites often go farther than simple syncretism, locating the origin of our contemporary ideas of angels themselves in pre-Christian and even pre-Judaic sources (such as Zoroastrianism), thus decontextualizing them from Christianity and shifting their discourse into a comparative framework familiar to, and comfortable for, Pagans and New Age participants. Though the former seek to build spiritual paths by reaching back to the memory of pre-Christian times, and the latter often attempt to transcend Christianity through the construction of a new dispensational discourse, neither group can wholly avoid grappling with centuries of Christian intellectual, cultural, and ritual heritage.
Angel traditions and symbolism, especially as mediated through the Western esoteric tradition and ceremonial magick, provide a means of engaging this heritage that avoids triggering traumas that many in the Pagan and New Age communities carry from Christian religious settings. A particularly striking example of this angelic versatility may be found in Filianism—a New Religious Movement that lists “a strong angelology” among its defining traits, and then uses that angelology to assimilate itself simultaneously to the Western esoteric tradition, Hellenic Paganism (as it was received by Amazon-focused feminist and lesbian separatist groups in the 1970s), Roman Catholic traditions of both scholasticism and Marian devotion, and a particularly bhakti-oriented form of Advaita Vedanta. Filianism may take these linkages unusually far, but their potential for fostering interfaith understanding is recognized even in some Christian scholarship, as in Lawrence Osborn’s identification of angelology as “a possible element in dialogue with post-materialism (particularly in its New Age manifestations)”.[ii]
Angels don’t just make esotericism accessible to Christians; they make the legacy of Christian thought and active dialogue with the Christian world accessible to people who have often left both on bad terms, and would not otherwise be willing or able to engage with them. As Christianity continues to decline in numbers and influence in the West, and a wide variety of post-Christian movements continue to expand, both directions of this exchange will be vital to fostering an atmosphere of authentic engagement and respectful dialogue in a spiritually pluralistic society.
In some respects, as Utriainen observes, the appeal of angel devotions or of “angel spirituality” is quite specific. An overwhelming number of practitioners specifically identifying with these practices and traditions are women, and most hail from lower- to mid-middle class backgrounds. In other respects, however, the appeal of these practices and of the symbology attached to them cuts across some of the deepest divides of our contemporary religious landscape, linking the Christian majority to the post-Christian minority in a way that enriches both. What, exactly, the implicit transreligious theology behind these linkages will give rise to, or how it will impact the development of established religions and movements in the twenty-first century, is anyone’s guess, but when I see a young Witch make a real connection with her Christian grandmother over an image of St. Michael or a prayer to St. Raphael, I am able to believe, if not in angels, at least in the better angels of our nature[iii].
[i] We are, of course, not obliged to accept any particular theory, nor to take a position on whether the universality of such beliefs and experiences is indicative of a metaphysical reality behind them or simply of a common reflex of the human psyche, to recognize that such universality would demand a cultural vehicle for expression in the West.
[iii] Though, for the record, I do believe in angels.
I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”
What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.
When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.
You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”
Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.
I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.
One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.
Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.
Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”
It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.
I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.
It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.
If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).
Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.
Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.
Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy ). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.
Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.
Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.
Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.
Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).
White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.