Sunday, June 03, 2018

Flaming ministers

“He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire” (Heb 1:7).

1. Angels are common agents in Scripture, but is there any empirical evidence for angels? To my knowledge, this is a neglected topic. Is there anything more reliable than New Age or RadTrad Catholic sites? 

One potential source of information is a book by Emma Heathcote-James, Seeing Angels: True Contemporary Accounts of Hundreds of Angelic Experiences (London: John Blake, 2001). That's based on her doctoral dissertation at the University of Birmingham, which drew on 800 firsthand accounts. Given the academic background, it's a more reputable source than a lot of stuff on the subject. She's not obviously flakey. 

2. The book quotes and summarizes scores of reported angelic apparitions and related phenomena. I assess it the same way I assess reported miracles generally. I make allowance for flimflam, coincidence, wishful thinking. There is, though, a degree of cumulative credibility based on multiple independent reports of similar phenomena. One has to be a knee-jerk skeptic to dismiss all of it out of hand. What may be implausible in isolation becomes plausible if repeated by different observers at different times and place. 

If it's a question of establishing whether something exists or ever happens, the bar is quite low. How much does it take to disprove a universal negative? Not much.  

i) Atheists trap themselves in circular reasoning. They discount reported angelic apparitions (and other supernatural phenomena) because there's no evidence that angels exist. And what's the evidence that angels don't exist? It can't very well be absence of reported angelic apparitions. 

Only if we know in advance that angels don't exist are we entitled to automatically disregard eyewitness accounts of their existence. We have to know what the world is like, a world where angels don't exist. But how do we know what the world is like? That's something we discover, and reported phenomena contribute to our knowledge of the world. It's viciously circular to discount reported angelic apparitions on the grounds that such reports can never count as evidence for the claim in question. 

It's not as if there's evidence against the existence of angels which must be overcome by sufficient counterevidence. At best one might attempt to claim that there's insufficient evidence. But one can't justifiably claim there's no evidence, then use that to dismiss ostensible evidence to the contrary. The claim that there's no evidence for something is highly vulnerable to disconfirmation. The threshold for disproof is extremely low. All you need is some positive evidence.  

One doesn't have to believe every anecdote in her book. If even a handful are true, that's enough. 

There's a funny story about Laplace, the famous mathematician and scientist of the French Enlightenment. He didn't believe in meteorites. Farmers told him they saw rocks fall from the sky, but he waved that aside as backward superstition. He closed his mind to the evidence.  

ii) You also have cessationists who are impervious to testimonial evidence. But that's a dangerous place to be in. If extraordinary and miraculous things only happen in Scripture, while nothing like that happens outside the pages of Scripture, that creates a troublesome hiatus between what Scripture says is real and reality as you and others experience it. I'm not suggesting that every Christian, or even most Christians, need to experience something extraordinary or miraculous. But it's a problem to drive a wedge between the world of Scripture and the world outside of Scripture.

3. One superficial problem with the book is the classification system. She puts all reports in one angelic basket. That's in part because her informants have limited categories, so they describe an experience in angelic terms even if it's not specifically angelic. The book records a number of phenomena which are not necessarily or even probably angelic, although they are (if true) supernatural:

i) Audible voice

That could be God speaking directly to someone.

ii) Christophany

A few cases appear to be Christophanies rather than angelophanies. 

iii) Shekinah

Many of her informants describe supernatural light. Although angels can be luminous, many of these reports don't envision or depict an angelic figure, but just supernatural light. So that could be a luminous theophany, like the Shekinah. 

iv) Many cases aren't angelic apparitions, but apparitions of the dead. Grief apparitions and crisis apparitions. At least one case suggests bilocation. 

v) Some cases involve near-death or out-of-body experiences. 

vi) Generic miraculous intervention. Could be direct divine action. 

4. Some of the reputed angels look human. Their angelic identity is implied, not by their appearance, but by their supernatural abilities. 

Other reputed apparitions correspond to traditional Christian iconography. That could mean the apparition is imaginary–unless angels accommodate expectations, based on Western religious art, to be recognizable. 

5. She doesn't always identify the religious affiliation, if any, of the informant, but in many cases her informants profess to be Christian. In a few cases they were unbelievers for whom the encounter is a spiritual catalyst. 

6. The nature of the angelic apparitions and other phenomena vary, although they revolve around common situations. 

i) Miraculous intervention to protect people in danger

ii) Guidance for people who are (physically) lost

iii) Encouragement during a time of crisis. A deathbed experience. Angelic visitations to the sick or dying. Or luminous theophanies rather than angelophanies.  

iv) Supernatural warnings and premonitory dreams.

7. One intriguing case involved a visual apparition to someone congenitally blind. 

It's an interesting book. I wouldn't stake my life on it, but I find much of it credible. 

No comments:

Post a Comment