Angelical Participation?

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

The exchanges that take place early in Luke are unusual, characterized by joy and poetry and extra-terrestrial interlocutors. And the extra-terrestrials apparently so appeared: nobody asks Gabriel, how did you get in here? His face was like the face of an angel, Luke says of Stephen when he is about to speak; or at least he appeared so to his adversaries. What was that like?

What is there in the visage of such a spiritual being and how did it appear in Stephen’s visage? How do they appear, what do they look like anyway? And then the even more interesting question, how do things appear to them?

That is what I begin to wonder about when I read Gabriel’s reply to Mary’s odd question (what was there in what Gabriel said that made her think what he foretold would not take place by the usual means when she eventually got married?). What Gabriel says can be interpreted to mean that there would be divine intervention. But he seems to be trying to do more than describe a miracle: it is as if he wants to explain. He even seems to borrow language from the 91st Psalm in an effort to clothe his understanding in terms that Mary can accept.

The question is, did Mary understand? I wonder. No doubt she was in a better position to understand than I am, and perhaps there was a longer conversation than Luke records (how does Luke know it was Gabriel?). But my interpretation—though I believe that meditation on the words of the angel will be fruitful and of value and should be undertaken—is that more than anything Gabriel is expressing something which shows us his sense of reality and not a human one. How does that “therefore,” for example, really follow from anything said before? It gives me the idea he really thinks he’s putting things in terms that are comprehensible, but it does not leave me understanding what exactly it is he describes.

Perhaps he is and I’m missing it. I wonder though, if it isn’t something that has more to do with angelic participation, and reality as a spirit apprehends it.

14 thoughts on “Angelical Participation?

  1. One pattern I’ve noticed is that the presence of the angelic beings always fills the protagonists with fear, trembling, and anxiety. The “visage” seems to be a visage that contrasts with their human uncleanliness and leaves them feeling exposed to judgment. All of the exclamations and prostrations of the humans seem to bear this out, as does the standard angelic opener of “be not afraid”.

    Contrast this with the Sodomites’ encounter with angelic beauty. Rather than prostrate themselves in fear, they sought to degrade the angelic.

    Also consider how Jacob dealt with his encounter with the angelic. When he had ascended the ladder, and when he realized where he was, he did not say, “Look how high I have brought myself by my own efforts!” , or, worse, “Bow to me, who hast climbed the ladder and conquered you!”. Both responses would seem natural of today’s spiritual sodomites. But Jacob had the good sense to recognize his superior, and “he was afraid”. I think that Genesis 32:30, about Jacob’s wrestling match, mirrors this same point. Jacob does not say “this is where I overcame God”. He says, “this is where my life was spared”.

    Speaking of Mary, she seems a very good example of the way that one can have faith without understanding the details. Later in Luke, it says “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Just as with Joseph’s dream of the wheat bundles; the details did not matter, since the basic prophesy was guaranteed to come true. I don’t think she needed to understand the exact details; she just needed to trust that God would do what He promised.

  2. Gah! I think I muddled the story up with something else I read; maybe the Gregory of Nyssa story about Moses climbing Jacob’s ladder. I suppose we can still say that Jacob saw into heaven, and responded with fear rather than pride.

    Physicists at Fermi just reported a couple of days ago that they might have seen God’s toe:

    Joe Lykken, a theorist at Fermilab, said, “So I would not say that this announcement is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, but it might turn out to be the toe of God.”

    I wonder what is the appropriate feeling response to maybe seeing God’s toe?

  3. You were writing a lot last night.

    What do you think of all this hadron colliding and Barfield’s idea that they’d run into a dead end because they still think they are observing objective phenomena when they’re actually ignoring that the spiritual–inner side of science: participation–is what they need to start taking into account?

  4. It’s a good question. I think Barfield is even more relevant now than in his time. After reading Barfield the first time, I read through a bunch of Goethe’s old writings on scientific method, to kind of put “participation” in context. It seems like reductionism was just starting to become a serious contender in Goethe’s time, and was close to victory in Barfield’s time.

    Today, reductionism is the complete victor, and has gone to extremes that Barfield probably wouldn’t have imagined. The digital age has revolutionized our ability to create models that “save the appearances”. We don’t even use the visual images from telescopes anymore; most of astronomy is done with statistical analysis on massive datasets of information — just like we do with particle physics. The techniques of stochastic and probabilistic modeling, as well as machine learning, have become mainstays in our model-building, and wouldn’t have been possible without powerful computers. With a computer, the right basic model, and enough constants, you can refine a model that fits *any* observed data. Physicists are usually pretty honest about their modeling — the real problem is when quants or economists start using the techniques from physics to model markets or policies.

    By definition, physics (and especially particle physics) is about investigating only dead things. So we’re learning a lot about corpses, and it’s useful information. But we’re in this very strange world where “philosophy” means “anything that’s not science”, and “science” means “strict materialist reductionism”. Anything even slightly related to “participation” would be categorized today as philosophy, and thus non-scientific. Physics is willfully blind to anything related to “participation” or any sort of subjectivity — so it’s always going to be at a dead end with regards to those things.

    One of the most interesting things in recent times, though, has been the development in “philosophy of science”. Some of the open questions about epistemology that existed in Barfield’s day, have been hashed out in modern times, and make Barfield look pretty prescient. I think it’s pretty safe to say that philosophy of science is at a dead end, and has no answers about why science works, or whether it’s even a sound mechanism of inquiring about truth. My favorite in this area is Paul Feyerabend:

    Essentially, the scientific method and the associated materialist reductionism, are purely matters of faith at this point.

    Interesting anecdote; I was watching an interview with Jaron Lanier a couple days ago, where he was asked about philosophy of science and Feyerabend, and Lanier sort of hushed his voice and said something like “we don’t like to talk about that stuff, because then you attract all of the crazies, like global warming deniers and creationists”. It’s the same with the fine-tuning debate related to the link above. I think they would rather have the big gaping holes in their epistemology be an internal matter that only their priests can talk about, or else ignored completely, since they would rather “stick with what seems to work”.

    Somewhat related, neurology has made a lot of progress since Barfield’s time, and variations of C.S. Lewis’s “argument from reason” have also progressed. So both sides in his discussions about “how can the mental emmanate from the physical” have become more sophisticated, so the impasse has moved to intentionality rather than lower level things.

    So in summary, I think the current score on Barfield’s issues stands at:

    A) Science and philosophy cannot defend materialist reductionism, so that issue is at a dead end. Materialist reductionism is the official religion, and has had some successes, so we stick with it.

    B) Participation can’t be evaluated in materialistic terms, so it’s excluded from consideration. Barfield took it to an extreme, IMO, which led to some occult-like thinking. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same ideas pop back up in the form of buddhism or something like that, since it’s a big hole in our current focus on materialism.

    C) Materialism still seems to be self-refuting, and it’s hard to see how advances in neurobiology will solve that problem. Materialists cannot explain how the mental could arise from the physical, but the main sticking point now is around “intentionality”, which is further up the chain of consciousness than before (and which is really related to participation, since intentionality implies that there is a subject, not just objects). So it’s kind of an impasse right now, but not necessarily a dead end.

  5. Barfield–on point B now–always pointed back at Rudolf Steiner. Steiner is very weird to read.

    It would be interesting to know how advanced the cause of the anthroposophists is. They seem to have large associations in some places, like England.

  6. An angel’s face: Dispassion? Otherness? Immutability? Wouldn’t it be like an unflickering flame that sees, with an everlasting thoroughness of engagement such that for him to look at you has a force as if one of us were to seize another? Something that would have been overpowering to anyone but the Theotokos. That is what comes to my mind.

    I like your questions.

    If you want the traditional answer to one of them, Mary was a temple virgin (like Anna who prophesied at Christ’s presentation) who at the age of marriageability was given to Joseph for her protection, since he was a virtuous elderly widower. Not only had she not “known” a man, but she never was supposed to, therefore her question “how shall this be?” (It makes sense with the present tense of “I know not a man” doesn’t it – that is, assuming it’s also present tense in the Greek?) This story is supposed to have come from a disciple of a disciple of Luke’s.

    Gabriel’s “therefore” is interesting. But his expression “Son of God” does remind me of the same expression used of Adam (who also had no human father) in one of the geneologies – wasn’t it Luke’s?

  7. The explanation of Mary’s question is actually in the meaning of the word ‘behold,’ (behold, the Lord says, I make all things new; and that’s the wonder behind it) and in the angel’s manner, of which verse 37 is a commentary (for no word is too wonderful for God).

    Of course, being a Protestant, a Baptist and a child of the kindly West—and I am nothing else, however apophatically—when I think of the angel, something else comes to mind, and I had to wonder at verse 37 if the angels smile. If they do, here Gabriel did. Daniel, you know, calls him “the man Gabriel,” which is perhaps an odd way to talk about an angel.

    Yes, it’s Luke’s genealogy which goes all the way back to Adam.

  8. Now that you mention it, one of my ulterior motives for reading Goethe was to build a foundation to revisit Steiner. I last read Steiner 15 years ago, since I knew a guy who was big into theosophy in the area. Apparently he still is into it (

    Steiner made his career on Goethe, as an editor of collections of Goethe’s work, and later developing his own philosophies based on Goethe. But while I find Goethe to be incredibly accessible and relevant to this day, I never felt that way about Steiner. Steiner reminded me a lot of Yeats. Yeats is one of my favorite poets of all time, but his metaphysical theories didn’t ring true. Yeats’s ideas about cycles, doubles, daemons, etc. were very cool to consider as elements of storytelling, but seemed concocted only for that purpose.

    I plan to try Steiner again, but I’m not all that optimistic. I *might* be more impressed, now that I know more. Definitely can’t say the same of Nietzsche. Just a few weeks ago, I re-read “Beyond Good and Evil” for the first time since I was 16. I am embarrassed to admit that I thought Nietzsche a genius when I was 16. Upon re-reading, I have no idea why I thought that. He writes almost *exactly* like the Unabomber. It was horrible, insufferable. It’s like a parody; I am starting to believe that Nietzsche didn’t believe anything he said, and was just trying to be a clown.

  9. Well, as to a smile, whether that’s even possible depends on whether he came to her as a man (as he apparently did to Daniel) or in his own form, doesn’t it? A smile is a process after all, which is something to which fleshy creatures are subject. “Who makes his angels spirits and his ministers a flame of fire.”

    And what is this about the “kindly west?” Of what am I a child, pray tell? Granted I am not a Protestant but I have been one. And not a Baptist either, but that’s because I don’t want to belong to an aberrant sect anymore. I don’t see how you and I can fail to have the same mental iconography for the most part.

    Oh very well, if you prefer an explanation consisting of one word and an implied manner. I don’t understand this assumption that all the explanations have to be found within the text. What is there about the nature of reality or of God that demands this principle? Still if you must find an explanation for her question in the text, there’s a closer one. “Since I am a virgin” she says, and that’s her own explanation for asking the question.

    I’ve enjoyed your new fiction immensely.

  10. I’m glad you like the fiction. If I put up the Hallowe’eners, I’ll do it for you.

    I think you’re missing my point on the smile. The point is about how a human apprehends the angelical form: what we would be conscious of when we are made aware of the presence of an angel. C.S. Lewis plays with this idea in the last chapters of Perelandra–and he hints at it along the way. How are spiritual beings perceived by beings whose perception depends on there being matter to which to marry the form? Is there something material present, or is the angel just operating on the person’s brain, or is it altogether bypassing all that and working directly with the contents of said person’s imagination, memories, etc? A sort of soul to soul communication strikes me as fascinating. I don’t think that if an angel comes to a human in its own form a human will necessarily know it is present. I believe they’re spiritual beings: they don’t have bodies and are composed of no matter. I don’t know if that is what you think or not, but that’s the point of the problem for me.

    My point with the kindly West, is that your description of an angel struck me as particularly Byzantine. I don’t think of them that way.

    I think you believe I interpret Scripture the way I do because I’m an idiot (based on an arbitrary assumption rather than 1689 years of developing tradition), and that is probably the best I can hope for.

  11. Hah, hah, you think I believe you’re an idiot. Actually, Joel, in intellectual matters I have no pity for you and that is why I talk to you the way I do. If I thought you were even a little less intelligent than me or less well read I would be more cautious.

    It is true that certain conclusions seem self-evident to me (so my way of portraying them to other people makes it sound like I don’t see how they can think differently, which is true) but I am aware this is a limitation for me. Most likely it means that I don’t remember the steps I followed to arrive at the conclusion. Either that or I’m well aware that the steps I followed depended upon the structure of language and when that is true everything is completely self-evident and never can be anything else – it looks for all the world as if the only way I could be mistaken is if I missed a premise or two. I mean, logical processes are so absolute aren’t they? At this same time I have burned into my heart that as certain as my conclusions are, the nature of the conclusions themselves does not even approach real truth, the kind I crave, and that is why I toss my certainties about and don’t expect them to hurt people. They’re immutable yet light as air. It’s so strange to be any individual person, isn’t it? Since you took a stab at guessing what was in my head.

    What is the significance of 1689 years? No, actually I think Baptist tradition has developed. I don’t think Orthodox tradition has developed and that’s why I trust it. But we do not do a lot of scriptural interpretation in the Church, as its redundant when you’re not a saint but you are surrounded by saints who can see right into scripture. This issue of Mary’s question is an intellectual exercise for me and I don’t really think my methods of interpretation have changed since I was in Bible college. The plain meaning, they taught me, but they couldn’t even make sense of a simple poem. Most people can hardly read, you know. A good text is filled with straight lines leading from one thing to another thing. I mean, there they are! What’s so hard about that?

    But your original comments about this passage aren’t even this kind of interpretation, this kind that is so self-evident to me. They are something else, something more like how my husband thinks. I offered three different kinds of commentary on what you were saying, not meaning to override your thoughts but to complement them.

    One was personal and subjective. This was the bit about the angel’s face. Probably nonsense.

    The second was traditional. There is nothing self-evident about this, either. You either trust it or you don’t. The thing about commentary of this sort is that it offers you a new way to read the text. If you find that the text makes more sense read in this way, that’s a point in favor of the commentary’s being true. This is an incredibly useful kind of information (because it allows you to skip over long trains of thought and try out possible solutions immediately) and you simply dismissed it without a word. I assumed you did this primarily because it was outside the text and you’ve been trained to find everything inside the text (we were taught that the scripture is self-interpreting, right? Good grass, on whose authority were we taught that? What makes it so certain? Why should it be so? It’s like those kinds of arguments by atheists: Well if there were a God, wouldn’t he do such and such? How do we know what God would or would not have done in any given case?) I exressed my frustration at this kind of procedure which sometimes gives such obscure and tenuous results and which is arrived at by minute arguments which are so easy to shrug off.

    The third thing I offered was a bit of language logic. This seems immutable to me. Mary gave her reason for asking the question. If there are other reasons they are reasons in a different sense. So this is the one I insisted on. I didn’t explain all this before because when I write long comments you ignore most of what I say and then I feel foolish.

    I remember the bits from Perelandra. Here’s what I’m thinking. In body-to-body communication, the party that was a spirit would have to take a physical form, right? In soul-to-soul communication the party that was a spirit would have to take a psychological form, then. Right so far? My idea of a flaming face is probably a psychological form, I see that. But in spirit-to-spirit communication the spirit could remain in his own form. This assumes that human beings have a spiritual dimension. Was Mary capable of such a form of communication at this point in her life? Would it have been better for her or worse? I can see I bungled it about the face, but this possibility was stirring in my mind when I suggested a face that expressed everything completely and at once, and therefore had no need of passing expressions. What we mean by being at rest, and what we mean by being fully alive, meeting at a single eternal point of personal being.

    I became very interested in process philosophy in college and this plays into my ideas.

  12. Fascinating. By that I mean, both your original thoughts, Joel, and the various lines of thought as presented by you and AR. Much of that exchange I had never previously considered. Thanks to you all.

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