Tuesday, February 21, 2006

James Luther Adams

From Our Enemy: Angelism (1944)

I would suppose that most of us would say that all of these propositions about human beings are perfectly obvious. We all know that we live in a community and that we have bodies as well as minds. We know that what we learn is learned from experience in the body and in the world of things. We know that though our children are at times assigned by the poets the role of little angels coming from heave, which is their home, trailing clouds of glory, still their bodies need care, their minds need to be developed. We try to show them how to use their eyes, their tongues, their ears, their hands. We do not treat them as though they were pure spirits. We sometimes are even tempted to agree with the Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who called them "little vipers."

Indeed, through most of our lives we act on the principle that we are a little lower than the angels. We remember that we are dust, that our physical hunger must be satisfied, and that we must maintain a social order or perish. To some people, however, these concerns seem to be worldly matters. Hence they speak of a spiritual life that is only beyond the material order. Nevertheless, even our so called spiritual life depends on our bodies and requires the resources of the material order. One of the most spiritual things we know is music, but music is heard through the ears, and it requires wood and steel and horsehair and catgut and finger technique. Bach is not simply a synonym for heavenly and angelic sound.

Nevertheless, when we turn to consider our life in society, we find many people who seemingly forget that we are a little lower than the angels. Religion is thought of as being something wholly spiritual and individual, as lifting us to higher levels of apprehension and enjoyment than are possible in the world of things and rites and ceremonies. Sometimes this yearning for spirituality resorts to such extravagance as to claim that religion is something purely inward, that it needs no outward forms or social institutions. Indeed, we are frequently told that outward form only kills religion, that outward forms are mere trappings, that religion is only what we do with our solitariness.

Here again, as well as with music or poetry or architecture, religion must be seen, touched, heard, in order to be expressed or identified. A religion that has nothing to do with the community, that has nothing to do with the body, with the life of the senses, with outward forms of expression, does not exist except in the imagination. Religion must express itself through communal forms, through books, music, the spoken word, spoken prayers, as well as through buildings and sacrificial action. To claim to be religious and also not to be interested in these things is like saying that one is interested in poetry but in no specific poems; it is like saying that one is interested in government but not in legislatures and ballot boxes. There is no such thing as poetry apart from poems; and there is no such thing as government apart from constitutions or courts or police.

The relgioin that is purely spiritual is purely non-existent. We often hear it said that the greatest enemy of religion is materialism. This is by no means true. The greatest enemy of religion is sham spirituality, pure spirituality. It is angelism, an indifference to the needs of the body and especially of the body politic. Indeed, it was precisely the false spirituality of the Russian church which bred the needed materialism of the revolutionists. The German churches tried to be purely spiritual; they got fascism as their reward. One is indeed reminds of Gibbon's dictum that the virtues of the clergy are much more dangerous than their vices. Religion must be realized in particular acts in order to insure its continuing life. With reason, T.S. Eliot has said, "The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life." In short, angelism can kill religion.

I am not especially concerned her to derive a defense of institutional religion from the medieval angelology. The general principles implicit in the human condition have a far reaching application to the whole of our life. The good life must be realized in particular acts in order to exist at all. The angel is already perfect, being only commanded to maintain appropriate status to avoid falling into the pit; in short, to avoid becoming, like Lucifer, a fallen angel.

The point is that human beings must express themselves through the institutions of the community. There is no such thing as a good person as such. He or she will be good only as a good husband or wife, a good health professional, a good lawyer, or legislator, a good citizen. Anyone whose goodness does not take form in the institutions of family, school, church and state is a person is good for nothing. Human virtue and happiness require a local, a communal habitation. We are considerably lower than the angels.


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