skip to content

SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Arabella Milbank and Ryan Haecker, Faculty of Divinity

Arabella Milbank and Ryan Haecker from the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge are taking part in What have the angels ever done for us? on 19th October from 5-6pm in Emmanuel College Chapel.


Question: What led to your own interest in angels?

Arabella Milbank: I think it has always been there, fluttering just out of view! But actually for me it was with a nostalgia for the vanished angels - and a very special encounter with the incredible angel roof at St Wendreda's in March. I'd got off the train as it went through March from Cambridge and found it after a little search and a visit to the pub, the Zodiac, where the huge iron key to St Wendreda’s hangs on a hook behind the bar. So I unlocked the door as a sole visitor and it is breathtaking - a medieval angel roof so finely carved with tightly clustered forms, wood on wood, that they seem to be in fluttering motion above you. I started thinking about all the vanished angels - an especially poignant subject round here because Cromwell's agent William Dowsing had a lust for angelicide, the destruction of the angel icons: his diary the destruction of hundreds in parish churches and college chapels. So much rage! I was intrigued. As an academic interest, it also engages me as an especially interesting and open canvas for the faithful imagination, and so for the intersection of poetry and theology. Once you start studying the angels, you find a whole, immensely rich history of how they have been understood and imagined - which belies the more sentimental, fixed image we might have now.


Ryan Haecker: I had, for most of my life, thought of angels as little more than a fanciful imagining of the mythic past.  I had heard that the angels had been discussed in detail by ancient and medieval authors but had not accorded these discussions any serious significance.  I was, nonetheless, initially led to take a more serious interest in angels and angelology while I was reading about theories of the analogy of being. The analogy of being (analogia entis) is an ancient and medieval idea that there are proportions between the effects and the causes of the terms with which we may speak of creatures and God: the term ‘good’, for example, would, on this theory, be spoken primarily of God the creator of goodness, but, secondarily, by a proportion of analogy, of all created effects that can be called good in imitation of this supreme divine goodness.

I was delighted to discover that Proclus, the last great Platonic philosopher, had, in The Elements of Theology, characterised the lesser gods, the ‘daemons’, as analogical intermediaries between the higher causes and the lower effects. This discovery led me to wonder how far the ancient pagan philosophers and early Christian theologians could have succeeded in constructing a scientific theory of the angels.


Q: There seem to be more angels depicted in popular culture of late. How does this link up with academic research and why do you think that interest is growing?

Arabella Milbank: Yes, there are! And actually there is quantitative evidence that belief in angels remains very high, even in our allegedly diffident, post-secular environment. A third of people in the UK believe in angels, and unlike, say, church attendance, this figure has strangely remained stable for a decade or so. What is even more extraordinary is that encounters with angels seem to be growing. Research from 2016 records that one in 10 people will tell a poll that they have seen or heard an angel - this number has doubled over the six years that passed between the last time the question was posed in a poll. Angels seem to be pushing through to us strongly at the moment! Of course, there is a lot of material around angelic spirituality out there that we might find questionable, superstitious, sentimental. I think what is definitely true is that this interest in angels reflects a hunger for a tangible and direct encounter with the transcendent - that is to say, an experiential and what theologians would maybe call 'immanent' encounter with something that is both of, and not of, what is 'natural'. Angels, according to the tradition in its various forms, are understood as mediators, both messengers and carriers of divine presence, power and truth.  


Q: What is speculative angelology?

Ryan Haecker: ‘Speculative angelology’ is the speculative philosophical science of the angels.  Speculation (from the Latin word ‘specula’ that is ‘to see’) was, although admittedly often denigrated today as but a flight of fancy, regarded by philosophers from Plato to Hegel as the highest mode of intellectual contemplation.  Angelology has, however, since at least the late medieval era, tended to be treated as an empirical science of the authoritative testimony of biblical scripture, ancient theologians and dogmatic manuals. Speculative angelology can be contrasted against empirical angelology.  Empirical angelology has typically studied the evidence of angels in ancient scripture, the evidence of angels in theological authorities from the pre-modern past, and curated the collection of evidence from the past to present - as its last living thought - systematic summaries of all that has hitherto been believed of the angels. 


Speculative angelology is a new approach to the study of the angelic, which we, with the Dionysius Reading Group, have developed to study the sources, history and the present importance of the angels. It is speculative in that it starts, not from the empirical evidence of the angelic in the testimonies of traditional religion, but, rather and more radically, from an insight into an idea of the nature of the angels.  And it can, in contrast to what has been called angelology, be considered the most richly philosophical, and, for that reason, most divine mode of answering the angelic: for it does not merely ask what have we heard of the angels, as though they were little more than literary artefacts from a bygone era, but rather, and more radically, asks whether, what, and who the angels are as they may yet appear for our philosophical imagination.


Q: How did your reading group come into being?

Ryan Haecker: The University of Cambridge Faculty of Divinity had previously hosted a reading group focusing on the writings of the great late-antique theologian Dionysius the Areopagite. I had been invited to lead this reading group, selected as our reading The Celestial Hierarchy, and began to search the sources of ancient daemonology and medieval angelology.  I discovered that almost all medieval philosophers, from Eriugena to Ockham, had, not only held conflicting theories concerning the nature of the angels, but had also believed these theories to be fundamental to the science of theology.  Fiery controversies once raged, even here in Cambridge, between the followers of Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus on the nature and number of the angels. François Rabelais later satirised the medieval schoolmen for debating ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’?  

The study of the angels thereafter appears to have fallen out of fashion in the early modern era and began to disappear, from both Catholic and Protestant theological education as early as the beginning of the 18th century. I spoke to Arabella Milbank and Christian Coppa about reviving the scientific study of the angels, was encouraged by their enthusiasm, and advertised our Dionysius Reading Group as a study of ‘speculative angelology’.  We invited contributions from diverse philosophical, literary, and historical perspectives. And we encouraged bold questions, beyond the bounds of Dionysius’ writings, about fundamental philosophical questions on the existence, nature and function of the angels in traditional and modern theology. I later presented my first paper in the University of Cambridge Faculty of Divinity, titled ‘Origen’s Speculative Angelology’, on this possibility of recollecting from Origen of Alexandria a new speculative theory of the angels.


Q: Does what is regarded as angelic vary in time and in different cultures/religions? Can you give an example of this?

Arabella Milbank: Yes, inevitably this is true - both in terms of iconography and thought, through and within cultures. The angels we see now, outside fantasy fiction and manga (which isn't really my remit but evidently it would be totally amazing to see more research into that!) are usually quite stereotypical female figures in nighties. The medieval wooden angels that survive in the parish churches where I work have haunting, stylised faces, ambiguously gendered and often with completely feathered bodies. They bear the arms of the passion of Christ - things like his crown of thorns or the pillar he was whipped against - not harps and garlands. Scriptural angels are, on the contrary, either just like men or have incredibly surreal, imagery-defying, embodiment because the angelic is understood, usually, as having either no such thing as body or as having something that is so different from our form of embodiment is better not thought of in that way at all. In terms of thought, pre-Christian angels appear in philosophical thought, Jewish and classical, as intermediate entities in the order of things. Some obvious later, theological differences have been around whether we think of angels mainly through their function or mainly through their nature: simply as messengers put between us and God, or as actual powers and intermediaries residing in, or forceful in, nature and in the way it is possible for us to know, as by intellectual 'illumination'.


Q: When is the earliest reference to angels?

Ryan Haecker: Angels appear ubiquitous among many world religions. Angels are mentioned throughout the sacred scriptures of the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an. A cherub armed with a flaming sword is, for example, mentioned as early as Genesis 3:24.  The Greek word ‘ángelos’, meaning ‘messenger’, was later adopted by the translators of the Septuagint to name the divine messengers that appear from the first to the last books of the Bible. Ancient Greek philosophers had formerly used the word ‘daemon’, meaning ‘godlike’, to name the lesser gods and unembodied spirits that inhabited the corporeal cosmos.  Daemons are discussed in Plato’s dialogues, such as the Apology, the Cratylus, the Symposium and the Timaeus. And theories of the daemons afterwards proliferated among most of the ancient schools of philosophy.  Philo of Alexandria may have been the first to devise a philosophical theory for the angels of Hebrew scripture.  The early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons and Origen of Alexandria later reimagined these Pagan and Jewish sources to distinguish angels from demons and develop a new Christian science of the angels.


Q: What are the logical aspects of angelology that you will speak about?

Ryan Haecker: The logical aspect of angelology is, perhaps most contentiously, a speech of the angels in imitation of angelic speech.  Augustine of Hippo had, for example, narrated the creation of the angels as spiritual creatures of light on the first day of creation. Angels are subsequently said to speak. And since angels may speak, we may also speak of angels in imitation of how the angels may speak to us.  Logic is, in its simplest sense, such a special way of speaking of arguments to produce new knowledge. Modern mathematical logic has, however, since Ockham and Frege, discarded any attempt to speak of the angels – much less to speak as the angels themselves may speak. Were we, in this way, to be utterly unable to speak logically of the angels, and even to speak of the angels as they themselves speak, we could not wish to tenably describe angelology as any kind of rigorous philosophical science.  


My doctoral research is partly focused on this topic of recollecting dialectic as an alternative logic with which we may speak of a ‘theology of logic’.  Dialectic was, from Parmenides and Plato onwards, held to be the highest mode of speaking and arguing of all things – both human and divine. Plato describes dialectic as the ‘coping stone’ of philosophical science and systematically exercises it in the Parmenides to explore how we may speak of the gods.  He also associates the angels, in the Symposium and the Timaeus, with the mediating and creative speech of dialectic.  Clement and Origen of Alexandria, afterwards, also indicated the possibility of speaking of the angels, as the angels themselves speak, through one and the same divine dialectic.  This divine dialectic is, as I wish with my dissertation to demonstrate, already at work in Origen’s systematic theology, and, through it, in any attempt to afterwards speak scientifically of the angels.