Monday, February 22, 2010

One of my earliest memories is of an angel

When I was a toddler, a picture of an angel hung on the wall above my bed, a beautiful winged creature guiding a boy and girl across a rickety footbridge. It was, of course, a Guardian Angel, and (according to my parents) each of us had one. Before I went to sleep at night I always said the traditional prayer that begins "Angel of God, my guardian dear..."

It is a consoling idea, that one of the heavenly choir is assigned to each of us, to guide us safely across the rickety bridges of life and watch over us as we sleep. My own Guardian Angel hovered solicitously at my side until about the time I went off to school by myself, slipped from consciousness at adolescence, and vanished completely as I began the study of science.

Angels and empiricism didn't mix.

Still, various polls show that between 55 and 70 percent of American's believe in angels. How is it possible that in the early 21st century so many well-educated people believe in now-you-see-them-now-you-don't humanoid creatures with wings?

Angels are symptomatic of our culture's split personality. On the one hand, we are scientific. Our technology, our economic well-being, our long lives and generally good health -- and perhaps even our political freedoms -- are based on science, and on a scientific attitude that values skepticism, the evidence of the senses, and the rejection of supernatural agencies.

Another part of our culture is skeptical about science, distrustful of reductionism, nostalgic for a world animated by spirits, and possessive of the notion that each of us has a direct line to whatever force or forces rule the universe.

We accept science for the material benefits it contrives on our behalf, but we distrust the materialist philosophy of scientists, preferring to give our attention to anyone claiming commerce with spirits.

We turn to science to remedy our ills, but we are quick to blame science for our misfortunes. We put confidence in the scientific method, but reject the naturalistic philosophy that explains why the method works. In our schools we teach kids biology, chemistry and physics, and in our homes we promote astrology, creationism, health fads, and parapsychology.

No wonder we stumble so uncertainly across the rickety footbridge that leads to the future. Our philosophical compass swings wildly from north to south, lacking any consistent pole to give us a reliable bearing.

And now, having said all that, I offer you Caravaggio's guardian angel (see here and here). Wouldn't you love to have him as your footbridge companion, following you around with his violin, tousled locks and naughty black wings?