The Unruliness of Angelic Bodies

It feels at this point safe to assume that the following research proposal, like with all my of my previous attempts, has not met with success. I may at some point pursue it, but the likelihood seems dimmer & dimmer (as I am not intellectually curious enough to do it without funding).

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Title of Proposed Research

‘The Unruliness of Angelic Bodies: Imagination and the Possibility of a Post-Secular Aesthetic Theology’

Abstract and Short Proposal

In this project I will expand and develop my previous research’s prefatory call for a post-secular conception of aesthetic theology, in which the political imaginary is ‘freed fully to resist its repression and/or pacification, and in so resisting, freed finally to create itself and its world anew.’ Drawing from Giorgo Agamben’s recent critical analysis of angelology and bureaucracy, I will first engage the significance and effect on the Imagination of Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s prioritization of Christ over the angels in his development of theological aesthetics. Here, because Christ is regarded as both mediator and guarantor, Beauty is a transcendental determination of being—of what has been, what is, and what might yet be. A post-secular aesthetic theology, however, is constituted by the question: can the Imagination be so ‘determined’? Or, rather, are its attendant angels—long regarded by mystics, particularly in the Islamic tradition, poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Wallace Stevens, and even a few renegade philosophers like Michel Serres and Christian Jambet/Guy Landreau as indelibly linked with the Imagination—too unruly for such a hierarchy? Appealing to and elaborating the post-secular implications of its angelic imagery, I will argue that aesthetic theology is not an outside challenger to theological aesthetics, and is not even necessarily pitted against religious orthodoxies or confessions. Their respective angelic imageries attend to tropes of ruin and decay that are markedly different, though, and prove decisive in their respective visions of aesthetic possibility—that is, of creativity, and thus of the political will to newly imagine the body in mourning, the body in pain, and the body in revolt. It is the task of this project to trace these differences and the difference that they make.

 Context and Research Objectives

 The aim of this proposed project is two-fold: (1) to specifically address what my previous research has only pointed toward and clarify a persuasive vision of ‘aesthetic theology’ (as opposed to ‘theological aesthetics’); and (2) to formally situate my philosophical-literary focus within an emergent discussion concerning the post-secular and articulate the critical tools this focus brings to our thinking about the interplay of religion and politics.

There is an overt suspicion toward aesthetic theology in the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who regards the former as simply an appropriation of aesthetic concepts, such as that of beauty, and a betrayal of ‘theological substance to the current viewpoints of innerworldly beauty’ (Balthasar 1982, 38). On one level, Balthasar is correct: aesthetic theology is distinct from theological aesthetics. For the latter, beauty is the transcendental determination of being that can only be known in a theology guided by revelation and faith. His conception of aesthetic theology, however, is severely constrained, and is suggestive of his awareness that when aesthetics is unbridled from transcendence (or, to say it differently, when transcendence effectively, and thus fully, is diffused through the immanence of the world) creativity and imagination become potentially dissident.

We are reminded here of Emil Cioran’s discussion of rebellion, when he wonders:

And how regain the energy of that seditious angel who, still at time’s start knew nothing of that pestilential wisdom in which our impulses asphyxiate? Where find enough verve and presumption to stigmatize the herd of the other angels, while here on earth to follow their colleague is to cast oneself still lower, while men’s injustice imitates God’s, and all rebellion sets the soul against infinity and breaks it there? The anonymous angels—huddled under their ageless wings, eternally victors and vanquished in God, numb to the deadly curiosities, dreamers parallel to the earthly griefs–who would dare to cast the first stone at them and, in defiance, divide their sleep?

Cioran’s appeal to angels and angelic rebellion is especially apt, for Balthasar, too, distinguishes the centrality of Christ in theological aesthetics from that of the angels in the modern imagination (specifically, the Angel in Rilke’s Duino Elegies). This is a pivotal beginning point, I contend, for our thinking about the possibility of a post-secular aesthetic theology, whose critical gaze falls upon the religious pretensions of transcendence not merely to reject them, but in order creatively to engage them—that is, to create by way of its engagement. The post-secular Angels/Imagination of aesthetic theology, as it were, do not become God, but relocate God’s creative prerogative within creation itself.

Importantly, the result of this creativity is neither an idyllic “heaven on earth” or “end of history” utopia. The unruly, rebellious angels of aesthetic theology are akin to Wallace Stevens’ ‘angel of reality’ in that they are most pronounced in the body (‘I am one of you and being one of you / Is being and knowing what I am and know.’ [‘Angel Surrounded by Paysans’]). As I will demonstrate, whether it be by way of the body in mourning (Rilke), the body in pain (Weil), or the body in revolt (Jambet/Landreau), the angel of aesthetic theology is attuned to ruin, decay, and possibility in radically different ways than a theological aesthetics maintained and determined (analogously) by Beauty. Negotiating and evaluating the post-secular terrain requires, to appeal once again to Stevens, less faith in that which endures and more style in that which we create.

Am I not, / Myself, only half a figure of a sort, / A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man / Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in / Apparels of such lightest look that a turn / Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone? (‘Angel Surrounded by Paysans’)

This emphasis on the immanent intensity of style—the immeasurable (and yet somehow precise) appropriateness of a poem to its style, as Stevens might also say—can be discussed in terms of affect, provided this discussion is not confined to emotions or psychology. The immanent intensity of style, winged yet grounded, gone like the passing moment, is an affect that invites an engagement with creation itself. I will demonstrate that unlike with theological aesthetics, the engagement of style in aesthetic theology does not seek to reflect immediately on its transcendental determination or divine analogue—e.g., eyes upward in Gothic architecture—but is somehow a stepping closer to creation in order that one might see it more generally. Focusing on how precisely the world’s constitutive, concrete lineaments capture our eyes and direct our gaze, and in general how this engagement with the world and its created works is itself a creation, in all its embodied fragility, its frequent tragedy, and oft-times temperamental ill-humour, we find aesthetic theology set within the ever-unfolding imaginative horizon that the likes of Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin pursued to their very end, for which poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Wallace Stevens sought the appropriate words, and to which the Islamic mystical tradition has appealed for centuries.


This project is principally a work of philosophical hermeneutics, and is indebted to Walter Benjamin as modeling the kind of systematic, analytic study that manages to expand outward at the same rate it narrows, always striving to say more than the precise focus of its language would seem to allow. My method will be allusive, in the sense of identifying and substantiating conceptual connections, but not frivolously so. The sense of aesthetic theology I wish to elaborate—that unruly, rebellious excess of angelic revolt and human imagination—is born of the very maneuvers used to quell it in theological aesthetics. While my aim is not to rehearse a history of Christian angelology or the developmental history of Christology, a relevant historical narrative will necessarily be established in order to articulate the differences between aesthetic theology and theological aesthetics, the stakes of those differences, and how the fraught nature of their relationship comes to a head in the acute challenges of a post-secular context.

The use of angels to explore the creative ‘unruliness’ of reality in aesthetic theology may seem on the surface capricious and overly stylized on my part, but I will do so in order more definitively to transition it from an exclusively Western Christian perspective. Specifically, I am indebted to the insights of Islamic mysticism, and will appeal to the work of Henry Corbin (and his student Christian Jambet) to illustrate how its docetic Christology creatively relates to the power of imagination. It was in Corbin that I was first introduced to the potential linkage between Rilke’s Angel in the Duino Elegies and those of Islamic mysticism, and was stirred into exploring the angelic imagery in such a way as better to explain the significance of aesthetic theology beyond the conceptual confines of western Christianity.

I will articulate this significance by way of three images—the angelic body in mourning (e.g., Rilke), the angelic body in pain (e.g., Stevens/Weil), and the angelic body in revolt (e.g., Jambet/Landreau)—highlighting the diffusion of Beauty into the immanence of the world and the harnessing of form’s fragility through the creative intensity of style.

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