The subject of angels has come up again, along with my difficulties with the idea. As a Christian I’m supposed to believe in angels as supernatural beings, and I’ve gone into this in considerable depth on here before, but don’t worry, I have a new angle. Before I get to that though, I want to give a brief recap of my thinking about angels and why it’s a problem for me.
Abrahamic religions generally include a belief in angels as powerful supernatural beings inferior to God who take part in human affairs. Given that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha’i are all monotheistic faiths, this is potentially difficult to reconcile with faith in God alone. Moreover, as far as I know Judaism and Protestantism are not at all keen on there even being intermediaries between humanity and the Lord – bear that word in mind by the way because I’ll be coming back to it. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, has saints as separate individuals who intercede on our behalf. This is historically sometimes because there have been pagan deities in which belief was very strong which were adapted into saints. It’s been alleged that religion cycles between venerating a single being and several, although I can’t say I’ve seen any evidence for that.
The really strange thing about the Christian doctrines of angels is the idea of choirs. This is the notion that there is God and then nine ranks of angels: Seraphim, cherubim (nothing to do with winged babies incidentally – those are putti), thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels. These are organised into three “spheres” of three in that order from inner to outer and top to bottom. This whole system is based on a line in one of the Pauline epistles, namely Colossians 1:16:
ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς [bκαὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι· τὰ πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται·For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
For some reason I don’t understand, and I’ve really tried, this quote has been taken by Dark Age or mediaeval scholars and used as a reason to justify the choirs of angels. I think the idea behind it is probably that there is a corresponding order in the human world and the celestial world, rather like the idea that everything on the land has to have its counterpart in the sea, such as the sea cow and the monkfish. It feels very claustrophobic to me though. If the mediaeval, i.e. feudal, social order is not only a historical relict of the mundane but also an eternal and ideal celestial system, there’s no escape from the crushing, suffocating hierarchy among human beings, and what’s worse, the advent of democracy and human rights is in fact a sinful anomaly. And that’s fascism, actual bona fide fascism, as a perfect and divinely ordained system, To which the only sensible response is, argh.
Fascism, particularly in Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, frequently allies itself with the Church. Franco’s Spain, for example, had the Church as an investigative body in its local parishes, insisted on Christian names and declared all civil marriages null and void, among probably many other things. This is, to some extent, organised religion.
Because I’m ultimately anarchist, although it’s mixed up with libertarian socialism, you might think I’m not keen on the idea of organised religion and in fact this is true to some extent. This is also a big reason why I have difficulties with the concept of angels. One of the good things about the Reformation is that it removed intermediaries between God and human beings. The general idea of the Roman Catholic church, so far as I can tell, is that clerics are kind of divinely-appointed experts on God and you also have to go through various other figures in order to get to God. God has receptionists, as it were, such as saints. The Protestant view of saints is more egalitarian. It sees us all as saints, i.e. saved people, and there is no second tier of holier-than-thou people in a Protestant church, or at least there shouldn’t be. A similar concept, found among Quakers and others, is the “priesthood of all believers”. That is, everyone is a priest, and this is practiced by the Society of Friends by not having a hierarchy and allowing anyone to say what they are moved to say. You’ll have to run this past Sarada though, because I’m not officially a Quaker though I have a lot of sympathy with them.
There’s also “unchurching”, which is similar to “unschooling”. Since I have an entire blog devoted to the subject of unschooling, there’s no need to go into too much detail here, but just as children, being human, can usually be expected to learn autonomously, there is this thing called the Church Invisible, which is simply the group of all of God’s people and not necessarily anything to do with the human institution known as the Church. Strictly speaking it’s even possible that nobody at all who is in the church is actually a member of the Church Invisible at all, although the chances are there would be some overlap. But we can never know. All that we can know about is our own relationship with the Divine. God knows who’s in the Church. As individuals, the only thing I can ever know personally about Church membership is whether or not I’m a member. However, it could also be said that by the fruits shall ye know them. In other words, if it walks like a Donald and quacks like a Donald, it probably isn’t a church member, i.e. a Christian, although we mustn’t judge others and we can never really know because we haven’t walked a mile in his webbed feet.
It’s also true that God uses people, other animals and even inanimate objects. This is morally complex, because according to Immanuel Kant’s “kingdom of ends” statement of the Categorical Imperative, people (and by my extension any other living or otherwise conscious being) should never be treated as a means, only an end. In other words, don’t use people. So when God is using people, is that because God has a special dispensation to use them? Nonetheless I would want God to use me and I have faith in God’s wisdom and perfection so I can be confident that God will never use me for evil ends. What I can’t be sure about, of course, is whether God is using me or I’ve managed to convince myself that what I want to do anyway is God’s will, or, more subtly, whether God is using me or the institution of the Church or some other person or organisation is doing so for its own ends, and this is probably the central problem with organised religion – purity of motive is hard to discern. Leaving that massive problem aside though, when God uses someone, God is effectively using them as a messenger or a servant, witting or unwitting, and as such, that person is in a sense an angel. They may not even know that they are. In fact they probably don’t usually know it’s happening. For instance, when I was seven I saw “I HATE YOU” graffittied on a fence in a farm near my home, and convinced myself that God hated me. I went home worried about this and confronted my mother about it. At the time she was playing a tape with “Your God Reigns” on it, and I heard it as “Your God Hates”, which confirmed my belief that God hated me. Her reply was that God was incapable of hate, which raised further problems in my mind because that meant that God was not all powerful. My ultimate decision about this incident, years later, was that although God is capable of hate, God never exercises the option to hate people, although obviously God hates sin. Interpreting this as a message from God, who are the messengers? Well, my mother for a start, although I expect she saw herself to be communicating a message from God consciously to me. Likewise the singers on the tape communicated the message to my addled brain that God hated me. In their case, they were trying to communicate the opposite message to the one I heard. Finally, the chances are that some teen glam rocker wannabe had scratched “I HATE YOU” into that fence, either in a fit of nihilism or as part of a dare or argument with their friends or acquaintances, not knowing that she was doing God’s work and communicating that message to me which ultimately led to a realisation about the nature of God’s omnipotence. She probably hadn’t been to church since the late 1960s. All of these people are messengers of God. They are all angels, and in the case of the KISS fan she was not only unconscious of what she was doing but was in fact trying to do the opposite.
All of this could be completely wrong of course, and just a process going on in my head, but God might even so arrange equally bizarre juxtapositions of events to bring us to Her or otherwise help or rescue us. So is this what an angel is? I think they’re more than that.
Because I’m Christian, I basically have to believe in Satan, and in fact I find it easy to do so for the following reason. Patriarchy and its demon child global capitalism persist in the face of all reason, many human wishes and the like. RastafarIanism has its own patriarchal issues, but all of this is adequately described by its wonderfully apt term Babylon. It’s a system which not only organises itself hideously well but also seems to be rather too perfect and rather too protected from snags. Obviously it’s partly protected by Babylon in the sense of the police, although of course as a Christian I must also recognise that even a police officer defending an illegal foxhunt against hunt sabs is a child of God, made in Her image and worthy of love. But it also seems organised. Since I don’t believe in conspiracy theories at all on the human plane, there is a missing explanation for this, and for this reason I believe there’s a conscious and outrageously powerful evil mind behind capitalism and the patriarchy. That mind is of course Satan. I’m definitely not like the stereotypical liberal Christian in this respect, who is often understood to reject the idea that the Devil exists. He obviously does, because we’re not living in paradise. To me, without the existence of the Devil I would have to do two things. I would have to believe in a human conspiracy and I would have to blame people for things, and that would make it harder to love everyone. I would also say that the subjective experience of depression as, as Churchill put it, a “black dog”, which corresponds pretty closely to how I see it, i.e. a force outside my identity pushing me down and keeping me in despair, does seem easy to personify. I also realise that if a casual reader takes my statement about concluding that God hated me from a bit of graffiti I read in 1974 and combines it with my apparent equation between depression and demon possession, they would probably be justified in concluding that I’m psychotic. I don’t have a problem with that because of the phenomenon of the wisdom of madness and clearly meaning can be found, sometimes very negative and destructive but meaning nonetheless, in delusions and hallucinations. Nor am I denying that the social circumstances leading to depression, such as abusive relationships, poverty, disrupted sleep, and the brain chemistry and cognitive features of depression, such as inefficient or insufficient serotonin production or overgeneralising the negative and guilt complexes, are not equally important. But notice that it’s possible to assert that the social circumstances, brain chemistry and cognitive psychological features of depression are compatible with each other and also with the idea that it can sometimes be usefully seen as a form of possession by demons. Not a problem, bizarre though it may sound to a twenty-first century Westerner. Moreover, the social circumstances contributing to depression are also organised by the Devil.
And the problem is that the Devil is an angel according to the Bible, so if I believe in one angel, why can’t I believe in others? In this case I’m not talking about angels in a mundane sense but real proper spiritual beings called angels. I don’t know what to do with this thought though, because it sounds insane. But there is a third possible category of beings who can be seen as angels, and it’s a very broad one.
I’ve already explained that I think humans can be angels without knowing they are in the sense of being messengers. The problem with being a human angel is that sin tends to get in the way. However, the Bible tells us that Christ died “once for all on the cross”. In other words, Christ came for all human beings just once (leaving aside the Second Coming), meaning that He never came separately for, for example, Australian Aborigines, Incas or the people who lived before the Mount Toba eruption, and also never came for any extraterrestrial intelligences who might exist. Therefore we can conclude either that there are no aliens or that any aliens who do exist are sinless and constantly do God’s work. Such beings live, from our perspective, in Heaven, i.e. the whole Universe aside from Earth, and this makes them rather similar to the conventional idea of angels. Furthermore, there’s a whole other category of sinless beings: other animals. Christ didn’t die for dogs, jellyfish or orang utan, so we can conclude that it wasn’t necessary and that they are also sinless. If that’s so, they too can be angels. Hence if a dog saves your life, that dog may be doing God’s work and so in a sense is an angel.
That’s about it for today. I am aware that my words are going to sound mad to a lot of people, but remember this if you’re worried. Lack of insight implies a poor prognosis. I have insight. I know I’m mad, so I may be fine.