The Robbie Williams song ‘Angels’ is to me quite guilt-inducing. The woman depicted in the lyrics is, in a most angelic way, a very selfless lover which seemed very difficult to live up to and I ended up feeling very much that I wasn’t an adequate spouse compared to that standard. Of course, as a Christian I could recognise that life isn’t about personal striving but allowing God to act through one to achieve more than one would be able to manage without help. As I’m typing this I can feel my non-theistic readers becoming dismissive, and I can empathise very strongly with that, because of the issue of angels.
There are spiritual paths whose conceptual accoutrements are very ornate and cluttered. Hinduism and Shinto come to mind with their plethora of spirits and deities. Abrahamic religions, I feel, are a reaction to that and proceed in the opposite direction, but human nature being what it is there also seems to be a cycle between what might be termed monotheism and what seems at first to be closer to polytheism. People seem to find it hard to maintain the idea of a single deity without gradually adding bits to it. Then the point comes where the need is felt to clear out the “dross”, as the clearer-outers would have it, and those extra ornaments are abolished.
The issue of angels arose for me recently because of the use of the concept in popular culture, namely the feature film ‘Dogma’ and the TV series ‘Preacher’, which have a lot in common. To this end, it’s worthwhile looking into angelology just to work out what’s going on. So I did that, and came across the familiar nine choirs organised into three triads:
The choirs are, from top to bottom, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Principalities, Virtues and Powers; and, Principalities, Archangels and Angels. So far, so elaborate. I can see the justification in this kind of structure as a basis for meditation and a cabbalistic-style structure to the spiritual universe. Comparing them to chakras, I feel the latter have an unquestionable reality to them which is not at all slippery and I think I’ve mentioned them elsewhere on this blog. With angels though, and particularly with this highly ornate hierarchy, I have a substantial problem.
One of the issues with theology, as opposed to philosophy, is that it can seem to built enormous conceptual structures on top of minute turns of phrase in Scripture and the like. Here I have older approaches to the Bible in mind. The hierarchy of angels is probably the best of all examples I’ve found of this happening, although technically angelology is not theology. The Bible seldom mentions angels, and it took me a very long time to track down why they’re organised into these nine levels based on studying the Bible. I would even go so far as to say it isn’t there. The explicit idea is from Pseudo-Dionysus, in a work called ‘On The Celestial Hierarchy’, and is based on the flimsiest of pretexts to the contemporary mind: Colossians 1:16, which in the King James Version reads:
For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:
Somehow Pseudo-Dionysus (whose name, incidentally, was not literally that – the “Pseudo-” bit refers to the fact that he is taken to be St Denys, i.e. Dionysus, but isn’t) managed to build the whole hierarchy of angels on that plus a couple of other verses which are no more apparently relevant to the subject.
This is not a problem if it’s confined to the Middle Ages, which I’ve always assumed it is. At the time, all sorts of elaborate conclusions were drawn on not very much evidence and then accepted as Holy Writ. It turns out, though, that there is in fact at least one relatively mainstream Roman Catholic group which fully accepts the idea, namely one of the many Franciscan Orders. I find this quite troubling, although I’m not myself a Roman Catholic. Of course I don’t accept for a moment that this hierarchy is real for various reasons, not least that I see it as paralleling the hierarchies found in church and state, which I would consider to be absent in “Heaven” and as a mark of human failings. The so-called “Kingdom” of Heaven is not a government. All that stuff is what people do, not God, and the idea that there’s a parallel between the hierarchy of the Church and Heaven strikes me as totally bizarre and an attempt to justify an unjustifiable mundane system. Of course it could be said as well that my own finitude and sinfulness leads me to this conclusion and that in fact God’s Kingdom is literally that, with a monarch, a court and the rest. To me, however, that’s Babylon, and nothing to do with the divine.
I have occasionally said to atheists that the only real difference between myself and them is that I believe that there is one extra person in the Universe. I say this as an attempt at bridge-building. I don’t see myself as on the opposite side as other people just because they happen to be atheist. There is another reason why I say this though: Ockham’s Razor. That is, the idea, mentioned ironically by the mediaeval Franciscan friar William of Ockham, that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is the best hypothesis. This is part of how I justify monotheism. Many other spiritual pathways posit the existence of many supernatural beings, for instance Thor, Freya, Woden, Loki and the rest in Asatru, and Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon and others in Ancient Greek religion. The monotheistic faiths, by contrast, posit the existence of a single deity, which is much simpler, and there are other religious perspectives which accept the existence of other deities only as faces of a single true deity behind them all. Consequently when atheists ask the question “Which God do you believe in?”, attempting to make the point that someone who does not believe in Zeus or Freya is just as much atheist as they are, they miss the point that all these other names are simply names for the same deity, just as the Morning and Evening “Stars” are both Venus. Of course it could very well be argued that the next stage on from monotheism is the belief that the number of deities is in fact zero rather than one, something which I happen not to accept but don’t wish to argue about.
Given this simplicity and adherence to Ockham’s Razor, you can perhaps understand why I have difficulty accepting the existence of angels. To me, they seem redundant and in a way quite similar to the Roman Catholic idea of saints, and taking the passages which mention angels in the Bible, I must admit I have strong doubts. Nor is there any problem in me admitting my doubt. I would say that all Christians doubt and that it’s a healthy part of one’s spiritual journey to acknowledge that doubt. In fact, just as there seems to be a cycle between a single entity and multiple entities in religion, in an individual’s spiritual path there is a similar cycle of doubt and trust which ultimately serves to strengthen faith. Pretending not to doubt stunts spiritual growth. To me at least, I want to wallow and luxuriate in my doubt like a nice warm bath, stepping out only when I’m ready to towel myself off in a reinvigorated spiritual state of trust.
In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has three visitors. When I first read this passage as a child, my immediate conclusion was that it referred to God as a Trinity. Later on, taking as it were Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”, I decided that this was a childish interpretation, and also an example of over-interpretation. I was therefore surprised, decades later, to find that it’s also an interpretation which has been fully endorsed by certain churches! Nonetheless, looking at it I can only see it as seeing things which aren’t there and I don’t think it’s in keeping with the spirit of what at that point was a Jewish text to try to cram the idea of Trinitarianism into it. I don’t want to take things too far and I want to be cautious, and the fact that the religious establishment can accept that kind of interpretation strikes me as extremely dubious. It’s similar in fact to my embarrassment at realising that to repair a certain part of the Big Bang theory it was necessary to have Dark Energy. When I had that thought, I decided I would never make a good scientist if I was having to make up something that silly, and apparently Einstein thought something similar. Unfortunately scientific theories have their own momentum and that idea is now widely accepted in cosmology even though it’s clearly rubbish. The idea of angels seems quite similar in that respect.
But, am I in fact ignoring very real supernatural beings who deserve some attention? Someone who knew something he couldn’t have about me once told me I was surrounded by angels who loved me and that he could see them all around me. Since he was also party to impossible knowledge, this does lead me to doubt my doubt in angels. There is also clearly at least one angel I do believe in, who is of course not commonly believed in by liberal Christians, which I see myself as: Satan.
TRIGGER WARNING – TWIN TOWERS
By UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg: Flickr user TheMachineStops (Robert J. Fisch)derivative work: upstateNYer – UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11786300
I believe in Satan because Sod’s Law, at least in geopolitics and human affairs, seems very real and the alternative seems to be to believe in conspiracy theories. Although things weren’t exactly hunky-dory before it, 9/11 really cocked things up in a major way. It was exceedingly convenient for the military-industrial complex that it happened. If I was a metaphysically naturalistic atheist, I would probably have looked for an explanation for that which would amount to some kind of conspiracy theory, and as we know, most believers in conspiracy theories of that nature are seen as delusional and having various other psychiatric issues. That said, of course there are real conspiracies such as the Tuskagee Syphilis Program and I’m not denying that there really are conspiracies, just that the likes of the Illuminati (who actually, in a way, seemed like a great bunch of guys incidentally) taking over the world are just not happening and even if they are it misses the point, which is to make a world where they could not make useful headway, and that starts from within.
Even so, 9/11 is suspiciously convenient, and rather than opt for an earthly conspiracy theory when that kind of thing happens, I believe in a demonic one. It was orchestrated somehow by Satan, by which I definitely do not mean, incidentally, that Islam is Satanic, because it very clearly isn’t. I just mean that the establishment found it too convenient for it just to have happened by chance. 9/11 is, incidentally, merely a particularly vivid example of what I mean. There are plenty of others.
Consequently, I clearly do believe in at least one angel, namely Satan, and if I believe in one, why not believe in others? When I say “why not?”, this should be taken in the context of the fact that I’m a theist who believes in the supernatural and not in the sense that there is no God or supernatural, because that particular deal is not on the table here although it’s a valid question.
So yes, I do believe in angels, and moreover I believe that they are supernatural beings rather than aliens, which is another possibility I haven’t explored. Furthermore, the idea of angels and angelology is culturally relevant and helps one to understand creative works even if one is personally completely naturalistic and atheistic. For instance, the top of this entry is illustrated using the armillary sphere-like device which appears in the title sequence of the TV version of ‘Game Of Thrones’. I would posit that it is in fact a Throne. Hear me out on this one.
Thrones, sometimes known as or perhaps associated with ophanim are the third choir of angels counting down from the top. They are markedly unlike other angels in appearance because they are utterly non-humanoid in appearance, something which incidentally appeals to me because the idea of angels looking like humans is completely absurd and I am already having my ability to believe things severely stretched at this stage. This is an example of a Throne:
Thrones are fiery wheels with eyes on the rims. Whereas Game Of Thrones will of course not feature angels at any point, it turns out that the concept behind the title sequence involved the idea of a “mad monk” (not my words) in a tower somewhere who was able to see all the action, and what can be more a sign of an ungrounded flight of fancy than the idea of a Throne? Hence this is, in my opinion, entirely intentional on the part of the designer of the title sequence and it’s something which can be appreciated if one knows something about angelology.
Finally, there is the usual peeve: cherubim are not putti.
This is what people tend to think cherubim look like:
In other words, like Cupid. Cherubim are in fact the second highest choir of angels and have four wings and four faces, one of a lion, one of an oxen (don’t ask), one of a human and one of an eagle. I honestly have no idea why people think cherubim are putti but I’m quite curious about it.
So, that’s why angels bother me.