Human beings are confined to the evidence of their senses in exploring the world of which they are a part. But we want more: the senses tell us how; but we want to know why. To find out why though, we have to use our imagination.
No matter how bolstered up it is with assurances of revelation, no matter if accompanied with many noble guidelines of behaviour, what we imagine, or, to use another word, believe, is still a product of that imagination. Not false, not true, and still unknown.
“Even that which we commonly regard as immortal dies sooner or later. One day the last Titian and the last Beethoven quartet will cease to exist. The canvas and the printed notes may remain if they are carefully preserved but the works themselves will have died with the last eye and ear accessible to their messages. As for the immortal soul, that is an eternal truth and the eternal truths die with the men for whom they were necessary”. (the elderly, disillusioned Nazi Haller/Moeller in Eric Ambler’s Journey Into Fear).
Ambler distinguishes between art as object on the one hand, and its value on the other; on immortality on the one hand, and our desire for it, on the other. The same distinction applies to beliefs and facts about other facets of the unknown.
It is an important distinction, I believe: one we all should make, between what we (and others) believe, and what we know to be fact. It is so easy to think that what we believe is the same as fact. And then, tolerance, and sometimes dignity, goes out the door. Unbelievers become wrong, or evil. Belief is really like a hypothesis in philosophy or science, and is not a truth.
How could we possibly know about Heaven, God, angels, or Hell and its devils? They are eternal truths and they are necessary to us. But they are above all beliefs, not facts. They have a role to play, but they are human beliefs, and necessary for humans, far more necessary than any truth they may embody.
The answer usually given is that these are revealed truths. Someone, often someone unknown, just knew. They knew because God told them. We believe in God because God told us to. That’s going around in a silly circle. We really believe in God because we want to, and need to.
I don’t trust a believer secure in the fact that he knows: he’s just looking for certainty, and can be intolerant if that certainty is challenged. I’m much more comfortable with a believer who just honestly believes.
God and the devil, Heaven and Hell, express (some would say, symbolically) our moral sense, our idea of right behaviour. I can understand that. We live in a mortal and unjust world, and would like to redress the balance.
The medium is the message
But where did we get angels from? Feathered humanoid beings in long robes who guide and protect us, and who once apparently fought like soldiers to defend Heaven from invasion. Seems a little weird to me.
First, let’s get rid of the wings. In cultures before writing was common, pictures used iconography to express ideas: a halo meant holiness, and wings meant a swift messenger. Persian messengers of the Great King were depicted with wings, Hermes and Iris had wings, the angels of YHWH had wings. The wings mean these beings were swift in their purpose; not that they were a bird-like being who literally flew. The word ‘angel’ is from the Greek word ‘messenger’.
Disregard the fact that God would surely not need messengers. A look at the Jewish bible, which is rich in angels, suggests some things to me. In pre flood times for instances, Genesis says angels mated with the daughters of men. Their offspring was the giants.
Despite believers’ contortions to rationalise this and other passages, I think it likely that angels were once gods, from the days when the Hebrews had a polytheistic religion. I seem to remember Aaron had trouble with the people over worship of the Golden Calf (Canaanite polytheism became attractive during Moses’ absence); Solomon was certainly a polytheist; and in the Garden of Eden, god is concerned that Adam might become “one of us” after eating of the fruit. Angels then were gods for monotheists.
The angels’ story began long before the universe was created. According to old tales collected in books like the Mishnah, the sons of God lived in Heaven and acknowledged him as supreme ruler. But one, called Lucifer and associated with the planet Venus, the Morning and Evening Star, was dissatisfied, and plotted to overthrow God and rule in his place. Battle was joined between the opposing sides and Lucifer and his troops were defeated. A place was created to confine them, Hell. And when the world was created, Lucifer was there ready to tempt Adam and Eve in resentment at his fate.
There are similar stories in Zoroastrianism and in the myths of Babylon and even Greece (Uranos, Cronos, the Titans). These tales of the Hebrews were embroidered on by John of Patmos in his Revelations, and passed into the Christian tradition.
How humans learned these details that occurred long before the world was created is a question that goes begging.
Angels next turned up in Hebrew stories as Cherubim. These were guardians of boundaries, and in Genesis they ensure Adam and Eve cannot enter again into the Garden. Cherubim were like Sphinxes, and were represented as having parts of several animals, as well as wings. They were originally as distinct from angels as elves from pixies, but as angelology developed, they were integrated into the angelic order. Again, how the originator of these tales found them out is unknown.
Then there are the Guardian Angels, who look after the spiritual welfare of each individual. Our own efforts, it seems, are not enough.
To me all this intervention by a host of heavenly beings seems redundant. But I’m in the minority on this.
The more things change…
What interests me is the way our beliefs change over time, while remaining nominally the same: loving your enemies becomes waging a holy war, and so on. Perhaps this is so we can credit them as facts.
Gabriel came to Mary and told her she would give birth to Jesus, the son of God. If God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, he/it is also omnipresent, so Mary knows what God intends. No need for a messenger. The Gospel account is poetical, metaphorical. The messenger Gabriel symbolises the contact. Gabriel eventually, as the tale is retold, becomes a ‘being’, and much ingenuity was later spent typifying the genus angel: types, ranks, functions, names. It all sounds very factual but it’s not. It’s formulation of a widely held belief. The reality that this information is invented, and by no-one knows whom, is tacitly ignored.
For Christians, angels are a mixed bag: announcers, choristers, warriors, guides, avengers, depending on which bit of the bible you look at. They have functions as diverse as the Greek gods do. For Kaya and Christiane Muller in The Book of Angels, “Angels are not little cherubs with wings but a symbolic representation of our divine conscience, our multidimensional existence”. Couch potatoes and gamers believe angels are like ETs, aliens and vampires: you have to watch out for them; very definitely there are good angels and bad angels.
I don’t believe any of this is necessary, but of course it may well be necessary for you. The essential fact about the supernatural, for me, is that we don’t know anything about it, even if it exists. So we make it up. Ghosts, zombies, chimeras, vampires, fairies – and angels.
We need to believe, more than we need to know.
What you believe makes you what you are, far more than genes and chromosomes do. Do you need beings from other realms to protect and advise you? Are you under attack from supernatural beings like the Devil? Is the Universe all about you, and right conduct all about gaining something for yourself, like Heaven? Do you need certainty, scorn infidels and obey the holy rules? Do you humbly play a part you don’t fully understand in the mysterious movements of the Universe?
One of my own beliefs is that we each know what is best for us. But sometimes it takes a long time to learn how to listen for it. “To your own self be true”, believed Polonius, “and you cannot be false to any man”.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.