Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins

Accept no substitutes

It was in November 1993 that I first encountered angels as a serious problem. I was in Toronto to give a lecture on postmodern theology at Trinity College, and the shops seemed to be full of books about angels. Not theological books, but popular sentimental New-Age-type books in which the worst excesses of Victorian religious art seemed suddenly to have come to life.

Since then I have become increasingly aware of a whole angel industry building up on both sides of the Atlantic. As an advertising feature for last week�s "Everyman" programme on television put it: "Angels are the biggest thing since near-death-experiences and alien abductions".

That is why I call them a problem.

Most of the stuff about angels doing the rounds at the moment has no more to do with Christianity than do alien abductions. And Christmas - with its heavy emphasis on angels - seems as good a time as any to tackle the issue head on.

The English word "angel" comes from the Greek angelos, which originally meant simply "a (human) messenger", but in the New Testament normally refers to an other-worldly messenger from God. The equivalent Hebrew word, malak, occurs about 200 times in the Old Testament, and the Authorized Version of the Bible translates it "messenger" and "angel" in almost equal numbers.

In the earliest biblical usage, the "Angel of the Lord" was a term used to indicate the presence on earth of God himself. Only later was the angel treated as a messenger from an absent God, and still it was singular. In the whole Old Testament the plural "angels" is only used half a dozen times. It is probably to Persian religion, a late influence on ancient Israel, that we owe the familiar picture of angels as servants and soldiers of the heavenly King, numbered in their thousands and their tens of thousands.

It was the Christian Church, centuries later, that took various biblical references, which may or may not have referred originally to heavenly beings, and created out of them an officially recognized hierarchy of nine orders of angels - these are the �"nine bright shiners" of the popular song - and divided them into three choirs of three orders each: Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Dominations, Virtues and Powers; Principalities, Archangels and (ordinary) Angels.

These mediaeval titles still survive in the hymn "Ye watchers and ye holy ones", but they are not the focus of interest for today�s angel enthusiasts. These people are much more concerned with the idea of guardian angels.

The belief that God assigns to each person an angel to guard them in body and soul was common among both pagans and Jews at the time of Christ. It is mentioned in Matthew�s Gospel, where the protection is achieved by the angel�s constantly gazing on God�s face in heaven. Today�s idea of a guardian angel is much more "hands on", involving decidedly close encounters. Testimonies in the recent television programme ranged from someone being swept by an unseen body from the path of a runaway car, to sightings of an angel followed by the discovery of white feathers about the house!

What, as Christians in the 21st century, are we supposed to make of it all?

I suggest that we need to distinguish three elements in the angel business. First, the tradition we have inherited from the Bible and the Church. Second, the psychology of mystical and paranormal experience. And third, the spiritual and religious use to which we ourselves may put the notion of angels.

  1. The first of these I have already touched on, and would only add three brief points. First, that there is no warrant in either scripture or theology for images of angels as chubby infants or pale young men with two feathery wings. Second, that the "heavenly host" of angels in Luke�s Christmas story probably relates to the stars and planets of the night sky - a not too subtle hint that all alleged astrological forces acknowledge, and are subject to, Christ�s kingly rule. (Matthew makes the same point in a different way by having a star guide the magi/astrologers to worship the Christ child.) 

    And third, mature Christian doctrine teaches that angels are pure spirits, creatures who are to be distinguished both from animals, which are purely physical, and from humans, who are part physical and part spirit. There is no way in which any human, dead or alive, could ever become an angel.

  2. The psychology of mystical experience is an important and complex subject. There is no time here to delve into it, except to say that there is no reason to doubt that those who say they encounter angels do tell the truth as they perceive it. Even so, the descriptions of angel sightings seem to owe much to certain aspects of Christian art and little or nothing to the Bible or the Church�s teaching.

  3. Finally, what of the spiritual and religious use to which we ourselves may put the notion of angels? I have no quarrel with their symbolic appearance in music and art - and even in prayer - so long as their role is always and only to direct us to God. But when interest in angels becomes an end in itself, then Christians should have no part in it.

In the history of religion, angels have been seen as mediators between heaven and earth. When God has been thought of as distant, angels have been more important. When God has seemed close to us, there has been less need of them.

So the present day obsession with angels is a symptom of religious decline. It is because God seems distant, because few people have any sense of God's presence, that they seek substitutes of various kinds. Make your own list: superstitions, flying saucers, alien abductions, things to take God�s place, offers to provide a way to him.

But the Christian answer is always the same: accept no substitutes.

We have only one mediator, Jesus Christ himself. He is the Way to God and in him alone God and humanity are eternally united. And the fruit of that union is God�s constant presence: the Holy Spirit dwelling in each of us.

We have no need of angelic go-betweens. At Christmas, of all times, we cannot forget that we have Emmanuel, God with us.

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