The Season of the Angels

Today is the feast of Michaelmas, the beginning of the season of the angels.

As a child, I did a fair bit of travelling, usually on small airplanes. They were small by today’s standards, to the extent that I don’t remember there being a central block of seats, just two sets of three on either side of the cabin, which meant that most people could see out of the window. We children were invariably given the window seat or, if not, the one next to it, so you always had a reasonable view. The flights were fairly short, so I spent more time looking out of the window than filling in colouring books.

One of the things that I took for granted, and came to expect the minute the plane had become fully airborne, was to see someone who I took to be a mechanic positioned towards the middle of the plane’s wing. He appeared to be slightly bent over, as if he was investigating something. I took him to be a ‘he’, although gender was by no means a distinguishing feature of this personage. I occasionally asked my mother what he was doing there. She declined to comment, which was wise of her.

I’m not sure at what point in my travelling life this person no longer appeared on the wing of the plane, but I do remember realising that he or she wasn’t there anymore. I took this to be a normal aspect of growing up, that perhaps this guardian was no longer needed, or that I didn’t need to see him. It never occurred to me, and still doesn’t, that he might have been a figment of my imagination. This is because I assumed that it was perfectly reasonable for someone to be on the wing of a plane at thirty four thousand feet, or perhaps a little less in those days. I just noticed him there and thought little of it.

When you notice something, you don’t think about it beforehand. It just seems to occur from nowhere. I have had one or two similar experiences in later life, but very few. As with the guardian figure on the plane, they were never imagined.

To imagine something involves a degree of suspension of disbelief which, to begin with at least, involves a willingness to let go of one reality in order to grasp another. Both realities are true in a prosaic sense, although as we grow older we tend to distinguish one realm of truth from another. The film or story is true for as long as we are caught up in it, but ceases to be true in the same way when we close the book or turn off the television.

There are exceptions to this. The two truths, the two realities, can become one in moments of extreme need. Take the story of the apostle Peter who was led out of prison by an angel and ‘awoke’ to find himself in the street, his companion having disappeared (Acts 12: 1-11). This, I take to be an event that happened in real time, real space, but it had its origins in an altogether different dimension. Put in the clumsy language of ordinary mortals, it would seem that this liberator stepped from one reality, the reality beyond time as we know it, into another, the reality of time and the constraints, challenges and ultimate death that come with the passage of mortal time. In Peter’s case it was the reality of prison.

All of this raises a host of questions about the nature of belief and faith. There is plenty of scope for cynicism and for the despisers of religion to make what may seem like a convincing case against belief in angels. But, to my way of thinking, their arguments only convince to the extent that we confuse belief with faith and try to separate them, when ideally they should belong together.

Children remind us that confusing the two is not the right way to arrive at an understanding of faith and an appreciation of what informs true religion. A child who sees what they presume to be an angel, sees that entity without questioning its ‘existence’. Existence means nothing to the clear visioned child because the idea of existence demands proof and rational explanation. The child does not have the means for this at their disposal, especially if they are very young. The child sees, knows and believes. Very often the child does not even need to see in order to know and believe.

A person who arrives at this stage in later life might be described as a person of faith. They may arrive at this point of knowing as a result of a long and painful intellectual or spiritual search, or they may simply arrive at what can only be called a place of deep understanding, which is also a place of knowing. This can also happen in the aftermath of grief, illness or personal trauma.

I think this returns us to the season of the angels. Angels seem to be around people who are more interested in the understanding that leads to knowing, rather than in proof. This is what happens to the prophets. They have to be brought to a place of knowing, so that they do not burden themselves, and distract others, with the need to prove that what they have seen, heard and said is true and provable. They need to be in a place which allows them to be, in a sense, transparent interfaces with that other realm, so that they can assure the rest of us that the world and all that is in it is somehow held in the power of an ultimate goodness. Prophets and their angels are badly needed right now, but I can’t help thinking that they are very much around.

Beyond Belief



I have been waiting for the Twitter teacup storm to die down, following a Radio 4 interview in which I took part on Palm Sunday. .We were being asked whether believing in the Resurrection, and that Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins, was optional when it came to defining yourself as a Christian. I think the BBC had hoped for a soundbite conflict. They were to be disappointed. The conflict, between angry sceptics and equally angry conservative Christians, manifested itself only later on my Twitter feed.

The radio discussion itself was too evenly yoked (we all more or less agreed) and unevenly managed in terms of distribution and fair ‘come back’. So, given these constraints, there was not a great deal of room for nuanced discussion about two central tenets of Christian belief. We could have talked more about the difference between faith and belief, for example, and how the constraints of immature belief, as learned perhaps in childhood but allowed to lie dormant ever since, stifles the longing of the human heart for something meaningful in regard to these defining moments of the Christian story.

There is a difference between believing something and believing in something. To believe something as a demonstrable fact pertains to the realm of evidence and the intellect. It becomes a propositional truth, something that can be proposed, or proved, and argued for or against. To believe in something takes us in one of two directions. The first, if left to itself, leads to a dead end, like believing in Father Christmas long past the age of 6. It will leave us disillusioned because believing in begs often unanswered questions – why do we still believe? Or for what purpose might this event have taken place, or be true in the fullest sense? These questions take us in a new direction.

In the case of the defining moments of the Christian faith, admittedly conflated for the purpose of this brief discussion, you could say that the purpose of Christ’s dying and rising again has to do with unconditional love. This is why mature belief shocks and even disappoints those who resist journeying to its limits in order to rediscover its very particular truth. Mature belief becomes faith. Faith lays bare our need for love and requires of us love in return.

Faith is invariably a conversation premised on love. Fast forward to the Resurrection, as that is the season we are now in, and we have what initially appears to be an ordinary encounter, albeit in the saddest of circumstances, a conversation between a grieving woman and someone who she takes to be the gardener. The conversation is utterly changed, transfigured by love, in the naming of two names – “Mary” and “Rabbuni”. The latter would have been the respectfully affectionate name used to address a loved teacher, someone the woman would have known well enough to laugh and argue with, as one does with a teacher who has been life changing.  Here, I think of my own PhD supervisor, Professor Daniel Hardy. These teachers give of themselves and it is from their generosity of being that we truly learn. It is also where faith is nurtured, on many levels, and brought to maturity. So learning is at the heart of loving conversation.

When we are asked whether we believe something, or in something, it is the imagination that is being called into question. Imagination is essential to the learning process, as is the question ‘why’? or, as Professor Hardy would have put it, ‘How so?’ We are being asked to deploy our intellects in the freedom of imagination to the service of truth. You could say that this is the purpose of all scientific and philosophical enquiry. It is also why we do theology. We do theology in order to know the kind of truth that is discovered through an encounter with the embodiment of Divine love and grace, as the writer of St. John’s Gospel proclaims (John 1:16).

We work with our minds, especially in regard to the great mysteries of faith, in order to understand with our hearts. Perhaps an equivalent understanding exists in the realm of science and mathematics, as well as in certain branches of philosophy. But doing theology brings with it a further challenge. Having understood with our hearts, we can only do what the apostles Peter and Thomas did, worship the living God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Therein lies the real sticking point for angry sceptics when it comes to faith and belief.