As you've seen, I've been looking at a few paintings of angels recently and I'm not keen because they seem really stuffed with symbolism in a way which seems inappropriate. However, I did find one I really liked, again on the subject of the Annunciation:
This is Henry Ossawa Tanner's version of the Annunciation. Incidentally, this artist is a nineteenth century African American, and I don't know how many of those would have painted in this style, or at all, so I personally found that quite surprising.
This painting, though, I found the most convincing of the lot. It has a realism to it which the others lack. I can imagine Mary waking up in the middle of the night startled and overawed by this column of golden light in her room, and the bareness of her room, the utter non-humanity but also love of the warm but also terrible, almost uncreated light of the angel in front of her, which tells her the terrible but astonishing message, and - well, I talked about that last time.
I feel the allure of angels but at the same time I feel bothered by them because to me the idea of angels brings temptation with it. To me there is at most one God and in that sense I agree with atheists except they believe there's one fewer God than I do. The idea, incidentally, that I'm atheist about the likes of Zeus, Thoth and Odin is incorrect - those are names of the one God and are not separate deities, so in a sense I do in fact believe in all of them too, as faces of that single God, just as I believe in the morning and evening star as the single planet Venus. This is partly what bothers me about angels.
You see, the thing is I am quite happy to focus on the idea of one God, and as I say that only places me one step away from being atheist as I believe in almost exactly the same number of supernatural beings as I used to when I was one of those that way, but as soon as I start to believe in angels I've started to believe in a lot of extra supernatural beings which are separate from God.
I also think the word translated as "angel" in the Bible, which also means "messenger", sometimes probably just refers to plain, ordinary human messengers and not supernatural beings. Sometimes I think God might use people to send messages, and in that situation those people are of course in a sense angels, but that might happen to anyone. I wouldn't be surprised if God's used this guy:
"Richard Dawkins Cooper Union Shankbone" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Dawkins_Cooper_Union_Shankbone.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Richard_Dawkins_Cooper_Union_Shankbone.jpg
as an angel in that sense from time to time. He'd certainly be in the right position to be used in that way since so many people hear him and he has so much exposure. Nice tie by the way.
My problem is that when I start to think about the idea of all these little details about the non-physical Universe, it all starts to seem a bit like a flight of fancy, and that really makes me doubt everything. Having said that, and this may not win me many friends because it's all going to sound a bit fire and brimstony, I do actually believe in the Devil, and here's why.
Lots of people believe in conspiracy theories, and I'm not going to say what I think about that. One thing which definitely seems to happen is that events seem to conspire to bring about the worst possible outcome. For instance, back in the early 1990s, John Major became Prime Minister and that meant the Tories stayed in power for a lot longer than they otherwise would, because he was too bland to be defeated. In the meantime, a potentially very successful and quite charismatic Labour leader suddenly died. I'm not claiming he was assassinated, unlike some people, but I do think this is the kind of thing which seems arranged. As I don't want to think badly of people, I choose to assume that instead of the conspiracy occurring organised by human beings, it's organised by a supernatural being, namely the Devil. This stops me from thinking badly of people and helps me to see everyone as a victim rather than a deliberate perpetrator of evil, so it serves a function. To me, there seems to be a plan to make things turn out for the worst.
Of course, according to standard Christian theology, the Devil is an angel, so I suppose I do believe in at least one angel in the sense of a supernatural being.
The trouble with believing in the Devil is that the temptation is then there not to take responsibility for one's own wrongdoing because one can just blame it on him.
One of the distinctive things about Christianity is that it's very stark and austere, particularly Protestantism. It doesn't have the elaborate cosmologies and cosmogonies of other faith traditions such as Hinduism or Jainism, or the pantheon of deities and so on. Christianity is oddly grounded in the boring. I don't know what to make of that. However, it does mean that the idea of angels seems incongruous in it, and clearly some have succumbed to the temptation to elaborate it and ask how many of them can dance on the head of a pin or arrange them conceptually into choirs with strange names such as Thrones and Dominions. Incidentally, that lot does work quite well as a subject of meditation, but otherwise it's a bit, well, disturbing.
In other words, I just don't know what I think. Sorry. Oh, I do like the idea that every angel is a separate species though, so they can't be saved because whereas all human beings are the same species, so they can have a representative as Christ, the Devil can't be because Christ would have to be the Devil to save him.
There you go, it just peters out as usual doesn't it? Sigh.