Without wanting to sound cranky, the troubled, turbulent, testing times we are living in right now are ripe for angels. That may sound a bit “when-all-else-fails”, so before you write me off as an untrustworthy New Age guru and move on to something else, it is a claim borne out not by belief, but by some of the core texts that have shaped our collective history.
In the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, wherever crisis, confusion or change is in the air, angels are on hand. It is three non-descript angels who approach the elderly patriarch Abraham in his desert tent at Mamre in the Book of Genesis, one of the foundation texts of Judaism, and proceed to turn his family’s world upside down by telling him that his wife, Sarah, already in her late eighties, is to have a son. In Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible, in the midst of a cosmic battle, it is the Archangel Michael who defeats the devil and his rebel angels and flings them down to earth. And in the Quran, it is Jibril (Gabriel in Arabic) who conveys the words of Allah to the Prophet Muhammad, in a cave on Mount Hira on the Night of Destiny that marks the birth of Islam.
Perhaps the world of Brexit, cliff-edges, economic stormy waters, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un all with their fingers on nuclear buttons doesn’t quite count as a cosmic battle but, let’s be honest, there are moments when it can certainly feel like that right now. Which may just explain why angels are currently so popular.
An ICM poll shows that one in three people questioned believe in guardian angels, and one in ten report seeing angels. In another survey, for the think-tank Theos, 21% of those who never worship in church confess they believe in angels, along with (in a different study) seven per cent of atheists.
That last figure is so crazy as to make our world look sane. For what the holy books also insistently tell us is that angels are all about God, whether it be when they are arranged in the heavens in their nine tiers, as defined by the curiously named fifth-century Syrian monk, Pseudo-Dionysius, looking on at the face of God (something impossible for humans), or when deployed as his messengers in the Old Testament, or as our celestial intercessors in Christian teaching.
And that same teaching has long insisted that angels do not have bodies: Augustine in the fourth century said they were made of light, while Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth preferred compressed air. So how can 10% of us be seeing them? It defies both the laws of nature and of religion.
But a strange thing has been happening without us ever really noticing. Angels have taken wing from those beguiling stained glass windows of Victorian churches and cathedrals where Edward Burne-Jones had installed them to operate as freelancers. Meanwhile a YouGov poll suggests that today only a quarter of us would describe ourselves as “fairly” or “very religious”. Church attendance in the West is dropping like a stone. By such measurements angels are doing rather better than God in retaining our allegiance.
So why are we, in the words of Robbie Williams’ best-known song, “loving angels instead”? Well, part of the answer has to come down to the shortcomings of institutional religion, where its various branches have tried to counter the rise, since the seventeenth century, of proof-based science by insisting that every last detail in the Bible is literally true. As people have felt themselves steadily less convinced by that, they have looked elsewhere in that yearning that seems hard-wired into humanity when faced by the great challenges of life – suffering, grief, death – for something transcendent, less visible, less easily verifiable, but above all consoling.
And when those same institutions then show themselves to have feet of clay – the conviction this week in Australia of Cardinal George Pell, until recently the third most senior figure in the Vatican, on charges of child sexual abuse, is only the latest alienating example – people start seeking spiritual succour by other means.
And that is where angels come in. Guardian angels, in particular, demand from those who place their trust and hope in them no membership of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, no attendance at rituals, no deference to the earthly representative of the gods. They are religious, or – if you like, though it is an overused word at the moment – spiritual, yet their make-up and history is such that they can fit just as comfortably into the individualistic, anti-institutional modern mood as they have to more conventionally and collectively religious eras in the past.
Angels have also shown a remarkable ability to chime with very different ages. Their history is full of examples of them being recruited, even dragooned, to suit the immediate needs of particular times. So when the Jewish people despaired at apparently losing their place as God’s chosen people in the wake of a series of defeats in the sixth century BCE that began with forced exile – or captivity – in Babylon, they turned to angels, and for the first time, gave names – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael – to these hitherto shadowy figures. It was a way of investing in them their hopes of a renewed relationship with Yahweh and of the dawn on earth of the kingdom of God in which they would defeat all-comers.
Likewise, when Thomas Aquinas and the medieval “angelologists” of the twelfth century ambitiously sought to develop a comprehensive explanation of the relationship between the earth, the heavens and the cosmos – in essence between God and the emerging science – they hit upon angels as potentially providing the key. And when the artists of the Renaissance wanted to give expression to new notions of how every individual could have a one-to-one relationship with the divine, rather than be treated as part of a collective endeavour, they painted and sculpted and wrote about disarmingly human angels, who were like us in every way, save that they had wings.
By the same measure, angels today continue to introduce a spiritual dimension into a material reality that for the many, personally and as societies, is looking dangerously tattered, especially in the developed world where it is now commonplace to reject religion as a force for division, and as inimical to individual liberty and choice.
It is yet another example of how this same process of us turning to angels just keeps happening. “It is fruitless,” wrote the great American critic and thinker, Professor Harold Bloom, “either to literalise or dismiss spiritual experience, whether ancient, medieval or contemporary.”
Now, here’s a thought. Our Prime Minister is the daughter of a vicar, a regular church-attender, and has spoken about the role faith plays in her life, though in the vaguest of terms. If one thing unites her many critics it is their respect for Theresa May’s sheer stamina and resilience in keeping on keeping on, trying to deal with the poisoned chalice she has been handed. Might she, I can’t help wondering as I watch her shuttling between Brussels and Westminster, been among the one in three who believe they have a guardian angel with them in times of trouble?
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. His new book, Angels: A Visible and Invisible History, is published by Hodder on March 7 at £20