Talking about angels with an atheist is like admitting to a belief in aliens

The Miracle of St Michael at Chonae, a 12th-century icon at St Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai

Thank you for the very informative responses to my blog on the theme of a “just war”; I learned a lot from them, not least that the very phrase “just war” is not a simple oxymoron. It struck me afterwards that Christian hymns and prayers are often full of bellicose language: “Onward Christian soldier”; asking St Michael the Archangel to “defend us in the day of battle”; a hymn from my youth with a line about “the war against sin” and so on. And was it St Francis de Sales who wrote that “God hates the peace of those he has destined for war”?

Mention of St Michael (who, as we know, engaged in the cosmic battle against Satan) brings me to my present blog: about angels. My Quaker friend recently lent me a book, Seeing Angels, by someone called Emma Heathcote-James. During three years’ research she had interviewed 800 people about their encounters with angelic persons. Some of her stories struck me as of dubious provenance; others as very likely. But how do you judge?

Following this, the subject came up in a conversation with my brother-in-law, a devout atheist. (He used to call himself “agnostic” but when I suggested to him that this meant he had simply been an atheist of a lazy and indifferent kind, he agreed.) He is a psychologist (and believes that the phrase “Christian psychologist” is – wait for it – an oxymoron; you cannot be a Christian and a psychologist: it’s official).

We were discussing the idea of demonic possession. I said I thought it was extremely rare and was usually a case of mental illness. I happened to add casually that of course I believed in evil spirits and in their leader, the real Prince of Darkness, and my brother-in-law’s mouth fell open. I then added that just as there are demons, there are their spiritual counterparts – the angels. He was dumbfounded: “How can intelligent people possibly believe such nonsense?” etc. I countered: how can intelligent persons not believe in a world beyond the senses?

Being a card-carrying materialist, he then asked if angels were born, had parents, lived and died. I explained that spiritual entities were not the same as human beings, that they had intelligence and will but not bodies. I added that everyone has a guardian angel, including him and that they were “all around us at this moment”. This was all too much; I might have been talking about abduction by aliens (which I understand is a very popular misconception in the States.) I ended up telling him that perhaps he was not yet ready to listen properly to what I had to say, having put up all sorts of sceptical atheistic barriers. The conversation ended amicably and I should say that despite the huge gulf between our conception of the world, I am very fond of him (he might read this so I have to cover my back, you understand).

Back to my Quaker friend; she had been listening to the 4th Symphony of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, titled Los Angeles. She told me that when asked by an interviewer the “reason” for the title he had replied in broken English: ‘No reason – is reality.’ I can’t improve on that.