The American philosopher Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of the Great Books method and a late convert to Catholicism, begins his valuable compendium of The Great Ideas with an entry on “Angels.”
Since his volume is arranged alphabetically, that angels should come in early is not too surprising. However, there is a certain providential significance in the placement, I think. As Adler notes in his commentary, the question of angels quite exercised the mind of the medieval intellectual. In the modern ages, though, angels are considered merely a fancy of hoi polloi, credulous and usually Christian.
I recently read yet another science writer lamenting the United States’ ostensible failure in science education, who sarcastically noted that the only thing America led the world in was “belief in angels.” This, together with the tired cliché about the medievals’ supposed obsession with the number of angels who can dance on a pinhead, runs the modern intellectual gamut about angels. The typical critical discussion of angels, as of God, usually betrays a complete misunderstanding of their natures.
Adler’s goal in assembling his catechism of Western thought was to recapture the greatness of the three millennia-plus of Western intellectual development. His position in particular is that, contrary to a modern prejudice, recent thought has not totally eclipsed the luminance of the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian mind.
In this aspect, then, it seems appropriate that such an ancient question – the question of angels – should take first place in a work on the greatness of recovered thought. For angels represent that thing which is most alien to the modern, scientific mind: the reality that is beyond the material.
If we have a hard time even believing in our own immaterial souls (united with our physical bodies), then of course the idea of real persons who are entirely immaterial is incomprehensible. Modern critics of angels seem all too often to envision angels the way they mistakenly envision God: as some quasi-material, ghostly figure “somewhere out there.”
Science, it is then declared, has found no evidence of such beings. The proper response, of course, is that this vaguely material conception of angels is not at all what the Church’s philosophers or theologians have in mind.
No. The existence of angels (and of God) is even more difficult for the modern mind to grasp, because they are not representatives of some as-yet-undiscovered species of life, but are rather elements of an entirely forgotten realm of reality, one accessible not by advanced instruments or even by exotic New Age techniques. Rather, we enter this realm by simply opening the eyes of common sense to what’s around us – that is, the realm of real things, not reduced to their parts or assigned to relative utilization, but simply existing as substances in themselves.
Feasting: Abraham and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall (1966)
The angels, perhaps, reflect that which is most incomprehensible to the modern mind: the pure intelligence, something which is not matter and yet which truly is, is free, and which exists not in order to gratify any carnal urge, but to know and to praise and to serve the Absolute.
Angels inhabit that realm most denied by the modern mind, namely, the realm of reason and of intelligence outside of the human head. This is the realm that precedes the material and, in fact, when it is recognized, gives the lie to falsehood of materialism.
It is also the realm that informs the moral architecture denied by modern secular relativism. If, after all, it is possible for real beings not made of flesh and bone to exist, then there is a reality not subject to being shaped according to our desires, nor is it malleable by means of physical power.
When we think about angels, then, the old world was wiser than our own, in that it recognized a thicker and more profound reality than we currently see through the lenses of bare empiricism and relativism.
Just recently, Timothy Cardinal Dolan prayed in a prominent public place that our nation’s politicians would remember the country’s founding upon the principles of “Nature and Nature’s God.” In politics, and in social and individual customs, we have all but abandoned recognition of this realm of intelligible and rational natures.
We imagine that institutions grounded in nature and generation can be extended to include, in Benjamin Wiker’s phrase, “the indefinite union of anything.” We deny the most fundamental rights to those lives we consider burdensome or inconvenient, redefining them as either “just tissue” or “without dignity.”
We load scientific theories with metaphysical freight they cannot legitimately hold and declare that man is nothing more than highly evolved meat. The unintended consequence, in other words, of abandoning a world in which angelic natures make sense has been accepting a world in which human nature also makes no sense.
On this Feast of the Guardian Angels, we would do well to remember not only the existence of this realm of reality, of natures and intelligences beyond and yet associated intimately with each of us, but also of the possibility of taking this realm seriously in intellectual, social, and political thought. For in forgetting the angels we have forgotten something even closer – we have forgotten man.