Feasting with Angels

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.


Michael Baruzzini

Michael Baruzzini

Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of CatholicScience.com, which offers online science curriculum resources for Catholic students.

  • Martha Rice Martini

    A well-drawn, beautiful, and timely statement. Thank you!

  • senex

    Angels without matter—that was a difficult issue for the Christian Platonist theologian/philosophers, because in Platonic thought perfection lay in the ἰdea, the ‘form’; and creatures, who and which, lacking such perfection, are individuated by matter. Thus, since angels are creatures and not perfect, they must, in the Platonist mind, have some matter. How little matter would suffice? Well, take the smallest point of matter easily seen, such as the head of a pin. Then ask how many angels could stand on the head of that pin?

    Along came the Aristotelian theologian/philosophers, who following Aristotle taught that differentiation need not lay in matter only. Matter is needed only within a genus to differentiate individuals. For the Aristotelian theologians, like Aquinas, each angel is sui generis.

    So, let’s give the medievals a break. They at least thought and explored reality in the search for explaining it, rather than limiting their assumptions to only the existence of the material and thereby dismiss out of hand what was not ascertainably by the physical sciences, but could be known by the meta-physical sciences.

  • Tony

    I’ve always wondered what should be so difficult about believing in immaterial beings, when mathematicians commonly speak about immaterial objects as real — mathematicians, when they are not consciously insisting otherwise, are Platonists in their assumptions. That is, they assume that they are discovering truths about objects that do in fact exist… Physicists are the same way when they talk about a “law” of nature. The law is discoverable from empirical analysis, but is not, strictly speaking, deducible from it, nor is it reducible to it.

  • Michael Cummings

    What a great, instructive commentary. I started off thinking “geez, another embarrassing missive highlighting Catholic simple-mindedness and supporting Obama’s patronizing guns-and-religion characterization of non-secularists like himself”. Then I read and thought, and learned. This hit hard: “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.”

    Scientists announce regularly new discoveries which, both individually and as a whole, demonstrate how LITTLE we really understand. If dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the Universe–according to NASA’s website–how can secularists so easily dismiss God, angels, miracles, near-death experiences pointing to heaven, the power of prayer not to mention ghosts and “supernatural” events. The nature we measure and define is only 5% of what’s there! Thoughtful people should be increasingly humble before the “super” natural. This not-knowing should make is EASIER to accept religion.
    Great article. Worth circulating.

  • Mack Hall

    The mediaevals – who, after all, invented universities — would never have been as daft as we moderns who believe — BELIEVE — that a paint stripe on the ground will keep two cars from hitting each other.

  • Howard Kainz

    James Collins, author of the Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, was one of my mentors in graduate school at St. Louis U. He argued that the study of angelic nature was important for philosophy because it focused on the essential aspects of intellectual beings without all the “distractions” of contingent being — allowing an examination of mind and will in their pure state, relation to matter, etc. He inspired my Master’s Thesis on the angels, eventually published as “Active and Passive” Potency in Thomistic Angelology.

  • G.K. Thursday

    Platonism is really behind most of the thinking of contemporary science. As M. Cummings points out in his comment, currently the most physicists believe in what is popularly called “dark matter” and “dark energy”, neither of which have any direct experimental evidence for them. Instead the existence of these entities is entirely inferred from mathematical theories of quantum gravitation. That is, in order for the quantum field equations to work, quantities must be added in at various points that have no known physical motivation. Thus the mathematics alone causes these physicists to assert the existence of entities for which there is no physical evidence. The attitude of most physicists is that if the math requires an entity, then – although we can neither sense it nor can our instruments measure it – it must exist. This is sheer Platonism.

    One finds similar attitudes to statistical reasoning in the life sciences, and even more so in the social sciences. If a theorem of statistics requires that a population be such-and-so in order for a certain trial to be true, then regardless of the actual population, it must have been such-and-so. In no way is this empiricism. It is boundless confidence in the application of math and statistics to reality. Yet there has never been a cogent explanation for why this application works.

    Eugene Wigner, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, wrote a famous essay about this conundrum, titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (1960). He held that “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.” Many years later, an equally famous applied mathematician, R.W. Hamming, developed Wigner’s thought in his essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics” (1980). Hamming writes that “Is it not a miracle that the universe is so constructed that such a simple abstraction as a number is possible? To me this is one of the strongest examples of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Indeed, l find it both strange and unexplainable.”

    The present state of our physical science, reliant as it is on a completely unexplained Platonism, remains extremely nebulous. Putting together Wigner’s and Hamming’s words, it requires us to rely on the strange and unexplainable miracle that somehow mathematics can guide us to the truth about the world. Pythagoras has been vindicated by our present state of science: it was he who famously said “all is number.”

    Of course, as a Thomist, I don’t believe this one bit. Hippocrates Apostle, the late great scholar of Aristotle, spent the last years of his life recovering Aristotle’s approach to mathematics as a science of quantities, rather than as a Platonic mystery play of numbers. But that is for another post.

  • Jack,CT

    “Angel of God my my Guardian dear,to whom his love
    commits me here,ever this day be at my side,to
    light and Guard,to rule and guide.
    I depend on my Angel angel and have for years,
    call on yours my friend,we all could use the
    help these days!

  • jason taylor

    “written by Mack Hall, October 02, 2012
    The mediaevals – who, after all, invented universities — would never have been as daft as we moderns who believe — BELIEVE — that a paint stripe on the ground will keep two cars from hitting each other.”

    Neither do moderns. Moderns know that it represents an edict from their liege lord’s to stay on one side of the road. Just as Medievals knew that a statue with a winged lion on it meant a bunch of rich merchants from a town called Venice that could build several hundred war galleys in a week. Medievals were perfectly aware of the concept of symbolism.