OnePeterFive is pleased to present an excerpt from Fr. Scott Randall Paine’s book The Other World We Live In: A Catholic Vision of Angelic Reality, appropriately published by Angelico Press. Speaking as one who has a deep interest in the angels and has taught St. Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine on them—see, for example, my 1P5 article “A Brief Introduction to the Angels”—I can forthrightly say that Fr. Paine’s is an exceptionally good primer on angelology, notable for its theological wisdom and practical relevance to the spiritual life of Catholics.—Dr. Kwasniewski
“Separate Substances” Today: From a New Book on the Angels
Before approaching the topic of angels, we should be reminded that a consideration of invisible realities need hardly be arcane, or the subject matter as “supernatural” as one might suspect. Reflect, for a moment, on a few dimensions of the world we take to be quite real, but cannot pick up with our senses:
1) Spatially: There is far more world, more cosmos, out there than your eyes can even approximately capture—immeasurably more. This is true whether we limit ourselves to the expanse of the earth or include the one trillion galaxies currently spotted in our universe. That vast context, though unseen, both contains and conditions what you do see and experience. And these veiled immensities you accept without ever viewing them, and you are right in doing so.
2) Chronologically: There are always thousands of years of past time—and if we think geologically, millions—which you never can experience, or even remember, and yet which have profoundly influenced your world, and all that is in it. And even more out of view lies the unpredictable future. All this you also accept as real (or soon to be so), although it is not part of your sensory experience.
3) Scientifically: We accept as a matter of fact that there are quadrillions of atoms buzzing within us and around us, but we cannot see a single one of them. Even light we actually never see in its own right; we see things in light, but the light itself (along with all other forms of electromagnetic radiation) never slips as such into our field of vision. We also promptly answer our cell phones, firmly convinced of the existence of highways of invisible radiation passing between them and our interlocutors.
But nothing drives this home more dramatically than the following: for decades astrophysicists have been cautioning us that the vaunted conquests of modern science have only shown us about 5% of all the material reality that exists. The other 95%—so-called “dark matter and energy”—still remains largely unidentified. Nonetheless, this invisible world has an enormous impact on the modest 5% that we do (more or less) understand.
Thus, on a material basis alone, any scientifically enlightened view of reality must concede that beyond the tiny slice of cosmos we are able to perceive, there is incalculably more that is unseen. And despite its invisibility—whether intrinsic or due to circumstance— we tranquilly and confidently affirm its existence.
Now add to all this a fourth, and even more emphatically undisputed, fact:
4) Virtually all known historical cultures and religions have accepted the existence of one sort or another of subtle material or completely immaterial beings, usually of a personal nature. Among countless others, we read of hierarchies of Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Celtic, Nordic, Indian, Chinese, Andean or Meso-American gods, along with sprites, genies, fairies, elemental spirits, kamis and an almost limitless variety of minor deities. Only a small number of traditional skeptics of the past and (of course) today’s confessional materialists have ever disputed this.
The irony is that contemporary naysayers inevitably call on modern science to underwrite their twilight of the gods. But despite their appeals, recent physics is often more skeptical about the solidity of the matter these doubters place their faith in, than about the reality of the spirits whose existence they impugn. And even more telling is this: science and faith, contrary to expectations, have joined hands in one incontrovertible claim—they agree that the totality of all that exists contains far more than what we can see and touch with our senses, explain with our reason, or even detect with our most sophisticated instruments. Far from coddling us in our doubts about spirits, today’s science gives us little warrant, and even less excuse, for excluding the angels from our conspectus of reality.
A few years ago, the British comedian Stephen Fry spoke on television about a recently completed tour through the United States. He had many good things to say about the Yankees, and although a convinced atheist, still showed respect for the robust Christianity of so many Americans. Nonetheless, he could not help remarking with alarm on one item of faith that he found particularly bizarre: many of them still believe in angels!
Since wide-spread misunderstanding prevails in any use of the word “angel,” I choose to introduce my reflections by using the medieval, metaphysical term for the pure spirits. We might preempt Mr. Fry’s outrage by reminding him that what we are really talking about are beings with intellectual and volitional endowments, and that exist separately from matter: in philosophical jargon, “separate substances.” This will hardly convert him, but it may convince him that what he does not know about angels could—just possibly—be far greater than what is conveyed by the frivolous caricatures he, and the rest of us, are familiar with.
Indeed, today we are in a bad way when we try to think intelligently about angels. Even those who still believe in them are not much better off. More often than not, they will think of spirits as wispy and rarefied, passing through our world like a morning fog. Here they come, smiling and fluttering, like ethereal butterflies, casting pixie dust over our benighted world. We might expect help from sacred art, but here too we are frequently misled. How often do we see Renaissance and Baroque depictions of cute, bare-bottomed “cherubim” (embarrassingly called putti in artistic lingo)? Even worse, we might also see God’s spirits presented as wan, effeminate figures resembling kindly Caucasian ladies in flowing evening gowns.
Sometimes the only antidote to these silly fantasies is to encounter one of our world’s pre-literate tribal cultures; they still know that spirits are not to be messed with. Or perhaps we could listen to an interview with a good, experienced exorcist. These gentlemen know only too well that we are speaking of powerful realities, albeit, in this case, from the darker side.
My intention here is to convey the reality of a world we also live in, but one that our senses rarely perceive, and that our celebrated scientific outlook can often not even imagine. But it is a world that is real like mountains and stars are real. In fact, it is even more solid than the proud stone of the Rocky Mountains, and more radiant than the shining stars in the firmament. Spiritual reality is as real as it gets.
This does not mean, of course, that the material cosmos is unreal—far from it. Nonetheless, the Gnostic temptation of demoting material reality always lies in wait when we emphasize spiritual matters. But God positively willed the creation of matter; he destined all its mass and energy, along with the angels and our troubled human race, to a shared future of glory. Our problem is trying to keep all three components of creation in mind. We tend to waver between two false absolutes: a purely spiritual world (certain versions of Platonism and most versions of Gnosticism) or a purely material one (the naturalism so favored today). In earlier times, when people opened their eyes upon the world of nature and the stars above us, their gaze reached far beyond our own. They saw how the spiritual and material worlds interpenetrate, cooperating in a revelation in which our own composite nature becomes, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, the mirabilis connexio (the amazing link). Far from being the summit of creation, we understood ourselves to be the meeting place and confluence of matter and spirit.
Our forebears not only detected the hand of a Creator God who made all these material wonders, but also the unmistakable signs of a world of pure created spirits, powerfully present within the concrete mysteries of nature. The angels seemed to wink at them as they mediated between the Almighty and those of us in the corporeal world. Our fellow humans of yesteryear would have regarded the arrogant eyes of the secular know-it-alls of today as blind, seeing only two dimensions, when there are three (or even more). They would have held our quantified scientific interpretation of nature to be not only partial, but even partisan. The scientist poring over these measurements would have seemed to them like someone able to see and scrutinize a musical score, but unable to hear the music.
Most of our languages, modern and classic, refer to spirits using words that originally meant air, wind or breath. Air is invisible, and yet it gives life; air is seemingly weak, and yet hurricanes and tornados are among the most violent of nature’s outbursts. The fact is that spirits are not just ideas or values floating in some imagined stratosphere. Spirit is the most ontologically dense and operationally intense of all the varieties of being.
Moreover, spirits are not, strictly speaking, things at all, but rather “someones.” In a word, they are persons. And persons are what the “spiritual” is all about. To put a fine point on it, a spirit is simply an immaterial being endowed with the two interior faculties of self-transcendence: intelligence and volition. Since we also possess these faculties, we too are spiritual, although linked amazingly to matter.
In the Abrahamic traditions, personhood is believed to exist in three irreducible forms: divine, angelic and human. Furthermore, personal reality is, again according to Thomas Aquinas, “the most perfect of all that exists in nature” (perfectissimum in tota natura). We instinctively know this, for when we insist on the “dignity of the human person,” we are simply acknowledging this perfection in the only persons we have direct, palpable contact with: ourselves. But it applies at least equally to the angels, and of course immeasurably more to God.
In saner times the existence of personal, spiritual beings would have been among the commonsense coordinates of all intelligent earthlings. The doubters would have been the oddballs. In fact, in those days, after a long conversation with Mr. Fry, someone may well have walked away and commented on how polite and witty the comedian was, but then lowered their voice and whispered, as if revealing a dark secret: “ . . . but the poor man does not even believe in angels!”
Scott Randall Paine is a priest of the archdiocese of Brasilia, and professor of Medieval Philosophy and Oriental Thought at the University of Brasilia. A native of the United States, since 1974 he has lived, studied and taught in various countries of Europe, Asia and South America. He has published widely in both Portuguese and English on religious and philosophical topics, including most recently an anthology of the works of the British philosopher, Bernard Kelly (Angelico Press, 2017). He has been Visiting Scholar at Munich’s Hochschule für Philosophie, the National University of Singapore and Harvard Divinity School. His current writing and research can be followed at www.3wisdoms.com.