Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the Angels

I CONFESS MY HERESY. No, not a heresy against the Faith and morals proposed by Holy Mother Church, but an intellectual heresy of my youth.

One of the central doctrines of contemporary physics is the strong statement on the non-existence of the luminiferous aether or ether. My heresy, among many, was believing falsely that an ether of some kind does exist. This is despite that I got a degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, which has one of the finest physics programs in the world. Although my grades were marginal, I still learned very much, yet I rejected this doctrine out of intellectual stubbornness.  (Note that I also rejected other then-accepted doctrines of physics, such as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics — but I had much firmer basis for my belief). Also, shamefully, I got a degree in physics, not knowing that the word physics comes from the Greek, meaning nature: I never bothered to look it up.

Sound travels as vibrations or waves in air; there is no air in space and so there is no sound in space, despite what you see in films. Sound can be easily generated by the simple wave motion of a plucked string, and this is perhaps a good demonstration that sound must be in the form of waves. Although we cannot see sound waves, ocean waves are similar and are quite visible. Water waves are the form of the moving matter of water. Early modern physics proposed that light travels in waves of a material aether. According to this theory, sound is a wave in the matter of air, ocean waves are waves in the material of water, and light is a wave motion in the material of the aether. I just could not get my head around the concept that an ether does not have to exist, and this was due to my very poor philosophical background.

Saint George Roman Catholic Church, in New Baden, Illinois, USA - stained glass window of Saint Michael

Stained glass window of Saint Michael the Archangel, at Saint George Roman Catholic Church, in New Baden, Illinois.

Today in the new calendar is the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels; but in the old calendar it is The Dedication of Saint Michael the Archangel, being the day of consecration of the Basilica of Saint Michael, on the Via Salaria, six miles north of Rome.  Today is most famously Michaelmas in the English-speaking world. Michaelmas is particularly important in England, Wales, and Ireland, being one of the Quarter Days and historically was a major Holy Day of Obligation, and still retains secular importance, as well as marking the beginning of the season of Autumn.

A similar feast in the Eastern Byzantine Churches is the Synaxis of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel and All the Bodiless Powers (where synaxis means assembly, congregation, collection, or college); this is celebrated on November 8th.

We must be very certain about the first fact about angels: they are not material beings; as the Greek feast day name indicates, they are Bodiless Powers. According to the Areopagite:
“...we must say under what holy figures the descriptions in the sacred writings portray those Celestial Orders, and to what kind of purity we ought to be guided through those forms lest we, like the many, should impiously suppose that those Celestial and Divine Intelligences are many-footed or many-faced beings, or formed with the brutishness of oxen, or the savageness of lions, or the curved beaks of eagles, or the feathers of birds, or should imagine that they are some kind of fiery wheels above the heavens, or material thrones upon which the Supreme Deity may recline, or many-coloured horses, or commanders of armies, or whatever else of symbolic description has been given to us in the various sacred images of the Scriptures.” (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, Celestial Heirarchy)
In Aristotelian philosophical terms, angels are pure formal cause, without material cause. The Formal Cause is the form or pattern of a thing, and a thing's identity is based on its pattern. The Material Cause is the matter from which a thing is made, for example, the material cause of a house could be wood and bricks, while the formal cause of the house is its design. A pile of bricks is not a house, since it lacks form.

But angels are pure form without matter. Does this sound familiar? Light is made of waves — a formal cause — but there is no aether — or material cause — that waves. Light is form without matter. This is definitively proposed by Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which has ample experimental verification. My heresy in believing that an aether is necessary could lead to heretical notions of angels. That light — one of the most important symbols of Divinity, understanding, and enlightenment — has properties that mimic that of the angels is undoubtably of great significance.

Saint Thomas Aquinas writes:
“It is, further, impossible for an intellectual substance to have any kind of matter. For the operation belonging to anything is according to the mode of its substance. Now to understand is an altogether immaterial operation, as appears from its object, whence any act receives its species and nature. For a thing is understood according to its degree of immateriality; because forms that exist in matter are individual forms which the intellect cannot apprehend as such. Hence it must be that every intellectual substance is altogether immaterial.”
That angels apparently take bodily form is well-attested by Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the lives of the Saints, but these are not to be considered true bodies and ought to be strongly contrasted with the Incarnation of Our Lord. Therefore these apparent bodies are not part of their true nature.

Angels are perfect scientists.  They see, or understand the cosmos as it actually is, like the Agents understand the realm portrayed in the film The Matrix, and are not limited like us by intermediate material senses. Angels are not supernatural — only God is supernatural, that is, above nature. Rather the angels live a preternatural existence. Aquinas has some things to say about this.

The analogy with light can be further extended. Angels exist in vast quantities, can be considered localized to a particular space at a given time, and can travel at exceeding high speeds (perhaps 186,000 miles per second, like light?) although angels' travels according to Aquinas are not necessarily contiguous, because our apparent perception of space is not strictly true. According to the theory of relativity, light experiences no time, even though it is there then and here now; likewise perhaps with the angels who are somehow outside of time while also interacting time: they can forecast the future with great accuracy, but they cannot see the future as does God.

The mystery of the fallen angels is too much to consider here, other than it is said that this is due to the capital sin of pride.  Let us instead ask that God's angels protect us: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle!

For lots of links on the subject of angels, see my old article Writings About the Angels.


  1. today is the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of my parish here in Indiana St. Michaels, a rededication by the new Bishop is planned for this evening

  2. From one Caltech alum to another, thanks for the interesting post!

  3. While I'm at it, you might enjoy this talk on faith and reason that was given last year to the combined Caltech Christian groups by a Caltech physics major who graduated in 1998 and then became a Dominican priest:

  4. Very fine post...speaking of the absence of an aether, somewhere lately I picked up the notion that space may in fact have some granularity to it.