I Ain’t Got No Body, Revisited: Rethinking Angels

Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings.  In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us.  Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with.  I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head.  What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are.  This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.

In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits.  In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body.  An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body.  Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind.  Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example).  Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans.  The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.

Since angels have no bodies, and thus no brains, they do not “think” as we do.  To be more precise, they do not think discursively, but intuitively.  If I see an animal, for example, my mind runs through a series of criteria that it has learned over time–Does it have four legs?  Does it bark?–analyzes the information, and determines the animal, for example, is a dog.  An angel is created by God with the concept of “dog” or “dogness” already “built in”, so to speak.  Thus, an angel perfectly knows a dog anytime it encounters one, without having to recognize it or think about what it is.  To put it another way, an angel does not ponder–it knows.

I just used the pronoun “it” in referring to angels, by the way.  Since angels have no bodies, they have no gender.  An angel is neither male nor female.  Traditionally, angels have usually tended to be personified as male–Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and so on.  In art, by contrast, the tendency from the Renaissance onward has been to portray angels in an increasingly feminine way.  Both characterizations are equally right or equally wrong, depending on how you want to put it.

For those interested in reading further on the metaphysics and philosophy of angels I recommend the late Mortimer Adler’s excellent book The Angels and Us.  I disagree with his assertion as to the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin (read the book), but that’s perhaps for a future post.  Suffice it here to say that it’s a great book; and that at this point, I’ve laid the necessary groundwork for the rest of this post.  I want to examine the traditional Christian view of angels as pure minds with no associated bodies and see if it indeed holds up.

That angels are incorporeal–having no bodies–is the official teaching of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (the latter of which often refers to angels as “the Holy Bodiless Powers”).  There is, as far as I know, no consistent Protestant teaching in this regard; thus, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll take the Catholic/Orthodox view as normative.  It’s worth pointing out, though, that not everyone in Christian history who has written on this issue has, in fact, held angels to be incorporeal.  Evagrius Ponticus, whose thought is important to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and whom I’ve referenced many times on this blog, believed angels to have bodies made of very fine, diaphanous matter.  To Evagrius, angels, demons, and humans had all originally been truly incorporeal, pure minds dedicated to pure contemplation of God.  Eventually most of them fell away from pure contemplation, and came to be enmeshed in the material world, which God created as a training ground from which they could work their way back to Him.  Those that fell furthest became demons and gained gross bodies made of smoke and fire; humans, falling an intermediate level, came to have bodies of matter; angels, having fallen the least, had the most delicate and nearly immaterial bodies of all.

John Milton, in Paradise Lost, also saw the angels as having very fine bodies (though he did not adopt any other aspect of Evagrius’s thought, with which he may have been unfamiliar, anyway).  In his great epic, Milton describes angels as being made of quintessence.  “Quintessence” (literally “fifth essence”, and sometimes considered synonymous with “aether”) was, in late Medieval and some Renaissance thought, a fifth element in addition to the classical four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.  Quintessence was finer and subtler than any of the other four, and was symbolized by light or a sort of clearer and purer form of fire.  Thus, as with Evagrius, angels have purer, lighter, and more refined bodies than we do, bodies capable of things impossible to us; but bodies nonetheless.

Of course, we no longer adhere to the model of earth, air, fire, and water, and maybe quintessence!  In terms of modern physics, there is probably no meaningful way in which angels could be said to have bodies as we understand them.  Such bodies would have to be made of matter or energy, and that would make them detectable.  In the former case, they’d have mass and take up space; in the latter, they’d be detectable with various kinds of instruments.  When we discussed souls, I said that it’s absurd to conceptualize souls as somehow made of matter or energy.  It’s just as absurd to posit this of angels.  They are not made of atoms or photons, molecules or electrons, and no one’s going to invent an angel-detection apparatus anytime soon!  It thus seems that the picture of angels as pure minds is the best one to use.  And yet….

One problem with the idea of totally incorporeal angels is that this makes their relationship to the material cosmos difficult to understand.  It has generally been taken for granted in the Christian tradition that angels can interact with the material universe.  At the very minimum, to the extent that an angel produces visual images in the mind of the human to whom it is appearing, it interacts with the human brain.  Usually, angels are held to be able to move or affect material objects more generally (e.g. Daniel 14:33-36, in which an angel seizes the prophet Habakkuk by the hair (!) and transports him from Judea to Babylon).  Given that angels are completely immaterial, composed of neither matter nor energy, it’s difficult to see how they can interact with matter at all.

Then again, this problem is arguably relevant to humans, too.  As we’ve seen, the human mind–at least the intellectual part of it–is also held by traditional Western philosophy and Christian theology to be immaterial.  The extremely dualistic Cartesian view of the relationship between the human body and soul has been rightly criticized as a “ghost in the machine“.  The more moderate Aristotelian dualism, in which the soul is the form of the living being–in this case, a human–still posits that this soul is, at least in part, immaterial.  Since the human mind–and thus the soul–interacts with the human body, there is still the problem of how a completely immaterial substance can interact with the material world.  To my knowledge, there has never been a clear explanation given as to how this works.  It’s simply asserted.  To this extent, then, angels present no more–or less–of a metaphysical problem than we ourselves do.

Another issue with the idea of incorporeal angels is that it is difficult to see how angels are differentiated.  Alice and Betty, for example, being human, inhabit different bodies.  They are composed of different collections of matter and are separated in space, since different objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Humans can also be separated by time–maybe Alice lived decades before Betty.  How are Gabriel and Raphael different, though?  They do not occupy space and time, so they are not separated by space or time–neither comes “before” the other, and you can’t say that one is “right here” and the other is “over there”.  Not being material, angels do not contain different collections of molecules.  Gabriel and Raphael have different minds–but what, exactly, does that mean?  All minds that we know of are embodied in physically separated bodies.  How can minds be separate without time and space?

According to Mortimer Adler in The Angels and Us, angels are created by God with different innate ideas.  In this context, “idea” is synonymous with “form” in its Platonic sense.  That is, you, I, or Gabriel has within his or her mind the concept, for example, of “dogness”, through which he or she understands what an individual dog is.  We humans gradually and discursively come to the notion of dogness through sense experience of actual dogs.  Gabriel, on the other hand, is created by God already having the concept of dogness in his mind.  Unlike a human, then, an angel understands dogness–or any other idea–intuitively and directly.  Thus, according to Adler, each angel is distinguished from all others by the set of ideas with which it is created.  Gabriel might have ideas A-G; Michael might contain ideas E-K; Raphael might contain L-P; Castiel might have H-N; and so on.

This has some puzzling results. though.  Different bookshelves might contain different books.  Sometimes Bookshelf X and Bookshelf Y both contain different copies of the same book.  Notice that this is a material example.  We tend to think of angel minds as physically separate bookshelves filled up with different ideas that have been placed in the shelves.  Angels, however, as pure minds, are not separate in space.  If an angel is in effect a collection of ideas, how does it differ from an angel with the same ideas?  In the example given above, notice that all of Castiel’s ideas overlap with either those of Michael or Raphael.  Since the angel minds are not like separate bookshelves with different copies of the ideas, how, then, is Castiel actually separate from Michael and Raphael?  Even worse, let’s consider Uriel, who contains ideas B-E.  Everything he contains is in Gabriel.  Uriel, in effect, is what mathematicians would call a proper subset of Gabriel.  Is Uriel, then, somehow “contained” “within” Gabriel?  How is he distinct?  Every image of separate angelic beings involves our smuggling back in the ideas of separation in space and time; but angels do not experience these.  One must come away somewhat perplexed.

At this point, I want to suggest another possible approach.  I’m basically going to crib from Hinduism.  In Hindu thought, a human has various different bodies–the Sanskrit term is kosha (kośa), literally “sheath”.  The idea, in brief, is that rather than a body inhabited or “worn” by a soul, as in the Platonic model, or the soul as form of the living thing, as in Aristotelian thought, a human, like an onion, is many-layered.  What we usually call the “body” is the lowest kosha, the physical body, made of matter.  There are other bodies of increasingly fine and subtle materials, corresponding to the vital life-force (prana in Sanskrit, associated with but not identical to breath), the mind, the intellect, and the ultimate bliss of self.  The higher bodies are sometimes collectively referred to as the “subtle body“.  The subtle body is separable from the material or gross body–it is said to do so temporarily during sleep and in certain meditative states, and permanently (obviously) at death.  The chakras (Sanskrit cakras), fairly well-known from yoga, are said to be in the subtle body.  All the various parts of the physical body are said to have correlates in the subtle body.  Thus, various nerve plexuses and organs correspond to the chakras; the limbs correspond to “subtle limbs”, and so on.  This latter is said to be the reason for “phantom limb” pain.  The Hindu explanation would be that the astral counterpart of an amputated limb still exists, and it experiences pain.

The subtle body is a standard concept in most of the Dharmic religions.  The subtle body, or something like it, turns up in many other cultures where a separable soul which can sometimes be seen and which appears much like the body of the person to whom it belongs is posited.  The common Western tendency to visualize the soul as a sort of phantom-like copy of the physical body is not unlike the concept of the subtle body.  The idea of a subtle body–generally known as the “astral body” in these contexts–has also been a common theme in Western esotericism and new religious movements, such as Theosophy, the New Age movement, and such, from the 19th Century to the present.  The question is, if we assume the possibility of a subtle body, then what, exactly, is it made of?

As we noted before, any type of soul or spirit could not be composed of any kind of matter or energy as we know them.  The term “energy” is thrown around in esoteric circles a lot with regard to paranormal phenomena, but energy in the forms in which we know it is well-understood and easily detectable and manipulable.  If the subtle body exists, it must be something else.  Interestingly, in recent years there  has been speculation that alien life-forms may exist which are made of so-called “dark matter“.  Dark matter is hypothesized to comprise most of the mass in the universe, since visible matter and energy is insufficient to account for the mass of the universe.  Dark matter is poorly understood–while it is generally accepted to exist, not all would agree with this.  If it does exist, no one knows what properties it would exhibit, how or if it interacts with regular matter and energy, or how to detect it.  Another hypothesis regarding aliens is that they exist in some currently undetectable mode beyond ordinary matter and (perhaps) ordinary energy.  Similar hypotheses have been put forward by ufologists J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée.

It may seem that I’ve strayed quite a bit off-topic, but I haven’t, really.  My point is that there may be forms of matter and energy beyond those known, and which are thus currently undetectable.  Given that, it is possible that there are modes of being that exist without reference to the ordinary observable universe, and thus which cannot be detected by existing scientific means.  Conceivably–just conceivably–the subtle body may be a manifestation of such a mode of being.  Perhaps it is somehow detectable by a human mind with proper spiritual training but undetectable to any known instruments.  It may also be that such a subtle body can interact with the “normal” cosmos in ways that cannot currently be detected.  This has long been a criticism of many paranormal phenomena–if I astrally project my spirit somewhere, how is it that a spirit body can interact with the world to allow me to “see” the distant location?  If subtle bodies are an unknown but real form of matter that interacts with regular matter and energy in currently unknown ways, that objection would be answered.

The writer Philip St. Romain, in his fascinating book Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality suggests that the subtle body is the foretaste or precursor of what in Christian theology would be called the resurrected or glorified body.  Contra most popular conceptions of the afterlife, Christian theology teaches not disembodied existence as a spirit or even less as an angel–angels are a separate category of being!  Rather, the dead, both the redeemed and the damned (for those who are non-universalists), will ultimately receive a new body for eternity.  This new body is said to be a true body; but it is a “spiritual body” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:44).  It is said to somehow be in continuity with the old body, but to have different properties.  For example, in the case of Jesus, his resurrected body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear; but at the same time, he is able to pop into and out of locked rooms (John 20:19), and seems to be able to alter his appearance (Luke 24:13-35, John 20:11-18).  How such a body can be radically the same and radically different, especially long after death, as will be the case with most of us, is a conundrum.  Given this, the notion that the subtle body may be the connection between the physical body of our experience and the glorified body of the future is certainly an intriguing idea.

The idea of a body made of some composition beyond the known cosmos is also an interesting way to view angels and perhaps other spirits (Christian theology does not necessarily rule out spirit beings that are not clearly either what we call “angels” or “demons”).  If angels have bodies much like the subtle bodies of humans, this would explain a lot.  It would explain how angels are differentiated from each other–now, instead of perplexity at how pure minds can be separated by the ideas they contain, we could say different angels are in different bodies just like we are.  Likewise, just as an astral body could interact with the ordinary material cosmos, so could angelic bodies.  Perhaps the forms angels take on for communicating with humans really are a representation of their true nature, projections of their subtle bodies, just as the human subtle body is said to mirror the material body.

The notion of angels as being embodied, albeit in a slightly different fashion than we are is also interesting in other ways.  Such a notion would fit in quite well with the theology of Evagrius Ponticus, which we discussed above.  It would also answer the question of why God created embodied beings, such as us, after having made beings of pure spirit, such as the angels.  In this model, all the intelligences God made were embodied–just in different manners.

So the question, then, is, given the possibility that angels are embodied, is this actually the case?  The answer is, I don’t know, nor, short of Divine revelation, is there any way I can know.  What I would say is that, as far as I know, there is no decision by an Ecumenical Council, or ex cathedra papal proclamation that definitively and dogmatically settles the issue in a binding way.  Thus, I’d say the idea that angels may have very fine bodies is at least a possibly valid theological point–what it sometimes called a “theologoumenon”.  In short, one may hold it as a valid possible opinion, or reject it, without in either case falling outside the bounds of little-o orthodoxy.  I am undecided, myself, and have no firm opinion either way.  There are some problems, as noted, that angelic embodiment might solve; but it would raise other questions–e.g., do angels have gender, after all?  Do they need to eat?  How are their bodies maintained?  You get the idea.  Also, angelic embodiment would go against Tradition as it’s usually been understood.  Thus, it’s sort of in the realm of “you pays your money and takes your chances”.

Thus, I end this post on a rather inconclusive note.  I do think it has been worthwhile to develop the concepts we’ve looked at here, though.  I think the concept of a subtle body is very interesting with regard to humans, at any rate, as I explained above.  Whether angels, too, have a body much like the human subtle body, is something we can’t know.  However, I intend to keep the notion in storage as I continue looking at the nature of the Fall of Mankind, as well as other issues.  It may come in handy, depending on which direction we head in.  In the meantime, it seems like the term “heavenly body”–not the planetary kind!–may have some meaning, after all.


*I specify the Christian tradition because, although all the Abrahamic religions speak of angels, they are disagreed as to their nature.  In Judaism, some rabbis consider angels not to be separate beings, but manifestations of God Himself, appearing in forms humans can conceptualize.  Certainly, the portrayal of angels in the earlier parts of the Bible tends to support this–see, for example, Numbers 22:31-35, in which the angel seems to speak as if it were God, rather than say, “God says such-and-such.”  On the other hand, from the Babylonian period (6th Century BC) onward, the majority of Jews have viewed angels as separate beings, just as Christians do.  They certainly see angels as much higher than humans and as not physical in the way we are.  As far as I know, however, there is no definitive Jewish teaching as to the incorporeal nature of angels.  Thus, I can’t say that I actually know whether or not Jews consider angels to be pure minds.

In Islam, angels are seen as separate beings created by God, as in Christianity.  The difference between angels and jinn is sometimes blurry (it is unclear from Islamic tradition, for example, whether Iblis, that is, the Devil, is an angel or a jinn), but for the most part the former are the same category of beings as described in Judaism and Christianity, whereas the latter are more like nature spirits.  In any case, the exact nature of angels is not a matter of complete agreement in the Islamic tradition.  They are sometimes said in Islamic tradition to be created by God from light.  Whether this is meant as a metaphorical way of saying that angels are totally immaterial, or whether it should be understood to mean that angels have bodies of a finer form of matter or energy than humans, but bodies nonetheless, is unclear.  Thus, the upshot of all this is that in my discussion in this post, I’m strictly staying to the Christian tradition.

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany


Posted on 23/07/2018, in metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: