Mediaeval philosophers are alleged to have spent
many hours disputing how many angels could dance on the head of pin. If
this had merely been a twelfth-century version of "How many tenors
can you get in a telephone box?" then such speculation would have
But it was not. It was a particular example of a much more general
question: How does the physical world relate to the spiritual world?
And that question is still as important now as it was then. There are
three possible answers.
The first is to say that spirit and matter are two totally different
kinds of "stuff". On this view - championed by Plato in the
ancient world and Descartes in the seventeenth century, and still held by
some people today - angels are pure spirits and pins are entirely composed
of physical matter. Therefore any attempt to link the two mathematically
is quite literally nonsense. It is like asking how many thoughts it takes
to weigh a kilogram.
You might think that this dualism, as it is called, is an obvious and
even necessary attitude for a Christian to take to this question, but this
is not so. Indeed, in some ways this sharp dualism sits rather awkwardly
with the much more holistic understanding of the world and human nature
that we find in the Bible.
The second way to relate the physical and the spiritual is to deny the
separate existence of the spiritual altogether. In its strongest version,
this approach will insist that only the physical is real, and that all
talk of spirits and souls - and even of minds - is a mere sentimental
hangover from a pre-scientific age. Pins are real; angels are mythical.
A less aggressive version treats spirit and matter as two ways of
looking at the same thing. It does not deny the spiritual dimension to
life, but says that those things we currently attribute to it will turn
out in the end to be entirely explicable in physical and scientific terms.
Either way, the spiritual realm and its angelic representatives are of no
A third possibility - a bridge between traditional and skeptical views
- is the one that I commend to you on this feast of St Michael and All
Angels. It acknowledges the reality of both the physical and the spiritual
and sees them as intimately entwined.
On this understanding, spirit evolved with and emerged from matter, and
in turn directs and inspires the material world out of which it arose.
Spirit and matter are distinct from each other but dependent on each
So angels and pins do not belong to totally different realms (as in the
first view); nor may the one be reduced to a mere aspect of the other (as
in the second).
Rather, they represent the twin poles of our own ambiguous existence -
the physical body without which we would have no life, and the spirit
without which that life would have no purpose or meaning.
To "sing with the angels" is thus to rejoice in the spirit,
and to focus on the highest and best that human endeavour can achieve.