Are angels like aliens? In a recent essay, Fr. Dwight Longenecker responds to recent comments from Bill Clinton regarding the search for extraterrestrial life. Fr. Longenecker writes:
‘Once we open our minds to the possibility of non-physical dimensions of reality, the Catholic faith definitely affirms the existence of what might be termed extra terrestrial intelligence. These alien beings are exist outside the boundaries of our physical perception while having the power to interact with physicality. Traditionally these alien intelligences have been called angels. The angels that have fallen into evil and are opposed to God are called demons. Down through history, mystics, visionaries and those with psychic gifts have recounted their encounters with these non-human intelligent beings.
The Catholic answer to Mr. Clinton is therefore, “We’re searching the heavens with the tools of science, but we’re already aware that aliens have been with us from the beginning. They’re called angels and demons, and not only are they here, but they’re involved in human affairs, and furthermore– it matters which ones you side with.”’
Which is all fine, as far as it goes. Nothing Fr. Longenecker writes here is really incorrect, and he rightly points out that we have to look beyond the merely physical world in order to get a complete picture of reality. It is good to be reminded that the search for distant physical things that may or may not exist can sometimes distract us from more important realities closer to home.
Still, this sort of language potentially obscures some important metaphysical distinctions. As I’ve written in this space before, I’ve read one too many science fiction stories in which, following contact with aliens either malicious or benevolent, the Church is portrayed as accepting the extraterrestrial beings as divine, embracing them either as angels or as God himself. The word “angel” comes from the Greek meaning “messenger”; angels have a functional role in the economy of salvation as just that: messengers who intermediate between God and man. We do often see aliens taking on angelic roles in science fiction, as superior exemplars or teachers of humanity, and insofar as the search for extraterrestrial life is sometimes motivated by a fundamental religious impulse to find something greater and ground human existence in a wider universal picture, aliens can take the place for the modern imagination that angels once held.
But I nevertheless find this element of those stories unbelievable; the Church would not, in the end, confuse beings that are clearly part of the universe for the Creator of the universe, or mistake beings that are physical (even in the Star Trek–style sense of “energy beings”) as immaterial angels.
Unlike (hypothetically) aliens, angels are not physical beings; in the context of science, this point cannot be overemphasized. They do not exist in realms of matter, or even in “other dimensions” of space and time or in realms of “energy”, as sci-fi would have it. They are purely immaterial intelligences. They exist not as products of matter, even secondarily (like us); they arise entirely from the mind of God. Angels do thus share a similarity with humans and with any extraterrestrial aliens we may suppose to exist in that they are creatures, made by God and finite. However, insofar as they are entirely immaterial beings, angels are radically different than humans or Klingons or Little Green Men, because the latter exist not only as intellects, but also as physical creatures. In fact, for humans, the existence of their intellects depends on their existence as physical creatures. There is no such thing as a human mind utterly without a human body (even though the human intellect persists after death; this is because of its original arising from a physical human body.)
Therefore, if the search for alien life is scientific, in the modern sense of science, it is because it is at least a search for physical beings. Angels, on the other hand, cannot be discovered by natural science, but must be known by revelation; for us to know they exist, they must either reveal themselves or be revealed by God.
Should extraterrestrial alien creatures ever be found by science, as finite, created beings they will not be the saviors they are often imagined or desired to be, even if they turn out to be wiser (cf. the conclusion to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos). Rather, both they and we will stand, shoulder to—whatever their equivalent of shoulders might be—as equally dependent physical creatures of God. Even though it is the angels that might know us more intimately, we would in fact find that by nature aliens would be more like us, and less like them.