Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In Wim Wenders’ movie, “Wings of Desire”, Peter Falk is credited as “himself” but really represents a fallen angel, the angel who had rejected his angelic nature, ceased to be but a spirit, and acquired a human body with all that it entails. In the film, angels “see” the world in black and white instead of in color like humans, a beautiful poetic device first adopted by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in their romantic fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death”.
To me, my sensations are what make me feel human. The first sip of hot coffee in the morning, a gentle kiss of a breeze on my neck, feeling the taut strings of a stunt kite tugging on my arms. Or falling in love: holding hands, a dance late into night, the smell of her hair, the magical moment right before our lips meet, the soft alabaster of her skin under my touch. This is how we, mortals, perceive and relate to reality.
To angels, all that could be but a set of highly abstract mathematical equations and complex geometrical figures. We surely feel their calm, soothing love but we humans are also creatures of passion. And passion is what they seem to lack. In turn, maybe sometimes angels need our passion, too. That’s what the character played by Falk seems to imply. Let me explain.
One of the biggest problems for a theist, the so-called “problem of evil”, concerns an apparent tension between God’s perfections (i.e., that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing) and the fact that bad things happen even to good people.
One of the most important responses to this problem, originally put forth by the second century Greek theologian Irenaeus, is known as the “virtue or soul-making defense”. The gist of this defense is to postulate that bad things happen to us because they are necessary to build up our character. We need pain to develop empathy and compassion, obstacles are necessary to build up fortitude, those less fortunate to perfect generosity and the sense of justice and fear to become truly courageous.
This relatively simple response has some obvious problems. Namely, why do we have to struggle before fully realizing our potential? Why are we not created with already fully-developed characters? Isn’t it all some kind of cruel test or, even worse, a bad joke? Thus, the original form of virtue defense seems to require additional explanations.
The 20th century philosopher, theologian, and exponent of the virtue defense, John Hick, attempts to provide some answers in his seminal book “Evil and the God of Love” (1966). Hick postulates that developing virtues is more valuable than being created as already a fully developed being. To use a metaphor, the journey to reach the mountain top is more valuable than being magically transported there just to see magnificent sights. He also postulates that character growth must be based on genuinely free choices, choices that involve free will.
Now, free will seems incompatible with coercion. Force and even a reliable threat of using it seem to undermine our freedom. Thus, Hick postulates, God has to be somehow hidden from us; there must be some “epistemic distance” between God and his creation. Otherwise, we would be motivated by fear of God’s retribution rather than by a genuine desire for good. Consequently, our choices would be coerced and not truly free.
In order to preserve this “epistemic distance”, God cannot intervene into human affairs too much, too obviously, and too openly. Too much help and too many miracles could give us certainty about God’s existence and plans. Remember, a dissolution of the “epistemic distance” from God would seriously undercut our free will. This is why God cannot remove every problem or obstacle that we may encounter. This is why, sometimes, we encounter difficulties that seem insurmountable.
Now, to return to angels, perhaps— like us— they are not yet fully realized, “completed” or perfect beings. Maybe they still have some work to do to actualize their potential, maybe they still have some mountains to climb. As paradoxical as it may seem, perhaps God maintains some “epistemic distance” from them, too. Otherwise, if they were fully in the presence of the Divine with the full understanding of God’s immense powers as well as his plans, could we really make sense of their fall? Could we really understand how they are able to make choices? Could we really comprehend how angels, too, seem to have free will?
Well, you could respond, can angels truly evolve if they are disembodied? Don’t they need pain, obstacles, doubts, and fear to fully develop their natures? Angels seem to lack all of this.
Thus, perhaps, something about them needs to thaw and open up too, so they can transcend their sophisticated yet sterile mathematical ideas and ethical imperatives and start using their senses and hearts.
Maybe, to be truly happy, to truly flourish, to fully realize their potential, angels too have to learn how to feel and not just how to reason. Perhaps this is the only way to transcend the world of “black-and-white”.
In Wender’s film, angels sometimes climb up high towers of churches and hang out on roofs of the tallest buildings as if waiting for the gift of a dawn. But there is always a price to be paid for not having senses. No matter how high they climb, no matter how high they fly, they’ll never see the flaming, crimson-orange rays of the setting sun.
End of Part 2