Several years ago Hollywood made a movie, City of Angels, about an angel named Seth whose job it was to accompany the spirits of the recently deceased to the afterlife. On one such mission, waiting in a hospital, he fell in love with a brilliant young woman surgeon. As an angel, Seth has never experienced touch or taste and now, deeply in love, he longs to physically touch and make love to his beloved. But this is his dilemma: as an angel with free will he has the option to let go of his angelic status and become a human person, but only at the cost of renouncing his present immortality as an angel.
It’s a tough choice: immortality but no sensual experience, or sensual experience but with all the contingencies that earthily morality brings – diminishment, ageing, sickness, eventual death. He chooses the latter, renouncing his status as an immortal angel for the pleasure that earthly senses can bring.
The vast majority of people watching this movie, I suspect, will have lauded his decision. Almost everything in our hearts moves us to believe that it’s cold and inhuman not to make this choice. The overpowering reality of the senses, especially when in love, can make everything else seem unreal, ethereal and second best. What we experience through our senses – what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell – is what’s real for us. We have our own version of Descartes. For us, the indubitable is: I feel, therefore I am!
Spirituality, in virtually every major religious tradition, at least in its popular conception, has seemingly said the opposite. Spirit has classically (and sometimes almost dogmatically) been affirmed as above the senses, as higher, superior, a needed guard against the senses. Sensual pleasure, except for how it was occasionally honoured in the realm of aesthetics, was perennially denigrated as furtive, superficial and a hindrance to the spiritual life. We took St Paul’s admonition that the “flesh lusts against the spirit” in the Greek, dualistic sense where body is bad and spirit is good.
Today, in the secularised world, the opposite seems true. The senses resoundingly trump the spirit. Secularised angels, unlike the religious angels of old, take the same option as Seth. The seeming vagueness of the spirit is no match for the reality of the senses.
So which is more real?
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