Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Spiritual as an Emergent Property

When I was in college, I briefly enjoyed Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness – right up to the point where I realized that it was being taken by many of my peers as a more-or-less accurate description of what the spiritual world was really like. In that book, and in many sermons and conversations, I realized that people were conceiving of the spiritual world as something like the physical world, only invisible.

That conception has always made me uncomfortable. Granted that any of our wetware categories are bound to be inadequate descriptions of what, by definition, we have only the barest notion, I remain convinced that some theories – images – metaphors – conceptualizations are more helpful than others.

So what would I put in its place? How would I attempt to describe something as abstract as “spiritual reality”? I’m well aware that anything I propose is, in its own way, as limited and inappropriate as saying, “It’s like this world, only invisible.” Still, I like the idea that the spiritual world is the next highest level of abstraction: it stands one step higher up the conceptual plane than the physical, material, social world of our everyday experience.

Here’s what I mean. Many of our own concepts (such as consciousness, free will, etc.) don’t make sense if viewed from the perspective of reductionistic materialism. They can’t be explained in terms of the movements of atoms: you have to give meaning to those movements of atoms, and the meaning doesn’t come from the atoms. Meaning only arises from, well, the next highest level of abstraction. Consciousness is often described as an “emergent property” of the oddly constructed matter in our brains, and I think this is the sort of idea I’m referring to.

Similarly, spiritual forces could be understood as the next highest level of abstraction. Just as our own spiritual existence arises from the semantic nature of physical events in our brains, so “spiritual” entities like principalities and powers (and for that matter, devils and demons and – maybe? – angels) could be understood as the next highest level of abstraction. I don’t just mean that when we call something “demonic” we’re using a symbol or a metaphor: I mean that there could be some sort of ontological and not merely symbolic reality behind this language. (Certainly, although popular Christian belief has frequently attributed something like a “spiritual body” to these beings, it’s pretty clear that that’s a metaphor. The exact nature of their existence is of course beyond our experience and is probably unimaginable. This description of them is probably somewhat metaphorical, too: but it’s also probably less metaphorical than the language about “spiritual bodies”.)

This idea finds a certain kind of support in Scripture. When Daniel is finally met by an angel after weeks of prayer and fasting, he is informed that his angelic support had been withheld by the power of “the prince of Persia”. This seems to imply that even in Biblical times, demons were associated specifically with nations or “Great Powers” (in the political language of the early 20th century). It’s not strange, therefore, to find Paul referring to the demonic powers arrayed against him as “τὰς ἀρχάς”, “τὰς ἐξουσίας”, “τοὺς κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους τούτου”, and so forth.

If this is in any way correct (or even just “helpful”), it raises a number of interesting questions. For one, could Satan exist apart from human beings? If the demonic is best understood as a higher-level ontologization of our collective evil, it would seem to imply that a world without material sentient beings could not be subject to evil spiritual forces. Similarly, I’ve always thought the idea that God grew up with humanity to be even more silly than it is perverse – but it makes some reasonable sense to ascribe this sort of growth to Satan.

I also suspect that this idea only makes sense if reality itself is in some way radically spiritual, in ways that we (at least, we in modern Western culture) can’t yet begin to understand. But perhaps reality is made of such stuff that language about “personhood” or “beingness” could be applied to such “abstractions”. The interesting part about this is that if it were in fact the case, science as science could never know about it. It’s not the sort of thing that science could tell us: because science would always be operating at a lower level of abstraction. Science pulls apart: this level of reality could only be known by pulling together.

If I ever develop this idea further, I’d need to find some way to make sure that this didn’t degenerate into a new sort of paganism, with gods and goddesses floating about all over the place – and worse yet, with ourselves as precisely those gods and goddesses. We need, in other words, to acknowledge that overarching all of these “levels of abstractions” is the one, true God, who has deigned to remove Himself from the abstract and Universal, and place himself among us.

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