When you are feeling good, like after being in the park last Wednesday or Thursday (!), you probably feel like something good is “emerging.” Maybe you feel like Tony singing “something’s coming” in Westside Story.
Emergence is a constant we feel inside and experience coming at us. It is like catching a wave rippling through the universe and finding yourself moved to a new place. One of my clients said their therapy process led them to a new place of peace and understanding — and they had no idea how they got there. But they felt, finally, like something new was possible. It is likely that something will “emerge” tomorrow. It will seem to come from out of no where.
The three books I’ve been reading (not always a good idea) have each encouraged me to think about “emergence” in one way or another. The first one moved me because it seems like the United States is never going to emerge out of the dreadful sin of racism and all the other hatred which laid in wait to be stirred up by Trump and his cronies. The book is President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier (2023).
I did not know how much I would relate to Garfield’s life! How he ran away from and ran into racism and hate during and after the Civil War sounds like a replay of what’s been happening since 9/11! Can the United States possibly be tempted to disenfranchise and otherize entire classes of people in the old name of white supremacy? This week it is a debate about Venezuelans.
In 2019, I thought we might actually emerge into new territory. People seemed to be susceptible to enlightenment in new ways. I hoped that white people, mainly, would repent of our sin and we’d come to new reconciliation. But the exact same thing happened as it did in 1876 when tired out, threatened men, tabled the issue in honor of profit protection and their own power – and those were the nice ones. The mean ones planned violence – and don’t imagine a new KKK is not possible! It seems like we periodically push the boundaries like the alien in John Hurt’s body, but some things never quite emerge.
I think James Garfield felt discouraged, too. He could feel the possibilities. He road a wave quite a way from his log cabin, preaching and teaching in the Ohio Reserve, clear to the Congress and then to the White House.
In 1878 Garfield quoted Junius Brutus from Coriolanus in his diary, “Let’s carry with us eyes and ears for the time / But hearts for the event.” The “event” was the emergence of something better. Coriolanus represents the arrogant old guard hurtling to a fall, and Garfield the plebian, idealistically undermining their surety. Ironically, the man who assassinated President Garfield three years later was angry with him for not rewarding him with a job from the spoils system Garfield had spent most of his career trying to eradicate. I picked up this book because I often wondered what it might have been like if he had not been killed. What was trying to emerge?
A much more profound book is by a philosopher of science married to the famous cosmologist Joel R. Primack: A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet (2015) by Nancy Abrams. Abrams essentially made a god for herself out of “emergence.”
Mysteries abound and are simplified for public consumption when Abrams and Primack get a hold of them. I won’t even try to summarize their science-shattering revelations. But this video will help you (below). I hardly ever watch a long video, but this one is engaging and enlightening, especially if you want to keep up with the revolution of understanding our new space telescopes have provided.
Their exciting new theory is that stars are about 1% of the 99% of the universe we cannot see. “Cold dark matter” is interacting with “dark energy” creating something that looks like a web or like a picture of a cell in our bodies.
Nancy was not troubled by the lack of God in their groundbreaking models until she entered a 12-step program for eating disorders and realized that, as an atheist, she had no way to connect with the “higher power” that was supposed to help her with her struggle. That got her thinking, “I had this sinking feeling that I had never really tried to understand God.” Her book answers her question, “Can anything actually exist in the universe as science understands it that is worthy of being called God?”
What she comes up with is “emergence.” She describes it as something “new and radically unpredictable” which arises out of a collective. One example of emergence is the complex global economy that arose from local buying and selling. Another example is the way a swarm of ants can build an anthill even as no individual ant can understand how that might be done. She sees the universe working that way and that is her higher power.
For humans, God, she believes, is a phenomenon that emerges from our collective human aspirations. “We need to redefine God,” she said. “The emerging God is not king of the universe; it’s humanity’s bridge to understanding the universe.”
Boiling down her thoughts this way does not do them justice and does not describe the wonder of seeing how the universe has “emerged.” As she was teaching, my thoughts turned to questions about how slavery and the Civil War “emerged.” And how in 2019 a wave of power struggle upended my church and so many other collectives and institutions. Now we are all worrying about what will emerge from the wonder of A.I. I’m not known for focusing on the dark side of the dark matter. But I do admit it is there. If you are James Garfield or Nancy Abrams, you are expecting goodness and development or at least inevitability to emerge. I would like to be a point of light, myself.
The third book comes from a professor I knew of when I attended his seminary, Fuller. Ray Anderson died in 2009, but I am just getting to one of his last books: An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (2006). I never thought of the church we planted as an “emerging” church, but I think Anderson would have. His ideas sort of bring Garfield and Abrams into the ongoing work of God I have experienced, as I think they experienced too. We all looked out into the stars and felt a shiver of wonder at what is coming, what seems to be moving, and how we are caught up in life.
Anderson loved the emergence he saw in the church. But he wanted to write a book to supply some underpinnings he thought the movement was missing. Beware, I’m going to boil down another philosopher; here goes. He saw the emerging church of the 2000’s as another expression of the Spirit, like we see the energy of the first church of Antioch escaping the gravitational pull of the mother church in Jerusalem. Here is how Brian McClaren asked his question in the intro:
Are we going to follow an Athens-based faith, where our message is domesticated and diluted by new cultures it encounters? Are we going to follow a Jerusalem-based faith, where our message is tamed and contained by a dominant culture from the past? Or are we going to follow an Antioch-based faith, where our message never loses its wild, untamed essence (flames of fie, rushing wind), but like a spring of living water or vibrant new wine, it always flows and is never contained in new forms?
The aspiration of the last sentence sounds like Garfield’s Disciples of Christ heart and Abrams’ brilliant insight: emergence.
Anderson distinguishes between what is “emergent” and what is “emerging.” When Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate what was going on, he was caught up in the emerging church that represented the newness their faith represented. The powers in Jerusalem rejected the Church’s “emergent” message of resurrection life and scattered the believers all over the world. Antioch was the fertile place an “anthill” formed, and soon ants were in every kitchen of the Roman Empire. To the honor of the Jerusalem elders, when Paul and Barnabas came back to report, they blessed them even if they did not become them.
That “untamed essence” is what Garfield, Abrams and Anderson all see and want to move with. Me too. I can see emergence in the past and I want to move with like-minded aspirants to see the best of the future.
I think it is a bit ironic for Abrams’ to rest her new faith in the latest discovery of science, which always thinks its latest revolution is the last one. But what she is feeling about what she is seeing resonates with me. From the detritus of the last few years, I keep seeing “ants” aspiring together and bringing forth new things. Dare I say that the aspirations of David Hogg and his fellow survivors of the Stoneman High shooting finally resulted in the Office of Gun Violence Protection President Biden announced last week? Is my energetic local pastor, committed to the emergent gospel, going to build an emerging church on the crumbling foundation of the old? Something’s coming! I hope to move with that “dark energy” that makes for starshine.