The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination

By: Aaron Yom
Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Amos Yong. The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination. Pentecostal Manifestos 4. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. 237 pp.

Yong is part of a small group of Pentecostal scholars who have taken the lead in finding areas of consonance between theology and science particularly from a charismatic-pneumatological perspective. He has published widely and edited several books on this topic, and now finally produced this monograph. His goal and commitment are explicitly stated as the provision of “pentecostal-charismatic perspectives [that] … are important for the wider theological discussion as well as the ongoing dialogue between theology and science.” To this end, Yong gives us historical, theological, philosophical, scientific, and socio-psychological dimensions of Pentecostal engagements with science. Should pentecostals heed his call? Three topics may suffice to illustrate his proposal: divine action and miracles, emergence theory, and plural-spirit cosmology.   

First, contending against materialistic and naturalistic skeptics who claim that there isn‘t even a need to acknowledge any miracle in the world, Yong deviates from the necessitarian view of nature and sees the laws of nature functioning not as rigid governors in a mechanical system but as flexible dynamic tendencies that create space for divine intervention without violating the laws of nature. Extrapolating from Peirce’s metaphysics, Yong defines “laws” as habitual, dynamic, and general but yet real tendencies; a definition, he believes, that supports the modern portrait of the universe as an open and dynamic system. What about miracles? Although scientific laws are ideal models for understanding regular and quantifiable connections in the world, there will always be some features of the physical universe that scientific laws of nature cannot capture. However, rather than simply recognizing miracles as God’s actions in the gap of unexplained areas of nature, Yong finds that divine action and even “supernatural” miracles as God’s activities in the world can occur within a regulatory system without violating a Humean mechanistic created order. In other words, miracles are emerging events as new circumstances create their own laws, and “as the universe evolves, so new laws emerge.” Yong thus defends that, theologically and pneumatologically, the issue of divine action and miracle are eschatologically oriented. Since laws not only allow chance events to occur but also enable the emergence of creativity and complexity in nature, laws are not caged in deterministic grids into which free agents must fit. In this respect, miracles are proleptic signs of the world to come. As the power of life, the Spirit brings about our new participation in God‘s eternal life here and now. In this eschatological scheme, human creatures come to know, seek out, and embody the living presence and activity of God, and encounter habitual events that open up the possibility of the emergence of new insights.

Second, Yong dialogues emergence theory and Clayton’s claim that it produces a new set of criteria for pneumatological anthropology. From an emergent perspective, agreeing with Clayton, Yong understands that physical or biological system is an open system. In this open, emergent system, there are two types of actions: bottom-up and top-down. In the case of mind-brain interactions, as a bottom-up action, human consciousness emerges from bio-chemical process of the brain, but once a higher-level phenomenon such as human consciousness emerges from the underlying bio-chemical laws, human consciousness is causally irreducible to the brain activities. However, as a top-down action, the emergent human consciousness having a real, autonomous causal power independent of lower-level processes influences and determines the lower-level laws. Therefore, in essence, top-down and bottom-up actions produce a complex system that informs and connects the hierarchy of causation. The implication of emergence theory is that new elements appear in the world that are dependent upon previous configurations but are nonetheless irreducible to their parts and therefore make the processes of emergence unpredictable. For this reason, human spirits apart from physical embodiment and environmental rootedness are meaningless and incapable of appearing. However, when human spirits emerge from lower levels, certain non-reducible properties are activated that cannot be explained as merely the sum of the constitutive parts. In anthropological terms, the emergence of self-consciousness depends on the emergence of sociality and relationality. Therefore, the life of an individual cannot be simply reduced to the talk of the genetic make-up of physical body or some memories stored in the brain. It must include pneumatological topics of the emergent levels such as affective habits and real tendencies.

Third, Yong elicits a pneumatologically informed cosmology that can account for, rather than exclude, various spirits in the world. Based on the para-psychological studies that can empirically substantiate pneumatic activities such as precognition, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis, Yong envisions a world as a complex interplay of “powers and forces.” Here, his pneumatological cosmology deviates from an ontological dualism between earthly and spiritual realms. Yong provides theo-scientific expressions of plural spirits in our cosmos based on an emergentist hypothesis. On the one hand, if human minds are considered as emergent properties or capacities constituted by but irreducible to the brain and the body, then spiritual entities can be similarly considered as emergent realities constituted by but irreducible to the complex personal, corporate, and cosmological interactions.  On the other hand, if human spirits are emergent realities that are capable of supervening upon physical realities, then angels (as servants of God to human beings) and demons (as agents of destruction in human lives and societies) are similarly emergent spirits that are capable of positively and negatively supervene upon physical realities.

These areas may illustrate Yong’s proposal although they may not answer the question if pentecostals can and should follow its outlines. Although Yong’s theo-scientific approach from a pneumatological perspective is broad and inclusive, his reliance on emergence theory and para-psychological studies may draw the same criticism directed against Clayton that the starting point is overly anthropocentric. Yong is not anthropocentric but rather pneumatological and trinitarian in his overall corpus; however, perhaps, conservative circles may need additional comforting words from Yong in this regard. As we all know, Pentecostals are already stereotyped as overly human-centered. Does his proposal help correct this perspective among the pentecostal and scientific community? In addition, Yong takes seriously the pneumatological entities pervading all four levels of creation: personal, social, natural, and cosmological. Will not this pervasiveness of “spirit” stand too close to panentheism? A European scholar once told me that the Pentecostal engagement with theology and science cannot but lead to this direction (even adopting classical panentheism, which is “no-no” for evangelicals). Others accuse Yong of adhering too closely to process theology. If so, would the Pentecostal theo-scientific project in fact undo classical theism?

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Aaron Yom
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2 Responses to “The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination”

  1. Thanks for this review, Aaron. I wonder what exactly Yong means in his subtitle with a Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination. I assume this is a reference to his idea of the pneumatological imagination, which does appear in this formulation on only a few pages in the book. The chapters and epilogue do not pick up on the concept of the imagination. The answer to what this imagination proposes may be in the final chapter: a Spirit-filled creation. Is this what we should take away from the book? Or do you see his book as an instruction of how the Pentecostal-charismatic imagination can engage the key issues in theology and science today? In other words, I think Yong sketches out a method for engaging the conversation as well as the content of such an engagement. Do you think he succeeds on both levels?

  2. Amos Yong Amos Yong says:

    Thanks, Aaron, for this thoughtful review. I’m also curious about this: “Others accuse Yong of adhering too closely to process theology.” I do not recall being on the receiving end of this criticism anytime recently, or even earlier, for that matter, especially in light of my explicit rejection of process theology since Spirit-Word-Community….