by Jim Taylor.
I’ve been learning a new word — “emergent.” One of my dictionaries doesn’t include the word at all. The others describing something that arises, comes to attention. The root, of course, is the verb “emerge.”
Author Nancy Ellen Abrams uses the word to mean a reality that emerges from, but is quite different from, something else.
She uses the analogy of an ant hill. I prefer a termite mound — something I happen to know more about.
Your average termite, you see, is a stupid creature. It’s a whitish grub. It has only rudimentary senses; it can’t really see where it is going. It can do only two things — crawl and chew.
But put a number of termites together and they will immediately start to build a home for themselves.
The mound that emerges is astonishingly complex. Really big termite mounds can stand 17 feet tall, and go 8 feet underground. Although a mound feels rock solid, it’s actually an interlocking mass of rigid bubbles.
With up to two million termites in a mound, the mound must be engineered to exhaust all that stale air. So it incorporates its own air conditioning system. When the sun heats one side of the mound, hot air rises through a complex network of internal channels, which in turn draws in cooler air in from the far side of the mound.
The solar-powered heat pump circulates air through the entire mound, keeping the queen, her progeny, and her workers at just the right temperature.
And the termites do this with no direction. No blueprints. No planning.
No one termite – especially not even the queen, who is little more than a living ovary — has the intelligence to direct this construction. None of the termites knew what they were doing when they created it. But it is unquestionably real.
Abrams calls this an “emergent” phenomenon. It derives from the collective activity of those termites. But it is not them. It is more than them.
I read her reasoning, and I think “emergent” might apply to much more than termite mounds.
A corporation, for example. A multi-national corporation is more than any of its individuals, whether staff or management.
In the past, I have derided corporations as economic fictions, figments of our imagination. Abrams helps me see that they are not. Like a termite mound, they are a reality that emerges from certain kinds of collective human activities.
Of course, the same could be said of many other organizations.
Charities, for example. Service clubs. Protest movements. Political parties.
Sportswriters natter (endlessly) about team spirit. A team may have individual superstars. But when a team rides a winning streak, the whole transcends its individual members. When it happens, team spirit is real. It can’t be rationalized away as socio-psychological jargon.
How about churches? Rather than creations of a supernatural deity, they are an emergent reality, a phenomenon that arises out of, and surpasses, human activities.
In her book, A God That Could Be Real, Abrams argues that even God can be seen as an emergent reality. A reality that transcends us humans.
Neither a figment of wishful thinking nor a physical being, but a reality nevertheless. And just as real as a termite mound.
Copyright © 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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