(Apologies to the reader for a bit more abstract fare this evening.)

Meet Plotinus.   He’s a neo-Platonic philosopher from the 3rd century A.D., and is more well known for his famous pupil–St. Augustine–than his own work.

Plotinus’ central contribution to the history of thought was tied up in the notion of emanations from The One.  As I understand it, The One stands alone and untouched, but emanates nous, or mind.  From there, nous emanates the World Soul, which then emanates individual human souls, which then emanates matter.

It’s an interesting way to organize the universe, and usually summarily dismissed as too gnostic to be helpful.

But that claim isn’t my interest here.  Instead, I’m intrigued by its structural similarity to the contemporary notion of ’emergence’ as Amos Yong deploys it in his stellar book on disability.  He writes:

I have suggested that God’s gift of the breath of life to the dust of the ground that constitutes ha adam invites us to understand the human constitution in emergentist terms.  In this framework, human souls are emergent from and constituted by human bodies and brains without being reducible to the sum of these biological parts.  Similarly, human communities are emergent from and constituted by human persons without being reducible to the sum of these individuals.  Finally, I am suggesting, the relationship between God and human beings is a further but definitive emergent level of reality that involves and is fundamentally constituted by our embodiment and our interactions with others and the world, but is irreducible to the sum of all these parts as well.

Neo-platonism had its emanations, but Christian physicalism (and its variations) has its emergence.  While the world is organized for Plotinus from the “top down” (so to speak), for Yong it is almost put together from the bottom up.

That’s not necessarily a problem.  But I’m always looking for points of contact between ancient philosophy and contemporary manifestations.*  And Yong’s reliance on emergence to explain the interaction between several spheres of life strikes me as a bit too easy–almost an “emergence of the gaps” theory.

*I once had a professor who called bare particulars a contemporary form of pantheism, a description that is hard to argue with (let the philosophy reader understand!).

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Jonathan

    I’m curious: does Amos Yong comment on the relationship between the “dust of the ground,” God’s “breath of life,” and man as becoming “a living soul”? He mentions the material element (dust) and the immaterial element (breath of life, which he sees as being “emergent” or somehow showing up in that which is more than the sum of the (material) parts). But the passage then states that “and man (adam) became a living soul (nephesh, if I remember the Hebrew, which can be translated as “person”)” introducing a new concept in the verse. How does “living soul” figure in to Yong’s theory?