Diarmuid O’MURCHU. In The Beginning Was The Spirit: Science, Religion, and Indigenous Spirituality. NY: Orbis Books, 2012. Pp. x, 240. $22.00. ISBN 978-1-57075-995-6.
Reviewed by Joseph A. BRACKEN, S.J., Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207

“This is a book about the Great Spirit, an outrageous attempt at a synthesis between first-nations spirituality, physics, biology, consciousness studies, theology, world religions, and various social sciences (especially psychology, paleontology, and anthropology” (2). A few pages later, Diarmuid O’Murchu, a social scientist by profession, adds: “I am an intellectual, not an academic. I belong to a vast sector of humanity that reads, studies, reflects critically, and shares wisdom, although they do not buy into the imperial and imposed knowledge of academic hegemony” (8). One must keep both these statements in mind while reading this broad survey of human religious experience from an impressively large number of different perspectives. O’Murchu’s basic point is that all the world’s religions, including various indigenous religions (native American, Australian, East Asian) can be said to worship some generic form of divinity which he calls the Great Spirit. The problem, of course, is that the term Great Spirit has different meanings in different contexts, and these different meanings are not internally related to one another within a more systematically organized understanding of the divine but for the most part described as overlapping or even identical. This is where O’Murchu could have profited from the established methodology of academic research, namely, to have a pre-given set of concepts in the light of which to gather and then to evaluate empirical data. I will return to this point shortly but I should first indicate the amazing breadth of information which O’Murchu has culled from all the disciplines listed above.

Chapters 2, 3 & 4 reflect on the beginning of creation, the alleged Big Bang, and recent speculation among theoretical physicists about a primordial energy-filled vacuum populated by vibrational strings rather than conventional waves and particles. Here O’Murchu proposes that “the Holy Spirit is the one that energizes the energy constituting everything in creation” (57). This linkage of power and energy is quite interesting but remains undeveloped apart from brief references to the Harvard philosopher Stuart Kauffman and the Jesuit scientist/theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Chapters 5 & 6 then deal with the Spirit as the dynamic force behind the origin of life and its progressive diversification. Chapters 7-9 list the ways in which the notion of Great Spirit is manifest in aboriginal religions, while Chapters 10-12 overview Christian theologies East and West and envision the doctrine of the Trinity as an archetypical statement of the way in which “the divine life force is first and foremost a relational matrix—not an individually heroic reality on the one hand, nor a linear patriarchal construct on the other” (141). Chapters 10-14 focus in particular on the Holy Spirit as the erotic principle in creation which needs to be set free in a New Pentecost. He cites philosopher/theologians Denis Edwards and Philip Clayton in claiming that the Divine Spirit is “infinitely more than personal” or “trans-personal.” If linked to his earlier proposal that the divine life is a relational matrix, this is an important insight but once again only if it is properly evaluated in terms of the classical Thomistic distinction first between person and nature and then between an agent and what it produces in conjunction with other agents. Finally, in Chapter 14 he lists 8 horizons in which the Great Spirit is active: indigenous religions, the work of creation, human personhood, religious experience, the doctrine of the Trinity, the earthly life of Jesus, sacraments of the Church, the lure of the future (195-204).

Could all this empirical data be contained within a single conceptual scheme? I would say yes, provided that one defines one’s terms precisely. For example, Spirit in the generic sense would be the nature of God, the source of the divine life for the three divine persons and the world of creation. Holy Spirit is one of the divine persons who as intermediary between the Father and the Son within the Trinity especially embodies the power of the divine nature to bring into existence and to sustain a relational matrix encompassing not only the divine persons but all of creation as a dynamic cosmic process. Naturally, this requires at least a rudimentary metaphysics of the God-world relationship: not Aristotelian metaphysics, to be sure, but a new process-relational metaphysics which could presumably incorporate some of the key elements of the older metaphysics but set forth in more modern evolutionary terms. But why go to all this trouble? As Etienne Gilson commented years ago in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, metaphysics has a way of burying its undertakers. One ignores it at risk to one’s ultimate credibility to the critical reader.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books