John C. HAUGHEY. A Biography of the Spirit. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015. pp. 220. $25.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-122-5. Reviewed by Andrew T. MCCARTHY. Anna Maria College. Paxton, MA 01621
The endeavor to bring science and religion together can be a treacherous one. This is especially true in the wrong hands, as some forms of creationism and intelligent design can attest. John Haughey’s are the right hands. In A Biography of the Spirit, the facility with which he does justice to both scientific and religious material is superb. He gives each area its own appropriate scope and merit and suggests relationships which are not always immediately available to the casual observer but are quickly grasped through his exposition. Nonetheless, this is a complicated text in spite of its brevity. He describes it as a “biography,” but it is not so much a historical biography as a scientific biography. To elucidate the persona of the spirit he goes into some depth on the most significant scientific advances while drawing out a claim for the inter-relatedness of reality, and he links this to us as individuals through musings on the concepts of mind and the search for meaning.
What makes this book even more interesting is its structure as a journal. The reader will grow impatient if he or she just wants to follow a single argument to conclusion. The author is making an argument, but that argument flares up and recedes along a journey of exploration. It is best if the reader remains aware of the argument while enjoying the narrative moments in the journey.
Haughey’s side journeys into science are necessary to overcome the ineptness or awkwardness with which many Christians attempt to understand the spirit. He faces an under-articulated awareness of the acts of the spirit in history or a closed consciousness to these acts. This leaves him often teasing out roles for the spirit which are coherent but not always self-evident. Because he moves from history to science, this compact text ends up being one of the most comprehensive studies of the Holy Spirit.
The author situates the presence of the spirit in material reality through science. He is interested in the knowability of reality through the senses and thus hopes to find God through a series of encounters with the world that link scientific understanding with an openness to the awe and wonder of creation. This combination has a spotted past, but he avoids the primary pitfall of the science and religion tension by taking a primary cause position that, “God makes stuff that makes itself.” Haughey challenges the lineal causality of creation in favor of analogous causality. The idea seems to be that God is a participant cause within the “waves of physical causation.” His work with creation material is very Teilhardian but a little less cosmological and a little more concretely connected to contemporary scientific understanding and language. He notes that, “Being ignorant about science is not a good way to do theology.”
Through science, Haughey seeks to disclose the inter-relatedness of things which supports his portrait of the spirit as a completer and whole-maker. In this sense, the text is a highly constructive-revelatory work in that it takes what is standing right before us scientifically and religiously and forms a relational structure to make the connections more vibrantly clear to us. This inter-relatedness includes a conscious or cognitional dimension which causes him to reflect on the human duality of acting as a unit through neural integration on the one hand, and seeking to transcend ourselves through a transhuman motive to become immersed of all things on the other hand.
Haughey is able to develop some intriguing connections between the spirit and consciousness through theories of observer-dependent and observer-independent consciousness. He finds that the working of the mind is said to transcend yet occur through the neural material, causing him to ask how we transcend the material level. Elsewhere he subtly develops an understanding of the mind as “interlocutor between the brain and the spirit.”
To connect science and religion beyond his whole-making thesis, Haughey asserts the need to correlate faith formation with new scientific understanding. For example, he considers information on climate change and its meaningful implications. This leads to one of his primary insights. He observes: “Being able to find layers of meaning beyond the empirical doesn’t deny the character of the material layer, but it gives more explanation than can be found within it.” One of his more curious descriptions of the empirical layer involves the bacterial composition of the average human and how this yields a relational dynamism linking each of us to one another and our environment. It is an example of the spirit whole-making.Haughey’s rich text is a wonderful balance of contemporary research on the spirit, Scriptural reference, and scientific insights that can appeal to a variety of readers. It would make a fine, if not essential, addition to a course on religion and science. It could be assigned incrementally for meditation and reflective writing. It is eminently enjoyable when read slowly, as suggested by the chronological subtitles of its journal format. The index is also a treasure of conceptual terms. Above all, scholars of science and religion will appreciate the many bridges that Haughey erects between the topics, and those who love the spirit will discover even more to love.