June 17, 2010

The Gospel Singers in Cyberspace

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Several nights ago I attended a gospel sing, and as people were touched by the music, they “communed” with the Lord (faces enraptured, lifting holy hands in prayer, uttering quietly: “praise the Lord!”). In those ecstatic moments the singers and audience were like John of the Apocalypse who, “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10), “saw” the resurrected Christ (Rev 1:12-16). Well, not quite like John, since John “experienced” a vision, but the singers and the audience at the sing were “experiencing” the Lord with their minds (no one claimed to be seeing visions). I suspect that the group would object that I just don’t get it—clearly the Lord, as Spirit, “exists spiritually”! But what sort of “existence” is that?—and that question, in turn, raises another: the issue of what’s real anyway?

     We generally today recognize at least five levels of “actual” or “real” in our cultural experience, and most of the time we can usually tell the difference between them. The most obvious is substantive reality. This type of existence is comprised of substance or “stuff”—something is “out there” over against us. Substantive entities have an actual location in common space and time quite apart from our perceptions of them—meaning that they are accessible to our five physical senses—we can see (an impression on the retina of the eye), feel (sensibly by touch), taste, smell, or hear (sound physically resonates in the ear) them. They actually are “out there,” no matter how much we may want to deny them.

     On the other hand, we also believe there are non-substantive entities to which we accord the status of actually “existing” or “being,”—even though they do not exist in space and time like substance and “stuff” does. We experience them with our minds (the religious expression is “in our hearts”) as a shared mental construct or value—hence they are a kind of non-substantive reality. Although they are not substance, and cannot be perceived outside our minds as existing in a particular physical place in common space and time, we are as certain of their “existence” as we are of our own—though clearly the two types of reality are completely different. Non-substantive reality is how we humans experience our gods. We describe their non-substantial reality as the realm of the “spirit,” and that realm “exists”—in our minds. Once a god or greater-than-human non-substantial reality outlives its usefulness, we demote it to mythical reality (see below).

     Another type is imaginary reality. We easily recognize that dreams and ideas happen in our minds. Some, however, will insist that visions, hallucinations, and ghosts have substance and are hence “real.” But unless the “entity” can be experienced by our physical senses, it too belongs to the realm of imaginary reality. We think of imaginary reality in a vastly different way from how we think of our gods. We know that these imaginary mental experiences have no objective reality over-against us. They are not actually there; they happen in our minds—actually “existing” in the synapses of our brain. They are nevertheless “real” to us even though no one else can attest to their existence. If a vision or a hallucination registers on the retina of the eye and that can be validated, then what we see is not a vision but part of substantial reality. But as we usually think of visions, hallucinations, and other forces not quantifiable in terms of substance, they are imaginary.

     Mythical reality. We think these entities never existed in space and time—although they were once accorded the same level of existence as we accord the existence of “stuff” and our gods. Today, however, we recognize them as mythical—by which we mean they never were “real,” either substantially or non-substantially. And since they were at one time conceived as insubstantial reality (just as we conceive our current gods), we are forced to recognize that from time to time a demotion of substantive and non-substantive entities takes place and we at some point reclassify their reality as mythical. A good example would be the unicorn: at one time the best scientific minds of their day regarded the unicorn as a substantive reality, but today it has been demoted to mythical reality. Or the Gods of ancient Greece: at one time they were regarded as non-substantial reality, but today we deny that they ever existed—except in the minds of those who believed in them. And since we think that our current gods are as real as we are, we cannot accord what is mythical to the same level of existence as that enjoyed by our current gods and ourselves.

     Legendary reality. Legends, very broadly, are folktales with a historical basis that have grown taller over time. Legendary figures in folktales likely had a beginning in common space and time, but the tales as we now have them describe a bigger than life figure. For example, King Arthur is a legendary figure from British history, but trying to sort out Arthur’s history from the almost mythical aura about him is virtually impossible. In general, most will admit the original substantive reality of Arthur but deny the tall tales by which we now know him.

     All of this begs the question, how “real” is non-substantive or spiritual reality anyway? Perhaps it is like cyberspace. The term describes the flow of digital data through a network of linked computers. On the one hand, cyberspace is clearly “not real,” since it is not spatially located anywhere as a tangible thing, but, on the other hand, it certainly is real in its effects. In other words, it is everywhere and nowhere. I wonder: what would the gospel singers think of that as an explanation of non-substantive and spiritual reality?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:53pm