Energy, Life and Spirit

John Gamlin explores the trinity: energy, life and spirit. He is a non-realist God but not so when it comes to the physical world.

I believe I know it. Or perhaps I should say as far as I am concerned this is it; the stuff which is at the root of everything. I boldly suggest that this, whatever it is, is as real as they come, the ultimate essence from which all else has derived. Not a replacement for God, but frequently referred to using terms which have been used to describe that all-powerful, all-knowing, in-all-places-at-once fellow who lived up there in the sky.

That "it" is energy. The thing which physicists recognise is there, but have never been able to precisely pin down. When asked they will probably say what it does rather than what it is, using statements such as "energy is the capacity (or power) possessed by a body to do work". Pressed further and they may respond energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed from one form into another". Two statements which any attentive student of school physics will be able to repeat without hesitation - and accept without further question.

When I was practising as an assistant lecturer for the Open University the printed material for the course I was teaching described energy as an abstract concept, an idea, a mental model. It is surely nothing of the kind; if everything really did start with an explosion of an infinitely small, infinitely dense and infinitely hot point of raw energy that over millions of years formed into stars, planets and all that we are and see about us, it is much, much more than an idea. It is not just an idea which we feel as warmth after it has travelled the 93 million miles or so from the sun. No concept would form into absolutely everything we sense and experience nor be the difference between something and nothing. For without the presence of energy there is just nothing.

Energy is all there is. Niels Bohr described the atom as composed of protons and neutrons. Since then protons and neutrons have been broken down into smaller particles named quarks and it is now suggested that at the fundamental core of the atom are minute closed strings of rotating and oscillating energy. So at the root of the material atom and hence everything else, maybe there is just energy. We should not be surprised; Einstein"s famous equation E = mc2 expressed the essential interchangeability of energy and matter and they have always lived side by side. After all the single cell, the building block of biological organisms, has energy at its centre, but in this case we call it life, a topic to which I will later return.

Back to our physicist and his principle of the conservation of energy, that it can be neither created nor destroyed. What a claim this is; if it is true then energy was here before all else, and will continue to be so long after all else has faded away. Energy will still be present in every part of that cold, even, largely empty expanded universe which is said to lie before us. Uneven temperatures are necessary for things to happen, so no work can be done, no power can be exercised. But energy will be there waiting as it were for ever.

All very scientific and realist, but I make no apologies for that. Realism is the mirror image of non-realism for one cannot exist without the other. I am a realist about some things and a non-realist about others. I am with Don Cupitt on the non-realist God, but not so when it comes to the physical world. For Don, the Word came first and the material world followed. For him language precedes reality whereas for me the reverse is the case. For Don the world is shaped and understood by our ability to sense it, whereas I believe our senses evolved so that we can appreciate and reason upon the world that is about us.

In short I am one of Don"s realist world people whom he categorises in his book Life, Life. World people see themselves "- set in a ready-made, ready-ordered physical world -." Indeed so, but I also claim to be a paid-up member of his "- life people (who) think more in terms of time, human relationships and stories." It cannot be so simple to be just one or the other. Sure, there are some whose thinking and speaking never seems to get beyond the mundane, the day-to-day, as indeed there are others who appear to live permanently in the world of feelings and fiction. But I guess that most of us are a bit of each: accepting what we see as pre-existent and given, but also living in the world of people, places and pictures from the human mind, real or imaginary.

I can sympathise with Don who has struggled for nearly twenty years to get over the Wittgensteinian view of the world to his regular readers whilst so many of us are simply failing the message. Failing to see that through language we create everything: "all our knowledge, our whole picture of the world, our entire way of life". Our knowledge and picture of the world, yes, but for most of us the world itself - no. Human beings form an intrinsic part of it of course and I take his point on "outsidelessness", but for the great mass of people who have never read Wittgenstein the idea that language is all simply does not match with their life experience and what they share with others.

For most of us the world is composed of objects, material and non-material, and our senses have been shaped to appreciate that which has been given. The majority of people deal with "things" day by day, and language is seen as just another tool, used to work upon these things, but not the things themselves. Certainly a very special tool, and one which enables us to create things in our heads as well as make things with our hands. Arguments that the case is otherwise fall upon deaf ears; to deny the reality of material things is for most people a non-issue, a fascinating point of philosophical debate perhaps, but playing no part in their daily lives.

So much for energy - what about life? In physical terms this mysterious ability of biological organisms to grow and reproduce, is simply the opposite of death. At the level which Don is concerned, life is the process of living, the constant interchange of human experiences and ideas. At the physical level life is akin to energy, a way in which work is done and things happen. Indeed, I find it difficult to draw any clear distinction between them. Life - energy, energy life; we seem to be talking about much the same thing.

Life (writes Don) is everything. Indeed so, but I suggest not just in the non-realist form he discusses it in his book. If life can be likened to energy then it really is everything - both real and non-real. For Don"s world people life is real; a "force of (human) nature" which is both making and destroying the world. For his life people it is the all consuming passion for living and making the best of the short time we have here. For me energy ( and hence life) is real because it is the foundation of all else that is real. In the human imagination the non-real can come from the real, but in the physical world the real cannot come from the non-real.

And so to spirit. Can it be different or is this just another way of describing the same thing? There seems to be little difference in the way the word is used in everyday speech. "What energy that woman has! She is simply full of life! My goodness, she has spirit!" Such statements could pour from an observer with little thought to distinguish one from another. In human terms energy, life and spirit are much the same kind of thing, a way of describing the determined go-getter, the do-er who seems to need little sleep or the support of others in their drive to achieve.

The same sort of thing can be observed when addressing physical quantities and qualities. Alcohol based liquid energy sources (such as petroleum) are called spirits which enable a car or other machine to "spring into life". Then we have those familiar biblical stories of God appearing to Moses as a flame of fire in the midst of a burning bush, and to the disciples the Holy Spirit as a mighty rushing wind and as tongues of fire. Both were given new life: the first to lead the Israelite people out of Egypt and the second to take the message of Jesus onto the streets of Jerusalem and beyond.

So energy, life and spirit abide, these three; but there is no greatest of them, for in my mind they are all much the same. All are mysterious, ineffable, as one eternal - and not just of our imagining, so in physical terms real. I am with Paul Tillich, John Robinson and Arnold Toynbee, who in various ways spoke of an "ultimate spiritual reality", but for me not another way of describing God. I am not (as was once suggested) setting forth a "God of the gaps" hypothesis. Forceful and everywhere maybe, but this trinity is certainly not all knowing, loving, or carrying any other human characteristic. There is nothing here to worship, just a force by another name. I was pleased to note that on a number of occasions in his earlier book The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech Don comes close to making the same kind of observation.

Is there no place for the non-real in these things? Yes, of course there is; fun, fiction, fantasy, meaning, feeling and value, and whatever in our dreams goes bump in the night will qualify. Life people can have their day and the contemplative, enquiring and theoretical part in all of us be realised to the full. But with this important caveat - only so long as this is not seen as some kind of "higher" order of existence. World people and life people stand side by side, not one above the other. The thinker, the artist and the engineer have existed as one or separately since the dawn of modern man and in terms of their place and usefulness we should not choose between them.

Indeed I would go further. There are not in this (nor any other) sense two distinct groups of people at all - not world people nor life people but one people. Rather than have a foot in both camps I believe there is only one camp - the camp where all people dwell. Moreover this unity extends beyond people to all else there is, animate or otherwise. All is of a piece; "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe," wrote John Donne, but neither is he separated from all else that exists. This is vitally important; the concept of "one world" which is so much talked about these days is a message that has to be accepted if our planet is to remain wholesome and habitable.

All must now be regarded as sacred, for since the "death of God" that artificial divide between the sacred and the secular has faded away. Life is sacred, and because it is all we have; it should never be wasted, but lived and loved to the full. If life then energy, that real physical stuff, is also sacred and far too good to waste.

Which leads me back to where I started - with conservation, but of a different kind. If you have been with me up to now and take my point that energy, life and spirit are different aspects of the same thing, then there is as much a case for not wasting this, the source of everything, as there is of life. Strictly we cannot waste energy as such, but we can and are wasting non-renewable energy resources such as coal and oil in ways such that the energy released can never be regained. The material world has been described as "frozen" energy, hence it follows that to waste that plastic bag or any other physical object is just another way to waste energy.

I need spend no time setting out the case for environmental concern and what we individually or collectively should be doing about it. Readers of this magazine are well aware of the dangers of climate change, global warming and the rest. My concern here is to emphasis how very, very special energy is; just as special as the life which Don focuses on, just as sacred and just as important for life people as it is for the worldly. To save energy is to save life, both now and in the future.

Energy conservation is a religious issue. Whereas at one time we may have spoken of "saving souls" for another place, now it must be saving life and the human spirit which goes with it, both real and non-real, for this place. Back to Donne"s XVIIth Devotion: "And therefore never send to know for whom the Bells tolls; It tolls for Thee". The environmental bell is tolling loud and clear, calling us not to honour the dead, but to work for the living. It is a call we cannot, must not refuse.

John Gamlin is a former lecturer in electrical engineering and a resident member of Old Hall, an organic farming community in Suffolk. He is a member of SoF network and treasurer of the Life Style Movement: