When I say the word “spirit” or “spiritual,” I think most of us think of a realm of incorporeal beings whose presence we might feel deep within us from time to time but whose existence we cannot prove and only see at frightening and pivotal moments. Like the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future in A Christmas Carol. Or like the demons in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Or the ghosts in a haunted house.
We might also think of the eternal aspect of ourselves, that 21 grams of us that leaves the body when it dies and goes to the afterlife. We may think of the third person of the Christian Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who serves as the pervasive, earthly presence of God on earth and breathes life into all things. We may think of matters pertaining to religious practice or religious experience. There is so much to explain in this world that we don’t yet understand, so much that we label “spiritual.” And, I think by definition, it’s all a bit… other-worldly. Hard to pin down.
I want to introduce you to another way of thinking about it that has been on my mind for awhile now. I’m not trying to displace any of the theories of spirit I’ve already mentioned. I want to simply add a thought to your consideration of spiritual things. I’m going to start with looking at a word, then I’m going to tell a story, and we’ll get back the word again.
If you’ve spent much time at church, there’s a decent likelihood that you know that the Greek word used in the New Testament that we translate to English as spirit or soul is “pneuma.” It is the same word for breath, or, for ancient Greek doctors, the air that circulated in the body to keep us alive. I think that medical and spiritual were not so distinct. The word is used to refer to the Holy Spirit, the soul of individual people, emotional state, and spirits that have done things to people (like make them deaf or mute or cause what we know as seizures.)
Okay, now for the story. A few years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker about termites. I learned a lot from the article. Termites build these massive mounds, like the one in the photo I’ve included. The size of the mounds, relative to the termites, is comparable to two Burj Khalifa skyscrapers stacked on top of each other. They build these with no planning or direction at all. They operate on what what scientists refer to as “swarm intelligence.” The article describes the organization of swarm intelligence: “Each termite is presumed to be governed by a set of simple rules, which dictate particular actions—crawl, turn, dig, stack a mud ball—in response to specific triggers from the environment or from other termites. But it’s unclear precisely what mechanism produces termites’ group intelligence—which chemical or physical signals trigger which actions, and by what rules.”
Each termite has a specific job or expertise, and they simply go in and do it. Over and over. The task is dependent on things the other termites do, and it affects the tasks of other termites as well. There’s no coordination, though. No master. No slave. No boss. No employee. No owner. No customer.
I managed software projects for almost a decade, and I will tell you now that it’s a miracle that the termites don’t all kill each other, let alone that they build complex structures that make our tallest skyscrapers look like treehouses (relatively speaking). My job was to be the glue that made sure the right people did their thing at the right time. Even with careful planning… well, let’s just say that industry-wide, a majority of software projects don’t hit their targets.
There’s no project manager termite. There’s no map. No strategy. Just a bunch of bugs each doing their own thing when the mood suits them. The best theory anyone has is that a termite doing one thing cues another termite to do its thing and so on. Yeah, it’s a nice idea. Kind of like when you have an issue with your computer or software and you call the help line. That should trigger an immediate and helpful response to resolve the issue. Does it? Sometimes.
What is it the termites have that we humans with our evolved human brains do not?
The article approaches this question from sociological and scientific vantage points—if we could figure out how to get small robots to behave with a swarm mentality, think what we could do! And there are, of course, quotes from a fair number of social scientists about the possibilities for human society. But for all of the fascination with termite colonies, none of the people interviewed or cited has a truly compelling case for how the termites know (and learned) how to work together like that, with no particular individual intelligence and no observable means to communicate.
I do not have a compelling scientific or sociological explanation for how the termites do it, either. However, I do think that our puzzlement over this phenomenon is telling. These termites have something holding them together that has baffled scientists and other human beings for hundreds of years or more. As I read through the article, I see comparisons to the things that hold us human beings together, and all of them fall short as metaphors or points of comparison to understand the termites:
- Money changing hands
- Laws and their enforcement
- Wealth, poverty, and charity
- Road systems
- Shared moral codes
- Project managers (sigh)
- Any and all manner of power and transactions and borders and boundaries and expectations
The termites have none of these, and they have something we don’t understand. Something we long for. Something that, if we could grasp its equivalent for ourselves, we imagine there would be so much more room for: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self control.
What if that’s one way to look at spirit—as the unseen force that makes individuals part of a whole? The glue, the fascia between us that holds us together. What if it’s more “school spirit” than Ghost of Christmas Past?
Getting back to the idea of spirit as breath… This is the thing about termites that really makes my heart race: do you know what those giant mounds do? What their function is? Those intricate structures, with their endless tunnels and rooms act as lungs for their colonies. That’s right—they breathe. For everyone. The colony itself lives underground, generating an insane amount of carbon dioxide as it metabolizes oxygen. The mound takes the carbon dioxide out of the colony’s dwelling and regulates the intake of oxygen. It even acts as a humidifier.
Spirit. Breath. Unity.
What if what “rules” or “governs” this colony—See? I don’t even have a good English word for how it holds together—what if what holds it together isn’t found in the termites themselves, but in a spirit they share. A spirit that of unity, the underlying creative force of our world that achieves the miracle of holding together and making whole.
A pretty standard theological understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit is that it unifies people and that it is what enlivens every creature on earth. I think the most common practical application of that for people is an expectation for unity of thought and theology, unity of intent. The best we can imagine is a benevolent king or ruler telling everyone the same message and it’s a message that benefits us all. What if it’s deeper than that? More pervasive? Less about power and more about breath and life and simply being who we are made to be? What if it’s a lifegiving Spirit that can even unify lawless, unthinking termites to make wonders of engineering and breathtaking (or breath-giving) works of art?
More to come…
If you’re interested in discussing the things that tie us together, the current book club discussion at the Home for the Wayward is about getting in touch with and healing our family and genetic roots, past and present.