Fire in the Whole – Cannibals of the Spirit




A Meditation

By Jay B Gaskill


This text was first written 1400 – 600 BCE, in other words around three thousand years ago. The modern translation (2,000) from the scholar Everett Fox is considered to be the closest to the original Hebrew.



“Now Moshe was shepherding the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, priest of Midyan.

“He led the flock behind the wilderness- and he came to the mountain of God, to Horev.

“And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him in the flame of a fire out of the midst of a bush.

“He saw: here, the bush is burning with fire,

“Moshe said:

“Now let me turn aside that I may see this great sight-

“When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see,

“God called to him out of the midst of the bush, he said:

“Here I am.

From The Five Books of Moses – The Schocken Bible: Volume I, translation & notes by Everett Fox





I will revisit Moses in a moment, but consider the radical context presented by 21st century insights about reality.  The phenomenon of emergent reality describes how coherent “supervising” patterns spontaneously appear as new organizational systems out of constituent, less organized, less coherent, disparate elements. The list of examples is long, and includes bird flock formation, weather cells and the emergence of certain complex ordering patterns within fluid dynamics. The universe appears to be self-organizing, influenced from its very beginning at the singularity before the cosmological explosion we call the Big Bang, influenced by and suffused with the creative emergence of increasingly complex, integrated systems.  And it is increasingly clear from our “modern” Genesis narrative that the list of emergent systems includes conscious being.


I’m not about to propose one more definition of what we mean by conscious being – after all, if you are conscious, you get it, if not, not. But we can observe that consciousness is an emergent property of very complex, biological neurological-networks when they achieve a certain critical state.  We are able to make this observation in the same way that we observe emergence when it manifests in fluid dynamics (in vortices, for example), and in nature generally.


That the entire universe appears to exhibit this self-organizing tendency is no longer even controversial. This is to say that emergence is universal, a deeply important, recurring aspect of nature, itself. But the implications of a universe filled with – even defined by – ongoing creative emergence have not yet been fully appreciated.  In this short meditation, I am proposing that we can profit greatly by revisiting key elements of the biblical creation narrative in light of what we have learned over the last several thousand years. That the biblical narrative is to be understood allegorically and metaphorically is no longer controversial among biblical scholars. [As anyone who has read Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) can attest.]


Instances of creative emergence are not a strictly determined outcomes in any given time, place and circumstance, at least in the sense that energy decay follows the second law of thermodynamics at all times.  So we can say that human consciousness depends on the existence and operation of a material body (the brain’s neural net) to manifest it.  But someone can be unconscious.  And we can also say that the essential character of conscious being is a novel manifestation, not strictly predetermined in the sense that the fall of Newton’s apple was predetermined by its release from the top of a tower.


Emergent systems are not prefigured in the situation that obtains immediately before they occur. Nothing about of a snapshot of a chaotic scatter of birds, for example, prefigures the emergence of the orderly flock pattern. The particular unpredictability of novel order is particularly evident when we observe a creative leap, as in creative inspiration.


Now flash back to the Exodus narrative for a moment to reconsider the significance of an image that was presented to Moses. What if the burning bush was a Divine metaphor, only dimly understood at the time it was conveyed?  A metaphor of what?


Think of a vastly complex neural network achieving, in the whole of its operations, something new and seemingly magic, a state of meaning-apprehension, motivation, and self-awareness. Imagine a graphic representation of such a network — a tangled wiring diagram in a roughly spherical shape, much as an illuminated schematic of the brain’s complex neural pathways is mapped.  Now, imagine conscious being as a glowing, fluctuating fog, a representation of the self-aware semantic field that we call consciousness. The field of conscious being as it is generated by the network appears in this graphic image as a fire linked to, surrounding and generated by the neuron branches as a whole.


In the vision, the fire that did not consume the bush was divine self-consciousness emerging from the virtual network of the entire universe.  G-d was revealing to Moses a picture-representation of conscious being, a vivid description of the very fabric from which humanity was made in G-d’s likeness. Later when G-d is asked by Moses for a name, the answer, seemingly enigmatic, was actually very straightforward:  The divine Being said: I am that (i.e. “that which is”) “I am”. In effect, G-d was revealing to Moses that G-d is conscious being, the fire in the whole.




Primitive cannibals ate their opponents in the naïve belief that they were taking into themselves the character and power of these enemies. But by reducing them to food, they destroyed those very qualities.


Enter scientism (not to be confused with science), sometimes presented as “naturalism” and “materialism”. By whatever name, this is the bold claim (popular among late 19th and early 20th century intellectuals and still prevalent in the modern academy) that the material sciences, the experiments and investigations of chemistry, physics, neurology and so on, represent the only valid objective source of all human knowledge, thereby reducing art, music, ethics, spirituality and the other humanities, to subjective whims, to anthropological developments, to tribal behavior patterns, and even electromagnetic fluctuations in that “electric meat” resident in our skulls.


This is the modern (and postmodern) equivalent of cannibalism. Its advocates attempted the very same feat that the primitive eaters of human flesh tried and failed to accomplish.


The followers of scientism purport to reduce conscious being (and its meaningful contents – including art, music, beauty & goodness) to the purely physical processes of neurology. This is pursued in the erroneous belief that by doing so – in effect by eating the human soul – they are taking in to themselves (i.e., into the domain of materialist science) the character and power of living consciousness and its values.


In fact, when scientism is taken seriously, it destroys being, beauty, meaning and value, in the same way that a cannibal destroys its victims.


My common sense advice: Don’t take these cannibals seriously, because deep down they do not really believe their own narratives.  And, above all, don’t let them eat you.




Copyright © 2013, by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law, All rights Reserved

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The author is a California Attorney …and a lay theologian.


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