Marshand and Ultimate Reality

In 2023 I published a novel, Marshland, which is a murder mystery, a story of the Texas Savings and Loan Crisis, and a spiritual mystery all rolled into one. [1] My friends (and the publisher) tell me that to create and maintain interest, it is necessary to occasionally publish an excerpt and perhaps give some insight into the background of the book. As I work on a more Christian and Biblical blog intended to become the second of the blogs on public theology, I decided that this week, I would publish an excerpt from near the end of Marshland. Next week, I think I am going to be publishing a bit of the newly published revised and expanded version of Crisis of Discipleship, which was also published last year and is now out in a new edition. [2]

For now, here is the excerpt from Marshland:


One night we spent together remains vivid in my memory. My father, brother, and I were alone after dinner. They asked me to recount the events of the past months, which I did. When I got to the dark figure and strange lights, Dad and my brother got very quiet. Finally, they asked me what I thought my experiences meant. I had a hard time answering.

“I don’t really know what to think. I make my living not believing what people say unless it can be proven in court. However, that kind of proof is unavailable when it comes to personal perceptions of a spiritual reality. I know what I experienced. I know what I saw or dreamed. I know what happened as a result. I do not think it was simply an illusion or false delusion. I am not sure I need to know more.”

My father seemed to think that was a pretty good answer.

“In the ministry, I have seen a lot of things that an unbeliever might explain as a coincidence, supernatural answers to prayers, the intervention of God, or chance. I have always thought of them as something spiritual. I never felt it necessary to know or understand more. In the end, it is a matter of faith how one interprets experiences like those you recently had. Personally, however, I also think the experiences were real.”

My brother listened carefully, then gave his take on what had occurred.

“When I was in seminary, I had a class on, of all people, John Calvin. One day, as we were discussing Calvin’s views about angels, someone in the class spoke dismissively about Calvin’s premodern worldview. The professor, who was by no means a fundamentalist, paused thoughtfully and then said, ‘I think it is a great mistake not to believe in angels.’ He never explained his meaning, but I have always remembered that class.

“During my seminary days, I was often asked to preach in churches with which the seminary wanted to sustain a relationship. During those times, I habitually asked pastors what they thought about angels and demons and whether they had ever experienced things that seemed mystical in origin. The answers were interesting. Across various theological orientations, the answer was almost invariably that they believed in the demonic and in the angelic in some form. They had seen and experienced things in ministry that were difficult to explain on any basis other than supernaturally. They did not agree on the explanation, but they did agree on the existence of what I would call a trans-material dimension to the universe. I have experienced things as a pastor that are hard to explain without postulating an element of the divine or demonic.

“Art, it seems to me you have had such an experience. Your visions could just be dreams, but in the case of the angelic lights, your experiences were shared by others who saw the strange pillars of light. These experiences do not seem to be some kind of mass delusion. You will have to decide for yourself what you believe. As for me, I believe the world is stranger than we know.”

My father chimed in. “One interesting development in philosophy in recent years has been recognizing that reality is multilayered. At the bottom of material reality lies the principles of physics, from which chemistry and biology emerge as independent areas of reality. The human race emerged in a long process of biological and social development, with the result that religion, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines also developed, due to the capacity of human beings to create human societies and institutions. Each level of reality depends on others, yet has its own degree of independence. While other levels are relevant and may impact higher levels, they do not determine them. In my view, beyond the created order, there is a vast, invisible order of spiritual reality. This order may well include an angelic order of being. You may have had some kind of contact with that reality.”

Our conversation shifted to the wedding and the excitement it generated in the family. We never returned to the subject of angels. In the intervening years, until recently, I rarely encountered anything like what I experienced during the final days of the Marshland transaction. As the years passed, the vividness of my experience faded, and with it, my curiosity and interest. I was busy as a lawyer, husband, and father. Yet it was in those days that I found my true vocation, the great love of my life, and a kind of center from which I have lived since.

This week, I ran across a quotation from Thomas Torrance, whose theological writings have meant a lot to me over the course of the years. It is from an essay entitled “Christianity and Scientific Change.” When I wrote Marshland, in my mind I attributed the words of Arthur Stone’s father to what I learned studying John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, whose work has also been important to me and who makes a similar observation in his many books. Arthur Peacocke and Ian Barbour also influenced my understanding of the multi-layered nature of reality. It is actually an important idea to get in one’s mind.

In Torrance’s essay, he makes the point:

“Scientific knowledge embodies layers of coherent comprehension which answer to and are affected by the coordinated layers of orderly relations, in reality itself. This integrated complex structure in reality and in our corresponding knowledge of it forms an ascending hierarchy of orderly relations which prove to be open upward in ever wider, comprehensiveness and profounder ranges of intelligibility, but which cannot be flattened down word by being reduced to homeomorphic relations on one and the same level.

As these different levels of reality become disclosed through our inquiries, together with the corresponding levels of our explanatory accounts of them, they combine with one another, in such a hierarchical way, as to constitute a vast semantic focus of meaning.” [3]

A lot rides on understanding this quotation and the point I am making in Marshland. If I could summarize what Torrance is saying it is this:

  1. Every level of reality exists dependent upon other levels but independent of them.
  2. Reality has a hierarchical structure, from basic physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to sociology to theology.
  3. In reality, there is an upward openness to emerging novelty, which means that the higher levels are not fully reducible to the lower levels.
  4. Through science, mathematics, words, and other symbols human beings discover the structure and meaning of this multi-layered reality.

Because there are different levels of reality, it is not appropriate to try to understand one level of reality on the basis of lower levels alone. For example, one cannot understand the functioning of the human spirit solely on the basis of physics, chemistry, or even biology. The existence of the human mind creates an entirely different level of reality that must be understood on its own terms. Similarly, spiritual realities, such as the angels in Marshland, exist on a different level than material realities.

Modern science and much modern philosophy tend to dismiss religious views and experiences as not “scientific,” at least as the speaker understands science. Torrance and I would disagree with this.

On the spiritual level, we are dealing with the person of God. Like all personal relations, we cannot understand this God, unless God chooses to communicate himself to us. Of course, God can be expected to communicate to us on the basis of our human abilities to perceive, which is why religious people experience visions and dreams. It’s also why the religious truths of every religion are embodied in people and in books.

Jesus told parables. Mohammed wrote the Koran. The sayings of Buddha have been passed down to us. Confucius wrote the Analects. We can read, understand, and grow closer to understanding Ultimate Reality in our study of them.

As a Christian, I read my Bible daily as one of the ways God communicates with me. Prayer, worship, and service to others are other ways God communicates. I study the Old and New Testaments because I believe they render a true vision of the nature of the infinite, personal God, a God finally revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, there is always an irreducible mystery to any such communication for the reality being communicated is at a different level of reality than we human beings inhabit. This is why God chose to give us the name “I am” or “I Am that I Am,” or, as I sometimes refer to God in my writings, “I Am what I Am and will be what I Will Be.” God loves us. We know that from Christ. God wishes us the best. We know that from Scripture. But God will not be fully understood by us. Like Arthur Stone, we have to be content with what we know and can know within our human limits.

Copyright 2024, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alystair West, Marshland (Bloomington, ID: Westbow Press, 2023).

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking (Richmond, VA: 2024).

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture “Christianity and Scientific Change” (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 37, 39