Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 260–262 

Book Review

The Leviathan Factor

Lawrence Burkholder. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016. 180 pages.

Reviewed by Peco Gaskovski

The Leviathan Factor is a penetrating metatheoretical account of God, the nature of reality, and (especially) the origin of evil. What Ken Wilber did for the New Age movement when he wrote The Spectrum of Consciousness, Burkholder has done for Christianity. A master of conceptual integration, Burkholder weaves together complex systems theory, physics, biology, psychology, history, mythology, archaeology, anthropology, the paranormal, and in-depth biblical exegesis. The main focus of the work is on how “Leviathan” (a.k.a, the devil) brought disorder into creation at fundamental levels, thereby disrupting the equilibrium of the universe and human immortality.

A key idea of the book is the self-referential nature of Leviathan. Although self-referential systems can be found within the natural world, Burkholder argues that the universe as a whole cannot be self-referential, and instead requires a source from outside the system: an absolute “Other,” or God. Leviathan, sometimes represented as a snake eating its own tail, is himself a self-referential system and tries to promote the idea that the universe operates the same way. In this view reality is a holograph in which every piece contains every other piece, without any external source—a view which has many implications, including the misleading but pervasive belief that we humans are gods.

Beyond overturning the assumptions of mainstream spirituality, what makes The Leviathan Factor unique is Burkholder’s astonishing range of scholarship and his ability to synthesize ideas from diverse disciplines and different levels of reality, including the physical, cultural, mental, and spiritual. The first half of the book, in which he lays out his conceptual groundwork, resembles a dynamical systems lecture on the origins of the universe, life on earth, and consciousness. But there is a lot of deep theology too, and the focus remains on the central biblical issues of creation, evil, sin, and redemption. But it includes some old questions that have often bedeviled Christians: Was chaos and disorder already in the world when God created it, or did it follow? If God is omnipotent, then why didn’t he kill the devil from the start and make things right? Can people who have never heard of Jesus be saved?

Given that Burkholder addresses these and related issues by recruiting data and theory from such a variety of fields, he is at risk of being accused by specialists in those same fields for misunderstanding or misapplying their ideas. Biologists may take umbrage at his references to intelligent design, while skeptical scientists in general may shake their heads at (yet another) spiritual thinker using physics to address metaphysical questions. {261} But such is the occupational risk of the metatheorist, and Burkholder deserves some latitude, given his dazzling ability for articulating such a big picture of reality.

Nonspecialists may experience occasional challenges in following the more technical aspects of the text, although the use of science to support theology is a breath of fresh air. For example, when Burkholder writes, “How did God localize free energy and inject it into earth to enable life to counteract the universe’s general drag of entropy?”, he is addressing old ideas and questions in new ways. The effect is enlivening, pushing the reader to recall that theology is not about spiritual abstractions but life.

The halfway point of the book reveals that much of Burkholder’s effort to this stage has been to prepare the reader for an exploration of how Leviathan operates in the mind: mental disorders, mystical experiences, and paranormal (or “psi”) phenomena. These topics are no doubt familiar to Burkholder; he’s not only an independent Mennonite scholar but a pastor who has worked with psychologically and spiritually troubled individuals.

The second part of the book focuses heavily on intriguing case studies and research findings. For instance, Burkholder reviews the case of a hypnotically regressed client who suddenly begins speaking in a “goofy-sounding” language. The client’s therapist sends a recording of the gibberish to a professor friend at Stanford, and the friend calls back three days later to say that according to colleagues, the client appears to be speaking seventh-century-BCE Assyrian. Burkholder’s focus is not on whether such extraordinary experiences actually occur—he takes it for granted that they do—but rather on how to properly interpret their origins, in particular with reference to the conceptual framework that he has described.

Burkholder’s position is decidedly extreme, as he regards all paranormal phenomena as being rooted in demonic manipulation. So, New Agers will be discomfited at his interpretation of “transcendent light” and near-death experiences. And those readers who have personally experienced a supernatural wonder they assumed to be a sign from God, should be prepared to reassess that interpretation. Although Burkholder does consider speaking in tongues a “valid, continuing gift of the Holy Spirit for the church today,” his review of the available research on tongues will certainly unsettle many charismatic Christians.

As the book reaches its final chapter, its focus returns to larger questions of atonement, resurrection, and the ultimate fate of Leviathan. It’s a satisfying finish, conceptually dovetailing with the first half of the book.

Overall, reading The Leviathan Factor can be a dizzying experience, punctuated by surprising moments, although it’s difficult to agree with everything in such a vast and intricate work. But for anybody compelled {262} by the big questions of existence—where we came from, why there is evil in the world, and where we’re going—The Leviathan Factor develops a gripping thesis that will encourage a rethinking of the nature of reality. This book is bound to be discussed and debated by seminarians, intellectually hungry Christians, and serious spiritual seekers.

Peco Gaskovski is the author of the literary novel The Affair Box, and served as editor of 3 Theories of Everything and How Do You Know That? He lives in the Toronto area with his family.