Nov 1999
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[For another article by David Hopkins see The Deception of the "X-treme" Church]
THE GOD OF CHAOS THEORY
Some thoughts from the movie "Pi"

by David Hopkins
accessdavid@hotmail.com
http://www.bigfoot.com/~davidhopkins

"...We take complex issues (such as poverty, abortion) and expect God to pat us on the back for despising wisdom and discernment, in exchange for simple catch phrases and coffee mug slogans. Instead of wrestling out these issues in our heart, we numb our reality with cute one-liners."

Faith in Chaos

Last year, director/writer Darren Aronofsky released the film Pi: Faith In Chaos (http://www.pithemovie.com). This film took the prestigious Sundance Movie Festival by storm. Pi tells of a genius mathematician named Max Cohen (played by actor Sean Gullette) seeking to uncover the patterns underlying all natural chaotic systems.

Max, believing the stock market is a non-linear, dynamic, chaotic system, applies the principles of number theory to determine the workings behind the apparent random nature of market prices. What Max eventually uncovers almost destroys him. In the end, he rejects this knowledge and (believe it or not!) takes a drill to his brain. The movie concludes with him living in ignorance-- mildly content.

The Parthenon
Max is a true disciple of Greek philosopher Pythagoras (circa 600 BC). This philosopher suggests mathematics is the language of the universe. One can see the influence Pythagoras had on this ancient culture by simply looking at the emphasis Greek architecture placed on developing mathematically perfect structures, such as the Parthenon. 
This fascination with mathematical perfection came, in part, as the Greek philosophers struggled with understanding a world of change and stagnation, of motion and rest, of unity and diversity. Today, these questions of order and chaos have found a new voice in growing field of "chaos theory." Chaos theory is the study of forever-changing complex systems. This study bases its conclusions on the concept that beneath the things we call "random" patterns actually appear, implying order.

Pi can be understood as a critique on modernism. The modern period (from 15th century until the first half of the 20th century) attempted to understand the world through empirical observation and the power of reason. As science made incredible advances with Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, the theme was to "make the world knowable." This theme was largely based on the assumption we live in an ordered world created by an orderly God. As René Descartes suggested, the world was a clock, a mechanical system managed by God the Clock-Maker.

With this metaphor in mind, conclusions about the world had to fit an orderly system. During this era, all fields of knowledge were systematized: biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology, logic, and even theology. The goal for rational perfection peaked during the first half of the 20th century. This summit can be seen in the cold efficiency of logical positivism, international architecture, and the artwork of Piet Mondrian.

Likewise, in Pi, Max Cohen seeks to make the world knowable, to destroy the mystery and take apart the clock. But by the end of the movie, he fully embraces the pain of knowledge and the consequences of this pursuit, despite its rewards. He does the irrational to cope with his quest for rationality: Max takes a drill to his brain.

What happens when the clock runs down? (Chaos Theory)

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the first philosophers to completely reject modernity, understood the end of this pursuit was nihilism. The quest for a perfect system of knowledge would collapse on itself. In his words: "There are no facts, only interpretations." Nothing we can place our faith in, except maybe the creation of our pursuit. But this creation is a beast. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it will and has turned against us.

The best example of how our science turned against us would be the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb was the ironic last "tick-tock" of our modern dreams for a well ordered utopian society. By the beginning of the Cold War, this hope disintegrated into entropy and chaos. We lived in fear of our own science. We developed the ability to destroy ourselves on mass scale with atomic weapons. Our technology and knowledge made us less human, not more so. The clock ran down. And our trust in science as an unquestioned authority went with it.

With the postmodern condition, people are skeptical of absolute knowledge to truly solve the world’s ills. In this condition, the orderly God is not conceivable or receivable. There is simply too much out there. Descartes’ mechanical metaphor does not comfort us. As Isaiah 59:14 states, "Truth has stumbled in the streets." Now truths are seen as something that can only be socially constructed and locally relevant. Universals are observed with skepticism and indignation. There is only chaos, no order.

A World of Complexity

We have rejected the order theory. We live in a supposed "information age" of complexity upon complexity. Possibly a simplistic ordered universe seemed plausible, when the world was still in the shadows of understanding. But as we have entered into a new light of understanding, this idea does not fit our new model.

The Church is resisting this change, because it fought so hard to fit the Christian-system into the modern world. To make Christianity "work," the Church was seduced into believing it must conform Christianity to a system. As Christianity became systematized we locked arms with the modern world. What happens when the modern world dies? We get pulled into the grave with it.

Stanley Grenz, in his book A Primer on Postmodernism, cites that the birth of contemporary Evangelicalism is closely connected with the modern world.

"As modern thinkers, evangelicals have always used the tools of modernity, such as the scientific method, the empirical approach to reality, and commonsense realism. But the these tools became especially important in the twentieth century, as evangelical intellectuals attempted to understand and articulate the gospel with eyes turned toward the challenge posed by the worldview of late modernity—secularism." (A Primer on Postmodernism. Eerdmans Publishing, copyright 1996, page 161)

Unfortunately, the great disaster of the Evangelical church has been when it placed too much hope and faith in an ordered and understandable universe, and not in the direct experience with God. This direct experience is primarily mystical and not available for empirical examination. But as the Church worries about its significance in contemporary culture, it clings faster and harder to science and ordered patterns of methodology. Even when protesting certain scientific theories (like evolution), it still debates the issue playing by science’s rules. The Church fails to consider alternative ways of understanding the world-- not through a mechanical model, but as a mystical God-bathed world open to flux of change and chaos of daily life.

The world is more complex than the Church would like to acknowledge and so we turn our back on the world. We take complex issues (such as poverty, abortion) and expect God to pat us on the back for despising wisdom and discernment, in exchange for simple catch phrases and coffee mug slogans. Instead of wresting out these issues in our heart, we numb our reality with cute one-liners. We insult the genius of God by taking the scripture as an "easy-out" to understanding the world, instead of marveling in its intricate beauty. I am not implying scripture cannot be simple, but instead, that God’s revelation is an infinite one, ultimately not bound by our simplistic interpretations. We do not hesitate to be impressed by complexity of nature, but we complain because the God of nature is not simple enough for our puny brains. This is a tragedy.

Escape from Reason?

Embracing the mystery of God in a complex universe does not mean we stop seeking out God. In fact, the very opposite is true. When we come to understand how puny we are, the search is no longer a prideful attempt to "take apart" God (as shown in Job 38-42); but this search transforms into the very act of worship. Theology is doxology. Hosea 6:8 says, "My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge." This knowledge is knowledge of God. We are already reaping the problems of our rejection. We don’t want theology. We don’t want to learn doctrine, church history, or hermeneutics, because we have associated these things with an out-dated clock model of the universe. Sure, we will leave that "academic" task for the seminary students, but not the average disciple. We are all students and we are slacking off on taking the challenging, more complex (more messy), lessons of our faith. We willfully seek out ignorance, possibly because underneath it all we are afraid that we’re wrong. And if we search too deep we will see no answers, no God. Asking questions is not a sign of a weak faith. Asking questions shows we have a living faith that is not afraid to dig.

A God of Complexity

The modern Church fears chaos and complexity, often misquoting such verses as 1st Corinthians 14:33 "God is not the author of chaos/disorder/confusion" as a defense. This verse is specifically referring to our worship. In truth, God has authored confusion and chaos among enemy troops for the benefit of Israel. God has authored chaos to stop the building of the tower of Babel. Miracles themselves are interruptions in the order of nature to bring His plans about. Everything God authors is in His good and sovereign plan. If we do fear chaos, it should be holy fear of God-- the author of both chaos and order.

The contemporary use of the word "chaos" and how I am using the word does not imply "no order." But instead, the order is intricate, multi-layered, and in constant change and motion. Creation just isn’t what we thought it was. Likewise, God, while unchanging, is forever moving. Max Cohen reflects, "So maybe, even though we are not sophisticated enough to be aware of it, there is a pattern, an order." Yes, God is there. But in our prideful attempts to "take the clock apart," what we may find is only our own invention of God. In order to encounter the God who is truly there, we must encounter Him in the mystery of His nature.

The Joy of Mystery

We do not have to take a drill to our head in order to live as Christians in a complex world. We can give complex answers to the challenges without feeling like we have compromised the nature of God.

Truly, the aim of every believer is to enjoy God forever. This means we must take joy in the mystery of God’s nature. Isaiah 55:8 should comfort us when God says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." Stand in awe of your encounter with God. Though these experiences defy empirical observation and blow our reasoning out of the water, stand in awe of the mystery of God. This mystery is Christ who contains the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:2-4, my favorite verse!) Only Christ contains these treasures. Do not put your faith in order or in chaos, but in the God who is Lord over both.

 

DAVID HOPKINS [www.bigfoot.com/~davidhopkins] is program director at the
Wesleyan Campus Ministry in the small college town of Commerce, Texas. David attends the university there as an English/Philosophy major.  After completing his undergraduate work, David plans to go to Fuller Theological Seminary.  He eventually hopes to be involved in Church planting and development.  David was raised in the Methodist tradition; however, he currently is part of the Axxess Community at Pantego Bible Church [www.axxess.org]. 
David Hopkins

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