At The Edge Of Chaos

Posted: March 21, 2016 in Sermons Year C - Advent 2015 to 2016

Lent 3C, 2016

Luke 13:1-9


“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time, or perhaps more correctly in Luke’s time it seems, believed in a God who punished the bad people and rewarded the good. They went so far as to say: • if you live in poverty or have a bad accident or disease, you are revealed by God as a sinner; • if you are healthy and prosper you are revealed by God as a righteous person. Some of this thinking still prevails today although I suspect most of it is of an unquestioned dogmatic residual form rather than a fundamental well thought through belief system. People just don’t seem to want to do theology today, or at least the academic form that demands an incarnational application. In other words an applied theology that is only valid if it can be applied to life as it is experienced.

What is clear though is that there are diametrically opposed worldviews in the present day:  There is the critical disjunction between the evolutionary story of the universe as described by modern science since the time of Darwin (1859) and the traditional Gospel story of God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ that still informs many of the 2 billion Christians in the world today. I want to suggest that there is growing a third worldview that is perhaps indicated by the phrase God after God, or God after the Death of God, or anatheism being that which is no longer theism, nor atheism but is what is next. I have spoken before about anatheism as Richard Kearney’s attempt to put vocabulary to this worldview.

While change I think is always evolutionary in its process and there could be argument about when the second worldview began it could be when Karl Rahner, the influential Catholic theologian whose writings were behind many of the reforms of Vatican II initiated the critical inquiry in the 1970s with a pioneering paper titled “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World.” In seeking out an intrinsic unity between the decisive event of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus and the 13 billion year process of cosmic, biological and human evolution, Rahner maintained that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “the basic tendency of matter to discover itself in spirit . . . reaches it’s definitive breakthrough.”So for Rahner, in Jesus Christ we discover New Creation—the necessary and permanent beginning of the divinization of sentient life in the evolving universe, an event signifying to us that the absolute self-communication of God to the world-historical process of evolution has been irrevocably inaugurated and is even now moving towards its far-off goal.

The third worldview has quickly formed I suggest and it is because the need for application of the ideas and the theology has grown more and more important in this apparent rapidly changing world. As more and more developments at the leading edge of scientific research arrive and this is known as the sciences of complexity. There is more and more concern for the integration of the evolutionary epic and the Christian story of creation and redemption.

The evolutionary systems sciences, or the sciences of complexity is a field that includes a wide range of scientific disciplines that describe the dynamic patterns of change that connect across disparate domains (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, socio-linguistics) with profound implications for the ongoing dialogue between evolutionary science and Christian theology. I want to suggest that this is what we progressives are doing right now. Racing to catch up with a world view that is unfolding ahead of us.

I want to now try to spell out what I think ‘repent’ means in our text, and it will be inadequate because sermons need to be short. But, I think it is worth having a go to stimulate thinking. At the core of this third worldview is what I have been suggesting is Co-creating with God and some are calling Creativity God. Another way of saying this would be to say that the distance between God and humanity is closing fast, divinization is well on the way in our limited view.

Returning to science’s involvement is to say that the general claim of the sciences of complexity is that evolution exhibits some dynamic patterns, its formative features are invariant, and evolution repeats itself in general ways so that we may now be able to glimpse its fundamental nature for the first time. The core insight of sciences of complexity is that matter on planet earth has the capacity to be ‘self-organizing’ on the account of the inherent nature of the processes that atomic, molecular, chemical and biological entities undergo. So in contrast to the infamous Second Law of thermodynamics that dictates an overall increase in disorder (in isolated systems) leading to the ultimate ‘heat death’ of the universe, it is becoming increasingly clear that complex systems in open energy exchange with their environments can become unpredictable and chaotic in their observable behaviour and then ‘self-organize’ or propel themselves onto new, higher levels of exterior complexity (and interior consciousness), commonly called ‘order out of chaos’. We might also call it the human propensity for organization, community, nation and the need for religion.

In other words, it is now recognized that when a constant energy flow is passed through dynamic open systems, they have the propensity to undergo abrupt transformations and organize themselves into new and unexpected forms of order characterized by an increase in structural organization and complexity. In fact, all evolving systems in the real world exist in open energy exchanges with their environments and when driven ‘far from equilibrium’ have this tendency to undergo chaotic instabilities and propel themselves to new and highly organized regimes.  And since self-organization in complex systems occurs across all levels of the known universe, evolution can now be seen to be engaged in an irreversible or ‘uni-directional’ pattern of change creating “order out of chaos” and pushing complex systems towards higher levels of structural organization and complexity. Randomness, serendipity and chance we might call this. We might also take hope in this for the future of the human race, the future of the church perhaps but definitely the future of the quest to understand spirituality.

Rather than destruction and an end to it all there is a glimpse of repentance being achieved and what is not perishing after all. The key thing here I think is to understand Chaos differently. No longer is it a totally destroyed order, unredeemable because chaos has become more discernable and thus so has the possibility of order. The edges of mystery are being pushed back. Order after Chaos perhaps. A few scholars have taken this idea and run with it and I will see if I can make sense of the journey as I see it.

We might acknowledge that evolving systems on the ‘edge-of-chaos’ are very different from closed systems at thermodynamic equilibrium and tend to be poised at a critical threshold between order (periodic change) and chaos (a period of random change). Commonly named the “edge-of-chaos”, it is precisely here in this critical state delicately poised between too much rigidity and too much fluidity that evolving systems in open energy exchange have the significant tendency to evolve towards new, more complex adaptive structures. ‘Repent of perish’ is the imperative and repentance is the seeking of a more complex balance.

The edge-of-chaos is therefore the “source of order” in the universe (Kauffman), bringing “order out of chaos” (Prigogine), and moving evolution towards new dynamic regimes with higher levels of complexity and spontaneous “emergent order” (Phillip Clayton). As Kauffman explains, “Self-organization is a natural property of complex genetic systems. There is ‘order for free’ out there, a spontaneous crystallization of generic order out of complex systems, with no need for natural selection or any other external force.”

Self-organization in complex systems finely balanced at the creative tension between opposites has also been termed “chaosmos” (James Joyce) in describing the delicate interplay between chance and necessity, stasis and change, chaotic disruption and emergent novelty in the evolutionary trajectory from inanimate matter to self-replicating life to self-conscious humanity. And in a way that speaks directly to our current global situation, at a critical state of creative tension between opposing forces the outcome of any evolutionary process is said to be unpredictable in detail and inherently indeterminate, i.e. it is impossible to tell whether the system in this state of creative tension (i.e. the existing economic system!) will disintegrate into chaos or leap into a new, differentiated higher level of order. 

However the important point for us is that modern science has now discovered that the very site of evolutionary change is the creative tension between opposites at the “edge-of-chaos” – an insight which corresponds directly with orthodox Christian theology. For this same paradoxical tension between opposites is central to both dogmatic Christology – the irreducible tension between ‘fully human’ and ‘fully divine’ in the person of Jesus  as well as (and more pointedly), the original structure of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God that reside within the earliest layers of the Christian faith tradition. That is, almost all of the recorded parables of Jesus of Nazareth have the same paradoxical voice-print, the same deep structure, where opposing perspectives are held together in the same creative tension at the “edge-of-chaos” that the sciences of complexity and self-organization have recently discovered at the wildly unpredictable edge of evolution’s creative advance. So Jesus of Nazareth spoke in paradoxes to usher in a new world (the Kingdom of God) and inaugurate a new horizon of what it means to be fully human by evoking the very same tension between opposites that has recently been discovered by the sciences of complexity and self-organization. 

Here we have the third worldview unfolding towards a post metaphysical theology where it is shown that the same paradoxical structure, what is also called a dynamic pattern of “bi-polar reversals” is clearly evidenced in the narrative center of at least 30 of the parables of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels.

So where the central teachings of Jesus all give voice to the same paradoxical tension between opposing perspectives, turn the other cheek, love your enemy, etc, the sciences of complexity now provide direct supporting evidence for the view that the creative tension of Christian paradox is indeed the ‘condition of possibility’ for the coming into being of emergent novelty in the structural dynamics of evolution at the “edge-of-chaos”. So the Christian hope for New Creation is synonymous with this critical threshold between opposing forces described by the sciences of complex emergence, while this paradoxical tension is also attested to by Jesus as the very place in which significant change and transformation can take place. “Repent or Perish as They did”. Change your thinking or be left behind.

 So where the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith (and the teachings of Jesus) corresponds seamlessly with the recent discoveries of modern science, with the paradoxes of Jesus at the heart of the Gospel story we also discover the flesh and blood story of a God who becomes human and participates fully in the world’s struggles, pains and convulsions. In Christianity the unsearchable mystery of God’s love is revealed in the capacity of a vulnerable, suffering creature to go all the way and fully embrace the contradictory tensions of existence. In addition to embodying the creative tension between opposites at the edge-of-chaos, the evolutionary worldview of modern science also allows us to depart from the image of an immutable God that is untouched by the world’s suffering and give renewed significance to our sense of God being present in the tangible depths of life’s long, painful, unpredictable and perpetually surprising evolutionary journey 

And to finish off I want to quote the theologian Sallie McFague where she writes: “Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently.  We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology.  It is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are.  This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioural change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis” (McFague 2008:44).

“Repent or Perish as They did”. Change your thinking or be left behind. Amen.


McFague, S. 2008.  A New Climate for Theology. God, the world, and global warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press

Freeman C 2015 Creative Tension at the edge of Chaos Towards and Evolutionary Christology..

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