Our Creator, the Strange Attractor

Strange Attractor” by judy_and_ed under license CC BY-NC 2.0

I had been thinking for some time about the fractal nature of the gospel, when I came to the most beautiful portion of J. Richard Middleton’s Liberating Image. Whereas I had focused on the infinite complexity of the fractal in relation to the good news, Middleton concentrated on fractals’ unpredictability, particularly as it related to the text of Genesis 1.

Old Testament scholars and normal folks alike have long recognized a distinct pattern in the format of the creation story. Days one, two and three each broadly depict various habitats distinguished from one another. Days four, five and six, then, yield corresponding occupants for those habitats.

Another pattern: God seems to announce ahead of time his plans for the day with let-there-be’s and let-us-make’s coming prior to his creative activity. People have also noticed that God repeatedly pats himself on the back, reviewing the day’s work and calling it “good” again and again.

But Middleton digs into these and other literary patterns in Genesis 1 and finds exception after exception after exception—tiny variables in the text that keep the narrative from being formulaic. He finds changes in word order, in the brevity or length of certain literary devices, and so on.

The myriad alterations in the patterns of the text lead Middleton to consider fractals, which serve as models for making sense of the unpredictable. Specifically, he gets to thinking about strange attractors.

Strange attractors: not creepy men trying to lure children into their vans with lollipops. Strange attractors, in short, could be described as a complex of forces that affect the movement of objects without exerting absolute control over those objects.

It explains, for example, why you could never predict the path of a pair of water droplets careening over a waterfall, but you could with great certainty predict the path of the waterfall, as a whole. It is as if the multitude of water droplets plummeting from the heights are held loosely within a certain boundary, though they each maintain complete liberty within that realm.  It’s more fractals and more chaos theory.

Middleton’s imaginative and beautiful leap uses strange attractors to connect the variability of the biblical text to God’s creative act. That is, if the rhetoric of Genesis 1 is meant to reflect in any way the manner in which God went about his creative work, then the subtle shifts in the text should keep us from imagining a dictatorial Creator, making everything according to his exacting specifications.

Rather, it may be that the Lord is inviting the creation itself into the creative process, and granting it the liberty to do so. Look at the way God “creates” vegetation on day 3:

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so (Gen. 1:11, TNIV, emphasis added).

The earth is invited to do its thing, sprouting greenery as it wills.

Likewise the earth is again asked to produce animals on day 6:

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so (Gen. 1: 24, TNIV, emphasis added).

In a different context, God does not simply set the sun and moon in the sky to bear light. Instead, the Lord puts them there to govern the day and night (Gen. 1:16-18).

Much the same could be said of the Creator’s instruction to humankind in the culmination of the narrative. It is human beings that are placed on the earth in order to govern the creation:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” … God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:26, 28, TNIV, emphasis added).

The long and short of it is this: Contrary to many other worldviews on offer in the ancient world or today, the God of the Bible is not depicted as a dictatorial ruler. (Authoritative? Yes. Authoritarian? No.) Rather, God is like a strange attractor who sets certain parameters, yet is entirely unconcerned with mandating how the creation goes about operating within that sphere. The Creator of Scripture is instead one who seems quite willing to share power with all varieties of his own creation and, quintessentially, with human beings.

Our Fractal Gospel

fractal fun” by hairchaser under license CC BY-SA 2.0

The following originally appeared at {re}fresh, a devotional blog for which I write a couple times a quarter. Please, if you have a moment, check it out, especially the other talented authors who write there.

Is there such a thing as a “simple gospel”?

I know from whence the desire comes, the beckoning for a simple gospel by which we may abide faithfully without the encumbrance of convoluted strictures. No one wishes befuddlement in such consequential and eternal matters. We wish, rather, for certainty or, at least, confidence. After all, souls are at stake.

But our longing is as the one who desires to retire alone and in peace to a log cabin in the vast open country, though he is tied to a covenanted spouse, bears responsibility for the offspring of that union and the charge of his employment. Perhaps the solitary life is simpler, but it does no justice to the complex reality of our station.

Contrary to the complaints of innumerable high school students, mathematics is (are?) a beautiful study. Many of us—nay, most—explored the precepts of geometry only to a point. We are familiar with the straight lines of the quadrilateral, the varying acuteness of the triangle’s points and the elegant curves of the circle.

Rarely, however, do we venture onward past the shapes of our childhood blocks and into the wilder realms of the scientific art. There be monsters; and their names are Mandelbrot, Julia and Sierpinski. I speak of fractals.

For the uninitiated, a fractal is a geometric pattern—a shape—with unique qualities. Examine the fractal from the widest vantage point and you’ll immediately spot what appear to be frayed edges—spines, perhaps, or, kindlier, fur. Now, we concentrate our attention on one branch of the pattern, magnify that portion, and something mysterious occurs. We find in the magnification not greater simplicity, but expanding complexity—in other words, more fur. Explore deeper still and it turns out the fur’s fur has fur. The fractal can do this all day. No matter how infinitely you zoom in on any portion of the fuzzy fractal, you’ll uncover only infinitesimally beautiful complexity.

But fractals are for more than just aesthetics; they bear a purpose. A lesson you’ve undoubtedly taken to heart: cause and effect. Live long enough, and you can predict that when you let go of the ball in your hand, it will drop to the ground with remarkable consistency. Another thing you’ve likely noticed: our world is complex. When the causes multiply, so too the effects. Soon, the results become increasingly difficult to predict. Thus, prophecy is rarely a profitable enterprise.

But oh yes, fractals. Fractals help us explain the compounding of causes. A butterfly flaps its wings in Africa … and produces a fractal. In short, the fractal’s endless complexity helps us makes sense of reality—hence its beauty.

Ours is a fractal gospel. Jesus was raised from the grave, announced Peter in Acts 2, and God appointed him Lord and Christ. Peter’s speech at the beginning of Acts is among the more concise articulations of the gospel in Scripture, and it culminates with this announcement: the resurrected Jesus is now Lord and Christ (see Acts 2:14-39).

What is the Christ? The Christ is the long-awaited king of the Jews, descended from David. Lord? It’s a stickier term to navigate, biblically speaking, but Peter most likely means by it king of the entire creation. (Just as Caesar would have called himself “Lord”.) Jesus is not just Israel’s king, says Peter, but the whole world’s king.

And if Jesus is now the world’s king, the fractal effects begin to spin outward, for the impact of the resurrection must be applied to every facet of our lives, every corner of our societies, every inch of creation. Further, you and I and every other person who claims Jesus as Lord, must figure out—in partnership with the Holy Spirit—just how to live within and extend Christ’s kingdom in the world around us.

Can we call that a simple gospel? I suppose we can, on a certain level. But zoom to deeper levels, and this simple gospel must be interpreted and applied with ever growing intricacy, both for the depth and breadth of its effects. Therein lies the gospel’s beauty, for it can bring resurrection life to every time and place and at every level.