Our Creator, the Strange Attractor

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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.

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