Chaotic God

I was never much of a science student, so I did not realize, until recently, that in classic mechanical physics there is a well-known problem called “the Three Body Problem”.  Roughly speaking – very roughly – the issue is the problem of predicting the motion of three mutually attracting bodies, like the Sun, the Earth and the Moon.  Apparently it is not so easy to do!

A short discussion of the Thee Body Problem from the Physics Department at Drexel University tells me that this problem “exhibits all the hallmarks of chaos.”  And if it is the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon we are talking about, this sounds worrisome, since I had rather thought that we had a bit of a grip on understanding the relationship between all three, and that the chances that the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon might veer off course and smash into each other had been more or less ruled out.

It turns out that chaos theory is not quite as chaotic as you or I might think.  This scientific theory does not posit, as I understand it, a state of “utter confusion” – which is the definition we most often think of when we talk about chaos.  In fact, chaos theory does not imagine the simply random interactions of the universe.  Rather, this scientific category encompasses systems that are highly dependent on initial conditions, and yet have somewhat limited predictability.  The well-known question being posed by a physicist in 1972: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

The Three Body Problem seems like an apt metaphor to reach for on Trinity Sunday.  In Christian theology, after all, we have something of a Three Body Problem: we have to account for God’s revelation of himself in the three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And many pages have been filled over the centuries with explanations of the relationship and activity of these three apparently mutually attracting persons, that they are three Persons of one God.

And yet, study, ponder, or investigate the relationship of these three as we may, a complete understanding eludes us.  Try as we do to comprehend how it is that a Trinity of Persons is truly the Unity of God, it remains a mystery to us.  And if we are still referring to St. Patrick and his shamrock as a teaching aid for the God who created the universe and all that’s in it, then it would seem we have not traveled very far in our understanding of God!  Which leads me to wonder if perhaps we have to consider the possibility that God as he reveals himself to us is something of a chaotic God.

And here science comes to my aid.  Because I do not mean to suggest that God’s actions are entirely random and his purposes without meaning.  But I do mean to suggest that God’s activity in the universe is of a somewhat limited predictability, and is highly dependent on what we might call “initial conditions.”

And it turns out that a more historic look at the idea of chaos takes us right back to the beginning.  One of the earliest definitions of the word referred directly to “the formless void” that we are told about in the first lines of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis.  Here is chaos: the beginning, the initial conditions; God’s Spirit – or his wind – moving, swooping, over the watery face of chaos, with perhaps no more force than the flap of a butterfly’s wings.  And now his voice – which I have always imagined as a booming, thunderous voice, but perhaps it is nothing more than a whisper – he speaks.

We could not have predicted the results of his commands: the wonder of creation.  And we could not have known from the outset, as God knows, that it was good, this creation he has wrought.  But this is our chaotic God, who, with the flap of his wings and the whisper of his voice, brings forth the wonders of the universe!

At least twice in the Bible our imaginations are called back to the beginning.  Here, in Genesis where we encounter God and his Spirit, and in the opening of John’s Gospel, where we are told of God and his eternal Word.  And so, from the beginning, we encounter a Three Body Problem.  Whence this voice?  Whence this Spirit?  Whence this Word?  How are we to understand that they relate to one another?  Are these the persons of a chaotic God?

If we remind ourselves that chaos is not, first and foremost, a state of utter confusion, but rather, that pregnant but still undefined state of limited predictability when God’s Word, carried by his breath, had not yet been spoken over the formless void, is this an image of the God of chaos – since only God brings order from the chaos?

And if those first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible tell us, in the beginning, of the butterfly wings of God setting an ordered course for the chaotic matter of creation, are we free to wonder if the winds that blew in Galilee centuries upon centuries later had been stirred by those wings?

And is there a resemblance, or even an echo, in the voice in Galilee to that first voice that spoke to the chaos?  Is there an inevitable link from the command that brought forth all creation to the command that tells the eleven disciples to “Go” into all the world and make more disciples with the gifts of love by baptizing and teaching in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?

And did those eleven disciples not flinch at this complicated formula - this Three Body Problem - because somehow they could simply see that it was good?  Were they un-worried because they already knew how Jesus, with his gentle breath, had given them peace in the chaos of the world and of their lives?

Of all people, you would think that we modern (or post-modern) people could appreciate a chaotic God: a God who speaks divine order to chaos with limited predictability, but still spectacular results.  Of all people, you would think that we modern people, who recognize the limits of our ability to understand quite the way the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon interact, we who cannot solve the Three Body Problem for bodies that we can gaze at through a telescope – you would think we would find the mystery of three persons in one God plausible.

Of all people, you would think that we, sophisticated, 21st century Americans, could grasp how it is that the merest flap of God’s butterfly-wings in the beginning of all things has remarkably and mysteriously brought us to this moment – that we could not have predicted – when we hear again that simplest and oft-repeated command of Jesus, “Go,” telling us that like the rest of creation we have something to do in fulfilling the purposes of God, by sharing the teaching and the grace of his love with anyone who will listen.

Of all people, you would think that we, who have adapted brilliantly to the utter confusion that we have made of the world around us,would hear the possibility of beautiful truth in the revelation of a chaotic God who translated order out of chaos in the beginning of time.

And, alone among God’s creation, we can choose to sit stupefied and stymied by our quandary over the Three Body Problem of God who has revealed himself to us in the complex unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Or we can heed his voice, be lifted on the currents of his breath, and animated by the gift of his love; and we can Go into the world to share that love, and see that it is very good.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 May 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 18, 2008 .