These excerpts are from Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001).
The Transformative Machine
At first glance, any connection between theology and computers appears remote at best. Theology is concerned, by definition, with divine realities, or, at least, with moral ones. Its focus and intention are to articulate visions of revelation and salvation, of God’s loving will enacted in history through events of divine reconciliation. Computers are machines with souls consisting of long strings of 0s and 1s in a magnetic medium, and wills made of software programs. As efficient augmentation to the computational powers of the human brain, they are tools capable of accomplishing prodigious practical tasks, but nothing of transcendental significance. Only a rich imagination could conjure a connection, surely artificial, between the divine and digital domains. Further glances, however, bring things more into focus to reveal what is actually the profound effect of computers directly and indirectly upon theological thought.
The Computer; A Window to Complexity
Despite its obvious similarities with other machines, the computer is actually a radical device that either extends the range of the machine taxonomy into entirely new territory or eludes it altogether. In fact, the ease with which the computer satisfies the definition of tool, machine, and automaton is a clue suggesting that it is as much none of them as all of them. The utter distinction in the nature and character of the computer is to be found in its virtually unlimited ability to imitate or model any machine whatsoever. Computers may act as mechanical clocks and typewriters, machines rendered completely obsolete with the invention of microprocessors.To employ a traditional theological concept, the computer transcends all other instrumental artifacts by occupying a category that includes them all. Computers are concrete abstractive devices of nearly unlimited power. They are more plastic, more protean, than other devices in their ability to transform, even self-transform. In this sense they transcend traditional machines in their uniqueness, inclusiveness, and potential.
In his book Science and the Modern World,published in 1925 (1), Alfred North Whitehead was the first to see that “The reason we are on a higher imaginative level [in science] is not because we have a finer imagination, but because we have better instruments. In science, the most important thing that has happened in the last forty years is the advance in instrumental design.” (2) The benefits are more than practical “These instruments have put thought on a new level.” Whitehead concludes with, “The gain is more than a mere addition; it is a transformation.” (3)
Freeman Dyson argues similarly (4). He points out that conceptual revolutions in science are rare. Indeed, he can discover only seven in the last five hundred years. They were inspired by Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Freud, and the physicists who brought in the quantum-mechanical revolution. But during this same period science has progressed through about twenty tool-driven revolutions. He mentions only two: the Galilean revolution resulting from the use of the telescope in astronomy, and the Crick-Watson revolution resulting from x-ray diffraction to determine the structure of big molecules in biology. One could speculate that the microscope and particle accelerator would qualify for this list as well.
An outstanding candidate for induction into this scientific instrument hall of fame is the computer. Of course, computers perform countless tasks with accuracy and a lightening speed that surpass any human capability. Their contribution is to make possible very complex instrumentation for science in all fields from astronomy to neuroscience. But the computer also qualifies as a revolutionary instrument in its own right. The telescope and the microscope revealed dimensions of reality previously unsuspected. The computer has carried this tradition forward. The telescope provided a window to the immensely large, the microscope to the immensely small. The computer is a window to the immensely complex.
Isomorphism, Computers, and God
In systems sciences shared features between apparently dissimilar objects are known as “isomorphies,” from the Greek isos, meaning equal, and morphe meaning form. Systems of any sortâ€”conceptual, physical, socialâ€”are said to be isomorphic if they share some deep structural and process uniformities. Systems that are similar in pattern or that display corresponding relationships in their operations may be utterly different in their material make up, organization, and forms of energy. Deep formal correspondence may relate vastly different concrete systems and processes, from the decay or radioactive atoms and certain financial transactions. (5)
Isomorphism may be found widely employed in human thought. Metaphorical speech, so important in everyday discourse, derives its power by articulating surprising connections between objects that are apparently very different. Metaphors work (in less formal ways than mathematics, of course) because of real underlying and shared features of a systemic nature. These features, when recognized, give rise to novel disclosures. The difference is that, while metaphors work primarily through insight and intuition, isomorphic systems often carry the framework of their own disclosure.
We have spoken earlier about the uniqueness of computers with respect to other machines. Their uniqueness and power are based in their ability to simulate the behavior of objects or events by faithfully replicating their dynamic structures, primarily in logical and mathematical symbols and relationships. By simulating deep properties of a system in terms of a symbol system that duplicates its features, the computer stands in for the real thing-a weather system, ecosystem, or biological systemâ€”to disclose knowledge about it that would be otherwise hidden or unavailable.
The deepest and most fundamental impact of the computer is in the way it is altering our understanding of reality itself. The power of the high-speed computer lies in its ability to process information rapidly and in great quantity: to “crunch” numbers by executing mathematical and logicaloperations with great rapidity. The result is a virtual world, isomorphically akin to the world of everyday experience, but made of bits rather than atoms. This world can be altered at will, simply by instructing the computer to signal changes. The prevailing belief about the material world, that it consists of inert and immutable matter, is replaced by a new plasticity. Matter melts into massive information to be molded not as clay in the hands of the potter, but as signals transmitted by a programming agent. That matter gives way to messages is the premise and ontological anchor of this study. Thus the computer is not only a tool; it is the chief exemplar of the picture of reality it reveals.
The aim of this study is to identify and hopefully articulate deep isomorphic principles that might account for and give understanding to the relation of God and the creation. The source of these ideas will be the systems and informational sciences. While the intention is obviously metaphysical, the project may be read as an exercise in constructive metaphorical theology. All the elements are there: an appeal to the current historical situation and the need for an adequate model of God; use of images drawn from the world to liken to and illuminate divinity and allow for articulation; and insistence on the provisional character of these models. Or it may be read as an exercise in constructive, imaginative metaphysics with its emphasis on rational-empirical criteria for the justification of the models and its commitment to the premise of general systematic parallels or isomorphies existing between God and creation permitting metaphysical extrapolation from the world to God to take place.
We will draw substantially from Claude Shannon’s theory of communication. The selection is not arbitrary, but neither is it dictated by irresistible logic. We will argue that the theory can be generalized to describe not only the power of computers and communications systems, but also to describe the world at large in terms of its ontological foundations. These foundations are really isomorphies or broad structural principles found universally, and perhaps even applying to every possible world. The thought process of moving from a specific theory of communication with limited intentions and application, to a cosmological [and theological] framework is certainly an act of constructive speculation.
Communicating Communication Theory
Only rarely do major theories in science originate as solutions to engineering problems. Information or communication theory is one. Even as early as the Second World War, pioneers in the infant field of electronic technology realized that new developments in telephone technology, television, and electronic digital technology would be impossible without a sound theoretical understanding of communication itself. In 1948, an American electrical engineer, Claude Shannon, building on the contributions of his contemporary, the equally brilliant scientist Norbert Wiener, published his germinal paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communications,” laying out the foundations for such a theory.(6)
Communication covers far more than reading, writing, and reciting.Communication occurs when specific codes in the strands of DNA convey valuable instructions for the development of new cells and organisms, when electrical impulses sent from the brain trigger impulses in the muscles toward the achievement of specific tasks, when the eyes see and the ears hear, when the thermostat controls the furnace, and when the artist takes the paint from the palate to the canvas. That is, communication occurs whenever an impulse originating in one place generates a response in another place through the transmission of signals.
As broad as it seems, even this definition was too narrow for Shannon’s intention. He preferred a more comprehensive definition; communication is a decision process wherein a field or set of possibilities is reduced to some smaller number or even to a single possibility by the operation of a decision agency. To communicate is to rule out possibilities. Life, and, in fact, most events in the world, may be understood as the very process by which a range of possible states found in one moment is reduced to just one state in a subsequent moment through some general process of specification or selection. Within this understanding it is entirely possible to see the flow of the world as a continuous stream of communication from potentiality to actuality. If communication can be defined so broadly, then it may be possible to extend the concepts of communication theory to include not only life and creation but also, isomorphically, the life of God.
An allegory may bring this discussion down to earth. In 1501, in Florence, Italy, the great Renaissance artist Michaelangelo, chisel and mallet in hand, stands before a massive block of marble considering his many options. By his side a friend observes the artist at work. Ignorant of the artist’s intention, the observer is at a total loss in answering the question, “What will this block become? What will he make of it?” Michaelangelo, however, has something specific in mind. He begins his work. Chips of marble pile deeply on the floor. The observer, returning frequently over the next several years to watch and learn, detects the emerging outlines of a human form. After three years the artist completes his great creation and the observer’s patience is finally rewarded with a stunning sight of the magnificent David, a defining masterpiece of the Renaissance.
Think of the uncarved block of marble as a set of possible messages, each representing one form or figure that could be shaped from the material. The possibilities, of course, are numberless, and, with reference to the block alone, each one has an equal probability of being realized. The disorder or information contained in this set of possibilities is maximal. The artist’s associate, observing the block before a single chip had been removed, is completely uncertain about the final result. Ignorant of the intentions of the artist, she has nothing to go on and simply must wait expectantly. With Michaelangelo’s labors, patterns emerge and the observer’s uncertainty is progressively reduced by the introduction of constraint. The appearance of the human body limits the immense set of possibilities to a much smaller set by eliminating those that are not human bodies. Some predictions are now possible, although, even at this point in the emerging form, the number of persons in the world who could be depicted by the artist constitutes a very large remaining subset. Further specifications reveal more-the person is a male, a young male with a classic form and pose, and so on. And again, the range of possibilities grows smaller by a process of elimination. Eventually, the observer’s ignorance, reduced chip by chip vanishes altogether. Finally, only one possibility remains, the one that stands before her as David.
In skeletal form we have the essential elements of a system of communication. The observer or receiver, entering the artist’s studio off the street, is originally in a state of complete uncertainty. As a homogeneous mass of stone, the block itself is the totality of possible messages, immense and perhaps infinite in number. Michaelangelo is the transmitting source, the one who selects from this rich set just those messages that will be sent. The sculpting itself represents the transmission of messages of increasing specificity with the effects of removing the ignorance and the uncertainty of the observer. Each swing of the mallet could be interpreted as a yes or no decision by the artist with respect to answering the question “Shall this part remain; yes or no?” and thus contains one bit of information. As great subsets of possible forms are eliminated, constraints are introduced that increase the receiver’s confidence in deducing the artist’s final intention.
From this instructive allegory, which actually is not an allegory, but a literal example of communication, it is clear that Shannon’s theory, originally intended for highly technical applications in electronic networks, has a great range of application in a more intuitive or general and less technical approach. So its relevance to artistic creation is neither unique nor accidental. This example also serves as a preamble to subsequent chapters where our intention will be to employ the theory of communication in a similar way as a complex isomorphism to speak about and further understand cosmological and theological matters.
The Elusive Chaos as Infinite Variety: The Pandemonium Tremendum
The first premise of philosophical theology is God, the second, being, and the third chaos. No one would argue our first two choices in this list (although some would reverse the ranking), but the third requires considerable justification. The initial task is to explore ways of discussing chaos at all. Chaos has an odd hybrid or dialectical character that contributes to its elusiveness. It is more than nothing, less than something, not quite anything.
Chaos is perplexing. It is neither here nor there, this nor that. Being true to the reality (if one can so speak) of chaos means accepting and working within the ambiguity of its state and status. This accomplished by steering a course between its negative and positive character, refusing to deny either or, better yet, embracing both in a broader, dialectical account.
There is probably no better place to begin an account of chaos than with the observation that “chaos is the antonym of system.” (7) A system is a whole with contributing components whose natures are determined by their place and role in the whole. The wholeness of the system as an arrangement, most often a dynamic, functional arrangement, is the emergent property of the components and the relationships between them. A system represents the outcome of the information processes, of messages sent and received through the workings of decision that progressively limit an initial field of possibility out of which a system arises as a complex, concrete whole. Chaos must, in contrast, be a state without wholeness, contributing components, or web of connecting influences. Organization and pattern or anything whatsoever that could be called a defining form, boundary, or essence are absent.
The concept of variety may provide a key to understanding chaos. Variety is a technical term in communication theory. Variety is an attribute of a set of potential messages. The uncertainty of the receiver is proportional to the variety of this initial set. The greater the variety, the greater the uncertainty. Uncertainty is relieved with the reception of messages wherein variety is reduced. Information generated in the transmission not only reduces variety but also moves the process from possibility to actuality and toward a settled state. Variety is therefore also proportional to entropy. In communication theory, entropy is greatest when uncertainty is maximal in the receiver and no constraint exists in the ensemble of possible signals.
It follows, then, that chaos, in its primordial manifestation, may be likened to an infinite field of variety, of complete indeterminateness filled with potential power, the source of all created things and one aspect of divine abundance (8) Representatives of this position might include Jacob Boehme’s Ungrund, later developed by Nicolas Berdyaev as the freedom of me on or nonbeing; Meister Eckhart’s enumeration of the natures of divinity as the indeterminate ground, giving rise to a determinate figure; and Rudolf Otto’s phenomenological appraisal of the holy as the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans Pandemonium captures the character of the primordial chaos as an uproarious bedlam.Hence, Pandemonium Tremendum qualifies as an appropriate name.
The Pandemonium Tremendum is not limited to a fitful state of affairs that disallows the emergence of any enduring order. Rather, it consists of infinite variety as understood in communication theory. This would be an infinite assortment of discrete events, elements, or states distributed with complete randomness-and equiprobable distribution-shifting and mixing incessantly in a condition of complete instability. Each element or potential state is dead-even with respect to its realization in competition with all other states. Essential also to the PT is the aspect of turbulent mixing or elemental agitation, the ceaseless shuffling of possibilities in a roiling chaotic sea.
God and the Pandemonium Tremendum
The Pandemonium Tremendum is the source of abundance without which God could not be God. Yet, positing a reality that seems to stand apart from God, apparently capable of being characterized without any reference to God, suggests that God is not one, that God is at least two, that God draws upon some other reservoir for divine power and influence, or that God is not supremely simple and certainly not sovereign. And the suggestion that this reality, chaos, reigns with God encourages the conclusion that God cannot conquer that contrary power that frustrates the deity’s plans for an orderly creation and corrupts that order, once it has been established. The present task is to mount an argument on several fronts to answer these and other questions that are stimulated by the polemic appraisal of the primordial chaos in the theological tradition. These fronts include the role of the chaos in the divine life [and] God’s employment and control of the Pandemonium Tremendum without compromising its defining fury and spontaneity
It matters little if the Pandemonium Tremendum is apart from or a part of God. On the one hand, insofar as it can be distinguished as a necessary element in the divine life and discussed accordingly, it stands apart as some “other” demanding its own ontological status. On the other hand, God, to be God, must embrace the Pandemonium Tremendum as integral to God’s own being. The inclusion of chaos within God’s life is a major reason that God is God. Here is the key; the Pandemonium Tremendum does not compromise the power and perfection of God. On the contrary, the Pandemonium Tremendum is a necessary aspect of the divine life. The Pandemonium Tremendum serves God instrumentally in that it is the source of numerous capacities assigned to God, including divine sovereignty, limitlessness, and creativity.
The ground of difference requires agency. God is necessary as the agent of specification and concretion. The Pandemonium Tremendum is, at most, a collection. Yet, even this minimal attribute is too strong, for the elements of the Pandemonium Tremendum have no relations, no locus, no occupation of a common space giving them a togetherness that would appropriately be characterized, even minimally, as a primitive collection. The very extreme diffusion and dispersion of the primordial chaos means that it is unbounded and infinite. Yet somehow it is the source for the bounded and finite creation. The movement from chaos to cosmos is through God as willing agent. The Pandemonium Tremendum serves as the reservoir or the storehouse upon which God draws for variety in the acts of transmission that subsequently result in the creation and operate to sustain it. (9)
Indeed, the image of the storehouse drawn from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Job, provides a metaphor that is especially fitting for this requirement for God. God interrogates Job in order to reveal his abysmal ignorance about the common and astonishing phenomena of nature. With a slight hint of rhetorical sarcasm God asks, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow…?” (Job 38:22) Snow consists of delicate hexagonal flakes of ice, each with an intricate and novel geometrical design. As a deluge of immense, almost countless, numbers of these exquisite flakes, a blizzard is an accurate and revealing symbol for the infinite variety of the Pandemonium Tremendum. Snow is sent by God, but what is its origin? A scientifically innocent fantasy would imagine a storehouse for the snow, available to God to send upon the earth. In like manner, but placed in a metaphysical framework, the PT is the storehouse of variety that God likewise releases upon the earth to create, constitute and sustain its integrity and order.If this image is accurate, God is necessary as the power that contains the Pandemonium Tremendum, that stores it and places it at hand as a ready source of nurturing variety.
Witnessing the Chaos
As an act, knowing may be non-invasive and unintrusive, while still remaining intimate, that is, complete in all details. This kind of divine knowing is similar to that of the Hebrew scripture where knowing is deep, complete, and intimate. Ironically, a necessary condition placed on divine knowledge of the Pandemonium Tremendum is that it imposes no order, arrangement, or organization on the primordial chaos. This, of course, would compromise its function, reduce its power, and, consequently, reflect back upon God to proportionally limit divine sovereignty. God entertains the chaos by attending to its every particular and every move but without altering the perfect havoc within. That is, God does not police the chaos in any way to direct the swarm of infinitesimals, by enforcing external constraints. Rather, God stands back and witnesses. Without this omniscient attention, God would be unable subsequently to utilize the PT as a storehouse and source of messages. So we may say that God assays (witnesses) the chaos as a preliminary stage, and eventually God essays (evaluates and composes) the Pandemonium Tremendum by employing its variety to compose the creation. God comprehends but does not apprehend the Pandemonium Tremendum. The chaos is thereby given the necessary context but without the sacrifice of its absolute unconditioned character.
God surveys the Pandemonium Tremendum with impartiality, for partiality would mean a movement away from the equiprobability of any microstate. This bias or preference would predispose the primordial chaos away from its unconditioned state to one with built-in bias. Without this bias the elements of the Pandemonium Tremendum are properly neither here nor there and that is exactly where they must be. The entire field of variety is circumviewed by God, who takes inventory of its microstates through summation or tally, yet holds each distinctly in sight. In this sense of summation, God contains the chaos without restriction. The mathematical process of summation of simple counting serves better than the metaphorical image of spatial containment of the infinitely dispersed field of variety. God “counts” the microstates and, subsequently “counts on” this variety.
Shielding the Creation From Chaos
The problem presented by the primordial chaos is not for God, but for the creation. As its name suggests, the Pandemonium Tremendum is not a passive, bounded region of moderate activity. The fundamental feature of absolute dissipation compounds the inherent fury of the Pandemonium Tremendum by expelling its power radiantly. If this profound volatility alone were the case, then the cosmos would never arise; any region of order would be devoured immediately upon its birth. Chaos may be the necessary material cause of the world, but an appeal to it for the complete explanation for the world is insufficient for this reason.
For there to be a creation God must fulfill several responsibilities. One is to channel requisite variety into the cosmic regions where it builds order. God nurtures the world by releasing provisionally or, to use a stronger image, God pumps, a rationed and rational (in the sense of proportion) quantity of variety as the material for the construction of contexts, “orders,” or creaturely systems. A second major responsibility of deity is to contain the chaos as it strikes out insanely against any attempt to contain its dissipative ferocity. God shields the cosmos against this surge. Through this baffling the chaos, the order of the cosmos is divinely protected from being swept away.
In between chaos and cosmos lies the entire range of regulated flow. The degree of this regulation is the result of God exercising powers of separation and decision. Divine agency is exclusively the agency of communication. God’s power to transmit is itself without limits or God would be unable to baffle the Pandemonium Tremendum entirely. The margins of the containment would leak daunting variety. This consequence of spillage onto the creation is what one would expect of a lesser god or demiurge.
God halts the dissipation of the Pandemonium Tremendum by containing it in an envelope of constant decision. These decisions gather variety into differentiated regions, the regions of “yes” and “no.” They are the first order of business for God-the primordial determination that provides material for the creation itself. Differentiation is the origination of all order. It is as primitive as waves separating from the smooth featureless surface of the sea. But it is enough to baffle the expanding squall of chaos. It proceeds no further.
The baffling of the Pandemonium Tremendum is nothing like constructing a firewall or partition. It more closely resembles a chess match where one player knows all the possible moves on the board and uses this exhaustive knowledge to counter his opponent at every turn. This, of course, was the intention of â€œDeep Blue,” the IBM computer that challenged a reigning world chess master, Gary Kasparov. God’s interdiction (“to speak between”) of the Pandemonium Tremendum is similarly the divine countermove for each infinitesimal excursion.
This metaphysical description of divine interdiction of primordial chaos has a profound theological message as well. In a mythic and metaphysical interpretation John Haught makes the important point that the divine kenosis (the self-emptying or limiting of God) usually reserved for discussions of Christology, may be imaginatively applied to the creation, especially when combined with insights from kabbalistic Judaism. Haught’s reference to Michael Wyschogrod’s interpretation makes the connection nicely:
[The kabbalists] invoked the notion of tsimtsum, by which they meant that the absolute God, whose being fills all being, withdraws from a certain region, which is thus left with the being thinned out in it, and in this thinned out region man [the cosmos] exists. (10)
With respect to our scheme, what is “thinned out” is the Pandemonium Tremendum whose omnipresence would frustrate the nascent creation. The divine kenotic act is to baffle the Pandemonium Tremendum, protecting the creation from its overwhelming power.
An Outspoken God
In classic theism, the creator God is a being of perfect wisdom, goodness, and power, one whose essence is the divine existence and the power of being itself. Such an imposing reality certainly appears adequate for the task of creating the universe. Yet, the simple assertion that such a being is responsible for the world is incomplete unless it is accompanied by some account of how the task was accomplished. In the absence of such an account, God’s creative actions remain in the realm of myths of origin, or magic, or claims of divine fiat based on the intimidating description of God as a being of majestic and peerless power who creates any way God pleases. But words like “majesty” and “power” are not explanations. They cry out for accounts of economy, of the application of power that effectively brings about, sustains, and directs the creation. Otherwise, the ordered creation is best described as “God’s immaculate machine.” (11) This issue will be taken up here with an analysis of divine power, the means by which God acts to originate and sustain the creation.
Actually, the face of this God of theism turns both ways. God faces the Pandemonium Tremendum as its impartial witness. God also faces the creation as its partisan agent. God is that necessary reality standing between the unconditioned Pandemonium Tremendum and the highly conditioned world or between the purely indeterminate without context and the determinate in context. As the functioning entity standing between chaos and creation, God is the waist of the hourglass through which primordial variety is released in proper proportions.
The manner or mode of creation is the key to the question of divine causality. An important clue is found in the Hebrew verb bara used to describe God’s labor. Employed in Hebrew scripture exclusively for divine creation, bara means “to cleave or split,” (12) referring perhaps to carpentry. By itself, this might suggest the craftsman image. But in the context of the Genesis account, this seems not to be the case. Carpenters do not command or call upon their building materials to self-assemble and form a dwelling. In a more general sense, to cleave or split suggests an act of separation or division that goes beyond construction. Thus, the focus should not be on the orders issued by God, but rather on the intention of the commandsâ€”to “separate.”The initial act of creation is an act of separation the separation of the light from the darkness and the waters under the firmament from the waters above.
Separating is deciding and differentiating, God calls this apart from that and in doing so communicates. God draws from the infinite resource of the Pandemonium Tremendum by progressive division, through speaking first “yes” and then ‘no.” The indefinite and undetermined becomes defined and distinctive. Commands are messages. Indeed, all speaking out or transmitting of variety is imperative; communication takes place when the variety of a set of possible messages is reduced to a more restricted set or to a single instance. Decision as separation, the separation of what is to be from what might be and what will never be, is described by Karl Barth: “That which is not is that which God did not elect or will, that which as creator he passed over, that which according to the account in Genesis 1:2 â€œHe set behind him as chaos, not giving it existence or being.” (13).
The Genesis narrative parallels the earlier allegory of Michaelangelo’s labors to create David. Rather than mallet and chisel, God works with commands or messages. But the process is identical in both cases. Consecutive decisions result in a further specification of creation, first in its larger and more general contours, and then in its details. Uncertainty is reduced as work progresses. Eventually, the world teems with living things, and God stands back from day’s labors to express pleasure, as if even God experienced the removal of uncertainty as satisfaction.
God actively sustains by providing ceaselessly an essential ingredient to creatures. God spoke or commanded the world to be originally, and the speaking continues as flow as divine monologue. If God were to cease this unbroken utterance and became silent, the world would wither, become undone, or revert to the primal chaos. To put it bluntly, if God shuts up, the creation shuts down.God’s constant speaking out is like the wind sustaining a kite in flight or a breath sustaining the whirling paper windmill in the hand of a child. God’s celebrated steadfastness lies not only in the dependable daily rounds of seedtime and harvest that marked the cycles of ancient agrarian societies, but also in the divine supply of novelty that nurtures and animates the creation. The contingency of creation lies in its utter dependence upon the perpetual flow of this “supply” of sustaining variety provided by God who, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, neither sleeps nor slumbers.
The Mighty Throng of Creatures and the Stream of Variety
Despite our understandable need for a reliable world, major risks follow from unquestioned dedication to order alone. Decay and death are assured in a cosmos from which all novelty is banished for the sake of absolute regularity. This closed system inevitably reverts not so much to a state of chaos as to a profound state of equilibrium, of complete stability in the dead even sameness of entropic degradation. Under such conditions, all microstates of the system occupy a milieu of randomness. The this and the that are no different. Significant change is no longer possible. Complexity vanishes, leaving the stability of endless, monotonous duration. In a situation where constraint is total, the novelty in future messages is zero.Certainty is complete, but there is no longer any need to pay attention to the repeated transmission of trivial messages with little information content. Dantes’ account of the lowest circle of hell in The Inferno is not of a roaring conflagration, but of a frozen sea into which the souls of the most evil of men are eternally locked.
Fortunately, both theologically and ontologically, the creation is not a closed system with a sealed fate of either seizure or rigor. It is open to the input of the stream of variety from its creator. God gives possibility and freedom as well as order. Possibility and freedom are to be found in the infinite texture of life. This texture, consisting of variety in complexity, is in consequence of a process where God elaborates the world and the world elaborates itself. Elaboration is the realization of variety, constrained for the sake of order, but immense for the sake of freedom. In the place of chaos, God offers a trustworthy and reliable world full of resources for creaturely employment and construction and sustains the world with a constant replenishment of nourishing variety.
The propensity and passion of the Western mind for ideal generalized order and the inherited Greek notion of the singular wholeness of the cosmos make this habit of thought and method inevitable.The Greeks had two characterizations of the cosmos. They felt comfortable with the description to pan, “the whole,” because it expresses the unity of the world. They felt less comfortable with the alternative, ta panta, “all things,” because it does not. (14) The scientific quest for universal lawfulness in nature requires a strategy of neglecting differences in instances belonging to a class of phenomena in order to emphasize similarities, for only in likenesses are universal patterns to be recognized. Unity trumped plurality then and does so now.
Reality is a nearly impenetrable thicket of plurality, a brawling commonwealth of being. Being is informed as beings, with eachness, otherness, and suchness as primary ontological features. These features are the gifts of extravagant difference, of radical individuation. The primal source of the particular forms inhabiting the creation is God. One may even say that this diversity represents the immanence of the Pandemonium Tremendum as it is incarnated in the corporal world. This God, unlike the intelligent designer, revels in the fulfillment of creatures through their individuality and not their uniformity. The deep texture, richness, and diversity of the creation are far more suggestive of a God who lives with the vital chaos than one who configures the creation in accord with static forms.
As one who sets contexts, God would appear to act as the Deus who configures the world, first by implanting the propensity to evolve and then moving away to allow that evolution to occur. But this appearance is mistaken. The Deus is a retired and silent divinity. In contrast, the God of communication is always abroad in the form of a continuous font of variety that nourishes and perturbs the world as nurture and noise when injected into the creation. ‘Earth is crammed with Heaven,” wrote Elizabeth Browning in Aurora Lee. God is a catalytic agent. God disturbs situations of equilibrium by introducing noise into systems, driving them to higher orders of complexity and stability. Natural systems, sensitive and alert, thrive on the infusion of unorganized variety. They are impelled by uncertainty toward new and novel forms.
The joyful noise of God’s funding of variety is the raw material with which creatures compose their own existence singularly and together, to return this noise to its originator as a great symphony. That they accomplish this in numbers beyond tally and with limitless diversity testifies to the success of God’s loving actions and is evidence that recommends the communication model of divine economy.
1. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925). 114.
3. Freeman Dyson, “George Green and Physics, Physics World, (August, 1993): 33-38.
4. Ibid. 33.
5. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General system Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 33-34.
6. Claude E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Information,” Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1948): 379-423, 623-56.
7. StaffordBeer, “Below the Twilight Arch: A Mythology of Systems,” General Systems Yearbook 6 (1961): 9.
8. See Philip Hefner, “God and Chaos: The Demiurge versus the Ungrund,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 19, no. 4 (1984): 469-85.
9. For further development of the notion of reservoir, see Martin Heidegger, The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
10. Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 9-10; quoted in John Haught, “Evolution, Tragedy, and Hope,” in Science and Theology: The New Consonance, ed. Ted Peters (Boulder, Colorado: The Westview Press, 1998), 242.
11. Phrase taken from the lyrics of Paul Simon’s “One Trick Pony.”
12. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 49.
13. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, The Doctrine of Creation, trans. G. T. Tomson, ed. G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), pt. 3, 73.
14. Paulos Mar Gregorios, The Human Presence; Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit (Amity, N.Y.: Amity House, 1980), 21.