I like chaos theory. It gives me hope for the messiness of life. I like it so much that I use it in the classroom when I teach students how to think critically and theologically about what is happening in the world around them.
During a semester, students may say to me about half-way through, “I’m not sure exactly where these lessons are leading.” In my early years, I was concerned. Couldn’t they see the path forward? Wasn’t I clear?
Then I realized that they couldn’t see because they hadn’t participated in the planning in the first place. So I shifted my framing and now tell students, “You may not see how all this material connects right now, but I believe you will by the end of the semester when you yourself begin to put the pieces together.”
The majority of my students do this work well. By the end of the course, there are “aha” moments that only occur because students have to work hard themselves to create the reorganization of their knowledge base and its accompanying wisdom. Ultimately, I want students — and everyone — not to fear messiness, but to look into the perceived mess and find the new thing emerging. Yet, such a practice is not easy.
In the most simplified terms, chaos theory points to a disruption that renders an ordered system scrambled. In the midst of chaos though, and at first almost invisible, there is a pattern that begins to emerge as the system reorganizes itself.
The elegance of the reorganization can be a thing of beauty. It is usually more complex and sophisticated than its previous iteration, at least in the natural world. However, disruption in human systems does not always result in sophisticated reorganization.
In fact, human disruptions can lead to meltdown and failure with no coherent path forward — at least for a time. Nature seems to handle disruption as a matter of course, human beings less so. In the United States, we generally tend to prefer control over flow, with the exception of some groups and tribes.
Predictability is highly prized, comforting for those who tend to worry- or have fear-based lives. No surprises please! Trusting others is hard work when one lives in fear.
Those who do honor flow and uncertainty tend to respond better to disruption. While fear has its helpful uses, it also can box one in when a fight, flight or freeze response is not necessary.
On the other hand, adventuresome spirits want to see what happens next, even if there is pain and grief involved in change. What new pattern will emerge? What potentials exist? How will organized living change? These questions are the foundations for innovation, which requires a certain amount of chaos.
Look at Christian faith stories; they are often chaotic. Easter resurrection threw everything out of whack — a political death penalty resulted in good news for followers who did not know that hope was possible again. Pentecost did it again with the Holy Spirit blowing and stretching the edges of communication among people who normally couldn’t understand each other.
The early church did it again by radically caring for the sick and poor, normally ignored, thereby cultivating a new way of moral living as a faith construct. Church history is full of disruptions that led to new ways of perceiving the work of God. Today, with church splits, political fights, theological camps, and general malaise, we find our way into the chaos once again.
Some of us are worrying, kicking, screaming. Some of us are not interested in getting involved. Some of us are curious about what will emerge.
My prayer for us, Beloveds, is that we look at our chaos, and try not to polarize or give up. Rather, let’s wonder and be kind to each other. Because something is emerging, and I believe it will be elegant indeed, for all of us.
Rev. Dr. Lisa Withrow is Academic Dean, Methodist Theological School in Ohio.