Volume 18, Issue 4: Thema
In Defense of Wind Grasping
Patterns. Formulas. Rules. Laws. Algorithms.
"The current standard of soccer ball, known as the Geodesic Ball, has twelve black pentagons and twenty white hexagons with a gain in uniformity and predictability."
"The electric flux through a closed surface is proportional to the algebraic sum of electric charges contained within that closed surface."
"First slacken off the top stem bolt by turning it anti-clockwise no more than three revolutions."
"Proof: the force and increase of any passive emotion and its persistence in existing is defined by the power of an external cause compared with our own power."
"As air moves from high to
low pressure in the northern hemisphere, it is deflected to the right by the Coriolis force."
Patterns. Formulas. Rules. Laws. Algorithms.
Chaos gets bad press. Sure, she has never been a model of self-control, and her appearance never matched the best girls. But Ovid oversteps the bounds of propriety when he describes her as a "Rather rude and indigested mass: / A lifeless lump, unfashion'd, and unfram'd, / Of jarring seeds;
and justly Chaos nam'd." Another translation speaks of her as having "discordant elements confused" and "congested in a shapeless heap." The media have their own agenda. Hesiod merely sniffs at Chaos, dismissing her features by omission. This is too much.
The fact that just about everyone so adamantly wants to impose rules and laws on chaos suggests she got something right. When pagans and Christians, Europeans and Asians, scientists and poets, North and South Dakotans, all insist on gagging her with formulas and algorithms, you know
some conspiracy is at work.
We long for predictability. But Chaos is too chaste. She crosses her ankles. We want an obedient, tame nature. We fear the dark. Science wants to comfort us with laws. Things won't change for a long, long time, they tell us. The laws are in control. Laboratories become nurseries assuring us
that all will turn out according to some rule. We want things laid out simply and straight. We want our assembly instructions written by native speakers. No "Adults: One to three times a day until passing away."
Apparently, modern secularists are the most fearful among us. The Enlightenment project focused on finding predictability in everything. No surprises. They mathematized the entire universe. No dark corners anywhere. No jump scenes. Everything has to have an instruction manual.
"Make sure that the bars are in the correct position with the brake levers at 45 degrees to the ground. Do not ride your bike without checking your handlebars and stem are fully tightened!" They put exclamation marks all over the universe. Spinoza went berserk: "All things follow from God's eternal
decree by the same necessity as it follows from the essence of a triangle that its three angles are equal to two right angles." Geez louise.
In short, the Enlightenment always wants to give away the end of the story. They don't want story satisfaction at the end. No twists. All predictable. If you know the formulas and rules, then everything's crystal clear. It's like getting the first lines of Hamlet:
bernardo: Who's there?
francisco: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Followed immediately by:
hamlet: O, I die, Horatio; The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit.
Once, in my high school days, my friend and I exited an opening-night showing of
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. The people for the next showing stood in a long line. My friend pretended to confide in me but said in a loud voice: "It's too bad E.T. had to die in the end by a shotgun blast." They wilted.
Secularism's demand for a safe, predictable universe of laws and rules stands in sharp contrast to a Christian universe. Whereas secularism wants to see everything, present and future, right now, the Trinity gives us a universe where "You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is
your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away" (James 4:14ff).
This unpredictability is not an accident. It's not a divine oversight. Life is boot camp. Trinitarian boot camp. It is frightening. No wonder even someone like Nietzsche could see that "Christianity had brought into life a quite novel and limitless perilousness, and therewith quite novel
securities, pleasures, recreations, and evaluations of all things. Our century denies this perilousness." Christians themselves resist this peril. We, too, want a world of predictability and automatic mechanisms. But that's not the way the world works.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit trust one another in the most profound ways, and if we're to live maturely inside their presence, we must learn to live with persons alone, no mechanical rules, nothing automatic. No safety net. "Now we see in a mirror, dimly." The life of the Trinity is one, and yet
it is a pure communion of distinct persons. Nothing within their communion is automatic, mechanical, or algorithmic. They are grace, pure personality. They trust and give deeper cause for trust. They are love, and it is a love stronger than any impersonal necessity, stronger than any law
of nature, any mathematical formula.
Our life of faith aims to imitate the interior life of the Trinity. Faith is not blind or empty. Faith lives between persons, trusting persons and giving grounds for trust. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for"it is trust in the most solid thing in the universe, the love that binds Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit to each other and us. "It is the evidence of things not seen"it is the certainty that Triune personality is thicker than any purported material force.
The physical universe, too, reflects Triune life. It's not as if the Trinity lives by grace but then creates a physical world run by natural law and impersonal formulas. Grace rules everything. We see that in one of the most radical, provocative statements in all of Scripture: "All things were
created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist" (Col. 1:16,17). In Him all things consist. A person holds the universe togetherno laws, no impersonality. Christ holds the moon to the earth, not gravity. Christ touches mountains and they smoke (Ps.
104:32), not magmatic pressure. Christ grips each human body, not short bands of collagen fibers. Christ "has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured the heaven with a span" (Is. 40:12).
There are no laws of nature.
There are no impersonal forces.
There are no necessary connections.
There's Christ, the logos, the logos who ate fish and bled and turned over tables. A person holds all things together by grace, by love.
The secular project aims to provide a substitute for Christ, a substitute for the personal. It aims to replace Christ's palm with patterns, formulas, rules, laws, algorithms. The two worlds cannot live in peace with each other. Even a Nietzsche (again) recognized this antithesis where most
Christians don't: "The concept of guilt and punishment, including the doctrine of `grace,' of `redemption,' of `forgiveness'. . . were invented to destroy the causal sense of man: they are an outrage on the concept of cause and effect!"
Like many moderns and postmoderns, Nietzsche demanded simplicity and predictability. He wanted cause and effect to stand still. For every action he wanted an equal and opposite reaction, with no exceptions. He wants every object in uniform motion to remain that way unless an external
force is applied. Moderns want the universe to act like a simple machine, down to its deepest joints. "How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity?" (Prov. 1:22).
Christ is not a machine and neither is His universe. Grace isn't a clock. Christ is a storyteller, and He avoids clichés. He likes suprises. Christ follows patterns, but He breaks them, too, and this upsets people. "These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who
have borne the burden and the heat of the day" (Mt. 20:12). Grace says, "Is your eye evil because I am good? The last will be first, and the first last." Sometimes actions don't cause equal and opposite reactions. Grace is complicated.
At the deepest levels of reality, then, we find morality and grace, not mechanics. We find causation between faithfulness and matter, patterns that follow blessings and curses, not absolutistic formulas. The universe moves by loyalty. Righteousness and unrighteousness move material things,
not matter pushing matter: "If you diligently obey the voice of the
Lord your God. . . blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring
of your flocks. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl" (Deut. 28:3-5). Loyalty makes plants grow. Love makes dough rise.
Grace is even more complicated. Blessings and curses are never automatic. Sometimes the plot twists. Sometimes we're faithful in all things, and yet we might say, "Why did I not perish when I came from the womb?" (Job 2:11). Faithfulness sometimes brings Sabean raids, falling houses,
fire from heaven, and a wife that urges you to curse God and die. Grace isn't Newtonian. Glory abounds because grace does not follow a Newtonian track. Strict causation would condemn us to death. "No good thing dwells in us." "The wages of sin is death." But we don't die. We don't face
the executioner. Mathematical causation fails profoundly, and we get life and get it more abundantly (Jn. 10:10). Grace breaks all the rules. And that's what runs the universe.
In contrast to this, Nietzsche shows himself to be, contrary to his own opinion, a stingy, small-souled prophet. His universe is too tight, and so he fusses against the threat of Christ's magic: "When the natural consequences of an act are no longer `natural' but thought of as effected by the
conceptual ghosts of superstition, by `God,' by `spirits,' by `souls,' as merely `moral' consequences, as reward, punishment, sign, chastisement, then the precondition for knowledge has been destroyedthen one has committed the greatest crime against humanity." Well, then, three cheers for crimes
against humanity. In Christ all things consist. Never shall personalism and impersonalism live together. It's all grace and mystery and surprise.
But, chaos, is this chaos? Why did I earlier speak sympathetically of chaos? Christ isn't chaos. He is the personal Logos. Why should we defend chaos? Quite true. Christ is not chaos. The Lord promises a certain patterns of stability. He promises "While the earth remains, seedtime and
harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease" (Gen. 9:22). That's not chaos. Write that in bold letters somewhere. But still, something lingers.
We can rejoice in the fictions of scientific language. They're very imprecise at the deepest level, but they help us take dominion of the surfaces. We can call them laws and necessities and rules of nature and principles of thought, for a while. But someday, even that will give way. We can study
the patterns and regularities of Christ's hand. We can't forget Him, though, as is our tendency. It's okay to play law, as long as we don't believe the world really operates by some impersonal rules. We don't live in a universe where a network of laws begrudgingly gives way to miracles every once in
a while. We live in a universe of miracle, a universe of grace, that Christ shapes by hand. Our equations aim to depict a bit of His kindness. Equations don't have a life of their own.
And yet, for all the patterns, life should still feel a bit more like chaos. It should feel more like the downside of the roller coaster. The life of faith flips the stomach. The Trinity is the God of surprises. Asses talk; water catches fire; the sun reverses; demons cry. And the God-man unhinges all
of medicine by walking out of His tomb. Christ holds everything together, but He's known for living on pinnacles. He doesn't like to tell us the end of our stories. He's teaching us how to live in the Trinity. "Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!" At
the deepest recesses, it's just false that "Since a cold air mass is denser and has a lower thickness than warm air, pressure decreases more rapidly with height in cold air than in warm air." The winds and water obey Him. For us, the earth should feel a little looser, a little wobbly, a bit unhinged. We
trust in a person, a person of humor and surprise and drama. Sometimes he lets us bounce; sometimes he raises us from the dead.
Life is a kind of chaos, or to use more biblical language, it is a "grasping for the wind" (Eccl. 2:26). That's not a pessimistic complaint of Solomon on one of his bad days. It captures our calling. Nothing is automatic. Life is not mechanical. In Christ all things hold together, and He doesn't fill
in every gap. The wind doesn't have safety handles. It doesn't come with color coding. We have to trust the one who controls the wind. We have to become like the wind: "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So
is everyone who is born of the Spirit."