Every place I have ever lived, people have complained about the unpredictability of weather. It’s astounding that with all our sophisticated computers, weather satellites, and complex algorithms, weather scientists are often wrong in their predictions. Why should this be?
Around fifty years ago, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz made a remarkable discovery. Using several variables, he was looking for ways to make weather forecasting more accurate. To his dismay, he found that regardless of how many times he factored in the same variables, the weather became impossible to predict with precision. As he tried to discover the reason for this irritating result, he realized that he had rounded the specific number 0.506127 of one variable to 0.506. He had assumed that such an omission was of no consequence, but he was wrong. As Robin Meyers points out, “That tiny number, way down in the millionths—as far as the weather was concerned, a puff of wind no bigger than a baby’s sneeze or the beat of a butterfly’s wings—that tiny little change at the beginning of a weather system turned out to be the difference between a blue sky and a monsoon.” (Saving God from Religion, p. 153) This discovery is referred to as “the butterfly effect” and launched what became known as chaos theory.
Meyers writes, “It is the thesis of this book, however, that such systems also manifest themselves in the world of the spirit. An act of love as insignificant as the physical effect of butterfly flapping its wings can end up causing a tsunami of kindness. There is no way to calculate consequences based on how small or insignificant an action is, for good or ill.” (p. 153) Meyers points to the example of Rosa Parks who refused to give her seat to a white man and in the process launched the civil rights movement. She did not realize that she had set into motion the right variable at the ripe moment.
Meyers also points out that popular understandings of chaos theory/ the butterfly effect are naively simplistic. What appears to be chaotic “may, in fact, be ‘ordered’ at the outer limits by some mysterious ‘boundary.’” One may never get the exact same results, but there seemed to be a boundary “beyond which the final results never go.” Lorenz called this edge a “strange attractor.” Meyers comments, “Some people have compared this boundary, this strange attractor, to God.” (p. 153) He further suggests that love can be “a strange attractor, superimposing its own elegant order on what might otherwise seem utterly chaotic and random.” (p. 156)
There are several implications based on these observations as we begin a new year. January 1 is viewed as a time for making new resolutions and changes in our lives. I have found that very few people follow through on their resolutions and good intentions for change in their lives. However, the butterfly effect associated with chaos theory may encourage us at all times and in all circumstances to trust that we can make a difference in our world.
Here’s an example of the impact of the butterfly effect over time. My mother did not grow up in a churchgoing family. When she was a young child, a neighbor lady invited her to attend a Sunday school class followed by a Sunday worship service. Something about that experience met a deep spiritual need in my mother’s life. From that time on, she rarely missed going to church on Sunday. (When I was a child, she insisted we go to church even when we were traveling on vacation. I never got a break from church!) Even though I have some problems today with her Evangelical theology, I am aware that my first experiences of God were related to her commitment to Christ and my involvement in our local church. Little did that woman know that her invitation a century ago would set into motion changes that would result in my fascination with the question of God and a ministry lasting forty-eight years. I don’t know her name, but I am aware that this woman continued to impact my mother’s spiritual development. It was from my parents that I learned that God loved me and everyone else in the world. All my subsequent theology has been based on a trust in that unconditional and indiscriminate love.
In today’s world with all the changes, confusion, evil, injustice, and complexity, it’s easy to become cynical or overwhelmed. What can any of us do that will make a difference in our time and place? We are so small compared to the immensity of the universe and the relentless passing of time. Perhaps we amount to no more than the flap of a butterfly’s wing. But if that flap can change a weather pattern thousands of miles away, perhaps whatever good we can do in this world, regardless of how small, might contribute to mending at least a portion of our world.
Like beauty, chaos is in the eye of the beholder. Most of us (especially those who most benefit from the status quo) fear change. What may appear to be unwanted and dangerous chaos may be a necessary change in the pursuit of justice and compassion within society. Christians claim to worship a God who in Christ “makes all things new.” Newness implies change, and the change Jesus both incarnated and called us to seek in our world is a threat to virtually every aspect of a status quo controlled by those seeking power and wealth at the expense of others. Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1 signifies the dramatic changes Jesus’ birth and ministry will bring to this world. According to Mary, Jesus’ arrival scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, puts down the mighty from their thrones, exalts those of low degree, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51:53 Karl Marx once remarked that Mary’s song was one of the most radical statements ever uttered in history. It’s certainly a part of the Christmas story the church conveniently overlooks.)
The “chaos” we are called to bring about in this world is perhaps like what John Lewis called “good trouble” – “trouble” from the standpoint of the principalities and powers of this world but “good” in the sight of God who makes all things new. I have come to believe that no act of goodness, love, justice, compassion, or forgiveness is ever wasted in the Divine Economy. According to Jesus, something as small as a mustard seed or a pinch of yeast can make the needed difference in the healing of humankind and this earth. The world is held together by simple acts of kindness, and who knows what the full impact of those deeds will be in time and eternity. We need not worry about the results of our efforts of kindness. We need only trust that with the Living God, no act of goodness, justice, or compassion is ever wasted. Perhaps that assurance is a hopeful way to begin the new year.