First Reading:

“The average person, seeing that we can predict tides pretty well a few months ahead would say, why can’t we do the same thing with the atmosphere, it’s just a different fluid system, the laws are about as complicated. But I realized that any physical system that behaved aperiodically would be unpredictable.”

~ Edward Lorenz, discoverer of the “Butterfly Effect”

Second Reading:

“I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.”

~Ecclesiastes 9:11

The Gospel:

“The wind blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the sound of it, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. Just like that, is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

~John 3:8

A warm front came through today, stirring up breezes and gusts. The trees shivered and swayed in the winds, making them let go of the last of their November leaves. Perhaps a butterfly had flapped its wings in Mexico. Showers of oak and ash and birch leaves soared and fluttered and helicoptered, tracing the edges of the turbulence that carried them away. I watched them fly on the breeze until I lost sight of them climbing over houses or fleeing into the woods. I followed the descent of others all the way to the ground. In swirling winds, crowds of dry leaves like land crabs skittered and scraped across driveways and down empty streets, a rush and bustle of brown carapaces. They piled up in heaps along walls and under hedges; now just the overburden of spring and summer past.

Mathematician – meteorologist Edward Lorenz first stumbled upon what came to be known as the Butterfly Effect in 1961, while running a primitive weather simulation on an equally primitive computer called a Royal McBee. Using a few simple equations, the machine would print out the changes over time, in variables like wind direction and temperature. He decided to repeat one specific run of the simulation, to look more closely at a certain sequence for one variable. Instead of starting the run from the beginning again, with the program set exactly as before, he started midway through, using the value for the variable that the computer had printed out at that point. But he rounded. Instead of typing in the exact number — .506127 — he inserted only three decimal places: .506. The difference, as James Gleick puts it in Chaos: The Making of a New Science, was “like a small puff of wind.” Lorenz expected that such a small difference in the initial value would yield an equally small difference in the result. But that’s not what happened. The second run, traced as an oscillating line like the first, soon diverged until all resemblance disappeared. It was now like the difference between a summer breeze and a hurricane. Lorenz had discovered the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions—a signature of what would eventually be called the science of chaos. The concept forever became the Butterfly Effect when Lorenz gave a conference presentation in 1972 titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

I could have been an engineer, instead of a theologian and former high school teacher, which is what I am. Choices were made. Initial conditions were set. Maybe if I had spent more time in high school trying to understand calculus and less time hanging out in the art room, or in the art room courtyard getting stoned. My father was an electronics engineer, and a Naval Academy grad, and I have always been attracted to working with tools and materials to alter or repair physical reality. The essence of engineering is the application of human reason to solving tractable human problems. Its solutions are typically material ones: buildings, bridges, boats, trains, planes, phones, satellites, computers. “Social” engineering—more or less an oxymoron—suffers from the swirling unpredictability of human will and desire, as do all the “human” sciences, like economics and psychology. Yet, as it turns out, the hard sciences and engineering have their own problem with unpredictability. Its name is turbulence; virtually a synonym for chaos.

Gleick calls turbulence a “mess of disorder at all scales … it is motion turned random.” The smooth laminar flow of a fluid is disrupted by microscopic variations which cascade into chaos, in unpredictable ways. Turbulence turns nature unfriendly and mocks every human attempt to master the world. All that certainly works well enough as a metaphor for life, but are the things-in-themselves more dicey still? Arthur Peacocke, the biochemist and ordained Anglican, tells us that chaos and quantum uncertainty in the natural order means that the “limit on total predictability applies to God as well as ourselves” (the article to read is “God’s Interaction with the World: The Implications of Deterministic ‘Chaos’ and of Interconnected and Interdependent Complexity,” in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action). Peacocke is persuaded, and perhaps found it comforting, that God chooses his own ignorance: God’s omniscience is “self-limited”, because he himself put the unresolvable fuzziness in quantum states and the trembling sensitivity in dynamic processes that leads to turbulence and chaos. God did this to bestow on humans, as well as the natural order, autonomy and freedom “that God chooses not to control in detail.” That all seems a stretch, a bit of anthropo-theological projection. I don’t think our freedom requires God’s blinders. And I’m not ready to join the church of panentheism.

The leaves fly, and the sparrows fall, and God knows it all. He knows when I sit down, and when I get up. He knows all our ways, words, and thoughts. He knows the position and momentum of every elementary particle, all 1 x 1080 of them. God does not play dice with the universe. He lets us do that. Under the sun, we are all victims of time and chance. I suppose I should have been a professor of theology at some small Baptist college or seminary. A published dissertation, a peer-reviewed article in a respected journal, four years of adjunct work, and glowing recommendations from established colleagues should have guaranteed the outcome. If life were a fair playing field and a pure meritocracy, I would have succeeded, at least I told myself so. Politics played a part. I know I missed one position because another candidate had better denominational connections. Historical circumstances influenced the outcome. It was the time of the Great Bible Wars in the Southern Baptist Convention, and my doctoral supervisor was a true convictional centrist, who did not back the winning side, or the losing one. After four years, a dozen or more resumes, and one almost-promising interview, I walked away from the table with a few extra chips, but no jackpot. I grieved the loss of an academic career as the loss of a lover. My career, and my life, moved in a different direction.

The standard Evangelical-Baptist interpretation of events would have been that God’s “plan for my life” was different and, of course, better than my own. The pedigree of this idea goes back much further, but I first encountered it in a well-known little booklet that began “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  A pinnacle of sorts was reached with Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life. Warren writes that his book contains a “blueprint for Christian living in the 21st century.” There are things not wrong with these kinds of expressions of God’s way with the world. God does have a purpose for us—to make us like Christ and give us a place in his kingdom. Discipleship shouldn’t be haphazard. Sometimes being organized works. But our imagination makes “blueprint” into a conviction that God has drawn up a precise itinerary for every individual life—school, romance, marriage, career, geography—and our task is to discern the directions and stick to the plan. Your life is a guided bus tour, and side trips are just a distraction.

I have been enticed by this somewhat Platonic idea of a pre-existing personal resumé, and still am sometimes, when I watch from the outside the seemingly smooth laminar flow of other Christians’ lives and think maybe I’m just not doing it right, given all the turbulence I have experienced. But the first crack in my conviction occurred when I was an undergraduate and considering asking my girlfriend to marry me. I prayed for God’s will and direction fervently and frequently. No one I talked to thought it was a bad idea, but then they would say I should pray about it, so that became pretty circular. Finally, I became convinced that the “word” from God was “make up your own mind.” Thirty-seven years after, we both still think it was a good idea.

And I’m sure God knew this, before the creation of the world. I’m also sure God knows what would have happened had I never asked Roberta to marry me, and the cascade of eventualities that would have flowed from that decision, as he knows the history of every possible universe in which that butterfly did not flap its wings in Mexico, and this leaf tumbled one way and not another. But he didn’t tell me. But if he had told me, he would have known that too, from all eternity. And he would have known what I would have done then, and the cascade of eventualities that would have flowed from that. Ad infinitum. On that account, I am free to do this or that, without God’s foreknowledge determining my choice, because, out of all the possible universes from all the branching decisions (and of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world) which God envisages, he actualized only this one, the one in which he knew all the free choices we would make (the book to read is Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, by Thomas Flint). So here we are, right here right now; sailing somewhere between “stuff happens, then you die” and “God loves you and has a detailed playbook for your life.”

I am windblown. Not in convictions, but in circumstances. The usual scenarios and the usual suspects went that way, and I was carried in a different direction. Perhaps though, not a leaf, but more of a sail in the wind, like a sailboat tacking to make headway; moving alternately from port to starboard. You cannot sail directly into the wind; a forty-five degree angle is about the best most boats can do. Either you harmonize your direction and desire with the will of the wind, or you get nowhere. So it is with everyone who is born and borne by the Spirit. In his exposition of the Trinity, David Bentley Hart speaks of the “partaking of the finite of that which it does not own, but within which it moves . . . through its own endless growth in the good things of God” (in The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth). The finite soul, like a sailor on the vast ocean, moves in and toward the infinite God, traversing the infinite for eternity, moving forever from beauty to ever greater beauty, always into boundless love and endless joy. It is a fitting metaphor, if an easy one. I tell myself it is the truth, and I believe that it is. Even now, underneath the chaos and turbulence, sometimes I sense a current and a direction, a horizon I am moving toward and beyond. It is enough for now.

The Benediction:

“There is a girl in New York City,
calls herself the human trampoline.
Sometimes when I’m fallin’, flyin’, tumbling in turmoil,
I say, whoa, so this is what she means.
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland.”

~Paul Simon