In the year that I was born, a girl baby was also born, but in a place a few hundred miles away. Throughout our childhoods those miles prevented me from having any contact with either her or her family. Not a word about my existence ever drifted through to her, nor about hers to me. Nevertheless all the while both she and I were becoming people who, when we finally sat down beside each other at a university football game, immediately “clicked” with each other. Four years later we married.
Whatever your experience may be at any given moment, you can never be quite certain about what is really going on. We can see very few of the events at all levels which, at a single pulse of creation, have burst into existence throughout the universe. All unknown to us, things that are happening elsewhere at that very moment will someday exert a profound influence upon the course of our lives. The import of those unknown remote events may not home in on us until long after they actually took place. Separate strands of development may run along with time more or less parallel to each other, as it were. Contemporary events in two or more of these strands may turn out to have great significance for elements in the separate strands that later come together or become cross-connected.
Strings of events do converge upon each other, merging their streams of information to produce an unexpected outcome. Because many of these confluences are so commonplace, they go unnoticed. Others of such meetings can be singularly momentous.
The various ideas, constituents and persons associated with the first atomic bomb had their beginnings at widely separated locations. But all of those ongoing trains of events came together at one place when that bomb was assembled. Sets of event-tracks that had not previously been connected, converged where the aircraft that flew the bomb was assembled. The members of the crew who flew that plane to drop the bomb were born, grew up and took their training in different towns and at different bases. Eventually aircrew, plane and bomb came together at the same airfield. Over Hiroshima the bomb was dropped and exploded into a history-making catastrophe. Who could have foretold that all those apparently unrelated lines of development which had begun so many years before would subsequently come together at that place with such devastating and far-reaching consequences?
In the last two chapters we discussed two conditions that are essential if the components of a working system are to be coordinated. First, the components must coexist, i.e., all of them must be present in the same moment of time. How could they work together if some of them did not exist yet or if some of them no longer existed? Second, moment by moment the components of a working system must be in continuous communication with each other’s past and present states. If any component were to be cut off from information about where the other components have been and are, as well as what they have been and are presently doing, it would quickly get out of sync with the rest of the system. If the coordination between a system’s components ever breaks down, that system is in deep trouble.
In the present chapter I want to feature a third essential aspect of systemic coordination. The information each component needs from the activities of other components must converge upon it, becoming available to it at exactly the right time. Only when this keeps happening can a component keep on functioning properly, and only when all its components are functioning rightly can the whole system continue to operate as it should. If the requisite information doesn’t come together in the right forms at the right places and the right times, the whole system will soon go out of whack. In fact if at some time the right things had not come together in the right way, the system would never have come into being in the first place.
Can you imagine a universe which consists of totally unrelated items? I don’t think I can. Perhaps I could envision something like a “rain” of well-separated particles “falling” in space-time, none of the “droplets” swerving ever so slightly from a course quite parallel to that of all the others. If they were all moving at exactly the same speed, none of them would appear to the others to be moving at all. From the point of view of an outside observer moving at a different speed or in a different direction, the drops which were moving in such a “frozen” unitary fashion would however appear to be tightly related. But all the while inside that “rainstorm” none of the particles would or could be making the slightest difference to any of the others. In actuality, apart from an observer they would be entirely unrelated.
Trains on separate tracks driving along the valleys between parallel ranges of impassable mountains, could never arrive at the same station. No exchanges of freight, fuel or written orders could ever be accomplished, for the tracks would never meet. Like those separated trains, none of the entities in a world consisting of entirely unrelated hems could ever get together to exchange materials, energies or information. Such a situation could scarcely be called a “world” at all. It would certainly not be a good place to consider with a view to setting up some sort of system.
The familiar world in which you and I live is very different from a lot of totally separated parallel monofilaments. In our world the word “we” has a real meaning. This is a social world where people can meet, engage in various kinds of exchanges and cooperatively pool their efforts. Even down at the mini-microlevel of the physical world the subatomic particles can cluster together as atomic nuclei. Atoms can clump together according to their affinities. The substances formed by atoms and molecules can be formed into entities which in turn become the components of functioning systems. Things from the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms will cooperate with people to make possible incredible technical achievements. People organize themselves into families, tribes, companies, expeditions, projects and nation-states, as well as international corporations and agencies. Whatever we humans produce, we are only its coproducers, for the whole world gets into the act with us.
I believe that this universally pervasive socializing and systemizing tendency is one of the most significant clues which humans have about the meaning of the universe and its history. The chance encounters of randomly hurtling particles can never provide an adequate explanation for the stably integrated complex systems which we find on every level of the world in every direction. Random changes in random order can only add further randomness. In our world the “dice” are definitely loaded in favor of the production of societies and systems. Even entropy can be pressed into the service of systems. The ultimate purposes of the Creator are linked to an exploration of all the possibilities of systemic organization—and his ingenuity knows no end.
Speaking of rights
Scientists have been trying for a long time to solve the problem of how life originated on this earth. The chances are vanishingly small that an organism capable of reproducing itself could come alive spontaneously in some fortuitous chemical soup. For the emergence of the very simplest organism—if there are any truly simple organisms—an extensive array of mutually harmonious substances would have to come together at the same “ideal” place at the same time. While some of these constituent substances could be relatively “simple,” others which are quite complex would also be required. All the necessary ingredients would have to follow convergent paths in order to come together. If and when they did arrive, they would have to be distributed in just the right mix and each would have to come in at exactly the right energy level in order to combine properly with the right others. This would have to take place in the right environment—one totally supportive in every respect, affording the right forces necessary to distribute the right resources in the right pattern, all the way to the point of convergence and combination.
If under such demanding circumstances some living thing were ever actually to generate itself spontaneously, that highly vulnerable, fragile neogenerate would have to be specially shielded from all environmental hazards. All threatening influences would have to be rightly excluded while rightly allowing the entrance of a right supply of whatever would be helpful for the survival of the helpless organism. From its first moment of life, moreover, that first inexperienced living creature would have to be capable of seeking out and ingesting its proper nourishment—thiswhile carefully excluding all useless or dangerous substances. Accomplishing that feat of selectivity seems all the more remarkable when we remember that the very first living thing would not likely come equipped with any of the sophisticated genetic programming which some biologists believe gradually developed during ages of the species’ survival experience. From the very beginning, therefore, this delicate proto-organism had to be endowed with the most remarkable skills—skills mat no chemist in his or her right mind would ever attempt to explain. The countless problems which could arise within the organism or outside of it would all have to be recognized and dealt with properly. In the complete absence of parental shielding it would itself have to know how to take appropriate preventative measures and how to take appropriate remedial action. It would certainly have to possess some way of balancing its output with its input.
The first time sexuality became involved, there would have to be two of those organisms at the same place at the same time, and they would have to be mutually attractive, complementary and compatible, cooperating rather than competing to grab off the goodies around them.
All in all, a tall order of complex conditions would have had to be met before the simplest organism could have sprung to life. The list is far too long to have been filled by all the haphazard happenstances mat could have occurred even if the earth were many orders of magnitude older than it actually is. The credibility of any “expert” who glibly speaks of the spontaneous generation of a viable organism is eminently questionable.
It must be humiliating for a biologist to suggest seriously that a warm mud puddle could, without forethought or experience, put together all the complexity of a living organism. Biologists all know that the world’s scientists with all their know-how and elaborate, powerful equipment haven’t yet been able to pull off that cleverest of all tricks.
Everything necessary for the development of a new chick is already contained in a fertilized egg which can be produced by the collaboration of a dim-witted hen and an undiscriminating rooster. To set off the marvelous developmental sequence of perfectly timed phases and converging strings of events by which the egg turns into a complexly organized chick, nothing much more is required than a hen willing to sit long enough on that egg. It’s all so neatly accomplished that it’s awesome!
Despite all the difficulties involved in putting together the whole improbable set of conditions that are “just right” to produce and maintain a functioning organism, this world is populated abundantly by living things in inconceivable numbers. Myriads upon myriads of very different forms of life have appeared, survived and aggressively multiplied. It is hard to find any kind of environment that is not being used as a habitat by some kind of organism. Moreover the specific needs of most of the individuals in earth’s tremendous mass of living things are provided for every day. A God-sized task accomplished routinely!
The “wholeness” of an organism requires that all of its essential elements and components be present at once and in good working order. No living thing can be successfully put together in piecemeal fashion—the way a car is put together on an assembly line by bolting together premanufactured units. If a living thing were to emerge from a collection of dead components, all of those components would have to come alive at the same moment. From the moment it began to function, each component would have to receive essential products from each of the other components. If any of those other components had not yet begun producing or had ceased to produce, the organism would perish. The diversity and unicity that are inherent in wholeness must be together from the beginning of life.
If a single component should begin to malfunction, the organism sickens. If a single essential connection is disrupted, the organism dies. After death the disintegration of the whole structure sets in with remarkable rapidity. Although a corpse would seem to contain all of the same chemical ingredients it contained when it was a living body, their simple presence is not enough to prevent the irreversible dissolution of the bodily organization. The tiny disconnection which ensued in death may be extremely difficult for the most skillful surgical team to locate and repair quickly enough. Yet some biologists casually take for granted that from the beginning of life just such little but lethal “gaps” were all capably connected up by sheer blind chance.
A dead organism doesn’t just lie there waiting forever for random chance or a passing physician to patch up the details of its interior which are out of order. A few minutes after anything dies it begins to relapse into lower-level, disassociated chemical systems. The time-window within which attempted physiological repairs could be successful is very narrow indeed. Due to the complexity of organic systerns, death is always enormously more probable than a single moment of life. For any given organism there are many, many ways of being dead, but only a few variations are permitted in the one way of being organizationally alive.
Right and ready
What has just been said about the way the unicity of organismic systems depends upon the convergence of many separated lines of development largely applies also to systems which result from human planning and techniques. These systems can become functionally complete only when all the requisite materials, energies and information have arrived at the assembly site and have been joined together in the right ways. This means that everything essential must be prepared elsewhere ahead of time and transported to the construction site in the right order. The newly arrived components must be found compatible with what has already been built, and the workers must have the necessary know-how to put things together properly. A great deal of experience and forethought is required to keep the logistics of a major project moving on schedule without running into crippling foul-ups. The formidable hassles that face us before we are ready to start on a relatively simple job are often enough to discourage us from even making a start.
If you have been waiting for a long time for your moment of completion to arrive—that magic moment for which you have been hoping and planning and preparing so intensely—that moment when the ribbon can be cut, the bottle smashed, the motor started up, or the button pushed—when mat moment of final readiness arrives, it is charged with emotion. Is everything in place? Is everything connected up right? If everything that is required to make this system operational has come together the right way, it should work. If anything essential to the functional unicity of the system is still missing, disappointingly it won’t work the way you had expected.
Before Neil Armstrong placed the first human footprint on the moon, many years of planning, designing, training, testing, politicking, financing and publicizing had gone on. Half the world was holding its breath as that first manned moon landing came off successfully. As the space capsule descended into that eery and deathly moonscape, all those years of human effort, that huge investment of money, the personal reputations of NASA’s scientist-engineers, the continuing influence of supportive politicians, the global prestige of the USA, the future of humankind, the safety of those tremendously courageous astronauts—all this and much more was at stake. An untold number of strands of influence all converged upon that first footprint in the moon’s dust. All of them were necessary or that event could not have happened just that way.
When your eyes run fondly over your favorite oil painting, give some thought to how that painting came to exist. Before the artist could commence work on it, a large number of substances of different kinds had to be obtained from several sources. These had to be processed into pigments, media, brushes, canvas, palette, easel, and working conditions. The right varieties of all these had to be in the artist’s studio at the time they were needed. Undoubtedly they were delivered via many different routes. If the right materials, the right inspiration, the right finances, and the right opportunity had not come together as they did, your painting would not be hanging there on your wall.
It may occur to you that the whole universe had to be arranged just right in space from time immemorial for everything to come together the way it did to produce your painting. Realizing this should lend an extra measure of mysterious dignity to a painting you already like very much. Moreover an inconceivable number of past events and influences deriving from Now-states in the world’s past had to come together to produce YOU, the possessor and appreciator of that painting. Because the information streams mat converge at different places and times are different from each other, each human being differs from every other and develops somewhat differently. Each of us therefore holds a unique place and significance in the history of the universe. So does every other kind of system, however brief or obscure its existence.
No one can tell how many different things, persons and systems there are presently functioning in the world. If the universe actually commenced with the formation of a few kinds of simple material “building blocks,” it’s amazing how so many instances of so many different kinds of systems have appeared and operated so successfully. Many sets of the right things have had to come together at the right places and the right times, accompanied by many vast and diverse complexes of the right environmental conditions. If the world were merely the result of haphazard chance, a mere handful of functioning systems—even a single, solitary one—would have been miracle enough. I am overcome by wonder when I consider all the convergence cones in space-time that were required to produce these multitudes of all kinds of systems. Not only are the components of these systems also systems in themselves, but very many of these systems combine nicely with other systems to generate systems of systems of systems! And all of this systemizing activity is proceeding everywhere at the same time all the time!
Since the whole universe in its initial conditions and in all its ages was involved in preparing for all these successful systems, it is both meaningful and right to attribute this vast, multiple florescence of ingenious convergence cones to the Creator of the universe. No one but he who creates successive arrays of coexistences, who enables them later to communicate something of themselves to generations yet unformed, could have set all those things in the right order of space and time for their emanations to converge as they did, “just right.”
In the biblical tradition, the agency which brings things and people together in fruitful meetings, matchings and matings is called the Spirit of God. Those wonderful providential arrangements which make people exclaim, “What beautiful timing!” are considered to be the work of the Spirit. The notion of “providence” involves God’s taking forethought, planning, guiding and seeing a plan through to its successful conclusion. The word “providence” is derived from the Latin verb pro-videre: to see beforehand. What the secular world calls “good luck,” people with biblical faith call “the work of the Spirit of God.”
By the Spirit certain persons were endowed with special “gifts.” These gifts enabled them to perform remarkable feats and accomplish successfully important but difficult tasks. For example, when the building of a portable but fabulously beautiful tabernacle was commanded, it was the Spirit of God who equipped Bezaleel to organize the workers, materials and procedures.1
Sometimes an otherwise undistinguished man or woman concerned about what was happening to the people of Israel, would suddenly become fascinated by some ordinary object, occurrence or scene. Having brought such persons and those particular circumstances together, the Spirit of God would use the occasion to provide an illuminating insight which would equip them to perform a special task or to deliver a special message. The right resources would also be provided thereafter to accomplish the mission. The right messenger—a prophet or prophetess—was thus sent to the right receiver or audience with a message which the messenger did not necessarily understand, a message that turned out, however, to be pointedly relevant to those who heard it. All these enabling arrangements were made by the Spirit of God.
Certain writers occasionally felt compelled to record the events of their own times or of previous times. While they were doing this, they found their sentences forming in ways and in words that pregnantly suggested the character of God and his purposes for human life, along with implied warnings or encouragements that the wise might heed. These writings so fitted the experience of a perceptive people that they were considered to be the work of the Holy Spirit,2 and were therefore called “holy” or “sacred.”
When perplexing circumstances closed in on a person of some later generation, words from the ancient scriptures would be brought to mind by the Holy Spirit, and light would shine from them into the particular situation that was so difficult. Thus from the Word, through the Spirit, the faithful might receive authoritative counsel, clear guidance, inspiring encouragement, stronger convictions and the power to undertake formidable tasks.
The coming of Jesus of Nazareth, his words, the incidents of his life, ministry and death—everything about him, in fact—was correlated by his followers with the prophecies, promises, ceremonies, laws, wisdom and historical events found in the sacred writings of Israel. The light which thus shone by the Holy Spirit from the scriptures of “Moses and all the prophets” upon the person and career of Jesus invested everything about him with greatly extended and transcendental significance.3 Looking at Jesus, most people saw only an extraordinary young man. By the Holy Spirit, however, some saw much more in him than that, especially when they took into account his resurrection from the dead. For a Jew to name anyone as “Lord” save the Almighty One himself was considered to be an unconscionable blasphemy. Nevertheless what some Jews learned of this man Jesus convinced them that he had an extraordinarily close connection with the God of their fathers. For many, all the evidence converged and brought about a moment when, by the Spirit, everything in them was constrained to cry out concerning Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”4
From that point on, believers found that a new faith was strongly growing within them. This convinced them that God must have forgiven their past sins, for he was not withholding himself from working creatively in them and for them. Indeed they frequently found themselves able to do things that once they would never have been able to do. Quite often they could actually do and say the right things at the right times, even though they had not prepared carefully in advance for such works and words. They could only attribute this strange “righteousness” to the Holy Spirit’s creative reinforcement within them. They became confident that at the last the power of the Spirit would bring them to a glorious inheritance in a place that was even now being prepared for them. It seemed reasonable that eventually, “in the fullness of the times,” the accounts of everything and everyone in the heavens and upon earth would reach their bottom lines. Then the long, heinous story of human injustice would be brought to an end, the ill-gotten wealth of the wicked would be taken away and the right things would be redistributed to the right people.5
But in order to enter upon participation in all the benefits of such a relationship with God, people first had to hear about Jesus in a personally pointed way. Accordingly the Holy Spirit would arrange meetings between Jesus’ “ambassadors” and individuals who at that particular time were especially open to receive their message. Looking back, someone who had been in exactly the right frame of mind when the right person came along with the “good news,” would give the credit to the Holy Spirit for arranging that memorable occasion.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read that just when an Ethiopian official who was riding along a desert road realized that he needed an interpretation of a passage from the writings of Isaiah, the Holy Spirit had arranged to have the evangelist Philip on hand with a Christian interpretation.6
The apostle Peter, dozing on a rooftop at the seaside, was deeply impressed by a strange vision: a great sheet full of beasts, clean and unclean. Ordered to kill and eat these animals, he demurred from having anything to do with the unclean ones. He then became conscious of a message: “Don’t call anything unclean that I have cleansed.” He had scarcely heard these words when messengers from a Roman officer arrived at the door below. Their orders were to invite Peter to come with them to visit the house of the centurion Cornelius. This man, of course, was a Gentile and therefore to Jews he and his house were considered “unclean.”7 But because the Spirit had just then imparted that vision about cleanness and uncleanness to Peter, the apostle’s objections were overcome and he found himself willing to return with the messengers. By the Holy Spirit the Roman officer and his household became Christian. Peter’s visit to that man’s house turned out to have far-reaching consequences, bearing as it did upon the crucial question of the relation of Gentiles to the Christian movement.
By the Word and Spirit of God, new believers were thus brought together from many races and directions. Gradually they integrated into a remarkable classless, multicultural organization called “the church.” It was understood that the various gifts which the Holy Spirit was distributing were to be used by their recipients for the welfare of the whole church. The relation of each Christian to the church was conceived as being like the way in which the various members of the human body serve the whole body. Just as the spirit of a human being animates a body, so the Spirit of God, now clearly identified as the Spirit of Jesus, animated the church and its members. The church was therefore called “the body of Christ.” The whole church was “fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of every individual part. “8 The hearts of believers were opened in love and generosity toward one another and toward all people.9
Jesus had understood that he had been empowered by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor, liberation to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to those who were oppressed. He saw. himself as introducing a new age in which all the deprived would receive completion. The disabled would be made whole and even the underprivileged would enjoy fulfillment.10
Thus, by the work of the Spirit, the members of the church were conceived to be continuing and reproducing the exemplary life-style of Jesus in new ways. They not only helped each other; they were willing to help anyone else who needed help in rightful ways. The Spirit enlisted their cooperation and sacrificial service in all sorts of beneficial undertakings.
And so it is to this day. The Spirit makes up for the deficiencies of specific individuals, meeting their needs by making the community’s resources available to complement the meager resources of those who are less well-endowed. The poor, the ill, the lonely, the disabled, the uneducated, the stranger and the outcast have characteristically benefited from the work of the Spirit through the church. Officials have been appointed and agencies have been established with explicit instructions to attend to the church’s desire to cooperate with the Spirit in relieving human distress. Hospitals, educational institutions, relief and rescue organizations and humanitarian efforts of many kinds owe a vast debt to Christian initiatives through the Spirit. There may be a great deal of “evil” in the world, but the work of the Spirit serves to mitigate much of the evil. By moving people to contribute to others some of the “goods” which they themselves have received, some of the world’s glaring inequalities have sometimes been brought closer to equalization. In such sharing situations the Spirit of God bestows the gift called “love.”
The signature of the Spirit
The conceptual models by which the Christian church has traditionally been understood are all systemic in character. The “body of Christ” as composed of “members” has already been mentioned. But there are many other models: a net cast into the sea, a building resting on firm foundations, a flourishing tree, a vine with many branches, a temple, a city and a nation. In the biblical tradition it is clear that the Holy Spirit was understood to be God in action bringing things and individual persons into systemic relationships, each complementing the others, enabling all of them together to do what none of them could do separately. If it is God the Word who provides continuity for the separate strands of history, it is God the Spirit who spins those strands together to enlarge and strengthen their usefulness.
The question now arises: Can we ignore the usual distinction between the sacred and the secular in order to recognize the work of the Spirit of God in the creation and enhancement of any system whatsoever?
Some pious believers will be most reluctant to go that far. Their world is neatly divided into mutually exclusive realms, making a big distinction between the “physical” and the “spiritual,” between the realms of “the world” and the “realm of God,” and between the forces of Satan and the company of Jesus. Even though some saintly people spend an amazing amount of time and energy looking after their own bodies and property, they still claim to feel strongly that, as far as God is concerned, the world of physical, material things is not worthy of more than a passing glance.
Furthermore, these good folk often recoil from besmirching the reputation of the Spirit of God by involving him in any way with political, social and economic power structures, all of which contribute substantially to the world’s evil by encouraging national pride, wars, destructive competition, injustice and human suffering. God and the too often-greedy Mammon of commerce somehow don’t belong together. The Spirit of God, it is therefore usually concluded, can have nothing whatever to do with any “evil” systems except squelch them.
But the line between a “good” system and a “bad” one is sometimes quite difficult to draw with accuracy. Someone always benefits even from the worst systems, else no one at all would ever defend or sustain them. Besides, the apostle Paul asserted that “all things work together for good to those who love God.”” Presumably he intended to include all evils, such as injustices and sufferings. He even saw that there was a good side to temptation. We should not therefore reject out of hand the possibility that in due time the Creator Spirit can utilize for his own good and constructive purposes, systems which we might consider to be intolerable evils.
I find it inconceivable that any system whose components are all present and working smoothly together could ever exist entirely apart from the Spirit of God. I believe that systemicity is essentially involved with God’s primeval purpose for this world. Where therefore there is systemicity, I must presume that the Spirit of God is present and active. He will be trying to heal even the wounds of a thief. He will be working to transform even a pirate ship into a better place. Some system, however evil it may be, is probably preferable to either utter chaos or the absolute and permanent isolation of an individual person. We sometimes protest “If only God were not so gracious to the wicked!” He keeps them alive and even prospers some for a time. Apparently God is good even to the worst of human beings. Most of us can recall incidents in which very little that was obviously good could be detected in our behavior. I distinctly recall times I would like to forget when I myself have undoubtedly benefited from God’s gracious-ness. And you?
Since the Spirit works to bring the right things together in right ways at the right times, it is meaningful to give him the title of the “RIGHTeousness of God.”11 The righteousness of God can be seen clearly in instances of timeliness, fruitfulness, harmonious relatings, healthful well-being, and insightful wisdom. Stable institutions that work for peaceful reconciliation and a sharing community surely owe their existence to the Spirit of God. All of these acknowledged works of the Spirit are highly systemic in nature—the products of convergence. Systemicity is the signature of God the Spirit.
The trinicity of systems
In the two previous chapters I drew your attention to two distinguishable but inseparable essentials of systemic coordination: the coexistence of components and the communication of information from a previous state of a system to its next. In this chapter I have added a third essential: the convergence of the right things, whether information, energy, materials or persons, upon the right places at the right times.
These three essentials of systemicity bear an interesting correspondence to three aspects of God that have been featured in Jewish and Christian theologies. Both the Jewish scriptures and the New Testament speak of God the Creator, of the Word of God, and of the Spirit of God. Each religion of course has developed its own way of construing and relating these three conceptions. I believe that the correspondence has important theological significance.
In the world which God is creating, everywhere I look, at every level of my experience, systems fill my view. If what God is creating reveals anything about the Creator’s own transcendent self, we must acknowledge that he seems to be intensely interested in creating and sustaining systems.
Is God also a system? Trinitarian Christians should at least consider answering that question in the affirmative. Surely it does not sound completely foreign to speak of God the Creator, the Word and the Spirit?
To laypeople the notion of the Holy Trinity has always seemed incomprehensible. They assume that the clergy know more about such esoteric matters than they do. The formula, “God is three in one and one in three,” sounds like an arithmetical no-no. Neither the addition table nor the multiplication table allow three ones to make but one. The “family” model of the Trinity isn’t altogether helpful, since the role of the Spirit in connection with the Father and Son duo has been a subject of dispute, and also a semidivine status is required for the holy mother in order to fill out the holy family. In any case, people too often think of a family as a mere collection of free-standing individuals. They miss out on recognizing all the relatings, communications and mutualities that make such a big difference between a family and a gathering of miscellaneous strangers who merely happened to board the same elevator. When any one thing or person is reciprocally related to another one, a new level of oneness appears. It must be recognized and named. I call it “unicity.”
Organismic models of the Holy Trinity have usually been more helpful than arithmetic in making people feel at ease with the formula “three in one and one in three.” A hand has several fingers, but they all nevertheless operate as one hand. Unfortunately this illustration doesn’t include the major physical and psychic systems which can also control the fingers separately. St. Patrick, so we’re told, once explained the Holy Trinity to Irish folk by showing them that each shamrock leaf has three lobes, yet the three nevertheless form one single leaf. The teacher, however, had to conceal the leaf’s stem between his fingers and ignore the rest of the plant which was down there still rooted in the ground.
I think that those who instinctively keep groping toward a more adequate organismic model of the living God as a tri-unity are probably on the right track. Such people will likely appreciate the suggestion that for their purpose the generalized model of a system is theologically well worth considering.
The system model can be considered on either of two levels. On the first, it is relatively easy to imagine, say, three components working together as one system, i.e., one single system may be composed of three interacting components. Although that description is accurate enough, the emphasis which is thereby laid upon the distinctions between the components leaves me somewhat dissatisfied. When my attention is thus drawn to the separateness-aspect of the components, I tend to visualize those components as standing still, and as entirely separate and unrelated, just the way they could have been before they became a system or as they might yet become if they ever ceased to participate in the system. Moreover, the conception of a system in operation inevitably requires duration through a finite elapsing of time. A model of the eternal God which would essentially involve such blatant mundane temporality could never be really acceptable.
In the previous two chapters and the present one I have been considering the system model on a level quite different from that of the particular system with its too-easily-separable components. I have been trying to show clearly that there are three absolutely basic and essential aspects of systemic coordination which will always be present wherever and whenever there is a system. These are: coherent coexistence, continuity of communication, and the timely convergence of the right information. Since these three systemic features are to be found in every part of the world, and in the universe as a whole, it seems proper to consider them as eternally manifested reflections of the essential systemic unicity of God, the Creator, the Word and the Spirit.
Since each of these three aspects of systemic coordination mutually implies the other two, all three of them must always be present at once. Unlike individual system components which are obviously separable, these three systemic aspects will be found to be inseparably conjoined as long as there is a world at all worth calling a world. Though to our minds the three are distinguishable, it is not possible to isolate any of them so as to exclude all reference to the other two. If any one of them could be considered by itself, it would seem to be lacking in what the other two supply. Each is necessary to fill out the wholeness of all three.
For these reasons, therefore, I believe that the generalized model of a system which I have been trying to point toward in these chapters has sufficient “eternity” about it to be helpful in making the notion of the eternal trinicity of God more assimilable.
Be that as it may, I myself consider coordinated systemicity as the special hallmark which at every moment God leaves upon his handiwork. Systemicity is for me a sacred “logo” which effectively points to the Creator, the Word and the Spirit—those transcendent mysteries that are inescapably involved in the nature of systems. Since I see systems everywhere I look, anything and everything in the world can point me to God. The impulse to wonder and worship is always at hand in every direction and at every level of existence.
It is always possible to say that the reason I am inclined to see systems everywhere is that I myself am a system made up of subsystems. Or it could be pointed out that, since I can perceive the world only through a perceptual system, what else could I see but other systems? Thus it could be argued that as a system watcher I am merely imposing my own image upon the world and upon God as well.
Those who accept orthodox Jewish and Christian traditions will have encountered the teaching that man and woman were created “in the image of God.” Few, however, inquire into which features of humanity have borne or now bear the image of God. It is by no means easy to single out features of human personality which are not also present to some degree in animals and plants. Neither scientists nor theologians have ever come up with anything that is unquestionably, distinctly and absolutely unique about human beings, something demonstrably not at all shared with anything else in the rest of the world.
The eminence of human distinctiveness among the rest of God’s creatures often rolls off pious lips as a good and godly biblical sentiment. When the truth in this is so twisted as to be used for justifying irresponsible exploitation of the nonhuman levels of the world, it appears to be instead a despicable slogan of human chauvinism.
In view of the ecological disasters now coming upon the world, it seems to me that we should not be so loud about our superiority to the animals, plants and minerals. We should rather be paying closer attention to the ways in which our existence has always been so closely linked with that of the other creatures God keeps making. It should not be necessary for me here to repeat that aspect of the full biblical faith that “all things” are definitely included in the creative and redemptive intentions of God.
Our human self-consciousness, our rationality, our sense of moral responsibility and our development of languages have all at some time been suggested as being what constitutes the image of God in humanity. Whether or not any of these features truly sets a human being apart from all other creatures, we should note that all of them have one aspect in common: systemicity. Why should we not go all the way and identify our whole systems consciousness as God’s linage in humanity? Such an affirmation would at least not drive another obnoxious wedge between us and the other creatures. Instead of putting them down, it would enhance our awareness of our need for all the other creatures that are systemically linked with our own existence. Whatever other marks we humans may bear, the animals, plants and minerals should be treated with respect because they too bear the systems-mark of God.
Since the advent of modem science, theologians and philosophers have in general given over to scientists the right to make most of the authoritative statements concerning the nature of the physical world. Because ordinary people’s religious perception of the world has been so deeply eroded away by the naturalistic materialism that has largely dominated modem Western science, too many Western Christians have been inclined to retreat into a “spirituality” which has little to say about either the physical world or human technology. Too often therefore Christians keep their religion in one pocket and their attitudes to the world of their work in another. Convenient as this expedient may be for those who don’t want their religion to interfere with their self-centered drive to dominate the dominatable, the divorce between their faith and their up-to-date worldview must deeply concern anyone who sincerely believes that a God who is not God over all is not really God at all.
The systems approach to the world is inherently religious, whether or not this is realized by those who espouse it. Today it offers an open door to all contemporary deworlded people who yearn for authentic, expressible spirituality, one which can include the physical world in one great faith-pattern along with the spiritual relationships which are already so important to them.
People with broad biblical interests will soon discover that a feeling for systems will enable them to make sense of otherwise opaque biblical expressions and incidents. Often it will take only a few easy-to-come-by illustrations drawn from systems thinking to make many of the difficult passages highly meaningful and refreshingly intelligible.
Although the Hebrews, to my knowledge, never had a general word for “system,” they took what we would now call “the systemicity of all things” for granted. In this they were by no means unique. All the aboriginal peoples of earth seem to have had a similar systemic approach to the world. When the Western world swung away from its aboriginal systems-consciousness in order to adopt a sophisticated worldview containing separate things, isolated individuals and objective observers, to the “educated” the Bible became largely incomprehensible.
During the last four decades, science, technology and most other disciplines have once more come back around to a systems-consciousness. Religious people who nominally clung to the Bible while selling out their traditional worldview to modern materialistic naturalism, once again find themselves out of step with the march of science and technology. It would be ironic indeed if these good people should continue to be satisfied with merely keeping afloat on pieces of the old exclusively analytic approach that are still circling in the backwaters of a broader scientific current that is now running strongly in the direction of systems country. The new worldscape is one in which many ancient aspects of the Hebrew Bible can once again find themselves at home.
Any religion or philosophy which aspires to teach about the physical world as well as about the relations between humans and God, must manage somehow to include all of these in the one system. If any faith is to stand the tests of time, it cannot afford to be a mere grab bag stuffed with unrelated scraps of inconsistent ideas. Although the major worldviews differ widely from each other, all of them have one thing in common: systemicity.
Today ecumenical dialogue is fairly common between different faiths, between religion and science, and between science and philosophy. Too often in such discussions the participants find themselves doing little but spinning their wheels, getting nowhere. The discussants keep talking right past each other, either because their assumptions are different from those of the others in the group, or because they mistakenly believe that speakers who use the very same words and expressions which they themselves use, must understand and share their own beliefs. The significance of all terms used in such “dialogue” is derived from within the particular worldview which the speaker accepts as a frame of reference. Such systemic models may differ widely, even though the words that express ideas peculiar to each may be largely the same.
Perhaps some of these interfaith dialogue conferences should temporarily shelve agenda which only bring out the differences between the models over which people squabble. If, for a change, conferees began to share their thoughts about this mysterious, ever-present systemicity which all sides assuredly hold in common, something a little closer to human at-one-ment, reconciliation and worldwide community might someday appear on the horizon.
1. Exodus 31.
2. 2 Peter 1:21.
3. Luke 24:27ff.
4. 1 Corinthians 12:3; John 20:28.
5. Ephesians 1:9-11.
6. Acts 8:27ff.
7. Acts 10:19.
8. 1 Corinthians 12:4, 7ff; Ephesians 4:16.
9. Romans 5:5.
10. Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:17-21.
11. Ephesians 5:9.