Calvinism and Complex Systems

Just as myths of progress or decline are bunk, complex systems are extremely fragile and basically unpredictable. Consider “globalization” –  the huge increase in movement of people, goods, and data around the globe.

Most of what is in your house was probably made overseas, likely in Asia. Your friends and neighbors are likely from three or more continents. You are reading this via a communications network that offers nearly instantaneous text, graphic, voice, and video connection to at least parts of every country in the world. Millions of people travel on airplanes from one part of the world to another every day – TSA shoe weirdness notwithstanding.

We don’t just cope with globalization, we benefit from it. We are all wealthier for it; our lives are enriched and blessed by contact with people from other cultures; we certainly enjoy it. (Do you like coffee? Olive oil? Chocolate? How about clothing?)

Globalization and its twin, urbanization, are not new, but they have accelerated over the last century. Historically, these processes come in waves. The Roman era was relatively “globalized” (big empires tend to be that way); the Medieval period was not. As the brilliant, conceited Nassim Taleb would say, a globalized world exists in Extremistan, and a world of isolated towns and people groups exists in Mediocristan. Huge, curve-wrecking things (good and bad) happen in the first world; not a whole lot happens in the second. The Black Death swept through a Europe that was relatively densely populated and well connected; it left behind a reduced population, mostly in isolated towns and villages. Electronic funds transfer allows staggering wealth to be moved and created; it also creates wide-scale fragility and space for tremendous fraud.

Christianity is not the enemy of globalization, even if Christians sometimes are. Some think Pauline Christianity is actually at the root of the phenomenon, and I cautiously agree. The globalization we know is not the intended effect of the Gospel, but it is a possibility created by it (along with constitutional democracy and the idea of human rights).

But take seriously for a moment the fragility of this globalized, urbanized world. The following are a few things that may (or may not) radically or suddenly alter the world in which we live:

  • an epidemic of easily transmitted, drug-resistant disease (despite India’s denial, there is strong evidence of totally drug resistant tuberculosis in that country’s slums)
  • climate change and its various forms and effects, including desertification and migration of tropical insects into temperate zones
  • a major NBC (nuclear, biological, or chemical) attack by a non-state actor – or a series of such attacks
  • near total die-off of bees
  • collapse of biodiversity – including heirloom agricultural products – under pressure from multinational “Big Agra” corporations like Monsanto

Any of these is enough to keep us up at night. The post-9/11 drive by the US government to create a womb-like existence for its citizens and the world is on its face a ridiculous one. In nearly every one of these scenarios the USA, its policies, its confidence in its own rectitude, and its collusion with monied interests, is a key factor. Or perhaps I should say our policies, our confidence, our collusion, for I am an American and share in my nation’s sins.

“How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?” To recognize that the world is full of threats that may fall without warning, and that are outside of my control to prevent, is simply to drop the unwarranted self-confidence that Americans and Pelagians have always had in common. There are only two alternatives for an intelligent human: despair and fatalism, or else trust in a sovereign God. Either history is just one damn thing after another, or else “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive; he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.”

If the God of the Bible is ordering the events of history according to his kind and redeeming plan, there can be no such thing as a random event, but there can certainly be events that defy our expectations. We think that our houses and nations and institutions will last forever, but he is not bound to do what we think. We can think that oppressors will always remain in power, but he is not bound by that either. We can pretend to discern the full curve of history, but we do not.

How do we know that there is a personal God who orders the events of history according to a redemptive plan? We could point to the Scriptures as a whole for evidence but there is a central event which comprises God’s “yes” to his creation, and that is the resurrection of his Son. When Jesus Christ was raised, in a real sense, God’s love for his creation was both attested and instantiated. Through him all things were made, in him all things consist, and in his resurrection love, and not rejection, was spoken to all things.

So we amillennial Calvinists sleep at night. We may die tomorrow, and the nations and communities we love perish with us, but: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”