Creative Tension at the Edge-of-Chaos: Towards an Evolutionary Christology
This exploration aims to resolve the fundamental split between two diametrically opposed worldviews in the present day: the critical disjunction between the evolutionary story of the universe as described by modern science since the time of Darwin (1859) and the traditional Gospel story of God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ that informs the lives of up to 2 billion Christians in the world today.
Karl Rahner, the influential Catholic theologian whose writings were behind many of the reforms of Vatican II initiated this critical inquiry in the 1970s with a pioneering paper titled “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World.”1 In seeking out an intrinsic unity between the decisive event of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus and the 13 billion year process of cosmic, biological and human evolution, Rahner maintained that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “the basic tendency of matter to discover itself in spirit . . . reaches it’s definitive breakthrough.”2 So for Rahner, in Jesus Christ we discover New Creation—the necessary and permanent beginning of the divinization of sentient life in the evolving universe, an event signifying to us that the absolute self-communication of God to the world-historical process of evolution has been irrevocably inaugurated and is even now moving towards its far-off goal.3
As is well known, the orthodox Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, as upheld by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett has consistently maintained an opposing viewpoint: evolution is a blind and purposeless process—natural selection simply sifts through whatever is thrown up by random mutations in the genes, and over hundreds of millions of years things such as eyes and nervous systems are accidentally cobbled together. According to Neo-Darwinian theory, all such forms of adaptive complexity (including ourselves) are the result of cunning survival strategies that ‘just happen’ and which are then honed through natural selection4 mechanically sifting through these random mutations in the genes—just some of which are lucky enough to be beneficial in increasing an organism’s probability of reproductive success.
But while Neo-Darwinian evolution highlights what is taken to be the blind aimlessness of an evolutionary process basically ‘red in tooth and claw’, in recent years an increasing number of biologists5 have expressed their belief that other explanatory features are at work in the overall trajectory of the evolutionary process from atoms to molecules to organisms to reptiles, mammals and the higher primates, and particularly in regards to the relatively abrupt origination of new forms of life in the aftermath of unexpected catastrophic events. As a result, these more marginal evolutionary biologists have broken with the dominant paradigm and argue that the mechanism of Darwinian selection winnowing through random genetic mutations (while true enough) does not adequately explain the dynamic patterns and directional trends in evolution towards increasing exterior complexity and interior consciousness, what Whitehead called evolution’s creative advance into novelty.6
It now seems that the formative features of a new integration of the evolutionary epic of modern science and the Christian story of creation and redemption, will come from some of the more recent developments at the leading edge of scientific research—a field known as the “sciences of complexity.” Also called the evolutionary systems sciences, the sciences of complexity is a field that includes a wide range of scientific disciplines that describe the dynamic patterns of change that connect across disparate domains (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, socio-linguistics)7 with profound implications for the ongoing dialogue between evolutionary science and Christian theology.
The general claim of the sciences of complexity is that evolution exhibits some dynamic patterns, its formative features are invariant, and evolution repeats itself in general ways so that we may now be able to glimpse its fundamental nature for the first time.8 The core insight of sciences of complexity is that matter on planet earth has the capacity to be ‘self-organizing’ on the account of the inherent nature of the processes that atomic, molecular, chemical and biological entities undergo. 9 So in contrast to the infamous Second Law of thermodynamics that dictates an overall increase in disorder (in isolated systems) leading to the ultimate ‘heat death’ of the universe, it is becoming increasingly clear that complex systems in open energy exchange with their environments can become unpredictable and chaotic in their observable behavior and then ‘self-organize’ or propel themselves onto new, higher levels of exterior complexity (and interior consciousness), commonly called ‘order out of chaos’.
In other words, it is now recognized that when a constant energy flow is passed through dynamic open systems, they have the propensity to undergo abrupt transformations and organize themselves into new and unexpected forms of order characterized by an increase in structural organization and complexity.10 In fact, all evolving systems in the real world exist in open energy exchanges with their environments and when driven ‘far from equilibrium’ have this tendency to undergo chaotic instabilities and propel themselves to new and highly organized regimes. 11 And since self-organization in complex systems occurs across all levels of the known universe, evolution can now be seen to be engaged in an irreversible or ‘uni-directional’ pattern of change creating “order out of chaos” and pushing complex systems towards higher levels of structural organization and complexity.12
Evolution on the Edge-of Chaos
Now, evolving systems on the ‘edge-of-chaos’ are very different from closed systems at thermodynamic equilibrium13 and tend to be poised at a critical threshold between order (periodic change) and chaos (a periodic or random change).14 Commonly named the “edge-of-chaos”, it is precisely here in this critical state delicately poised between too much rigidity and too much fluidity that evolving systems in open energy exchange have the significant tendency to evolve towards new, more complex adaptive structures.15
The edge-of-chaos is therefore the “source of order” in the universe (Kauffman), bringing “order out of chaos” (Prigogine), and moving evolution towards new dynamic regimes with higher levels of complexity and spontaneous “emergent order” (Phillip Clayton). As Kauffman explains, “Self-organization is a natural property of complex genetic systems. There is ‘order for free’ out there, a spontaneous crystallization of generic order out of complex systems, with no need for natural selection or any other external force.”
Self-organization in complex systems finely balanced at the creative tension between opposites has also been termed “chaosmos” (James Joyce) in describing the delicate interplay between chance and necessity, stasis and change, chaotic disruption and emergent novelty in the evolutionary trajectory from inanimate matter to self-replicating life to self-conscious humanity. And in a way that speaks directly to our current global economic crisis, at this critical state of creative tension between opposing forces the outcome of any evolutionary process is said to be unpredictable in detail and inherently indeterminate, i.e. it is impossible to tell whether the system in this state of creative tension (i.e. the existing economic system!) will disintegrate into chaos or leap into a new, differentiated higher level of order.16
However the important point for the aims of this paper is that modern science has now discovered that the very site of evolutionary change is the creative tension between opposites at the “edge-of-chaos” – an insight which corresponds directly with orthodox Christian theology.17 For this same paradoxical tension between opposites is central to both dogmatic Christology – the irreducible tension between ‘fully human’ and ‘fully divine’ in the person of Jesus18 as well as (and more pointedly), the original structure of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God that reside within the earliest layers of the Christian faith tradition.19 That is, almost all of the recorded parables of Jesus of Nazareth have the same paradoxical voice-print, the same deep structure, where opposing perspectives are held together in the same creative tension at the “edge-of-chaos” that the sciences of complexity and self-organization have recently discovered at the wildly unpredictable edge of evolution’s creative advance. So Jesus of Nazareth spoke in paradoxes to usher in a new world (the Kingdom of God) and inaugurate a new horizon of what it means to be fully human by evoking the very same tension between opposites that has recently been discovered by the sciences of complexity and self-organization.20
(For more discussion on the deep structure of Christ’s teachings, see my paper previously published by on The Global Spiral: “Towards a Post-Metaphysical Theology”  where it is shown that the same paradoxical structure, what is also called a dynamic pattern of “bi-polar reversals” is clearly evidenced in the narrative center of at least 30 of the parables of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels.)
So where the central teachings of Jesus all give voice to the same paradoxical tension between opposing perspectives, the sciences of complexity now provide direct supporting evidence for the view that the creative tension of Christian paradox is indeed the ‘condition of possibility’ for the coming into being of emergent novelty in the structural dynamics of evolution at the “edge-of-chaos”. So the Christian hope for New Creation as is synonymous with this critical threshold between opposing forces described by the sciences of complex emergence, while this paradoxical tension is also attested to by Jesus as the very place in which significant change and transformation can take place.21
So where there are new grounds here for a direct correspondence between the creative tension of Christian paradox and the sciences of complexity, and to further unpack this, we can briefly turn to the central mystery of the Christian faith where the God of Israel is revealed to us in the scandal of the Cross. As Jesus says in probably his most well known paradox and one which holds the radical tension between opposites: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and let him follow me! For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”(Mark 8:34-35) So where the figure of Christ crucified holds the creative tension between saving (self-expenditure) and losing (self-preservation) one’s life we have a direct witness to what Jesus called “the narrow gate’” of transformation at the edge-of-chaos, where the same creative tension between opposites that constitutes the meaning of the Cross22 and the radical core of Jesus’ authentic teachings on the Kingdom of God23 can also be seen from the worldview of modern science to depict the very contours of evolution when taken to it’s highest pitch and most creative, unpredictable and surprising edge.
So where the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith (and the teachings of Jesus) corresponds seamlessly with the recent discoveries of modern science, with the paradoxes of Jesus at the heart of the Gospel story we also discover the flesh and blood story of a God who becomes human and participates fully in the world’s struggles, pains and convulsions. In Christianity the unsearchable mystery of God’s love is revealed in the capacity of a vulnerable, suffering creature to go all the way and fully embrace the contradictory tensions of existence. For just as it is in the face of death that life is a gift, it is in the face of the cross that resurrection is a word of grace, and it is in the midst of sin and suffering that salvation is freely received, as Jesus absorbs evil with love and transforms this-world into a new world in which the inexhaustible love and radical justice of God can reign. And moreover, in addition to embodying the creative tension between opposites at the edge-of-chaos, the evolutionary worldview of modern science also allows us to depart from the image of an immutable God that is untouched by the world’s suffering and give renewed significance to our sense of God being present in the tangible depths of life’s long, painful, unpredictable and perpetually surprising evolutionary journey.24
Made of Star Dust
This cruciform pattern of change that describes how the creative tension between opposites at the edge-of-chaos leads to the emergence of new forms of complexity is not only of great importance for understanding the paradoxical heart of the Christian faith but is also evidenced in some of the more significant macro (large-scale) transformations at several critical points of cosmic, biological and human evolution in the 13 billion year unfolding of the universe.
One of these points concerns stellar evolution, and particularly the supernovae explosions that signify both the death of a star and the chemical enrichment of the cosmos. All of the heavy life-forming elements (C, N, Fe) that make up our own living bodies are synthesized deep in the interiors of these collapsing stars. As they contract, burn up all their fuel and reach the end of their existence, the chemical building-blocks of life are thrown out across the universe with the gigantic supernova explosion that signals the chaotic end of the star’s evolution. Through this dynamic process of ‘order out of chaos’, which parallels the self-organizing dynamics of complex systems in holding the creative tension between expansion and contraction, death and novel emergence, we can see that the catastrophic end of a star’s life leads to the emergence of complex bio-friendly chemistry in the universe, preparing the ground for the formation of planetary systems and the subsequent emergence of life on earth.25
The Emergence of New Species in the History of Life
Evolution on the edge-of-chaos is also evidenced in the central mystery of evolutionary biology – the emergence of altogether new species in the history of life. In a long-standing challenge to the explanatory scope and power of the Neo-Darwinian theory, and one which furnishes us with further evidence for a theory of creative tension at the edge-of-chaos, comes from palaeontology and particularly the work of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge.
These palaeontologists challenged the traditional gradualist conception of change in the Neo-Darwinian theory, specifically the notion that evolution takes place through the slow, continuous, incremental mutation of favourable characteristics in organisms over long stretches of geological time. According to Gould and Eldredge, the ‘phylogenetic incrementalism’ (gradualism) associated with the name of Darwin is “alarmingly out of whack”26 with respect to the evidence of the fossil record and they subsequently published a major paper in the scientific journal Palaeobiology in which they announced a deep challenge to the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy.
In essence, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’ is a linking of the pattern of stasis – that observation that “once a species appears in the fossil record, it tends to persist with little appreciable change throughout the remainder of its existence” 27 with the simultaneous recognition that most evolutionary change seems bound up with the abrupt origination of new species, called ‘speciation’—the basic regularity that organisms with novel anatomical characteristics tend to show up relatively suddenly in the fossil record.28 As against five to ten million years of stasis, speciation happens in approximately five to fifty thousand years, or 1000 times shorter than the average duration of species. This contrast of rates makes the emergence of new forms of living complexity look instantaneous in the fossil record so that when we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty it usually shows up ‘all at once’ and fully-formed, leaving virtually no evidence of any intermediate forms. 29
We can find a striking parallel here between the pattern of stasis and punctuated emergence in the fossil record and the discoveries of the sciences of complexity. As we have already seen, the self-organizing dynamic of evolution of the edge-of-chaos can be established when it is recognized that open systems (physical, chemical, biological or social) can be driven far from thermodynamic equilibrium where they reach critical ‘bifurcation’ points and leap abruptly into new states of emergent order and greater complexity. Now in the same way, the notion that speciation in the living world is correlated with sudden changes in self-organizing systems, which pass through periods of instability and then lock onto new stable patterns, fits very well with the models of transformation as described by both the theory of punctuated equilibrium and the sciences of complexity.30
As a result, in opposition to the tradition notion Darwinian gradualism (for which there is a conspicuous lack of evidence of the fossil record) it is more reasonable to think that the critical transformations between species that give rise the incredible complexity and diversity in the evolution of life have arisen through these relatively abrupt transformations and symmetry breaks, which is confirmed by both the dynamic pattern of self-organization on the edge-of-chaos in the sciences of complexity (where new forms of life suddenly emerge at the critical threshold between necessity and contingency) and the pattern of stasis and punctuated change exhibited in the fossil record.31
The discovery that evolution has been punctuated by a series of mass extinction events that are followed by sudden bursts novel emergence where new species appear as if ‘at once’ and fully formed is a large-scale evolutionary pattern that has repeated itself time and again at the critical ‘bifurcation’ points in the evolution of life. At least five such ‘great dyings’ have occurred in the history of life, and there is now little doubt that these major decimations are responsible for the overall shape of evolution in the biosphere.32
As a result we can further establish this cross wiring of the sciences of complexity and the creative tension at the heart of Jesus’ most memorable teachings on the Kingdom of God, for both of these approaches to the critical question of how transformation happens maintain that significant evolutionary change happens at the edge-of-chaos, where the capacity to embody paradox and navigate the irreducible tensions of the life-process brings forth emergent order and new forms of adaptive complexity.
The Dialectic of Progress in Human History
This edge-of-chaos dynamic can also be traced through the historical development of the human species. Human history has been shaped by a number of painful and messy socio-cultural upheavals and critical periods of ‘disruption and novelty’ where the dominant regime reaches a point of chaotic instability and gives way to a new more organized socio-cultural structure. Indeed influential world history scholar Arnold Toynbee’s theory of “challenge and response” depicts socio-cultural change in much the same way to these modern day evolutionary sciences:
During the disintegration of a civilization, two separate plays with different plots are being performed simultaneously side by side. While an unchanging dominant majority is perpetually rehearsing its own defeat, fresh challenges are perpetually evoking creative responses from newly recruited minorities, which proclaim their own creative power by rising, each time to the occasion.33
This pattern of historical change through the creative tension between opposites is also reminiscent of Hegel’s developmental philosophy, which has subsequently been taken up and modified by other Enlightenment thinkers such as Marx and Habermas. According to this theory of historical change, each stage of socio-cultural development unfolds until it reaches its own ‘catastrophic bifurcation’ called an internal contradiction, which generates a great deal of chaos and instability. To escape this chaos (often stemming from unexpected changes in the environment) the social system must evolve to a more highly organized pattern, thereby diffusing the problems and inherent limitations of the previous stage of development, and beginning a new process of evolution’s unfolding.34
By touching on how the creative tension between opposites is also a driving force of human history, this brief analysis simply demonstrates how this fundamental pattern, what can be called “death and renewal” at the edge-of-chaos is manifested in the macro-dynamics of evolution from cosmology to biology to human history. This dynamic pattern of self-organization via instability and transformation is evidenced in everything from the supernovae explosion of the primordial elements that give birth to the building blocks of life to the catastrophic mass extinction events that catalyze the emergence to new living species on our hot house planet to the passionate and bloody upheavals of human history. And as we saw above, this capacity for evolution to find new creative solutions to complex problems at the “edge-of-chaos” corresponds almost perfectly with the deep structure at the center of Jesus’ most radical teachings, and thereby intersects with the very constitution of the Christian faith tradition.
So while the process of evolution is shot through with accidental, random and contingent events, in view of the sciences of complexity it can equally be said that it is precisely “through the portals of contingency that what is truly new enters the world”35 for it now seems that significant evolutionary change happens at the edge-of-chaos, and it is the creative tension between order and chaos where the outcome of the process is inherently unpredictable or unforeseeable that allows for the continual admittance of disruptive novelty and emergent order.
Moreover, the dynamic self-organization on the edge-of-chaos is also considered to be the likely precondition of evolution itself, which thereby provides the fundamental tie between self-organization and natural selection. As Stuart Kauffman, one of the pioneers of the sciences of complexity and self-organization puts it in a recent interview:
“There are all sorts of neat reasons why it’s incredibly advantageous to be at the edge of chaos… And what could possibly be doing that tuning? Well, natural selection, because it’s highly advantageous. So here is a marriage of self-organization (transformation) and selection (adaptation). Both are necessary. So self-organization affords the capacity to be critical (at the edge-of-chaos) and then selection gets it and maintains it. And maybe it’s so general that it’s a law for any biosphere.”36
In other words, since complex self-organizing systems exist far from equilibrium at “the edge of chaos”, natural selection keeps complex genetic arrays in this dynamic range between too much fluidity and too much fixity, as the creative edge in which alone significant evolution can take place.37 And according to Kauffman this reworking of natural selection explains “evolvability” that deep property of living things which accounts for the capacity for qualitative change in evolving systems to an altogether new horizon of possibilities in the overall increase in novelty, complexity and diversity that we see in the basic directionality of evolution over the long haul. In other words, evolution on the edge-of-chaos is not only the central characteristic of self-organization in complex systems, it can also explain what Eric Jantsch has called “self-realization through self-transcendence” and account for the capacity of living organisms to go beyond a given range of possibilities and introduce new creative twists and evolve onto more complex and dynamic regimes.
As a result, self-organization in complex systems far from equilibrium demonstrates that things “evolve to evolve” to the edge of chaos, which corresponds to a delicate interplay between chance and necessity, chaotic fluctuations and emergent order, that also sits at the founding gestures of orthodox Christian theology (see note 14). So in fundamental congruence with the paradoxical heart of Christianity, the capacity to evolve at the edge-of-chaos can also be construed as the driving force of large-scale evolutionary dynamics, where natural selection works to keep evolving systems in the dynamic regime that holds the tension between opposite poles and fine-tunes the novelty and diversity that is constantly and spontaneously being generated.
This more general explanatory framework can embrace the essential truth-claims of the Christian tradition while providing a potentially rich (and inclusive) alternative to the orthodox Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. The multitude of life forms that have evolved in the natural world are not merely the outcome of blind chance and long stretches of geological time but rather the outcome of a dynamic interplay between Darwinian selection (working to optimize reproductive fitness) and the immanent self-organizing dynamics (evolvability) of complex systems working to bring forth new forms of living complexity across successively higher hierarchical levels of evolution (physical, chemical, biological, socio-cultural).
So from this perspective, it is possible to incorporate the fundamentals of Neo-Darwinism into a broader evolutionary framework, where selective pressures constitute the surrounding matrix over which the intrinsic self-organizing factors of physical, biological and socio-cultural systems are disclosed. As Kauffman again writes, evolving systems:
… are not deeply entrenched in an ordered regime . . . they are actually very close to the edge-of-chaos transition, where things are much looser and more fluid. And natural selection is not the antagonist of self-organization. It is more like a law of motion, a force that is constantly pushing emergent, self-organizing systems toward the edge of chaos.
So, while we can reject the overtly reductionist side of Neo-Darwinism, which upholds the billions of tons of single-celled bacteria (prokaryotes) on our planet as the dominant exemplar of Darwinian fitness in the history of life,38 we can preserve the central Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and incorporate it into a broader and more inclusive evolutionary framework. This means that we remove natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution, that which guides and controls the task of optimizing reproductive fitness. In contrast natural selection can be seen to operate, but in a modified sense where selection moves diverse forms of adaptive complexity to the creative edge of evolution while discarding whatever mutations are not compatible with the minimal constraints survival and reproduction (these biological constraints that become increasingly unnecessary in human socio-cultural evolution). In this more general context, natural selection acts as a broad survival filter where the criteria of Darwinian fitness (maximal reproductive success) that can be recast as a structural feature of our biological hard-wiring and a loose constraint to be satisfied rather than optimized.39 So where biological survival drives (e.g. sex and aggression) are deeply rooted in our collective Darwinian inheritance, as evolution moves forward into new and unforeseen horizons natural selection permits any living organism, local population, or species that has sufficient integrity to adapt to its environment and spontaneously organize its self to navigate the creative tensions at the edge-of-chaos and evolve further.40
In this way natural selection favors any organism capable of living at the edge-of-chaos, any organism capable of enduring the contradictory tensions of an evolutionary trajectory that is “rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror.”41 As Kauffman again argues: “much of the (emergent) order we see in organisms may be the direct result not of natural selection but of the natural order selection was privileged to act on . . . Evolution is not just tinkering . . . It is emergent order honored and honed by selection”.42
This is a significant reworking of the core Neo-Darwinian doctrine and entails a radical rethinking of evolutionary biology. In pointing directly to a fundamental change from the active constraints of maximizing reproductive fitness (where population span actually decrease as the tree of life unfolds) to the intrinsic self-organizing dynamics of complex organic systems,43 this re-framing of the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution also opens the way for a re-consideration of the truth-claims of Christian theology, and specifically how the paradoxes of the Christian faith and the capacity to absorb and transmute the contradictory tension of our creaturely existence now find scientific legitimacy in the discovery of evolution on the “edge-of-chaos”.
Life Finds a Way
It seems reasonable to assume that if Christian theology is going to survive in the 21st century it must acknowledge the incredible waste, turmoil and contingency of the emerging evolutionary story of modern science. By facing up the horrific cost of evolution, where over 99% of the species ever evolved are now extinct in a “nightmare spectacular taking place on a hot-house planet where the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart.”44 Theology in a post-Darwinian world must finally recognize and even embrace the nearly 500 year old rational-scientific critique of mythic religion,45 and do away with comfortable the idea of an Intelligent Designer that has everything under its omnipotent and benevolent celestial supervision.
However in tracing the cruciform nature of large-scale (macro) transformations in the evolutionary epic of modern science, it is again possible to reaffirm the sense of life’s constant openness to new creation at those critical thresholds where two opposing forces are held together in creative tension. In making this transition into a post-Darwinian God-view, the sciences of self-organization and emergent order can embrace this dynamic pattern of crisis and regeneration where new forms of life bubble up on the chaotic edge of evolutions reaching out into new creative possibilities, while simultaneously conforming to the very same tension between opposites that sits at earliest beginnings of the Christian faith tradition.
For the Christ-event (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) is an “edge-of-chaos” phenomenon. Jesus comes to us as one we did not see coming, he throws things off balance, he goes where he cannot go, through the narrow gate at the frothy edge where impossible becomes possible and new worlds spring forth through the gate-less gate of his mind-bending paradoxes. In pushing the envelope of the creative edge of human evolution, the crucified and risen Jesus embodies the paradoxical tension between opposites to the point of maximum intensity where ones soul reaches it breaking point… and yet does not break—but instead shifts into a deeper and more genuine expression of its own inherent potentials.
In the person of Jesus we discover the archetypal event of God’s self-revelation in the world where the creative tension of paradox that constitutes the original structure of Jesus’ teachings exposes us to “the fresh wellspring of novelty” that gives rise to “the endlessly novel forms of life”46 that are evidenced in the evolutionary story of modern science. By showing that cosmic, biological and human evolution are ceaselessly creative in ways that are unpredictable, perpetually surprising and structurally unforeseeable, we can therefore tell the evolutionary story with renewed depth and meaning by showing that the creative tension at the edge-of-chaos evidenced by modern science also re-activates dangerous memory of Jesus and the paradoxical heart of the Christian gospel.
We can further draw out this pattern that connects Christian paradox and the science of emergent order by showing how the Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth holds together two inextricably intertwined narratives in a way that corresponds precisely with the edge-of-chaos dynamics in the scientific account of evolution. One the one hand, Jesus is the one announcing the permanent challenge of an already arriving Kingdom – and doing so in his very own words and deeds, giving love to the unlovable, giving sight to the blind, giving healing to the sick and offering congratulations to the poor. And on the other hand, Jesus’ very enactment of the Kingdom activates an equal but opposite force – the powers of darkness that must preserve the established order at all costs, those destructive forces that see in the Nazarene only a dangerous heretic, a demon-possessed blasphemer, a violator of time-honored traditions.
These two diametrically opposed forces – Jesus’ proclamation of his Kingdom and the paranoid violence of the powers that be – came together in the final week of Jesus’ life in probably the most wildly unpredictable and unexpected series of events in human history, a tumultuous crescendo that ended with Jesus being directly exposed to the worst horrors that the world-historical process has to offer in being executed as a heretic on a Roman cross.
In Jesus’ last hours these two opposing forces came together at the “edge-of-chaos” in the most shocking and disturbing fashion, but of course this was not the end, for from out of this creative tension bursts forth the most unexpected and surprising event of all – the resurrection of Jesus, his qualitative emergence into a new form of life, his radical mutation into an altogether new horizon of what it means to be human.47 Just as the sciences of self-organization suggest that evolving systems have a propensity to self-organize at the edge-of-chaos and at those critical disruptions that punctuate of evolution’s creative advance, the notion that the reinvention of a thing goes hand in hand with the capacity to move to the vulnerable edges of life and death goes hand in hand with Jesus’ paradoxical teachings on the Kingdom and is part and parcel of the Christian narrative of God’s decisive self-revelation in human history.
So just as the paradox of Christ crucified is a scandal – foolish to the wisdom of the Greeks and a stumbling-block in the way of Jewish messianic expectations – what at first seems to be an unpredictable or chaotic instability where we find ourselves torn between two equal but opposite poles is actually the edge-of-chaos, i.e. the threshold of the radically “self-transcending” capacity of life towards newer and more complex forms in general, what Martin Luther King called “that power that can find a way out of no way”.
In fact, if the natural and human worlds were devoid of obstructions, it is highly probable that living beings would never evolve at all. For evolution to move forward, from this post-Darwinian perspective it is extremely important that life be continually presented with challenges, and that natural selection keeps evolving systems at the edge-of-chaos pushing them to go beyond its given status. Guy Murchie, in noticing this dialectic of crisis/opportunity in the evolution of life on earth, argued that evolution is a kind of “soul school” and that in a post-Darwinian worldview, the trajectory new life through critical instabilities is as good a one for nourishing the soul as we could possibly imagine.48
The basic message of this integration of the evolutionary epic of science and the Gospel story of Jesus Christ is that Life finds a way to overcome even the biggest setbacks, the most impossible obstacles and the most devastating catastrophes. From the primordial fireball that followed the Big Bang to the massive supernovae explosion that prepared the conditions for first self-replicating organisms, to the catastrophic mass extinction in the evolution of life on our planet to the socio-cultural upheavals and revolutions of human history, evolution keeps on going beyond itself in unfolding ever new, more complex forms and structures in a tremendous sweep of creative activity running from star dust to the first glimmers of a divinized humanity.
And so we too are part and parcel of this all-encompassing evolutionary current, the dynamic, unpredictable, surprising and unexpected turns of the world-historical process through periodic edge-of-chaos transitions into radically new forms of sentient life and consciousness.For where the love of God in Jesus Christ at the radical dawn of Christianity was expressed in paradoxical stories that antagonized the existing order and set up the very conditions for awakening to the Kingdom of God, there is in the evolutionary epic of modern science a secret current of all-pervading Love that also holds open the paradoxical tensions of a creatively chaotic process (chaosmos) in bringing new life out of seeming catastrophe at the frothy edge of our evolutionary journey.
Moreover, in the traditional Christian story Jesus is the “Word (Logos) made flesh” and is said to be that one in whom everything is created – the cosmic Christ in and through whom the entire creation comes into being and reaches fulfillment. And since evolution on the edge-of-chaos is Christ-like or cruciform in its innermost nature in holding the creative tension between opposites at the edge-of-chaos, we can also affirm here the distinctive truth-claim of the Christian faith that Jesus Christ is the Logos – the true center of human existence – for the wisdom of God in the figure of Jesus also comprises the inner-guiding force of the evolving universe and encapsulates the very meaning and purpose of sentient life in the evolving universe…
Standing before the self-organizing, self-transcending trajectory of evolution on the edge-of-chaos from matter to life to mind, in recent years many scientists, philosophers and theologians have asked if evolution has an ultimate direction or purpose, a fundamental drive to manifest ever-greater forms of complexity and consciousness.
By showing that the serendipitous creativity of evolution springs forth through unexpected portals of paradox we find in the self-organizing dynamics of evolution an inexorable striving for new possibilities in spite of the sheer contingency, incredible pain and irreparable suffering that inheres within all life. For just as the first reptiles or amphibians that evolved on our planet could never have imagined the eventual emergence of human culture and everything from the Great Pyramids of Egypt to You-tube, our own collective future (if we make it through our the current global crises and challenges) is itself unimaginable, an ever-receding horizon that is inherently inconceivable, and structurally open to an absolute future that we can only be called God or Christ consciousness (by whatever name).
Given the persistent tendency of evolution to constantly go beyond what went before, it seems likely that we are part and parcel of a universal story that is unfinished and still evolving – and that there are higher stages of evolution to be attained in the collective future of the human species. And since it is precisely in and through creative tensions at the edge-of-chaos, critical disruptions of the status quo and the unexpected turns of Jesus’ paradoxical teachings that evolution moves towards its unforeseeable future, it seems probable that the post-human future of evolution is ultimately headed towards a rendezvous with God through the dynamics of crisis and regeneration in a potentially endless process that is constantly bringing forth new forms and structures, an evolution that has been and always will be driven to manifest more and more of its mysterious creativity.49
That is, with the recent scientific understanding that significant evolutionary change happens at edge-of-chaos there is a hidden impetus to the evolving universe, an intrinsic connection between the swirling galaxies, the myriad of life-forms that pervade this planet and the creative passions of human history. For given that evolution has the inherent capacity to overcome even the biggest obstacles, if we are to follow the way of Jesus Christ we are to take up our cross and stand in the transformative fire of Jesus’ paradoxes, go to the place where we cannot go, to go to the place where the world is in pain, to embrace the contradictions of a world that is right now going through birth pangs and unpredictable earthquakes, a world that is groaning for fulfillment…
And if God in the Christian story is fully present in the heart of flesh, and if the edge-of-chaos is the source of the serendipitous creativity in the evolving universe, then maybe Jesus’ death and resurrection is the story of God’s work throughout the entire universe, and just maybe the Kingdom of God is the New Creation and maybe, just perhaps, our existence here matters even more than we have ever conceived possible…
4 The philosophical implications of the Darwinian picture of life are pointed out by F. J. Ayala, “This is the conceptual revolution that Darwin completed – that everything in nature, including the origin of living organisms, can be explained by natural processes governed by natural laws. This is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how mankind perceives itself and its place in the universe.” (Francisco J. Ayala, “Darwin’s Revolution,” in ‘Creative Evolution?!’ ed. John H. Campbell and J. William Schopf (Boston: Jones & Bartlett, 1994), p.4)
6 This paper will continue this trend and challenge the status quo by turning to a variety of scientific discoveries that have been made over the past few decades and showing that the orthodox neo-Darwinian theory is not exactly wrong, but it may well be extremely partial, inadequate or incomplete. So while this paper in no way endorses ID (intelligent design), it does insist that in order to do justice to all the available scientific evidence we would do well to re-think evolution in a way that acknowledges directional trends in the history of life, and that without minimizing the very real contingency and unpredictability of the process we can again ask the big questions of the meaning and purpose of evolution, and suggest that maybe, just maybe, this evolving universe that brought mathematics and poetry out of rocks in motion is indeed is going somewhere…
7 These sciences of complexity include many specific disciplines, such as General Systems Theory (Bertanffy, Weiss, Laszlo), non-equilibrium thermodynamics (Prigogine), cybernetics (Weiner), cellar automata theory (von Neumann), self-organization (Kauffman), autopoietic systems theory (Varela, Maturana), as well as catastrophe, chaos and dynamic systems theory (Thom, Shaw, Abraham). Wilber 1995, p.14, Laszlo 1995, 1996, Jantsch 1980
8 Laszlo 1996, “Scientific evidence of the patterns traced by evolution in the physical universe, in the living world, and even in the world of history is growing rapidly. It is coalescing into the image of basic regularities that repeat and recur. It is now possible to search out these regularities and obtain a glimpse of the fundamental nature of evolution—of the evolution of the cosmos as a whole, including the living world and the world of human social history.” Laszlo 1996, p.15
9 Peacocke 1993, p.51-53—Of course, it has not always been this way. For in the Newtonian paradigm of classical science it was believed that any given physical system, conceived as a closed or isolated unit of matter or energy, would move from a more organized and energetic state towards a less ordered state of increasing randomness and disorder with time. And from this perspective, according to the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics, it was predicted that the material universe was running down to state of ever increasing entropy or disorder to end finally in “heat death”, or complete thermodynamic equilibrium where all interesting activity would cease.
However, with the emergence non-equilibrium thermodynamics (beginning in the 1970s) it was revealed that that complex systems in the real world are not closed or isolated as in classical science, but are open to energy flows in their environment. And furthermore under certain conditions such open systems can ‘propel themselves’ irreversibly into new dynamic regimes, what is commonly called ‘self-organization’. The problem is not that the Second Law is wrong (aspects of the physical realm do indeed act in a deterministic and mechanistic-like fashion, and are indeed running down), rather it is just partial and so the subtler, more dynamic aspects of the material realm were overlooked. (Wilber 1995, p.15, Laszlo 1996, p. 17-18) And it is now known that evolving systems are not closed or isolated, and so the Second Law does not fully apply to them. Evolving systems are open to energy exchanges from their environment, and when such systems are taken ‘far from equilibrium’ they have the propensity for self-organization or the sudden emergence of new structures and forms of behavior. (Capra 1997, p.85, Laszlo 1996, p.24)
11 As Kauffman writes, the evolution of physical, chemical, biological and historical complexity is ultimately “a natural expression of a universe that is not in equilibrium”. (Kauffman 1995 quoted in Keller 2003, p.189)
13 To further explain, systems in the real world can exist in one of three different types of states, two of which are at or near equilibrium. However, systems in the third state ‘far from thermodynamic equilibrium’ are very different from stationary states and tend to be poised on the edge-of-chaos – critical threshold between order and chaos where systems have the significant tendency to evolve towards new, more complex dynamic regimes. And further more it now seems that evolution is singularly consistent in bringing forth this same kind of basic entity, called a “system in the third state”, in all domains of reality from physics to chemistry to biology to society. (Laszlo 1995, p.23) And despite the fact that dynamic systems in the third state have the propensity to evolve to new highly organized and more complex states, this domain remains as yet largely unexplored. Funnily enough the classical models of closed thermodynamic systems discussed in most physics textbooks, which have formed the principle topics in mechanics for 300 years, actually belong to an incredibly restricted class, as Paul Davies states “in thermodynamics, the near-to-equilibrium closed systems presented in textbooks are highly specialized idealizations. Much more common are far-from-equilibrium open systems.” (Davies 1989, p.158) In the same way Joseph Ford also points out that our classical linear models and closed thermodynamic systems at or near equilibrium “are very nearly as scarce as hen’s teeth, despite the fact that our physical understanding of nature is largely based upon their study.” (quoted in Davies 1989, p.55)
14 See Prigogine “Self-organization processes in far-from-equilibrium conditions correspond to a delicate interplay between chance and necessity, between fluctuations and deterministic laws.” (Prigogine and Stengers Order out of Chaos, p.176)
15 The “edge of chaos” is described by post-modern process theologian Catherine Keller in the following terms, “precisely in the interactivity of an open-ended, nonlinear process (that) extraordinary transformations, “phase transitions”, can occur. (Keller 2008, p.150)
16 Keller 2003, p.18 Because these states are so “ripe” for change they can be influenced or manipulated into change with small fluctuations, while out of this edge-of-chaos state comes something that could not be predicted by an analysis of its individual components, i.e. an emergent property of the system
17 The well known Catholic author Chesterton defines Christianity is the following way: “Christianity is a superhuman paradox in which two passions may blaze beside each other.” (Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy, 1959, p.112)
19 See Freeman, C. Towards a Post-Metaphysical Theology” (2008) in the Global Spiral. http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/10652/Default.aspx
Ina series of recently published articles it has been argued that the “paradoxical tension between opposites” informs the deep structure of virtually all of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings on the Kingdom of God. So where all of the sayings of Jesus that tended to be remembered and re-told within the early Christian communities have an explosive paradox in their narrative structure, the main point to be established in this paper is that the new scientific story of cosmic and biological evolution also affirms that there is a creative tension between opposites at the very heart of what makes things changable and transformable…
20 In speaking to the capacity of Jesus’ paradoxical teachings to turn ones world inside out and upside down, order arises out of chaos through what Isabelle Stengers calls a “conceptual upheaval”, a phrase that describes the precise nature of Jesus’ parabolic sayings. (in Keller 2003, p.188)
21 Truth in paradox is also found in the wisdom teachings of many of the world’s great philosophers and sages throughout human history from Heraclitus to Lao Tzu, from Zen masters to Nagarjuna, from Nicholas of Cusa to Carl Jung and from the Jewish Kabbalah to Derrida’s deconstruction.
22 As Joseph Sittler writes, “A Cross is a blunt and graceless form. It has not the completeness and satisfying quality of a circle. It does not have the grace of a parabola or the promise of a long curve… A cross speaks not of unity but of brokenness, not of harmony but ambiguity, it is a form of tension and not rest… The cross is the symbol because the whacks of life take that shape… And unless you have a crucified God, you don’t have a big enough God.” Joseph Sittler quoted in Westhelle, V. “The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross” Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2006.
24 Haught 2000, p.46 This story of life’s transformation through suffering love is central this theme of the Christian faith’s image of a suffering God’s eternal restraint, which allows for the world’s self-creation while suggesting to theology a notion of ultimate reality much more intimately involved with and powerfully effective in the world than a forcefully directive divine agency would be. (Haught 2000, p.56)
29 Eldredge 1995, p.95-99 As Laszlo states: “Nature progresses by sudden leaps and deep seated transformations rather than through piecemeal adjustments. The diagram of the branching tree of life is no longer resembles the continuous Y-shaped joints of orthodox Darwinian theory; it is now pictured in terms of abrupt switches”. Laszlo 1996, p.76-78
30 This connection between punctuated evolution and the sciences of complexity—the general pattern of long-term stability, sudden crisis, and brief bursts of creative activity—can also be found in the science of “catastrophism”, an approach to evolutionary change originally popularized by French scientist Cuvier that has emerged with renewed popularity in recent times. (Huggett 1997, p.42) In opposition to the commonly accepted ‘uniformitarian’ view of Lyell, Cuvier believed that the geological record shows a pattern of catastrophic events involving a series of mass extinction events that are followed by bursts of creative activity where new species appear without any trace of incremental evolutionary development. Two catastrophes in particular stand out: the Permian extinction of about 245 million years ago, which exterminated half the families of marine invertebrates and probably more than 90% of all species; and the famous “K-T” extinction at the end of the Cretaceous era, about 65 million years ago, which exterminated the dinosaurs and a massive number of other species.
31 According to G. L. Stebbins, a principle architect of modern evolutionary theory, examples of such punctuated emergence in evolution include the appearance of the central nervous system, the digestive tube, elaborate sensory organs, vertebrate limbs and complex social behaviour. Stebbins estimates that there have been about 20 to 100 instances of dis-continuous evolution in the history of life and evolutionary theorists Theodosius Dobzhansky and Francisco Ayala have called these relatively abrupt events of sudden transformation evolutionary transcendence because in each of them arose a new order of existence in the evolution of life. (Wilber 1995, p.43-44)
37 Kauffman, S. “Complex systems tend to be poised on the border between order (no change or periodic change) and chaos (a-periodic or random change), because this is the most flexible and evolvable position. Things at the edge-of-chaos are optimized for adaptation and information-processing because there is a naturally occurring property of the physical world that forces complex systems into dynamic readiness states near the edge of transition. So not only does natural selection favor things near there, so that things “evolve to evolve” there is also some inherent drive towards this edge.” (Rethink Evolution, Self-Organization Is Real, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0805/S00052.htm)
38 As Varela writes, “The constraints of survival and reproductive success, which have their optimal fitness effects in the bacterial mode, are simply far too weak to provide an account of evolution’s overall advance in new forms of complexity and diversity.” (Varela et al 1991, p.194)
39 See Kauffman, “A fundamental implication for biological evolution itself may be that natural selection is not powerful enough to avoid the generic self-organized properties of complex regulatory systems persistently ‘scrambled’ (randomly shuffled) by mutation. Those generic properties would emerge as biological universals, widespread in organisms not by virtue of selection and mutation, but by virtue of their membership in a common ensemble of regulatory systems.” (Kauffman 1984, p.145) In other words, “rather than reflecting selection’s successes, such order (self-organization) may reflect selection’s failure” (Kauffman 1993, see Part 1: Adaptation on the Edge of Chaos)
40 Varela 1991, p.194-5 Without going into too much detail, we can simply state that innovative theorists in contemporary evolutionary research like Kauffman, Laszlo, Gould, Eldredge, Mayr, Varela, Jantsch, Depew, Weber, Lewontin and Levins appear to be working in their own way towards a theory of evolution along these lines. It is now virtually undisputed and even championed that evolution has some kind of “self-organizing” capacity within its processes, a capacity that goes beyond and preserves the essentials of the Darwinian theory, while more effectively explaining the large-scale emergence of novel forms of complex adaptive design in the evolution trajectory from matter to life to mind.
47 As Pope Benedict XVI said at his first Easter mass, borrowing the language of evolutionary science, the Resurrection is “the greatest ‘mutation’, absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history.”
48 Haught 2000, p.29 Murchie: “If one wanted to create an environment to facilitate the spiritual development of human nature . . . one would find it impossible to create a better world than God has already created.” Guy Murchie 1978, p.621-622
49 Given that only the fittest will survive, the key question is now: what does fitness mean now that Darwinian imperatives (maximal reproductive success) obscure more than they reveal? Once these selective constraints (survival drives) are lifted and re-configured, overturning the co-ordinates of what constitutes “fitness”, new forms of life and consciousness are allowed to emerge. Freedom from selection lets genes get creative (http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/mg19926752.200-what-happens-to-life-when-selection-stops.html And if Jesus Christ is the center of human existence (as Christian theology maintains), what are the criteria of evolutionary fitness now? Could fitness now mean faith, hope and love… as well as the capacity to live with paradox and navigate the irreducible tensions of evolution at the “edge-of-chaos”?