Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Fractals and the Beauty of Denominationalism

I recently watched a PBS program on fractal geometry, focusing specifically on a particularly famous fractal known as the Mandelbrot Set. My forays into the world of mathematics ended with high school, so I can’t offer any detailed analyses of fractals. As I understand them, though, fractals are geometrical patterns which result from sets of numbers, generated by a simple equation and then placed on a graph. Because these numbers come from the same equation, they produce “self-similar,” replicating patterns—patterns that replicate to infinite detail. This produces mathematical oddities such as a bounded geometric shape, which on the large scale clearly looks finite, but whose border is infinite in length. The most famous is the Mandelbrot Set (pictured here), produced by the original fractal theorist, Benoit Mandelbrot.

As one zooms in on the border of the shape, one finds that the same overall pattern repeats itself, over and over in infinitesimally smaller and smaller figures. These replicating patterns also produce some surprising results from their arrangement: the borders of the Mandelbrot Set, all produced by a simple equation, generate the dazzling and beautiful designs shown below (from Wikipedia’s fine gallery on the subject).

The wonder of fractals is that they are so simple and so easily defined, yet produce such incredible beauty and variety. And the more that scientists examine fractals, the more they find that fractal-structures provide much of the essential makeup of the natural world—leaves, trees, mountains, clouds, rivers, and so on. Fractal geometry adds to the growing body of scientific knowledge which points to the beauty and order of creation.

All of this is interesting in its own right, but I began to wonder. If fractals can give us a better understanding of certain areas of reality, such as the natural world, can they give us an understanding of other areas? In particular, can they be applied to the areas of my interest: history and theology? If the natural world at first seems chaotic, history seems even more so. However, we Christians hold that the same God who designed the natural world is also active in history, and especially active—even guiding—in the history of redemption. Could we not expect, then, to see certain patterns—perhaps even beautiful patterns—in that history?

The first immediate application that occurred to me was that of denominationalism. Most of those who think and write about the ever-fracturing denominations of Christianity treat it as an unfortunate state of affairs, a tragic violation of Jesus’ great prayer that we would all be one. That’s part of the picture, to be sure. Fractions in the unity of the church arise too often from un-Christian motives—the grudges, anger, and resentments that naturally boil up from the general irascibility of humans trying to live in community. And some arise from human mistakes on issues of theological debate. There’s a general feeling among Christians that one’s own denomination has the truth and all others are in error, at least to some degree. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox each regard their own branch as the truest manifestation of the apostolic church, looking askance at Protestantism for its willful separation. Protestants, for their own part, though sometimes enjoying the variety of denominationalism (as in the American practice of church-hopping), often feel a certain amount of shame for their endlessly-splintering ways. All these views focus on the negative side of denominationalism, assuming it to be a result of human fallenness and error.

But that’s only one side of the story. The church is not only a human institution; it’s also a divine institution. We believe that the church itself, the community of Christians, is mystically enlivened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Might it not be the case that some of this ever-expanding denominationalism is the work of the Spirit? Those who would point back to earlier forms of Christianity as exemplifying an ideal unity are, to some extent, looking through rose-tinted glasses. The divergence of traditions has always been a part of Christianity, often driven by varying cultural environments. We can see the first example of divergence within the New Testament itself, in the different emphases of Jewish-culture Christian theology (illustrated most clearly in James) and Greek-culture theology. There was no formal separation, but these two streams of thought only intermingled to a degree. The later Christianity of Syria and Edessa continued to preserve much of the Jewish-culture Christianity, while other centers of Christianity moved largely along Greek lines. In the first few centuries, there was also a major divergence between the theologies of the ecclesiastical seats of authority, most notably between Antioch and Alexandria. After Constantine and the great ecumenical councils, permanent denominational divergence began in earnest. The fallout from the Council of Chalcedon was that the churches of Alexandria and Antioch (two of the original four major ecclesiastical seats) walked away from the formal unity of the wider church, and they’ve never completely come back.

During the Dark Ages, various “national” churches—such as the Irish—generated unique and inspiring manifestations of Christianity, significantly different in some ways from the mainstream traditions of the time. In the later Middle Ages, divergent traditions continued to arise all over Europe, although most of these, like the Waldensians, found themselves in the unfortunate situation of being under the authority of a Roman Church which had little tolerance for local theological variety. After the Protestant Reformation, this continuing divergence carried on and intensified, resulting in the multiplicity of denominations and traditions now to be seen all around the world.

The interesting thing is that most of these denominations arose from very specific geographic and historical circumstances, and so they each bear a unique cultural and theological imprint. Even among the denominations of “the Great Tradition” (Roman Catholicism and the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy) there are significant differences in culture and theology. Now we have a spectrum of Christian traditions and communities, each with its own focus, and each with the potential to speak truth to its sister-traditions. We have the Eastern Orthodox church to direct our attention to our potential to be drawn into Christlikeness, the Lutheran church to remind us of the supremacy of grace, the Reformed churches to speak of the sovereignty of God, the Anabaptists to point us toward the pursuit of peace, the evangelical churches to remind us of the outreaching love of God to every man and woman, and the Pentecostals to direct our attention to the present power of the Holy Spirit (to name just a few of Christianity’s many branches).

Further, we can observe that different cultural circumstances give birth to a wide variety of practical expressions of Christianity. Early Jewish Christianity preserved a strong focus on the praxis of justice and righteousness; the ancient Persian church was profoundly missional in an age when the churches of the Mediterranean were not at all interested in missionary work; the medieval Irish churches were likewise missional and powerfully driven by an ideal of the imitation of Christ; the Moravian church of Zinzendorf, from its experience of persecution and wandering, had an emphasis both on the suffering of Christ and the global expansion of the faith; American churches have a tendency to emphasize the individual, practical application of the Gospel in its relational and internal-emotional dimensions; and I have seen with my own eyes the joyful community of contemporary African churches.

The point is that the divergence of cultural and theological traditions does not necessarily detract from Christianity as a whole. Rather, I think it tends to add to it. It allows each local culture to experience Christianity through the truth of Scripture and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and then to express its faith in its own distinctive way. And from each distinctive expression of orthodox Christian faith, the wider Body of Christianity benefits. While our own cultural understanding of the faith is deeply impactful in our lives, the presence of other cultural expressions of the same faith opens our eyes to aspects of the Gospel that we might never have considered otherwise.

Rather than focusing purely on the negative aspects of denominationalism, I think we can benefit by thinking of Christian unity and denominationalism as a fractal, driven at least in part by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The church, like a fractal, is in a continual process of self-similar regeneration across cultures, infinitely generating the same pattern in endless repetition. At the heart of each of these repetitions is the exact same shape—the shape of the true Gospel, if you will, the faith in Jesus Christ that we all share—but as you zoom in and out of the picture, each of these repeated patterns produces beautiful and distinctive arrangements that we never could have predicted from the simplicity of the original shape itself. There is some pleasant comfort in perceiving the unity of the church as a smooth geometrical shape like a circle, but a fractal has a beauty that surpasses even the simplicity of the circle. It is a unity, but also a diversity—a wild and beautiful shape that preserves the truth of its original pattern while spinning a million tiny worlds of grace. And that, I think, is closer to the reality of the church—at once the same and different, and beautiful both in its unity and its diversity.