A God of Order in a World of Chaos

Why are we here?

There are many answers to that question, even among groups of people who hold the same religious beliefs.

But a good representative statement from Evangelical Christianity is found in pastor Rick Warren’s best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life:

The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.

…You exist only because God wills that you exist. You were made by God and for God—

His answer is essentially that God knows the answer, and the purpose of life is to work for God’s purposes.

I agree with some of Warren’s ideas in that book, but as a believing Latter-day Saint I have a different set of resources that I draw upon to answer questions about my life’s purpose.

Our answers about life’s purpose are informed by restoration scripture like Abraham 3:25-26 and Moses 1:39: 

And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.

And 

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

These passages speak to the major difference between Latter-day Saint understanding of life’s purpose versus that of mainstream Christianity: we speak from an understanding of premortality. And our understanding is that premortality was not a free-for-all of intelligences doing whatever; we were organized. Distinctions were made. Roles were assigned. Principles were taught, and a war of teaching was fought over those principles.

I can’t emphasize this enough: there was order.

Again:

THERE WAS ORDER.

Again:

THERE WAS ORDER.

Disorder as Fallenness

Now, transitioning our thinking to mortality, we understand from scripture that God implemented some amount of God’s order among humankind beginning with the fall. And what was the fall? It is represented to us in a story of Adam and Eve partaking of forbidden fruit, with a series of events that followed. But Elder Bruce R. McConkie speaks of this story as being figurative in nature:

As to the Fall itself we are told that the Lord planted “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the midst of the garden. (Moses 3:9.) To Adam and Eve the command came: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Moses 3:16–17.) Again the account is speaking figuratively. What is meant by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is that our first parents complied with whatever laws were involved so that their bodies would change from their state of paradisiacal immortality to a state of natural mortality.

Regarding the fall, a major paradigm shift for me occurred when I read Harold Kushner’s excellent book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There — I quote him at length here — he has a discussion of the randomness of nature, and the “fairness” in that randomness:

[Tragic] events do not reflect God’s choices. They happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos, in those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated. And chaos is evil; not wrong, not malevolent, but evil nonetheless, because by causing tragedies at random, it prevents people from believing in God’s goodness.

I once asked a friend of mine, an accomplished physicist, whether from a scientific perspective the world was becoming a more orderly place, whether randomness was increasing or decreasing with time. He replied by citing the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy: Every system left to itself will change in such a way as to approach equilibrium. He explained that this meant the world was changing in the direction of more randomness. Think of a group of marbles in a jar, carefully arranged by size and color. The more you shake the jar, the more that neat arrangement will give way to random distribution, until it will be only a coincidence to find one marble next to another of the same color. This, he said, is what is happening to the world. One hurricane might veer off to sea, sparing the coastal cities, but it would be a mistake to see any evidence of pattern or purpose to that. Over the course of time, some hurricanes will blow harmlessly out to sea, while others will head into populated areas and cause devastation. The longer you keep track of such things, the less of a pattern you will find.

I told him that I had been hoping for a different answer. I had hoped for a scientific equivalent of the first chapter of the Bible, telling me that with every passing “day” the realm of chaos was diminishing, and more of the universe was yielding to the rule of order. He told me that if it made me feel any better, Albert Einstein had the same problem. Einstein was uncomfortable with quantum physics and tried for years to disprove it, because it based itself on the hypothesis of things happening at random. Einstein preferred to believe that “God does not play dice with the cosmos.”

It may be that Einstein and the Book of Genesis are right. A system left to itself may evolve in the direction of randomness. On the other hand, our world may not be a system left to itself. There may in fact be a creative impulse acting on it, the Spirit of God hovering over the dark waters, operating over the course of millennia to bring order out of the chaos. It may yet come to pass that, as “Friday afternoon” of the world’s evolution ticks toward the Great Sabbath which is the End of Days, the impact of random evil will be diminished.

Or it may be that God finished His work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us. Residual chaos, chance and mischance, things happening for no reason, will continue to be with us, the kind of evil that Milton Steinberg has called “the still unremoved scaffolding of the edifice of God’s creativity.” In that case, we will simply have to learn to live with it, sustained and comforted by the knowledge that the earthquake and the accident, like the murder and the robbery, are not the will of God, but represent that aspect of reality which stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us.

I have some differences with Rabbi Kushner’s teachings (I believe that God sometimes does intervene, for example). But this passage on order and chaos greatly impacted my thinking.

I have come to think that this thing we call “the fall” was Adam and Eve’s awakening to the reality of chaos in their world (Genesis 3:18 thorns and thistles). What we call the curse (Genesis 3:16-19) is more a description of forces of chaos at work in the world than it is a punitive pronouncement.

Covenants Bring Order

And what does God offer in that chaos? He offers to Adam and Eve order, in the form of a covenant relationship. He doesn’t remove all the chaos in the world; the covenant relationship will allow Adam and Eve and their posterity to live with order alongside constant forces of chaos, and choose between the two. In this process of choosing between order and chaos, they will become wise.

What does this look like for us?

Entropy

God's Order

Nature (random events in weather, genetics, etc.)

The principle of work

Development and application of our talents

Isolation, interpersonal tension

Community (with Zion as the ultimate ideal)

Communion with God, hearing God's voice and seeing His influence in one's life

Living with a sense of abundance

Absence of meaning

Understanding of God's plan

Covenant belonging, covenant worldview

Reactive approach to life

Anxiety

Peace

Emotional capacity and resilience

Entropy in The Church

The history of the church, going back to ancient times is a story of constant struggle to maintain order as forces of entropy pull people in every direction doctrinally, spiritually, and socially. We can think of the Great Apostasy as an extended period of time where forces of entropy were overpowering sources of God’s light and order.

Presently, Evangelical Christianity is beset by forces of entropy:

Political forces:

Expensive, elaborate entertainment as worship:

Social conflict:

Charismatic weirdness:

Abuse:

Scandal:

Doctrinal divides:

Imploding leaders:

And lest Latter-day Saints get a superiority complex, it’s important to honestly acknowledge that these forces are at work in our faith community as well. We strongly benefit from correlation and centralized authority on church policy; sometimes people regard those things as stifling, but they really are important glue that keeps the church from fragmenting into a chaotic mess of rival factions.

Entropy is the normal way that things go. Without strong influences that bring cohesion, things fall apart. That is true of nature, societies, nations, churches, families, and even the human mind and heart. Covenants are important for countering entropy in our relationship with God and our community of believers.

Systems might be frustrating, but they are important for bringing order, and facilitating connection and cooperation that help us reach our potential.

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