I’m down at Lee Abbey for the Wayfarer Arts Conference this week. We’re talking about the stories in the bible where water represents chaos. This led us to ask about the idea of chaos itself. What role does it play in the artist’s journey? What is chaos, really?
Shortly into my career as a ‘maker’, I swallowed the red pill, embarking on the dangerous journey into ‘self’, in search of meaning among the caverns of my personal, internal chaos. I traveled the labyrinth of rock tunnels blasted by each pain and regret, never knowing how remote was the chance of emerging in one piece. I explored the caverns of self-doubt, meeting to battle subconscious monsters. Some battles won, but most lost, each leaving a scarring wound. That’s one thing I’ve learned for certain – we cannot make this journey unscathed.
Of course some of us approach our own caves more recreationally, carefully and quickly dipping in an out as the need for another reference become apparent. Perhaps your cave is populated by lovely pixies and mermaids welcoming you with song, and where a Narnian messenger meets you at the entrance to note your requests as if it were some secret deposit box, and where English butlers serve cream teas all day as you wait in the safety of a crystal lobby. Nevertheless, I will speak of my own experience, which is unfortunately not so tame, but perhaps just as fascinating.
However, danger and beauty are rarely mutually exclusive, in fact they often are found together. Great art comes with great risk. In my cave there were a great deal of mysteries and ideas that didn’t live upon my familiar surface in the daylight. There was much to be discovered. I have created art from this place which baffles me even today. Poems written while sat at the shores of subterranean pools play at unconscionable mysteries. Great art, however, cannot come from here, because this place is inherently self-referential. And as we know, great art demands conversation in the public domain.
Make no mistake in thinking that anyone’s Cave of Chaos can be charted and mapped and named, or made into some tourist attraction. I suspect that to attempt such folly is to relinquish any hope of ever returning home. Even if one’s chaos could be mapped, we could not journey there. If these maps existed, they would be useless, at least to us.
One must then ask, were these subterranean chaos ever meant to be mapped? Even explored? If they were, then it is certainly not a task for us, for we can be in no way prepared for such an undertaking in our current state, except perhaps alongside the proper guide. I know of only one solution to its exploration, and only one who can be successful in accomplishing it. That is to say, that our designer must be welcomed in as an elite excavator to light the place and bring each mystery to the light of the surface piece by piece, or perhaps consider just levelling it with copious amounts of holy explosives and an angelic wrecking crew.
So, then. What of this behemoth enigma? To find the answer, as a wise organiser of our community says, we must first name the problem. It’s name is chaos. So, chaos, who are you?
Chaos can loosely be defined as an absence of order, but I disagree with this definition. It presupposes that chaos itself exists truly, which I think is up for debate. After all, our Genesis account of original chaos is the only genuine mention of it from the perspective of the Creator, which leads me to believe that it is not just beyond our understanding, but perhaps even impossible to accurately translate for us.
Consider Creation with its vast seas, innumerable species and wildly varying processes. In human wisdom we have surely embarked on the great journey of ‘naming the species’. We have gone further by classifying and studying them. And yet after all this incredibly astounding progress of knowledge we still don’t understand why the very fabric of creation doesn’t break apart and fly off into space, or how personalities develop, or how the human brain works. There are fundamental understandings of physics that still confound even the most adept of scientific minds.
The borders of chaos are constantly expanding as we gain knowledge. We ‘name’ what’s in our patch, then widen our tent pegs and go again. These tent-borders between knowledge and chaos move constantly in our endless pursuit, but they never disappear. We never run out of space in which to expand. There is always more chaos — it is what we classify as everything beyond our tent pegs — everything that lies beyond our ‘tent’ of understanding.
Our gaining in knowledge is constantly redefining the scope of chaos, so the definition of chaos is in constant flux. Does it not then follow that what we once believed was chaos (the earth is flat, no, the earth is round), is actually just a catch-all for undiscovered knowledge, as Kester Brewin puts it, another other?
God’s creation is orderly. There are reliable laws of physics and even biology. What makes us think that what is beyond our understanding must be “chaos” because, as far as were concerned at the present time, it cannot be understood? …and all the while we are constantly proving ourselves wrong.
Chaos is not a reliable platform for much of anything. Certainly not for art or life philosophies or as a platform for love. Chaos is an ever-moving target.
Going back to creation, we perceive that the animal kingdom, the circle of life, has order. We readily accept that there’s a lot we don’t yet understand, but we would never call it chaos. It might be chaotic in a sense, but it is not synonymous with chaos. It is quite the opposite — a deeply integrated set of processes with immeasurable complexity that boggle the mind. It is not chaos, but extreme and complex order that is beyond our understanding. So our childish and new definition of chaos is simply that which we don’t yet understand, which is at least more true for our purposes.
In my ‘small group’, one attendee asked about how this relates to the church’s human organisation, citing of course terms like ‘organic community’ versus ‘programmatic regimes’. Again, the same rule applies. On the surface, organic communities are described as chaotic, but it is not chaos, it is an acceptance of an unknown natural order. It is a choice to rely upon an order we don’t understand for our organisation. It requires faith in the character of God, and in the nature of His creation.
Programmatic regime, on the other hand, attempts to create its own order, and it cannot be argued that — when compared to the choice of putting one’s community under a natural order that is not understood or charted — the programmatic regime proves to be an almost childish finger-painting-attempt to mimic and simplify something that is far more complex and deeply integrated. The temptation, of course, is the desire for control, but also perhaps our fear of inadequacy—that we don’t understand God’s natural order, so in a human attempt at wisdom we simplify it until we reach the threshold of possible control.
This brings us back to knowledge. In the programmatic regime of church today, we have not only stopped our pursuit of knowledge in this sense of widening our tent pegs, we’ve instead opted to migrate permanently into a static, immoveable building. Beautiful though they can be, they relinquish even the chance of widening the tent pegs. So then, who has freedom from chaos? If freedom from chaos is the liberty to explore and discover it, then perhaps only those who live in tents are free. In this sense, perhaps only those unencumbered by ‘finger-painting’ organisation are still free to approach life within the natural order of God’s creation, namely, everyone not in church.
Should the church donate its buildings and move back to tents, in the faith that God’s natural order is sufficient, just as we hope in faith at salvation itself?