Breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics

I'm no physicist, but I'm intrigued by the little I know of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It states that the tendency of any given natural (closed) system is to move toward entropy, toward a state of increasing disorder or chaos. We see this all around us: our bodies naturally age and become less dependable. Over time, so do our cars, our gardens, our homes, and virtually any material thing we can think of.

But what of other systems? Do they, too, naturally move toward entropy, from an initial order toward an inevitable chaos? The boundless (some would now say blind) optimism of the earlier modern era suggested that with enough education, economic opportunity, or political freedom we as a human community could leave behind our wilder origins and move from predation to harmony. We could migrate from nature "red in tooth and claw" to the paradisiacal lion lying down with the lamb. Modernism seemed to deny a social Second Law.

But World War I, with its mustard gas, trench warfare, and devastating loss of life, combined with World War II's Nazism, the Holocaust, and the use of atomic bombs has given the lie to such unfounded optimism. Today, the cancerous spread of ISIS, the current nadir of political demagoguery, increasingly undeniable climate change, and many other social disorders, remind us that moving toward an ordered state is not the natural way of human life. Experience has taught us that we have little basis for believing we can stop this social second law. Entropy is inevitable.

However, we may see a remarkable exception in the Christian spiritual life. If what the Bible speaks of is true, in Christ, God is gathering up all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10). Like a mosaic artist, God is reworking all the broken pieces of the world and human community, splintered and shattered by sin, into a grand, new, breathtakingly beautiful design. "I am making all things new," says God (Revelation 21:5). Long before environmentalism taught us to reduce, reuse, and recycle, there was God, graciously bringing new life from the compost heap of the natural order.

As the vanguard, the leading edge of this newness, God's reborn people are meant to live into their newness by practicing the spiritual disciplines. These are the healthy rhythms of the new life, the whole life, that God intends for us and models for us in Jesus Christ. Prayer, Scripture study, worship, community, service, generosity--all of these are like food groups that nourish new life. They are the glue that connects the broken piece as they're being mended by God. As such, these disciplines introduce order into chaos. They stave off the second law of spiritual thermodynamics. They keep us on track. They corral and curtail the confusion so latent in our old lives, as it threatens to erupt and distort the new growth and new order introduced by God. Doesn't experience teach us this? How quickly we can lapse into disorder as we fail to tend the spiritual garden of our lives.

I'm finding that in midlife there's a tendency to let things slide, to take the path of least resistance, to grow comfortable and lazy--in many aspects of our lives, not just the spiritual. But the frightening reality of entropy and the invitation God gives us in Christ to combat it and move toward newness give me pause. Thoughts?

4 comments:

Dave Morgan said...

This is a wonderful column. So good you must be leaving readers speechless? My thoughts are much as yours. I'm never sure it exactly fits scriptural definitions of redemption, but I do feel like Christ has/is taking all of my broken pieces and putting them back together into some beautiful new sculpture.(Seems that way on the best days of course...)I can only assume if he can do it for my significant wreck of a life he can do it for a wrecked world. I'm grateful for both.

All blessings to you and yours,

Dave Morgan

Carl Hofmann said...

So good to hear from you, Dave. I appreciate your thoughts. We're all works in progress, aren't we?!

Allan Harvey said...

With my PhD in thermodynamics, my instinct is to cringe when I see the Second Law of Thermo invoked in a Christian context. Maybe because of its unfortunate history as a monumentally bogus anti-evolution argument.

But as an analogy, it has merit. In our world, our communities, and our individual lives (at least mine), it seems that things naturally fall apart. Our human efforts may be able to bring order temporarily, but (to switch metaphors) eventually the storm comes and the orderly houses we build on sand are washed away.

Good to remember that in Jesus all things come together (rather than fall apart). And that until we realize that fully at the eschaton, Jesus can bring new life with at least some of the order we crave and need in the here and now.

Carl Hofmann said...

Thanks, Allan, for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to more discussion when we meet later this week.