Coming to terms with complexity

We live in an increasingly complex world.  Not perhaps the most promising start to an article -- I'm sure you've heard this kind of comment many times over!  Yet it is a remark we keep making because it seems to reflect our experience of the modern world.  Another remark that has become a cliche is the so-called 'butterfly effect' -- where a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest causes an earthquake in China.  Are these comments empty cliches of a bored post-modernist world or do they reflect something of real significance which repays attention?  I believe they do, and in this article will seek to trace some of the growing influence of what has become known as complexity theory[1].

I find it difficult to fully understand complexity theory and yet I find it utterly compelling.  It makes me feel like I'm back at school, strangely intrigued by quadratic equations but finding my grasp on them as intangible as the fairies at the bottom of my garden.  Maybe this is fair enough with complexity theory for fundamentally what complexity theory is about is reality in all its glorious diversity and sophistication.  Complexity theory has emerged out of the increasing ability of science to study the real world.  Here some processes seem relatively simple -- such as the movement of the planets -- but others such as the weather seem unpredictable.  Increased computing power has enabled scientists to begin to engage with these complex processes and they have discovered something interesting.  These complex processes are both predictable and unpredictable.  No matter how much data you gather about complex systems you can't gather enough to achieve complete predictability.  On the other hand these complex systems do operate according to clear patterns.  Thus we have weather forecasts which can tell us whether it is worth taking a brolly with us, but it's still profitable for bookies to take bets on whether it going to snow on Christmas Day.

What I find fascinating about this development is that it makes people come to two completely different conclusions.  The hardline determinists who believe that everything can potentially be reduced to the fundamental laws of physics believe that complexity theory is one step towards their predictable Nirvana.  The sceptics on the other hand, like myself, tend to smile self-satisfied smiles as we say to ourselves "It just proves what we were saying all along -- science can never answer all our questions".  So has anything changed?  The answer is another confusing yes and no.  The battle between determinists and anti-determinists is still unresolved but in the meantime complexity theory has given us some very intriguing tools to study our complex world and think in new ways about our society.  The mathematicians don't really seem to like this, preferring complexity theory to remain in the realm of equations and computer programs.  But like evolution, and relativity before it, scientific theories have a nasty habit of leaking out into the realm of the popular and the practical.  I want to explore three of these 'leaks' before looking at what living in a world with complexity theory might mean for us as Christians.

I have worked in urban mission in London for the past 18 years and throughout that time have been looking for some way of, if not understanding, then at least grasping the city in which I work.  This is what led me to complexity theory.  Complexity theory gave me a way of looking at the city which did not claim perfect understanding and therefore the ability to control, but also didn't leave me with nothing more than the meaningless progression of events.  Urban mission, being a generally activist field of endeavour, tends to fall into this trap of doing one thing after the other with no clear sense of the long-term consequences.  Complexity theory helped give me a language for what I saw happening in the city.  Things did not happen because they were planned by the powerful; they emerged out of the lives and experiences of Londoners.  Church projects had surprising and unintended consequences.  Models were not replicable from one situation to another unless radically changed to meet new initial conditions.  This is all inimicable to government-driven urban regeneration with its obsession with targets and outcomes, but nonetheless it seems to be the way the city works. 

Alison Gilchrist working with the Community Development Foundation has also found complexity theory useful in understanding the role of networking in urban communities[2].  She describes a healthy community as being one which is neither ordered from on high nor a mass of isolated individuals but rather one where there are a lot of interactions between free agents.  This she calls being on the 'edge of chaos' and sees it as a creative place out of which community life naturally arises.  The role of community development is therefore to help create these conditions of fertile interaction.  She tends heavily towards the non-determinist interpretation of complexity theory, David Byrne on the other hand is more interested in the order that can be seen within complex urban systems[3].  He sides with the post-modernists in saying that no all-determining theory of the city can be created, but criticises them for rejecting any idea of planning or ordering the city.  He says that careful study of individual cities can reveal the different patterns into which they might develop and that interventions can be made to encourage one rather than the other.  We aren't, in other words, simply at the mercy of the market.  Complexity theory can help us make strategic decisions.  Urban mission (and urban regeneration generally), therefore, has much to learn from complexity theory once it has liberated itself from the shackles of central government control and its targets culture -- and, also, moved on from our own tendency to do things without rigorous reflection.

If complexity theory has barely been noticed in urban mission the same could not be said for management theory.  Here complexity theory is in danger of becoming a fad -- although, as one perceptive commentator said this misses the crux of the argument because complexity theory is, at heart, simply an attempt to engage with reality as it is.  Progressive management thinkers are increasingly turning to complexity theory as a way of developing alternatives to top-down control.  This is particularly noticeable in the behemoth of the NHS.

Plsek and Wilson in an article in the British Medical Journal[4] examine the NHS as a complex adaptive system, arguing that such systems need to be trusted to come up with creative solutions rather than cajoled and manipulated into meeting targets. They argue that individual parts of the NHS such as the GP practice follow 'natural attractor patterns' -- that is their own distinctive culture and ways of doing things which need to be understood and worked with if they are to follow new best practice.  Too often GP practices are labelled as being resistant to change whereas they actually have a creative ability to develop good care if provided with 'minimum specifications' rather than 'detailed guidelines'.  Despite this new thinking which seeks to treat human organisations as organisms rather than machines, the government still seems committed to the approach of detailed guidelines and targets.  This is certainly what my wife is experiencing as a midwife.  NICE guidelines are being interpreted in a rigid and uncreative way because a culture has been created where it is rules rather than the diverse needs of women that are important.

And what of the Church's responses to complexity theory?  They seem to be, as yet, not very widespread but the ideas are beginning to leak into Christian thought.  Perhaps the most heavyweight contribution is Chaos and Complexity -- scientific perspectives on divine action, published by the Vatican Observatory out of a 1993 conference[5].  This returns to the issues of determinism, exploring whether complexity theory could open up a way of understanding how God acts in the world -- charting a course between the interventionist God of traditional theology and scientific determinism which leaves no room for God.  Complexity is also beginning to emerge in more popular media -- such as an article by John Polkinghorne in the Church of England Newspaper in March 2000 which used complexity theory to look at the issue of personal identity and the soul.  Some Christians have also been using complexity theory in its organisational and management version -- in particular Howard Snyder in his book Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ's Body[6].  Here he views the church as a complex system whose structures should emerge from within its complex vitality rather than be imposed from outside.  It seems likely that this use of complexity theory will be an increasing part of writing and thinking about the Church in the coming years. 

Complexity is firmly on the agenda.  From the abstruse world of mathematics it has begun to leak into many other academic disciplines and into popular culture.  I would suggest that this is not simply because it is the latest fad but because it does in some way help us engage with reality as we experience it.  It taps into age-old wisdom as expressed in the Aristotelian "the whole is greater than the parts" and connects with the modern desire for liberation from top-down control.  But it is not a coherent discipline and this makes some people suspicious of it.  The term complexity theory is in some ways misleading, it is a catchall which encompasses many new ideas such as chaos theory, catastrophe theory and self organisation.  The academics will continue to try and refine the ideas in complexity theory but I think this will make little difference to the growing use of terms like emergence, sensitivity to initial conditions and strange attractors in public discourse.  No doubt these terms will be used in a misleading way but they will witness to a desire not to reduce complex realities into simple processes and a desire to preference the organic over the mechanical.  I for one welcome this.

But what might be the particular challenges and opportunities that complexity theory brings to the churches and Christians?  I will conclude with a few themes which have been important to me in my work with churches.

A church, as a complex system, is very sensitive to initial conditions.  This means that it's very difficult to transfer models from one context to another.  We should, therefore, be wary of importing models and solutions.  In fact complexity theory teaches us that tiny differences in initial conditions can bring about enormous differences so even relatively similar contexts are likely to react very differently to the same model.

Change emerges from within complex systems.  Seeking to impose change through top-down theology simply doesn't work -- not because people are resistant to change but because they are already in the process of changing.  Imposing solutions gets in the way of natural change.  This is the problem with the targets culture; not only does it not work, but it inhibits the possibility of real change.

This does not mean that it is impossible to enable change.  Complexity theory teaches us that change happens when complex systems are on the 'edge of chaos'.  That is when they are neither completely controlled nor completely disordered.  Churches stultify both when one person who calls all the shots, and when congregation members simply pursue their own agendas.  A healthy church emerges when there is constant interaction and communication between people around the 'attractor' of Jesus.  This creates a church which is not static but can welcome new points of view, which can encourage people to take risks and also learn from failure, and yet it has a stability which maintains its life through the years.


[1] For a good introduction to complexity theory see Introducing Chaos by Ziauddin Sardar and Iwona Abrams Icon Books ISBN 1-84046-581-6 previously published as Chaos for Beginners.

[2] Alison Gilchrist The well-connected community: networking to the 'edge of chaos' Community Development Journal Vol 35 No 3 Jul 2000 pp 264-275

[3] David Byrne Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences Routledge 1998

[4] Paul Plsek and Tim Wilson Complexity, leadership and management in health care organisations BMJ Vol 323 29 September 2001

[5] Robert John Russell et al Chaos and Complexity Vatican Observatory Publications 2000

[6] Howard Snyder Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ's Body Baker Books 2001 See also Kester Brewster's The Complex Christ SPCK 2004 for a recent British interpretation coming out of the experience of alternative worship