But we can dance with them! – Complexity and Models

A model of reality that tells us how reality works is a false idol.

Daniel Schmachtenberger

As you might know, I am a Spiral Dynamics practitioner, CliftonStrengths coach, and Christian.

I value all three views on the world, be it evolutionary psychology, positive psychology, or the biblical narrative.

And still, I would never say that any of these views accurately represent reality.

The only valid model of a complex system is the system itself.

Murray Gell-Mann

Reality is a complex system. People with a materialistic understanding of reality see it as very complicated. Here’s the difference:

A complicated system, like any mechanical equipment, is controllable and allows permanent solutions. A complex system, in turn, is composed of elements that interact with each other exhibiting a dynamic and adaptive behavior. The relationships are more important than the elements themselves.

Complex or complicated?, Alexandre Di Miceli

Complicated systems allow for predictions. This is why some people think that if we only knew enough details and could measure with enough precision, we could derive today from the past and predict the future – the materialistic version of theological determinism.

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!

Donella (Dana) Meadows

Back to our primary thought. Since the world is a complex system, any model has to be a simplification.

Let me make this clear: to have models is not wrong. To proclaim that they are accurate and complete is.

While I do not like the term tool, as it sounds very utilitarian, I have not found a better one yet.

Models are tools. And yes, they can be abused in utilitarian ways, and they can be mistaken for reality.

Interestingly, the Bible calls Old Testament elements shadows, and New Testament elements images. Neither are real, but the latter give us a more detailed understanding of reality.

We could say that the model of the New Testament enhances the one of the Old, while Paul tells us that now, we see through a mirror dimly, but we will see reality one day.

Do I hold the three models I am discussing here at the same level? Clearly not.

I see the Bible as inspired and archetypal. It builds on the collected wisdom of generations in communication with God.

Spiral Dynamics and CliftonStrengths are comparatively young and do not claim any divine source.

I think everybody would call me out if I were to explain the world using CliftonStrengths, and most could see that, while applicable to many more things, Spiral Dynamics is a crude yet helpful simplification.

But many see the Biblical account as a representation of what is, or at least what ought to be.

This has many facets. Some proclaim biblical inerrancy, while others settle for infallibility. Inerrancy says that Scripture does not contain errors, while infallibility says that its conceptual content cannot contain errors.

Both concepts state that the Bible cannot be wrong because it is inspired. (For which the only proof is the Bible itself, and only one verse–2Tim 3:16.)

But what if we consider that reality is much more complex than we can understand? In that case, we can eliminate inerrancy from the picture. The Bible cannot be literally true in the sense of presenting us facts as they are. The best it can do is present us with a simplification, and, therefore, concepts.

And infallibility? That certainly depends on our notion of truth and understanding of inspiration.

Remember that we filter all things through the lens of our imprint, worldview and experiences. When we read something, we interpret what we read both in a very literal sense–assigning meaning to abstract rows of symbols with little to no meaning in modern languages called letters–and semantically–we give complex connotations to words and phrases that are deeply influenced, not least culturally.

The translators of the Bible have done the same. The Hebrew language works differently from ours. One way this becomes apparent: Hebrew letters are not meaningless, but pictorial concepts that, in themselves, already give the word a whole other level of meaning. Add in block logic, and we have a complex interaction of image, connotation, and cultural influence that needs to be expressed in another language with much less expressiveness.

But what about the writers? They were embedded in a culture, or better, they each were embedded in the local culture of their lifetime, which changed many times during the few thousand years the Bible was penned, not even to mention all the stories reaching back into pre-historic times.

Does inspiration mean word-by-word dictation? Does it mean translation without error? Why, then, are there multiple translations per language?

What does this have to do with infallibility? Well, any writing and translation process loses parts of the original image’s richness, the original language’s connotations, and the depth of cultures that passed away. We only possess parts of the original concept, and add parts that divert from the original.

For example, I heard many interpretations of new wine in old wineskins. Some say that it is impossible because the wineskin will break. Others say it is well possible and that people back then had ways to make the wineskin flexible again, but it was a complicated process.

What does the parable teach, then? Is it impossible or just hard? And that is a very simple example.

Infallibility of which concepts, then? The original ones that are partly lost and partly distorted or today’s? And if today’s, which denomination’s version of it?

This is why I see the Bible as archetypal stories, distilled over hundreds and thousands of years, to metaphorically guide us by giving us a framework of how people interacted with God in the past.

This, of course, is not reality. It is humanity’s collective effort to create a model of reality others can learn from, constantly adapt, and use as a wisdom collection.

Sadly enough, we stopped collecting two thousand years ago and started interpreting and assigning absolute truth to what was never supposed to be used that way.

The Bible is a great treasure. But it has become “my precious” just as the ring has for Gollum.

Paul tells us that the law is the pedagogue who leads us to the teacher and that it had done its duty. But it had become absolute, defining the external necessities to attain and maintain a relationship with God.

The same is true for the Bible in many circles.

The Bible is a beautiful book. It tells us how people experienced God and gives us simplified models of reality, just as a father explains complex things to a child.

This simplification is not a lie. It is mercy. A child cannot grapple with the complexity of reality. But one day, we will not see through mirrors dimly any longer.