Faith: The evil of closed systems

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  Oct. 17, 2001 at 11:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- What do Al-Qaida and the Taliban have in common with godless ideologies such as Communism and Hitler's National Socialism?

They are all closed systems, rigidly structured and full of destructive energy. But ultimately their useable energy dissipates. As is the case with atoms in a hermetically sealed vessel, the disorder or randomness of the particles within a closed system will increase.

"In the end," says Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, "the closed system will collapse in on itself."

This corresponds to what in physics, chemistry and biology is called the second law of thermodynamics. In science, the measure of a system's useable energy -- and of its randomness has a name that alliterates with evil -- entropy.

Robert J. Russell, who heads CTNS, likes to use entropy as an analogy for evil, an elusive category whose existence in a universe created and held together by and all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God, theologians and philosophers have endeavored to explain for thousands of years.

But all their constructs, called theodicies, have so far been found wanting.

Viewed from the perspective of contemporary history, Russell's analogy seems more than mere mnemonic.

It is compelling because of its timeliness. This columnist has experienced the collapse of Hitler's Third Reich, Pol Pot's lethal régime in Cambodia and the implosion of the Soviet Union.

He has watched demented and deadly cults disappear with a whimper or a bang: Timothy Leary, Charles Manson and Jim Jones and their respective groupies, to name just three.

Russell is right -- all this smacked woefully of entropy.

In his writings, this theologian cum scientist has explored the complex role entropy plays in nature. "It fuels those physical, chemical and biological processes which drive biological evolution, and yet it ultimately leads to the dissipation, decay and death that pervade these same processes," he once mused.

"The production of entropy is thus associated with both those aspects of nature which we would call good and beautiful, and those which fall within the category of natural evil. This ambiguous and unavoidable role of entropy in physics and biology, in turn, seems to prefigure what, in the full context of moral evil, we understand as sin."

Russell might as well have written: original sin in the sense of the estrangement from the true God due to hubris and desire. Of course, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden would argue that none of this applied to them.

Did they not hear loudly and clearly God's call to make the whole world submit to their version of Islam?

As Americans would say, what a nerve! What hubris to claim that this conquest was worth the lives of thousands of innocents! But then, what hubris of Hitler to sense a calling from "Providence" to take over "erst Deutschland und dann die ganze Welt" (first Germany and then the whole world)!

What hubris of the Communists to proclaim their calling to create a workers' paradise on earth, thus fulfilling what they insisted was scientifically (though not divinely) preordained!

What hubris of Harvard's Timothy Leary to preach the use of the mind-altering drug LSD as a substitute for God! What hubris of Manson to call himself Jesus or Satan and have his hippies indulge in butchery!

What hubris of Jim Jones, a so-called Christian, to send his 900 congregants to their deaths!

Mixed in with all these cases of hubris was concupiscence, another element of original sin. Concupiscence does not merely mean sexual desire, although this element applied to some of our examples.

Chiefly, however, concupiscence is a desire for power, a desire to play God. And this desire you can never still in an open system, where you'd be laughed out of the room.

Seen theologically, hubris and concupiscence prevail in closed systems. Some of these systems may appear so large, well woven and outwardly rigid that the fainthearted consider them eternal. That's what many thought communism was.

Yet in the end all these sealed vessels vanished pathetically in entropy-like fashion. And if Russell's analogy is right, this fate is awaiting the Taliban and al-Qaida as well.

But this cannot be the end of the story. If original sin and entropy have comparable properties, then entropy applies to the human condition as such.

If Russell is right, hubris and concupiscence -- in short, estrangement -- have turned all of humanity into a closed system in which randomness accelerates to the point of dissipation and the ultimate collapse.

After Sept. 11, many entertained such sinister thoughts.

It is at this point that theologians must explain -- perhaps along Russell's lines -- how and when this sinister system was cracked open to reverse the process of entropy.

This occurred 2,000 years ago when God, rather than sending out goons to murder the innocent, made himself small, visible and weak -- "for me," as Martin Luther said, for each and every one of us.

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