Living with Complexity

John Cavenagh offers a few reflections on the contemporary relevance of scripture.

Uncertainty in life seems to be the norm. At times the ‘noise’ of the everyday is overwhelming. The speed of change in society can cause us to become despondent, as we increasingly feel we are being left behind. Many of us feel a bit lost.

Everything is so complicated. We yearn for a slower pace, less noise, simplicity, to help us feel in control of our lives. We want to know who we are and where we are going, yet we often experience frustration, inadequacy, rejection and never quite ‘getting there’.

We want answers to myriad questions, most involving the question ‘why?’. In recent years, I have begun to realise there will not be answers to my many questions, and I’ve begun to accept a deep uncertainty in life. This has been a freeing experience and I’ve found myself becoming more tolerant, less critical, less rigid – and here is the real bonus – more peaceful and contented.

Karl Rahner, who was appointed senior theological advisor to Vatican II by Pope John XXIII, wrote, “In the torment and insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn ultimately in this world there is no finished symphony” (Rolheiser, 2014, p 32). Rahner was suggesting this life cannot give us everything we yearn for, and we will always be frustrated, unfulfilled, out of rhythm and restless, as we struggle with the complexities of life. Jesus refers to this yearning for fulfilment in the parables. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes suggests that from the beginning of life to its end we remain ‘out of sync’ because of a ‘timelessness’ within us (Ecc 3: 10-11).

In trying to make sense of this yearning for completeness and to understand why complexity seems to be our lot, a story from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), is worth considering. On a plain in southern Iraq, the people decided to build a city and a tower, in order to make an impressive name for themselves. The population had one language. This attribute facilitated the building process until the Lord intervened and “confused their language” making it impossible for the people to communicate effectively.  The building process came to a halt and everyone wandered off. The implication here is that the population yearned for security and stability. God wanted the people to open their minds, embrace change, welcome complexity, seek new horizons and grow (Davies & Rogerson, 2005, p 122). God seemed to be promoting chaos in the world but perhaps his desire was for us to strive to be our best − and this would only be possible by embracing difference, diversity and complexity. The catalyst was the confusion of language, requiring extra effort to understand each other through active listening, sharing feelings, embracing new ideas and most importantly, taking time to hear each other. God wanted us to embrace a spirituality of reaching out rather than one of insularity (deClaissé-Walford, 2006, pp 406, 413).

Another way to consider the Babel story is as a critique of empire building with its accompanying passivity and security. Hiebert suggested ‘pride’ was equivalent to imperial domination of a colony and the inevitable result of dilution, even suppression, of local customs and languages. The ‘punishment’ was the collapse of an empire when a colony exerted its own independence, broke away and embraced self-government (Hiebert, 2007, p 30).

Humankind felt comfortable with one language and one location in the Babel story. Hiebert called this “cultural homogeneity” but it has also been described as an “ant colony”, very different from a gathering of people in true freedom (Hiebert, 2007, p 39; Lacocque, 2009, p 41).

All this demonstrates humanity’s resistance to change. The people didn’t grasp the principle that all human development/improvement involved change, but instead were inclined to think ‘not all change results in improvement’ or ‘why bother?’ or ‘we’re comfortable as we are, thanks very much’ (Crump, 2008, p 47). This has such a contemporary feel! In the Tower of Babel story, humankind resisted change and this could only be overcome by divine intervention (Hiebert, 2007, pp 40-41). There was fear, anxiety and the need to cling together (deClaissé-Walford, 2006, p 41). God was urging heterogeneity and not homogeneity.

My experience of a loving, affirming God suggests we look at the Babel story as an inspiration to grow and be more creative. It also affirms our uniqueness and our gifts and how our differences should be celebrated, not criticised (deClaissé-Walford, 2006, p. 414).

The story also affirms multicultural development throughout the world. Here in

Australia our culture is so much richer than it must have been in the days of the White Australia Policy (Willard, 2008, pp 260-265). Our improving attitude with respect to our Indigenous brothers and sisters gives cause for hope that we are evolving as God wanted, albeit slowly. As a 6 year-old child living north of Rockhampton, my ‘good mate’ was an Aboriginal lad. He taught me much about goannas and how to make a slingshot. I found him one day on the bush track, crying; another boy from our state school had ‘bashed him up’ because he was Aboriginal. We cried together. To his great credit he simply forgot about it and told me I was not to tell my Dad, who was the head teacher. He taught me how to see things differently, how to forgive and move on.

Our Australian attitude to immigrants has been poor. Our country continues to build towers of Babel with political parties invoking the fear of difference in a misguided appeal for votes. Jesus embraced cultural diversity and enlisted the help of those who were different, eg the Good Samaritan (Lk 10: 25-37) and the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4: 7-30).

I am much less fearful of diversity, complexity and difference now. I try to embrace them because it makes me less defensive and more open. I also try to see the other person’s perspective and have realised, soberingly, that my perspective is not the only one! This openness has helped me get closer to the God within me. I slow down and stop for a while each day and be with God. Centring prayer and Christian meditation nudge me toward this goal.

References: Crump, B. (2008). How can we make improvement happen? Clinical Governance: An International Journal, 13(1), 43-50. Davies, P., & Rogerson, J. (2005). The Old Testament World (2nd ed.): Westminster John Know Press. deClaissé-Walford, N. (2006). God Came Down…and God Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace? Review and Expositor, 103(Spring), 403-417. Hiebert, T. (2007). The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World's Cultures. Journal of Biblical Literature, 126(1), 29-58. Lacocque, A. (2009). Whatever Happened in the Valley of Shinar? A Response to Theodore Hiebert. Journal of Biblical Literature, 1(March), 29–41. Rollheiser, R. (2014). Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (pp 346). Willard, M. (2008). History of the White Australia Policy. In D Gare & D Ritter (eds), Making Australian history: perspectives on the past since 1788 (1st ed, pp 260-265). South Melbourne, Victoria: Thomson Learning Australia.

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