Fanciful reflections on God and a Butterfly

God is like a butterfly? Not much of a creed, perhaps. This reflective article borrows ideas from chaos theory to speculate on what God is like.

How big is God? Some people see him as huge, mighty and terrible, while others try to shrink him out of existence. Traditional concepts plant mental images of an enormous bearded figure sitting on a vast cloud; but that comes from a misconception that bigness equates with power. Are smallness and power mutually exclusive?

Chaos theory has been illustrated by using a butterfly story, which is now a popular science cliché. Events are linked, says the theory, by chains of apparently random happenings. A butterfly in Outer Mongolia, by just flapping its wings, could set up a vortex and start a chain of atmospheric effects leading eventually to a violent storm on the other side of the earth! The event chain could theoretically be traced back to the butterfly, but could not have been predicted in advance. But what if the butterfly understood the maths involved in its actions? If a random wing flap could produce a dramatic result, then what could a planned flap do? Perhaps small could be powerful as well as beautiful!

Small can be powerful. Knowledge that once filled whole libraries can now be housed on a pocketable disc. One man and a keypad can control a giant industrial plant. One person can speak to the world from a mobile phone. If small can be so powerful then why does God need to be big? Of course, spirit does not have size and God ought to be beyond our understanding; but a god who is larger than the universe as we now understand it has to be enormous beyond imagination. It is frightening to think of communicating with such a being.

Jesus tried to convey a smaller scale god-concept - a God who is "daddy" (abba) and "friend". Can such an accessible God also be creator and ruler of the universe? The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Jehovah of tradition can seem like an overbearing genie expanding ever greater out of the biblical bottle. But, on the butterfly principle, God doesn't need to be big. It is not violent might that makes him powerful, but profound wisdom and delicate care. Elijah saw the still, small voice overturn a government and change the world-order; but God was not in the earthquake or the fire.

Is your god vast, violent and terrifying, or beautiful, wise and effective?

© Derrick Phillips - 1994 (revised 2003)