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Cops and Burgers

Seeing order in chaos — and vice versa. New Science at work at St. Paul's

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Volunteers barbecue food for rescue workers outside St. Paul's.

Lyndon Harris

In the first days of the relief efforts following 9/11/2001, volunteers barbecued food for rescue workers on the sidewalk outside St. Paul's.

This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health. It shouldn’t surprise us when human organizations resemble other natural systems, when cityscapes begin to look like anthills. After all, we are all part of the same created order. But I was stunned to recognize that the relief ministry at St. Paul’s Chapel was a perfect rendition of a “self-organizing system” as I watched the NYPD and the Health Department duke it out over hamburgers. In the new sciences of chaos and complexity, a self organizing system is a collection of random material entities that come together suddenly and begin to act as a single organism. These “complex systems” develop a remarkable adaptive capacity that allows them to shift on a dime in response to critical changes in their immediate environment. They also exhibit a paradoxical combination of order and freedom. Often there is a recognizable pattern to their behavior, but they are also capable of totally unpredictable conduct. So these systems thrive at “the edge of chaos,” that fine line between their collective order and the freedom of their in …

The Rev. Dr. Frederic B. Burnham holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University and a D.D. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has lectured widely and published numerous articles on the connections between science and religion.


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