I came across this rather interesting time-lapse map of Europe, Western Russia, and present-day Turkey, where you see the dynamic evolution of human history over the course of a millennia which is still going on right now.
(Also, history is so much more kick-ass with music from the movie “Inception” in the background.)
For a little over a year now we have been studying the history of the Christian Church and delving quite a bit into the history of Europe from ancient times, through the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire, and now into the Reformation, so the vast movements in this map should be familiar to those in our group.
I was never much into history, but if you want to be a serious student of theology, a solid knowledge and foundation in history is invaluable to see how ideas and beliefs began and evolved over time, and how everything fits together. Studying history may radically alter your beliefs even.
Also, in my spare time, I’ve been delving into the science of emergence by reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. Here’s an excerpt of the book that I read today that directly relates to history and the map shown above, specifically in terms of information and energy flow as cities, civilizations, and countries grow more and more complex over time.
Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers, and button makers near other button makers. Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination, ensuring that good ideas don’t die out in rural isolation. The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements, located on the Sumerian coast and in the Indus Valley, which date back to 3500 BC. By some accounts, grain cultivation, the plow, the potter’s wheel, the sailboat, the draw loom, copper metallurgy, abstract mathematics, exact astronomical observation, the calendar – all of these inventions appeared within centuries of the original urban populations.
Cities store and transmit useful new ideas to the wider population, ensuring that powerful new technologies don’t disappear once they’ve been invented. But the self-organizing clusters of neighborhoods also serve to make cities more intelligible to the individuals who inhabit them… The specialization of the city makes it smarter, more useful for its inhabitants. And the extraordinary thing again is that this learning emerges without anyone even being aware of it.
Indeed, traditional cities – like the ones that sprouted across Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries – are rarely built with any aim at all: they just happen… [O]rganic cities – Florence or Istanbul or downtown Manhattan – are more an imprint of collective behavior than the work of master planners. They are the sum of thousands of local interactions: clustering, sharing, crowding, trading – all the disparate activities that coalesce into the totality of urban living.
All of this raises the question of why – if they are so useful – cities took so long to emerge, and why history includes such long stretches of urban decline. Consider the state of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire; for nearly a thousand years, European cities retreated back into castles and fortresses, or scattered their populations across the countryside… The system of Europe shifts from a network of cities and towns to a scattered, unstable mix of hamlets and migrants, with the largest towns holding no more than a thousand inhabitants. It stays that way for five hundred years.
The effect is not unlike watching a time-lapse film… There is nothing gradual or linear about the change; it is as sudden, and as emphatic, as turning on a light switch. (pp. 108 – 110)
Furthermore, in terms of energy flow:
Why does a field of wildflowers suddenly bloom in the spring? Why does water turn into ice? Both systems undergo “phase transitions” – changing from one defined state to another at a critical juncture – in response to changing levels of energy flowing through them. [For example, how an increase in the flow of energy in a boiling kettle of water induces a phase transition from water into a gas.] A linear increase in energy can produce a nonlinear change in the system that conducts that energy, a change that would be difficult to predict in advance.
The urban explosion of the Middle Ages is an example of the same phenomenon. We saw before that the idea of building cities didn’t spread through Europe via word of mouth, but what did spread through Europe, starting around A.D. 1000, were a series of technological advances that combined to produce a dramatic change in the human capacity for harnessing energy flows… First, the heavy wheeled plow, which tapped the muscular energy of domesticated animals, arrived with German invaders, then swept through the river valleys north of the Loire; at roughly the same time, European farmers adopted triennial field rotation, which increased land productivity by at least a third. Capturing more energy from the soil meant that larger population densities could be maintained. As larger towns began to form, another soil-based technology became commonplace, one that was even more environmentally friendly: recycling the waste products generated by town residents in the form of crop fertilizer… The result is a positive feedback loop: the plow and the crop rotation makes better soil, which supplies enough energy to sustain towns, which generate enough fertilizer to make better soil, which generates enough energy to sustain even larger towns.
‘This acceleration in urban development,’ writes philosopher-historian Manuel De Landa, ‘would not be matched for another five hundred years, when a new intensification of the flow of energy – this time arising from the exploitation of fossil fuels – propelled another great spurt of city birth and growth in the 1800s.’ And with that new flow of energy, new kinds of cities emerged: [such as] the great metropolitan superorganisms of London, Paris, and New York. (pp. 111 – 113)
Information exchange (which leads to technological advancements), self-organization, and energy flows come together as a complex, emergent entity that dictate the rise and falls of cities, countries, and civilizations as seen in the video above.
So the theological question going through my mind is: How is God involved in all this? How does God operate in all these historical movements throughout the years? Does God have any hand in emergence? Did He predetermine the rise and falls of all these countries throughout history? Does he coordinate all the micro-decisions people make to achieve some sort of “macro” plan or purpose? Or does God “sit back” and watch things from a distance, like watching a video game simulation (maybe something like the “Sims” popular video game), with little to no involvement?
The answer is a lot more complex than you think it is. Many are tempted to give a naive “Yes” or “No” to the questions above without really thinking things through critically.
By reading history and science (like quantum mechanics, physics, emergence, complexity theory, self-organizing systems, and even microbiology, and some philosophy), I’m leaning more and more towards a non-interventionist view of God. In essence, God does not intervene as much (if at all) in the day-to-day dealings of the universe. He sets the laws of nature in motion (“winds the clock” if you will) and lets free will and the free-will decisions of free agents determine their outcomes and allow them to create complex interactions with each other and the world at large, with little to no direct involvement on His part.
In all, what do we mean by “God’s sovereignty” (or as most Christians popularly put it in terms of “God’s in control”) in light of all these scientific advances in knowledge? Are all these movements and changes throughout history the solely the outcome of man’s actions or God’s? Both? How? Is it 50/50, 70/30, 55/45?
Now, I’ll expand on this idea or view of God in more detail as time goes by and hopefully show that I’m not advocating a deist view of God.