I am so in favour of the actual infinite that instead of admitting that Nature abhors it, as is commonly said, I hold that Nature makes frequent use of it everywhere, in order to show more effectively the perfections of its Author. Georg Cantor, 1845-1918
Fractals are awesome (too bad that adjective is so blunted by overuse and misuse). Sure they are beautiful and of course the fact that math is involved is intriquing to me. But the real reason I like fractals so much is because I can think of no better way to describe how I think about the universe and eternity. And today, as I was taking time to just “contemplate,” I came to the conclusion that a fractal also best describes my understanding of scripture.
“Whoa, back up!” some of you are saying. “Fractals? Is that some kind of crunchy new candy?” OK, Fractals 101.
- Definition: “A fractal is a geometric object which can be divided into parts, each of which is similar to the original object. Fractals are said to possess infinite detail, and are generally self-similar and independent of scale. In many cases a fractal can be generated by a repeating pattern, typically a recursive or iterative process. The term fractal was coined in 1975 by Benoît Mandelbrot, from the Latin fractus or “broken” (full citation can be found here).
- A great website for further exploration can be found here (really worth your time).
- Here’s a nice explanation of self-similarity.
So what do fractals have to do with anything? For one, they are an easily accessible visual aid to the complex idea of infinity. One of the most amazing things to teach, I think, is astronomy. When you contemplate what you are really seeing when you look at the night sky it takes your breath away. With the naked eye you see the moon, constellations, planets. Zoom out… with binoculars or a telescope you can see more. And when you look at images from the Hubble telescope you are looking at stars and galaxies that are huge, old, distant, beautiful, and oh-so-numerous. A field of what looks like stars is really a field of entire galaxies. Kind of reminds me of the end of the movie Men in Black when the camera pans out from earth, to the solar system, to the galaxy, to a marble that contains the galaxy and is in the hands of some alien who is playing a game with it. I’m not interested in the alien aspect… I’ve just always been fascinated by the degrees of immensity. Now go the other way… zoom in to the earth, to the rocks, the minerals, the elements, the molecules, the atoms, the sub-atomic particles. But it is so hard to see the “big” picture of the universe and the “small” picture of the details all at the same time… except in a fractal! Looking at that one image I can keep going deeper and deeper and pondering the immensity of the created universe.
But just as amazing as that (or maybe even more so), is being able to look at scripture in the same way. For so long I looked at scripture far too linearly. I saw the history and the stories and prophesies. I memorized the Gospel accounts and looked for the symbols and types in the Old Testament and fulfillment in the New. That was good. But there is so much more. Just as a fractal is one whole that beautifully communicates a single equation, so the Scripture is one communication–a breaking into creation by God–with both a singleness and multiplicity. One story, unfolded in many iterations. Acted out over centuries, through many generations, cultures, languages, and individuals. Story upon story. But all part of the same one communication. God is breaking through to us to tell us about Himself. Using our own human context to speak to us, so that we can understand. It’s more beautiful and more amazing than a hundred thousand galaxies or the patterns repeated over and over in nature or the dancing movement of electrons and quarks and leptons. So fractals will be in my mind as I write my hermeneutics papers… telling one redemptive story, embedded in a bigger story, part of an entire progressive redemptive history culminating in the revelation of Jesus Christ. The pattern keeps revealing itself over and over, whether I zoom in to an individual story or zoom out to the big picture. Sometimes the beauty and majesty are hard to see in the black and white text, and so I keep a mental bookmark of a fractal image in my Bible to remind me of just how glorious and precious the book in my hands is.