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Barack Obama's presidency

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The Enduring Battle with Chaos

By the Rev. Howard Bess
October 4, 2010

Editor’s Note: The United States and the world are facing increased chaos in economics, politics and many other spheres of human endeavor. However, the challenge from chaos is as ancient as time itself and has been addressed by humans for millennia.

Indeed, the issue of chaos was a focus of human thought even before mankind pondered how life on earth began, as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

In the Sixth Century B.C.E., amid the power of the Babylonian empire – with a group of defeated Israelites living there in exile – the questions of how the earth began and how it might end were not subjects of speculation or interest, for Babylonians or Israelites.

Both saw the earth as a given and there is no evidence that thinkers of that era were concerned about how it all got started. Their obsession was with the phenomenon of chaos and what to do about it. 

The Babylonians addressed this ancient question of chaos through the myth of their most powerful god, named Marduk, a warrior who was obsessed with defeating Tiamat, a god of chaos.

To that end, they fought an annual war, which Marduk always won, but without finality. Tiamat revived each year and was ready for the next round. Marduk could never put Tiamat away.

The Israelites who lived in Babylon for about 70 years did not buy the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat. In response to the Babylonian myth, this band of Israelites wrote their own myth, which changed the focus from battling chaos to creating order.

The Israelite response is now known as Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

In the Israelite myth, God found chaos and confronted it with the doing of good. Everything that the Israelite God Elohim touched was turned into good. God established day and night, land and sea, lush growth, and a full range of animal life. His final act was the forming of a human being.  

All of the language of the story is the language of forming and shaping. Everything that the Israelite God formed was declared good. 

However, no passage from the Bible has been more poorly understood because it is rarely seen in context, as a counterpoint to the Babylonian emphasis on the enduring struggle against chaos.

The Babylonians insisted that chaos must be fought in an all-out battle that never ends. The Israelites insisted that the answer is the doing of good in the midst of chaos.

The argument hasn’t changed from then to now. There is a bit of the Babylonian in all of us. When confronted with the chaos of life, we want to fight to bring order. In that, the Babylonian myth is correct.

Yet, whenever it appears that a victory has been won, Tiamat faithfully reappears ready for another fight.

Indeed, Western civilization itself has never been able to escape the dynamic of the ancient Babylonian myth.

Three centuries ago, the science of Newtonian mechanics was triumphant in many intellectual circles. In the process God was reduced to a great clockmaker who put things together and then stepped back as Newton’s laws ran everything in a predictable fashion.

However, we now recognize too many variable, unpredictable and disorderly behaviors to leave Newton’s laws unchallenged. 

Serious discussion of chaos is back in vogue. One of the rules of chaos is that chaos increases possibilities, for good or ill.

Some thinkers believe that some chaos is needed to achieve truly interesting lives for human beings. There are parallels in business and politics.

Every political candidate wants to fight on my behalf whether I am interested in a fight or not. They are eager to fight against the forces of evil, promising to bring order out of the chaos. There is always some evil that must be confronted every two, four or six years.

In this discussion, where does Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth fit in? I see him as choosing to do the good in the chaos of life. His suggestion was that we make friends of our enemies. Can even chaos become our friend?

The Jesus, who walks by my side and looks over my shoulder, sees the possibilities in the world’s chaos and urges me to do the good.

The modern debate that is needed is not about how and when the world (or the universe) began or how it might end. The debate that is needed is how to address destructive chaos. The challenge of the Christian life is about doing the good.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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