When Complexity Needs Deconstruction

By Michael Fewson

“When we add complexity to our society, we get benefits… at least at first.
But when we reach a certain level of complexity, the benefits decrease.
And then they stop altogether. 
The results of additional complexity
actually turn negative at that point. And if we keep adding complexity,
we’ll actually make society worse off.”

Jim Rickards
Author: Currency Wars
Death of Money

Complexity describes the state or quality of being complex[1]. Something that is complex is usually referring to an intricate or complicated association or assemblage of related things, parts, units etc.[2]

The very design and function of creation reveals divine complexity (Rom 1:19,20). At a macro level, we see the intricately balanced universe with each heavenly body perfectly aligned. When scaled down to the microscopic, we can see how matter is assembled and held together showing an amazing array of complexity that is foundational to life.

Complexity in design is an integral part of the divine mandate to ‘subdue and have dominion over’ creation. The simplest forms of life are complex and man’s simplest creative works also reveal complexity. Human beings are made in the image of God and capable of great achievements, and great good, just as they are more that capable of great evil and destruction.

It is to this destructive complexity that I want to speak.

When people speak of simplifying things it seems to refer, not to complex things in life, but to how these things have made individual lives complex. By that I mean that they find that society, work, leisure, relationships and/or societal interaction have become too complicated and stress-filled. A ‘simpler’ life is one that de-stresses.

Back to Basics – preparing to declutter
Over recent years, I have become what is known as a ‘prepper’. Wikipedia calls this survivalism and defines it as “a movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists or preppers) who are actively preparing for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international.”[3]

From my perspective, prepping activity is not primarily a doomsday fear activity (though it does cover that by default) but a response to societal complexity.

It dawned on me one day (Spirit insight), that Western society is totally dependant on electricity, vehicles, computers, manufacturing and distribution industries. Even our food supply depends on automated supply systems etc.

Most people aren’t aware that if food supplies for some reason stopped rolling into the supermarket, shelves would be empty in three days. What would you do if a nation-wide transportation strike meant no food deliveries to your local supermarket for a week? If they were empty in a matter of days – and don’t forget the panic caused by people trying to buy up big – how would you feed your family?

What if capital controls came into play like in Greece, Cypress and Ireland? You could only withdraw $65 per day from an ATM? Could you live on that?

Having been through a major disaster in which all such infrastructure was destroyed (Cyclone Tracy: Darwin, Northern Territory Australia 1974) I have experienced the sudden removal of modern infrastructure – and that was before we had become so reliant on computers etc. I know what it is like to suddenly have no food in the cupboard and no local store to buy it from; to turn on the faucet and have no fresh running water; no flushing toilets, no house for shelter and only the clothing you are wearing.

We had to forage for food, water, clothing and shelter. Fortunately, it took only days for emergency services to start reaching us, but if the situation had been more widespread or the city larger (Darwin’s population was only around 40 or 50 thousand at the time, unlike the millions affected by cyclone Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans), the services would have been sorely stretched.

Whether or not I or my children or grandchildren will ever experience a situation where the normal services are suddenly cut off by flood or fire or earthquake, terrorism or societal meltdown, I want them to know how to live simply.

So, we prepare by having adequate food available and also learn how to make fire without matches, to cook without gas or an electric oven and how to live without an iPhone or iPad.

Societal Complexity
Society, in a bid to become more productive, to have an easier life, to engage in activities that were once not possible for average people, demonstrates the ‘image of God in man’ through creative action. We hypothesise, we invent, we develop, we produce and we benefit from our innate creativity.

Unfortunately, the flip side of this creativity is man’s need to control. Pure creativity can develop complex systems that are life-changing, beneficial and even enjoyable, however, man’s need for control can soon turn these freeing agents into controlling and even enslaving systems. The complexity of controlling systems added to the complexity of creative freedom – ostensibly to enhance the benefit – invariably manipulates processes and people until the benefit is gone.

Human beings, made in God’s image, are creative by nature. No matter the motive – a need produces a creative solution, or an innovative mind develops new technology – we develop products and systems that have major influence on our lives. Through creative innovation, breakthrough systems are developed and complexity is added. This creative activity initially brings greater freedom or more productivity or whatever, but as is the way with human beings, more complexity is demanded/required.

Added complexity compounds until we find ourselves either completely dependent on it or those who control it become our masters. Eventually the benefits of the initial act of creativity are gone.

Jim Rickards, in forecasting financial collapse due to complexity, explains it this way:

When we add complexity to our society, we get benefits… at least at first. But when we reach a certain level of complexity, the benefits decrease. And then they stop altogether.

The results of additional complexity actually turn negative at that point. And if we keep adding complexity, we’ll actually make society worse off. Complexity can reach the point of negative returns, in other words.


Let’s use this analogy. Imagine a bunch of rice farmers in China in the year 500 AD. They’re working hard growing rice to get by, but they get an idea to take advantage of a nearby river. So they get together to dig an irrigation ditch from the river to their rice paddies, which can flood their rice paddies and grow a lot more rice.

They’ve just added complexity because they had to organize the project. Probably one of them was in charge and he probably had an assistant. So their society just got more complex. But they got a big payoff because that irrigation ditch led to a lot more rice.

But what happens next? Suddenly the assistant needs an assistant. And that assistant needs an assistant. But they’re still getting benefits from irrigation since it’s producing so much more rice than before.

Ultimately however, they end up with a water commissioner with his assistants, an irrigation commissioner with his assistants, and so on and so on. Plus they’ve now got an irrigation tax. Now the productivity gains of the irrigation project are diminishing.

After a certain amount of complexity the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. Bureaucracy flourishes, placing greater demands on resources. And the elites who are now in charge begin siphoning more and more wealth from the people to maintain their positions. But the rice production from irrigation can’t keep pace to fund it all.

The system gets increasingly expensive to maintain, but irrigation can only produce so much rice. And whatever additional gains it produces are marginal. At some point, something has to give. Either they have to find a way to massively increase rice production, or the system will collapse because it’s unsustainable.

If we keep adding complexity, we’ll actually make society worse off.

The Kingdom and The Church 
The salvation in Christ that brings freedom from sin also adds complexity. Our freedom includes being birthed into a Kingdom with rules and with relationships. We are told to stir up one another to love and good works, and not to neglect meeting together (Heb 10:24,25). So in an effort to ensure this happens we add complexity because a degree of organization must take place.

So, a notice saying the apostles will be teaching at a certain time and location goes out. Initially, things work well because people go to the organized meetings and then off to fellowship in various homes. There is plenty of freedom.

Then what happens? Suddenly, as the numbers increase, a complaint arises because someone is missing out because they can’t find a home in which to fellowship. So now a home group coordinator is added to ensure everyone has a ‘after apostles teaching fellowship’ group to meet with. Then one group has more food than another and a distribution network needs to be established. (Acts 6:1-7)

Soon, after a certain amount of complexity, church is no longer (was it ever in this generation?) a gathering of saints, fellowshipping together in the love of Christ, breaking bread and praying (Acts 2:42ff). Soon it is a complex arrangement of meetings, special interest groups and activities, growing with ever-increasing complexity, until only the ‘experts’ are able to ‘run’ these gatherings. A leader becomes the main event, the congregants but spectators. Even the term ‘congregation’ seems devoid of fellowship.

A Recurring Theme
An event, an idea, a revival produces a free-flowing form of productivity – whether it be spiritual, emotional, physical or intellectual. This is followed by: Creative complexity – human beings’ propensity to increase complexity – enslavement/dependence – complexity eventually outweighs the benefit – dissatisfaction.

Isn’t this something like the history of church and revival? Freedom in Christ; free flowing fellowship with naturally occurring complexity; complexity (structure or form) increases and becomes the rule; which systematically destroys freedom and ultimately the complex system is bypassed as revival breaks out in ‘non-traditional’ forms.

The Kingdom is a free flowing system whose complexity is ordered by the Lord under His sovereign rule. We can add complexity to structure called church, but the Kingdom is outside of our control.

It seems to me that church structures eventually become complex systems that eventually control rather than release God’s people. Whenever ‘church’ becomes too complex, God provides the mechanisms to deconstruct those systems.

I am of the opinion that we are living in the days of Matthew 24 and 25. The final recapitulation of Revelation is happening around us. A world in which natural disasters occur at a never-before-seen force and regularity, a world economic system on the brink of collapse and morality and justice relics of a bygone era.

I would not be surprised if religious complexity is about to be deconstructed…

In The Mean Time…
I think that faith in God’s faithfulness to bring about His good in all things helps us to resist over-complicating or being driven to greater complexity in our endeavours. Thus we are able to engage in creative endeavours and prayerfully stop before our fallenness increases complexity.

I see the events of Acts 6 as an example of this. As the numbers increased issues arose that required a solution. The solution of ‘deacons’ added a degree of complexity but brought about the release of the apostles and solved the problems of food distribution. It may be suggested that the expression today of the early church’s ‘creative solutions’ have become so complex and church structures so demanding that many struggle to see and engage in the Kingdom.

Restoring a healthy complexity will, I think, be the result of seeing the Kingdom and the church as Jesus sees it. No denominational walls, no complex systems or religious oughts, but a life freely engaging in the Kingdom as Christ leads by His Spirit; encounters with no expectations and thus no agenda except to speak the Word of the Cross. No seeking followers or converts but encountering, speaking and allowing the increase to be divine activity as Jesus builds His church.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/complexity

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/complex

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivalism

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