Niall Ferguson provides a simple, clear, and insightful portrayal of the (potential) rise and fall of the American empire in his article Complexity and Collapse, Empires on the Edge of Chaos, from the March/April 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs. The thread of his analysis follows a thread provided by Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings done toward the mid 19th century, itself being an analysis of what happens when nations rise and fall. Mr. Ferguson parallels this theme with the analysis of several historians.
Idealists and materialists alike have shared that assumption. In his book Scienza nuova, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico describes all civilizations as passing through three phases: the divine, the heroic, and the human, finally dissolving into what Vico called “the barbarism of reflection.” For Hegel and Marx, it was the dialectic that gave history its unmistakable beat. History was seasonal for Oswald Spengler, the German historian, who wrote in his 1918-22 book, The Decline of the West, that the nineteenth century had been “the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and skepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money.” The British historian Arnold Toynbee’s universal theory of civilization proposed a cycle of challenge, response, and suicide. Each of these models is different, but all share the idea that history has rhythm.
He observes also the nature of complex systems and inquires whether the complexity might be an instrument of destruction or a barrier to destruction. This, to me, bears a certain resemblance to an uncertainty principle.
Whether the canopy of a rain forest or the trading floor of Wall Street, complex systems share certain characteristics. A small input to such a system can produce huge, often unanticipated changes — what scientists call “the amplifier effect.” A vaccine, for example, stimulates the immune system to become resistant to, say, measles or mumps. But administer too large a dose, and the patient dies. Meanwhile, causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use. Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.
When things go wrong in a complex system, the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate. There is no such thing as a typical or average forest fire, for example. To use the jargon of modern physics, a forest before a fire is in a state of “self-organized criticality”: it is teetering on the verge of a breakdown, but the size of the breakdown is unknown. Will there be a small fire or a huge one? It is very hard to say: a forest fire twice as large as last year’s is roughly four or six or eight times less likely to happen this year. This kind of pattern — known as a “power-law distribution” — is remarkably common in the natural world. It can be seen not just in forest fires but also in earthquakes and epidemics. Some researchers claim that conflicts follow a similar pattern, ranging from local skirmishes to full-scale world wars
The article is not one of paranoia but of alertness. Not sounding like Glenn Beck and predicting an impending collapse, he alternatively warns of the collapse by describing the nature of the situation we are in.
Over the last three years, the complex system of the global economy flipped from boom to bust — all because a bunch of Americans started to default on their subprime mortgages, thereby blowing huge holes in the business models of thousands of highly leveraged financial institutions. The next phase of the current crisis may begin when the public begins to reassess the credibility of the monetary and fiscal measures that the Obama administration has taken in response. Neither interest rates at zero nor fiscal stimulus can achieve a sustainable recovery if people in the United States and abroad collectively decide, overnight, that such measures will lead to much higher inflation rates or outright default. As Thomas Sargent, an economist who pioneered the idea of rational expectations, demonstrated more than 20 years ago, such decisions are self-fulfilling: it is not the base supply of money that determines inflation but the velocity of its circulation, which in turn is a function of expectations. In the same way, it is not the debt-to-GDP ratio that determines government solvency but the interest rate that investors demand. Bond yields can shoot up if expectations change about future government solvency, intensifying an already bad fiscal crisis by driving up the cost of interest payments on new debt. Just ask Greece — it happened there at the end of last year, plunging the country into fiscal and political crisis.
In this he is not a prophet of doom, but a prophet of possibility. We may repair the problem if we know what it is.
A Theological Parallel?
Does theology (or ideas in general), along with its accompanying ecclesiastical institutions, go through a similar cycle? It is easy to look at, as do the emergents, New Testament theology as being the primitive, something akin to Cole’s The Savage State, of theology. But nothing can be further from the truth. There is nothing unsophisticated or under-developed in Romans and Hebrews. These works express, among other things, the Gospel and its implications plainly in relationship to both Roman and Jewish ideals.
But the ecclesia went from being its militant self when under persecution, to finding acceptance under the edict of tolerance, to becoming not only official but also controlling of kings and peoples. Then, under the complexity of its own self-interests, it faced the challenges of modernity and naturalism which are leading the end of its dominance. (This is not to suggest that modernity and naturalism are correct, but only that they present a serious challenge of which most are quite aware.)
Today the larger ecclesiastical structures cling to their postmillennial sense of authority while the smaller ones fight for their existence. At the same time, modernity now owns virtually all the public institutions and public sentiment. Whether evolutionary, Marxist, or pagan, world sentiment now sits against the Christian structures. They look forward to the collapse and destruction of the Christian edifices and the world view that it supports.
Ok, so I’m still a bit pessimistic. But I do believe we are short-sighted when we ignore the scope of the challenge and simply hole up in our little church hutches and ignore the challenges. I believe the future for Christianity is bright, but only if we give more serious consideration to solutions. As someone who appreciates reformed apologetics, there is a principle which is a must: All apologetics must be actively offensive. We must not confront the challenger with the assertion that you are wrong, but with the presupposition, and history, that God in Christ is right.