The Urantia Book Fellowship


The Science of Serendipity

Carol Hay


Science has always fascinated me. I've been especially intrigued by the stories of how some of the most important discoveries occurred through serendipity, such as someone accidentally knocking over a bottle in the laboratory and finding the solution to a perplexing problem, or how some scientist would be walking the streets in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because of a problem she couldn't solve, and some totally unrelated activity, like sitting on a park bench, would suddenly dispel her confusion and bring her a crystal clear answer to the problem.

The definition of serendipity is the faculty or happenstance of finding valuable things by accident--like the three princes of Serendip in the Persian fairy tale. What a wonderful coincidence! Surely, I thought, there must be some way to develop a process to access serendipity, to be able to experience it more often. So I began to research this phenomena. I came across many books that told stories about people who had experienced it, but no one seemed to know how serendipity happens.

A friend who loves the philosophy of science would give me books and tell me, "Carol, this book will really help you understand more of the process of serendipity than you realize." But it would be a book on quantum physics or something similar, and I couldn't even read it. Meanwhile, another friend presented me with the gift of a book entitled Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. Since I wasn't reading anything that was helping me get any closer to the phenomenon of serendipity, I decided to sit down and read some of this book. As I read through the book, I realized that I had stumbled onto the answer for which I had been searching. There it was, serendipity explained. But it didn't come to me the way I thought it would. And it didn't look like what I had expected. Even so, it made perfect sense. I had experienced serendipity!

As I followed Margaret Wheatley's journey through the new sciences, I was introduced to the startling fact that many of the principles that are being discovered in the scientific world are exactly the same principles that are present in human life and human relationships. I discovered that serendipity is not some mysterious event that occurs when you happen to be shown a momentary glimpse of the secrets of the universe. Rather, I found that by looking at the principles and patterns of science, we open ourselves to the guiding influence that God established for all of his creation. Serendipity can be a way of life.

I found what I was looking for, but not in the way, shape, or form I thought I would. I have always respected and marveled over the sciences, but I never believed that science could help me access the insights to make my life work more in harmony with reality or to help me better cooperate with the indwelling Spirit of God. Now, it seems incredibly obvious to me. I knew I was on the right track when I read that in the quantum world, everything is based on relationships.

The Importance of Relationships

All of us live in various kinds of communities with multiple relationships. These are living communities that are every bit as much a physical, cohesive system as a thunderstorm moving overhead. They are as vital and interrelated as the human body. Religious communities, in particular, are characterized by warm and loving fellowship. We are all connected in a faith family.

The new science, as it is called, has much to teach us about relationships. Quantum physics, for instance, is actually quite different in method than the linear reductionism model described in the old science which has dominated scientific thinking for the last three hundred years and is still largely the basis of the way people design and manage things today. Computers can now take three-dimensional mathematical equations and feed them back into themselves millions of times and see precise patterns repeat over and over again, where before, brief observations had only revealed chaos. The new science has also detected unseen forces that affect living systems. They are called "fields," and space is filled with them. In the past few decades, science has discovered that the universe is indeed, as The Urantia Book tells us, full of guiding principles and patterns.

The recent discoveries of relationships in energy systems have forced scientists to redefine living systems. A living system seems to be anything that reacts and intrarelates organically. It can be anything from an aloe vera plant to a mass of particles, or a group of people like a Urantia Book study group, or a church congregation. Science has discovered that a tiny element in a living system can affect the whole--sometimes dramatically so. When you express an opinion in one of these social or religious groups, you are influencing the whole living system in some way. If there are problems between or among individuals in the group, the way they respond to the situation influences the whole system. We can learn about the way living human systems act and react by observing other living systems. That's why I believe that examining some of the new sciences can help answer questions that arise in the Urantia Movement and the church.

Insights from Chaos Theory

One of the common experiences of study groups and churches is a deterioration of interest and purpose. Such a dispirited atmosphere is sometimes increased by controversy, splits, and chaotic conditions. Many people feel we are living on the borderland of spiritual chaos in our world. How does such a system reorganize itself? In 1977, a scientist named Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating the capacity of certain chemical systems to regenerate to higher levels of self-organization in response to environmental demands. He coined the term "dissipative structures." Chaos theory and the principles of dissipative structures assure us that an open, participative system can emerge from chaos better and stronger than it was before it lost its equilibrium. But for this process to work, a system must communicate within itself. All too often when there is controversy and division, communication stops. Such disruptions in a living system, however, can take on a whole new light when we look at them through the insights of the new science.

In a dissipative structure, the things that make a system fall apart are the very factors that are important in creating new forms of order. Imagine! Here's how it works. When new information enters a system, it enters as a small fluctuation that varies from what the system has so far been doing. If the system pays attention to the fluctuation, the information grows in strength as it interacts with the system and is fed back on itself. Finally, the information grows to such a level of disturbance that the system can no longer ignore the event. At this point, with so much disturbance, the system in its current form falls apart. Here is the most important part: this disintegration does not necessarily mean the death of the system. In most cases, the system can reconfigure itself at a higher level of organization in a way that makes it better able to deal with the environment.

The Urantia Book description of the Lucifer rebellion is a good example of what happens when a resilient, self-organizing system is disrupted. Lucifer developed his Manifesto of Liberty and began to promote it throughout the local system. Because he was well respected, this manifesto received attention, and the disruptive influence of his ideas began to grow. And then the rebellion occurred, where the system, as it was currently identifiable, began to fall apart. We may wonder how in the world the leaders of our local system who were loyal to the Universal Father could have stood by and allowed what appeared to be a major disruption to continue without reeling in the rebels?

But what was really going on was a living system beginning to react to new, disruptive information, and reorganizing itself. Celestial authorities estimate that thirty times the number of beings would have joined Lucifer if suppression had been attempted. Our system is still reorganizing itself according to its own natural integrity as a system that has Christ as its nucleus and Paradise as its ultimate pattern. You see, because our universe has a spirit nucleus, it will always respond to disruption by reconfiguring itself, reorganizing, adapting, and growing in ways that are harmonious with the spirit nucleus.

That is why the authors of The Urantia Book teach that the universe is structured to allow evil to run its own self-destructive course. They point out that the good resulting from the Lucifer rebellion is a thousand times the evil it caused. Lucifer's great error is now clear. His plan had no spiritual nucleus, no great attractor, no Universal Father. There were no authentic spiritual values to set the pattern and guide the way. Cosmic insanity may simply be freedom without spiritual purpose, direction, or meaning. Consider a violin string lying on a table. It is free, but it has no purpose, no meaning. In a violin it is part of a system that is dedicated to beauty, and as a part of that system it comes to magnificent life.

Restructuring and Growth Assured by the Spirit Nucleus

The history of our world is the story of dissipative structures. The great spiritual lesson of history is that our imperfect mortal structures will disintegrate but we are involved in living systems that will eventually reorganize themselves in a higher spiritual pattern and purpose. Our faith in this process is often weak. We forget the Spirit Nucleus and try to shore up living systems even when they no longer serve current needs. We avoid situations that tax or test them. We impose structures and make them strong and complex because we fear fluctuations that would knock us off balance. The typical structure that is used in business organizations, the pyramid, is made that way. It is designed to withstand any disruption. Why? Because a great number of us believe that living systems, whether they are religious groups or business organizations, need to protect themselves against fluctuation and change. We believe that things have to happen in an orderly fashion, an order that is predetermined so that everyone knows in advance what their job is, what behavior is proper and approved. People have very little confidence that living systems, such as groups of people, can deal with fluctuations and change, reacting to information and reorganizing themselves in a manner that is faithful to a higher ideal.

Where did this belief come from that we have to hold the world together, that living systems are so fragile? According to Margaret Wheatley, it comes from seventeenth century science, Newtonian reductionism, in which the world was seen as an incredible machine set in motion by God, a closed system like a gigantic clock. It was dangerous to tamper with the mechanism. Humanity was told by its leaders that this was a universe that could not be trusted with change, rejuvenation, growth. We were warned that we had to control a living system because once it was disrupted, it would fall apart.

But we are slowly learning that we do not live in a mechanistic universe: "The universe is not like the laws, mechanisms, and the uniformities which the scientist discovers, and which he comes to regard as science, but rather like the curious, thinking, choosing, creative, combining, and discriminating scientist who thus observes universe phenomena and classifies the mathematical facts inherent in the mechanistic phases of the material side of creation." (U. B. p. 2080) Change and growth are indigenous in the universe. Fluctuation and modification are part of the very process by which order is created. Instead of valuing stability, we should be valuing resiliency.

What makes a system capable of being resilient and reorganizing itself? What is the key characteristic of a healthy, self-organizing system? The answer is "self-reference." In response to environmental or internal disturbances that signal the need for change, a system can change in a way that remains consistent with its essential nature. As it changes, it does so by referring to itself, whatever changes it does make will be consistent with its already established identity. Self-reference is what facilitates orderly change. When you cut yourself, for example, how does your body know that it's supposed to grow skin in that spot instead of hair? Because the body refers to itself and finds the answer in your DNA. The body is a self-organizing system that is part of a much more complex system of a holistic human being. Personality and the indwelling Spirit of God are the nuclei that are our unchanging reference points. When we pray or worship we are self-referencing with our ultimate sources of being.

How do we self-reference as members of the Urantia Movement or the church? By way of the values we embrace from the teachings of Jesus, by focusing in on a vision of what and who we are, by accessing our talents and our skills, and by referring to our past. These stabilize us in the midst of a changing environment. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." (Jn.8:32) And when we live the truth, we do so as personal agents of those values.

If we can't find enough information to self-reference with, then perhaps we need to consciously create a vision of the organizations with which we identify. If we trust the workings of the chaos theory, says Margaret Wheatley, we will see that the dominant shape of our organizations can be maintained if we retain clarity about the purpose, vision, and direction of the organization. If we succeed in maintaining focus, rather than hands-on control, we also create the flexibility and responsiveness that every organization craves. What leaders are called upon to do in a chaotic world is to shape their organizations through concepts, not through elaborate rules or structures.

Meaning and purpose work hand in hand with values to serve as faithful points of reference. As long as we keep purpose in focus in a living system, we will be able to live through times of chaos making decisions and initiating actions of creative resiliency. These are not "far out" ideas. Our own experiences in personal spirituality give credence to these concepts. When we look back over our lives, we can see patterns of meaning and form that emerged. These patterns usually did not come through our careful planning, but often in spite of it. Indeed, what we see in retrospect is that which we value becomes that which we manifest in all this magnificent unpredictability and seeming chaos.

The Mystery of Self-organizing Systems

Erich Janstch, a noted scientist in the field of dissipative structures, discovered what he considered to be a profound teaching embedded in the living systems he studied. He said, "The natural dynamics of simple dissipative structures teach the optimistic principle of which we tend to despair in the human world: the more freedom in self-organization, the more order." Isn't it remarkable that the two forces we have always placed in opposition to one another, freedom and order, turn out to be partners. Freedom and order have a symbiotic relationship in living organizations. Self-organization succeeds when the system supports the independent activity of its members by giving them a strong vision of the group's service potential.

Another characteristic of self-organizing systems is the importance of leadership, not leadership as we normally think of it--heroes on white horses--but leadership in the sense that, within any group, at any given moment, individuals rise for just that moment and make a difference. On page 1959 of The Urantia Book, Jesus is speaking to James Zebedee, and says, "In my universe and in my Father's universe of universes, our brethren-sons are dealt with as individuals in all their spiritual relations, but in all group relationships we unfailingly provide for definite leadership. Our kingdom is a realm of order, and where two or more will creatures act in cooperation, there is always provided the authority of leadership." In a self-organizing system, it is usually not the influence of large numbers or favorable majorities that create change, but often it is the action of a lone individual that gets amplified by the system.

In some mysterious way we are learning that thoughts and actions are often connected in the world even though widely separated in space. Something strange has been discovered about space in the quantum world. In agreement with The Urantia Book, space is now thought to be everywhere filled with fields, invisible nonmaterial structures that are part of the basic substance of the universe. Science developed field theory to explain action and reaction at a distance.

In 1982 a famous experiment was conducted by a French physicist named Alain Aspect which proved that even elementary particles are affected by connections that exist unseen across time and space. In these experiments, two electrons, apparently linked by non-visible connections, demonstrate that they are, in fact, an indivisible whole that cannot be broken into parts, even by spatial separation. When we attempt to measure them as discrete parts, both react to the attempted measurement. Scientists are stymied by the electrons' unseen fabric of connectedness.

British physicist David Bohm commented on this phenomena by saying, "The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion." Even more significant are the unseen mental and spiritual fields that link and influence people across space. These invisible fields prepare entire populations for change and growth. This quantum-like process is based on a shift of quality, not an accumulation of quantity. We need to be very serious about the kind of mental and spiritual fields we create.

What can we do to support the quantum process in facilitating spiritual growth? First of all, we can change our perspective. We could make a conscious shift in vision from the small, discrete, visible structures and people in our lives to the vast invisible domain of mental and spiritual fields with connections everywhere. Second, we could create structure in our lives, our study groups, and our churches with the primary purpose of facilitating quality relationships. And finally, before we can truly avail ourselves of these non-material fields in concert with the spiritual forces of the universe, we need to release one secret treasure we are famous for hoarding: Information.

The Importance of Information

Information is the energy that fills the field. It is the life blood of personal and organizational growth. In too many human organizations, information is doled out to members according to how important or strategically placed the member's position in the organization is perceived to be. People typically think that information should be restricted. Those "higher-up" in organizations tend to keep new information to themselves, as if by releasing information, it might trigger chaos in the system. And they are right. But that's exactly what a system needs to stay alive.

In order for a system to regenerate itself, it must have information. Then it can change, adopt, and move forward. If the only information it has is the information that merely confirms the status quo, then that system will die. The fuel of enhanced life is new information. Like love, it cannot be contained. Information is a living property, not a commodity. In biologic living systems, each molecule "knows" in some way what the other molecules are doing. If information is not available, the system cannot function correctly.

Wheatly suggests that we develop a whole new relationship with information that requires us to embrace its living properties, not to open ourselves to indiscriminate chaos, but rather to facilitate aliveness and responsiveness. If we are seeking the desirable state of an open system that is resilient, information needs to be our key ally. We are often so engaged in trying to control information that our organizations have been dying, literally, for information they could feed upon, information that was different, discomforting, and filled with enough instability to knock the system into new life.

Mainline Christian churches are a current example of organizations which are suffering for lack of information. They have been steadily declining in numbers and vitality for decades. The clergy in these churches are highly educated, yet, in general, they have neglected to share with parishioners what they have been taught in their seminary training regarding sensitive areas such as the origin of the Bible and the blood atonement theory. Sharing this information would, indeed, shock many of the faithful. But it would also lay the foundations for restructuring the church into a more relevant and vital spiritual fellowship.

These same mainline clergy have, by and large, refused to seriously examine The Urantia Book. Although the book's message will someday revitalize the church and transform our world, church leaders are afraid of facing this possibility. We need to understand that a threat to traditional orthodoxy is not necessarily bad, that it can bring with it the opportunity for significant growth. Dissipative structures show us that living systems are constantly moving in and out of stability and fluctuation. We should not be afraid of the inevitable changes that occur in a living system. The church has a clear core of identity inChrist with which to self-reference and establish creative order. The church also has an unprecedented opportunity in our times for the serendipitous discovery of the greatest upstepping of revelation since Jesus walked on our planet.

From the new sciences I have learned that life is infinitely more integrated than I had ever imagined. When we wrestle with events that effect our lives, we often move so far away from the guiding principles and patterns of the universe that, when we bump into them, mostly by accident, we have a serendipitous experience. These serendipitous events are a glimpse into what life could be like if we have faith that our lives are in God's hands. The science and art of serendipity is engaged when we exercise this faith by actively cooperating with God's call to respond to a larger vision of Reality.

A service of
The Urantia Book Fellowship