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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: What the ‘butterfly effect’ can teach us about the coronavirus and spirituality

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for the Spokesman-Review. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for the Spokesman-Review. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Our church family celebrated Easter via Zoom two weeks ago. Our pastor led worship from her living room.

Behind her left shoulder, I saw a paper butterfly in full flap. The butterfly has become a fashionable Easter symbol for many people, pointing to the dramatic body change from caterpillar to flying beauty.

But recently, I’ve seen how the “butterfly effect” impacts us both spiritually and scientifically.

I’d known something of the meteorological reference to the “butterfly effect” for years. It was most famously mentioned in 1972 by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in a presentation to a science convention.

He asked this question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” Scientists are still seeking the answer.

What Lorenz was not discovering scientific certainty, but scientific unpredictability. His research underlies what became chaos theory in quantum physics.

His inquiry began as he was working on a computer calculation for a weather prediction. The tiny number he first used was 0.506127. Then he recalculated by rounding that number to 0.506. And he got a very different weather prediction.

Suddenly the reality of “randomness” became real. What if our scientific calculations are not as determined as we want them to be? What if unpredictability, randomness, is a bigger player in the cosmic, scientific scheme of things?

And here is our transition, informed by science but experienced in the spiritual dimension of our lives: What if we cannot predict, let alone control, the spirit of God any more than meteorology can control the weather on, say, Easter Sunday? Perish the thought.

The implications are not only cosmic, friends. They filter down to the very ways we “do church,” the way we order our lives. Whether we use certain religious language and structures, or whether we free-wheel our approach to living, there are simply many things we don’t/can’t control.

That doesn’t mean there is no order, no predictability, or no ultimate control in daily living. Even in the midst of the viral pandemic that we’re all impacted by, there may be order, predictability and control we can’t begin to comprehend.

Yet we do our best to control it – sometimes smartly, sometimes foolishly. Have you considered how infinitesimal the actual coronavirus actually is? But what a huge difference it has made in lives around the world.

As you consider that abstract thought, also consider this concrete question: What small gesture(s) have you made recently that brought a sliver of hope, maybe gratitude, to another person? What small gesture did you receive that brought that hope or gratitude to you? Small gestures can lead to big differences.

Yet we may never see those consequences. Jesus’ Matthew 25:40 affirmation, “If you do it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me,” is a pointed reminder that Jesus knew small changes can lead to big differences – sometimes for the receiver, sometimes for the giver.

Since it was published in 1969, anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s “Star Thrower” has taken on a tender and powerful life of its own.

It tells of a man who sees a boy on the seashore, throwing starfish back into the ocean. The man asks the boy why he’s doing such an impossible job. What difference does it make?

The boy simply answers, “It makes a difference to this starfish.” Indeed. Check out the 3-minute YouTube dramatization of this story.

On a scientific level or on a personal level of spiritual awareness, the butterfly effect creates unpredictable, mysterious magic. Your small change can make a big difference elsewhere.

You may never see it. Do it anyway!

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at

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