What is a Closed System?

Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy was among the first in his guild to develop the concept of an “open system,” an idea that transcended the traditional methods of the physical sciences. He recognized that all living organisms are open systems in that they continually feed on the dynamic interplay of matter and energy from the environment in order to sustain life and thrive. He explains: “The organism is not a static system closed to the outside and always containing the identical components; it is an open system in a (quasi-) steady state […] in which material continually enters from, and leaves into, the outside environment.”[1] Far from equilibrium, open systems maintain themselves in a lively and unbounded state principally characterized by ongoing flow and change.

Unlike open systems whose essential properties and organization depend on the constant interaction with the external environment, a closed system prides itself on stability and permanence. It chooses to function (and it believes itself to function optimally) without any interference from the vagaries and vicissitudes that arise outside of its delimited, mechanistic frame. In her scintillating book, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness, Ilia Delio offers a helpful and experiential example of a closed system from her time spent in a discalced Carmelite Monastery. Having entered the monastery with three other women, she recounts their introduction to traditional religious life (1984):

From the moment we crossed the threshold, our independent lives became dependent on the prioress or superior of the community. We were given clothes to wear, told where to sleep, where to eat, how to pray, and to do all these things under obedience in a routinized way. Our tasks were assigned to us each morning, and we were to do no other than the task we were given that day. Any infraction of disobedience could encounter public reprimand. Our communal discussions were limited to the weather, the monastery pets, the bakery, and the vegetable garden. We had no contact with the outside world, except a visit to the doctor or dentist. Visitors to the monastery were met by the portress and/or the prioress. The rest of the community was sealed off from the world and under the supreme command of the superior.[2]

Given the insights of modern science, we now realize that any system (including religious communities) that wishes to stay alive must operate openly and freely within the dynamic interrelatedness of the environment. They must welcome, in other words, the organic transfer of energies that lead to growth, creativity, novelty, transformation, and deeper wholeness. These systems are at home in a world of evolution and instability, and they find comfort and hope in being reborn into higher and richer forms of life.


[1] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968), 121.

[2] Ilia Delio, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (New York: Orbis Books, 2015), 119.


Image credit: Photo by Oleg Chursin on Unsplash

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New Creation is the Center for Christogenesis online magazine dedicated to deepening our awareness of God, Cosmos, and Humanity in a scientific age.

Ω Vision and Ω Spirit cover questions of the theology and spirituality of the Center for Christogenesis worldview. Other areas include our What is God Today? video series, the Visio Divina image gallery, a Resources section with videos and PowerPoints, and the latest from Ilia Delio.

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