Stumbling Over the Basics

As I wait another 2 months for the results from my engineering exam I took in October, I have time to reflect on the test and the last year of preparation for it, and see some applications to my Christian walk that may be of help for some of you out there, too. So let’s work through that today.

There were some pretty obscure scenarios that showed up in both practice problems and the real exam, and it’s good to know where to go to find the needed information to solve those problems. But some of the problem types I was working were just about guaranteed to be on the exam. While some problems caught me off-guard, others were practically required questions because they were basic concepts that the practicing structural engineer needs to understand, even if he works in a smaller niche of the overall profession (like steel connection design for me). In fact, for a long, timed test like this, the more typical design problems need to be almost instinctive so that you can make up time on them, knowing the more complex or more obscure problems will eat up that gain.

What does any of that have to do with Christianity? Well, there are areas of Christian doctrine that need to be almost reflexive for us. We should be so prepared beforehand that a response is immediate, as thorough as it needs to be, and – most importantly – true. Christianity is not something where you can just “wing it”, making it up as you go. But while knowing those core doctrines is important, it also needs to go beyond just intellectual assent. After all, as James pointed out, the demons can recognize many of those truths, but they shudder rather than rejoice in them [Jam 2:19]. That’s why Peter told his readers facing persecution to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” [1Pe 3:15]. Of course, this presupposes that you a) have a hope in you, and b) that it shows forth enough for people to want to know why. But then Peter says to be “ready to make a defense”, i.e. to be able to lay out solid reasons. Out of a holy heart submitted to Christ flow actions that demonstrate the redemptive work of God and cause people to ask questions. And out of a prepared mind flow the ready answers to those questions. Then head and heart come together to demonstrate the truth of Christianity in word and deed more powerfully than either alone.

That word “defense” is the Greek legal term ἀπολογία (apologia), from which we get apologetics. In fact, 3 of the other 7 uses of apologia are related to Paul having to defend himself, either before an official tribunal or an angry mob ready to kill him on the spot [Acts 22:1, 25:16, 2Tim 4:16]. Now, you wouldn’t approach a court case (or an angry mob) without preparing, would you? That would be about as foolish as me going into that engineering exam without studying and working practice problems. But have you, dear Christian, thought about the reason for your hope? What happens when you find yourself “on the spot”? Will you ready to give an answer, or will you stare dumbfounded at your questioner?

Going back to the exam, I didn’t have to know everything (as if I even could). Most questions required some amount of consultation with my reference books just because you’re not going to have those kinds of things memorized unless the question happens to be in your specialty that you maybe deal with everyday.  So you need to know where to go for the answers ahead of time. But then there’s some questions that just come out of left field, and you find yourself having to learn the material fresh (and quickly) before even being able to attempt an answer. As a Christian ambassador [2Co 5:20], I don’t have to be able to answer everything on the spot, but  I shouldn’t stumble on the basics. When the people cried out to Peter “What must we do to be saved?” [Ac 2:37], he didn’t say “Let me do some research and get back to you on that….” But many questions or objections will require some digging. Do you know where to go for answers? Do you know your way around the Bible? Have you invested in some good references and figured out how they’re organized so you know where to start tracking down an answer when the need arises? Although outside help many not have been allowed in my exam, that resource is open to you! When you get those questions out of left field, do you have knowledgeable pastors, mentors, or friends you can consult with? Don’t forget that Christians are all members of the body of Christ, each equipped to supply what is missing in another [Ro 12:4-6, 1Co 12]. Thankfully, you don’t have to try to do it all yourself (nor should you).

In hindsight, it wasn’t being unable to answer the obscure exam problems that bothered me the most; and it wasn’t the in-depth questions that I ran out of time on. Rather, it was the simple questions that I knew I should know, but still stumbled on. Don’t let that be the case when granted the opportunity to share the truth revealed to us… the hope that anchors us… the assurance and peace we are blessed with… the “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68]. Instead, be ready!

A Ductile Faith

Hardcore seismic testing by Sideplate to prove the ductility of their connections (video here)

Engineers like ductility. When designing buildings for earthquakes, we impose harsh penalties on nonductile systems while allowing far more leeway for very ductile systems. What on earth does ductility have to do faith? Let’s work through that today.

Ductility is the ability to continue absorbing energy after yielding without breaking. This is especially important in earthquakes where it may not be possible to keep the structure from yielding. The opposite of ductility is brittleness. You can have a very strong material that is also very brittle. In fact, materials typically do get more brittle with increasing strength, and it often takes special processing or expensive alloys to maximize both strength and ductility. Brittleness, on the other hand, is something we try to avoid because of the suddenness of a failure. A brittle object may hold up an exceptional load, but the failure, when it finally occurs is catastrophic and without warning. Ductile components, even if not as strong, are preferred because they can take a lot of overloading without failing. In fact, steel has become such a dominant building material precisely because of its excellent balance of strength and ductility (a property called toughness). For situations that require resisting extreme events like earthquakes or large impacts (i.e. tornado or tsunami debris, accidental collisions, terrorist attacks), ductility is a primary tool in the engineer’s toolbox. Ductile components deform before they break, providing ample warning before they fail. This also allows a lot of time to repair the structure before it collapses. In the extreme case, it allows people time to get out of the building or off the bridge before it collapses. And since protecting people is the primary duty of engineers, we like ductile behavior.

I’ve read some stories of atheist “deconversions”, and I see some similarities between a well-designed structure and a well-designed faith. You see, our faith (or trust in God) can also be ductile or brittle. Dan Barker writes of his leaving Christianity in his book “godless”, and his story strikes me as an example of a brittle faith. Under good conditions, he appeared (according to him) to be a super-Christian. But under long-term pressure, his trust in God proved to have very little “reserve capacity”. Perhaps equally shocking was his story of his mother. After disclosing his apostasy to her, his mother – who’d been a Sunday school teacher in their church for years – saw a dead bird in the garden being eaten by ants, and decided that God’s eye was not really on the sparrow, as she had sung in church, and decided also to walk away from God. That is a prime example of brittle faith if ever there was one. Her love for her son, combined with his rejection of God, caused such a strain on her relatively shallow trust in God, that witnessing an everyday event like a bird dying, resulted in a sudden, catastrophic failure.

We trust in so many things that let us down, yet God is the only truly reliable one in this universe. Is your trust in Him able to be stretched without snapping? Or is it simply a blind faith with no capacity to resist any pushback? Here at A Well-Designed Faith, I’d like to see every Christian build a strong faith that can also stretch under stress, much like Job. While he is known for his patience in enduring suffering, it’s important to remember that Job could do that because of his trust in God, that was both strong and still able to be stretched unimaginably without breaking. Thus, after everything dear in life was taken from him, Job could still say “Though He {God} slay me, I will hope in Him.” [Job 13:15] That’s trust that understands the greater good of God’s plan, and acts on that sure hope. And our hope, like Job’s, is “a hope both sure and steadfast”, as the author of Hebrews reminds us [Heb 6:19], and not merely the wishful thinking we so often associate with the word “hope”. It is this certainty that we can have in God that enabled people like the apostle Paul, and so many martyrs since then, to undergo terrible persecution without breaking.

There are materials out there far, far stronger than the structural steel grades we use in buildings, but we typically don’t use them because we want toughness, that beautiful combination of good strength and massive ductility that keeps a building standing through an earthquake when stronger, brittle materials have failed. When structural engineers see what’s called “hysteresis curves” for a particular type of ductile seismic system that tell us it has undergone many cycles of  bending and stretching and buckling without failing, that is like beautiful art for us.  We can see buildings still standing and lives saved in those funny-looking graphs. And when I hear someone say with Paul that they “know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” [2Tim 1:12], I can see Christians who will persevere and remain standing through the most severe trials. May yours be a “ductile faith”.

Reflections on the SE Exam

My practice exam… with my tickets for the real thing

A few days ago, I took the longest, toughest test of my life: 16 hours of structural engineering problems over 2 days. Reflecting on that, a few observations occur to me that I think are applicable to the Christian walk as well.

  • Know what you know. You can’t know everything about even one subject, and certainly not multiple subjects, but it sure is nice when you see a test question that you’ve already worked out many times in practice. You see it, and think, “I know this one!” and don’t even need to grab a reference book. That’s a great place to be in a major test because it’s almost like being rewarded  for your studies with bonus time to spend on the tough questions. Memorizing Scripture holds similar benefits. You may not be in a timed test like I was, but whether it’s a question from a friend, a challenge from a skeptic, or your own internal struggles, having the appropriate answer in mind right when you need it… is priceless.
  • Know where to find what you don’t know.  Just as it’s nice to see a problem you’re familiar with, it’s quite depressing to see that odd question out of the blue that you don’t even know where to search for a possible solution. I had just over 100# of reference books with me in the exam (yes, really), and several questions on bridge design seemed like they might be straightforward solutions… if I only knew where to look in the massive 4″ thick bridge manual. Don’t let that be the case for you with the Bible, which far surpasses in value anything you could possibly read in any reference books.
  • Exams are passed or failed in study rather than during the test. The actual test only proves the learning that did (or did not) take place beforehand. As much as I studied this year, it doesn’t appear to have been enough. We’ll see when I get my results back. But there are moral tests we face in life that are more important than any licensure test, and how you act when your integrity is on the line will largely depend on decisions made long before the temptation arises. What will you do when everything indicates you can “get away with it”? Let’s just take a couple of practical examples. The Bible tells us not to covet, and with good reason. You don’t have to watch too many documentaries on murder cases to start recognizing coveting as a common first step on a path that ended in murder. Granted, most people will never go that far, but it still doesn’t do them any favors. Don’t assume you’ll make the right decision if you spend all your time envious of someone else’s wealth, fame, or spouse, and then the opportunity presents itself to take what you’ve been obsessing about, at their expense. Likewise, the Bible warns us to “flee youthful lusts” [2Ti 2:22] and to think on what is honorable and right and pure [Phil 4:8]. Many a person has said they’d never cheat on their spouse, but then filled their mind with porn. At some point, the fantasy will seem more appealing than the real life commitment that real love requires. If the opportunity to live out a fantasy presents itself in one of those tough times, don’t assume you’ll suddenly be a beacon of virtue and moral fortitude if you’ve been acting out the exact opposite in your mind up to that point. The Bible sets guardrails in our lives for good reason, so if you want to pass the moral tests in life, commit to obeying God before you find yourself in the test.
  • God’s more interested in developing your character than getting you out of a jam. Did I pray for success on the exam? You bet I did. Would failing the exam impact my belief in God? Hardly. While “unanswered” prayers have caused some to stumble, I recognize that my imperfect requests may not line up with God’s perfect plan.  There’s nothing wrong with asking God for the things we want, but we have to understand He’s not some genie granting wishes. His purpose is to make us holy, not necessarily happy (although I would suggest you’ll find genuine happiness in holiness). Now, suppose God intervened and granted me photographic recall of everything I’d studied or even skimmed over during the last year, as well as supernatural comprehension of it all for a couple of days, so that I had passed with flying colors. But then, if I passed the exam without really being qualified, and I took on projects beyond my capacity, the results could be deadly for people living and working in the buildings I designed.  Or, what if I only became arrogant and condescending to those who hadn’t passed?  Not as deadly, perhaps, but it would still fall far short of His call to be a Christlike ambassador; and it would also fall far short of God’s better answers to prayer, which sometimes include things like “No,” “Wait,” and “Keep struggling through this.” I heard one of the other 2 guys taking the test with me tell someone the second morning that the first day was “humbling”, and he was spot-on. And that came from a more knowledgeable, experienced engineer than myself. Yet if we fail a test, but learn humility and compassion and perseverance in the process, then that is character development that can have greater impact on those around us than any professional development that might have been gained in passing it.

There’s a few lessons I walked away with. What about you? Have there been tough tests in your life that have helped you gain new perspective? Events that have helped you recognize God’s work in your life in ways you wouldn’t have before? Times God used to teach you valuable life lessons?

Low-hanging Fruit

Don’t be content with only the low-hanging fruit. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Anna Hunter

Why work to get an apple when there are ones within reach from the ground? I remember a management meeting years ago when we discussed “low-hanging fruit”. In that case it was simple adjustments that could be made to improve our efficiency. We wanted to find all the helpful changes that could be made with little to no expense before looking to spend a lot of money on some new piece of equipment. Sometimes, though, we are tempted to garner some quick success and stop there. In engineering, with the pressure of deadlines, we often prefer the simplified, summarized version of knowledge to more in-depth comprehension – even though this tends to work against the development of engineering judgement that is critical to our profession. We like the quick “cookbook” solution that just says “do steps A, B, and C in order to safely design a building”, rather than the more time-intensive study required to understand why those steps work and, just as importantly, in what cases they don’t work. Engineering judgement requires a sufficiently deep understanding of a subject to recognize, for instance, when  analysis methods are invalid, when data has been extrapolated beyond what the evidence can support, or when typical assumptions no longer apply. But that requires study.

My previous employer’s situation was a case of prioritizing appropriately in trying to harvest quick and easy benefits first, before investing heavily to harvest more. The second situation, however, is potentially dangerous when the remaining harvest – the deeper understanding – is never pursued. And that is what I want to focus on today. It’s easy to look at a bunch of picked-over low branches and say there’s nothing left to glean from that tree, and ignore the much larger harvest waiting out of reach. Too often, we have the same preference for the quick and easy when it comes to spiritual knowledge. We read a passage in the Bible, and not seeing any obvious, easily-reached truth, we are content to move on, leaving deeper truths untouched. Yet this is nothing new. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that he could only speak to them as “infants in Christ”, giving them “milk to drink, not solid food; for {they} were not yet able to receive it.” [1Cor 3:1-3] He reminded them at the end of that letter that while it was good to be childlike in their innocence, they should not be childish in their thinking, but rather mature [1Cor 14:20]. The author of Hebrews was even more direct with his readers: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” [Heb 5:12-14] Just like a child must grow up and go from drinking milk, to eating mashed-up food, to eating solid food, we must press on in our knowledge of God, stretching and always reaching higher. We may be called to be content in many areas of life, but a shallow, superficial knowledge of God is not one of them!

Maybe you’ve tried studying the Bible and gotten bogged down in difficult passages. You do alright reading through the Gospel of John, but struggle with something like Deuteronomy. Let me encourage you to continue picking those low-hanging fruits in John, but don’t give up on the harder-to-reach fruits. I think of it this way: there were subjects in school that I enjoyed, and others I didn’t, but enjoyment or ease of comprehension weren’t always indicative of the importance of the subject (and I would dare say that what God puts in writing is as important as it gets). For example, for me, high school geometry was a blast – obviously practical, very logical in its formation of axioms and proofs, and very concrete in its application of them. That was low-hanging fruit to me that has also benefited me throughout my entire engineering career. Calculus, on the other hand, was definitely not a favorite subject for me. More abstract than most of my other math classes, and only more so with each succeeding semester of it, that subject stretched me nearly to the breaking point. Now, my day-to-day use of math in structural engineering (aside from the huge amount of complex math my computer does for me) is primarily basic arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. But many of the nice quick formulas that only require basic algebra to solve, are derived using calculus. And as much as I struggled through my Calc classes, I’m glad I learned it, because it does undergird much of engineering, and allows me to solve problems that would be difficult, at best, any other way. In fact, as I’ve read research papers on new analysis methods, I’ve often wished I’d learned calculus better than I did. Similarly, as I read more of the New Testament, I grow to appreciate more of the Old Testament that Jesus and His disciples quoted from so much. Some fruit takes more work to get to, but settling for a minimal knowledge only hurts in the end.

Jesus calls us to be followers, not fans. The apostle John records one time when Jesus gave the crowds some harder truths to chew on in order to separate the fans from the followers: “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ … As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” [Jn 6:60,66] Don’t be content with a grade school understanding of God’s Word when He’s called us to commit to following Him unreservedly [Matt 16:24], and to share what we’ve learned with others [Matt 28:19-20]. But you can’t pass on what you haven’t learned yourself. So don’t be content with only a shallow knowledge of the Word of God – John 3:16 is great, but there is so much more to the Bible than just that! In fact, the Bible is one tree where every higher branch yields more fruit than the previous one, if only we’re willing to seek it out. If there’s one thing I can leave you with, it’s to never stop studying the Bible, for it truly is “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].

A Firm Foundation

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

Earlier this year, I attended an informational meeting in my area about an upcoming study of liquefaction susceptibility in my state. What’s that, you ask? Well, sandy soils, under certain conditions (mainly earthquakes), can suddenly liquefy, losing all bearing strength. This may go unnoticed when it happens in unpopulated areas, or it may be a puzzling phenomenon when a large “sand boil” suddenly appears in a farmer’s field, but it can be disastrous when it happens underneath a city full of densely populated buildings. After all, large buildings also tend to be heavy buildings, and we often have to rely on the bearing strength of the soil under the building to support it when there’s no good rock underneath. Now, the eastern part of my state has a fault zone capable of producing high-magnitude earthquakes, combined with a very thick “liquefaction-susceptible” layer, which is not a good combination. The 1964 earthquakes in Alaska and Japan are probably the most famous examples of liquefaction, and the picture above from the Niigata, Japan quake is probably the best example of the danger: no matter how well you design the building, and no matter how well you build it, if the support suddenly disappears, gravity will bring it down!

Inadequate foundations aren’t just an issue in structural design, though: people can run into the same problems in their own lives. Everything visible “above ground” can be picture perfect, but the foundation needed to survive a catastrophic event is lacking. We can have success in our jobs, be leaders in our communities or experts in our fields of study, have kids that are school valedictorians academically and all-stars athletically, and own homes that are the very picture of having “arrived”. We can achieve all our life goals and all those society thinks we should achieve – “living the dream” –  but what of our foundation? What happens when all our accomplishments are yanked out from under us like the support under those buildings in Japan? If we’re trusting in our own achievements, or our family name, or our connections to the right people, we will be in for a rude awakening. As it turns out, society can actually be quite fickle, and today’s adoring crowd can become tomorrow’s angry mob. And things like cancer and tornadoes don’t check the résumés of those they strike. Nearly anything you try to build your life on can prove to be an inadequate foundation. An accident can turn the athletic superstar into a quadriplegic and disfigure the most beautiful model; a market crash or a coup can bankrupt the wealthiest person; and the most brilliant scientist can find themselves at the mercy of a brain-ravaging disease like Alzheimer’s. What do you do when your nightmare becomes your reality? Will you topple when the solid ground under you suddenly turns to quicksand? Or does your life’s foundation extend to bedrock? Is there even any kind of “bedrock” we can build our lives on, that isn’t susceptible to failure?

Indeed, there is! And the answer is  as close as the Bible. Jesus tells us:

“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.” [Lk 6:47-49]

Whether it’s storms or earthquake-induced liquefaction, being locked into an unmovable foundation is key. The apostle Paul wrote that “the firm foundation of God stands” [2Tim 2:19], and that this foundation is Jesus Christ [1Cor 3:11]. The author of Hebrews wrote that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” [Heb 13:8]. In this world of shifting sand, something firm and unchanging sounds pretty good, if you ask me. They say the only constant in life is change, but, thankfully, there is one constant that does not shift or give way, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the bedrock that can keep you standing through it all. So what’s your life built on: the Rock of Ages, or the shifting sands of effort and circumstance? Choose wisely, friend.

Skipping the Easy Questions

I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam for most of 2018, and have learned a few things in the process (OK, a lot of things…). One has been the need to be familiar with the subject matter. I know, that seems more than a little obvious, but let me explain. One of the subject areas covered in the exam will be bridge design. There are plenty of areas of building design that I need to study, but bridge design is one area I have absolutely zero experience with, and never had any intention of pursuing. Don’t get me wrong; I like seeing a well-designed, aesthetically-pleasing bridge as much as anyone, but I would’ve never in my life cracked open the 1,600+ page bridge manual if it weren’t necessary for this exam. So this has been one area I’ve tended to avoid in my exam preparations. Aside from the lack of experience with that whole subject, I’ll admit that there was a bit of intimidation at the 4″ thick binder. How could I ever hope to learn enough about all the intricacies of that code to apply it correctly? But then I realized something after taking a couple of practice exams: the bridge questions I was skipping to focus on areas I was more comfortable with were actually opportunities to make up time. As I reviewed the solution keys to the practice exams, I realized that many of the bridge questions were actually relatively straightforward questions… if I knew where to look. I was only shooting myself in the foot skipping them to work out longer steel design problems that weren’t worth any more points. Now what does that have to do with Christianity? Let’s work through that today.

Too often, Christians let the objections of skeptics go unanswered because it’s unfamiliar terrain for them. And yet, I would dare say, most objections are easier to answer than people assume. It’s understandable to hear that a prominent critic of Christianity, like Sam Harris, is a neuroscientist, and be intimidated by the fact that an obviously intelligent person like him doesn’t think Christianity is true. Similarly, one might shy away from confronting a famous Oxford biologist like Richard Dawkins. Yet, if you actually look at their objections, they often are the same type of objections anyone could make; their credentials don’t really add any weight to their objections. When Dawkins, for instance, asks “Who made God?“, you don’t have to debate genetics with him to answer that. You do have to understand what Christians mean by “God” since Dawkins doesn’t. But when he leaves his specialist’s niche to discuss basic questions of metaphysics and theology, he sets aside his specialist’s credentials and proves to be just as amateur a philosopher as anyone. This is just like if an expert witness testifies in court. Suppose the leading expert in the world on forensic entomology witnesses a hit & run accident and is called to testify in court; despite his world renown as an entomologist, his credentials are meaningless when it comes to this case. He’s just another witness who may or may not have useful testimony.

So what is the Christian to do when confronted by objections to the existence of God, or the historicity of the resurrection, or other common questions?

  1. Don’t panic. These are far from shocking new objections. They’ve been answered over and over again throughout the centuries; skeptics just don’t like the cold, hard truth.
  2. Be honest. If you don’t know how to answer, admit it. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being played, so don’t just make up something untrue or questionable to try to silence the objection. Acknowledge that it’s a question you hadn’t investigated sufficiently before, offer to get back to the person, do your homework, and then actually get back to them about it.
  3. Prepare ahead of time. How? Don’t be biblically illiterate. Sadly, there are atheists who know the Bible better than many who call themselves Christians. This simply should not be. God’s Word is supposed to be our “delight” [Ps 1:2, 119:47], and yet too often it languishes on the shelf, unopened, in Christian homes. Have you ever asked a grandmother about the grandkids she delights in? Or a rabid football fan about their favorite team? Those are some “subject matter experts” that delight in their area of expertise! Can we learn God’s Word better than a sports fan learns his team’s stats? I hope so. If that’s not the case for you, here’s some questions to consider. Are you reading the Bible daily? If so, are you thinking about what you read, or just checking it off your list? When you come across a passage you don’t understand, do you follow up with prayer, reading alternate translations, checking multiple commentaries, or talking to a more mature Christian? You don’t have to memorize the Bible (although if you can, by all means, go for it!). But understanding how it’s organized, the background of each book, the key points addressed in each book, and so on, can help immensely. Learning about church history is a valuable resource as well. The creeds and catechisms written over the centuries are especially compact summaries of the Christian faith, with great thought put into every word. There are lots of good (and typically free) resources available online, but you need to find good, theologically sound sources before you’re put on the spot.

You, Christian, may be the only “subject matter expert” on Christianity that an unbeliever ever consults. There are many who mistakenly assume that a preacher has ulterior motives for speaking to them about God, and won’t step foot in church or talk to him on a plane. You may very well find that you have better opportunities to introduce people to God than many preachers do. So don’t skip the easy questions, and don’t let answerable objections hinder your friends from recognizing the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Steel Day 2018

Leslie Robertson

I’m always thinking about potential topics for future posts, but sometimes I don’t have to go looking for topics – the topics find me. Such was the case when I was watching the preview release of the AISC documentary “Leaning Out”. This was one of those rare situations where I could get continuing education credit for my engineering licensure while watching something that would be of general interest to non-engineers as well. Produced by the American Institute of Steel Construction to commemorate their 10th annual “Steel Day”, this excellent documentary combined a review of the history of the design and construction of the World Trade Center in NYC with a biography of its lead structural engineer, Leslie E. Robertson. Perhaps you’re wondering what this has to do with defending Christianity. Well… let’s work through that today.

In the documentary, Robertson shares that he enlisted in the Navy at age 16 to serve in WWII, where he saw 3 buddies killed. After the war, he became a pacifist, and campaigned against war and the proliferation of nuclear arms. But then he mentions that, after seeing his buddies killed, he could never believe in a benevolent God. That was a bit unexpected in an engineering documentary, but traumatic experiences can leave lasting impacts on us, as that experience did for him. Seeing your friends die is awful, whether in war (where it has to be at least somewhat expected given the fact that each side is actively trying to kill the other), or in the many ways lives are lost every day in the civilian world. What grieves me, though, is the lasting blinding effect on this otherwise brilliant designer, and knowing there are dire, eternal consequences for him that need not be. Spending the next 70+ years since WWII rejecting God, and facing an eternity separated from his Creator should have never resulted from the loss of his friends, thus making a tragic event much worse. But what of his reasoning, that a benevolent God would not let his friends die?

I don’t know if he’s really thought through what God “not letting his friends die” would entail. Should God alter the thoughts of enemy soldiers so they never target them? Should He miraculously alter the trajectory of incoming shells, or make bullets bounce off his friends? Not to be irreverent about the death of his friends, but saying a good God wouldn’t let your friends die, and acknowledging what that would entail, are two different things. I’m sure, like most engineers, Robertson has had a critic or two say he should’ve done things differently on a project. In fact, he did take some unwarranted criticisms after September 11th from people looking for anyone to blame for the deaths of their loved ones in the collapse of the towers. Yet he would be completely justified in saying that those people didn’t understand the extreme detail and care he poured into that design.  Could they have done any better if they were in the same situation? I think not. Yet, sadly, that is exactly what he is doing to God when he says God shouldn’t have let things happen the way they did. I have a lot of respect for him as a brilliant engineer, but he’s keeping a double standard when he defends his own designs, but doesn’t allow that God might have His own reasons as well.

Robertson’s very ability to reject God like he has is proof that the presence of evil or suffering is not an adequate reason to reject God. Free will, the ability to choose between alternative options, is a gift from God. He could’ve easily made us like robots, repeating “I love you, Lord” when programmed to do so, and singing His praises when He hit our “Play” button. But forced love isn’t really love, is it? Instead, God gave us the option to truly love Him, which also means the potential to truly reject Him. And, sadly, free will brings other consequences as well. We can freely love our fellow humans, or freely do them harm, even killing them, just as Robertson’s friends were killed. Nevertheless, the fact that He’s given us this capacity to choose between good and evil, and the all-too-observable fact that we often choose evil, does nothing to negate either God’s power, goodness, or ultimate existence. Tragedies like what Leslie Robertson witnessed don’t cause me to doubt the goodness of God, but rather the goodness of man.

Robertson’s rejection of God mirrors the old reasoning of Epicurus, which assumed God’s benevolence is in opposition to His power. For instance, “If He’s omni-benevolent, He isn’t omnipotent, because He didn’t prevent situation X from happening; or if He’s omnipotent, He isn’t omni-benevolent, because He still didn’t prevent situation X from happening.” God not acting the way we want Him to act is seen as either a sign of powerlessness to change the situation, or apathy regarding it. But this is to ignore the fact that God is a free agent. He’s not a force of nature, like gravity, which must act a certain way under certain circumstances. Just because God has the power to do something doesn’t mean He has to, or even that He should. It is entirely possible that God has other priorities than we do, and, given our very finite minds and His omniscience, it’s rather likely that His priorities are sorted out better than ours. If this has been a sticking point for you like it has for Mr. Robertson, I urge you – plead with you – to not let this issue keep you from being reconciled with your loving Creator.

The Call

The Preacher, by George Harvey, 1840

“When I was 15 I received a ‘call to the ministry.'” So begins chapter 1 -appropriately titled “The Call” – of Dan Barker’s book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. After detailing his Christian “credentials” for the rest of the chapter he ends with “If I was not a true Christian, then nobody is.” Whether he was or was not, God knows. Analyzing his deconversion story may be a subject for another day, but what caught my eye for this week was his observation (in hindsight) that, “I could only stick it out in each church for about 18 months before feeling the ‘call’ to move on,” and “It’s always interesting how God always seemed to call me exactly where I wanted to go”[1]. Interesting indeed. What should we think about being “called”? Let’s work through that today.

Continue reading The Call

“Who Made God?”, Part 2

Richard DawkinsLast week, we looked at how famed British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell objected to God by asking the question “Who made God?” Then we saw why this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, and actually does nothing to invalidate the concept of God. But Russell wasn’t the only one to get stuck on that question. So, this week, I’d like to review Richard Dawkins’ similar objection. Let’s work through that today by jumping straight into the relevant quotes from Richard’s book “The God Delusion”.

“The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape.”[1]

“Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe [a plant Dawkins was using as an example] (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance…. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?” [2]

“In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” [3]

Dawkins’ fundamental objection here is that he believes God would have to be “complex”, and that this would require a prior cause that leads to an infinite regress, like your kids asking “Why?” after every answer you give.  Now, I see two issues here.

First, he seems to be thinking of God as some kind of cosmic machine. For instance, even a simple plastic gadget might require a very complex, carefully controlled machine to manufacture it. That machine, itself composed of gears and pistons and electronics and whatnot, had to be produced by something prior. The machine’s complexity – i.e. it’s composition of multiple interrelated parts – requires explanation by a prior cause, like another machine that produced the gears, a designer, and so forth.  But the gadget and the machine that produced it are both contingent and not self-existent. Self-existence is what ends the infinite regress that Dawkins stumbles over. Of course, a materialist might opt for a self-existent universe, but even if that were possible, it can’t ever cause anything to change. You might as well wait for your pet rock to do some tricks. That need for a free agent to initiate anything drives us toward God, but that is the one place Dawkins can never let himself be taken.

A second issue is that he confuses the complexity of the brain with the simplicity (or unity) of mind. Hardly surprising for an materialist evolutionary biologist to only see the neurons of the brain at work during design, but this is an important distinction. While mind and brain are typically paired, it is mind that is essential to design. A dead brain perfectly preserved in a jar in the lab will never design anything, even though it is still quite complex. Why is that? Because design necessarily requires 2 things: purpose and choice. These two essential characteristics of design entail 1) a mind to plan out a purpose, and 2) agency to make a choice between competing alternatives so as to achieve that purpose. Therefore, rationality and consciousness are the key attributes of a mind that make design possible. God is immaterial mind, while the brain is a contingent, physical object; it is hardware that can form, develop during our lives, atrophy, and eventually cease to function. While the brain is a complex system of interconnected neurons, all of the aforementioned stages confirm that brains are also contingent; they begin to exist and cease existing at some point. Mind, however, is not complex, but simple. Now, what does it mean to speak of the simplicity of mind (not to be confused with being simple-minded)? Namely this: that mind cannot be subdivided. A mind is simple as opposed to complex; it is a unitary whole not composed of parts. In fact, if Dawkins were to open any of several systematic theology texts [4] and read the opposing side, he would find that “simplicity”, or “unity of being”, or “noncomposition”, or “indivisibility”, has been an attribute of God recognized by Christians for nearly 2000 years. If he were to argue his case for a “complex designer” because he objected to the traditional formulation of divine simplicity, I could be more sympathetic to his objection. But I’ve yet to see any indication that he has even engaged with that issue. So for him to object to God because of his complexity is to object to a god of his own making, and not to the God of Christianity.

 


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p.136.
[2] ibid, pp. 146-7.
[3] ibid. p. 151.
[4] For example:
Geisler (2011), Systematic Theology in One Volume, Chapter 30 – “God’s Pure Actuality and Simplicity”;
Grudem (2000), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 11 – “Incommunicable Attributes of God”;
Berkhof (1938), Systematic Theology, Part 1, Ch. VI., Section D – “The Unity of God”.
Boyce (1887), Abstract of Systematic Theology, Section 2 – “The Simplicity of God”;
Hodge (1872), Systematic Theology, Vol 2;  Ch. 5, Section 4 – “Spirituality of God”;
Thomas Aquinas, 1274, Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, Question 3 – “Of the Simplicity of God (in 8 Articles)”;

“Who Made God?”, Part 1

Bertrand Russell in 1924

Have you ever heard the objection, “Oh yeah? But who made God?” The answer, of course, is that nobody made God, but this has still been a stumbling block to a lot of people, so let’s work through that today.

Let’s start by looking at this question as famed atheist Bertrand Russell posed it in 1927 in his “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech. Next week, we’ll take a look at Richard Dawkins’ recycling of the question in 2006. First, let’s hear from Russell, considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in his own words:

“I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography,  and I there found this sentence: ‘My father taught me that the  question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, “Who made God?” ’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[1]

To speak of God (at least, in the Christian understanding of the title) as needing a cause, is to speak irrationally. That is like asking “Who moved this unmovable object?” Or ” When did this beginningless entity begin to exist?” If the terms are correctly understood, they are understood to be contradictory and the question invalid. For part of being “God” is being eternal and possessing necessary existence (i.e. He always existed, and He has to exist for anything else to exist). If you’re thinking of any entity that could be “made”, you’re simply not thinking of God.

Consider the following scenario. A clever young man gets an idea for a truly useful gadget that everyone will want. He starts making them in his garage, but quickly outgrows that, and soon he is forming a company and building a factory. More hiring, more expanding, and soon the company has grown and has to have several layers of management at multiple factories. Now several years after that humble beginning in a garage, Billy, a new worker at the newest factory is going through employee training. He learns who will be his Line Foreman, and Shift Supervisor, and Department Manager, on up the chain of command until finally, it stops at President and Owner. Now, young Billy raises his hand, and asks, “Who’s his boss?” Nobody… he’s the owner,” comes the answer. But Billy persists, “Yeah, but who appointed him owner?” The trainer responds, “Nobody appointed him owner; he’s the original owner… he founded the company. It wouldn’t even exist without him.”

Now, was the company trainer trying to trick Billy when he said nobody needed to appoint John as president because he founded the company? No, of course not. Founding a company necessarily means you exist before the company you found. But what if the “company” is, instead, all of reality? And the founder is God? His pre-existence means there can be no other entity around to appoint Him or “make” Him, and this stops the infinite regress of the causal chain that concerned Russell.

The fact that people ask “Who made God?” is actually a testament to the self-evident nature of the law of causality; we instinctively recognize the relation of cause and effect and look for it everywhere. But this also demonstrates the common misunderstanding of it that Russell also fell prey to: people tend to think that this principle states that every effect has a cause. If that really were the case, then “Who made God?” might be a legitimate question. But here’s the problem: it’s a sloppy sentence – a shortcut that doesn’t always work. While we can be intellectually sloppy like that in our day-to-day observations, applying any statement universally requires more intellectual rigor. To correct the statement, we need to say, “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” Something without beginning would not require a cause, nor could it have a cause. Russell does acknowledge this as a possibility in the last sentence quoted above, but then assumes that the eternality of the physical world (or universe) is just as adequate an explanation as God, which is his second mistake.

Most people can be excused for thinking “everything must have a cause” because everything we observe did begin to exist at some point, so the shorter wording appears to apply universally; but a philosopher of his stature should not be caught by such careless wording. Granted, he fell for this when he was young, learning it from an author he respected, but to continue to believe that confirms something observed elsewhere about the skeptic: though portrayed as intellectual rejection of God, their reasons are very often emotional or volitional instead [2]. The tragedy here is that John Stuart Mill would come to such a bad conclusion, not seek out a better explanation, promulgate his error, and that it would be picked up by someone like Russell and passed on to succeeding generations. Folks, I don’t mind if you question Christianity, and you’re certainly not going to come up with a question that’s going to stump God; so by all means, test everything and hold on to what’s good, as Paul would say [1Thes 5:21]. But don’t forget to question your skepticism too.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, speech delivered 3/6/1927 at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013), p. 132.  Also online here.

At the intersection of faith and design