A Second Look at the Evidence

Necker Cube smallAs a kid, I always loved drawing things isometrically (3D). It was fascinating how the addition of a few lines and/or some shading could suddenly turn a flat square into a 3D cube, or the flat letter “A” into a more “real”, more “solid” A-shaped object. But occasionally you draw the lines wrong or you shade the wrong part and you don’t get the perspective you planned.  For instance, dashed lines  in a drawing are generally understood to mean that that line is obscured or hidden from the viewer’s perspective.  This convention and it’s inclusion in a drawing help us figure out the orientation of the drawn object in 3D space even though the drawing is clearly only a flat representation of a non-flat object. So what happens when we draw the dashed lines as solid, too? The top picture at the right is called a Necker Cube. Because it’s missing that additional information about which lines would be hidden from view, it can be interpreted by our brains a couple of different ways, depending on how each of our brains fills in the missing info.  Most people look at it and say they are looking down on the cube from the right, so that the top, right, and front sides are visible. Others see it and say they are viewing it from below and to the left, so that the bottom, left, and front sides are visible.  Sometimes, the interpreted image flip-flops between the two as our brains try to fill in the missing information and make some consistent object of  what our eyes are seeing.  But some people see the cube one way and find it almost impossible to see it oriented the other direction. The middle and bottom pictures have the appropriate lines dashed for confirming which cube faces are towards the viewer. Removing the dashed lines entirely, or shading the faces described can also convey that.  Unlike some of M.C. Escher’s drawing that would use contradictory visual cues to show physically impossible scenarios (like staircases supporting themselves in a kind of loop), The Necker Cube is simply incomplete visual information. It is lines without any distinguishing cues to guess the intended orientation.

What does any of this have to do with Christianity? Just like 2 friends can look at the top cube and see the same cube oriented different directions, Christians and atheists often look at the same evidence in history books or through telescopes and microscopes and come to different conclusions. Two people can look at the testimonies in the Gospels or the evidence of creation pointing to its Creator, and not see it. They interpret it one way, maybe over and over again, and never see it the way I see it. Then they see the exact same thing they’ve seen a hundred times, but it flips, and suddenly everything’s different. Was the evidence contradictory or just incomplete? Did they have life experiences that have “hard-wired” them to see things a certain way? Praying for healing for a friend or family member and seeing that person die anyway, for example,  can bias people against God, regardless of what evidence they might see for Him. As a Christian, my hope is that I can fill in the missing information – those dashed lines –  that someone needs to see the evidence from the true perspective.  Have you been looking at an incomplete picture, seeing a materialistic universe with no place in it for God? I encourage you to take another look at the evidence with me each week.

Reliable Transmission

Isaiah Scroll vs Camera smallI talked to an atheist colleague recently who said that if Jesus appeared on the front steps of the capitol here in Little Rock in all His splendor, and did some miracles and ascended up in front of the TV crews, then he would be the first to bend the knee. But otherwise, he wouldn’t believe.

I told him that Jesus did make an appearance just under 2000 years ago, and did miracles for 3 years, and 4 biographers wrote about it, testified about it, and published their accounts, and we still read them today. He responded that those didn’t count, and that we couldn’t trust that eyewitness testimony. Interesting. I asked how we could know that George Washington existed. He said that we had historical records to prove it. Yes… from eyewitnesses like Ben Franklin saying that George was there at the Constitutional Convention… so why believe Ben and the other eyewitness patriots more than John and the other eyewitness apostles?

Also, why does Jesus need to come and prove Himself over and over again to each and every person throughout time? He’s not some genie in a bottle at our beck and call. If Jesus really was God, isn’t it a little arrogant to tell Him, “Once wasn’t enough. I won’t believe until you come and do a personal song and dance for me.” Seriously?

I told him that if he saw Jesus and believed, that would be a pretty momentous occasion, and he would probably want to document that on his own, in addition to the TV crews. Maybe with pen and paper, or on a blog, or social media, or a little cell phone video, something. Now what would someone say who finds some documentation left behind by him of this momentous event 2000 years from now? (Assuming that any of the video he counts as strong evidence survived more than a few years.) Their skepticism of my friend’s account in no way discounts the truthfulness of his recording what happened. If it happened, it happened, whether or not he documents it sufficiently to justify skeptics 2000 years from now who might argue that they won’t believe it because he only used video and not whatever super-realistic holographic sci-fi ways they have of documenting events in the future. Whether I testify in court, or write down what happened for you to read, or (now) record the audio/video of an event, or use some as yet nonexistent technology, the event objectively happened. Method of transmission doesn’t change the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony of an event.

Skeptical of Skepticism

Scale smallAs an engineer, I realize that we can sometimes be a pretty skeptical – even cynical – lot. We are to put the safety of the public first, and so our job often requires us to be critical of whatever we’re reviewing, looking for anything deficient that might endanger future occupants or users of our designs. We are always under pressure to develop more efficient, optimized solutions to save time, money, labor, space, etc. And so we have to be critical of even our successful designs. Sometimes we are called to peer review another engineer to critique their design. Forensic investigations may require us to specifically look for what went wrong with another engineer’s design. As Scott Adams has pointed out in his funny, but often cynical, “Dilbert” comic strip, every engineer wants to retire without any major catastrophes being tied to his name. So skepticism often comes with the territory in engineering, and often serves us well as we seek out the best course of action among many mediocre choices, and more than a few really dangerous choices.

Because of that, I understand why a lot of my colleagues are skeptical of Christianity, and I don’t fault them for it (to an extent). A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. In fact, Jesus told His disciples to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). A healthy skepticism makes us look carefully at what’s before us and not get taken in by every half-baked idea that comes along. The word skeptic actually comes from the Latin “scepticus” meaning “thoughtful, inquiring” and the earlier Greek “skeptikos” meaning “to consider or examine”. Thoughtful examination is certainly not a bad thing. But one thing I’ve noticed is a tendency to a one-sided skepticism (e.g. skepticism of Christianity without any corresponding skepticism of atheism). That is where I think we do ourselves a disservice. Our design codes often describe particular accepted methods, and then allow a catch-all case like “… or alternative generally accepted methods based on rational engineering analysis”. We engineers take pride in our openness to alternatives as long as they can be backed up with proof. Yet if we don’t give one side of a debate a chance to prove itself, and give the other side a free pass, are we really exercising  “thoughtful examination” of the issue? I don’t think so. We need to thoughtfully consider both sides of the debate to draw our conclusion.

One thing I’ve found in looking at atheistic arguments is that they often employ circular reasoning by assuming that the supernatural is impossible as they argue that there is nothing supernatural. I can’t assume what I’m trying to prove, and neither can they. It’s a logical fallacy for both of us. I’ve seen several cases of atheist forums referencing Biblical “absurdities” where the Bible doesn’t even say what they considered absurd. And yet many won’t look up the reference for themselves to verify the truthfulness of the atheist claim. Folks, that just won’t fly. I don’t ask for a free pass for Christianity, but I’m not giving one out to atheists, agnostics, or anyone else either. If you have a case, then know it, make it, support it, defend it. It takes more work to do your own research instead of just forwarding a link from a blog or web page supporting your view, but it’s worth it. In engineering, we often hand-verify the output from new unfamiliar software. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but once we understand how the program arrived at it’s answer, once we have confirmed the truthfulness of the output, we can use it with confidence; and if something changes, we’re more likely to recognize false output. Similarly, studying my own side and the opposing view with fairness takes time, but I want the truth, and I know it’s worth it. Consider this, whether Christian or not: if Christianity is true, and there is something beyond this physical life and our status in that later stage is determined by choices we make here and now, wouldn’t it be of the utmost importance to determine if that were true? I could die in a car crash tomorrow, so I’d better not put off that decision. If atheism is true, then that’s the end of me. It seems a little unfair that I didn’t live very long, but that’s the way it is (possibly). If Christianity is true though, then that’s a total game-changer, and I better know the answer to that question for myself and not just rely on others to determine my fate.

The Engineering of a Disciple

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallA friend and I met up for coffee the other day and talked a lot about discipleship and it got me thinking about some parallels between the Christian act of discipleship and the process of apprenticeship in the engineering field. For those not familiar with the process of becoming an engineer, it typically involves attending an accredited college of engineering, passing an 8 hour exam in the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE exam) the junior or senior year, graduating, and then apprenticing to a practicing Professional Engineer (PE)  for a certain time (typically 4 years), and finally passing an 8-16 hour exam for licensure as a Professional Engineer. While there’s some variance from that in different states and different engineering disciplines, that middle step of being an Engineering Intern (EI) or Engineer-in-Training (EIT) is an apprenticeship and is typically an important step. This is where theory meets application, where the rubber meets the road. Formal apprenticeships aren’t as common in various fields as they used to be, but it can be a really good way to pass on knowledge and skills to successive generations. An apprenticeship to a master of a craft often distinguished a long line of masters from the average craftsmen.

What are the parallels between apprenticeship for engineers and discipleship for Christians?

        1. Both are intentional.  They are not casual engagements lightly entered into. They have specific goals from the outset and require commitment and hard work.
          1. An engineering apprenticeship has a specific time frame with specific expectations at the end of that (i.e. take the PE exam and become a practicing engineer like their mentor).
          2. A disciple should be intensively trained for a time with the expectation that they will be a discipler like their mentor.  Then at some point they have to “go into practice” on their own.
        2. Both are personal. They are typically one-on-one engagements or with small groups.
          1. A PE can’t mentor an entire class of EI’s very well. It takes commitment of time and resources. The PE should review the progress made by the EI, know them well enough to discern shortcomings and improvements, and council them accordingly, remembering that the same approach may not be applicable for every apprentice.
          2. Likewise, your preacher can’t disciple you and 1000 other people in 1 hour every Sunday morning. Discipleship is an individual investment. A sermon is just a block of instruction, while discipleship is more of a relationship.
        3. Both are long-term. Neither is a quick fix or short term process.
          1. For engineering interns, this is typically a 4 year process.
          2. For disciples, there’s no set time, but for Jesus’ disciples, it was a 3 year process.
        4. Both are developmental. Neither one should ever be static or stagnant. Rather, each is molding the person toward a future desired condition.
          1. For engineers, the EI should be taking on progressively more responsibility under the supervision of the PE, showing increased understanding of engineering concepts and a better grasp of engineering judgement, and working toward becoming a licensed PE.
          2. The disciple should be growing in their trust in God, knowledge of Scriptures, and discernment. They should grow to be a  “workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” in the words of the apostle Paul to his apprentice Timothy.
        5. Both are cyclical. They form part of an ongoing lifecycle.
          1. With some exceptions, EI’s have to apprentice under a practicing engineer before they are eligible to sit for the PE exam. Afterwards,  they will generally supervise an EI at some point in their career, thus contributing to the ongoing cycle of engineering training and the growth of the profession.
          2. Jesus’ last words to the original disciples were to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20).” Likewise, in Paul’s final letter, written to his disciple Timothy, he tells him, “the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will also be qualified to teach others (2 Tim 2:15).” As my friend pointed out, in this one verse, we see four generations of disciples, from Paul, to Timothy, to faithful men, to the ones they would teach.

I think we have to each look at our lives and ask ourselves who we’re following, and who we’re raising up to take our place. Are we learning from good teachers or bad? Are we even trying to learn from somebody else, or are we each trying to go our own way? Maybe it’s time to lay down our pride and seek out a good mentor/teacher/role model, and in humility learn from them. Maybe you feel like you’re not qualified to teach anyone. But just like the engineer has experience the intern hasn’t gotten yet, the intern has experience the new graduate doesn’t have. We all have something we can share with someone lower down the chain from us and lovingly give them a hand up.