Misplaced Confidence

What do you get when structural steel connection design deadlines and blogging collide for a workaholic engineer and amateur blogger? Worldview analysis doesn’t pay the bills like engineering analysis, so you get… this week’s post.  But a couple of recent projects did get me thinking about the things we put our confidence in.

Engineers don’t like to reinvent the wheel, so once we get something laid out to our satisfaction, we reuse those details whenever we can. One typical detail I see over and over again from engineers all over the country is for column moment connections with stiffener plates but no web doublers. For this post, let me just say these are 2 different configurations of reinforcing that mostly address different conditions. These engineers  feel like they’re covered for their designs and can sleep well at night because they required the fabricator to reinforce that area. “When in doubt, make it stout”, right? But then they delegate the tedious part of actually designing the connection to the fabricator, who hires me. But I have to actually go beyond just the conceptual intent and make the connection actually withstand the specified loads and be buildable. And I have to provide calculations to the Engineer of Record (EOR) proving that what I came up with actually works. And that’s where problems begin to crop up. Too often, the stiffener the EOR showed in his typical detail is reinforcing for a failure mode that isn’t even close to governing. Panel Zone Shear is often the limiting condition, but those stiffener plates do nothing for that. The engineer telling the fabricator to install stiffener plates but not doubler plates has a misplaced confidence. He’s trusting one component to protect against a certain type of failure, when the column will fail in another way first. The extra work he’s creating for the fabricator (and me) actually isn’t helping because it’s not putting reinforcing where the critical load is. To borrow a military analogy, it’s like putting all your guards at the front gate while your enemy sneaks in the back. Well, too often, by the time the project gets to me, the columns and beams  are already ordered from the mill, and it’s too late to go changing sizes because of the connection design. While they are adequate for the overall building design, the framing  may be sorely undersized for addressing the bottleneck of load paths at the connections. To quote the maestro of connection design, Bill Thornton, “Many, if not most, collapses are caused by inadequate connections… Yet, connections are often an afterthought.” [1]

Do we do the same? Too often we put our confidence in things that will let us down. Sometimes, it’s because we really did try to investigate thoroughly and failed to see some significant problem. But often, we do it because we never even bothered checking; like those tedious connections, it was an afterthought. But in spiritual matters, finding out you were wrong after it’s too late has the most serious and eternal consequences. That’s why Pascal, in the 17th century, considered this such an important task: “The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.”[2] Are you putting your faith in ungrounded atheist dogma that there is nothing to be concerned with after our physical bodies die? Or, as is a common error in our time, trusting in an almost magical “science” to solve everything, assigning to science properties it never has had, nor ever can have? Are you trusting that the human race is getting better and better, and that we’ll eventually evolve to ever higher forms of life?

Everything that depends on fallible humans can disappoint you and let you down. In the end, there is only One whom we can always be confident in. An encounter with that One led the Apostle Paul, a former opponent of Christians who did everything he could to stamp out Christianity, to become a Christian himself, and later say, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2 Tim 1:12] Paul was able to go to his death for being a Christian, with no regrets, and no fear, because he knew he had placed his confidence in the one true God – the only infallible, perfect, sovereign Creator and Ruler.


[1] Bill Thornton, “Connections: Art, Science, and Information in the Quest for Economy and Safety”, Engineering Journal, 4th qtr, 1995.
[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensée # 427, from Peter Kreeft’s “Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained”

What’s Your Datum?

Image Credit: www.readthe plaque.com

I was talking to the steel fabricator recently on a multi-story project where I was designing the stairs for them, and their detailer told me, “Hold off on the stair calcs; there’s gonna be some changes coming.” What were the changes? The architect had used the wrong datum, or elevation reference, to match up the floors of this 3 story  expansion with the existing 5 story building it would be attaching to. In so doing, each of the floors, as well as the total height of the expansion, would be over 1 foot short. Fortunately, it was caught before steel was fabricated and shipped to the site. And as far as errors go, it could’ve been worse, in that most of the framing wouldn’t change. The floor plans would stay the same, the heights between floors weren’t affected – just the total column heights and the distance from the foundation to the first elevated floor. For me, the stairs would get longer on the first 2 flights, but otherwise a minimal impact at that stage. But if they’d tried erecting the steel with everything fabricated based on the wrong datum, none of the connections to the existing building would’ve lined up.  One simple assumption in their Revit building model would’ve been an expensive fix at that point.

This got me thinking. What datum do we build our lives on? Are we making assumptions that will cost us dearly later? Will we recognize those errors before it’s too late? One “reference datum” of special importance in our lives is our assumption of God’s existence or non-existence. This has dramatic ramifications in all areas of our lives because it is a foundational assumption. However, sometimes we don’t see those effects without careful investigation. For instance, in the project I had, the floor to floor heights on the upper levels were unaffected. If they had managed to finish building with that error incorporated, you wouldn’t notice it out in the middle of the 2nd or 3rd floor. Likewise, atheists often feel that they don’t need God to live a “good” life. In their day to day lives, they may feel there’s no real difference. The problem is that their worldview is missing some support. What would happen if we went down to the ground level of atheism and inspected its foundation? Under western atheism, we’d find some Bibles stuck under their “columns” as shims! Yes, to be livable (in a civilized manner), atheism has to be shimmed up by blocks of Christianity (or at the very least theism, but more typically Christianity).[1] Yet these are the very foundation blocks atheists try to demolish. For instance, an atheist can choose to ignore the fact that truly fair, objective judgement between humans requires a 3rd party outside of humanity (i.e. God). But when they succeed in removing that idea from the culture around them, they unintentionally undercut their own life structure. Atheists can try to ground their treatment of others in concepts like “human flourishing”, but only the God of the Bible gives us a reason for why we should treat others with dignity: we are made in God’s image – His unique creation – and we have intrinsic worth because of that. So even if I flat-out hated somebody, even if they were absolutely cruel to me, they are still a living soul made in God’s image, whom He considered worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on their behalf. Then, whether or not they deserve my kindness, whether or not humanity flourishes because of my kindness to them, and whether or not it improves the situation any, there are grounds for treating that person with kindness, respect, and love. I’m not saying atheists can’t behave well, and do wonderful things, but at some point, in your personal relationships, where general abstract philosophizing becomes very real and messy, you could care less whether humanity flourishes if it means suffering some wrong you deem “too far.” Like with Corrie ten Boom forgiving her Nazi concentration camp guard, only God can provide a foundation capable of bearing all things and enduring all things [1 Cor 13:4-7].

What are you assuming as a “given” in your life? Have you investigated that to confirm what you’re building your life on? I’ve used terms like “assumption” and “given” today to describe our different worldviews, because that is how many people arrive at them. But don’t be content to stay there, living an unexamined life. Just like with the datum on the project I was working on, you too can investigate and determine whether the datum of your life is correct or not. I’ve highlighted several lines of reasoning on this site in the past to help show how God fulfills critical requirements for any valid reference datum in life. The moral argument shows God is necessary for objective morality. The cosmological argument shows how God is necessary to provide the singular beginning of all space and time that science predicts. The argument from design shows show God is necessary to explain the intelligent and purposeful contingency we see in our universe. And the ontological argument shows how God is necessary based on the very nature of existence. Dig deep, investigate, don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, and follow the evidence where it leads. In the end, you’ll find life makes a lot more sense with God as your absolute reference.


[1] Western atheists would do well to study the history of the USSR and communist China to see atheism carried closer to its conclusion, in grand scale, than perhaps anywhere else on earth. The tens of millions dead (some estimates say over 100 million) show that ideas like atheism can have very tragic and uncivilized consequences.

Of Movies and Church Corruption

Birkebeinerne Carrying Håkon Håkonsson – by Knud-Bergslien, 1868

I watched a Norwegian movie this past weekend called “the Last King” (that’s the English title, “Birkebeinerne” in Norway). The story takes place in the year 1206, and tells of 2 soldiers (Birkebeinerne) carrying the future king of Norway, Håkon Håkonsson, to safety when he was a baby. Because he and his mother were living in a village in territory controlled by an opposing faction in Norway’s civil war, the dangerous ski trek through a blizzard in the mountains, carrying a little baby, pursued by enemies wanting the baby (and any supporters) dead, makes for a great story. In fact, the epic true adventure is commemorated each year in Norway with the 54km (33.5mi) Birkebeinerrennet ski race, where participants carry a 3.5kg (8lb) backpack to pay tribute to the 2 soldiers carrying baby Håkon.

While I enjoyed the movie, there was a particular theme in the movie that caught my attention for its cynicism. Part of the plot of the movie is a villainous Catholic Bishop wanting to dominate all of Norway, who orders the hunting down and killing of the would-be heir to the throne. The audience is taken into the dark cathedral, where the Bishop gives his goons the following pep talk before dispatching them on their deadly mission:

“We have just received word from Nidaros. King Håkon is dead. The Birkebeinerne have lost their unifying force. The time of kings is past. But, the Church will always endure. When one man falls, another will take his place. And he answers only to God. We rule Eastern Norway. Western Norway is next. Soon the Church will have dominion over all of Norway. But one task remains. King Håkon is survived by a son. Today, an innocent boy. Tomorrow… our mightiest foe. The boy is being hidden on a farm in our territory. The man who finds the king’s son, shall enjoy great wealth all of his days. Show no mercy during your hunt for the child, for the Lord is eternally merciful, but He also requires sacrifices. Let law and order yield along the way… and bring me the boy’s head.”

Whether the Bishop in the movie is historically accurate or not, this evil Bishop is unfortunately how many people view the Church, and consequently Christianity. But is that an accurate portrayal? Reports of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, the marital infidelity of Protestant pastors, greedy televangelists, charlatans of the “Prosperity Gospel”, and corrupt “Christian” charities stealing donations only add to the impression of a corrupt and scandalous church no better than the rest of the world, and indeed, worse for the hypocrisy. But let’s compare our movie villain, the Bishop, to what the Bible teaches.

  • The Bishop desires a physical empire for the Church, yet  Jesus told Pilate at His trial that His kingdom is not of this world [Jn 18:36]. Rather, while foxes had holes, and birds had nests, He had no home [Mt 8:20]. The warnings of the moral dangers of chasing wealth and power are too many to mention here. However, our dear Bishop could’ve at least remember the model pointed to in Hebrews where the author talks of heroes of the faith who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them.” [He 11:37-38] This desire for earthly power is not an example of the Church’s calling, but rather of the universal fall (corruption) of mankind explained in Genesis 3.
  • The Bishop offers lifelong wealth as a reward to the one finding the king’s son for him. Yet riches were never a motivation of Jesus, His apostles, or any of the early Christians. Jesus said to store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven rather than on earth, and that man cannot have both God and money as his master [Mt 6:19-24].  He even warned how easily riches could get in the way of one getting to Heaven [Mt 19:23-24]. Instead, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first, and God will provide what we actually need [Mt6:33].
  • The Bishop specifically said to “show no mercy” and to kill an admittedly “innocent boy” who might become his foe someday. Jesus disagrees. As He put it, “Blessed are the merciful” [Mt 5:7], “Love your enemies, and pray forthose who persecute you” [Mt 5:44], and do not simply refrain from murdering someone, but rather do not even be angry with them [Mt 5:21-22]. Paul likewise said to “overcome evil with good”  [Ro 12:21]. A far cry from the Bishop here.
  • The Bishop’s reference to God requiring “sacrifices” in this context is just an awful perversion of God’s Word [Mk 12:33].
  • The Bishop said to set aside law and order to accomplish his orders. Yet Paul and Peter both told all Christians to obey the civil government whenever possible. The only real biblical exception is when civil obedience would require disobedience to God [Ro 13:1-7, 1 Pe 2:13-16, Ac 4:18-22]. The Bishop was right that we answer to God, but God has also said that we must answer to the rulers He has allowed to preside over us.

Is the Bishop’s behavior an example of Christian practice? Hardly! On the contrary, it’s strongly opposed to what Jesus actually says. In fact, the Bishop’s attempt to kill a baby he fears will become his enemy someday is more reminiscent of King Herod trying to have Jesus killed as a baby [Mt 2:13,16]! While the Bishop was a fictionalized church leader, the examples I listed earlier are very real headlines. Nevertheless, each of them is also behavior that clearly goes against the Bible. Discounting all of Christianity because of some of these bad examples would actually be to commit the logical fallacy of composition: “arguing from the part to the whole, ignoring the fact that what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.”[1] Are these perpetrators corrupt? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Christianity? Absolutely not. Their behavior doesn’t flow from the Bible, and is, in fact, opposed to it.  So next time you’re tempted to cast a cynical look at Christianity because of disobedient Christians or people only claiming to be Christians [Jn 15:8,14,16], keep that cynicism focused on the person whose actions actually warrant it, and not the faith they are disgracing.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 87.

Crime & Punishment?

Image Credit: FreeImages.com/jenni w.

We often don’t make the best decisions under stress. Salespeople often count on that impulsiveness to make a sale. That’s why, when faced with a big decision like a major purchase, the old advice is to “sleep on it.” Don’t make an impulse buy, but take some time to deliberate on it first. Sometimes, though, major life decisions are forced on you without warning. Sometimes, you’ve done everything right, and despite your best efforts to avoid bad situations, you find yourself in a tough spot, having to make a life-altering decision. Although you can’t prepare for every conceivable scenario, it’s still a good idea to work through how you would respond to a tough situation before you get in that situation. For instance, you’re less likely to cheat on an exam or steal something, regardless of the circumstances, if you’ve made the conscious decision that you won’t in advance, away from the pressure of the moment. You’re less likely to cheat on your spouse if you’ve thought through the tragic consequences of an affair before you find yourself in a tempting situation, where hormones tend to push reason out the window. But what if you’re the victim of a crime? Not just any crime, but a rape, that most invasive of crimes? What if you’re now pregnant with the child of your rapist?

Abortion is a sensitive subject that arouses strong responses on both sides of the debate. One of the most sensitive points in that debate is the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape. While this actually accounts for a very small number of abortions, it is nonetheless an emotionally powerful example. But let’s step back from the heat of the fight, and look at that case calmly and reasonably, and perhaps see a flaw in assuming abortion is a good solution for the rape victim. While a rape is,  by definition, involuntary, how one responds is within one’s control. In the aftermath, it may be tempting to get rid of the most obvious effect of a rape-induced pregnancy: the baby. But here’s precisely where one needs reason to  avoid a very permanent mistake. Rape is often used as an “obvious” justification for abortion, yet who is being punished here? The guilty rapist, the perpetrator of the awful crime? Unfortunately, no. The innocent baby is getting the death sentence, not the deserving rapist. While the rape is certainly a traumatic experience for the mother, aborting the baby is  tragically misplaced retribution that won’t bring genuine healing to her and most likely won’t even affect the rapist. Surely, the baby should not be required to take the punishment for the rapist’s crime, and pay with her life? This only takes one wrong, and adds another to it. Yet, as they say, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The abortion does not change the fact of the rape, and only adds to that wrong the death of one who had absolutely no say in how they were conceived. So how could one turn this wrong back to right?

The concept of redemption is a huge part of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is the record of God’s redemption of humankind as it has played out through history and on into the future. He brings good out of the most vile situations. Likewise, the act of choosing life for the baby can redeem even that vile act and turn it to good. In fact, I saw a speaker recently, Monica Kelsey, who is a firefighter and medic. She was also the result of her mother’s rape, and almost the victim of an abortion. But because her mother chose life for her innocent baby at the last minute, that baby has grown up and is saving lives as well. As she says, “her life was saved so she can save others”. It’s easy to talk about abortion simply as an act of compassion for the mother that was attacked  before you meet people like that and realize there are 2 victims in those cases, and you don’t help the first victim by killing the second.

Lastly, I want to say, if you, dear reader, are already in this situation, and considering abortion, I ask you to hit “pause” for a moment, and reconsider. Call 1-800-848-LOVE, 24/7/365 or visit http://www.nrlc.org/help/ to learn about the life-giving options available. You and your baby don’t have to be defined by what happened to you.