Does Objective Truth Matter?

“What is Truth?” Christ and Pilate, by Nikolai Ge, 1890.

Does objective truth – and specifically objective moral truth – matter for Christians? In a survey of teenagers conducted by Barna Research on Feb 12, 2002, 83% of those teenagers said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% overall said moral truth is absolute. Of those who identified as born-again Christians, only 9% agreed that moral truth is unchanging and not relative to the situation. Those teenagers of 17 years ago are now the middle-aged backbone of our working society, as well as parents raising the next generation. But does that dim view of objective moral truth even matter in our time? Let’s work through that today.

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A Response to Serene Jones

Resurrection of Christ, by Carl Bloch, 1875

The NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, in an op-ed entitled “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The responses, like the one referenced in his op-ed’s title, can only be described as bizarre to hear coming from someone claiming to be a Christian. But this is what is being held up as Christianity to a watching world in the pages of a major media outlet, so it warrants a response. I encourage you to click the link above to read the whole article for yourself. Then let’s work through some of the more glaring issues and see how this stacks up against actual Christianity.

Continue reading A Response to Serene Jones

Lest We Forget What God Has Done

Entry of the Christ in Jerusalem – by Jean Leon Gerome, 1897.

As we have just celebrated Palm Sunday, and are looking forward to Easter next Sunday, I am reminded of the strong historical emphasis in the Bible. Why is that significant? Let’s work through that today.

Palm Sunday is the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while people honored Him like a king by putting their cloaks and palm branches in the road before Him [Mt 21:8]. Good Friday commemorates the day later that week that Jesus was crucified and buried [Jn 19:41-42]. Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, is the day He rose from the dead, accomplishing the mission He came here for [Mk 16:1-8]. Notice that these are all public, rather than private, events. For instance, when Moses beheld the burning bush in the desert, and heard God speaking to him from it, that was a private event; Moses was the only human there to tell what happened. However, God later confirmed that He was working through Moses via some very public events in Egypt in the form of the plagues He brought on the Egyptians. And while the Bible records a variety of private events like dreams and visions, it is interesting how often God points us back to public events that could be confirmed by multiple witnesses as testimony of His trustworthiness in the present and future. For instance, the apostle Paul refers to the Resurrection as having provided proof to all men that Jesus is the one chosen by God to judge the world [Ac 17:31]. And as Paul told King Agrippa at his trial, these things weren’t “done in a corner” [Ac 26:26]. Indeed, Paul writes to the Corinthian church listing the various witnesses of Christ, and mentions the fact that over 500 people saw Him at one time after His resurrection, many of whom were still alive at that time [1Co 15:3-8]; his readers could fact-check him if they wanted. The apostle John consistently refers to the fact that he and the other disciples had been present during Jesus’ life, and had witnessed His message and His miracles [Jn 19:34-35, 21:13-14, 1Jn 1:1-3]. Luke wasn’t a direct witness, but sought to compile a more orderly account of all the initial eyewitness reports of what happened [Lk 1:2-3], and noted that the witnesses had seen, heard, and touched Jesus after the Resurrection (i.e. Jesus was alive in the flesh and not simply a ghost or vision) [Lk 24:37-43]. And God Himself repeatedly pointed the Israelites back to the historical fact that He had miraculously rescued them out of Egypt [Ex 20:2, Lv 11:45, De 7:8, Am 2:10, etc]. In fact, He established a yearly ritual (the Feast of Unleavened Bread) to remind them of this Passover event [Ex 12:14, 25-27]. Later, when Joshua led them across the parted Jordan River, he had a monument erected with stones from the bottom of the river specifically to remind their descendants of what God had done for them in the past [Jos 4:6-7].

Why is the distinction between private and public events important? Private events depend on the truthfulness of the one recounting the event, while their account of a public event can be refuted by other witnesses if it doesn’t correspond with reality. For instance, Islam hinges on Mohammad actually being visited by an angel while he was alone in a cave. Mormonism depends on Joseph Smith actually being visited by an angel. Appealing to the actual occurrence of historical events is problematic for scammers (such as Smith’s supposed “Reformed Egyptian” that he tried claiming he had translated), but not for those telling the truth.

So, as we Christians have just celebrated one historic event and prepare to celebrate the turning point of all human history, I am grateful that God has established a public record to remind us of His actions throughout history. While there is revelation given to certain individuals directly in the Bible, God also often provided public signs and miracles to attest to the authenticity of their prophecies. We memorialize things with monuments so that we “never forget”, and God has likewise set up a string of historical events to serve as markers of His faithfulness – monuments to remind us lest we forget what God has done.

Closed-Form Solutions & the Case for God

Sample of Finite Element Analysis output of an eccentric beam connection. Author’s own work.

I was recently watching a series of classroom videos on Finite Element Analysis (FEA), and the professor mentioned that FEA is not a classical closed-form solution, but rather an iterative, open-form solution. What on earth does that mean, and how could it possibly relate to looking at the case for God? Let’s work through that this week.

First, let me give some background so you can maybe see why a nerd like me would make that connection. A closed-form solution, in this context, is where you can simply solve an equation  to find the unknown variable. For instance, in my practice of structural engineering, the deflection of a cantilever beam may be something I need to know as I’m sizing the beam. If the beam conforms to certain assumptions like a constant cross section, constant material stiffness, a uniform load, and so forth, I have a simple equation: \Delta = \frac{wL^4} {8EI}. If it’s a concentrated load at the end, there’s a slightly different equation. These equations are each derived from beam deflection theory for a specific boundary condition, like a cantilever, or a simple span beam, and they provide exact answers. We engineers like exact answers. It’s nice to be able to say “this beam will only deflect 1.21 inches under that load, which is still acceptable.” I like closed form solutions because they are directly solvable for the variable I’m looking for, but sometimes, even with tables of equations for dozens of different conditions, there are no closed-form solutions, or they are too complex to use, or it would take a while to derive the equation from scratch. An open-form solution like the approximation methods used in FEA is iterative and relies on the results of previous attempts. FEA models a component like a beam with lots of little pieces that can each respond differently, so I’m not quite as limited by simplifying assumptions. Think of a beam made out of lots of LEGO® bricks.  Each brick (a “finite element”) is connected to multiple other bricks, and the total strength of the beam depends on the behavior of all of those individual connections. In general, the smaller the bricks, the more accurately you can represent the beam. But as the number of LEGO® bricks increases, the time to calculate all of those interconnections increases exponentially. That type of solution gets complex pretty quickly, and requires a computer for any problem worth solving. But it also doesn’t produce an exact solution. It iterates, or repeats the calculations with different input values until the successive estimates begins to converge. In other words, it runs through the thousands of equations over and over until the results aren’t changing much with each pass, and are within a tolerance the user sets for what is “close enough”. And what is “close enough”? That’s going to vary with the user and the type of problem being solved. Also, another engineer could try solving the exact same problem with a different mesh size (i.e. bigger or smaller LEGOs) and arrive at different results since it’s not just the beam properties that determine the answer now, but the modeling choices like mesh sizes, convergence tolerances, and iteration method.  So why would I want to use a complicated, inexact, and sometimes difficult to verify process like that? FEA lets me solve things I couldn’t otherwise. Some problems get far outside the simplifying assumptions of our various formulas, and FEA (done correctly), is the best option for finding a solution, even if it isn’t exact.

Now, what if our search for “proof” of the existence of God is like that open-form calculation? I often read forum comments from skeptics wanting “proof” of God’s existence: an end-all silver bullet that would provide a 100% certain, undeniable answer. And until they get that 100% certainty, they refuse to believe. But that’s like wanting that exact, closed-form solution to some complex engineering problem for which there is no formula. Also, even if I had a nice formula for something, those “exact” answers are often based on simplifying assumptions, such that the “approximate” solution from my finite element model of a complex design may actually match up better with reality. If I held out for an exact solution, I might never get my answer even though maybe a minute of my computer working through Newton’s Method will get me close enough to finish designing that component and move on to the next task. Moreover, we don’t normally expect anywhere near 100% certainty about anything else in life. Most decisions in life are made with far more uncertainty because, whether we know it or not, we use a process called “abductive reasoning”, or “reasoning to the best inference,” to arrive at a reasonable answer in the face of uncertainty or missing information. In the case of the existence of God, there isn’t one knockdown argument that yields certainty for everyone, but there are a host of different arguments that all converge on the same answer: the world we observe is the result of intentional, purposeful, goal-oriented interaction best explained by the God revealed in the Bible. It’s a cumulative case that becomes more and more certain as we see more lines of evidence and reasoning trending toward the same result. And at some point, which varies from person to person, the convergence of the objective evidence gets within our subjective tolerance where we finally have to either accept where the evidence is leading and bow the knee to our Lord, or deny reason itself to maintain our rejection of Him.

If you’ve been a skeptic toward God, I encourage you to look at your expectations. Have you set an unreasonable standard? Let me ask you, if Christianity were true, would you believe it? If not, that should concern you. If you’d answer “Of course, but it’s not true,” think about what evidence you would accept. Don’t be content with “I just need more”, but seriously contemplate what your “convergence tolerance” is. What kind of evidence will you accept? How much is enough? Why do you discount some types of evidence, and are those really good reasons to do so? Will you gamble with your eternal soul over a 10% uncertainty? How about 1%? Or 0.01%?  Interestingly, in FEA, a sufficiently accurate result for most structural problems can be had in seconds to minutes, while asking for more accurate approximations can make the solution time increase exponentially, requiring hours to days, and often with only marginal differences that don’t change the final design and don’t justify the extra time. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed for any of us, so don’t waste your life demanding the nth degree of proof when the evidence you’ve already seen is sufficient to know the truth and decide accordingly. As the Bible warns, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” [Heb 4:7]

Movie Review: “Unplanned”

Poster for the movie “Unplanned”

I don’t get out to the movie theater very often, but this past weekend was an unusually good reason to go. Instead of the more typical brain rot on the big screen, a rare message of life, redemption, love, and forgiveness was premiering. Unplanned is the story of Abby Johnson, a young rising star in the ranks of Planned Parenthood who had become their youngest clinic director and been selected as employee of the year. That all changed, however, when she was asked to help the abortionist in an actual procedure by holding the ultrasound transducer so he could see the fetus he was about to kill. Talking points about “reproductive health” and “women’s rights” with regard to abortion are unmasked as the lies they are when it comes to actually seeing another human’s body getting its limbs ripped off and sucked down a suction tube as a result of those “rights”. That critical scene in the movie highlights why ultrasound, and the knowledge it brings, are so useful to the pro-life side of the debate, and so devastating to the pro-abortion side. Hence, abortion supporters must make strange claims like the one in The Atlantic in 2017 (here) that tried to paint ultrasound as a bad thing used by male doctors to focus on the fetus and bypass their women patients. Rather than being a tool of some conspiratorial patriarchy, ultrasound is simply a valuable tool that dramatically increases our knowledge when we can’t directly see something, whether that’s a doctor looking at a human fetus, a veterinarian looking at a dog’s stomach, or a weld inspector using very similar equipment to find hidden flaws in welds (like I’ve personally done). Honestly, some of the defenses of abortion would be funny if they weren’t so sad.

Now, for the review. This movie has had an uphill struggle, from getting an R rating, to a very limited opening in only 1,059 theaters nationwide, to TV and radio networks refusing to air advertisements for the movie, to Twitter suspending their account on opening weekend (just a coincidence, nothing to see here people, keep moving), to Twitter mysteriously decimating their follower count the next day before restoring it again. And yet, the film doubled its expected opening weekend revenue of $3M with a final tally of $6.1 million. That was enough to put it at #4 in the nation for the weekend. Not bad for a low budget film ($6M budget) opening in only a third to one quarter of the theaters of the next 3 films above it.

I thought the movie did a good job of not demonizing Planned Parenthood staff, but rather conveyed that they really did believe (even if wrongly) that they were helping women. The movie also explained that God offers forgiveness to those who repent of wrongdoing. His grace is freely available to all: the women who’ve had abortions like Abby; the men who’ve pressured women into getting an abortion; the doctors like Dr. Anthony Levantino, [1] who performed hundreds of abortions before becoming pro-life, forsaking killing to return to the doctor’s call to “do no harm”; and clinic directors like Abby, who realized the part she played in arranging the snuffing out of so many lives and asks at one point how God could forgive her.  The movie shows through Abby’s story how overwhelming that guilt and grief can be when someone realizes what they’ve done, but also how freeing and life-changing it can be when they bring that sin before God and ask His forgiveness.

The film also did a better job than Christian films have in the past,  I think, of showing the complexity of the people involved. Abby’s story is not a 1-dimensional caricature of the “evil abortion provider”. Rather, it shows her coming from a pro-life home, having considered herself pro-life growing up, getting involved with Planned Parenthood in college, and attending church services and having awkward dinner conversations with her family as she worked for the abortion chain. There is a lot of dissonance in her life as she tries to balance living in two different worlds, and Ashley Bratcher did a great job conveying the full spectrum of this story vividly. The supporting cast did exactly what they were supposed to do – support the story. No show-stealing or upstaging here like you sometimes get when there’s too many stars in a movie. In fact, if you’re looking for big names, you won’t find any here. However, to be honest, I’ve seen enough “star-studded” movies that were simply awful; I’ll take a good story over a big name any day.

While this movie delivers a good well-told story of redemption, it also delivers a very sobering reality check for a country that wants to yell at each other about abortion without really dealing with what abortion is. And just as seeing the grisly procedure up close and personal “changed everything” for her, it should for all of us as well. The movie ends with a number that viewers can text if they happen to work in the abortion industry and want out. Just as a clinic director like Abby was able to get out of Murder, Inc., so can others. I would just encourage everyone – pro-life, pro-abortion, and anyone on the fence – to go see this movie and think about it. If you’ve seen it, what did you think? And if you are one who doesn’t want to see it, I’d especially like to hear from you: why don’t you want to see it? Until next time, blessings, y’all!

[1] What would a movie review be without some trivia? Dr. Levantino actually plays the first doctor in the movie.