Hide & Seek

Paul speaking to the Athenians at the AreopagusOver the last couple of decades in the engineering field, I’ve had the opportunity to use several different pieces of software aimed at speeding up different aspects of engineering design. At my current job, I use several different programs for specific tasks like wood design,  steel design, or general purpose structural analysis. When they work like I think they should, life is generally good. On the other hand, when the results aren’t what I was expecting… well…. Deadlines approach quickly as I try to figure out whether the program has a bug in it, or if it is calculating something I’ve been neglecting all these years. Did the software  developers interpret some building code statement differently than I did? Who’s right? I hate not knowing why something isn’t working, and when these things happen, I’ll spend the time to get to the bottom of it. Several times, I’ve found serious program bugs that the developers corrected when I reported them. Other times, I learned I was the one that was wrong. But every time, I learned far more about a particular aspect of building design in the process of researching the issue than if things had gone smoothly. In a deadline-driven world, though, it’s all too easy to do a cursory review and say “Oh good, looks like it worked, moving on.”

Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes an interesting point about this: “We investigate what we are surprised by, not what we already know or think we know and take for granted [1].” A common complaint about God is His “hiddenness”. The skeptic says, “If only God would plainly reveal Himself to me, I would believe.” But inherent in that seemingly open-minded statement is a demand housed in the word “plainly”; namely, that God reveal Himself to me in the time and place and method of my choosing. Not only would this be different for each person, but it also would reduce God to some genie working miracles on demand. Our desire for God to make Himself known to us in the way we choose is, in effect, a desire to reverse roles and make Him subservient to us.

Instead, God has revealed Himself in His own way, first through the general revelation of the natural world, with it’s grandeur and design that are apparent to the simple and unlearned, and yet, ironically, even more apparent the deeper we explore fields like astronomy and genetics. Second, through the specific revelation given the various prophets and writers collected in the Bible. So why does He not give us “more”? It might be that He does not reveal Himself to us completely to keep us searching. Like a puzzle, we fill in what we know of Him from general and special revelation, but if He gave us every piece of the puzzle, would we still hunger and thirst for Him? Would we think we had Him all figured out (as if we could figure out an infinite God) and stop chasing after Him to focus on something else we don’t grasp yet? By keeping some of Himself just out of view, does He excite our curiosity and drive to learn? Could a deliberate hiddenness be one way He draws those to Himself who wouldn’t otherwise come to Him, who would be content with where they are? The apostle Paul, in his discussion with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, states that “…[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” The word translated as “seek” comes from the Greek word ζητέω (zeteo), meaning “to seek in order to find; to seek in order to find out by thinking, meditating, reasoning; to strive after.” This isn’t casual skimming here; this is intensive searching, analyzing, studying. This is like the last 10 minutes of an open-book final exam – pages are flying as you frantically search for what you can’t quite remember. The word “find” comes from the Greek word εὑρίσκω (heurisko) meaning “to find, learn, discover, especially after searching” or “to find by inquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation, hearing; to find out by practice and experience.” To use the college example again, this isn’t flipping the textbook open to the right page and stumbling on the answer. It’s more like the time in college I spent most of the night working one awful thermodynamics homework problem – I was definitely groping for the answer then![2] And if we ignore the collection of direct communication that God has provided, even if it’s maybe not what we want to hear, then we will be groping in the dark, though He is “not far”.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), p. 16.
[2] FYI: if your teacher normally assigns multiple problems and you get an assignment with only one problem, watch out! 😉

Getting Fitted for Heaven

Tailor´s_shop_-_Werkstatt_2As we draw near to Christmas, you can hear various “Christmas” songs on the radio and in stores and whatnot. Many of them would perhaps be better described as “winter holiday” songs, as they seem to be be completely unrelated to the story of Christ’s birth, which is, after all, the whole point of the holiday, but I digress.  One classic Christmas song that many are familiar with (or at least the first stanza), is “Away in a Manger”.  But tucked away in the 3rd stanza is this little gem:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”
– Away in a Manger, 3rd Stanza

We sang this version of this classic Christmas carol from the late 1800’s at church a couple of years ago, and that last line just really struck me. “Fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This life – the good times and the bad, the boundless joy and the heart-rending sorrow, the blessings and the trials – is a fitting process God uses to prepare us for our eternal life. And if you don’t know about that going on, this life can seem meaningless, chaotic, and tragic. One can see God’s blessings as simply good fortune/luck/serendipity, and the trials we are all subjected to ever since mankind’s initial rebellion against God as bad luck/cruel fate/karma. One can ask “Why me?” One can feel constantly blindsided by “life”. Or we can submit to the alterations of the Master Tailor, who takes our filthy rags[1] and clothes us with His righteousness[2,3,4]. He doesn’t alter the clothes to fit us (much as we might prefer in our pride), but instead alters us to fit the clothes. Like a child wearing his father’s 3-piece suit, His righteousness doesn’t fit us at all. But then He takes our deformities of pride, lust, anger, and selfishness, and straightens our crooked limbs and stretches us until we conform to His image[5]. Having been so fitted for heaven in this life, we really will feel “right at home” when we get there.


[1]  Isaiah 64:6 – “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
[2] Isaiah 61:10 – “…[H]e has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…”
[3] Matthew 22:11-13 – part of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, where the king (God) invites his chosen people (Israel) to a wedding feast, but they refuse. He then sends out the invitation to all. Verse  11 picks up with “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend’, he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Our attempts at righteousness – our rags – can never earn us a seat at God’s banquet. Only Christ’s “new clothes” make us presentable to a holy, perfect God.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is called “imputed righteousness”, where our sin is imputed, or charged, to Christ’s account, and His righteousness is imputed to us, declaring us righteous (through Him and not of ourselves).
[5] Justification could be likened to this initial “fitting” where we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification would correspond to that life-long gradual molding and conforming to God’s intent for us.

Back to Basics

Free Body Diagrams, Shear and Moment Diagrams, & Equilibrium EquationsI took an online class this fall taught by one of the leading experts in the world on connection design. He chairs several structural committees and has written much of the reference material for connection design for 30 years. I was struggling to follow what he was doing, and some other people were too, judging by the questions being asked. He chided us – rightfully so – for having become too reliant on computers and forgetting our “first principles”. For the structural engineer, these are things like free-body diagrams, moment and shear diagrams, and the equilibrium equations. These are foundational analysis methods for us, and it’s incumbent on the engineer to be familiar with the basic principles at work in complex situations. Sometimes, we might get lost in more advanced classes because we didn’t really comprehend the basic material when we studied it. Other times, it’s a case of never using it in practice and forgetting it. But in either case, the engineer lacking in these areas is responsible for correcting the situation, whether by studying hard to learn it anew, or refreshing old memories. In a class, it might be embarrassing to not remember the basics, but on the job many tragic engineering failures were ultimately traceable to neglecting basic principles.

Likewise, Christians have “first principles” that are critical for them to understand. Doctrines about the Trinity, our sinful nature, salvation, justification and sanctification, and the deity of Christ, are not just “Christianese” buzzwords or dry, musty subjects for seminary classrooms. These are not concepts reserved for the “professional Christians” to preach about on Sundays. Rather, these are foundational explanations of what it means to be a Christian, and our understanding of them impacts our daily lives whether we know it or not.  Like my class instructor, the writer of the book of Hebrews also chided his readers, saying, “For even though by this time you ought to be teaching others, you actually need someone to teach you over again the very first principles of God’s Word. You have come to need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12). There is an expectation of all of us to continue growing and maturing in our faith, both for drawing closer to God in our own lives, and for being able to pass on the what we’ve learned to those we care about (which should be everyone, by the way). 

So how do we start living this out? Consider what Luke wrote in Acts 17:11 about when Paul came to speak at the Jewish synagogue in Berea: “Now these [Bereans] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”  When you hear a preacher, do you zone out, or think about your shopping list or tasks to do later? Does the sermon go in one ear and out the other? Could you remember the main points after a few days? How can you apply lessons in your life that you don’t even remember? Instead, let me suggest taking a page from the Bereans’ playbook of intentional listening  – take notes, go home to study each day, and confirm the truthfulness of what was said and how it can apply in your life. Just like notes and homework help reinforce our academic lessons, we need to internalize and comprehend far more important spiritual lessons.

Or maybe you are striving to learn, but getting watered-down milk  at your church and left craving some meatier material to sink your teeth into. Then be proactive.

  • Seek out mature Christian mentors to learn from. They may be old with the wisdom gleaned from a long life, or they may have packed a lot of painful lessons into a short life while attending the “school of hard knocks”. Be prepared to learn in humility from whoever has something to teach you, always verifying their teaching against God’s Word. And remember, discipleship doesn’t happen in an hour every Sunday. It’s usually a long-term, committed, intensive, small-group or one-on-one training.
  • Read the classics. If there’s one benefit to our “Information Age”, it’s that many of us have more resources at our fingertips than most people throughout history have had even if they traveled to large historic libraries.  Our problems often aren’t as unique as we like to think, and you may find your question was actually answered centuries ago.
  • And above all, follow in the footsteps of the Bereans and go back to the source: Scripture. Like them, that is the standard we measure everything else against.

I say this not as a criticism of anyone, but rather as a challenge to all Christians – myself  included – to ensure we understand the groundwork of first principles that provide a foundation for an unshakeable faith.


von Braun’s Surrender

Wernher_von_Braun_smallHere’s an interesting story from WWII. Wernher von Braun developed the V2 rocket program for the Nazis, surrendered to the Americans, and played a primary role in developing the Saturn V rocket that enabled us to land a man on the moon. But why did he surrender to the Americans?

On May 2, 1945, upon finding an American private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division, von Braun’s brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, approached the soldier on a bicycle, calling out in broken English: “My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender.” After the surrender, von Braun spoke to the press:

“We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

Let that sink in for a minute. One regarded as the greatest rocket scientist of all time chose who would get his powerful knowledge – knowledge that could be used for incredible good or evil – based on the idea that only a people guided by the Bible could be trusted with that knowledge. Why is that? What is it about the Bible that would offer him any hope that the US would not abuse this advantage once they had it?

First, the Bible sets the standard of right and wrong outside of man’s control. No king or president or prime minister (or even popular majority) can redefine what is right or wrong. Right is what is consistent with God’s unchanging character, while wrong is whatever is contrary to that, no matter who does it or how many do it. Thus, no one is above God’s law.

Second, the Bible establishes a standard binding not simply our outward actions, but our innermost thoughts as well. Not murdering someone isn’t good enough, for God sees the motives of our hearts and says we are not even to hate our brother, even if we never act on it. Similarly, stealing, lying, and every other unethical behavior all start with a thought, and Jesus addresses the problem (the action) at the source (the thought) as no other religion or worldview does.

Third, the Christian concept of grace flies in the face of any other world religion when it cleaves merit from salvation. The Bible tells us that there is no amount of good deeds that can earn our salvation. Rather, it is a freely and lovingly offered gift from God for us to either gratefully accept, or reject at our own peril. This then removes the motive of self-interest from the good deeds we do for others. We then help others not to “score points” with God, but to express our gratitude for all He’s done for us and pass on our blessings to others – “Freely you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

So in the end, a people guided by the Bible would perform good actions generated from right thoughts and pure motives. Will a whole nation of people all do that? No. Will any of us consistently do that 100% of the time? Not in our own strength. Only God’s transformative renewal in us can accomplish that. But von Braun correctly saw that the people with that as their aim would be a better safehouse for power than the nation without such a standard.

Would someone with incredibly destructive knowledge entrust it to our country now, knowing the world would be a safer place because of our integrity and our adherence to an unwavering divine standard of right conduct? Sadly, I think it would be questionable.

“Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent, and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” – Revelation 2:5, Jesus speaking to the church of Ephesus and just maybe to us as well.

“Spaghetti Bowls” & The BIG Picture

Large highway interchange under construction in South AfricaEvery week for the last couple of years I have driven through a large highway interchange under construction just a few blocks from my office (and probably will for another year).  Recently, a large portion of my commute has turned into a multiyear construction zone as that highway and it’s associated bridges and ramps are reworked to add more lanes. This isn’t as bad as it might sound. I actually enjoy watching these large-scale construction projects, and try to see as much as I can while driving through (without causing an accident).
For a classic “spaghetti bowl” interchange, multiple elevated highway crossings are being built at the same time from one end of the project to the other. Some interchanges can have 5 different levels of highways crossing over and around and through each other in a dizzying display of coordinated chaos. While the new interchange here is no record-breaker, there were still 7 cranes in a relatively small area lifting multiple girders into place after the Friday afternoon rush hour one day.  Coordination like that and long-term sequencing of future events that often have to be completed in a specific, precise order to even be feasible are critical to the success of one of these projects. Complications like weather and working around existing traffic with minimal interruption  only add to the challenge.
As an engineer, I know that every step of the project has already been mapped out long before spectators like me ever see the actual construction begin. Even knowing that, it’s still fascinating to watch large projects like interchanges take shape. When you see several ramps being started at various points around the perimeter of the interchange, it can make for a lot of questions of how they’ll eventually snake through the future maze of crossings to connect. Ironically, all my questions 2 years into watching this project unfold were already answered on the plans before I even knew this project was going to be built.
Similarly, we see life unfolding little by little, never seeing the detailed plans except in hindsight, if at all. Some might say there is no “master plan” at all. I think our view is a very narrow and short-sighted, ground-level view that leaves us bewildered by new changes. We make plans to merge or exit, and suddenly find barricades across our path and a giant “DETOUR” sign confronting us. Meanwhile, God, that greatest of engineers, sees the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and is arranging the construction zone of this world according to His master plan.  Sometimes it may inconvenience us, sometimes we may even suffer in the process (Acts 9:16), but we can know that His plan is the best overall good that can be accomplished in this world. Paul tells us in Acts 17 that “…He determined the times set for them and the exact times they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” And God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).  We can take comfort in the fact that whatever we may go through in this broken world, it’s not a surprise to God. His plans are robust ones; He can take all of our hurts and pain, and even our rebellion, and accomplish His plan. In fact, in the story of Joseph, we see that He can even take the  betrayal of one’s own family and turn it for good : Joseph told his brothers “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20). Will we always see the good result in the end like Joseph? Not necessarily. Many missionaries have been killed by the very people they desperately loved and to whom they wanted to bring the good news of Christ, and the fruit of that sacrifice didn’t reveal itself till many years later. But our faith – our trust – is not in chance or karma or serendipity. We trust in the all-knowing Creator who designed all we see, from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies, from the simplest salt crystal to the complex system of tens of trillions of cells making up our own bodies. He lays out the master plan – the big picture – and fine-tunes the details like no human engineer ever has. Just a thought from my commute to yours 🙂

Alphabet Soup

DNA_animation


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.


1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.

The Storms of Life

Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast
Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast

On November 15th, 1860, the lamp of the rebuilt lighthouse on Minots Ledge in Massachusetts was turned on for the first time. The notoriously rough seas of the area had shipwrecked dozens of ships and destroyed the first lighthouse erected on iron pilings cemented into the stone of the reef a few years earlier, and that after only a few months in operation. After that lighthouse on iron stilts was destroyed in the 1850s, it was replaced with the current one made out of 2,360 tons of granite. In fact, the first 40 feet of the lighthouse is solid granite made of interlocking stones chiseled precisely to interlock with each other and the jagged rock ledge it’s built on (check out the blueprint at the bottom of this post). Interestingly, this particular “jobsite” was only available to work on for about 2-3 hours a day at low tide in calm weather, took 5 years to construct because of this, and was the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the US. But 154 years later, and this solid rock still stands, it’s light still visible 15 miles out to sea, even though waves have occasionally gone completely over the top of the 97′ high lighthouse. While the lighthouse isn’t particularly beautiful on its own, the addition of especially horrendous and otherwise destructive waves makes it very photogenic and awe-inspiring. It is the storm that highlights the hidden character and strength of the lighthouse.

Sometimes, storms come into our lives that threaten to destroy us: disabling injuries, natural disasters, long-term illnesses. Maybe you’ve been through a car wreck with months or years of recovery (if at all). Maybe a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami has literally wiped away all signs of your “life” in a matter of seconds. Maybe you’ve battled cancer, where the doctor’s “good news” was surgery and/or months of chemotherapy or radiation, followed by tests and hopes of cure/remission, only to be set back by the cancer returning twice as aggressive. Or maybe  you’ve just received the crushing diagnosis of late-stage cancer and you only have weeks to live. Sometimes the storm in your life is the stress of caring for a loved one with a terminal disease, the heartbreak of seeing your children go down a dark path in life where you fear for their life, or the anxiety from losing one’s source of income (but none of the bills). It seems there are a thousand different ways to be beaten and battered by life’s storms, and so few ways to stay standing.  Similarly, there were many inadequate ways to build the lighthouse at Minots Ledge, but one way that has stood strong through the worst of storms.

Are there lessons here for us? I think so. First off, if our life is founded on the Rock of Christ and dovetailed into that Rock of Ages such that the storm surge increases the strength of our foundation rather than pulling it apart, then we can stand firm even when the storms of life submerge us, just like the Minots Ledge lighthouse. In fact, our steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds may very well be the “photograph” someone else needs to see in the depths of their life storm to encourage them and keep them from giving up. But the key is the foundation. An iron will is useless with feet of clay, but the whole spectrum of human effort is like subtle grades of clay compared to the bedrock that is Christ Jesus.
Second, the lighthouse doesn’t just sit on the solid rock, but is fitted to it like a jigsaw puzzle and pinned in place; it has become one with the rock ledge.  Likewise, knowing about God isn’t enough. That’s like just sitting on the surface of the rock waiting to be swept off by the first storm.
Third, the individual stones of the lighthouse dovetail together beautifully. This is exemplified when Jesus tells us “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Our beliefs are fragile when they’re compartmentalized. But when they interlock together in an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual fortress fitted into the unmoving rock of Christ, we are storm-proof in Him.

Minot's Ledge Drawing - courtesy of http://research.archives.gov

Lost Compasses

compass_smallMy latest bulletin from the Oklahoma Engineering Board had an article about engineering ethics and the following excerpt struck me.

It has taken generations for professional engineers and professional land surveyors to create the level of public trust that they have been afforded. Unfortunately, years of competent and ethical conduct can be destroyed very quickly by one unethical decision. One such serious breach of the public trust happened in Oklahoma just a few years ago.  A city’s Public Works department was racked with a bribery scandal involving one of its own professional engineers and other professional engineers in the private sector. After pleading guilty to the charges, the professional engineers were sentenced to jail time and assessed large fines.  Following disciplinary investigations and hearings, the Board revoked each of their PE licenses.  As a way of explanation for this unethical and illegal behavior, the attorney for one of the engineers told the court that his client had ‘lost his moral compass’. [emphasis mine]

I used compasses a lot in the Army. They’re nice tools. They’re also susceptible to error. I remember the Land Navigation course at Camp Williams, UT had one mountainside that was very iron-rich. Finding waypoints in that area was difficult because of the havoc magnetic materials wreak on compasses. You had to work off of known points and correct the heading your compass was telling you in those areas. Otherwise, you could truly go around in circles. You may get through most of the course trusting this handy little tool, but if you follow it when it clearly doesn’t match up with reality (i.e. I know that mountain is to my north, but my compass says it’s to my south…), then you are setting yourself up for failure, much like these unnamed engineers did. In fact, as I learned in the army, and as my cross-country flights for my pilot’s license later reminded me, compasses don’t match up exactly with reality to begin with. We say a compass points north, but a compass actually points to magnetic north, which generally does not line up with  true north. So as useful as a compass is for pointing you in roughly the right direction, precise navigation with one requires using a map that tells you the “declination angle”, or how much magnetic north and true north differ in your area. Where I lived, it was a 15.3° difference.

It really comes down to a matter of truth, whether that’s true north versus magnetic north when you’re physically lost, or truth versus error when morally lost. It can be said that something is true when it correlates with reality. If it is objectively true in this manner, then it is true regardless of our perceptions or rationalizations. Reality, then, is a known reference point that we can use to check  ourselves.  For instance, even if I’m red-green colorblind, there are tests one can do to verify that the color of light being reflected off of some grass is, in fact, green, thereby validating the statement that “the grass is green”.  But what of non-physical questions such as the ones that typically form ethical dilemmas? We need a known point of reference in those areas also to calibrate our “moral compasses” and correct them if needed.  What “known point”, – what benchmark – can straighten our meandering paths through ethical quagmires?

  • As our position changes, it should be unchanging for us to figure out how far off track we are (like a  “resection” in land nav).  If unchanging, this known point, or standard, would be applicable universally, i.e. multiple people could reference it to “fix”, or locate, their position on the map.  Likewise, a good ethical reference point should not be subjective. It should apply equally to all, from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.
  •   A known point is also applicable without respect to time. You could likely figure out your location each year on vacation in Yosemite by looking for Half-Dome or El Capitan as those huge cliffs aren’t moving year to year. Using the snowplow on the side of the road as a reference point because it’s been in the same spot your entire week of vacation likely won’t help next year. Another example of this is how a homeowner’s property lines may be determined off a monument marker a surveyor set as a known point over 100 years prior. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be just as valid whether it’s 2014, or 1914, or 2114.
  • A good known point is easily identifiable. Trying to shoot an accurate compass bearing to “the 15th tree down from the 3rd boulder over” when there’s a giant rock spire jutting from a barren mountainside a few hundred feet away is just silly. Use the obvious landmark. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be obvious. For instance, if your ethical standard requires lengthy research on your part to agree that something as horrible as say, torturing babies for fun, is wrong, then I strongly suggest you find a better ethical “landmark”.

Is there a system of ethics that can provide us the known point we seek? A comparison of the several different and highly nuanced ethical systems and variations of each will have to wait for another day (and probably take several posts to even scratch the surface) but consider this: the combination of deontological and classic virtue ethics found in the Christian Bible provides an unmoving reference point in the character of God that applies equally to all people in all places and at all times. It explains the notion that some things really are inherently wrong (like torturing babies for fun) and are not “wrong for you but OK for me”.  It provides a readily identifiable reference for us in God’s holy character. “Is this activity I’m considering (i.e. bribery) in line with God’s character?” No? Then don’t do it! Done, compass calibrated. Move on down the road.

Engineering a “More Perfect Union”

Constitutional Signing_Small
Today, on this Election Day here in the US, I want to take a break from talking about correlations between engineering design and Christianity to point out similar correlations with our electoral system. Sometimes tiresome political ads and mudslinging candidates can make us forgetful of what a well-planned system of government we were given. Have you ever gotten a kit with detailed instructions for assembling all of the parts that have been carefully designed to work in unison efficiently once fully assembled? Have you ever skimmed through the directions of a complicated kit, or even ignored them entirely, and finally, hours or days later, had to start over again following the directions to the letter? Engineered products often have interdependent parts and require assembly in a particular order to function, whether talking about a skyscraper, a sports car, or your kid’s Christmas gift. It turns out the same applies to elections.

Our Founding Fathers were all too familiar with our fallen human nature so thoroughly explained in the Bible. They and their ancestors had come to these shores fleeing the abuses of power resulting from that propensity toward evil. They had seen for themselves the tendency of kings toward such abuses, as described in the Bible millennia before in 1 Samuel 8.  So they decided to eliminate that possibility by forming a very weak, decentralized government through the Articles of Confederation, but it was too ineffective to take it’s place among the nations of the world.  And so they sought to form a “more perfect union”, a government limited in its power over the people, accountable to the people, with power spread out in different branches and with the branches countering each other through many “checks and balances” to prevent the inevitable power plays that people dream up when given authority over others. They also recognized the tendency of a true democracy to deteriorate into mob rule, a “might makes right” condition best described as 2 wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner.   The middle road between tyranny of the government and tyranny of the majority was our Constitutional Republic, a government bound by the Rule of Law rather than the whims of the men in authority or majority.  But one key component of this experiment in self-governance was an informed, dutiful, and moral citizenry: informed both on current issues and history, so that they can make wise decisions for the future and not repeat the mistakes of the past; dutiful in that they would not be apathetic and leave their responsibility for self-governance in the hands of those all too eager to assume more authority; and yes, moral, in that only a moral people will do the right thing, even when it’s not in their own self-interest. In the words of our 2nd president, John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

So, much like a thoughtfully designed product (which it is, really), our political system has some key components that are vital to its functioning correctly. And when we try to operate it without those parts in place, we will continue to be frustrated by it malfunctioning.  Let’s look back to the instructions left us by the designers of our Republic, and get back to building it and maintaining it as it was intended. While this 2014 election has come to a close, may I heartily ask a future favor of everyone – study to know what and who you’re voting for, take part in your governance all the time, not just once every 2-4 years in a general election, and vote for what is right and not just what is popular, or “feels good”, or benefits you personally at the expense of others.

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.

At the intersection of faith and design