Tag Archives: Apathy

The Benefit of Deadlines

Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Pedro Simao

As I’m preparing this year for a big engineering exam, I am reminded of the benefit of deadlines. Yes, I said benefit. As much as I hate the pressure of a deadline, whether it’s on a regular project at work or my upcoming exam, I have to admit, it’s better to have a deadline. The procrastinators out there may disagree at first, but I speak as one of you. And if you’re like me, and have procrastinated and gotten burned before, you know deep down that having an indefinite amount of time to accomplish something is the worst gift we can receive. As I can readily attest, studying can just be blown off too easily without a set goal or deadline, but having a test date set motivates us to study like nothing else. The need to study suddenly becomes very real. As I’m watching videos from a review course, and working through practice problems on my weekends now, and collecting reference books I was missing, and highlighting and underlining and tabbing my books like mad, I’m wishing I’d been this motivated over the last several years! But as important as this exam is to me, this all pales in comparison to the critical importance of being reconciled with God. The Bible warns us that it is appointed once for man to die, then the judgement [Heb 9:27-28]. Sadly, that is one deadline that we often go out of our way to ignore. It’s hard to fix a problem we don’t recognize, so let’s work through two potentially disastrous responses to life’s most important deadline.

Although scientific giant Blaise Pascal lived almost 400 years ago, he diagnosed modern American culture pretty well. He wrote in his Pensées about two dangerous responses to God: diversion and indifference. Although some of the diversions are different now, we still choose to busy ourselves with anything imaginable rather than to think about death or examine our lives. Between our jobs and/or school, and our hobbies, and social media and TV, and encouraging our kids to play on 3 different sports teams at the same time while in band and 10 different after-school activities, we don’t have a minute a day that isn’t filled with hustle and bustle. And though we complain about how busy we are, we actually want the busyness, for it keeps us from contemplation. But, as Pascal warns, “diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”[1] No matter what we fill our days with, we must fill them with something, lest we have time to think, and, as philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, “look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it. “[2] Man’s solution is to not think about it – “ostrich epistemology” as Kreeft calls it.

But there is also that second pitfall: indifference. The diverted person is too distracted to even notice his car is about to run off a cliff until it is too late; the indifferent see the danger but don’t care. Pascal rightly observes, “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is.”[3] And again, “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.”[4] Or as Kreeft puts it, “We are more put out at missing a parking place than at missing our place in Heaven”. [5] Whether this indifference is manifested in a hedonism that says “let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, or a nihilistic apathy that asks “what’s the point of caring?”, or an arrogant skepticism that says “I glanced at that and promptly dismissed it since it would interfere with the way I want to live”, it is just as inexcusable. If you’ve lived very long on this earth, you’ve known friends and family who haven’t. Death is one certainty in life, and it doesn’t take long to see that it can come to each of us at any time. Sicknesses, accidents, wars, natural disasters, malicious or negligent actions of others like robbers or drunk drivers – the list of ways we can meet our physical death is long, and nobody can predict how much time they will have. Therefore, it behooves us to make wise use of the time given us, and not put off this critical investigation until tomorrow, when tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.

Dr. Kreeft, reflecting on Pascal’s longer treatment of these two dangers,  warns that “Diversion and indifference are the devil’s two most successful weapons against faith and salvation, the two widest roads to Hell in today’s world.”[6] They are paths of no resistance, for the first blocks the victim’s view of the danger, and the second dulls the perception of it.  But just as diversion and indifference are not reasonable courses of action for me preparing for my exam, neither are they reasonable paths to follow when it comes to your eternal destiny. As Pascal said, “[T]here are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all of their heart because they know Him and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know him.”[7] Listen then, to reason, and seek God while He may be found [Is 55:6-7].


Note: The Pensées (“thoughts” in French) are fragments of Pascal’s uncompleted magnum opus, and were left unorganized at his death at the age of only 39. Different editions organize them differently. If you get a book based on the Krailsheimer numbering, use the reference below with a K. The Brunschvicg numbering is indicated by a B.
[1] Pascal Pensées 171 (B), 414 (K).
[2] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées – Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 168.
[3] Pensées, 194 (B), 427 (K)
[4] ibid., 198 (B), 632 (K)
[5] Kreeft, p. 203.
[6] Kreeft, p. 188.
[7]Pascal, 194 (B), 427 (K)

A Dangerous Perception

The 9.1 magnitude Japan earthquake of 2011, as recorded at the Hokkaido Station seismograph.

A colleague and I were talking the other day about the difficulties in conveying the dangers of rare events to people. The site conditions for projects we were each working on had triggered some seismic provisions that can be very costly to design for, and to build. Unfortunately, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other relatively rare events are easy to blow off… until they happen to you.  Who wants to spend money or time preparing for something that is (in their mind) unlikely to happen in their lifetime?  Especially when it’s going to cost a lot? It doesn’t help that our part of the world has the potential for a high magnitude earthquake (M7.0+), but hasn’t had one in just over 200 hundred years. While it’s good that major earthquakes are rare here, one bad side effect is apathy and an unspoken rule of “out of sight, out of mind”. This tendency to not appreciate danger that is perceived as distant or unlikely to occur isn’t just an obstacle for engineers trying to justify their fees to clients. People often have the same mindset when it comes to spiritual matters, and that’s what I’d like to work through today.

We’ll wear helmets on our bikes and seat belts in our cars because of the dangers of vehicle accidents; we’ll put non-slip treads on stairs because of the potential for falls; we’ll put nets and cushions around trampolines because of accidents there; we’ll even stop eating things we like and start eating things we hate to stave off various diseases – we’ll take all sorts of precautions to protect our frail physical lives that are often here today and gone tomorrow despite our best efforts, but we won’t look to the safety of our eternal souls. Isn’t that an odd ordering of priorities? Small dangers can loom large in our view while much greater dangers are perceived as unimportant. And yet, none of us are guaranteed our next breath, much less the next day/month/year/decade. Death, that heavy curtain we just can’t see past, can close on us at any time. But that is actually just the short-term danger. For the Bible tells us some of what is beyond that black curtain: judgement, but not on our terms.

I’ve heard some people say that that if they died and found themselves in the presence of the God they had denied all these years, they would surely demand that He justify His actions throughout human history to them – as if they weren’t less than a speck of dust before His might that created the universe out of nothing, as if they weren’t a moral cesspool in comparison to His perfect goodness, as if they weren’t the intellectual equivalent of a bacterium in comparison to His omnipotence and wisdom [Ro 9:20, Ps 103:14, Isa 45:9, Dan 4:35]. I pray they realize the arrogance and folly of their statements before that hypothetical scenario becomes reality for them, because that trial scene will be very one-sided, and it won’t be them asking the questions. Indeed, we will all appear before God one day [Heb 9:27], on God’s terms. What does that mean?  It means that perfection is the standard to meet [Rom 3:23, Dt 32:4]. It means that we will answer for every word and deed and thought [Mt 12:36, Heb 4:12-13]. It means that if we can’t meet that standard, then we need a proxy – a substitute – who can, and is willing to, take our place and represent us before the judgement seat of God. That one is Jesus Christ [Jn 1:29, 2Co 5:21, 1Tim 2:5-6].

Don’t make the mistake of protecting yourself from the little things that can only affect this life, and neglect the real possibility of entering eternity without having reconciled with your Creator (and Judge) on His terms. Just as many of the earthquakes of the past came when people least expected, you could find yourself standing before God in the blink of an eye. Make the investment now that will make that meeting an occasion of joy rather than terror.

Sharpen Your Pencil

Photo Credit: freeimages.com/Beate W

“Let me sharpen my pencil and see if we can’t make that beam size work with the extra load the owner wants.” What does sharpening pencils have to do with designing beams? That’s simply an old expression in engineering regarding the need for greater accuracy in some particularly critical calculations. We tend to use a lot of approximations and rules of thumb that we know are not exact but will err on the side of caution. While a safe design is our duty to the public; a safe design produced in a timely manner makes for happy clients and keeps us in business. But sometimes, those typical procedures and quick approximations result in a design that doesn’t meet some project requirement. And while computers have replaced nomographs and graphical analysis methods – and the need to keep a sharp point on one’s pencil to get a more accurate result – we still use that expression to signify when the situation warrants a more detailed design. Back in the days of solving something by drawing similar triangles, the method – pencil and paper and straightedge – was often the limiting factor on our accuracy. Now, computerized methods allow us to be as accurate as we could ever need, so sharpening the pencil now is more about our assumptions. Did I assume a higher typical load than what is actually present on the current project? Did I use a simpler formula that doesn’t account for various load reductions or strength increases that actually could be applied to my current project? However, sometimes, in sharpening the pencil and wading into the details, we find that a particular situation isn’t quite as similar to past projects as we thought, and our assumptions we thought were conservative are actually overlooking critical factors. And that’s an issue I see outside of engineering as well.

One’s eternal fate is of critical importance. No one is promised their next breath, so where you’ll be a few minutes after your last breath, whenever it comes, is not something you want to miscalculate. What assumptions are you making that you need to revisit?

  • “The idea of God is outdated stone-age superstition and simply unnecessary now.”  Regardless of how old the idea of God is, that doesn’t make it unnecessary. We still need an explanation for the world around us, and scientific observation can only go so far. You can scientifically measure water boiling all day long and precisely explain how it’s boiling, and never explain why it’s boiling if you’re unwilling to admit that somebody put the kettle of water on the stove and turned it on.
  • “Science will answer everything someday.” The idea that science is the silver bullet to all our problems has a problem of its own: not all questions (and their answers) are scientific in nature. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and ethics are on the “ought” side of the ought-is dilemma, outside the scope of science, which can only observe what is, and not how it ought to be.
  • “Science has explained away God.” This idea that explaining the mechanics of our world does away with the need for God is a common assumption today, but this is akin to thinking one has explained the origin of a car by explaining how it works. The scientific method has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the mechanical workings of our world tremendously, but it is useless in a universe not governed by causality and logic. Our universe exhibits an organization that is best explained by a Master Designer. Indeed, modern science was based on the idea that the universe could be investigated and understood because God had created it in an orderly manner conducive to study.
  • “Religion just causes arguments and isn’t worth thinking about.” Maybe you’ve assumed that discussions about religion are just a waste of time and a needless source of feuding. But what’s the real problem there? Is it the subject matter, or the way we discuss it? Maybe civility and sound reasoning are the solution, and not indifference. Suppose you and I have gone for a flight in a mutual friend’s airplane. Beautiful, wide-open countryside passes below his Cessna 182 as we bask in the view. But then our friend passes out at the yoke. Now we are left with a very serious problem: what went up will eventually come down, one way or another. To make matters worse, we have very different ideas of how to fix the problem. But does our disagreement mean we should simply ignore the entire question of how to revive our pilot friend and/or land the plane? No! The problem remains even if we ignore it. In fact, it’s likely getting worse with each passing second. Likewise, the question of whether God exists, what we can know about Him, and what He may want of us are some of the biggest questions we can ask in life. No part of our lives are unaffected by the answers to this issue, and the urgency of finding the answer only grows the more we ignore it.

If any of those initial assumptions described your thoughts on the matter, I’d like to kindly suggest it’s time to sharpen your pencil and work through that problem again, my friend. But “time waits for no man”, and like the ground filling more and more of the Cessna’s windshield,  “the God question” can only be put off for so long before it’s too late.

Impatience & Arrogance

“Torah Scribe”, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876

“Patience is a virtue, and I want it now!” Or so goes a common joke. But seriously, it’s frustrating being patient, and especially learning patience, but have you ever considered how impatience is really driven by arrogance? When I’m impatient with someone, I essentially say that my desires are more important than theirs, that I take priority. And honestly, even if my desires actually are more critical than someone else’s in a particular situation, does getting impatient ever help the situation? Not that I’ve seen.

Yet, we tend, in our culture, to be very impatient with God when it comes to His revelation in Scripture. Too often, skeptics – and even Christians – dismiss parts of the Bible that aren’t immediately obvious to them. Christian theologians over the centuries have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, and the Jews studied the Torah for centuries before that; and yet we sometimes think that if it isn’t fully understandable in five minutes, it’s a waste of time. However, we don’t have the same opinion of things like learning music, or calculus, or art, or really anything else. Rather, we fully expect worthwhile subjects to take a long time to understand, and maybe a lifetime to master. So what does it say about us when we have so little patience for learning theology – the study of God? I suggest that it’s arrogance on our part based on how little we really value the Word of God. Of course, I don’t expect the skeptic to value it, but it is disappointing to see so many apathetic Christians willing to dismiss tough sayings in the Bible so casually. Then again, tough sayings are what Jesus used in John 6 to weed out the “fans” from the serious disciples [John 6:60, 66-67]. But woe to those He finds to be only fans.

Even if we do awake from our slumber and spend our lives in pursuing a deeper knowledge of God, will we figure out all those troublesome verses? Not necessarily, and I’m OK with that. Here’s why. Ever since Newton’s time, we have had a good, but very incomplete, understanding of two of the most basic things in the universe: gravity and light. Are they particles or waves? Scientists observed properties that fit both categories for both entities, and have had to just live with a paradox – a wave-particle duality.[1] For instance, regarding light, Albert Einstein stated: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” Recently, evidence was found that seems to have confirmed gravity is a wave [2], but several generations of scientists have had to live their entire lives not knowing the answer to that question. Newton could describe the effects of gravity on objects via his universal law of gravitation, but he couldn’t explain how those effects were actually accomplished. And neither could anyone else with certainty for the next 3 centuries. Even now, future evidence may be found that contradicts how we interpreted the “gravity wave” emanating from a distant black hole collision in 2016. And yet, those scientists, past and present, did not think there was no answer to paradoxical things like light and gravity, or that the answer wasn’t worth seeking. Rather, they sought it all the more diligently. Somehow, though, we have the audacity to think that a difficult biblical passage doesn’t warrant a little humility and extra effort on our part? It takes us centuries to figure out the details of some of the basic operations of the physical universe, and we expect the Creator of that universe to be simpler to figure out? I don’t see that as a reasonable assumption. On the contrary, it stands to reason that the One who created the universe is greater than His creation, and that an infinite being might be a little beyond the grasp of His finite creatures.

In closing, I would encourage you to work through the tough questions; study, research, wrestle with them, and seek the answers from the Author of both the easy and the difficult passages. But don’t ignore the obvious answers you do have in front of you because you haven’t found an agreeable answer to your particular question on a more obscure issue. Don’t focus, as too many do, on secondary issues as reasons to reject God, while conveniently ignoring the primary questions the Bible does answer clearly. Don’t reject the God who must necessarily exist simply because you can’t reconcile two seemingly contradictory passages in His message to us. For in the Bible, we have something that, taken as a whole, explains the human condition better than any other worldview, even if we don’t understand every part of it exhaustively. And that should temper our impatience and its underlying arrogance, and remind us of our finitude and the wisdom of humility.


[1] http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/questions/graviton.html
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html

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.