Tag Archives: Engineering

When Challenges Are Opportunities

Study Time!

Studying for the Structural Engineering exam is forcing me to tab and highlight and underline and make margin notes and explore and systematize my steel manual (and most of my other reference books) like I never have before. Why? Because I’m about to be challenged on my knowledge of it like I never have before. But that challenge is a good thing, because it’s forcing me to take the time to study hard and become a better engineer. I may not need to have have every bit of knowledge memorized, but I do need to know where to find what I need and how to correctly apply it when I find it. In the process, I’m learning about seldom-used tables and provisions that are outside of my normal practice. Yet, even in the areas I’m more familiar with, working through practice problems without the aid of the computer programs we engineers have, for better or worse, become reliant on, is helpful. And I think there’s a parallel here for Christians as well, so let’s work through that today.

I remember getting challenged about my Christian beliefs by a colleague several years ago. “How can you call yourself an engineer and a Christian at the same time? Aren’t those mutually exclusive?” I knew that Christianity and science weren’t incompatible in the least, but I’d never prepared for a challenge like that, and it took me by surprise. That challenge exposed a lot of “comfortable Christianity” in my life. What do I mean? I mean that it hadn’t been challenging to be a Christian for most of my life. I hadn’t had to really “count the cost” as Jesus had advised [Lk 14:27-28], like so many Christians around the world have had to do over the centuries, and still do today in around 50 restricted nations. I grew up in the church, and all of my friends were Christians (or at least claimed to be). My first job out of high school was working in an engineering office where many of the employees didn’t just go to church, but went to the same church. I pursued my engineering degree at a Christian college, and came back to that same Christian-friendly workplace every time school was out. It simply was not uncomfortable to be Christian (or at least to play the part), so there was little motivation to really know what I believed and why. It wasn’t like my life depended on it; my family wasn’t going to disown me for choosing that path; my employer wasn’t going to fire me over it; my professors in college weren’t going to fail me or ridicule me over it. It was easy to just float along in the stream of a predominately Christian culture.

But that challenge several years ago woke me up from my slumber, and helped me understand the importance of being able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[1Pet 3:15 NIV] So, for me, my Bible and a lot of my apologetics and theology books and commentaries look like my steel manual – highlights and underlines and margin notes everywhere. That’s how I learn, but regardless of how you process what you read, the main question is if your Bible is well-studied or just casually skimmed? Like the old Gatorade commercials asked, “Is it in you?” For a casual skimming won’t suffice when challenges come, whether that’s one’s own doubts, or sincere questioners, or cruel torturers. When the apostle Peter wrote to his readers that they should be able to give an answer – a reasoned defense – for their hope in Christ, he was writing to people for whom this wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; he reminds them in that same letter not to be surprised at the severe persecution they were experiencing.[1Pet 4:12-16] They needed to know that what they were getting tortured for was true, and be able to articulate why to those around them, maybe even to the very people persecuting them.

The subject matter in the Bible is simply too important to blow off, both for your own life, and the lives of those you may meet. This is why Paul encouraged Timothy to be diligent to show himself approved before God, rightly handling the word of truth. [2Tim 2:15] This is why King David would talk about meditating on the law of the Lord day and night [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:15,48,97,148]. So ask yourself, will I be prepared to answer those who ask before or after the opportunity has passed? And whether it’s a friendly question or a snarling challenge, it is always an opportunity to be an ambassador, so get started preparing. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re weak in. If you like to hang out in the New Testament, study the Old Testament. If you’re a theology nerd, dig into some biblical history. Learn about the different genres, the historical settings, and the original recipients’ culture. Find a more mature Christian who can disciple you. Set aside time each week for uninterrupted study. And talk to the Author of the Book you’re studying: God. God gave us this amazing revelation of Himself in the form of the Bible, and He will honor the prayers of those sincerely seeking to understand His Word. There’s a thousand lifetimes worth of learning in there, so what are you waiting on? Dig in!

A Matter of Interpretation

Finding gems in unexpected places…

Are there common rules for interpreting books that we can also apply to the Bible? I think so. In fact, I was reminded of that in a surprising way recently, so let’s work through that today.

Studying for an upcoming engineering exam has taken me deeper into some of the various standards and codes than I’ve previously needed to go in my job. Focusing on concrete in particular recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the American concrete code. Unable to find what I needed to solve a practice problem, I turned in desperation to Chapter 1. For many code books, chapter 1 is pretty general, introductory stuff unlikely to help with a particular equation, but I thought maybe there was some helpful tidbit, “misfiled” there, as it were. Well, my answer wasn’t to be found there, but I did come across section 1.5 on “Interpretation”, where, in a book dealing with concrete design, I found the following three truths that can be helping for interpreting the Bible.

  1. Distinguish between the Code and the Commentary. Our American concrete design code, referred to as ACI 318, is arranged in 2 columns on each page: a left column that is the official design provisions (i.e. “the Code”), and a right column that is any applicable background or explanation for that section of provisions (i.e. “the Commentary”). This particular section reminded the reader that the code is mandatory, while the commentary is not. While the code provisions are binding and enforceable, the commentary is simply there to help the reader understand the code. Now, I have several excellent, time-tested commentaries on the Bible from some brilliant theologians. But this distinction applies here especially. No matter how much you may appreciate a particular preacher, teacher, or commentator, no matter how helpful their words are, no matter how universally accepted they are – comments on divine revelation are not on par with divine revelation. This is especially important to remember with the plethora of “study Bibles” on the market now that combine a lot of extra-biblical material into the Bible as section introductions, margin notes, informational sidebars, passage commentaries, and so forth. Being included in the Bible directly can sometimes cast a reflection of inspiration on these generally helpful additions, but it is important to keep the sources of each in mind. 100 years from now, a view stated in a note in your study Bible may be proven false, but “the Word of our God stands forever” [Is 40:8].
  2. Interpret coherently. This section clarified that “This Code shall be interpreted in a manner that avoids conflicts between or among its provisions.” code committees aren’t perfect, but their intent is to write a coherent, noncontradictory standard. Interpret accordingly. This statement has bearing on interpreting the Bible for both the skeptic and the Christian.
    • For the skeptics, don’t interpret two Bible passages in such a way as to paint them as contradicting if there is a third interpretation that reconciles both. Just as I shouldn’t interpret the concrete code in the worst possible light, looking to fabricate contradictions where there aren’t any, the skeptic should refrain from doing so with the Bible.
    • For the Christian, this is a word of caution that we shouldn’t interpret Bible passages in isolation. You can see this in the false “prosperity gospel” so popular today, that latches on to verses about blessings, to the exclusion of all the many passages that speak of good and faithful servants of God suffering tremendously for obeying God. You simply must interpret all the passages that deal with a particular topic in a coherent manner. Ignoring ones that don’t fit your interpretation is no better than the skeptic trying to create textual problems.
    • The concrete code made another statement in that paragraph worth noting here to skeptics and Christians alike: “specific provisions shall govern over general provisions.” In other words, don’t think the code is in error because some general provision doesn’t work for your odd situation, if there is a specific provision that does address it. Similarly, sections like the Proverbs are general rules of life, not guarantees for every possible situation. It is no error in Scripture if a child, “trained up in the way he should go” [Prov 22:6], does, in fact, depart from it when he grows up.
  3. Use the “plain meaning” of words. ACI instructs the reader that their code is to be interpreted straightforwardly, per the “plain meaning” of the words, unless noted otherwise. Moreover, if a term is specifically defined in the book (and they do that in Chapter 2), then that definition applies to their use of the word regardless of how the rest of the world uses the same word. This is important, because words can have many different definitions, applicable in different contexts. This is especially true in technical documents where jargon – specialized terms for those “in the field” – is used as a shortcut to convey big ideas quickly and succinctly. However, our default assumption should be the simple “plain meaning” unless the context makes it clear that something else is meant. Moreover, this also means that we shouldn’t try interpreting the author’s intent based on our own “pet” definition. Atheists often want to define faith as “belief in spite of contrary evidence,” or some similar nonsense, and then decide that Christianity is simply unintelligible. Indeed, it probably won’t make sense if you read your own contradictory definitions into it first. But when trying to interpret something – anything really – you should always do so with the goal of understanding the author’s intent, not reading your own views into their work.

And there you have it – 3 tips on correctly interpreting the Bible… tucked away in with a bunch of guidelines for designing concrete structures! Till next time, keep “examining the Scriptures daily” like the Bereans [Ac 17:11], “accurately handling the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15], striving to interpret what you read correctly [2Pe 3:16-17], and applying it in your daily life, “being doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” [Jm 1:22]. Blessings on you.

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.

Dangerous Assumptions

Ever assumed you knew something that turned out to be completely different? I know I have. It doesn’t take long to learn how embarrassing hasty assumptions can be. Yet we still have to make a lot of assumptions in life every day. I have to assume when I go to bed each night that my truck will start in the morning, and I don’t actually need to get up at 2 in the morning and run an ultra-marathon just to get to work on time. A dead truck is a possibility, but practically speaking, my assumption of reliable transportation is a fairly safe assumption given that truck’s history of dependability. In engineering, we have to make a lot of assumptions that can drastically change the results, and we’re expected to be able to judge whether those assumptions are justified or not. Assuming certain vibrational characteristics for a project, only to find out your structure’s resonant frequency actually matches the frequency of the average person’s walking gait, can change a client’s bold, cantilevered office building with a view into a nauseating life of trying to do office work on the end of a diving board. Assuming a connection to be rigid when it’s not, or assuming a high frictional resistance that may or may not be present can completely alter load paths, and divert force into components never designed for it. Assuming a beam is adequately braced when it’s not can change the mode of failure from a nice slow yielding to a sudden lateral-torsional buckling, drastically lowering the safe load on the beam, and possibly resulting in a structural failure. Just like assuming a snake isn’t poisonous, a lot of engineering assumptions can pack a deadly bite.

So what is it about assumptions that can be so disastrous? The issue is how close they are to, or how far they are from, reality. In essence, it’s a matter of how truthful the assumption is, for truth is simply correspondence to reality. If I assume the max unbraced length of a 30 foot long beam is 5 feet and it turns out to be 6 feet, then I’m fairly close to the truth of the matter , and I’ve erred on the side of caution, so my design should do well. If I assume it’s 30′ and I don’t need any bracing at all, then I’m working off a false premise, and I’m flirting with disaster. Sadly, a lot of people are making an even more dangerous assumption every day, many never realizing it until it’s too late.

What is this deadly assumption, you ask? Let’s work through some examples of it and find a common denominator:

  • “God is love, so that means everybody goes to heaven, right?” This assumes a very one-dimensional caricature of God, who is also just and righteous and holy. One could just as easily state, “God is just and we’re all sinners, so that means everybody goes to hell, right?” Or we could see Him as He has revealed Himself to us, and recognize that His love provided a way for us to be reconciled and justified before His perfect unbending justice, but only if we don’t reject it. Thus, some will be saved and some won’t.
  • “I’m a pretty good person, so God surely wouldn’t send me to hell.” This assumes that an absolutely perfect and holy God grades on a curve. We may lower our standards but why assume a perfectly just God would do the same?
  • “I don’t need God to be a good person, and that’s what counts, right? – Leaving the world a little better place than I found it?” This common misconception is based on a relativistic notion of “goodness”. But unless you happen to be the one perfect person in the whole world, good isn’t good enough to meet God’s perfect standard. And besides that, a lot of people throughout history have convinced themselves their heinous actions were actually for the “greater good.” So beware of subjective standards of “goodness”.
  • “I don’t like this God yours, so I’m going to just find one I like better.” My preference often has little to do with reality, and this dangerous assumption makes the mistake of thinking one’s dislike and rejection of God somehow circumvents the need to deal with God’s independent existence (and our potential obligations to Him) on His sovereign terms.
  • “I hadn’t really thought about what happens when I die, but I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” When has apathy and sticking one’s head in the sand ever been a good strategy for anything? The person saying this isn’t really sure of anything other than that they don’t want to think about anything that might require them to change course.

There’s a common assumption at the base of all of these statements – that we, as individuals with our finite comprehension, somehow know better than our omniscient Creator how He should’ve done things. It’s the notion that our way – our personal and very subjective way – is the right way, instead of God’s way. Ultimately, it comes back to pride, which, as the Bible wisely warns, “goes before destruction” [Prov 16:18]. So be wise and learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the eternal consequences of these most dangerous assumptions.

No Extra Screws

Leftover screws… and washers… and dowels…

There’s a joke that when engineers put together objects with “some assembly required”, whether assembling a kid’s toy or rebuilding a car, they end up with extra screws left over at the end because they made the object “more efficient” by only using what was actually needed. Of course, if the original designer was careful, then there really was a purpose for those “extra” parts, and we just didn’t see it from our perspective (or didn’t bother reading the instructions…).  Why does Flap A have to go in Slot B before attaching Part C that I attached 3 steps ago? What is this extra screw I’m left with, and does that have anything to do with why my wife’s car won’t start now?

Seriously though, have you ever felt that your life was just one of those “extras” in the grand scheme of things, like the extra screws that come with a lot of boxed furniture? This useful, practical – maybe even beautiful – object is constructed, but there’s extra supplies left over that played no part in it. They either get thrown out or stuffed in a drawer somewhere on the off-chance there’s a use for them later. Sometimes, even Christians, who understand that the Creator of the universe loves us dearly, even though there are no works we could do to justify that love, can still feel disappointed by our ordinariness and our lack of “big” accomplishments. Sure, Paul talks about the goodness of living a “tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” [1Ti 2:1-2], but we still want to do big things.

Billy Graham, probably the most famous evangelist of the last century, died last week at the age of 99. It’s estimated that he preached the good news of Jesus Christ live to 200 million people all over the world, and reached many more via radio, TV, and print. That’s certainly an amazing accomplishment. Most of us will never do that, or even a millionth part of that. And yet, that’s OK.

That may not be God’s plan for us, but it may be part of His plan for us to reach the one who will go on to reach millions. Think about Billy Graham. He wasn’t born saved; nobody is. Someone preached the Gospel to him [Rom 10:13-15]. Do you know who that person was? I got curious about that several years ago and looked him up. That someone was one Mordecai Ham. He was descended from eight generations of Baptist preachers.[1] That’s quite the preaching pedigree, but even as famous as Ham was for a time in the American South, Billy Graham delivered the gospel to more people in more places than Mordecai and his previous 8 generations of preachers – combined! In that respect, one might be tempted to forget about people like old Mordecai (or people like you and I), and focus on who the next “superstar” might be. But Ham didn’t need to reach millions to fulfill his part in God’s plan; he just needed to reach the people God ordained for him to reach, like a teenager named Billy. And the same applies to each of us. 57 years after he died, Ham’s name is only a footnote in history, but it’s better to be a footnote in God’s story than the star of our own story.[2]

We can know God’s overall plans for world history, and often we see parts of those plans acted out by certain people who become famous in the process, but we don’t realize all the contingencies that God orchestrated in between to bring about His sovereign will. Just like with a race car, we can see the driver hit the gas and shift gears, and see the amazing results as the car accelerates out of sight, but we overlook the complex series of gears and pistons and belts and timing chains and whatnot hidden under the hood, all of which have to consistently do their small individual tasks to accomplish the driver’s intent. Likewise, the Christian can take comfort in knowing that we don’t have to have millions of Twitter followers, or run a “megachurch” with thousands attending every week, or have best-selling books on the store shelves to be successful before God. In fact, those who compromise God’s truth to achieve those things would actually be the failures, regardless of the worldly success they may have. Rather, all God asks is that we be obedient in the little things He has called us to do. Does God need you or me or Billy Graham to accomplish what He wills? No, of course not. I think another Mordecai, from the book of Esther, made it clear that if we refuse to do the task God offers us the privilege of performing, our refusal won’t stop Him from accomplishing it [Es 4:13-14]. But it will keep us from being part of His plan, and we’ll reap the consequences of that. Yet if we are faithful to obey in the little things, God will use that in ways we won’t even be able to understand until glory when we shall “know fully” [1Co 13:12]. For there are no extra screws or throwaway parts in God’s designs.


[1] https://www.preaching.com/articles/past-masters/past-masters-mordecai-ham-the-southern-revivalist, accessed 2018-02-26.
[2] To borrow an expression from a 2013 sermon from one of my church’s teaching pastors, Ben Parkinson.

Armchair Engineers

I just got back from representing my state structural engineering association at the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations 2017 Summit. Besides the normal business side of being a representative in an organization, and getting to learn about new products from vendors at the accompanying trade show, there were also lots of great educational sessions on things like blast design, progressive collapse, wind and seismic design, and even design of wood skyscrapers. A little slice of “nerdvana”. We even got to hear a keynote presentation from 2 of the engineers involved in the repairs to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument after a 2011 earthquake damaged those two masonry structures. It made for a very busy but fun week. But one thing I was reminded of repeatedly that is worth noting here is that there really is no perfect design. What do I mean by that? Let’s work through that today.

We can arrive at an optimum design, but as long as there are conflicting parameters, there can never be an actual design that maximizes everything we want to maximize (like strength or flexibility) and simultaneously minimizes everything we want to minimize (like weight or cost). We have to pick and choose, and so any designed item will always fall short of perfection in one aspect or another. And this isn’t just a structural engineering issue. The session that most brought this point home was an extended session looking at the recent publication of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads & Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures”. I know, we can’t even design a short name for our standards, but long names aside, that book is an integral part of most of our structural design. Changes there have major impacts on our daily work. A gripe from many engineers, myself included, has been the ever-increasing size and complexity of the overall building code, and this portion in particular. In fact, the growth from one volume into two this version was a particular incentive for a meeting to discuss on a national level the direction this was going. But as the committee chairman pointed out, we have 3 main goals – safety of structures designed to the standard, economy of structures so designed, and simplicity of applying the provisions of the standard – but you can only achieve two out those three! We certainly don’t want to  have a simple code that allows for cheap buildings at the expense of life safety. But do you make a standard that is simple and extremely conservative, that makes buildings too expensive to actually build? As it turns out, we engineers have tended to emphasize the third way: safety and economy at the expense of design simplicity. Hence, the now 800 page, 2-volume standard that is just one of an entire shelf of standards with which structural engineers are expected to be familiar. And let’s not forget all the revisions to each one of those each code cycle. So while information overload and lack of transparency are problematic, design simplicity is one of those competing parameters that just ends up having to take a lower priority.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Well, there are some “armchair engineers” out there that like to try to say that nature testifies against the existence of God because it is evidence of “bad design” which an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator wouldn’t use. And just like the “armchair quarterbacks” out there, so insistent on what play the real quarterback should’ve executed, these skeptics are great at second-guessing God, but pretty bad at proposing better alternatives. Like armchair quarterbacks, they can criticize what’s currently in play, and sometimes throw out some quick, “obviously better” alternative, but they come up sorely lacking when the pros and cons of each option are subjected to a careful, rigorous analysis. Just like me, I could gripe about the new 2016 design standard, but sitting in a room with the chance to actually vote for how I would like to see the standard changed for the 2022 edition, I found myself reluctantly accepting of the current version. When it came to actually fleshing out what any proposed changes might entail, I found myself a lot more understanding of the ASCE 7 committee’s final version of the current standard that I had complained about before. Alternatives that seemed so much better couched in  vague terms like “less complicated”, “clearer”, and “more practical” ended up having unintended consequences that I liked less than the current book when it came to working out the real effects of those ill-defined wishes. It reminds me of what’s been said about God’s choices: “If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[1]

Can I always explain how God’s design is the best choice? No – I am all too aware of my limitations in knowledge. But I can easily see cases in daily life where, not seeing the big picture, I would make ultimately worse choices trying to fix what I initially perceived to be a bad choice. Then I am reminded all the more why we should always approach God with humility. It seems the drive-by allegations by skeptics of bad design in nature  are highly suspect given our very limited human perspective, especially when we do investigate certain cases and find them to be astonishingly well-designed. So I would encourage my skeptical readers to approach the possibility of design in nature pointing to God with at least as much humility and openness as we engineers (try to) give our colleagues when critiquing their designs. After all, we often don’t know all the reasons behind the decisions with which we disagree, and learning those reasons often puts our criticism to rest.


[1] J.M.L. Monsabre, source unknown.

Our Responsibility

Author’s personal photo.

I’m reading Dan Barker’s book “godless”, about his deconversion from a Christian preacher to a prominent atheist. It’s a rather heartbreaking tale of one person who should know better (but apparently didn’t) walking away from God for some bad reasons, and then proceeding to influence a lot of other impressionable people to do the same. If that isn’t a true tragedy, I don’t know what is. But what is worse is seeing how his friends and family couldn’t answer his questions/objections when he first “came out” as an atheist.  That deafening silence only strengthened his impression that Christianity had no answers. Sadly, Barker grew up in an environment that was  theologically, philosophically, and scientifically shallow, and mistakenly thought that represented Christianity, and no one he knew was able to correct those errant ideas. These were the people who had influence in his life and whose responses might’ve been meaningful early on before he hardened himself against any correction.

That brings up an important point. It’s not the job of your pastor or some famous evangelist/apologist/speaker/writer/blogger/etc to answer your friends’ or family members’ questions and objections. It’s yours. It’s mine. It’s every Christian’s responsibility – and a sacred one – to be able to answer those who ask us for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15 NIV].  My pastor, according to the apostle Paul, isn’t expected to do it all, but rather is to equip me for works of ministry or service [Eph 4:11-15]. There are a lot of places I go to as an engineer that my pastor will never go to, and the same is true for every Christian. We all serve on a mission field whether we recognize that fact or not.

Maybe that thought makes you nervous.  Good! Becoming aware that you’re not as prepared as you should be is the first step. So what’s the next step after recognizing the responsibility we have? Recognizing the gift we’ve been given. Even though we may often get nervous about what kind of unexpected questions someone may ask us, as Christians, we sit on the richest resources one could ever hope for. In my office, I have a whole bookcase of books on structural steel design, connection design, finite element analysis, seismic design, and on and on. I have an overclocked powerhouse of a computer sitting on my desk, loaded with advanced and rather expensive analysis and design software from multiple companies dedicated to engineering computing, with thousands of pages of user manuals on how to use this advanced software. And I have knowledgeable colleagues in my office, and attend a ridiculous number of continuing education seminars and webinars every year on a variety of engineering issues. Plus, I have access to various restricted online resources for engineers as a member of several technical organizations, besides the plethora of (somewhat reliable) design information freely available on the internet. Being a Christian, in America, and not being able to answer basic objections, is like an engineer sitting on the wealth of resources I just described and saying, “The client wants to know whether this beam will support this additional load, and I just can’t figure out how to analyze it. Oh well, guess I’ll just let that work itself out.” As an engineer obligated to protect the public health and safety first and foremost, that’s really not an option. Whether I can answer immediately because I’m familiar with the issue, or whether I have to spend the next week researching and talking to other engineers, I have to be able to answer one way or another. If I don’t know, the correct answer is not saying “I don’t know” and forgetting about it; the correct answer is saying “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out.”

As an engineer, people’s lives are on the line with my designs. And yet, if I’m in a building that collapses because another engineer made a mistake, I may die physically in the collapse, but I will simply be “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” [2Cor 5:8] On the other hand, when I choose to not answer someone’s questions about our eternal fate, I’m helping that person toward a fate worse than mere physical death. Of course, people like Dan Barker make their own choices and are responsible for them, but I surely don’t care to be an accomplice. So I desperately want to be prepared to explain both what I believe, and why I believe it. Opportunities to speak truth into someone’s life when they are willing to listen are often moving targets we don’t get a second shot at, so I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. That said, I’ll leave you with something to chew on, regarding just what’s at stake, from performer (and atheist) Penn Jillette:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”[1]


[1] “Penn Says: A Gift of a Bible”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6md638smQd8, accessed 2017-10-02.

General vs Special Revelation

I was listening to an atheist present his case a while back, and one of his complaints was Christian apologists wanting to start from scratch, trying to prove the existence of generic theism ad nauseam, rather than the Christian Trinitarian God we supposedly believe in. Since his talk was about why he was an atheist, addressing his rejection of theism didn’t seem that unreasonable of a place to start.  But regardless of where we start, there are two fundamental questions to deal with: does God exist? and is the biblical presentation of Him true? The claims of Jesus and the Bible are foolish at best and deceitful at worst if God doesn’t even exist. But these two questions take us into aspects of how God reveals Himself to humanity. Let’s work through that today.

Revelation is simply the revealing of something, and God reveals Himself to us in two ways: general and special revelation. General revelation is also called natural revelation, or natural theology, because it is God’s disclosure about Himself and His relation to His creation, made manifest in physical nature, human nature, and history.[1]  This is the primary focus of apologetics, because we are often talking to people who reject the authority of the Bible. But, of course, God does not leave Himself without a witness, and astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, archeology, history, and philosophy are some of the disciplines that all reveal calling cards of God, consistently pointing us back to Him. Special revelation, on the other hand, is His direct revelation as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible, written by human authors inspired for His purpose, to specific people or groups of people, but also for people of all times and places.

I think of general revelation like the title sheet of a set of contract drawings for a building, while special revelation is the drawings themselves:

  • The title sheet of the drawings tells you who’s responsible for the design of the project: the various architects, engineers, and specialty consultants. Each designer is responsible for their portion, but the architect over the project will have his stamp on there. It’s not his biography, just his stamp certifying that the drawing set is ready to be used for construction. Similarly, we only get a stamp of divine authority in the wonders of nature. You have to go to the Bible for the rest of the story.
  • There will often be a scaled map of the project site showing where the building is in relation to different streets and how it will be oriented. Nowadays, there is often a nicely rendered 3D view of the project, with cars and people to show the scale of the project.  I can tell a lot about the project just from a good title sheet. Is this from a qualified design team known for good work? Is the project in Miami, Florida or Valdez, Alaska? I would expect pretty different types of buildings depending on the location. The first would need to be designed for hurricanes, while the second would need to account for massive snow loads and earthquakes. Just seeing the project location on the title sheet can tell me about some of the design issues dealt with on that project. The 3D view of the building model might tell me that this is a narrow, 50-story office tower in a one-city-block parcel in a crowded downtown environment, or that it’s a sprawling 1-story retail store with acres of parking all around. Natural revelation tells us where we’re situated and gives us an idea of the scope of this “project” we are part of. Going from the smallest cellular machines up to the grandeur of the universe, we realize our own smallness, and God’s awesome majesty to have created everything encompassed by such extremes (and God’s love that He would care about us on this “pale blue dot” of earth).
  • Most importantly, I can’t build off of that title sheet. Sure, I do know a lot about the project from it. I know where to build, roughly how big to build, some of the loads the building will have to be able to handle. But it’s pretty obvious that that isn’t enough. I don’t know any of the internal layout of the building, or how it’s braced against those various loads like hurricane winds, or the critically-important foundations that will support it. That general overview of the project isn’t enough to actually build it. For that, I need to open up the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of detailed drawings and other contract documents. In the same way, I can observe the world around me and learn that God exists, and even that He is a conscious being, is powerful, intelligent, immaterial, and eternal. But that’s not enough. Just like I need detailed plans to go with that general knowledge of a proposed building if I want to build anything that will last, I need the detailed message of the gospel if I want to spend eternity with my Creator.

When it comes to your eternal fate, don’t stop at the title page and try building your life on insufficient information, when the Master Designer has made available to you the detailed plans needed to build a life that will endure forever. And don’t ignore the drawings and title sheet altogether, and say there is no Designer as you try building a life on your own. Atheists are fond of saying religion is only a crutch for weak people, but really, it’s simply that making a mess of our lives is usually what it takes to force many of us to reach out to our life’s Designer and ask for help. Sad but true. As an engineer, I put my contact info on any of my structural drawings or reports so that people will reach out to m before they build something wrong and cause a disaster. Likewise, God has left His contact info. Don’t wait until your life comes crashing down before you call your life’s Designer to figure out how it was supposed to go together.


[1] “Revelation, General”, Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

 

The Utopia of Certainty

John Ratzenberger’s character Cliff Claven in the sit-com “Cheers” appearing on “Jeopardy”

Ever play a trivia game or watch a game show where you absolutely knew the answer? It’s like you were born to answer that question. That  felt pretty good, didn’t it? No hesitation, no second guessing, just an instant answer. Ever find yourself in one of those scenarios and get the answer wrong? Maybe you felt bewildered, wondering how you could possibly get that question wrong. Or maybe embarrassed that you got it wrong in front of all your friends. Experiences like that might lead one to a) desire complete certainty before committing to anything, or b) believe that if certainty is impossible then so is any degree of confidence. I’d like to suggest a middle way.

First off, what is certainty? The World Book Dictionary defined it as “freedom from doubt,” or “a sure fact.”[1] Wikipedia, that fount of unchanging knowledge, currently offers this definition: “perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.”[2] If you notice, the definitions relating certainty to a lack of doubt are addressing our subjective views, and not the objective truth of a statement. We can have no doubts about something, but still be wrong. The definitions of “perfect knowledge that has total security from error” and  “a sure fact” relate to the objective truth of a statement. But do we actually need complete certainty in life?

In structural engineering, certainty is like Utopia – nonexistent. While we engineers are often thought to be overdesigning stuff, our paranoia comes down to certainty, or the lack thereof. Our environmental loads, like earthquakes and storms and floods are very uncertain, but even the man-made loads can be unpredictable.  Our material properties are uncertain, the quality of fabrication and construction are uncertain, the accuracy of our analytical models are uncertain — do you see a trend here? As an engineer, I have to live in a very uncertain world, and yet I still have a job to do. I have to be comfortable with a particular level of uncertainty, and finally ask myself, “Am I justified in considering this a safe structure that satisfies the project requirements?” If so, then it’s time to stop obsessing about it and move on to the next project. That obsession with being certain that I’ve covered every conceivable issue is an easy trap for me to fall into, but I’ve found that I can go over a design multiple times and still not see a particular problem. Meanwhile, a fresh set of eyes in the form of a peer review might see a particular oversight immediately. We each have different blind spots, so together we have more complete vision and achieve far more confidence in the adequacy of the design. The desire for absolute certainty leads to what we call “paralysis by analysis”; you can make every aspect of the project into an unending analysis and never actually finish the project. It’s good to try to foresee how things could go wrong, and plan to prevent that, but at some point, you have to stop looking at all the possible ways events could unfold, and look at what’s most reasonable.

I see a similar problem in talks with skeptics about the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. There is often a tendency to want absolute certainty rather than reasonable confidence before being willing to accept that God exists or that the Bible really is reliable. But as Pascal would say, “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[3] There will almost always be alternate possibilities that one can take shelter in to explain away God, because almost anything is possible. But we have to ask ourselves what’s more probable? In doing a failure investigation, I might be able to think of a  series of freak accidents, unguided by any human interaction, and happening with the worst possible timing, that explains a structural collapse — the “perfect storm”, so to speak. But if a  worker forgetting to bolt up a connection or making a bad weld also explains it, then it’s pretty clear what the more reasonable cause was.  Just like in engineering, we have to look at what’s the most reasonable explanation for something, and when it comes to this world of intelligent life residing in a finely-tuned universe, God is clearly the most reasonable explanation. Anything less is like expecting a record-setting skyscraper to appear without any engineers, architects, fabricators, erectors, or even building materials! We can also see the opposite response, of denying the possibility of any confidence in our knowledge. While there may be few things we can be absolutely certain of in this life, if you can be 99% sure of something, you’d be a fool to ignore that because of that last 1% of doubt.

Now, for the skeptic, my question is, what will you do with the evidence for God? Are you demanding a level of certainty that you would not expect of anything else in life? Both the demand for absolute certainty and the denial of any possible warrant for belief will only keep you from seeing the reasonable conclusion that’s right in front of you. Don’t hold out for Utopia when Heaven awaits.


[1] “Certainty”, World Book Dictionary, 1987 ed.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certainty, accessed 2017-08-22.
[3] Blaise Pascal,  Pascal’s Pensées (Ney York: Dutton & Co, 1858), p. 120,  Kindle ed.

“What is Truth?”

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

“What is Truth?” Pilate asked those words of Jesus almost 2 millennia ago. Johnny Cash had a song with that title back in 1970. Some questions never go away, I suppose. While there are actually several theories of what “truth” is, I want to focus today on the classical version that, I think, is still the best. Let’s dig in!

The classical view of truth is the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true simply if it corresponds to reality. Aristotle expressed this well when he said that to speak truth is “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” This seems like simple common sense, but since our culture today seems to be struggling with the very notion of truth, let me provide an example.

In engineering, we know that when we idealize a joint, it doesn’t correspond perfectly to reality, and we accept some loss in fidelity in favor of simplification for analysis… to a point. But sometimes we have to say, “This has gone beyond simplification and is now misrepresenting the object being analyzed.” Our model doesn’t correspond to the real object anymore.

For instance, we tend to model truss joints as being “pinned” – i.e. not rigid. And for most trusses like the open web steel roof joists you might see in a retail store, that’s a relatively accurate model.

Now compare that “simple” pinned truss joint to a giant truss joint like the one pictured here. That’s a pretty beefy connection and probably more accurate to assume a high degree of stiffness in that joint. Somewhere in between those 2 extremes, our model passes a point of unacceptable noncorrespondance to real joint behavior. What about these in-between situations? Just because that point is in a gray area doesn’t mean we deny the idea of truth being what corresponds to reality. Sometimes, in critical applications, it’s warranted to invest the extra work in modeling the joint as a rotational spring to capture that behavior in between a rotating pin or a fully rigid joint. Likewise, in diaphragm design, we are allowed to assume flexible or rigid diaphragms for the obvious extremes like thin metal or wood decks versus thick concrete slabs. For those unclear areas in between, we use the more accurate method of a “semi-rigid” diaphragm using a finite element analysis to analyze our floors or roofs. Why? Because our profession recognizes that truth still exists, even in gray areas. It’s just more difficult to ascertain, and requires more thorough investigation to find it. So in real life, the existence of gray areas and difficult situations doesn’t preclude the existence of a “right”, or true, answer; rather, what we are recognizing when we classify something as a gray area is our uncertainty of the truth we are seeking in those situations.  But we stillrecognize that the truth is there, somewhere, or else we wouldn’t seek more accurate answers. And this recognition of a reality holding the right answer, outside of our own interpretations of reality, points to the premise that truth is objective and not subjective. In other words, the truth about an object is based on the object itself, not on our subjective perceptions of it.  If I’m colorblind, I might perceive an object’s color very differently from another person, but the object is absorbing and reflecting photons of light in a manner independent of either observer. Therefore, the true color of the object is based on the properties of the object itself, and I describe the object truthfully when I call it by the color it has rather than the color I think I see.

Gray areas in moral and ethical questions are often used to undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths as well as physical truths like my examples above. Yet this is a similar situation to those examples: just because we can recognize the right answer in the easy,  obvious cases doesn’t mean there isn’t a right answer for those less-obvious cases. It just means we might have to dig a little deeper, and possibly remain unsatisfied with potential answers until we find the right one.  But there’s a shortcut, of sorts. The one true God who created the physical universe with its objective physical truths also established the moral truths we seek.  In God, we have that independent “third-party” that can referee between competing truth claims from different people, cultures, times, or places. And who better than the very source of moral truth, for whom it is impossible to lie? [He 6:18, Ti 1:2] Until next time, never waver in the relentless pursuit of truth!