Tag Archives: purpose

Purpose

Purpose. What is it, and does it matter? Dictionaries will define it as one’s objective, goal, intention, desired result, end, aim, or design. In fact, purpose and choice are the two pillars of design; when you design anything, you make certain choices to achieve a specified purpose. Purposes aren’t always apparent to bystanders. In my own branch of engineering, we assemble very detailed plans and instructions for fabricators and erectors so that a safe structure can be built correctly. Sometimes other trades ignore some aspect of our design because they couldn’t see the purpose in it and assumed it was a mistake. Of course, the safety of the public is always our ultimate purpose and is our first obligation in our code of ethics. But smaller purposes might include maximizing open space in an office building, maximizing resilience in a community tornado shelter, or minimizing cost or weight. But what about purpose in the “big picture” of life in general? Is there a purpose? Can we know it?

If there were a purpose for each of us in life, then not knowing it could certainly make for a frustrating life. Imagine trying to use a tool for a purpose it was never intended, like trying to make a screwdriver work as a hammer in an emergency, and you can see how a person trying to accomplish a purpose for which they are not intended might be frustrated. But how could they know their purpose? Is it just what their skills and attitudes point toward? Is my purpose just to be an engineer? That seems rather arbitrary. After all, people often change occupations throughout their life. Even when they stay in a field their entire career, they often retire at a certain point. Have they lost their purpose in life then? While some may feel that way at the time, I think not.

Does atheism offer any justification for purpose in life? Not really. Under atheism, there is no God to establish any kind of overarching purpose for humans. Under materialism, which typically goes along with atheism, there is nothing beyond the physical: you have no soul, you are simply a collection of atoms brought together by chance processes, only to disintegrate and return to the dust after a few decades on average. Maybe you live a hundred years or so, but death can come at any moment really.  If that’s all life is, why do we all seek purpose in our lives, and often despair without it? What ground is there for actually having purpose in an atheistic universe? I’ve heard atheists say people should be good “for goodness sake”, or for the “flourishing” of humankind. But that rings a bit hollow given atheism. We are insignificant blips in a thoughtless, uncaring universe if atheism is true. Why waste our short time here trying to better the world for present or future generations? Knowledge of your accomplishments beyond your lifetime is the closest thing to immortality that atheism can offer, so a person might find purpose in bringing glory to their name so that people hundreds of years from now would remember their deeds.  But even if you were one of the very small percentage of individuals in human history to be remembered for any length of time, it’s still all for naught, for it does you no good. You die all the same and become … nothing… if atheism is true. And call me cynical, but I’ve seen too many changes in command where someone with a different perspective specifically erases a predecessor’s accomplishments. So all my best efforts, whether done out of compassion or a desire for notoriety, can be rolled back by those who come after me.

Is there an alternative view that fills this seemingly universal desire for purpose in life? I think so. The Bible tells us that God made mankind in His image, or likeness. [Gen 1:26-27] This gives us all an intrinsic value regardless of our social status, intelligence, talents race, gender, or anything else. It also tells us that we were created for His glory. [Is 43:7] This is our purpose. Consequently, no matter what we do, we are to “do all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23] God did not have to create humans (or anything else). But He chose to create us, and He lovingly put us in a very hospitable spot in a very hostile universe. God alone is worthy of all glory, or honor, and glorifying Him is our joyful duty. Duty? Yes, it’s our very purpose in life – “the chief end of man” as the Westminster Catechism puts it – but joyful duty! As Jesus said, His burden is light. [Matt 11:28-30] For when you fulfill what you were created for, you can be content and at peace – yes, even joyful – in the good times and the bad.

Whether you are a world leader or starving in a North Korean prison camp, whether on top of the world on Wall Street or down in the deepest, darkest mine, whether you live another 100 years or die tomorrow, you can know that your enjoyment of life doesn’t have to be shackled to your ever-changing circumstances. You can have a deeply satisfying purpose that transcends occupation, culture, fads, and the like. Fulfilling that purpose of honoring God permeates and gives beautiful meaning to everything in life from epic deeds down to the most mundane tasks. And who wouldn’t want that?

What is a well-designed faith?

faith-constructionFor this 2nd anniversary of my blog here, I wanted to take some time to explain what a “well-designed faith” is. It is, of course, this blog: this exhausting labor of love dedicated to helping fellow Christians and skeptics alike to see the beautiful, reasonable truth of Christianity. It’s where I do my best to answer objections to Christian beliefs, explain misunderstood doctrines, encourage clear thinking through the application of logic and sound philosophy, give an engineer’s perspective on God and the Christian faith, and hopefully give those who have rejected Christianity in the past reason to take a second look. It is an endeavor that, if it were followed and read by millions, but nobody came to accept the truth of God’s Word through it, would amount to nothing but a supreme waste of time. But on the other hand, if I get to Heaven, and the one person that had read my ramblings says, “Thank you. God used your words to point me back to Him,” all the hours spent here will be justified. But beyond the blog itself, a “well-designed faith” is also the focus of the blog. For I do believe that “well-designed” aptly describes the Christian faith.

Hebrews 11 is often called the “faith chapter” or the “faith hall of fame” of the Bible because it defines faith, and gives many examples of it lived out in Jewish history. Verses 9-10 tell us about Abraham, and say that “by faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” That last description of God as an architect and builder has always caught my eye. Shortly after that, Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith“.

When the Bible tells us that Abraham was faithfully seeking that city “whose architect and builder is God”, it’s telling us about the long-term plan that God has held for all eternity, the goal that He both selected before the creation of the universe, and works to actualize across human history. When it states that Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, it is saying that He perfects – completes – the trust, (or faith) birthed in us by God.[2] In fact, this word “perfecter” is the Greek word τελειωτὴν (teleiōtēn), meaning a consummator, one bringing a process to its finish. Digging deeper, this is based on the Greek root “telos”, which denotes the end goal of something. This is the root of our modern word teleological, meaning “to show evidence of design or purpose.”[1] That’s why the argument for God from observed design in nature is called the “teleological argument“. How does this perfecting of faith work? Maybe similarly to how we see design work in the building industry I’m a part of.

My profession of engineering is often lumped in with 2 other related fields to form the industry grouping AEC: Architecture, Engineering, & Construction. And these generally go together well as we’re constantly working together to complete a finished project. The architect is designing the building to meet certain goals of the client, whether it be a hospital, school, business, or a residence. The hospital needs to contain a certain number of beds, lab equipment, operating and exam rooms, and offices to accomplish their goal of caring for the sick. The school needs to have a certain mix of classrooms, teaching labs, music rooms, and sports areas,  to accomplish their goal of providing a well-rounded education. A business may need flexible floor plans that can be changed as the business changes and grows. Some businesses even have essential specialty equipment that the building has to be constructed around. Even a home is going to have very different needs to accommodate one family versus another. Different home designs might focus on things like handicapped access to all the rooms, natural ventilation in the tropics, heating efficiency in the far north, “safe rooms” in America’s Tornado Alley, and so on. But in all of these examples, there is one thing in common – an end goal, a purpose. That goal drives the design. It’s counterproductive for an architect to design an amazing sports stadium for a music school that doesn’t even have a sports program!

As engineers, we work to ensure the architect’s vision of the client’s goals is actually achievable. We complete, or perfect, that initial design, by putting bones to the flesh, so to speak. We execute specific selections to make the architect’s idea buildable.  The laws of physics can be brutally unforgiving, and sometimes we have to be creative to ensure the architect’s “bold vision” holds up in real life. There’s a lot of coordination there as architects and engineers work together to make choices that accomplish the client’s purpose while conforming to real-life constraints. But finally, the plan is complete and the builders come in and turn the client’s dream, the architect’s vision, and our calculations into an actual, usable building.

It seems like there is a similar spiritual workflow as:

  • God the Father initiates a plan for us, drawing us to Him,
  • God the Son completes the plan and accomplishes tasks (like the atonement) needed to make it happen, and
  • God the Holy Spirit develops it in us through His work of sanctification in our lives.

Initiation, execution, and development working seamlessly together in the perfect unity of the triune Godhead to conform us to His image, that we might fulfill our purpose and glorify God – that is a most well-designed faith, if you ask me!


[1] https://www.wordnik.com/words/teleological, accessed 2016/09/08.
[2] John 6:44, NASB. As Barnes says in his commentary on this verse: “In the conversion of the sinner God enlightens the mind (John 6:45), he inclines the will (Psalm 110:3), and he influences the soul by motives, by just views of his law, by his love, his commands, and his threatenings; by a desire of happiness, and a consciousness of danger; by the Holy Spirit applying truth to the mind, and urging him to yield himself to the Saviour. So that, while God inclines him, and will have all the glory, man yields without compulsion; the obstacles are removed, and he becomes a willing servant of God.”

S.D.G.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – Optimal Design Overview

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins has made much of the “appearance of design” in biology being a false positive, and the notion that living creatures actually exhibit bad design that negates the idea of an omniscient Creator. After all, why would God, if He existed, and if He was all-knowing, do things like wire the human eye “backwards”? This is, according to Dawkins, a sub-optimal design that any engineer would reject out of hand, or get fired if he submitted a design like this to his company. In fact, regarding the “backwards wiring” of the vertebrate eye, he admits that it doesn’t actually have much effect on vision, but “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!”[1]

Oh really? Since he decided to drag us engineers into this, I’d like to ask one question: what exactly do you mean when you talk about an optimal design? I can tell you most engineering designs end up being sub-optimal, regardless of how “tidy-minded” we may be. That’s because we routinely have to make trade-offs between competing goals. I have a book on wood-framed shearwalls that humorously highlights this issue with a side-by-side photo of an “engineer’s dream wall” and an “architect’s dream wall”. The engineer’s wall is very stout and very solid. The architect’s  preference (and most owner’s) is one completely filled with beautiful expansive windows. Which one is the “optimal” wall? Neither one of us is getting what we would call the optimum. Us engineers need some minimum amount of strength that the windows aren’t providing, and the architect needs some minimum amount of holes in our solid wall so the owner doesn’t feel like he’s living in a dungeon! Factor in things like cost and meeting building code constraints and “optimal” becomes a very subjective term with different meaning to different stakeholders. But this is the way most design goes. You can’t maximize one parameter without minimizing another, and at some point, you’ll have 2 (or more) parameters that conflict. Do you focus entirely on the first, or the 2nd? Do you balance them equally? Maybe a weighted average based on your best guess as to which one will govern more often? Unfortunately, no matter which route you choose, someone will come along later, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why you didn’t do it some other way. But God, being omniscient, has perfect foresight, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Him, right? True, He won’t make a mistake in design due to lack of knowledge or not anticipating future conditions, but the aspect of competing design parameters still applies.

Versatility and specialization are two such competing parameters. Specialized designs seek to maximize a positive parameter like speed or strength, or to minimize some negative parameter like weight or waste, at the expense of other factors. This is evident in animals like peregrine falcons whose hollow bones minimize weight, while their aerodynamics maximize speed. Versatile designs, on the other hand, seek to balance the most parameters at one time to achieve adequate performance over a wide range of conditions. This allows the object to fulfill many roles, or to survive in a variety of unpredictable conditions and possibly even excel over more specialized objects if conditions are constantly changing. Humans, for example, are extremely versatile. We may not thrive as well on our own as more specialized animals in arctic or desert or tropical environments, but unlike most of them, the same human can generally still survive in all of them. And, besides this highly versatile body design, we have the brains to make tools, and shelters, and transportation to overcome our bodily limitations, such that we can even survive in places like outer space where no animals, however optimized, can survive.

So is God required to maximize all parameters that go into a design? No. Some may fall into the category of “square circles” where the parameters are simply mutually exclusive. Is He required to maximize the particular parameter we favor over another that He deems more important? No. As professional engineers, we can seek the input of peers if desired, but nothing says we have to take their advice. The engineer signing off on the design and taking full responsibility decides the direction of the design. Is so-called “bad design” evidence against God? No. It simply means we likely aren’t seeing the whole picture. My own peer reviews of other engineers’ designs have raised questions as to why they chose a particular route, but then they proved quite reasonable after getting those questions answered. It was typically my lack of knowledge of the background of that particular project, or my unfamiliarity with some certain condition they’d been burned by before that made me think they’d missed something “obvious” when they had actually thought through their design better than I might have if I’d been in their position.

Engineers must approach peer reviews with an attitude of humility, but even more so if the design being reviewed is God’s. If I can overlook the good reason a fellow human engineer made the design choices he did, then I should be all the more open to the possibility that I’ve missed something an omniscient Designer did consider. And this is where I would encourage people like Dawkins not to arrogantly assume that there is no good reason for something just because they can’t see it. Tune in next week as we focus on a couple of specific examples where the atheist claims of “sub-optimal” and “bad” designs in nature have actually turned out to be engineering masterpieces.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p94.

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.

Design Defined

Engineering_design_drawings smallI’ve heard a lot of criticism of “intelligent design” (ID), the idea that certain features of the universe and of living organisms are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided naturalistic processes. But I have to ask, regarding intelligent design, is there any other kind? If we see the appearance of design, is there any other explanation besides intelligence? Let’s first define design. Design is a very broad task, with lots of different types, but a good (if somewhat laborious) definition is:

A specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.

That could really apply to things as diverse as engineering or developing a new soup recipe, but let’s break that down with an example.  I’m an engineer, so here’s an example from an actual job I worked on earlier this year that illustrates each of these criteria. I (the agent) designed a chevron brace connection (the object) to resist a 665,000# earthquake force (the goal) in Little Rock, AR (the environment) using steel tubes, gusset plates, bolts, & welds (the primitive components) to satisfy the 2006 International Building Code (the requirements) without obstructing a doorway (a constraint).

This example is representative of a typical design, but it’s simply not something we see occurring without intent. We don’t accidentally design things.  Water may erode the Grand Canyon, but wind and rain don’t hit the Black Hills of South Dakota with intent to sculpt giant faces into the cliffs. Erosion causing Mount Rushmore is not a reasonable theory! We recognize the design of Mount Rushmore and understand that someone designed it, even if we don’t know who (Gutzon Borglum in that case).  So back to the original question. Is there any other kind of design besides intelligent design? Not really, and here’s why.  Two things jump out from the above definition: an agent, and a goal.  The components, environment, requirements, and constraints add to the definition, but the heart of any design is a person with a purpose. And purpose is not a characteristic of chance or even “natural selection”. It is the result of choice, and choice requires intelligence. Rocks, trees, bacteria, the wind, a piece of steel – none of these can have goals or plans on their own. Only sentient beings can do that. So it seems that design requires intelligence by definition.

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Here the Christian and the atheist agree on the presence of appearance of design in nature. Basically, the atheist argument is that this evidence is a false positive, an indication of design when there isn’t any, while the Christian claims that our observations are accurate and the appearance of design is, in fact, indicative of actual design. So at what point do we say, “If it walks like a ducks and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck and not a time-traveling homicidal shape-changing cyborg disguising himself as a duck, or an advanced alien holographic projection of a duck”? Much like a duck simply being a duck, I think we can say that a powerful, knowledgeable, willful Master Designer being behind all the apparent design we see in nature is a simpler and less far-fetched explanation than what we have to derive in a strictly materialistic universe. Today I just wanted to address the necessity by definition for a designer in any true case of design, and the corequisite of purpose, both of which are absent in a world governed solely by natural selection. Stay tuned as we dig into the case for actual design in upcoming weeks.