On knowledge, differentiation, and deconstructionism

Is the world boring? Go read a book, travel somewhere else, or listen to someone outside your usual circle. Learn something. Knowledge multiplies differentiation and enriches the ground underneath your very feet.

1. Late last night I went to the grocery store and filled my cart with staples for the coming week. Living in a university town, this offers opportunity to run into all kinds of interesting people, even here in rural Idaho. There was a Chinese couple buying a heavy dose of Bok Choy, some heavily perfumed Indian men in the checkout line, some brown-skinned men in turbans contemplating the yogurt section, and an old Mennonite couple buying rice. I was easily the most boring person in the shop.

Now the truth is, the Chinese couple could have been Korean. I don’t know enough to tell by sight alone. If they had been talking more I might have been able to pick up some clues in the inflection, but I was mostly at a loss. Americans who say all Asians look the same just don’t have enough knowledge to differentiate. The reverse is also true. We can probably tell the difference between New Yorkers and Texans and they can’t. I’d like to say that the guys with the turbans on where Sihk, but honestly I don’t know for sure.

Visiting and studying Africa has been enlightening. I used to think all black Africans looked the same. How silly that seems now! Ethnic Ethiopians appear so different from Nigerians to me today. The world has become more interesting. Glory! Actually, it always was that interesting, I just didn’t know it. In fact, it’s even more interesting and exciting than I can imagine right now. Learning opens the door. Broader experience opens the door. A larger vocabulary opens the door. Keep reading, keep learning, keep differentiating more.

2. Not long ago I read The Hobbit to my children out loud. Shortly after, I saw one of my daughters coloring this little picture of Smaug’s golden hoard.


I asked her to describe what was in the picture. We have Fort Knox style bar of gold there in the middle of the pile, along with a cut sapphire and some rubies. On top is the Arkenstone of Thrain which is described in some detail in the text. But what is that golden cup in the middle? Why it’s the golden cup that Bilbo steals on his first visit. Why does it have a big #1 engraved on it? Because that’s the only sort of gold cup my daughter has ever seen – the big plastic kind given as a trophy for winning a spelling bee or a junior soccer tournament. We in the modern west don’t have much use for fancy dishes – including golden cups you actually drink out of. Would that she be a bit more familiar with something like this:


That is of course a golden chalice for serving wine during the holy Eucharist. In much of modern protestantism it has been shunned in favor of tiny non-descript thimbles. Is this an improvement? If your gravest temptation is toward gawdy ceremonialism perhaps, but it certainly isn’t a more “biblical” idea. Scripture is filled with vessels (cups) designated for different purposes. Much is made of the golden dishes in the temple, both when they are made and when they are carried away and defiled by the king of Babylon. Paul appeals to the analogy of cups made of gold, sliver, wood, and clay when describing how people who keep their lives pure are fit for different kinds of work in the Kingdom. Is taking communion akin to eating a hamburger and drinking a soda? If so, then the dishes can be the same. But I don’t think it is. I think it’s special. I suggest we reconsider the vessels we use. They are not meaningless and interchangeable but rather communicate something significant in each case.

3. A friend of mine who is working on a graduate degree in fine art recently posted on how much he loves deconstructionism. I replied that I am all for deconstruction if:

1. The thing being deconstructed is a lie, with the end of the deconstruction being the discovery of the truth.
2. You are tearing something apart to learn more about how it works and its inherent nature, with the end goal of understanding things more and furthering right ends in the future.

And so an engineer breaking pieces of glass to determine their strength under various temperatures is tearing something apart with constructive ends. A drunk vandal breaking windows out of a vacant business downtown (happened yesterday to another friend of mine who is remodeling the joint) is tearing things apart with only destruction as the end.

A surgeon cutting open a man to see how poison has affected his liver has a constructive end to his tearing apart. Another doctor may cut a man open with the goal of showing how he is just an animal or just a lump of tissue, or even just a pile of loosely connected atoms. Such as he are in service to the void, the deceiver, the destroyer.

There is a deconstruction of gender roles that seeks equality and justice and fair treatment and the ending of abuse. But there is another sort of tearing apart of the notion of man and women that ends in confusion, destruction, and nihilism. The line between the two can be crossed when a person’s underlying theology is faulty.

There is a deconstruction in music that yearns to strip away trash picked up along the way and find what diamonds remain underneath. There is another kind that aims to find that all tones are trash or that maybe everything coming into your ear is trash. Arnold Shoenberg and John Cage respectively, in case you are wondering.

The same goes with visual art. There is a deconstructionism of paint or of form that ultimately seeks to find beauty when the pieces are all lying in a heap. There is still an imagination yearning to put them back together into something new. But the way this often goes in the modern academy is to disassemble beauty and then just leave it on the floor and call it finished, implying that the destruction is the thing of worth – the disenchantment of the world is something worth beholding. This is sick and wrong and no amount of laudation by critics will ever legitimize it. Everyone needs to stop what they are doing and go read Aquinas, or Aristotle if you can’t stomach that.

So there is a knowledge which increases diversity of thought, and this is a good thing. But it still has to be put to constructive ends. One can learn all about the people of Africa and love how different and interesting everyone is with their varied shapes, languages and strengths. One can also learn that they are NOT so different than one’s self. This is perhaps an even greater lesson. In the end though, one’s motive comes from the heart and that is a thing that needs renewal via the Spirit, not greater learning.

Praying with the children at night

Every evening after reading a chapter of storybook to the kids, I conduct a time of prayer or contemplation. I’ve tried a lot of different things and haven’t been at all satisfied with much of it. For a good year or two I tried just praying extemporaneously as my parents had always done, but I really didn’t like doing just that. I felt as though I wasn’t able to say what I really wanted to and the words often came out sounding petty. It was inferred that God was friendly, but not exactly full of majesty or power.

Changing gears, I tried using just recited prayers, specifically the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, both of which they learned pretty quickly and asked a lot of questions about. That was good for a while. We even learned to recite the Lord’s prayer in Ethiopian Amharic to honor some of Abi’s heritage. But, this had a lot of potential to just become canned and I began to see my son’s eyes glaze over while we recited it.

I then switched to reading some scripture every night. I got about halfway through the book of Luke, reading a half chapter at a time and asking some follow-up questions. The problem is, as exciting as the gospel accounts are, they really don’t quite have the sustained narrative excitement of The Hobbit or Harry Potter. I also felt like the youngest kids were having trouble discerning between the imaginative fiction and the apostolic accounts. Not a good mix. It also wasn’t making prayer go any better. Attention spans are a bit dicey at the end of the day for children still in the single digits.

For the past five or six weeks though, I’ve hit upon something that really seems to be a nice mix and is working pretty well. I’ve been using the daily office prayer book compiled by Phyllis Tickle called The Divine Hours. Since we go to bed at about 8:00 PM, I always end up using the Vespers prayers, but they are different for each day of the week. Included is a bunch of snippets from the psalms that sound really great read aloud – drawing attention to the attributes of God. Also included is a refrain (usually just one sentence from one of the psalms) that is repeated at three different spots. I teach this to the kids before we start so they can say it along with me at the right time. The Lord’s prayer is also there in the middle, as is two opportunities for making the sign of the cross, which I tell them is like praying with your hands instead of your words. Sometimes there is a well-known hymn too. So in total there are three different things for them to participate in directly.

Before the concluding prayer, I make up a prayer to say all four of the kids in turn. Now that this isn’t standing alone by itself, it feels much easier to come up with something meaningful to thank God for and to ask Him for. I find myself getting much less tongue-tied when filling my mind with the psalms for a few minutes beforehand and not feeling like I have to make up a lot of  things at the moment. All in all, the whole thing only takes about five minutes to do too, so nobody nods off. It’s also different enough each day to keep me interested as well! I’m excited for Advent to start as some of the selections are seasonal.

Having felt largely a failure at getting anything resembling “family worship time” going for years on end, I consider this a real encouraging development. It seems like a pretty good mix of the sorts of things I want to teach my kids to know and do.

Along these lines, I was especially delighted at the concluding prayer from last night, which actually reflects back on difficulties with prayer itself:

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon your church the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Evil done in time takes time to undo

This morning at church while everyone was waiting to receive communion, my 5-year-old daughter asked me a question:

Her: Daddy, did God make everything?

Me: Yep. He made the whole world and everything in it.

Her: He make bees?

Me: Sure did.

Her: But bees sting me! Why He make bees sting me?

Me: Good question… Well, that’s just how bees work. That’s what they do. But it’s OK. Even if they hurt sometimes, later they won’t hurt. God is going to fix everything broken with the world, just not quite yet. Even though there is some bad stuff right now we trust him that it will all be OK.

It seems to me that any working solution to the problem of evil has to take time into account. People ask angrily, “If God is so good, why did he let me son die?” Good question. It’s obviously because God isn’t really in control of everything, right? Well, only if you assume that if he was he would immediately wipe everything evil from existence, including our own memories of it, like some kind of angelic Men in Black agent retroactively putting things back as if they never fell off the shelf to begin with.

OK, maybe, but that is just one rather narrow conception of how a creator could fix his creation. It’s the way someone who watches a lot of movies involving time travel might suggest God make everything right. But God isn’t like Dr. Who only with a 2-ton sonic screwdriver. According to what we Christians consider his special revelation, his stories work out a bit differently. They take time – many lifetimes of men to complete. It ends with a resurrection – a bringing back to life of those taken by death that is so dramatic, it will make the day of their perishing seem like small potatoes.

He doesn’t erase our memory through induced amnesia, but by overwhelming it with a glorious future. Today we ask, “Where O death is your sting?” and Death speaks right up and says, “Right here sucka! Boom.” But THEN, we will ask the same question (1 Cor. 15:55) and Death will reply with nothing more than a half-hearted mumble. So you can doubt that such a thing will ever happen and consequently live in fear and grasping for what you can get in the short term. Or you can trust the maker.

Time is the medium we exist in and He will work within that medium to restore us. When extra crappy days hit, we are tempted not to trust. All creation groans, but he will not wait forever. The ancient prophets knew this, even though they understand very little. As hard as it is, it’s easier for us to trust since we have seen (or heard) of the first key step in this plan worked out – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The more we contemplate Him, the easier it will be to trust in the (seemingly distant) future putting to rights.


A wonderful analogy for understanding faith

A few weeks ago after Robert Capon passed away, everyone was posting tributes to him. I did the same. Among them (I forget where exactly now) was this wonderful illustration of his I had not seen before. It is definitely worth repeating.

Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.

Illustration: Imagine that I am in the hospital, in traction, with casts on both arms and both legs. And imagine further that every time you visit me, I carry on despairingly about the fact that my house, in my absence, is falling apart: the paint is peeling, the sills are rotting, the roof is blowing away in the wind.

But then imagine that one day, after a considerable interval, you come to me and say, “Robert, I have just paid off the contractor I engaged to repair your house. It’s all fixed — a gift from me to you.” What are my choices in the face of such good news? I cannot go out of the hospital to check for myself—I cannot know that you have fixed my house for me. I can only disbelieve you or believe you. If I disbelieve you, I go on being a miserable bore. But if I believe you — if I trust your word that you have done the job for me — I have my first good day in a long while. My faith, you see, accomplishes nothing but my own enjoyment.

Look at it another way. Suppose I had decided, while staring at the hospital ceiling, that if only I could work up enough faith, you would undertake to repair my house. And suppose further that I had grunted and groaned through every waking hour trying to get my faith meter up to red hot. What good would that have done unless you had decided, as a gift to me in response to no activity on my part whatsoever, to do the job for me? No good, that’s what. Faith doesn’t fix houses — carpenters and painters do. And faith doesn’t pay bills, either. Faith, therefore, is not a gadget by which I can work wonders. It is just trust in a person who actually can work them — and who has promised me he already has.

Misc notes on Polya’s Patterns of Plausible Inference

These don’t really stand up as their separate posts, so here they are with just a bit of commentary. Bold emphasis is mine. The chart is barely related.


That logic demands things be zero or one, utterly true or utterly false assumes that no persons, no humans live in it’s realm. Mathematics, often considered the most purely abstract of the sciences still does not often talk in such terms. Here, Polya accurately describes the continuum:

Let us imagine that our confidence in B changes gradually, varies “continuously.” We imagine that B becomes less credible, then still less credible, scarcely believable, and finally false. On the other hand, we image that B becomes more credible, the still more credible, practically certain, and finally true. If the strength of our conclusion varies continually in the same direction as the strength of our confidence in B, there is little doubt what our conclusion should be since the two extreme cases (B false, B true) are clear. (p.24)

What’s the first step to really solving a problem? Taking person ownership of it. How do you know you have done that? Easy. It’s obvious to everyone around you.

A problem becomes a problem for you when you propose it to yourself. A problem is not yet your problem just because you are supposed to solve it in an examination. If you wish that somebody would come and tell you the answer, I suspect that you did not yet set that problem to yourself in earnest. But if you are anxious to find the answer yourself, by your own means, then you have made the problem really yours, you are serious about it. Setting a problem to yourself is the beginning of the solution, the essential first move in the game. It is a move in the nature of a decision.

You need not tell me that you have set that problem to yourself, you need not tell it to yourself; your whole behavior will show that you did. Your mind becomes selective; it becomes more accessible to anything that appears to be connected with the problem, and less accessible to anything that seems unconnected. You eagerly seize upon any recollection, remark, suggestion, or fact that could help you solve your problem, and you shut the door upon other things. When the door is so tightly shut that even the most urgent appeals of the external world fail to reach you, people say that you are absorbed. (p.145)

You have a plan of a solution to your problem. Is it a good plan? Here is a handy checklist from Polya. Think about your solution and check these off to gain more confidence in it. If you can’t check very many of these off, then you should probably work on it some more to make sure it is really any good.

1. This plan takes all the data into account.
2. This plan provides for a connection between the data and the unknown.
3. This plan has features that are often useful in solving problems of this kind.
4. This plan is similar to one that succeed in solving an analogous problem.
5. This plan succeeded in solving a particular case of the problem.
6. This plan succeeded in solving part of the problem (in finding some of the unknowns or in proving a weaker conclusion)

This passage is really worth considering, especially with regards to education.

To a philosopher with a somewhat open mind all intelligent acquisition of knowledge should appear sometimes as a guessing game, I think. In science as in everyday life, when faced by a new situation, we start out with some guess. Our first guess may fall wide of the mark, but we try it and, according to the degree of success, we modify it more or less. Eventually, after several trials and several modifications, pushed by observations and led by analogy, we may arrive at a more satisfactory guess. The layman does not find it surprising that the naturalist works in this way. The knowledge of the naturalist may be better ordered with a view to selecting the appropriate analogies, his observations may be more purposeful and more careful, he may give more fancy names to his guesses and call them “tentative generalizations,” but the naturalist adapts his mind to a new situation by guessing like the common man. And the layman is not surprised to hear that the naturalist is guessing like himself. It may appear a little more surprising to the layman that the mathematician is also guessing. The result of the mathematician’s creative work is demonstrative reasoning, a proof, but the proof is discovered by plausible reasoning, by guessing.

If this is so, and I believe that this is so, there should be a place for guessing in the teaching of mathematics. Instruction should prepare for, or at least give a little taste of, invention. At all events, the instruction should not suppress the germs of invention in the student. A student who is somewhat interested in the problem discussed in class expects a certain kind of solution. If the student is intelligent, he foresees the solution to some extend: the result may look thus and so, and there is a chance that it may be obtained by such and such a procedure. The teacher should try to realize what the students might expect, he should find out what they do expect, he should point out what they should reasonably expect. If the student is less intelligent and especially if he is bored, he is likely to produce wild and irresponsible guesses. The teacher should show that guesses in the mathematical domain my be reasonable, respectable, responsible. I address myself to teachers of mathematics of all grades and say: Let us teach guessing! (p.158)


Even the best School of Education has not yet succeeded in producing the marvelous teacher who has such an excellent training in teaching methods that he can make his students understand even those things that he does not understand himself. (p.160)

Qui nimium probat, nihil probat. That is, if you prove too much, you prove nothing. If you prefer a French sentence to a Latin saying, here is one: “La mariee est trop belle”; the bride looks too good. (p.162)

If your plan appears to superficially solve all problems, it is likely not a very good plan. When pushed on particular points, it will almost certain not stand up. Complex problems nearly always have relatively complex solutions.

This reminds me of a quote by H.L Mencken:

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

I tried to describe what this book was about to a colleague. I think it, especially the final chapter,  is an exercise in tearing apart intuition and and finding that each tiny step makes complete sense from a probability standpoint. Polya at one point uses an example of a priest who walks by a dice player in a town square in Italy. After the gambler throws boxcars 5 times in a row, the priest curses at the man and accuses him of cheating. He began by truly thinking the best of the man, but this was eventually overruled by the occurrence of what was almost certainly impossible. He dissects several other situations such as evidence of a murder presented in a courtroom and breaks each step down into numbers. We make these jumps very quickly in our heads, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be articulated mathematically. The point is that the reasoning behind intuition is generally sound and that we can use it to make good guesses for a starting point when solving problems.

One final word: The first book in this two volume set (Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning) was a lot more interesting. This one had a lot less prose and many more raw math examples, most of which I just skimmed.

Change My World

Maire Brennan has long been a favorite vocalist and musician of mine. Her early work with Clannad is a bit spotty, but her first couple of solo albums were frequently sublime in their production, composition, songwriting, and emotional power. Unfortunately her most recent work has suffered severely from the perilous “drowning in reverb” virus. Nevertheless, there are still a few gems to be found on occasion, like this one.

If it’s true how will I agree
What the poet says of history?
Search the ashes of time to change my world

Stewards of the mysteries of God

I’m supposed to preach on 1 Corinthians 4 in a few weeks. Nothing in the passage has stood out to me yet as being a really clear place to jump off from. I’m going to try a few writing/thinking exercises to see if I can come up with something to talk about that has more gospel in it. This is my first stab and rewriting or expanding on the text.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

-1 Cor. 4:1 (ESV)

How should you think of us? As stewards of the mysteries of God. What kind of mystery is this we are talking about? What is so mysterious about what we have to say? It’s because you can’t learn this stuff on your own.

That God exists, that the natural world is beautiful and amazing and unique – all of these you could have figured out on your own. Most of you have figured them out more or less, even if some are confused. You know there is good and evil. You know there is right and wrong. You can feel it in your very bones, not just inside your soft socially-constructed grey matter. Karma feels real. It also feels terminal. You taste death every day, even those of you who live in luxury and are able to sufficiently insulate yourself from it most of the time.

What is the end of all this? Who is behind all this? These are things that cannot be derived simply by observing the world with your senses. When you use your eyes and ears and hands to detect the living world around you, you can see evidence everywhere of a creator, of order, and also of evil. You can put your rational mind to good use and contemplate these things and discover patterns and some of the logic behind the workings of nature and even of the dubious nature of the heart of man. But you cannot find the end, cannot find the key, cannot know the originator. These are mysteries. That is where we come in. We are stewards of the mysteries of God. He delivered to us – his chosen people – some special communications about who He is and who we are and what we are about on this earth. You may have heard that God spoke to the children of Abraham many years ago. This isn’t like the myth about Zeus or gods from the stars, but something that happened in history to real people. Well, what has been written down of this we know well and it turns out they all point toward one person, one event concerning a certain Jesus of Nazareth. This was no mere man but God himself come to all of mankind. He lived and was murdered by the people and then came back from the dead of his own accord three days later. If you had been there, you could have seen these things for yourself. But no matter – we get to tell you all about them and explain some of what they mean. It is important that we do a good job telling you about God and his desire that you know him yourself. What we have to say is not a condemnation to any of you, but rather good news, extremely good news about life and death and love and all the things that you know deep in your soul are the most important aspects of your existence.

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (v. 2-5)

We do not care what any human court thinks of us. We do not even care what we ourselves think of ourselves. Our judgement does not count and neither does the crowds’. We stand before the judgement of God and so do you. But take heart! He has sent someone to mediate for us who will ensure that our death sentence is lifted. Woe to us if we do not instruct you in this so that you realize what has been given to you.

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

But not everyone wants to hear the good news we are compelled to deliver. In fact, many people consider us to be a bad joke. That’s OK – it’s just part of the job. The enemy of God, though his time and reach are both short has stirred up the hearts of men in strife against what we have to pronounce. Do you love having lots of money, lots of wealth? Do you love accomplishing great things and feeling important? These are good things to possess, but no end in themselves. Some of you are rich and some are poor, but you are all mortal. The good news we have to bring you of Jesus Christ has a leveling effect – it proves all people to be the same. The world you live in hates this sort of fairness. It wants to chop people into groups – the weak and the powerful, the have and the have-not, the shiny elite and the filth on the street. And if you only use yours eyes and ears, what they are saying about how great they are and how lame you are seems to make sense. You should work hard to be more like them they suggest. This seems natural. But the mysterious good news we have for you is eternal life is intended for all of you.

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.I urge you, then, be imitators of me.

Put away your foolish striving and rivalry and learn to love each other as equals. What we have to tell you is not a formula for behaving this way – nothing like that would actually work anyway. What we have to tell is a good news about how our wickedness has been erased, is being erased, will be erased and the beauty inherent in each of us brought out and amplified when this relatively short age is over. Even now, we hear the echoes of new creation. Jesus Christ was the first to go down this route, blazing the trail for us to follow. Though there are plenty who mock us and call our story silly, you who have had your hearts stirred by the spirit of God when you heard it know of its veracity. To the people that don’t believe us, we can only assume God has something else in store for them at the moment. Perhaps they will listen to someone else later. Perhaps their children will. It is of no business of ours. But you are our business because we have become like fathers to you. We are not here to Lord it over you as if you were our slaves, but love you as if you were are own children. But just as any father or mother desires their children to grow straight and strong, we must on occasion chastise or discipline you. Don’t act like teenagers who think they know everything. That is why I have written this long latter to you. I hope some of you will be humble and willing to learn.

A few misc thoughts on problem solving, nature, and specialization

It seems to me that inductive reasoning in the mathematical domain is easier to study than in the physical domain. The reason is simple enough. In asking a mathematical question, you may hope to obtain a completely unambiguous answer, a perfectly sharp Yes or No. In addressing a question to Nature, you cannot hope to obtain an answer without some margin of uncertainty. You predict that a lunar eclipse will begin (the shadow will indent the disk of the moon) at such and such a time. Actually, you observe the beginning of the eclipse 4 minutes later than predicted. According to the standards of Greek astronomy your prediction would be amazingly correct, according to modern standards it is scandalously incorrect. A given discrepancy between prediction and observation can be interpreted as confirmation or refutation. Such interpretation depends on some kind of plausible reasoning the difficulties of which in “physical situations” begin a step earlier than in “mathematical situations.”

George Polya, Patterns of Plausible Inference, p.24

When you play with imaginary things, then you set the terms – you are the observer of a world in which you had a hand in writing. The world may seem to be alive and take on a mind of its own, but it does so within the bounds of the words and images you have allowed it to inhabit. The mathematician works with these sorts of things. So does the theoretical physicist, for the most part. The theologian sometimes does. It is likely he is at his weakest when doing so but it is sometimes necessary, regardless.

“Difficulties” as Polya says, start a step earlier for the person studying the natural world. You may look under your microscope and say there is no virus in this drop of blood, here, but can you be sure there isn’t one lurking in the drop next to it? You may find yourself photographing a new species of bird in the everglades and sudden find an alligator snapping at your heals. Shoot – it flew away. This guy here was trying to photograph lions. Does he understand more now?


At what point did he have to stop worrying about his lens and ensure that he wasn’t about to just become a slab of meat on the savanna?

You go to dig up some dino bones in the Utah desert and find yourself baking in the sun, perhaps baking your brains as well. You study hundreds of patients with cancer and find none who line up with the mean statistic. You then treat them all and find little uniformity with their responses. It’s time to retire by the time you’ve isolated even one variable.

For parents, you learn so much raising your first child. Then you go to raise your second and discover almost everything you leaned was total junk. Then the third comes – time to throw your research and lines of thinking in the trash again. What remains is what cannot be shaken and if your wise, it will turn out to be all the same stuff the parents three thousand years ago were saying too. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” comes to mind.


At the end of the day, the computer programmer is still more of a naturalist than a “pure” theoretician. He seemingly wrestles not against flesh and blood, but with his medium which can ultimately be traced back to the hands of man, not those of God. A brilliant design takes a day to write and then another eight to secure from hackers. The perfect data storage structure your Ph.D. intern came up with is thrown in the trash when network latency is taken into account. A dynamic language seems to free one’s creativity, but then its users may find themselves so infuriated during the debugging stage they pine for a strongly-typed syntax again. Any proof arrived at by the person attempting to work in a vacuum is subject to the harsh environment. Have a nice new parallel GPU algorithm? Did you actually try it with the Windows driver? No? Forget it. Turns out you didn’t solve anything worth solving – not today anyway.

To the theologian, these difficulties can often be placed under the heading of “pastoral care”. Want to read A.W. Pink and toot that double-predestination trumpet as loud as you can? Go ahead. But then two of your children die in a car accident and you find that theodicy was just a bit more challenging than you thought. The Trinity is beautiful, but how come it’s so dang hard to explain? It would seem that nature resists its explanation. Good shepherds know this and figure out how to be gentle with the facts – not because they hate the truth but because they love people. Poor shepherds will only continue to scorn humanity, imagining God to be more like the square root of 2 than person.

This is also why the best IT person is always going to be a generalist. Someone that only cares about networking or only cares about beautiful code or only cares about uptime is ultimately not going to be able to synthesize enough different types of information to solve real-world problems and help actual people. Specialization is human because it acknowledges a person’s limited capacity. It makes room for strengths and weaknesses. Hyper-specialization is dehumanizing because it imagines man as a machine, and he is not.