Constructing Newton’s Bridge

Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists who ever lived, also was a Christian theologian. He once said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” His quote resonates with me because bridges filled the landscape of my childhood.

I spent the first eighteen years of my life growing up in “The City of Bridges”. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contains more bridges within its city limits than Venice, Italy, with the current number of bridges totaling nearly two thousand. Three major rivers come together at the Point, the location of Pittsburgh’s iconic fountain first built in 1974.  In addition to the presence of rivers, the steep hills and ravines around the city make bridges a necessity for transportation. The early European settlers of Pittsburgh quickly learned that they had to choose between living in isolation or finding creative ways to span the waters and valleys.

People cluster on one of two riverbanks in their approach to relating human reasoning to faith. The first approach, common in many Christian circles in my childhood and college years and persisting to this day, revolves around mistrust of the intellect. Acquiring knowledge, analyzing information, and questioning assumptions become suspect activities. Too much thinking means that you are not listening to your heart; you are out of touch with practical concerns; or you are not truly spiritual.

Many Christians find support for mistrusting the intellect in a variety of Biblical passages. All the way back in Eden, Eve’s temptation included a desire for wisdom and knowledge. In Proverbs 3:5, an often-quoted verse reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” In the New Testament in John 20:29, Jesus said to the doubting Apostle Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:27), the Apostle Paul explained, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Clustered on the second riverbank, we find those who worship the life of the mind above all else. Human reasoning reigns supreme. The standard for judging truth becomes data collected through the human senses and processed by rational thought. Atheists and agnostics wield Occam’s razor to slice away the possibility of revelation, preferring explanations that avoid spirituality. While the 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham was right to suggest that a scientific model should avoid introducing more causes than necessary, the principle often is used to exclude from the possibility of existence everything not perceivable by the human senses. Occam’s razor is a sound approach to the practice of science, but when brandished too freely, justifies positivism. This philosophy persuades those dwell on this second riverbank to stop their search for spiritual truth when they reach the limits of human reasoning and empirical evidence.

Perhaps the two camps of settlers could survive adequately without venturing beyond the limits of their respective riverbanks. Yet I join Isaac Newton and the early settlers of Pittsburgh in the conviction that a richer life waits for those willing to construct a bridge.

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  • People cluster on one of two riverbanks in their approach to relating human reasoning to faith.  Buffer
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Patterns Likely to Lead to Success

I enjoy sports on a recreational rather than competitive level, yet I often find inspiration for my non-athletic goals by observing the practices of top athletes. Even elite athletes occasionally experience bad days, sustain injuries, and perform under their potential for a game or a short stretch of a season. Yet, successful athletes know how to return to high performance levels after a setback. They know the secret to a comeback is repeating previous patterns of success.

Finding Patterns

A good coach will help an athlete uncover patterns worth repeating. For example, reflecting on what makes for a successful practice session shows an athlete how to prepare for the game. The coach prompts the athlete to consider the amount of sleep he had the night before, the particular foods he ate, how he warmed up, and what was on his mind. Many times when I am working toward a particular goal, I reflect on my past successes to look for useful patterns. I remember what it feels like to focus wholeheartedly on a goal. I remember how to disband negative thoughts and embrace a faith-filled outlook. I remember the work intensity necessary to meet a deadline. I rehearse in my mind the feelings associated with completion of the goal.

Attending Practice

Once I uncover the useful patterns, I need to put them into practice. Our brains love to form habits. Habits make life easy by decreasing the amount of mental processing needed to complete a task. Once you learn how to ride a bike, scramble eggs for breakfast or drive to work along a particular route, your brain guides you almost effortlessly through these tasks without you consciously thinking through each detailed step. Of course, as every golfer who has struggled to fix a faulty swing will tell you, habits can sometimes work against you.

Patterns in our brain are like riverbeds through which water effortlessly flows. Practice is about carving out and strengthening useful patterns. The key to getting rid of a bad habit or correcting a faulty golf swing is to repeat the new habit or swing until it replaces the old one. You can bring old patterns of success to life again to help you in your new endeavor by consciously repeating these patterns until they become automatic once more.

Being Yourself

Everyone has a unique way of getting things done that works for them. I have known many academic high achievers who seem to wait to the last minute to spring into action, yet always brilliantly achieve their goals. At first glance, you might accuse these achievers of procrastinating and urge them to change. However, what appears to outsiders as procrastinating is a pattern of success in disguise. These high achievers function by quietly collecting and processing vast quantities of data before taking visible action. In reality, they have not waited until the last minute to work toward their goals; they have been at work all along.

Both athletes and academic high achievers understand that being yourself is the key to high performance. My pattern of success may be very different from yours. You will do best when you employ your own previous patterns of success instead of mine. Stay true to what works for you to achieve your own best results.

From a spiritual standpoint, moving past doubts and disappointments requires revisiting key moments in your faith journey and remembering what God has done in your life. A good way to rekindle any relationship, whether spiritual or earthly, is to remember the relationship at its best and try to recapture those feelings by repeating the behaviors and actions that strengthened the relationship in the first place. Those patterns likely to lead to success live in your memories. They are waiting to help you succeed in sports, in life, and in all your relationships.

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Three Great Easter Questions

While preparing for the Easter holiday, I began to think about the great questions contained in the Biblical account of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, celebrated by Christians on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. These questions quickly get to the heart of the Christian message and remain relevant even today.  How would you answer the following three questions?

1.    You are not one of his disciples, are you? (John 18:17)

A young girl asked the Apostle Peter this question as he was waiting outside the high priest’s courtyard after Jesus was arrested. Peter had enough courage to follow Jesus to the religious leader’s court when the other disciples simply stayed behind. Peter put his faith into action more than most, but in the end, not enough to keep from denying Jesus to a servant girl. Fear won the day over faith. Weakness triumphed over love and loyalty. The question of the servant girl echoes to this present moment. Everyone who learns about Jesus must decide, “Am I his disciple or not?”

2.    What is truth? (John 18:38)

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sat in judgment at Jesus’ trial, asked Jesus this question. Of course, Pilate asked the same question that philosophers have been asking and attempting to answer for thousands of years. But Jesus was not another philosopher with a theory of truth. He claimed to be the truth (John 14:6). Pilate was asking the wrong question. The right question becomes, “Who is truth?”

3.    Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5)

Two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning asked this question to the women who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint the body with burial spices. The women came to pay respect to the dead, but they became the first witnesses to the central miracle of Christianity. Christianity is not about the sayings of a good moral teacher. Christianity goes beyond advice for living a successful human life. Christianity is about resurrection. Resurrection means hope beyond this lifetime, power beyond natural explanation, and love that lasts for eternity. A Christian settles for nothing less.

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Which Butterfly Caused the Tornado?

The public expects science to deliver discoveries that provide increasingly precise answers about our world. Yet some scientific discoveries suggest inherent limits to scientific knowledge. One example is chaos theory, popularized as the “butterfly effect.”

The butterfly effect is a simple insight first extracted from the complex science of meteorology by Edward Lorentz in 1961 at MIT. He found that small changes in initial conditions, such as rounding a number used to represent an atmospheric condition from .506127 to .506, could completely transform a long-term weather forecast. He explained this insight in his 1972 paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

 His paper described both a practical limit for weather predictions and a philosophical limit for the explanatory powers of science. In complex, nonlinear systems, a small change in input can produce a large change in output. Thus, weather predictions more than a week in advance always will be fairly inaccurate. The philosophical limit is that the effects of chaos prevent us from knowing which butterfly caused the tornado.

So the lesson of the butterfly effect is that our world will remain fundamentally unpredictable because tiny differences in our scientific measurements make too big a difference in the final answer. Everything happens for a reason, but science may be unable to give us an exact cause for an event. Accepting limitations to the explanatory power of science does not diminish the importance of science. After all, the discovery of our human limitations in fully comprehending our world is a finding with profound significance.

Questions to ponder: What does the inherent limitations of science say about the limits of human understanding? Does science preclude spirituality?

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