Sunday, August 27, 2006

Foreknowledge isn't always knowledge

If you had described to me 28 years ago what my life turned out like, I would almost certainly never have married my wife. Who wants children with Aspergers? If you had told it to me 27 years ago, I'd have thought long and hard before proposing; and probably insisted that we never have children.

The mere description doesn't do justice to the reality, and the reality is that I wouldn't trade the family for anything. I'd do it again, except for a few (ok, more than a few) screwups along the way.

And I haven't any idea how I'd convey that fuller knowledge to an earlier me. Some words didn't have the same freight they do now, and I'd no idea how much meaning there could be in "being there." I'd have been scared.

I've not lived a particularly adventurous life, but I remember one moment that was an "OK, here goes" moment--just before "I do." I'll always be glad that I wasn't too scared.

What we focus on

Memories are fickle, and the details of the setting may be wrong, but the core I think is true.

When the Del Santos arrived in the port of Monrovia, it was too late for immigration procedures, so we spent the night aboard. It rained.

There were a few rickety wooden chairs on the deck under the overhang, and I tried to collar one, but there were more important people visiting us. I didn’t care so much about the VIPs—the rain pouring off the edge of the awning was more interesting.

Truly! The edge of the awning was straight, but the water poured down in individual equally-spaced streams. I was puzzled and pointed this out, and one of the VIPs replied that though the edge was straight and flat, the roof itself was corrugated, and so the water came in channels.

Aha! Maybe these VIPs are going to be interesting after all!

They were answering lots of questions, mostly about dull stuff—I was more curious about whether it was going to rain like this all the time. But by the time they got around to my question, the answer was obvious—the rain was tapering off. In fact, the runoff was down to the rate of drops instead of streams.

Drops didn’t come uniformly, and I tried to find the pattern—but there wasn’t one. It was a pleasant display of randomness, until it tapered off to nothing.

I’ve always been interested in the patterns and the why behind the scenes. Even at 8 ½ years old.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Civil War by Bruce Catton

I decided to fill in a fairly large hole in my history knowledge, and tackled Catton’s books: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomatox. These cover the history of the Army of the Potomac, as viewed from the Union side.

Several threads run through the history, beside the obvious continuity of the army group. The Union side, for a long time, did not have a clear understanding of what they were trying to do. The Union side was afflicted with incompetent officers at all levels, and Murphy’s Law made sure that pivotal battles hinged on the decisions of officers who were in no hurry to fight. Apparently one pivotal incompetent was Pinkerton in his role as intelligence officer, who magnified the Rebel armies by a factor of two and frightened several generations of Union generals. Nobody knew how to deal with the new technology of rifles at first, or even with the muskets: in one early battle Union and Rebel soldiers just stood and shot at each other point blank. Eventually they learned to dig in and use trenches to fight from, but I gather they never did figure out that helmets would help. Accident and friendly fire played their usual stellar roles, and so did domestic politics: Democrats looking for political advantage did everything short of actually volunteering as soldiers for the Rebels to help them keep fighting the Union.

I won’t attempt to summarize the history. Catton tries hard to show what things looked like from the point of view of the ordinary soldier as well as the strategic picture.

It is fascinating, and horrifying, to see how easily things might have been different—in each direction. The anti-war party in the Union was so corrosive that it came close to achieving its aim: defeat for the Union. That’s a strong accusation, but accurate: peace without victory meant a dissolution of the Union. The Rebels were close to victory more than once thanks to incompetent Union generaling. And the Union was close to early victory several times—and if key figures had ordered ruthless attacks rather than waiting around, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved.

The longer the Rebels fought, the Federal government became relatively stronger and the States became relatively weaker. In a battle for “State’s rights” they’d have done better to down arms immediately—States would have had a stronger position in the country today. Although perhaps this was for the best in the end: the US could not and cannot be successfully isolationist, and a strong coordinated central defense turned out to be essential for facing the imperialist powers.

I like the author’s style. Read it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Searching is hard

I learned years ago that when I was annoyed with the church or its leaders, and nurtured that critical attitude, I wound up doing less good and more evil in the average day than I did otherwise. Something about that attitude spread through the rest of my life.

We’re looking for a new church home. And to find one I have to analyze what we find, and evaluate it: be a critic weighing pros and cons. I’m not looking forward to spending a lot of time that way.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Eden and beyond

The latest research in nano-technology shows more and more clearly how powerful biological fabrication can be. Large metal objects will remain the domain of large furnaces, but small and complex objects might be generated in other ways: if we knew how to tame the creatures to do it. A symbiosis between oysters and bacteria which reduce iron could produce laminates of iron and oyster nacre—small, but strong and very tough. It would take a lot of research, but it might work.

I’ve long thought that the dog was with us in Eden—an example given of what could be done when we subdued/tamed the world. In retrospect taming the dog seems straightforward: take a pack animal and make it part of the human pack. But it took insight to see that this was possible. The dog is just one part of the wide world. Could we ever have tamed it all? Not just the wolf and the sheep, but the mouse and the snake and the bees?

Taming a wild and dangerous world without reducing its complexity or majesty seems a huge task, and one I can only describe by analogies. The seamen of sailing ships did not try to create their own winds or dry the ocean paths, but used the ocean to support themselves and tacked when the winds weren’t favorable. They finessed the power of the wind and ocean to get them where they wanted to go. We dam up the sides of the Mississippi, and the silly river silts up higher requiring us to dredge and dam it higher still. Suppose instead we found a way to finesse the power of the river, letting it flood where we wanted it to instead of wherever it found a way loose. Or, as Lewis pointed out, if we could persuade mice to defecate someplace else we wouldn’t mind them eating our leftovers.

With greater and greater knowledge the taming would be more and more complete. There’d be work and to spare to understand each region and its creatures and to plan a web of obediences in it: science and art combined.

I have no way to imagine how human relations would be different in an unfallen world, where people could know each other in love, and therefore know each other far better than in our self-involved world.

And I’m in no position to even guess at what the relation between God and man was like.

The creativity and power and love that could have been is mind-boggling.

Eden is gone forever, though; and we’ve a world full of wicked problems; a world where a God who hates divorce sets up rules for how to arrange it; a world where sacrifices sometimes have to die; a world where those who try to build Eden create Babel instead—if they’re lucky; last century they often wound up with altars to Molech. Yes, I think Babel is a good analogy for what we are developing here in the US: great plans and noise and no common language anymore.

But though Eden is gone, and we’ve no hope for a harmonious world (let alone a loving one) anymore, we’ve hope and a still greater gift. Our creativity is just shards of what it might have been, but if we have the Holy Spirit living with us it is His power that matters, and that is greater than any Edenic man’s could possibly be. We have to live in the wreckage we made and suffer at each other’s mercy, but the meaning of it can be transformed in undreamed-of ways. Who knew that God was a suffering servant? And that we could be like Him that way?

Though our best work is just filthy rags, with His transfiguring power our poor endurance can be glorious.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Unless the seed dies

From My Utmost for His Highest

We tend to say that because a person has natural ability, he will make a good Christian. It is not a matter of our equipment, but a matter of our poverty; not of what we bring with us, but of what God puts into us; not a matter of natural virtues, of strength of character, of knowledge, or of experience— all of that is of no avail in this concern. The only thing of value is being taken into the compelling purpose of God and being made His friends (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ). God’s friendship is with people who know their poverty. He can accomplish nothing with the person who thinks that he is of use to God. As Christians we are not here for our own purpose at all— we are here for the purpose of God, and the two are not the same. We do not know what God’s compelling purpose is, but whatever happens, we must maintain our relationship with Him. We must never allow anything to damage our relationship with God, but if something does damage it, we must take the time to make it right again. The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to, and it is the one thing that is continually under attack.

That’s a hard thing to remember. I was blessed with various gifts—a good analytical mind, good big picture skills, flexible: surely God wants me as a teacher. But God doesn’t need anything of mine at all, and so long as I imagine that I know His plan I don’t listen. So long as I think of myself as a guide to the ignorant I’m not much use, and then what powers I do have tend to point people to me rather than God. I remember a half a year when I felt strongly that I was talking too much, attracting too much attention, and that I should shut up and let the scripture speak for itself without elaboration. I did, mostly. I got no feedback on whether lessons were better or worse. Life’s like that.

Of course one great temptation in the modern evangelical church is to imagine that because Christ did it all we have nothing serious to sacrifice, no hard work to do. That appeals to my rather lazy side. I know better, naturally, so I find some congenial work to do that other people might find hard, and spend a lot of time on it. It takes talent to blunder into pits on both sides of the path at the same time…