Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Big T Truth versus Little T Truth

Einstein hated quantum physics. When asked about it he responded, “God does not play dice with the universe.” The problem was, Einstein helped to create quantum physics. Without his groundbreaking work, the pioneers of quantum theory like Max Plank and Edwin Schrodinger wouldn’t have been able to articulate the theory that Einstein hated so much.

The writer of Ecclesiastes -- usually just called “The Teacher” -- does not seem like a fun person to hang around. All throughout the book the refrain: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” keeps coming up. The Teacher is kind of a downer.

The thought is that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. We don’t know for sure since the book itself doesn’t say, but in some ways it makes sense. He was the wisest man who ever lived, thanks to God, and he probably wanted to share that wisdom with the world. He also probably wrote big chunks of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon (surprise!). While the tone of Proverbs is very practical and the tone of Song of Solomon is romantic, the tone of Ecclesiastes is depressing. Seriously, Eeyore could have written a happier book.

Einstein rejected the ideas of quantum physics (at least at first) because of all the randomness involved. Without getting too technical, it says that sub-atomic particles aren’t in one place at one time, but in many places all at the same time. There are any number of possibilities for how the particles will move and exist and all of them are right, all at once.

The really freaky thing about quantum physics is that they’ve proven through experiments that the behavior of a particle changes because you observe it. Here’s a cartoon explaining it (it’s still freaky). In the quantum world everything is possible, all at the same time.

The Teacher lived a long life. If it was Solomon, then we know some of the details of having gobs of money, ruling a country, and having nearly a thousand women. Think of Warren Buffett as the unquestioned king of his own country; there is nothing that he couldn’t do. At the end of all of that the answer was this: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

Wait, what?

It’s not just that money can’t buy happiness, but neither can sex, power, or even wisdom. It would almost be better to be a stuffed donkey in the Hundred Acre Wood. At least then you wouldn’t have so many people complaining all the time.

At the end of all of the depression and meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes The Teacher sums up the truth: “Fear God and keep his commandments,” (12:13).

That’s it. That’s the truth that The Teacher discovered after all that searching. Fear God; keep his commands. It’s almost like Jesus summing up the entire Law (which is really big, have you read all that stuff?) in just two commands: Love God and love your neighbors.

The intellectual and philosophical age known as modernity (from about 1500 to 2000) tried to use logic and reason to find the right answer. It worked well enough, but the longer it went on the more holes showed through. Eventually people noticed that there were different ways of looking at things and started to question to whole premise of having just one right answer.

That led to postmodernity, which was really just a reaction to modernity. From an intellectual and philosophical standpoint it wasn’t very satisfying. It basically took anything that modernity said and replied with a resounding: “Nuh-uh!”

While the critique of postmodernity is necessary, it doesn’t really offer a better way to figure out the truth. It doesn’t make a move toward truth, but away from it. In rejecting the modern goal of finding the right answer (to rule them all), postmodernity rejects any possibility of having a right answer.

What Einstein and The Teacher illustrate is that the pursuit of truth can be painful and costly. There is an emotional and even physical cost to pay in searching for the truth. And, when you get there, you may not like what you find.

Quantum theory gives us a picture of how our world is put together at the smallest level (that we can currently observe). Our world is not made up of precise gears moving in a specifically prescribed order, but it’s built on randomness and chaos. Yet, in the end, that randomness still settles out to the point where we can live life. We can move, eat, breathe, and send rockets to the moon. For all the randomness, we can still bank on things working a certain way.

Postmodernity is right to question the absolute nature of modernity. The world we live in is made of chaos that we can’t completely predict or control. But modernity was right in that we can use logic and reason to figure out quite a bit about what’s going on.

The difference between truth and Truth is perspective. God knows the Truth -- scratch that, God is the Truth (John 14:6) -- but try as we might we will never completely figure God out. We can come up with some good observations. We can use our logic, reason, and emotions to understand things. But the best we’ll come up with are probabilities.

The reason we can still send a rocket to the moon even though at the quantum level everything is a soup of weirdness is because it all shakes out into the most probable option. Sure our particles have the possibility of flying across the universe at the speed of light, but the overwhelming probability is that they’ll stay put and we’ll keep breathing.

We can’t know for 100 percent certainty that God will or won’t do anything. But we can know to a very high degree of probability how to fear God and keep his commandments. We may not ever know exactly what Jesus meant by every word, but we can know fairly certainly that if we love God with our whole selves and love each other, we’ll be on the right track.


What movie, TV show or other media just infuriates you? Why is that?

What would you do if you won the lottery?

How long do you think you would enjoy having won the lottery? Why?

Do you consider yourself to be more logical or emotional? Why do you think that is?

How is the church better for having the right answer? How is the church worse for thinking it has the right answer?  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Discovering Truth

The story may not be true, per se, but that’s no reason to avoid telling it.

Archimedes was really good at math and things. He lived in Syracuse (the one in Italy) in the third century before Christ. Among the things he’s reputed to have done (like creating death rays!) one of them stands out for the simple fact that he was naked when he discovered it.

John was Jesus’ cousin. We know that Mary and Elizabeth spent some time together before Jesus and John were born, but we don’t really know if they cousins played freeze tag at the family reunions, or if they forgot about each other until they were adults.

We do know that John had quite a beard and people went to hear his beard preach (actually it was his mouth behind the beard). John taught about the one who would come. He taught about repentance and the kingdom of God. He proclaimed the coming Messiah. Remember that for the Jewish people the word “messiah” or in the Greek, “christ” simply meant “anointed one” which was a different way of saying “king.” For the Jewish people they had seen messiahs come and go (it wasn’t that hard to get some oil and be anointed), but they kept waiting for THE Messiah who would be their King forever.

The king in Syracuse wasn’t a nice guy. He thought his crown-maker was trying to cheat him by diluting the gold in the crown with silver. He told Archimedes to figure out if the crown was legitimate or not. The problem was that Archimedes couldn’t melt down the crown to test it. He had to come up with another way. With time running out and the pressure mounting (let’s just say that tyrants aren’t kind to people who fail), Archimedes went to have a bath. I don’t know, maybe he thought better in the tub.

In the middle of one of John’s baptizing sessions, Jesus shows up. John knows who he is and refuses to baptize him, but Jesus insists and is baptized by John. Afterward, God speaks and the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus. It’s a pretty big moment and John is right in the middle of it. He sees a person anointed, not with oil, but by the Holy Spirit of God coming down from the heavens.

When Archimedes stepped into the tub for his bath he noticed the water rise up and flow over the sides of the tub. By getting into the water he displaced some of it, which would allow him to calculate his density by figuring out how much water got pushed out compared with how much space he took up (it’s all Greek to me). The short of it is that he figured out how to determine if the crown was fake or real. He was excited and shouted: “I have found it!” The story goes that he kept shouting that all the way home (and that he forgot to put clothes on first). The Greek word for “I have found it” is Eureka.

John’s eureka moment was when Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit had a party together two feet away from him (he needed the space for his massive beard). Jesus was not just a messiah, but The Messiah.

Or was he?

Not long after all that, John was imprisoned. Some think that it was because Herod was jealous of John’s beard, but the bible says it was because John wouldn’t leave Herod alone for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod really wanted to kill John, but he didn’t want the people to get mad at him, so he just put John in prison (without the possibility of parole, because it hadn’t been invented yet).

John sends a message over to his cousin asking: “Are you the one or should we wait for someone else?”

After his eureka moment. After Jesus was vouched for by God from on high and the Holy Spirit anointed him as The Messiah, John still wasn’t completely sure. He was sitting on death row after preaching that God’s kingdom was coming back and he wasn’t sure.

Jesus’ response was this: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” (Matt 11:5 NET).

Asking questions, looking for answers, and finding meaning are all great pursuits, but even all of that might not be enough. You might have a eureka moment and see God clearly working in your life and, for a time, have no doubts about who he is or what he’s doing.

But you aren’t static. You don’t stay in the same place, mentally, physically, or spiritually. The eureka moment won’t be where you live forever, but a moment in your life that informs who you are.

By all means seek out those eureka moments, those holy experiences, those answers to the deepest questions of life. Find them. Cherish them. But don’t expect that they will be everything you need. Don’t expect one moment of your life to carry you through all the rest.

For both John and Archimedes all of the little questions and little answers came together and created meaning for them. Think of each question and answer as a clue to the path, it might be a tree or a rock or stream that you can use to determine where the path is. The meaning you find is the path that you walk. The answers to all the questions came together and pointed you in the right direction, but the path isn’t the goal. As you walk along the path you’ll get to spots with amazing views and picturesque scenes. These are the eureka moments. They confirm your path, emphasize your meaning, and should serve to spur you on down the path. You might rest there, take a few selfies, and post your progress to Facebook, but those moments aren't the end of the path.

Keep going.


Have you had a moment where you realize that the person on the show you’re watching was also on something else? How did that feel? What about before the existence of IMDB?

Do you like puzzles? If so, what kind and why? If not, why not?

Is there a question or problem that you worked on for a long time before finally getting the answer? How did that feel?

Why do you think John doubted Jesus? What do you think you would do in his situation?

How has discovery been treated in your religious life? How do you wish it would have been treated?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Searching for Meaning

In February 2014 famed science advocate Bill Nye debated creation science advocate Ken Ham. They got together for a couple hours and threw point and counterpoint back and forth in an attempt to establish which position is correct. They wanted, each of them, to prove that they possessed the right answer. In some ways it doesn’t matter much what the questions were. They just wanted to be right.

Nye kept pointing to observations about the age of the earth that contradicted Ham’s young-earth theories. Ham repeatedly rebutted with the quotation of scripture. Neither one of them changed their positions and most of the people who viewed the debate came away thinking the same thing as they did when the debate started.

So what’s the point?

David, king of Israel, was a songwriter. He may have even been as prolific as Neil Diamond. David primarily wrote songs that were his prayers. Those songs, along with songs from other people in the history of Israel, were collected into a prayer/song book called the Psalms. Some of the psalms are declarations of the way the world works. Other psalms are pleading questions to God, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. And other psalms are like emerging from a mist to see clearly again.

But all the psalms are concerned with meaning. There’s a difference between meaning and answers. Another way to talk about it is the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Both knowledge and answers are, usually, static. The answer is or it isn’t. It’s right or it’s wrong. You have knowledge or you don’t. If I ask how far it is from Portland, Oregon to Cork, Ireland there is a specific, unchangeable answer. Once you have that knowledge you have it and you don’t need to figure it out again (yes, I know the movement of the tectonic plates means that the distance is changing all the time, stay with me, I’m trying to make a point here).

Nye tried to use his answers -- observations about nature -- to answer Ham’s questions. Ham tried to use his answers -- an understanding of the bible -- to answer Nye’s questions. Neither one of them made headway because their answers and questions weren’t lined up with each other. The absurdist fiction example of this is from the book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a computer is constructed to determine the “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Which is, of course, 42. Unfortunately they forgot to ask it the question for which 42 is the answer.

Meaning, on the other hand, is connective. Meaning takes answers and puts them together in a new and creative way. An answer is like a Lego brick, meaning is the castle made from all the bricks you’ve pilfered from myriad Lego sets. My castle has a rocket launcher.

So how do Legos and A Hitchhiker’s Guide connect with David and the Psalms? I’m glad you asked.

David had some rough patches in his life. There was the time when his friend, the king, tried to murder him (there were several of those). There was the time he had to hide among his enemies and pretend to be insane so the king didn’t murder him. There was the time when committed adultery and murdered his friend, and there was the time when his son deposed him as king and publicly humiliated him. There was a lot more that happened, but that’s enough to know that David had some bad stuff happen to him.

The answers to all of the things that happened to David are available. Saul was angry, the Philistines wouldn’t harm an insane person, blah, blah, blah. Those answers didn’t really help David, in the end. They didn’t give him a better path forward. They only helped to describe the past, not move forward into the future.

Answers are helpful and a necessary step in processing through questions, but they aren’t the final step. Answers are limited. Meaning, however, can go beyond the immediate question and look to the future. Meaning doesn’t describe the past, it gives purpose to it.

If you think of David’s most famous song-prayer, the 23rd Psalm, it doesn’t give answers. It doesn’t explain how God will provide, it doesn’t give reasons for trusting God, it doesn’t show how faith is supposed to help in the midst of the worst life has to offer. But it has been one of the most comforting and helpful pieces of literature in history.

Meaning is more than a pile of individual answers. It’s taking those answers and seeing the pattern behind them. It’s using that pattern to move forward.


Did you ever play with Legos growing up (or yesterday)? How do you like to play with them?

Do you think debates are helpful? In what way?

What has helped you to find answers? In general? In the bible?

What has helped you to find meaning? In general? In the bible?

Do you think answers or meaning are more important? Why?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Searching for Answers

Doubting Thomas is a warning figure to most people. He’s the disciple -- other than Judas -- that we shouldn’t emulate. He screwed up. Right?

In the 1980s an Australian doctor named Barry Marshall started to doubt. All his doctor buddies said that ulcers were caused by stress. That was the accepted theory so the treatment of ulcers called for a reduction in stress. Dr. Marshall started to notice a few things that called into question the standard ideas.

He noticed that everyone who had ulcers also had a certain bacterium present in their stomachs. He presented his information to the scientific community and they resoundingly ignored him.

Thomas was out when Jesus came to greet the disciples in the upper room. Maybe he was going to get some Pepto Bismal for all the stressed-out disciples hiding from the Romans, the Jews, and the cold, hard truth of Jesus’ death. When he got back everyone was shouting and talking all at once. They’d seen something -- a ghost maybe -- but Thomas wasn’t convinced. Maybe he went over to check the carbon monoxide detector to make sure the disciples weren’t loopy on fumes. He opened a window and waited.

Dr. Marshall was ignored by the scientific community. In desperation he infected himself with the ulcer causing bacteria, got ulcers, and then cured himself with antibiotics. That was in 1985, but for a decade the scientific community continued to claim that ulcers were caused by stress. In the mid-90s Dr. Marshall started to receive awards and, in 2005, he was given the Nobel Prize for his discovery.

Eight days after Thomas declared to the disciples that he would need some proof of Jesus’ resurrection, he got it. Jesus came in to the upper room and found Thomas. He walked up and offered the proof that Thomas asked for. In return, Thomas worshipped him as God.

Jesus didn’t condemn Thomas, but sought him out. Jesus didn’t tell Thomas that he was a bad person for questioning -- though he did praise those who “have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29). Thomas is singled out as the doubter of the crowd, but he’s the only one of the disciples who hadn’t seen Jesus up to that point. He asked for the proof that they already had.

Questions, both emotional and logical, give us a way to search for answers. They are a doorway to understanding. But the journey to answers will look different for each of us. Both Dr. Marshall and Thomas refused to accept the standard answers. They both doubted the establishment and asked questions despite the assurances of their peers that they didn’t need to.

But Thomas and Dr. Marshall used their questions to go in very different directions. Thomas was a confirmed skeptic until he had proof and Dr. Marshall was a confirmed believer in the midst of skeptics. Neither one was wrong in the way they searched for answers. They both took their questions and used them to fuel a search for answers.

Your search might stem from an emotional question: Why do bad things happen to good people? If God really loved me why would he allow this?

Or your search might come from logical questions: If God is omnipotent, then why doesn’t he just forgive everyone? How can the bible be true if it contradicts science?  

The real challenge is to not let questions lie fallow, but to work them and use them to search for answers.

If your questions are emotional, then sit with your emotions. Look at what you feel. Try to figure out why you feel that way. Use tools like journaling, conversations, counseling, meditation, and creativity to express and explore your emotions and the emotional root of your questions.

If your questions are logical, then study, research, learn, and grow. Learn how to process a logical argument. Study the origins of the universe. Dig into theology and philosophy. Look for the logical root of your questions and explore it.

The truth is that most questions have some logic and some emotion in them. You might find yourself bouncing back and forth between the approaches as you look for answers. One thing you will almost definitely discover is that the search for answers only leads to more questions. That’s okay.


Have you had everyone around you tell you that you’re wrong? How did that feel? What did it make you want to do?

Are you more of a skeptic or an optimist? How does that make you feel when you talk with friends and family?

Do you think it’s better to be a skeptic or an optimist? Why?

What has been a good way for you to find answers in the past? Have you found ways that don’t work for you? Why do you think that is?

How do you think the church would be different if people were encouraged to search for answers?