As We Forgive Those…

My childhood was not a happy one. It wasn’t my parents—they were fine, and I was never abused or mistreated by my family. They were militant atheists, and I grew up with no concept of God or anything beyond a materialistic world, but that didn’t bother me until much later. The problem I had as a child was where I was living. Brooklyn, New York, is not a gentle place, and it was perhaps even less so in the 1950s and 60s than it is now. The boys in the neighborhood played rough, as boys tend to do, but there was a deeper menacing presence surrounding us as children. Many of the adults we knew were connected in some degree to the pervasive crime families that dominated parts of New York City at the time.

To read the rest of this post, please go to The Works of His Hands blog

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My Literary Collaborators

I am very excited about the release of my book, and I hope and pray that it gets into the hands of those who need it, those whose lives will be improved by reading it. There are, of course, many other Christian books out there. I’m thrilled that so many great Christian books are being published, some written by friends and people I admire.

 

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Why, How, and When did this Book get Written and Published? (Part 1)

I suppose it’s appropriate that my first full-length blog post on this page has a title that contains several questions, since the book itself opens with a chapter called “The Importance of Questions.” The answers to the (six) questions posed by the title could take the space of another book, but I will try to compress a bit.

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Blog Transfer

I began this blog in May 2015. I had just retired from the NIH, and I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from the John Templeton Foundation for two years that allowed me to do research on gene regulatory network theory and work on this blog and other things (see below). The blog posts here are therefore part of the work product or outputs of the Templeton grant.

As I hope most of my readers know, my book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith will be released on November 19 by Kregel Publications. This book was also a part of my promised outputs for the Templeton grant. I have created a new web page to help promote the book at https://theworksofhishands.com.

I have also decided, with the encouragement of my publisher, to combine my blogging activity with my book promotion in one website. My next blog post will be posted at the following link:

https://theworksofhishands.com/blog

In order that readers still continue to get notifications of new posts, I will also post the title and the first few lines of each post here at The Book of Works, followed by a link to the full post on the new site. I strongly encourage all readers to follow me on The Works of His Hands.

The Book of Works will not go away, and I may eventually return to this site as my primary blog.

But for now, I will say, “See you soon, at the other place.”

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The Human Effect

In the 1960s, a climatologist named Edward Lorenz worked on developing a set of difference equations to study weather forecasting. This type of equation is used to model what happens to a system as a function of time: a variable is traced from the beginning (time = 0) in repeating steps (iterations) at each time (t = 1,2,3, etc.).

Lorenz found logical, expected results when a constant used in the equation was set at a particular level, but at higher values, the results showed a strange, oscillating pattern with time. The higher the value of the constant, the more irregular the cycles became, and at a certain point, they lost all semblance of regularity and fluctuated wildly in a chaotic fashion. Chaos theory was born.

Lorenz also found that when he rounded out the value used for the starting condition, using 5.21 instead of 5.21332, for example, the solutions over time showed a completely different pattern. This extreme dependence on initial conditions is sometimes called the “butterfly effect,” after the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could create a storm in Texas a few days later. Chaotic dynamics occur in many, if not all, complex dynamic systems, like the stock market, national economies, heart physiology, and so on. And, of course, the most complex of all systems, human society, is totally ruled by chaos theory. I call this the “human effect,” and I believe it has some interesting philosophical implications.

Humans have been compared to a collection of gas molecules randomly colliding and going in unpredictable ways but en masse forming a highly deterministic and predictable system. But gas molecules make no choices; their individual behavior is truly random. Ours is not, which is what makes history so fascinating.

It’s entirely rational to propose that everything any of us do or say can have enormous effects on the state of the world. If I decide to stop during a walk and look into the window of a store, I will arrive at the bookstore five minutes later than I would have if I hadn’t stopped. That means I will enter the store just as another customer is leaving. I bump into him, we both apologize, he stops to pick up the books he dropped, I help him, we exchange a few words, and he goes on his way. That 45-second delay makes him too late to flag the taxi he would otherwise have gotten, and he needs to wait a good 15 minutes before he gives up on finding a taxi and calls Uber. The Uber driver picks him up. If the man had found the cab that I made him miss, the Uber driver would have picked up a woman a few blocks away. But since he didn’t, the woman gets into another Uber and finds that the driver looks familiar. It is in fact a man she knew in college, and after some conversation, they remember each other. They exchange numbers, meet a few days later, begin dating, fall in love, get married, and have children. Their children grow up, and the oldest becomes a scientist and discovers a cure for a disease. So the lives of thousands of people are saved by the child of the woman who took a different Uber because the man I bumped into was a few seconds later than he would have been if I hadn’t paused to look at the store window.

I just made that fantasy up, but such things happen all the time, and with some thought and research, examples are easy to find. The idea of the human effect is wonderfully illustrated in the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Aside from the film’s other great qualities, it is quite special in that it represents the first, and still one of the very few, example of a detailed and rigorous thought experiment on the basic principles of chaos and complexity theory. It has some pretty profound scientific and religious implications, which is why, of course, I like it.

As in all experiments, there is a model system—in this case, a typical small American town. The hypothesis to be tested is that the existence of a single individual (Jimmy Stewart’s character) has major, unpredictable, and irreversible effects on the behavior of the system. It provides an early glimpse of  the revolutionary idea (unknown at the time the film was made) that complex systems are highly dependent on initial conditions.

I know, this isn’t science—it’s melodrama. But my point is that this story should make us think about the reality that for good or ill, we are all critical to the reality of everyone else.

Humanity is a huge system. And everyone who is part of that system (which is everyone) has a role in what happens next. What this means is that nothing we do or say is ever lost, because the effects or ripples of our actions continuously rebound throughout history. I know that sounds silly. Imagine the millions and millions of people who have ever lived, and all the words and actions of all those people, all but the tiniest fraction of which are lost forever to our knowledge. But that is where my faith comes in. I don’t think they are lost.

All human lives are important, valuable, and (in my own religious view) holy. So choose what you do and say wisely, my friends. My life depends on it.

 

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God and the Rain

Why doesn’t God step in and stop bad things from happening?

On a cool cloudy day in Manhattan, a young mother walking with her three children (one in a stroller) was caught in a sudden downpour. She was pushing the stroller, holding the hand of her little girl, and juggling a bag of groceries on top of it. When the rain came down, she started to hurry, because she was afraid the baby, who had been sniffling, would get sick. The oldest was giving her trouble, and she yelled at him to be quiet while she hurried to cross a side street before the light turned. The rain was heavy, and visibility was bad. She didn’t see the car turning, and the driver, also in a hurry and not completely sober, didn’t see her. She and all three of her kids were killed.

Except that didn’t happen. Here’s the true version. I had gone to do some shopping, and having checked the weather forecast, I brought a small folding umbrella with me. When I got to the store, I was surprised to see my wife there, shopping. (This was before cell phones.) She was on the way home from work and also had an umbrella. We started walking home together just as the rain began pouring down in buckets. In the hope of staying dry, we each opened our own umbrellas. As we got to the first cross street, I saw the woman with the three kids bent against the rain and rushing to get out of it.

I was not a Christian at this time, but I had been going to church occasionally, and I was in the process of thinking about Jesus, the Gospels, and the possibility that God was real. Without more than an instant’s thought, I crossed the avenue, went up to the woman, and gave her my umbrella. She gave me a smile, said thank you in Spanish, and I could see the relief on her face. She held the umbrella over the stroller, and continued more calmly on her way, joking with her kids, and stopping at the corner for the light to turn back to green. My wife caught up to me and gave me a smile. We walked the rest of the way home under one umbrella, which was fine.

Did God prevent a tragedy there? We will never know. The first paragraph is clearly derived from my own imagination. Did the Holy Spirit come to me and whisper the suggestion of a charitable and selfless act? That is probably the case—first, because this was a time when the Holy Spirit seemed to be actively engaged with me; and second, because such charitable acts toward strangers were not among my habits. I had been born and raised in that city, where interactions with strangers are not part of the culture.

Perhaps this story is only one of millions of stories of God’s interventions to prevent tragedies that we can never know about, and the tragedies that do occur are those where the intended agent (in this case, me) chose not to follow the whisper of God’s urging. What I think is crucial is that if my fantasy is actually true and God used me to save four innocent lives, then we must all always be open to doing acts of kindness and mercy, because we, humans, acting here in the physical world, are one of the ways in which God intervenes for good. Theologian Thomas Jay Oord, in his new book God Can’t suggests that this is always the way that God works in love to bring about transformation in the world. I don’t know if that’s always true. But now, as a follower of Christ, I certainly do believe that at least once, many years ago on a rainy New York street, that is exactly what He did, and I was blessed beyond measure to be His instrument.

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Love and the Ocean

Last week I was standing at the ocean’s edge on a beach in eastern Long Island, and I remembered that at an earlier point in my life, while still an agnostic, I used to (in a way) worship the ocean. Whenever I would get to a seashore, on whatever continent, whether a sandy beach or a rocky coast, I would think “Here I am, sea, once again, back to be with you.” I would watch the waves and think in some way that they were expressions of friendship, much like the wagging of dog’s tail, or the wave of a human.

This kind of pantheistic nature worship is not at all uncommon among atheists or agnostics with some degree of spiritual connection. Even some theists, including Christians, will occasionally succumb to the marvelous beauty of God’s creation and lean toward worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. As Denis Alexander says in his book Is there Purpose in Biology?, quoting theologian Aubrey Moore:
“For the Christian theologian, the facts of nature are the acts of God.”

Alexander goes on to demolish the extreme forms of “natural theology” that hold nature to be an entity worthy of worship. He discusses the brilliant Christian pioneer of chemistry, Robert Boyle, who demythologized “the idea of nature as a quasi-independent entity.”

I had a rude awakening regarding the imagined friendship between myself and the sea. Those who read my post “How I spent my Summer Vacation” last year might recall my telling of an incident with a pair of dolphins off the coast of Maine that I interpreted as a positive spiritual experience with God’s creatures. But a few years before that event, I was in the same boat off the same coast and had an altogether more sobering and in fact life-threatening encounter with the reality of the ocean.

A rare hurricane was threatening the coast where we were spending our vacation, and I had to move the boat into a safe place. I decided to bring it back to the launch ramp where I could easily put it back on its trailer. This entailed going from where the boat was moored near our house to a small inlet a few miles along the coast. I started out with no problems, even though the outer bands of the hurricane were already hitting us. There was a heavy rain and the water near the mooring was choppier than usual. But we were on the leeward (protected) side of an island, and when I passed under the bridge that connected the island to the mainland, I immediately entered a different world, one that I was unfamiliar with.

The sea was rough, rougher than I had ever seen it, with swells 4 to 6 feet high and coming rapidly. After 10 minutes, I realized I could make no progress against the wind and current, and that I had to give up my plan and turn around. My 12-foot boat was barely under the control of the 20-hp outboard engine, and it was all I could do to keep the bow pointed into the wind and waves. I realized to my horror that turning around would be almost impossible, since as soon as the boat was broadside to the waves it would capsize.

At that point I called out in desperation, “Stop!” Of course, it didn’t, and I thought “the ocean doesn’t care about you at all.” I had no options— there were no other boats around, no people on the shore or the bridge. There was nothing I could do. Finally, I took a deep breath, gunned the engine to top speed, and turned the boat. Sure enough, one wave hit just as I was 90 degrees to the wind, and I almost went over, but the momentum of the turn brought me around. In another three minutes the waves propelled the boat back under the bridge, and I was safe. Exhausted, terrified, soaking wet, and a bit wiser, I dragged the boat up onto the dock of a neighbor.

So I no longer talk to the sea. I still love it, but I no longer think of it as anything other than what it is, a marvelous part of this splendid planet, in turn, created as a small part of this universe by God. The shock of understanding that nature doesn’t really care about us humans has long worn off. What counts is that God does care for us, and even more, that we care about each other, and that’s all we need.

Last week, as I watched the waves crash onto the shore and looked out at the vast ocean, I was not thinking about any relationship I once imagined I had with the world- wide seas, but instead I focused my attention on the distant figure of a swimmer as she (my beautiful wife)  moved in the water, and felt the real wonder of true love.

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