Erdös (a famous mathematician) was fond of quoting a mathematician friend of his friend (Rényi) for saying "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." Since I do applied mathematics, and since I like poetry, I turned this thought into a poem. It has a half-pause in the middle of each line, much like the Anglo-Saxon poetry in Beowulf:
An Ode to Caf, Tim Davis (© 2007)
An ode to caf I think I'll cue.
Espresso caf, I think I'll brew.
Oh no! Decaf!? A task Tim blew!
Alas! the gaffe! You see I'm blue!
My output math is cut in two!
No caf I hath, no math, I'm through.
Fear not the wrath, no one I'll sue;
With half and half, try two I'll do.
A cup o' caf I shall imbue.
To turn the caf, equations' glue,
Into the math, said Erdös too.
From caf to math: the theorem's true.
I'm also a computer scientist, so I like to to recast Erdös' statement into "a computer scientist is a machine for turning coffee into code."
That's an over-simplification, of course. Computer scientists do lots more than write code, and much of computer science has nothing to do with the actual writing of software.
For me, though, writing code is a way I get my ideas across. I come up with new methods for solving problems in computational mathematics, and then I write code to illustrate those ideas and to share them with others.
I also love writing software. Think of it as a giant Soduko puzzle. The logic must be elegant and crystal clear. The machine is relentless; if your thinking is flawed in the slightest, you will usually know for sure (your code will crash). Worse yet is when a flaw is hidden, and the bug isn't revealed until someone else finds it. Writing code is to struggle with the fundamental forces of logic. Get it right, and the code will fly. Get it wrong, and you'll know about it (you hope).
So what does this have to do with my faith in Christ? Good question.
The first verse of the Gospel according to John refers to Jesus as the Word, or the Logos: "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God."
The word "logos" is laden with meaning. It means "word," but also means "reason." It's where we get the word "logic." Heraclitus (600 BC) first used the term Logos to mean the divine reason or plan that coordinates the universe.
If you look at our universe, and at the beautiful laws of physics and mathematics that govern it, you see a solid foundation of Logic. It all makes sense. But it doesn't make sense that the universe should make sense, unless there is Someone behind it all. I agree with Albert Einstein, who said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it's comprehensible."
When I delve into the theory and algorithms of computer science, and create new algorithms and new code, I get a clear sense that Someone Else was here first. Someone laid down the foundations of the universe, creating order out of chaos. That order cannot come from nothing. Chaos can't create anything (and before the universe existed, not even chaos existed in the universe). Logic comes from a mind, and when I learn the logic I get a glimpse of the Mind behind it.
Eric Liddell (in the movie Chariots of Fire) said "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." When I create new logic, new algorithms, and new code, and when my code runs fast, I feel His pleasure. Grappling with His Logic is what I was created to do.
Thus my pursuit of Logic. I'm not just in pursuit of my work in Computer Science, to crank out the next journal article or the next code or the next book. Those are all good things, of course, but I'm in pursuit of the Logos Himself. When I code, I feel His pleasure, because I'm thinking His thoughts after Him.
But don't think I just pursue Him with some cold intellectual logic, like an emotionless Spock. I pursue Him (and His heart and thoughts) with every fiber of my being. Moses told us to "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." In the Hebrew, "heart" is not just your emotions but the "inner man, mind, will, heart, soul, and understanding." "Soul" means "soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, and passion," and "strength" means "might, force, abundance."
This Word given to Moses doesn't leave anything out. Sounds like every fiber to me. Sometimes you'll hear well-meaning people talk about head-knowledge as opposed to heart-knowledge, and the latter they say is better. That's nonsense. You cannot split the two. Both phrases "head-knowledge" and "heart-knowledge" are inadequate when compared to "all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength."
I like to express these thoughts not only in my research and in my code, but in my poetry as well. Some of my poetry is mathematical, and some is serious. Some poems are both. Some of my poems are takeoffs and puns on original poems. I like to take an original poem and write a new one on top of it. The new one tells a new story, but you can see the old one underneath as well, like telling two stories in stereo, at the same time. Here's a recent one. It's a take-off on "Sea Fever" by Masefield. Here's the original poem:
Sea Fever, John Masefield (1902)
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
And here is my retake, which appears in my book, the MATLAB Primer:
C Fever, Tim Davis (© 2009)
I must go code in both C and M, not only C and VI,
And all I ask is a Linux box and a mouse to steer her by,
And the while's break and the if-then and the valgrind's shaking
And a dash "O" so the C's fast and a switch case breaking.
I must go code in both C and M, for the call of recursive code
Is a wild call and a clear call that never will be slowed;
And all I ask is a latte (tall, with the white foam frothing),
And no flung err and no blown stack, while the C goes flying.
I must go code in both C and M, to the lonely code frontier,
Where no goto's in the while's way, where the logic is sharp and clear;
And all I ask is a #define from a fellow C-programmer,
And quiet lint and a clean doc in the LaTeX grammar.
Footnotes: you have to know C and MATLAB (M) to fully appreciate it. #define is pronounced as pound define. VI is pronounced as Vee Eye. LaTeX sounds like la tech. Valgrind rhymes with grinned. The -O option enables code optimization for typical C compilers.
This next poem is somewhat autobiographical. My father died when I was 12. Unlike the poem above, this one isn't based on any other poem. See also Jeremiah 17:13, which might explain what Jesus was writing in the dust in the account in John 8:1-11.
Name No Longer Writ in Dust, Tim Davis (© 2007)
My willful soul, it grasps the sin
That hides in darkness deep within.
In shade of dark, in ash encrust,
Planted deep in sin's dust.
My body, soul, my heart and mind,
Embraced the dust of humankind.
In darkness shade sin's birth was made.
Soul for death; worthless trade!
To clear my face, my heart, my eye,
Of clinging dust in dark I cry.
In soul-parched dust, in thirst despair,
Lungs grasp for breathless air.
An orphan lost, a son of none,
I yearn to see sin's battle won.
Yet came a man, true Heaven's Son,
Son of God, only one.
His feet trod on this dusty earth,
Yet far from dust, from sin, his birth.
In matchless love he lived his life,
Battle waged, sin's hard strife.
He told of love, not only told
But gave to all, his love from old.
The dust of earth to him clung not,
Pure Love the battle fought.
A woman caught, her soul sin-bought,
By heartless men before him brought.
She fell in dust before his feet,
Battle lost, tears, defeat.
He knelt upon the dusty stone;
His finger wrote with words unknown.
With words of love, accusers fled;
Not judgment, grace instead.
He looked her deep into her eyes;
Love satisfies her deepest cries.
His tears matched hers, with Love fear fled;
Death is gone, life instead!
Yet words of love do not suffice
To pay the ransom, sinners' price.
And so he trod the dusty path,
Heavy cross, sin's dark wrath.
In tears the women watched him led
Up rocky hill, disciples fled.
Guards pierced the stone, drove cross through crust,
Planted deep in sin's dust.
For deepest joy before him set,
Endured the pain, endured the death.
Water and blood ran down his side,
In dust of earth to hide.
The skies grew dark, earth shook with fear,
At cry of death did curtain tear.
Centurion in witness awed:
"He was the Son of God!"
Lain in earth's tomb while guards stood fast,
Death claimed its victory at last.
Yet with his death, it's Death that died;
Battle won, he's alive!
Immerse my soul in Love's embrace;
Drink deep of Life, be drenched in grace.
My soul-thirst cries, let Love quench all :
Life with him, eternal.
Let darkness go, name writ in dust;
In source of living water trust.
From son of dust to child of God,
Face to face, in awe!
Things we can know for sure, things we don't, and how to tell the difference
You might be thinking, "This guy seems pretty confident in what he knows about God -- how can he be so sure?" That's a good question. I am confident, but not because of my own abilities, thoughts, or logic. My confidence is in what God has done and said, and the assurance that He has given us in Scripture. He is the Logos, not me.
The apostle Luke was a Greek medical doctor with an eye for historical detail. His account of Paul's journey to Rome in Acts 27 is by far the most detailed picture of any sea voyage in any ancient historical account. When Luke wrote his account of Jesus' life, he started out with a clear and precise statement of how well we can know the truth of the Gospel:
"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4).
The phrase "exact truth" is a single word in the Greek: asphaleia, which means "firmness, stability, certainty, undoubted truth, safety. It derives from the adjective asphales, which means "firm (that which can be relied on), certain, true, immovable, unshaken, unable to be thrown down."
This is a very strong word that does not merely mean "truth" as opposed to "falsehood." There is another word for that. Rather, the word asphalia carries with it the full weight and precision of a rhetorical proof of Classical Greece. Xenophon uses the word in his Memorabilia of Socrates (4, 6, 15).
So the purpose of the Gospel of Luke is to communicate the "exact truth" with a precision and reliability that we can rely on and stake our lives on.
This makes sense. After all, if God really exists and really did create us, it should be clear that He has a mind and can speak. That which is created (us) cannot be greater than the One who created us. If He wants to communicate "the exact truth" of the Gospel to us, then He can do so.
The prophet Micah wrote in chapter 6:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
What Scripture tells us is complete in the sense that we have what we need. Many verses in Scripture assert that it itself is without error (Psalm 12:6, Psalm 119:89, Proverbs 30:5-6, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and 2 Peter 1:20-21, for example).
This is what is called the "plenary inerrancy" of Scripture: "plenary" (full) in the sense that we have the full truth of what God needs to tell us in Scripture, and "inerrant" in the sense that it is without error in all that it says.
So what do we not know for sure in Scripture? Here is one example.
Scripture is clear and precise in its account of creation (in Genesis, Job, and many other places). Genesis does not read like a metaphor or a borrowed near-Eastern mythology, but a real factual account as told through the perspective of an eye-witness standing on the surface of the earth. This perspective is stated in Genesis, and with this perspective scientific observations (but not all interpretations of those observations) align with Scripture. They should, since God authored both His Word and His creation. These things we know for sure.
We forget, however, that English has about 600,000 words, many times more than French (100,000) and far more than Biblical Hebrew (8,700 are used in all of Scripture). Words do more double-duty in Hebrew. For example, the Hebrew word yom means equally (and literally) a finite period of time: a 24-hour day, a 12 hour period, a year, or an age / epoch. The word is used in Scripture with all of those different meanings. All meanings refer to a finite period of time, not an infinite length of time.
God created the universe in 6 yoms -- but whether those yoms are 24-hours or an epoch is open to interpretation. If God created in 6 epochs, then Moses would still use the word "yom" in Genesis.
I believe the universe to be about 13.7 billion years young, and that the yoms in Scripture refer to epochs (such as the Cambrian explosion). That time period is tiny compared with the infinite time that would be required for us to appear on this planet by mere chance.
However, I also accept as fellow believers those who say the universe was created in six 24-hour periods, since that view also aligns with Scripture. Two people can equally believe in the plenary inerrancy of Scripture, yet hold to different interpretations of what Scripture says. This is an example of where both interpretations can be accepted as true to Scripture. One view is correct and the other incorrect, but we can agree to disagree, since Scripture is not clear as to which literal meaning of yom is intended and since the precise length of time does not impact what Scripture tells us.
In contrast, Scripture is clear that Adam was an actual human being, not a metaphor (1 Corinthians 15:45, 1 Timothy 2:13-14). To say otherwise is to damage to what Scripture teaches, so I can't agree to disagree on this issue.
Anything that clearly contradicts Scripture must be rejected as being outside the Christian faith. I came across this recently, when my former church was adversely impacted with the mystical teachings of an organization called Renovare. Renovare also says that Genesis is a near-Eastern borrowed mythology and that Adam was not a real person but an archetype, views that are hardly compatible with the plenary inerrancy of Scripture. You can read more about how their views line up with Scripture (or don't ...) at whateverispure.org.
So to summarize: the exact truths of Scripture can be known with certainty, and I hold to those. Where Scripture is clear, we have to hold to it and refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Where Scripture is silent, or where multiple interpretations are valid, we must accept each others views.