March 21, 2019

Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science- Part 4, The Language of Computer Science, Chapters 10- Squirrel Interrupted By Andy Walsh

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science

Part 4, The Language of Computer Science, Chapters 10- Squirrel Interrupted

By Andy Walsh

We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh.  Today is Chapter 10- Squirrel Interrupted.  The squirrel being referred to is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, an ongoing American comic book series published by Marvel Comics featuring Squirrel Girl.  From Wikipedia: Doreen Green, known as Squirrel Girl, is a human superhero with the proportional strength and speed of a squirrel, as well as the ability to speak with squirrels, like her sidekick, Tippy-Toe. While originally introduced as a mutant, she was later retconned to be “medically and legally distinct from being a mutant.”  She can also command an army of squirrels, which she typically uses to overwhelm her foes. As The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl begins, Squirrel Girl has left her home in the Avengers mansion to major in computer science at Empire State University.

She attends lectures on the fundamentals of relational databases, teaches finger binary (which allows counting to 1,023 on your fingers), and illustrates the core features of program flow control.  Computer science seems an odd fit for a superhero, but the main theme of computer science is formalizing how we accomplish tasks.  So the comic book uses computer science to formalize combating evil. The usual hero process is:

  1. Find a problem.
  2. Find the person causing the problem.
  3. Punch that person until they stop causing the problem.

Squirrel Girl’s approach to superheroics is to listen to that person to understand their underlying concern and then resolve it, or identify how they are causing a problem and circumvent it, or persuade them to pursue a different goal, or being a comic book, sometimes just punch them until they stop.

Walsh’s point is that many of us would like our lives to be planned in this way, heading toward some satisfying resolution that will make the challenges and diversions seem worthwhile.  Christians generally cast God in that planning role.  This creates expectations that God is doing all the heavy lifting on our behalf.  It also informs how we tell the stories of events in our lives that already happened; we frame them such that the way things wound up was inevitable and intended all along.

He gives an example from his own life; he and his wife decided to move their growing family from a small starter home to a brand new house in a new development.  To put a down payment on the new house it was necessary they close on the old one.  That down payment initiated the construction process, meaning they had sold their current residence for a future one that wouldn’t exist for a few months.  They were able to rent their old home from the new owner, but that arrangement was one month too short.  So they cobbled together a plan involving storage, rental, crashing with friends and staying with his in-laws.

Then about a week and a half before the move-out date, they got word that the new house was finished ahead of schedule—a rarity indeed as anyone who has constructed a home knows.  They just had to close, but the closing process usually takes a month.  In their case, the closing process was completed in just two days and they were able to move directly from the old house to the new.  Here is what Walsh says:

I could certainly tell this story in terms of divine Providence in which God arranges all the details so that there is a happy ending.  We needed the weather to be clear so that the construction went smoothly; that’s something we might ascribe to God. Did God also orchestrate the supply chain so that all the materials were available?  What about the painters and closing agents and mortgage brokers and everyone who contributed to bringing the plan together in the final weeks; was God affecting them in some way?

I could ascribe all of those outcomes to God, as they fall within common ideas of what he is capable of.  And as a believer, I do feel a certain desire to frame my stories in a way that makes God look good.  At the same time, I want to be careful how I do so, in order to honestly represent God and not inadvertently make him look bad.  I want to consider how it looks to claim God went to all that trouble just to spare a middle class family some inconvenience in their move to nice house in the suburbs.  That claim seems self-serving when so many other greater needs are apparently going unmet.

I have great sympathy for Walsh, here.  There certainly was a time when I had similar notions of divine Providence and “how God works in our lives”.  In fact, I had a similar experience with selling and buying a house that could have resulted in financial hardships for my youngest son, but didn’t thanks to propitious timing.  And like Walsh, I have come to suspect that “evangelical narrative” is a first-world problem and just a little bit self-serving.

But still, it seems scriptures teach, and the church traditionally has had, a doctrine of divine Providence.  Consider the Eastern Orthodox view, as expounded by Father Stephen Freeman:

We live in the midst of the Providence of God. That we exist, and how we exist are His Providence. Everything around us reflects the working of His goodwill towards our well-being and salvation. St. Paul describes this:

… the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9-10)

Of course, we encounter any number of difficulties and hardships, things that seem to work the opposite of our well-being and salvation. Those actions of human freedom are not considered God’s Providence. But even with these things, God’s Providential working makes our well-being and salvation possible, such that St. Paul can say, “For those who love God and are called according to His purpose, all work together for good.”

So, in every direction and every way, we encounter God’s Divine Energies, His working things together on behalf of all and for all. There is a path towards “seeing” these actions (energies): the practice of continual thanksgiving for all things. It is the giving of thanks that reveals to the heart the hidden work of God. It is a practice that silences the passions and, as an expression of our human energies, unites us with the very Providence for which we give thanks.

So, trust in Divine providence is a form of self-emptying on the part of the believer.  As Fr. Freeman says it’s a cruciform providence.  Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38) This is a clear declaration of His self-emptying and abasement, a kenotic action that is consummated on the Cross.

Walsh thinks that a better analogy for God’s Providence is the computer science process of “just-in-time-compiling”.  From Wikipedia:

In computing, just-in-time (JIT) compilation (also dynamic translation or run-time compilations) is a way of executing computer code that involves compilation during execution of a program – at run time – rather than prior to execution. Most often, this consists of source code or more commonly bytecode translation to machine code, which is then executed directly. A system implementing a JIT compiler typically continuously analyses the code being executed and identifies parts of the code where the speedup gained from compilation or recompilation would outweigh the overhead of compiling that code.

JIT compilation is a combination of the two traditional approaches to translation to machine code – ahead-of-time compilation (AOT), and interpretation – and combines some advantages and drawbacks of both. Roughly, JIT compilation combines the speed of compiled code with the flexibility of interpretation, with the overhead of an interpreter and the additional overhead of compiling (not just interpreting). JIT compilation is a form of dynamic compilation, and allows adaptive optimization such as dynamic recompilation and microarchitecture-specific speedups – thus, in theory, JIT compilation can yield faster execution than static compilation. Interpretation and JIT compilation are particularly suited for dynamic programming languages, as the runtime system can handle late-bound data types and enforce security guarantees.

Walsh says that the Bible portrays God as a just-in-time God, and that there are several places in the Bible that discourages getting too far ahead of yourself.  For example, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, they did not have access to a reliable food source.  So God provided manna, but they were forbidden from storing it up. They had to trust God’s provision from day-to-day.  In 1 Kings 17 there is the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow running low on food because of a drought.  Because she gave of her limited resource to Elijah, the oil and flour didn’t run out until the drought ended.  Walsh says this is an example of provision coming no sooner that it is needed, and also of someone who had a choice between looking out for themselves and trusting their own needs would be taken care of if they provided for someone else’s.

Then there is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:25-26, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Walsh says, and I agree, that we are discouraged, not from planning ahead, but from worrying ahead.  And the main reason for that is because worrying is indicative of becoming too absorbed in yourself (which is definitely a first-world problem).  You are only thinking of your own concerns and focusing on how you yourself are going to resolve them.

A cruciform providence, I can get on board with that.

Comments

  1. A cruciform providence, I can get on board with that.

    Because we are not omniscient or all-wise, we do not know in every particular situation how a cruciform providence may be leading us or others by way of self-emptying trust. That leading may at times look very much like God being concerned with First rather than Third World problems, like sparing “a middle class family some inconvenience in their move to nice house in the suburbs.” We don’t know everything involved, yet we are quick to judge and place things in a neat table of valuations; but God is way ahead of us and all our judgments and valuations.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    “””they got word that the new house was finished ahead of schedule . . . the closing process was completed in just two days”””

    That is miraculously improbably.

    “””I want to consider how it looks to claim God went to all that trouble just to spare a middle class family some inconvenience in their move to nice house in the suburbs.”””

    This! What a delightful problem to have.

    “””I have come to suspect that “evangelical narrative” is a first-world problem and just a little bit self-serving.”””

    +1,000,000,000

    “””the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure (Eph. 1:9-10)”””

    The problem: this really sounds no less capricious than the gods of old. I suppose it simply was not his good pleasure to avert the ice storm that beset my construction project, and also meant the public transit authority had to marshall extra buses to evacuate the elder care facilities to the shelters setup in the school gymnasiums so the old people could sleep on the floor [but with heat]. God’s kind of a dick.

    Even with the caveats to follow this is walking a Theological tight-rope.

    “””just-in-time (JIT) compilation”””

    Seeing JIT/AOT in a Theological context is fun! I’ve often thought reality resembled AOT [I am a Python developer – AOT is our jam], especially the times when AOT’s branch prediction [*1] is wrong and the system stumbles from pipeline invalidation and the subsequent storm of L1/L2 cache invalidation/misses. The human penchant for ‘branch prediction’ and how confident we are and how bad we are it [see Housing Market, circa 2008] is something to keep in mind.

    [*1] Guessing the likely direction of a **future** decision, so the platform can compile ahead of a fork in the road. Meaning it has to guess the most likely path the code being compiled is going to make when that previously compiled code reaches that point. An interestion of past+present+future where all kinds of things can go wrong…. or on very modern AOT systems pre-compile MULTIPLE paths which may then have to be flushed out of the processors registers when the ‘true’ path is finally known – – – so much room for bugs when you have to meticulously throw away the incorrect potential futures that did not come to be without contaminating what by now is the past.

    “””we are discouraged, not from planning ahead, but from worrying ahead”””

    Agree, 100%. A very important distinction.

    “””the main reason for that is because worrying is indicative of becoming too absorbed in yourself”””

    Additionally, it is pointless, if not even negative. Elevated stress makes people dumber, causing them to make worse decision [predictions in disguise].

  3. “””I have come to suspect that “evangelical narrative” is a first-world problem and just a little bit self-serving.”””

    Never miss a opportunity to take a slap at evangelicals.

    We have first-world problems because we live in the first-world. Take a look at this article:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201408/stop-picking-people-their-first-world-problems

    One could even make an argument that Jesus, who lived in the Roman Empire, was living in the first-world of his day. Granted, problems in the third-world are more of a threat to survival than our troubles, but Jesus does not make a distinction when He told us not to worry. All believers are to rely on Him. Therefore, maybe God’s providence applies to our situations here in the first-world in some cases. At least we give him the credit for solving our little problems.

    Squirrel Girl and just-in-time compilation? For those of us that have not “learned to code”, Walsh has officially reached the end of our comprehension. Only 2 more chapters left, right?

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      “Never miss a opportunity to take a slap at evangelicals.” I try not to. In case you haven’t realized it yet, it’s kind of what we do at this site. Also, did you not notice that comment followed a bit of autobiographical confession.

      “I want to consider how it looks to claim God went to all that trouble just to spare a middle class family some inconvenience in their move to nice house in the suburbs.” I think Andy Walsh was trying to put that life situation in proper prospective. In my situation the speedy resolution saved my son and his young family tens of thousands of dollars for which we all were very thankful to God and testified to many people of the same. As Father Freeman put it: “It is the giving of thanks that reveals to the heart the hidden work of God. It is a practice that silences the passions and, as an expression of our human energies, unites us with the very Providence for which we give thanks.”

      Still— nobody at any time was in danger of dying.

      • Mike the Geologist wrote:

        ““Never miss a opportunity to take a slap at evangelicals.” I try not to. In case you haven’t realized it yet, it’s kind of what we do at this site.”

        No kidding! I’ve never noticed this before!

        I’ve been interacting here for a few months. I thought I could give a little bit of evangelical perspective and maybe learn a few things from those I disagree with. I most likely did a poor job expressing my point of view, but the posters and the commenters are excellent writers and do a good job telling exactly what they think.

        I have learned something from you. Unfortunately, what I learned was that Christian progressives are every bit as intolerant and narrow-minded as you claim that evangelicals are. Mike, your slap at evangelicals was gratuitous in this case. I don’t mind criticism of evangelicalism, but as we say in the South, y’all take it to whole other level and I find it tiresome (mostly the commenters, but the posters are guilty too). If you want to see change in the evangelical world, what is done here won’t help.

        So I leave you to your liberal bubble where you can bash your evangelical brothers in Christ (and of course Donald Trump) all you want without interference from me. Except for the Wartburg Watch, I will stay in my conservative Christian ghetto on the internet. Feel free to delete this comment and there is no need to respond as I will not be back. You don’t need me here and I certainly don’t need you.

    • Ken P.
      kindly refrain from whining

  4. john barry says:

    I totally agree with the premise of the article and base my opinion on a concept I learned in my youth. I read and studied the teachings of author/publisher Alfred E. Neuman, who taught a radical concept that was life changing. The underlying thesis of Mr. Neuman was of course the almost sacred slogan , “What Me Worry”. His collective works and thoughts have inspired millions.

    Overcoming a somewhat unattractive appearance and in great need of dental work Alfred E. Neuman gave me the ability to laugh at others , not myself. His intellectual insights and social commentary were always thought provoking and written on the level of the common man and I am certainly common.

    Mr. Neuman never changed his outlook and is still not worrying. Unfortunately, I for years did not follow the teachings of Mr. Neuman as I thought I had outgrown his teachings. Now I know that Alfred had the key to happiness. I am trying not to be too full of myself but I am failing as many friends tell me I am full of it.

    I was talking to one of my financial advisors who advocated the A.E. Neuman approach to life and now will work for food. He does not worry unless they run out of Ripple at the 7-11.

    I have delegated the worrying to my wife who does a great job because she does did not follow the teachings of A.E. Neuman due to her snooty upbringing nor does she consider Larry the smartest one of the 3.

  5. “Bullying takes many more forms than a lot of people realize. The dismissive mockers might want to show appreciation for the fact that they, themselves, get to live in societies where they have the convenience of being so disdainful”
    an interesting quote from your link, Ken P.

    bullying, disdain, negativity, mocking . . . . these are the weapons of the extreme far-right fundamentalists/evangelicals. Right?

    so when ‘whining’ occurs among such bullies, it’s a little bit like seeing a real bully get beat up and sit there crying

    the culture war has, among its warrior classes, bred a kind of fundamentalist bully-type that gets easily frustrated and whines when responsible people attempt to protect or shield victims from abuse;
    and its always a sight to see any gang whimper and whine because they cannot, however briefly, go freely about their tormenting of innocent people

    once the wedding of the political ‘extreme far right’ with the ‘fundamentalist Christian’ occurred, the resulting child AT WORST was a whining miserable negative creature wanting its destructive way.

    Right?

    • john barry says:

      Anonymous, you forgot to put Alcoholic, in front of your name, which is one of the very few times using “anonymous” would be appropriate.. Alfred E. Neuman always used his real name and picture. and did not worry about it. I also think the fundamentalist Christians would not “marry” the extreme far right as it is unnatural and they do not believe in same political marriage. I think it is against the incest laws to marry a close political relative as they would lead to a weakened bloodline.

      Do not worry about it .

  6. Clay Crouch says:

    Would someone please stick a fork in this book. It’s way past done.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      Hey Clay– any ideas of what you might want to see covered next?

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        The book is fine, although this metaphor is not on a level with the others. I love The Amazing Squirrel Girl.
        Any discussion of Providence would have to enfold concepts of time and consciousness, both of which we don’t understand very well. The idea of God existing outside of Time (and the saints as well) has always been a difficult thing for me to grasp.

        It might be interesting to attempt the thought of Owen Barfield, but if we run with men and they have worn us out, it may not be a wise idea to attempt to rece against horses.

      • Hello out there, Mike-the-Geologist,

        I could understand ‘a cruciform Providence’ as it is expressed by Father Stephen Freeman, this:
        https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2018/10/19/a-cruciform-providence-2/

        This, I love:

        “We are told to keep the commandments. Those commandments include care for the poor, the homeless, those in prison, etc. Indeed, the Cross teaches us to radically identify with them, rather than simply to offer a helping hand.”

        imagine this philosophy as inspiration for our time. . . . what a changed world we might be seeing if people had on their consciences such a vision of what the Cross teaches us . . . .

        justice, in the sense of Mary’s ‘Magnificat’, is a biblical song prophetic and likely born out of her pondering the mysteries of the Anunciation . . . . but ‘justice’ and healing and being conformed to Christ, even if that form is the Cross, that is something sorely needed in a world where such prophetic biblical ‘justice’ for the marginalized is frowned upon by the those who fear its coming

      • Clay Crouch says:

        MtG, I certainly did not mean any disrespect to you or your report on this book.

        How about a series on Hell, Hades, Gehenna, Sheol, Abaddon, Lake-O-Fire, The Bottomless Pit. Now there’s a geological subject if there ever was one!

  7. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    There appears to be a distaste for playfulness and whimsy in Theological consideration. 🙂

  8. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will make straight thy paths. I take that scripture and numerous others to mean that God is active and engaged is human history on an individual basis. I just don’t see the Bible saying anything other than that. Does that create problems with exceptionalism and preferential treatment questions? Does that leave God looking callous in the face of poverty and violence? Yes to both. I don’t have the answers but I simultaneously don’t doubt God’s active presence in the world. How can He absently and inactively lead us into all truth?

    • David Greene says:

      That resonates with me but it also raises questions to wrestle with.

      • Yes I agree. My basic resolution to the mind numbing mysteries is set in an either/or paradigm. I either renounce God and say that even if I believe He exists He must be a real ogre or I continue believing in Love and plodding my way ever further down that road with hope and anticipation of more revelation as I go. It’s hard to blame a thoughtful person who goes the other way because there are many conundrums.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Does “make straight thy paths” mean “lead us into all truth”?

      • I don’t imagine there are more than one or two bones in our body or soul that genuininely want to be led into TRUTH. We avoid it at every turn as it represents the cross. Having made that distinction between truth and having the most and the fanciest knowledge and rationale for every debate that comes down the line… Yes, they are exactly the same thing because there is only one thing: Christ.

        • If God is not active and engaged in all human history, then I’m completely lost, because I can’t find my own way. It’s really that simple, from my perspective, so I agree with you, ChrisS. If God isn’t so active, then I’m lost in the cosmos forever. Of course, it’s possible he’s not, but I’m banking on it.

          • N.T Wright said/wrote somewhere in his earlier output that the understanding in Hebrew of the phrase “word of God” would be something like “God’s action throughout history” (specifically with reference to the Jews and how he was guiding them). One aspect of Christ as THE Word of God is that he is the Ultimate Act of God in history. Love it when the Hebrew and Greek ideas overlap!

            Dana

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

              Note that neither of these is a black leather-bound book in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe.

          • Right there with ya!