I'm a software guy. I write software, use software, think about software for many hours most days. The thing I love about software, really love, is the infinite possibility. You can do almost anything with software. A rigid electronic machine can be transformed into any number of different tools merely by layering on different software.
I don't like hardware. I mean, I like possessing hardware but I don't like the building of it. Whereas software is quickly producible and rapidly modifiable, hardware is laborious and astronomically complicated to produce. (Software is complicated too, but lends itself more toward smaller teams and quick experimentation.) Hardware is hemmed in by the unbending laws of physics whereas software is mostly only limited by your imagination.
Most computers today are really collections of computers all wired together into a tight package. There's usually a general purpose processor at the heart of the machine, but lots of specialty processors perform much of the functionality that so intrigues us as users. GPS devices, cellular radios, accelerometers (which detect device position in three dimensional space), graphics processors, along with many others combine their capabilities into a concerto of clever functionality that people really seem to enjoy.
The interesting thing about hardware is that any one component has a very constrained view of reality. A component's peephole into reality is entirely contained in a little specialized piece of hardware called a phy.
A phy acts as the senses of a component, translating physical signals about things that are happening into a form that the component can understand and consume.
In other words, any individual component's perception of reality is governed by the nature of its phy. What fascinates me about this is the degree of isolation this creates in the perception of any one component. The radio on your smartphone doesn't know anything about its position in 3D space. It only knows about radio signals and how to process them. As far as the cellular radio is concerned, the entire universe is one large collection of moving radio waves. The radio component itself plays a role in browsing the web, sending e-mail, or playing online games, but it actually doesn't know about these things or its pivotal role in making them possible. Its entire perception of reality is reduced to radio waves. The larger context and meaning is lost on the radio, in part, because of the limits of its phy.
What got me to thinking about these things was this article by one of my favorite authors. David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University, an observant Jew, a painter, a father and husband, and technology seer who largely predicted what has happened with the internet long before any of it occurred. In the article, Gelernter takes exception to the materialist view of man put forth by science, which suggests that the physical existence and mechanics of our bodies represent the sum total of reality. Gelernter begs to differ. He suggests that the inner reality is just as real as the physical reality and that there is a you inside that is entirely distinct from your body itself. Gelernter suggests that your inner life is real and more than a mere collection of chemical and biological reactions.
The notion that our personhood is more than our physical bodies is deeply consistent with a biblical view of humanity. There is a sense in which the bible describes our bodies as damaged and mischievous phys that limit and distort our perception of reality, moral reality in particular. There's a reason, after all, that according to Christian teaching we're going to get a new body some day -- we need one. The bible challenges Christians to walk "according to the spirit" rather than "according to the flesh". There's an overarching principle for believers that, while your body tries to be in charge of you, you are supposed to be in charge of your body.
It isn't always easy.
Our bodies - our phys - impose limits on our knowledge by constraining our visibility on the world to only our five senses. Left to our own limitations, we would be like cellular radios in a smartphone, oblivious to much that is happening because of the limits of our phy. But Christians believe that God intervened in history to communicate with us beyond our sensory limits. Even though we cannot see or perceive outside of our senses, Christians believe that God has communicated to us, in our limited circumstances, more than our phys would otherwise allow. God sort of by-passed our phys to inject more information into our lives about total reality than would have been available through our five senses alone.
In technology, this is called an "out-of-band" communication. In Christianity, it's called "revelation".
And it turns out that it is totally consistent with God's character not to leave us groping around in the dark for answers about the larger meaning of our lives. As it happens, light-giving is one of God's specialties. And understanding more about the significance and meaning of our lives than our senses can tell us is a big deal -- a very big deal indeed.
I doubt that any young man who grew up in the 70's made it through that decade without weeping as he watched the movie "Brian's Song". That movie chronicles the friendship of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and the untimely and unexpected death of Piccolo from lung cancer. There are few movies that can move middle school boys to tears, but that movie is one of them.
Near the end of the movie, Piccolo lays dying in his hospital bed and his young wife Joy, weeping, leans in close to hear what he wants to say to her in his final moments. Struggling to breathe and to speak, Piccolo chokes out words of...surprise.
"Can you believe it Joy? Can you believe it?"
Those words and that question, which seemed so incongruous to me at 12, now seem absolutely profound and prophetic. Our material existence intimates nothing to us about our imminent demise and, lacking some understanding from beyond our own puny sensors, our end will be both unexpected and incomprehensible.
Now I'm no biblical scholar but, as things have turned out, I have scholarly friends. I mean really scholarly friends. These guys are seminary professors, bible translators, worldwide experts in their fields, widely published. You get the gist. They're the kind of guys with whom you have to consciously remind yourself not to sit around with your mouth hanging open all the time. That's because these guys casually and regularly trot out absolutely stunning insights about the contents of the bible. Hang around with them for very long and you start to realize, after reading that book for nearly 50 years, you have only barely scratched the surface.
Lately, I've been learning some things from my scholarly friends that shed light on some of the thornier questions of my life. Questions that could never be answered through the limiting lens of my physical senses. Material senses can never reveal the the backstory that is necessary to discern meaning and significance. I've been learning that this world is not exactly like I thought it was. That the origins and backstory to creation are something rather different than I knew. And it has made a difference in my personal understanding and enthusiasm for the struggle.
Just within the last few weeks, multiple of my friends have died. In one case it was entirely unexpected. They just found her at home. One minute she was alive, the next minute she stopped returning phone calls and texts. A respiratory ailment overtook her entirely without warning. I have friends who have lost their own friends in the last few weeks. Some of these people were desperately needed by their families. Sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters - these people were not expendable. In my own life, someone I dearly love is struggling with chemical addiction and on the verge, quite literally, of destroying herself. I mean, really and truly on the precipice of total annihilation. This is no hyperbole. We recently intervened to help her. That sounds loving and a little bit heroic but I can tell you with all honesty that there's nothing heroic about it. Up close and personal, helping an addict is a full contact sport involving garbage and filth and bodily fluids. It's like being a witness to a particularly gruesome, gory, slow-motion train wreck.
So why do it? Isn't Christianity, after all, a "pie in the sky by and by" sort of religion? And what are we to make, anyway, of illness and suffering, or addiction, or untimely death? What are we to make of disabilities and betrayal and injustice?
The short answer is that there's more afoot in the cosmos than only what's visible to our eyes. Christians may be saved but we're not necessarily safe. While our destiny is assured, the road between here and eternity is fraught with danger. There is a dragon loose in the world. Bold action may be required. The influence of our actions here may reach well beyond the material world.
It's not for nothing that one of the most often repeated commands from God is "be strong and courageous".