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A SCIENTIST’S SERMON: How much faith does God have in us?

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Dr. Daniel Black delivered the following sermon on September 17, 2001, at the Wartburg Chapel in Waverly, Iowa. He had planned a different text, but the events of 9/11 changed the world, so he tossed aside what he had in mind and wrote this sermon.

“Good Morning.

I begin today with a few story problems.

1. I can mow my lawn in an hour and fifteen minutes. You can mow my lawn in one hour. How long would it take us to mow my lawn if we worked together?

2. A plane departs from Boston enroute for LA. Assuming a load at 50% rated max, calculate the optimum cruise speed and the consequent fuel load (with 10% margin) for this flight plan.

3. Given any number of aircraft departing from American airports, assuming each to have optimum fuel load, identify those aircraft that would have the maximum fuel remaining if diverted to New York.

Two and three are the kinds of problems I was trained to solve.

While I spent a great number of hours practicing the solution of number two, I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that I was learning to solve number 3 as well. On Tuesday we witnessed the accurate solution of the story problem. We are living the horror of accurate solutions to monstrous problems.

We make sense out of the world through the use of systems of thought. Systematic thinking seeks to find a small number of underlying principles behind the vast variety of actual occurrences. Science pursues such a system, as do engineering, economics, music theory, philosophy and, for some, religion. Systematic approaches call us to abstract the world, simplify it, draw conclusions and then re-enter the world with our new insights. It is an incredibly powerful technique for comprehending the world and then bending it to our will. Simplification gives us a sense that world always makes sense, is always controlled… or at least controllable. It takes the messiness of the real world and reduces it to a story problem.

In a broad sense, systems are tools. They can tell us what may or may not happen. They guide us in our very human effort to make the world in our image. They proceed from us…for us. They have great power to build.

But every tool intended to build, to reduce human suffering, by the same process that created it can be converted, perverted into a weapon. Just as swords can be pounded into plowshares, so can the plowshare be wielded by the hateful mind as a sword.

Dr. Daniel Black

Dr. Daniel Black delivered this sermon on Sept. 17, 2001, at the Wartburg Chapel. 

So it was a few weeks ago when a sickened soul used a hammer to kill a mother and her children. So it was last week when a few misguided zealots used box cutters to hijack planes, and used the planes themselves as bombs. So it is when legitimate Islam or Christianity are used to justify hate and guide it to destructive aims. (And make no mistake…a Gospel wielded in hate is just as dangerous as a Koran wielded so.)

Many seek to counteract this danger of perversion by rejecting systematic thought altogether, by retreating to a world view (a paradigm, if you will) guided only by emotion and intuition. But this too then becomes a system, capable of instilling great wonder at the world and joy in life. It also has a dark use, a perversion. It can justify unreasoned hatred of others and ourselves.

So if the world is full of systems, and systems can be turned to evil ends, is there any hope for us all? Yes. There is hope in embracing the inconsistencies and incompatibilities of life, in appreciating that logic should not supersede common sense and compassion. Christ heals on the Sabbath. Christ sends his followers to the harvest even though the Law forbids it. Christ asks his followers to believe that he is triumphant even as he is led to his crucifixion.

Another story problem: How much faith must I have to weather these stormy times?

It is a fair question, but I would venture to suggest that it is not the question we should be posing.

The question is not how much faith ought we to have in God, but how much faith does God have in us?

My answer: Enough. And more than enough.

And now, May the Lord be with us. Christ be with us. Peace be with us. Now and always. Amen.”