At this time of year, the trail that I walk daily with my dog along the shore of Okanagan Lake is littered with long brown pine needles.
They lie on the ground looking like that old game of Pick Up Sticks. Pine needles lie on top of each other in crazy patterns, pointing every which way…
As I crunch those needles underfoot, I find myself wondering about the chances that the pattern of fallen needles in any one square inch (okay, 2.54 cm squared) might exactly duplicate the pattern in any other square inch. Vanishingly small, I’d guess.
I find big numbers – really big numbers, I mean – meaningless. The U.S. federal deficit, the chance of winning a Power-Ball lottery, the diameter of the universe – are all incomprehensible. To me, at least. And perhaps to most of us. Even to mathematicians, although they have special ways of expressing huge numbers in seemingly simpler formats.
A handful of examples
Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s top fighter pilot in World War I, later founded Eastern Air Lines. Reader’s Digesttold a story of an assistant coming in with two requisitions: one for a whole fleet of new planes, the other for some office supplies.
Rickenbacker signed the fleet requisition without blinking. He sent the office requisition back, to get a better price. On pencils or carbon paper, or something.
The aide asked why the difference in treatment.
Rickenbacker replied: “A million dollars is just numbers; $46 is real money.”
In the book he co-authored with Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle, professor Lawrence J. Peter illustrated Rickenbacker’s thesis. A city council, he suggested, will spend hours debating the price of a new broom for the janitor, but approve without debate a motion to invest millions in a nuclear power station.
Millions are just numbers; a broom costs real money.
I remember learning to count. One, two, three, four… (Or, in the Hindi I knew better than English back then, ek, do, teen, chaar…) Eventually, I counted up to 100. And I suddenly realized that the pattern repeated. If I could get to 100, I could carry on forever: 101, 102…
Now that I knew how, I saw no point in carrying on to forever, wherever it was.
Okay, so what?
In 2005, says the Guinness Book of World Records, Lu Chao of China recitedthe value of pito 67,890 decimal digits. Why bother? What difference does it make? To whom?
Suppose Chao continued to recite those digits all day, every day for the rest of his life, without ever repeating himself, until the moment he died. Would he change the ratio of the radius of any circle to its circumference?
We humans love to toy with concepts that we can’t get our minds around. Maybe because we CAN’T get our minds around them. Concepts like Forever. Infinity. Nothing…
And then, because we can’t deal with them, we assign them to some other dimension, where we don’t have to deal with them. Like Heaven, for example. Or Eternity. They just are – that’s all there is to it.
And then we’ll defend those ungraspable concepts as if our lives depended on them.
Maybe we shouldn’t even bother trying to think about such things.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Liking familiar words and practices, even when we no longer believe in them, is one of those peculiar inconsistencies that seem to afflict us as humans. It may not be not rational, but it happens. Dorothy Haug (perhaps unintentionally) identified that point in her letter about last week’s column: “Love the idea of rationalising 'gut instinct'. I believe that is true for me as well.
“Thanks for adding to my week as you always do. Please keep writing. For me, your voice is one of the most rational I encounter during the week.”
Tom Watson, agreed with me, in part: “I agree that there's something comforting about familiar ways. I am conflicted whether Halloween is among those. There's, undoubtedly, something cute about small children dressing up in costume, timidly ringing doorbells and shyly saying, ‘Trick or treat!’
“But I became jaundiced about the annual event when at our former residence we would have 200 or more come to our door. The early few were children from the neighbourhood. We received them warmly and gave them their treat of choice. But then came the carloads of teenagers who didn't bother to employ costumes but did carry pillow cases, each hoping to end up back home with a huge sack of candy that would last for the foreseeable future. After a few years of this, we decided to provide treats to the children in the immediate neighbourhood, then turn off the lights and go to a movie. This annual event had lost any sense of fun (comfort?).”
Two of you picked up on the reference to Allan Gleason’s book, in which he explored, among other things, the inability of people to talk without judgement about things that really mattered to them.
Isabel Gibson noted, “Perhaps this is a useful self-test for whether our beliefs/opinions have assumed the status of a religion, in the negative sense -- not allowing any room for other points of view or for any questioning. That is, can we even allow for the possibility that there might be more than one truth about a subject?
“When it's not about religion, talking can be a way to share a passion (for politics, say, or for our natural world) and to find out what the other person sees/knows/thinks, rather than trying to set them straight.”
JT: I like Isabel’s insight that things other than religion can become a person’s “religion” in the sense that they become unquestioned, even unquestionable.
Anne McRae also responded to Allan Gleason’s “comment about the evangelical and the UC minister -- years ago I was told something I said was wrong [I've forgotten the details, but that is not the important part] and I did not think I was. It was really bothering me. One night I had a vision; Jesus said, ‘You are not wrong, just different,’ that has helped me ever since. We can both be right, just different.”
In the wisdom of the psalmist's time, children offered the only social security most families had; barrenness was considered a curse because you would lack family support in old age. Today, when many people choose not to have children, where do we find security? This paraphrase of Psalm 127 offers a possible answer.
1 The road of life takes many tricky turns;
you never know what crisis waits around the corner.
2 Each day has only 24 hours;
You cannot earn bonus points by burning candles at both ends;
You will only burn yourself out.
But God knows what you can do,
and God will give you the strength you need.
3 God gives friends to sustain us when we weaken;
4 They are our insurance against the future.
5 Treat everyone as a friend,
and you will never lack support when you need it.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet