Control Freak: Inside the Mind of a Hacker

Hi, I’m Han-wei and I’m a control freak. There, I said it. But I’m not alone. Most hackers are control freaks too. We’re addicted to the surge of power that engulfs your mind when a program you built actually works…suddenly the mass of metal and wires in front of you, like some ancient, magical simulacrum, springs to action churning on billions of bits till your orders are fulfilled. Or it dies trying. (For those of you who have no clue what this sense of power feels like, this is pretty much exactly the feeling.)

But I’m not here to wax anthropomorphic about a machine (though I have to admit it’s kind of fun). If you want that, you can go watch Bicentennial Man (1999). I’m here to figure out how my career as a computer security guy and my beliefs as a Christian can coexist in a broken world that’s awaiting Christ’s return. You see, I’m worried that if I don’t set aside time to think about these things now, I’ll slowly forget that there should be coexistence. I’ll begin to neatly separate the two halves of my life. I’ll start making immoral choices about how I do my job. Or perhaps I’ll simply end up selling out. No bueno.

So let’s get started. I mentioned above that I’m a control freak, and that this is a common reality for most hackers (clarification: by hacker, I mean the not-evil definition of the word. A hacker is “someone who builds novel or well-designed things”). Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), which chronicles the first developments of the hacker culture at MIT, to the early stages of Jobs’ Apple, to the first few gaming companies, constantly refers to this drive for greater and greater control: “Once you had control, the godlike power that comes from programming mastery, you did not want to let go of it.” The book is filled with stories of the men and women who fell captive to its spell. Some hackers used programming as a way to avoid an otherwise awkward social world with perplexing rules that seem to be ever changing and irrational. Others believed that computers would be the ultimate equalizer, marking the end of government and oppression. But at the heart of it all was the understanding that these machines contained untapped power that was available to anyone who was willing to learn how to use them.

There’s a special connection between the desire for control and technology – and I think everyone can relate to this. We like stepping on the gas pedal. We like buying things with two-day shipping on Amazon. It’s unreasonably fun to say “Siri, call home.” Technology offers the promise of control, and for the most part, we take the bait without a pause. Hackers merely experience this promise in its pure, unadulterated form: while you sorry folks muddle with your iPhone 5s and all the genie-like limitations that come with it, we can literally make a computer do anything. We have access to the Special Knowledge, and that knowledge is addicting in the extreme – control freak indeed.

As is usually the case, what happens at work doesn’t stay there – my tendency to want control over technology bleeds through to other parts of life. I live most of my life as a control freak. I hate owing people anything, because it gives them some sort of power over me. I freak out when I have health issues. I avoid asking for God’s will to be done till the last possible moment because I want to solve things myself.

Fundamentally, I have a deep fear (or suspicion) that God is not in control, and that if I don’t seize the reins of my life now, or seize the reins of power, or manipulate people to get what I want, everything will go careening off a cliff. Here’s what Bertrand Russell had to say about fear: “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Perhaps he was intentionally responding to Proverbs 9:10 (or Psalms 111), or perhaps it’s just a very interesting coincidence: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

How can I live my life as if I believed God was truly in control? Would my decision-making process look different? Would the way I do computer security look different? Would anyone hire me to do security if I told them that “I used to be a control freak about security, but now I believe God’s in control?”

Let them eat me

About 250 years ago during the French Revolution, Marie Antenoitte famously said (or more accurately famously did not say), “let them eat cake.” Okay … well actually, to be even more accurate, she famously did not say, “qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which means “let them eat brioche.” Brioche, which is highly enriched bread with egg and butter and is so delightfully delicious that it borders on sinful (… okay, I exaggerate), sounds really good right about now … but let’s get back on point. It was something completely out of question given that bread wasn’t even available. Such an utterance was an example of just how out of touch the aristocracy was during that time.

Sometimes, when I think about the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (John 6), I like to imagine that Jesus uttered something along the lines of “let them eat bread” which would have elicited similar bursts of outrage. It’s pretty cool, though, that Jesus is able to provide bread for these five thousand. (In that sense, Jesus is a “greater Marie Antoinette,” though I guess that’s not really saying much, haha). Now, this passage is one that has many, many sermons on it, so I’m not going to try to expound and hit every beautiful connection that could be made. I will make note that one of the most important points to read into is Jesus’s later statement. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35) It is this statement on which I believe a strong understanding of how the Gospel applies to food lies and to which I hope many of my posts will return.

So, what does it mean that Jesus is the bread of life? And how can it be that we will never go hungry or thirsty? And if Jesus is the bread of life, perhaps really what Jesus was saying was not “let them eat bread,” but rather, “let them eat me!” (Oh! What a deep and insightful thought! haha …) But anyways, I think this is a great place to just stop, haha. Now you guys are hooked! I had some more written here, but given my busy schedule, I don’t feel I’ve quite flushed things out nor written in a manner which is organized and cohesive. There’s just so much here, and I suppose part of me wants to write this perfect, all-encompassing piece even though that’s quite unreasonable. Perhaps I shall expound on this passage later.

So hi, my name is Edward Cullen…ary … haha. It’s actually Edward Zheng. I graduated from Princeton University as an Economics major in 2013 with a certificate in Finance. I’m currently working in economic consulting at an absolutely awesome place called Cornerstone Research (which … “cornerstone” is interestingly quite a Christian term). As you might be able to tell from my post so far, I’m a bit of a goofy person when online. So why is my blog post about food? I absolutely love eating and cooking: something which I’m sure is true for quite a few other people. So, definitely do post on this topic or respond to my posts! Additionally, I will say that one of the “value-adds” I hope to bring is some professional experience and insight not only into food, but also the food industry. During my junior summer, I was blessed with an amazing experience of externing at a Michelin star restaurant. At some point, I’ll probably add more about this particular experience later.

Before I end, here’s just a brief, but not complete, list of topics that I hope to post about going forward: organic/locally grown food, gluttony, cooking for yourself, eating disorders (maybe … I know it’s a sensitive topic), movements in the food industry, food philosophies, being vegetarian, fellowshipping over food, world hunger, haute cuisine (super fancy dining), fasting, animal cruelty, eating food properly (aka, if you order well done steak I kill you), and more. There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to food, so I would love to hear what people are interested in and hear people’s thoughts in general!

Introduction to Architecture

Architecture is a major that is difficult to understand unless you are an architecture major yourself or have friends who are. To most people, architecture majors are members of a rare mysterious and masochistic species that choose to be chained to long hours in the studio in order to emerge victorious with beautiful drawings and models at the end of each semester.

It’s not surprising, then, that whenever I mention my major to others it’s often returned with an “ooooh I feel bad for you”—a response that’s half out of admiration and half out of pity. It’s almost as if majoring in architecture was a free ticket to excuse and empathy; whenever I mentioned the “A” word, I was guaranteed to be pardoned of cancelled plans and have my struggles top those of others at Princeton (which, I admit, I took advantage of several times). No one from inside or outside the major stepped in to tell me to stop or draw the line. Because of this it was easy for me to just accept, even embrace, the struggles of working overnight or nonstop model making as the norm.

 The culture of comparison in architecture studios further encourages this type of work habit—more specifically, how final reviews are conducted. At the end of every semester, each student pins up their printed drawings and puts their models on stands in front of their drawings. Unlike final exams or papers where there is no way of comparing one’s performance to others until grades come out, studio final reviews are set up so that there is no way of avoiding comparison, as all students in the class are instructed to pin up their materials side by side. So even before the review begins, just from glancing around the room and judging the quality of the drawings and the number of models, there is already a general sense of who will excel and who will not. Not only that, teachers specify the order in which students should present. This is also an indicator of how interesting or good your project is, as some time slots are bound to have a panel of bored and drowsy reviewers whereas others are guaranteed to have a panel of fully conscious reviewers (i.e. the spot right before lunch break is the worst and right after the best). Because of this, studio was a perfect breeding ground for stress, insecurity, and helplessness. Panic inducers such as a broken printer and an unexpectedly slow laser cutter were the cherry on top.

 The past two years was a struggle to wrench myself free from the whirlwind, but every time I tried I found myself almost willingly stepping back into the storm. I simultaneously felt the need to escape and the need to do more. Sometimes I even psyched myself into thinking that overworking was what God wanted me to do—that in order to become the renowned Christian architect that my parents and I expected, I had to not only be put together but perform above others in order attract attention to me and, somehow, the gospel. Large groups, small groups, and Quiet Times were pushed aside for the “more important” task of becoming closer to the person that I wanted to be. The person that God wanted me to be.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

-Genesis 11:1-4

I wanted to bring the gospel to the world, but not as a small pinch of salt or a glimmer of light. I wanted to establish the gospel as this secret and sole ingredient to creating the best architecture, where the architecture of those who were Christian towered above those who did not know Jesus. And in order to do this, I needed to stand out from others, which meant creating design that attracted the most attention and impressing the professors at every final review.  I equated my recognition with God’s recognition,  and my compliments with compliments to God.  Building up a name for myself meant getting closer to the point where I would be able to stand at the top and announce my identity as a Christian, at which moment the architectural field will undergo a revolutionary conversion to Christianity. In my mind, I wasn’t building a tower of Babel. I was building a tower for God.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

-Luke 10:38-42

 And so when I read the story of Martha and Mary, it was easy for me to side with Martha and even feel insulted that Jesus would respond to her in such a way. I mean, come on, Jesus, can’t you see that Martha’s doing this all for you? You should be calling out Mary, not Martha! But what Jesus points out—and what Martha and I have forgotten amidst our preoccupation with all the things we had to do—is that he only needed and wanted one thing: our undivided love. Although she was working to serve Jesus, her work was essentially stopping her from enjoying and being in the presence of the Lord. It was pressing the pause button in her relationship with Jesus, saying Lord, I will talk to you once I’m done with all these things I’m supposed to do for you.

 Like Martha, I was putting God on hold when He was calling for me to live for Him in the now. Not some time in the future when I’m some amazing architect, but now, when I am in studio, when I am struggling, when I am broken. And sometimes, it meant letting go of the to-do list and just kneeling at Jesus’ feet. It meant being His child above His architect.

 The blog posts following this will consist of studies of different works of architecture or architectural writing where I attempt to approach the material with the gospel worldview. This will range from exposing the brokenness in the work environment or works of architecture to how we can see a glimpse of God’s glory in an architectural project.

Isabelle is a senior at Princeton majoring in architecture.

I Guess It’s Chocolate

I originally wrote this post for Fare Forward, which is a sweet Christian publication written by and for young adults. You can read and comment on the original article at Patheos.

One of the misconceptions that recent literature on religion tries to take down is the idea that there is such a thing as “neutral” culture. Consider, for instance, the attention that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith gives to the concept of “secular liturgies” in his book Desiring the Kingdom. There, Smith makes the audacious claim that seemingly innocent practices such as shopping at a mall actually shape us into certain types of people – people who think, feel, and move as if a better life was only a couple of purchases away. Participation in the liturgies of consumer capitalism – whether we intentionally want it to or not – condition us to become consumers, individuals who invest personal meaning and significance into the things which we own and buy. Our clothes, our car, our furniture all express who we are, personas attainable with but a swipe of the credit card. “I consume, therefore I am” is the mantra which unconsciously screams out from every television, poster, or billboard in our advertisement-saturated society.

In his book, Smith focuses his attention on places and events of particular identity-forming importance such as shopping malls, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and universities. These are “sacred spaces” of sorts, with their own rituals and communities of belonging that, in a way, compete with Christian liturgies of Eucharistic communion. Whether one is convinced or not, Smith’s analysis ought at least to give us pause about the habits embedded into our ordinary lives that might have larger behavior-shaping consequences than we would think.

Consider, for instance, the idea of having a favorite kind of ice cream. It’s a question we’re conditioned to answer from our very youth, from elementary school questionnaires to small group icebreakers, from college applications to password recovery security questions. Along with a favorite food and a favorite color, a favorite kind of ice cream is one of the necessary preferences to ensure that you’re not the awkward one in the circle whom everyone thinks had the deprived childhood. Though most start off with plain old chocolate and vanilla (with the occasional Neapolitan), youth quickly learn to diversify into the mint chocolate chips and Jamoca Almond Fudges. If you’re really sophisticated, it’ll be the Signature CreationTM at the local Cold Stone’s with a name like Cookie Doughn’t You Want SomeTM?

At the core, the question depends upon the seemingly innocent assumption that our preferences give some genuine insight into our identities. For most of us, this is so taken-for-granted that we have never really considered how odd it is to think that. Consider: it is not a story from our personal history that defines us, but an encounter – necessarily repeatable – with a particular commodity that merits the attention of those around us and, supposedly, breaks the ice. We have thus been ushered into a community of ice-cream-consumers which can now move on to tackle other issues in solidarity.

To be honest, part of the reason I’m writing about this now is that I’ve always struggled with coming up with a list of “favorites”. As far as I was concerned, most of the things we’re asked to have preferences on have little significance on what I actually cared about in life. Reading Smith’s book, however, made me wonder how much of our lives are structured by little encounters and rituals which try to get us to say something about ourselves in terms of, say, what we like (Facebook, anyone?), as if liking something is a primary determinant of who you are. The dynamics of consumer capitalism favor people who have strong preferences and who identify with them, but not everyone fits that kind of mold. When I go out to eat with my friends, for instance, a huge problem is often that no one actually has extremely strong preferences and we end up spending half an hour half-heartedly debating our options because most of us are more excited about eating with one another as opposed to eating something we “like”. That’s the way it always happened in my family. We ate whatever was put in front of us because it was what Mom made. There’s a kind of comfort in that sort of given-ness when things are outside our control. We still have preferences, but they are not the final determinants of our consumption. In this sense, family meals serve as a kind of counter-liturgy to the rhythms of the market. And in a world increasingly saturated by voices that want to give us the illusion that we can be in control – so long as we pay – it’s making more and more sense to me why Paul of Tarsus would insist so much that Jews and Gentiles can sit together at the same table. Before feast and eucharist were really separated, they played a similar role, telling us something important about our food choices: we eat because we’re family. So what if it’s pork?

A Babel of Fractions

Once upon a time there was a mathematician who knew that One could be split into two halves. He was asked to participate in the construction of the Tower of Babel. He began teaching people how to split one thing into two equal pieces, and as more and more people learned, the Tower grew higher and sturdier.

One day, he awoke from his bed to see a swarm of people waiting outside his door. People were confused the halves that they had no longer were the same.

“I swear, 256/512 is the right way to divide one into two equal pieces!”
“No, I can bet my life that 3/6 is the right way!”
“It’s definitely 10/20 that is fundamental! Check the number of fingers on your hands!”

When he came out the door, he asked for everyone to give him a sample of every one half that they considered to be true. Then he told them, “I will take a look at these” and set out to examine them carefully.

He spent his days looking, looking, looking, looking, and there were so many of them that he died before he could find an answer.

Meanwhile, the constructors of Babel split and went their ways each thinking they had the correct number and everyone else was wrong.

One day two grandchildren of the constructors of Babel met and were sharing their family heirlooms, a/b and c/d. They were young and innocent and let each other play with their numbers, and they discovered that ad and bc were the same!

News spread to their parents and people everywhere started matching their fractions together. Family feuds were reconciled and the king decreed that  henceforth all fractions that can be reduced to the same lowest terms would be one and the same.

And the people lived happily ever after.

I wrote this story wondering to what extent the notion of a half could model  the notion of truth. It does explain how an idea can be one and infinitely many at the same time, without there being any logical contradiction.

Moreover, it illustrates how not obvious and critical the knowledge of ad = bc is to establish a single, united system of numbers that we call a half.

To understand a half we must not only understand how a fraction is different from another, but also how different fractions can be one and the same. Though we may believe we understand 1/2, we might really not have understood a half without figuring out all the ad = bc s. The task of translating many different expressions of the same idea is essential for mutual understanding, especially in our time when modernity has left us with many separated towers of traditions and expertise, inside each of which we can all lose ourselves forever.

It is funny how the notion of fractions can not only tell us how to share things but also how to share truths. Though for the battlefield of all the intricately intertwined truths out in the world, the task of establishing translations will be immensely more difficult, yet still I hope that perhaps at the end of it all, we will have a very handsome shared truth for everybody.

Hyunmoon graduated from Princeton in 2013 with a degree in mathematics. He is interested in modern cosmic ideologies and is now at Seoul National University trying to understand the structure of empty space through the mathematics of Lagrangian Floer Homology.

A Gospel of Flourishing or a Gospel of Faithfulness?

As a seminary student, I spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus and the Gospel of his Kingdom. And one thing I’ve realized over the years is that the Gospel is slippery. If we aren’t careful, our wandering hearts are prone to distort the truth of the Gospel in small ways, so that over time, the truth is lost. What began as a disciplined corrective towards what we recognized as distortions of the truth slowly begins to take on a life of its own, becoming its own form of distortion of truth leading us away from Christ. In a way, it is Christians’ realism about our own tendency to deceive ourselves that we need to check our teachings against faithful expressions of the Gospel in summarized formulations like this one, which in turn we need to be constantly checking against the Scriptures. When we do so, we will find that where a faithful Gospel worldview and distorted worldviews part ways often comes down to subtle nuances – overemphases, shifts in focus, fine distinctions. Yet without fail, we will also find that the resources for critiquing and renewing our worldviews are invariably found within the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Happy or Holy?
Take the worldview that has been variously called “Word of Faith,” “Health and Wealth,” “Name it and Claim it,” and the one I’ll be using here – the “Prosperity Gospel.” (Speaking of which, I’m hoping to read this book at some point – anyone want to read it with me?) While there isn’t necessarily any organized set of doctrinal affirmations among Prosperity Gospel teachers, the general emphasis that characterizes this worldview is a tendency to conflate spiritual well-being and worldly prosperity, measured in terms of financial success, social status, physical well-being, happiness, etc. Recognizing this as a distortion of the Christian Gospel, believers sometimes respond by affirming aphorisms like “God is more interested in you being holy than happy.” Others may say that God calls us not to be so focused on earthly success, but to focus on “spiritual” success – glorifying God, converting souls, amassing treasures in heaven, etc.

Christians with a Gospel Worldview will be dissatisfied with both answers. To the prosperity gospel believers, we’ll point out that believers like Abraham who are commended for their faith in Hebrews 11 were those who also “died in faith without receiving the things promised.” We’ll point to the numerous places throughout the Scriptures that warn believers that the prevailing character of their existence before the return of Christ will be one of suffering, struggle, persecution. We’ll point to those proverbs, or heck Ecclesiastes even, that suggest that it is folly to put our ultimate trust in riches or health.

To those who react with a “spiritualizing” response, we’ll point to how what was promised to Abraham was a promised land – a thoroughly earthly blessingNo promise of some sort of spiritual joy or holy contentment here. The promise certainly was connected to Abraham’s spiritual faithfulness to God, but the blessing that was promised wasn’t only the happiness intrinsic to the very act of loving God, the happiness that comes from being holy. It certainly included that, but the promise was for the kind of blessing that what we all intuitively recognize as a gift from God every time we pray after a flight – “Thank you God for keeping me safe.” It is the daily blessings that we recognize God tells us to ask him for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” They are blessings that don’t only have to do with our being spiritually in right relation to God, but blessings that have to do with our prosperity here on earth.

Faithfulness & Flourishing 
If we start from a robust Gospel worldview, we recognize that the world was created for comprehensive flourishing – for shalom. And that as long as humanity remained spiritually trusting God, God would cause their earthly existence to flourish, to prosper. With sin, humanity’s spiritual death led to death in all dimensions of creation, such that physical thriving and happiness being a direct result of spiritual faithfulness no longer remains the order of the day. Indeed, a dominant theme in the Psalms is lament about the reality that in our world, it is the faithful who suffer while the wicked prosper.

As Scripture progress, nevertheless, we find that God still continues to promise flourishing for those who by faith trust in Him; though the prosperity awarded to the faithful is no longer to be expected to be fulfilled in this broken world, it remains a promise to be fulfilled when God comes to end sin and evil, death and injustice, once and for all. Nevertheless, God’s promise of flourishing does at times break into our present broken world, as evidenced in God’s constant faithfulness to his people in “working all things out for their comprehensive good.” (Romans 8:28) Biblical prosperity, then, obviously includes our physical flourishing. The typical dichotomy that is made between spiritual and physical prosperity should instead give way to the more Biblical distinction between present and future prosperity. God continues to promise prosperity to those who remain faithful to him, and though that promise remains largely a future reality, we experience  glimpses of that glorious future in the present.

The Cross
So, perhaps this could be summarized by saying this:  God promises ultimately to bring prosperity to those who remain faithful, but prosperity in the present (think: “already-not-yet”) largely looks like living faithfully in anticipation of receiving that gift. This guards against us preaching a naive prosperity Gospel that neglects the guaranteed difficulty of the Christian life, but it also frees us from captivity to an otherworldly piety that is unable to give us the motivation to work for real justice and flourishing in this world.

For Reformation theologian Martin Luther, the best corrective for helping Christians critique worldview distortions such as the ones discussed above was the cross of Christ. He distinguished between “theologians of glory” and “theologians of the cross.” “Theologians of glory” – a derogatory term for Luther – are unable to discern the glory of God as they look at Jesus on the cross. Instead of looking to Jesus’ faithfulness to God as a picture of true, faithful prosperity in this age, theologians of glory look to typical definitions of glory and prosperity that don’t require having spiritual understanding to recognize. “Theologians of the cross,” on the other hand, recognize in what seems like the foolishness and weakness of Jesus hanging on the cross the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1-2). They recognize that Christ on the cross was the embodiment of a faithful pursuit of prosperity, a pursuit which rejects temptations to seek cheap sources of fleeting happiness, to accrue success through injustice, to accept cheap substitutes of lasting, final, true flourishing. And they recognize that at his resurrection and glorification, Jesus ultimately did receive the glory and blessing promised to him – “all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.” (Matt. 28)

Wolterstorff on Mourning

A friend of mine shared this quote at my fellowship last night and I cried – it’s excerpted from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, written after his 24-year-old son’s sudden death:

“Blessed are those who mourn.” What can it mean? One can understand why Jesus hails those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, why he hails the merciful, why he hails the pure in heart, why he hails the peacemakers, why he hails those who endue under persecution. These are qualities of character which belong to the life of the kingdom. But why does he hail the mourners of the world? Why cheer tears? It must be that mourning is also a quality of character that belongs to the life of his realm.

Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.

From a prisoner to a watchman

“We have therefore, in the power of God, a look-out, a door, a hope; and even in this world we have the possibility of following the narrow path and of taking each simple little step with a “despair which has its own consolation” (Luther). The prisoner becomes a watchman. Bound to his post as firmly as a prisoner in his cell, he watches for the dawning of the day.” – Karl Barth

A lot of people move to D.C. to make an impact. Whether it is through research or advocacy, in the government or a non-profit organization, we are involved in the “change business.” We want to eradicate poverty, end human trafficking, and ensure equal access to water, education and healthcare for all. We take pride in the purpose and meaning of our work, but if you talk to any of us, you will recognize the disappointment, frustration and fatigue in our voice too. It is not uncommon for an idealist to turn into a cynic.

You can be cynical about everything, if you think about it. Those of us privileged with high education have the natural knack to question the progress, impact and potential of any plan or program.  We are critical of people’s competence and motivation too. The Oxford Dictionary defines a cynic as someone who “questions whether something good will happen or whether it is worthwhile.” Will victims of genocide ever recover and heal from trauma? Can government officials be trusted to use the foreign aid properly? Will we ever find solutions to the challenges of the refugee crisis and terrorism? It is not hard to understand why change agents burn out and lose heart.

Bertrand Russell has famously said, “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” There is something very right and profound about recognizing the limits of human capacity and the pervasiveness of sin. It is good and important to have realistic and sober expectations. After all, you can only keep your smiles on for so long if you run on the fuel of false hopes or an inflated view of human capacity to direct the course of history. There will be mistakes, failures and setbacks in the process of change – it is only wise to make some allowance for them. But does that justify hardening your heart to the possibility of change?

The problem of cynicism is that it often masquerades as wisdom. Soren Kierkegaard describes it well: “there is a shrewdness which, almost with pride, presumes to have special elemental knowledge of the shabby side of existence that finally everything ends in wretchedness.” The seductive power of cynicism lies in its allure of cleverness. It offers a kind of security from what Stephen Colbert calls “a self-imposed blindness” and “rejection of the world that will hurt or disappoint us.”(He’s so much more than a hilarious comedian!) I am not arguing for naiveté or even optimism. But I do think that Christians ought to look beyond the tragedies and wretchedness of this world to the promise and hope of receiving the pure gift of New Jerusalem. We just don’t know in full how the Spirit works all things together.  If we really believe that God is present and active, and that He will bring New Heavens and New Earth, we can labor to serve the Kingdom even if our efforts might not bring the final consummation.  We can make a difference without having to save the world. We can bear the pain of loving the world without giving in to defeat and paralysis. We can be brave, and take the risk of being disheartened, and learn something along the way.

I recently transitioned from campus ministry to international development. In my work on green growth and poverty reduction, I feel very privileged to see God’s heart to restore all things in more concrete details. I know the greenhouse gases will not vanish from the atmosphere because of the op-eds, videos, workshops and grant applications I helped to produce, but I trust that these small steps will lead to some mitigation and adaptation measures in some countries. We might never find evidence or resolution for a lot of the moving pieces, but I am very encouraged by the productive dialogues we have with government, and the economic models that are becoming more sophisticated and useful. We do not have absolute control over how long-lasting our impact will be, but we can focus on this season that is entrusted to us and let God surprise us. When I was in campus ministry, I knew I could not solve my students’ problems or force their growth. But I celebrated every moment when someone started to love the Word, when he or she prayed for humility, when relationships reconciled, when communities cried with those who mourned. That was exceedingly beautiful to me, because I saw the power of God made perfect in our weaknesses. Similarly, even though I know that New Jerusalem will not result from incremental gains of human efforts, I believe we can start walking towards it, in whichever policy space we are in and celebrate the victories that God wrought in his power and might.

Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends a lot on a person’s temperament, but it also depends on the discipline of the heart to choose hope over cynicism. I hope the grace of God will reorient us from being prisoners to watchmen, waiting for Him with joy, humility and hope, and that this blog will be a feast of the foretastes of the Kingdom, and a net catching glimpses of shalom.

Ivy graduated from Princeton with a B.A. in Public and International Affairs in 2011. She is interested in learning about vocation/calling, politics of religion, sustainable cities, poverty, and whatever inspires her to start a new research project. (Yes she gets a tad bit too excited about too many things!) 

Faith Beyond Secularism


For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Enoch. I recently graduated (class of 2013) with a degree in Religion, and am currently working as a ministry intern at a small community church in Cleveland, Ohio while applying for M.Div programs on the east coast. I’m really interested in the intersection of science and religion (read: philosophy and theology) and the future of higher education in the United States. I hope to eventually spend some time studying German philosophy (read: Ph.D. studies) and participate in building the post-secular universities of the future.

Yes. You heard that right. Post-secular universities.

Let me get right to the point: we are at a momentous moment in the history of higher education. For the past century or so, post-secondary instruction has been dominated by a particular model of relating faith and learning: the “secular university”. Forged in the era of denominational religion, today’s flagship universities participated in a non-sectarian compromise in the name of Christian unity and human progress, agreeing to set aside their theological differences to focus on what everyone could supposedly agree we had in common – the natural world before us. In place of teaching doctrine, colleges introduced moral philosophy; instead of dogmatic tradition – so was thought – we would appeal to reason.

The problem, however, was that blinding oneself to one’s own tradition and background doesn’t solve the problems which came along with it. In hopes of solving the problems of history by eschewing history, liberal (theological, not political) optimism imagined that appealing to universal reason and morality would bring enlightenment and prosperity to the world. And surprise, surprise, it hasn’t. Turns out things like one’s underlying worldview has a larger role to play than people ever thought, and instead of achieving a genuine “neutral” and “secular” space wherein differing worldviews can battle it out, today’s secular universities have merely replaced one sectarian orthodoxy with another.

Where ought we to go from here? Well, for one, the advent of post-modernity has seriously called into question the coherence of the modern liberal project, but without articulating a clear alternative in its place. In the midst of the intellectual vacuum, economic – rather than intellectual – concerns have been playing an increasingly larger role in shaping today’s universities. Tribalism, in the form of sports, takes the place of mission statements in unifying the campus.

On the bright side, however, the collapse of liberal modernity has brought about a “religious turn” in the Academy, opening the door for Christians and other religious scholars to approach their scholarship with their faith commitments in hand. Religion, once a subject to be sneered at in intellectual circles (a relic of past societies), is being reexamined with earnest. Christian colleges, rediscovering the importance of the life of the mind, are experiencing a new renaissance.

But what of Christians in the rest of the country’s universities? Is the best we can do to huddle in the face of the rising secular order? If the increasing number of religious liberty cases arising from all quarters means anything, it’s going to be a long, hard fight for Christians in the public square from now on. Is our best course of action to resign ourselves to the very real possibility that Christians will, for the first time since the conversion of Constantine, not be in the halls of power? Should our strategy be, in the words of sociologist James Davidson Hunter, to cultivate a “faithful presence” in our society?

There are many who are calling for such a strategy. In the face of rising worldliness in the Roman Empire, many faithful Christians fled to the monasteries in the pursuit of holiness. Many argue for a similar approach today. Consider, for instance, the prominent Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who calls for the faithful to pursue the “Benedict option” in the face of modernity’s fragmentation.  Or listen to Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who, drawing from Anabaptist thought, advances the thesis that Christians should consider the church an “alternate politics”.

It is my contention that this does not need to be our answer, that the situation of the church today is quite different than any previous moment in its history. The modern project may have faltered, but it is not altogether without its strengths. It is in a renewed modernity that our future – and the future of our universities – lies.

That this is an ambitious project would be an understatement, yet I hope that some of my reflections here might bring more of you on board. It is a pluralistic world we live in, and any way forwards must take into account that reality. Future posts will attempt to address the philosophical, theological, and historical questions which any attempt to build the post-secular universities of the future must consider. My thought is far from fully developed, and my hope is that many of you will walk with me as I try to work out this vision.

The Lamb of Wall Street

“What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions–if they can get rich making dumb decisions? The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; they’re still all wrong.”

– Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker

To some of you, this quote may come across as unsurprising, given all that’s been said and done since the financial crisis over five years ago. You’re likely no stranger to how traders purposely sell complex and risky products to unsuspecting investors so they can get a higher bonus. You might know about the grueling hours investment bankers are forced to put in so they can rise up the corporate ladder, only to do the same to the new wave of incoming analysts. You’ve probably heard about the countless insider trading scandals by secretive hedge funds who control billions of dollars of this country’s wealth.

Or maybe you had no idea about all of this and you just knew that finance was a “prestigious” career where one could make a lot of money. This was me for most of my life.

Call me naïve, but having grown up in China, the Midwest, and Appalachia, I really wasn’t aware of any of this until a semester into my first year at Princeton University in 2008, when people jokingly (or not so jokingly) criticized my decision to study Operations Research and Financial Engineering by saying I had “sold my soul” to finance. My initial reaction was defensive: “There’s no way these people can do all these unethical things to make money off other people and actually get away with it. We don’t live in a world that broken. I’m sure they’re financially successful because of their talent and hard work.”

A few years later, I entered the world of sales and trading at an investment bank in New York and soon found out that the world was indeed that broken. During that summer internship, I often wondered if someone who claimed to follow Christ and live a life with the intent of glorifying Him could do so in such an environment. How could I glorify God when I worked in an industry where ethics and morals were often put aside in favor of a fatter paycheck? Fortunately, while switching jobs, moving halfway across the country, and dealing with the various life and work challenges throughout all of this, God has slowly but surely revealed to me how to have a gospel worldview within the finance industry.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

– Romans 10:14-15 (ESV)

The first way is probably the most obvious: money. A Christian in finance is often (but not always) called to be a “sender” in the church both because he is financially blessed and also because his work-life balance usually makes it difficult to be a “goer.” The important fact to remember here is that this is not an inferior or superior position to be in. We are all given unique talents by God and in order for the body of Christ to function, every part must play its role (Matthew 25, 1 Corinthians 12).

At this point, cynical readers (I would usually be a part of this group, but I’m of course biased the other way in this case) may think: “Well, that’s easy for you to say. It must be nice to work in finance as a Christian. You get to give more to the church and live a wealthy lifestyle.” I believe that no Christian calling is easy if you put your whole heart into it, and I will talk more about that below. But with respect to money, I remember one of my college mentors challenging me before I graduated. He told me to “tithe until it hurts,” and that it would probably require me to give more than the 10% mentioned in the Old Testament. I was further convicted when I heard a sermon by Tim Keller in New York stating the same. It’s much easier for someone with $100,000 to give $10,000 than someone with only $100 to give $10.

However, it doesn’t stop here. I’ve met many Christians in the industry who think that financial giving is their sole calling from God. Except it goes much farther than just that.

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

When success of any kind is the ultimate goal, Jesus is pushed to the side and ethical/moral standards can quickly spiral down. In finance, where success is defined by profits, there is not only a gray area between what is permissible and not, but also one between what is permissible and what is right.  To help us discern where the lines are, Jesus told us that every law can be summed up in the Golden Rule: do to others what you would have them do to you. Would you want your client to hide those accounting records from you? That complex derivative that you’re selling to your counterparty, how would you feel if someone you respected/trusted made you the same false promises to cost you millions of dollars? How much commission would you want a bank to charge you for this transaction? I could go on.

However, holding strong to a set of Christian ethics can be very challenging in many circumstances. When performance is evaluated based on how much profit one generates, one may risk pay or even job stability in order to be ethical. In addition, there are many “prisoner’s dilemma” situations in parts of the finance industry. If even one person chooses to be unethical (charge an unnecessarily high premium, sell a risky product, etc.), others must often do the same or be at a severe disadvantage. How do we deal with these difficult situations and what can we do to make them easier?

(For more thoughts, some comments by others in the industry, and an example in trading, I wrote briefly about this topic here. Note: Some comments on WSO are not for the faint of heart.)

“So when we say that Christians work from a gospel worldview, it does not mean that they are constantly speaking about Christian teaching in their work…. It is a mistake to think that the Christian worldview is operating only when we are doing such overtly Christian activities. Instead, think of the gospel as a set of glasses through which you ‘look’ at everything else in the world.”

– Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor

Giving money is not enough. Following a set of ethical rules is also not enough. In the end, the most important part of working for God is that we must live a Christian life in our work, regardless of what industry we are in. For business and finance in particular, Tim Keller tells us that this means seeing profit as only one of many bottom lines, which are all encompassed by a passion to work toward serving the common good. Some practical examples include: increasing the efficiency of financial markets, overhauling a company’s financial structure so it can be more productive, managing and reducing risk for clients’ portfolios, investing capital in companies that have world-changing ideas, providing financial advisory to clients, etc.

Aside from the tangible contributions by their workplaces, Christians in finance (and any other industry) can individually impact the workplace just with attitudes that are inspired by our beliefs. In Colossians 3, we are told “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” In Matthew 6, Jesus says that we should “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” These two verses remind of us of God’s righteous providence in all we do as well as His grace in sending Jesus to the cross to seal our inheritance in heaven.

While we will never stop learning what it means to live with this kind of heart, striving toward it can contribute much more to God’s kingdom than money or a set of ethical laws ever could. And it is only by His grace that we can live in this way.