Why You Must Die, Before You Die

I’ve been thinking about death some – how it happens, what people think.

My clinic recently faced tragedy. Dr. Jerry Umanos was shot and killed at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He had worked for the past 25 years as pediatrician at Lawndale Christian Health Center (located in inner-city Chicago), and for the past 10 years, had been volunteering part of his time training pediatric residents in Kabul. He had gone, against all warning,  to seek the poorest of the poor, and the neediest of the needy. LCHC saw him last this past January, when he gave a testimony before our whole staff about his work, and explained why he was going back once again to that war-torn land.

Keep Dr. Umanos in mind for a moment and consider end-of-life care in America. Most Americans will die a slow death, maybe brought on by cancer, maybe brought on by organ failure. There are two options when you are faced with a diagnosis that signals the end: aggressive (often experimental) treatment that probably won’t work and if it does, will leave you barely alive; or hospice, where physicians ease the pain for those who’ve already accepted death (hospice can occur either at home or in hospital).  According to articles like this one, more Americans are opting for the former, and saving the latter for when the former has failed. Interestingly, Christians (or those who identify as more religious) are even more likely to pursue aggressive end-of-life treatments. Simply put, our healthcare system (and our society) is teeming with people eeking out nanodrops of life with every last effort and dollar. We are hanging onto life with the very tip of our nails.

I hope the juxtaposition is as jarring to you as it as to me. On one hand is a man who shuns his life (perhaps even foolishly so) to serve in Afghanistan, and on the other hand are people (especially religious people) trying to live some more.

Obviously, end-of-life situations are incredibly complex, and it’s difficult to know what to do in the mire of emotions, tensions, and false hopes. I don’t pretend to know how to navigate through those situations, so this article won’t be about the ethics of end-of-life care. Instead, I want to point out how much the death of Dr. Umanos and the deaths of others in the American healthcare system reveal a sad truth about Americans: we are not ready to die.

This is bad news, at least for Christians, because death is one of the biggest things Christ stresses to his fledgling disciples: ‘You must pick up your cross daily and follow me’; ‘Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; whoever loses his life for me will find it.’ If they didn’t understand when he was speaking this to them in person, then surely they understood when their Lord hung before them on the cross, shamefully bloodied and scarred.

Paul eventually reiterates this theme in his epistles, telling the Philippian church, for example, that ‘to die is gain, and to live is Christ. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!’ Only a man who dies daily could utter such words.

I think what Jesus (and Paul) was trying to point out is that life is a gift, not an ultimate good that should be pursued at all costs. And of course, this goes against everything in the dominant narrative in America. Lacking greater purpose, we live to feel alive: to travel and see the world, to engorge food with our bodies and take pictures of them on our phones, to drink and be merry with loud music beating in our ears, to pursue power and influence, to be intoxicated in love. I am not saying we should not enjoy these things. I am only saying that it becomes dangerous when these things mark life itself – when we jump from thrill to thrill seeking ways to adorn an otherwise vapid and listless trajectory.

If we do not die now, it will be too late when death really comes. Death should catch us in the act of dying, not in the act of living. Christ’s call to the cross is a very serious charge, and we would do well to pray over His words daily and to search the ways He is urging us to die today.

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Microsize Me

All of us have at one point or another dreamt of one day having a home of our own.  However, we often don’t include in this dream the side effects of owning a home that is larger than we should be.  This applies especially to large homes a.k.a. McMansions, where some families end up purchasing homes with too many rooms and too much space.

At first, there is excitement at the prospect of moving into the brand new house and enjoying all its vastness. But after a while,  they realize that the very thing that was supposed to bring them comfort and enjoyment was becoming more of a burden. Large homes come at a price, and in exchange for the extra square footage, the burden of cleaning and managing the house becomes greater.

What is more, the extra space leaves room for us to overindulge in things we would not have bought or kept without it.  A Japanese architect once said that the house has become the “trigger” consumer product, where its purchase can lead to a series of other purchases. In other words, when we see empty spaces in our homes, we feel tempted to fill them up, resulting in an extra chair that was never needed, or an extra coffee table that just ends up collecting dust.

A few months ago, there was an article in the NY Times about a couple who chose to build their own home at what to the neighbors was a shockingly small size: 704 square feet. However, despite the relative shortage of space, the owners actually got more out of it than their counterparts do out of their own homes.

By downsizing, the couple’s time spent on managing and cleaning their home was reduced, and they could dedicate their time for other activities that they actually enjoy. Not only that, the construction and mortgage fee for the property is significantly lower than that of the owners’ neighbors; while others pay thousands of dollars to keep their place in their homes, the owners of the tiny house are able to get by with paying less than $500 a month for taxes, utilities, and other services.

This topic is worth paying attention to as Christians because it reveals to us the ways in which our homes can become chains  (i.e. financial strain, maintenance fees and responsibilities) rather than just comfortable and harmless possessions, and challenges us to really think about why we purchase certain homes over others.

For instance, pride tells us to buy bigger homes to display our wealth to others. Insecurity tells us to own homes that we can’t  afford, because being able to show others a big home brings more comfort than not having a lengthy credit card bill. Greed tells us to buy more things and in larger sizes, just because we can. Pride, insecurity, and greed are just a few things that could be  manifested in the way we view and purchase homes, and they reveal to us the ways in which homes can become idols.

So if you’re sitting in your bedroom, kitchen, living room, or whatever other room, take a moment to walk around your house and ask yourself: how does my home glorify God and reflect my spiritual life?

Link to the article on the 704 sq. ft. home: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/23/garden/freedom-in-704-

Cover photo credit: Alek Lisefski 

What is healing?

//Because I have a short attention span, I assume others do, too, so I try to use a different color text for “main ideas.

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It’s probably a bit strange that after four years of medical school, I’m not sure what “healing” actually means, or that medicine (as a field) is even about healing. Treating a disease or pathology is not the same as healing a person. The absence of disease is…well, the absence of disease, not necessarily health. We don’t cure cancer– we usually just cut off the offending organ or treat it with radiation/chemo and hope it doesn’t come back elsewhere. Many, if not most, diseases can’t be cured (think of chronic conditions like COPD, heart failure, schizophrenia, diabetes, etc.) – even with the best medical treatments, their effects can only be slowed or minimized, though they all eventually result in the inevitable progression of disease. Even if the best medicine can “cure,” I would venture to say that only the mildest of infections can probably be “cured” completely, and that “curing” just means returning you to baseline.

Which makes it that much more astounding that Jesus healed the sick and in turn commanded his disciples in Matthew 10:8 to heal the sick.

What does it mean that He healed, that we are supposed to heal and be healers?

Though he was addressing seminary students in the excerpts below, Paul Tillich’s thoughts have also been helpful for me as a soon-to-be physician, as his reflections on health and sickness appropriately grasp the comprehensiveness and complexity inherent in disease and health.

1) Health is about unity – the wholeness and integration of body, mind, and spirit – and shalom (this comprehensive flourishing) is the ideal. Let’s not mistake the absence of disease for health, because its absence could just mean we’ve discarded the parts of us that have the potential for disease, which are also the parts of us that have the greatest potential for life. I see this as particularly true in mental health, when the best treatment can get rid of the problem without having addressed the root of the issue (e.g. antidepressants that make you not depressed, but is to the point to blunt emotions so that one is non-suicidal, or to work with the patient to understand how to deal with pain in a meaningful way and still find joy?)

Health is not the lack of divergent trends in our bodily or mental or spiritual life, but the power to keep them united. And healing is the act of reuniting them after the disruption of their unity. “Heal the sick” means — help them to regain their lost unity without depriving them of their abundance, without throwing them into a poverty of life perhaps by their own consent.

2) People in medicine often talk about how increasing specialization (to keep up with unmanageable amounts of information) creates “siloes” that compartmentalize providers into only being able to treat very specific problems.

Take, for example, diabetes, one of the most common problems in the US. If you have diabetes, you probably have an endocrinologist to manage your insulin schedule, an ophthalmologist to check out potential diabetic retinopathy, a nephrologist to make sure your kidneys aren’t failing, and a cardiologist and/or neurologist if you’ve experienced any heart attacks or strokes as a result of that diabetes. And a PCP (primary care provider) to coordinate all of that. Our very training implies that we are to stay within our areas of “expertise,” and that expertise is limited to only certain organs, which in turn can cause us to reduce our patients to organs.

But health means wholeness, and shalom is about individuals, communities, and systems – even (or especially) in medicine. And that ultimately sickness has a spiritual component in that all illness is a reflection of sin, or separation (maybe the sin of nature, but sin nonetheless.) That is why in the stories of healing in the Word, it is never just an individual’s physical healing alone, but a restoration to one’s community (as in Matthew 8, when the fever leaves, she prepares a meal for others) and spiritual healing (e.g. in Luke 5, when Jesus heals the paralytic, spiritual healing (“your sins are forgiven”) is closely linked with physical healing (“rise and walk”), and the response of the paralytic is not just physical (“he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home,”) but also notably spiritual (“he went home glorifying God”)).

And you have learned that disease that seems bodily may be mental at root, and that a disease that seems individual may be social at the same time, and that you cannot heal individuals without liberating them from the social demons that have contributed to their sickness. Beyond this, you may have become aware of the fact that both physical and mental, individual and social, illness is a consequence of the estrangement of man’s spirit from the divine Spirit, and that no sickness can be healed nor any demon cast out without the reunion of the human spirit with the divine Spirit.

3) Though health and healing are huge concepts, ones that I still don’t fully understand, this at least is true: we know that our God is Jehovah-Rophi, the Lord who heals (Exodus 15:26), and that the real illness and diseases that we ought to fear (i.e. not the bodily ones) have been borne by Christ, who took them upon Himself.

 You have a glimpse of what can heal ultimately, of him in Whom God made manifest His power over demons and disease, of him who represents the healing power that is in the world, and sustains the world and lifts it up to God.

 

The God of Efficiency

I’m nearing the end of the first year of my Ph.D. in IEOR, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, and I still don’t have a good explanation for what exactly IEOR is. But if I had to describe it in one word, I would say ‘efficiency’. IEOR is about optimizing traffic conditions, optimizing distribution of patient care, optimizing robustness and efficiency of energy networks. IEOR is about maximizing revenue and minimizing risk using prices, options and derivatives. I’ve essentially spent the past two semesters being trained on how to help people be more Type A.

Maybe part of the reason that I like my department so much is that for me, efficiency is a way of life. This morning, I left my apartment at 11:28am for my 11:40am class, because I knew that it would take me 2 minutes to take out the trash and 10 minutes to get to class. As a Princeton alumna and a resident of New York City, I am also surrounded people for whom efficiency is admirable and desirable, something to be striven for. Think of ‘New York time’ and ‘Princeton time’, two phenomena which stem from the same desire for efficiency. Why waste time by being early? I could do so much with those 5 extra minutes. In such an environment, it’s easy to get caught up in the mindset that to be the best and achieve the most, we must be the most efficient.

But in the weeks leading up to Easter, I’ve been meditating on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and have found myself wondering more and more: Does God call us to be efficient?

It is pretty clear that God calls us to not be lazy. Proverbs and the epistles are full of admonitions against laziness and sloth:

Proverbs 10:4- A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
Proverbs 12:24- The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.
Proverbs 13:4- The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.
Ephesians 5:15-16a- Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time.
Colossians 4:5- Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.

Reading such verses, it is obvious that wisdom, diligence and good time management are all part and parcel of being good stewards of the time and resources that God has given us. And it’s tempting to say, well, efficiency must be good, because it is diligence and stewardship at its best. But the more I think about my own reasons for valuing efficiency, the more I believe that there are many lies and false hopes underlying our desire for efficiency. Perhaps we equate increased efficiency with increased effectiveness, and believe that by being more efficient, we can achieve or contribute more. Perhaps we rely on increased efficiency to improve our standard of living, or to push us higher up the ladder of success. Perhaps we think that being as efficient as possible, doing the best that we can, minimizes the risk of things going wrong, or exonerates us from blame if they do go awry. In all these cases, the danger is that the more we chase after efficiency, the further we slide down the slippery slope of self-reliance and self-justification.

Before we answer the question of whether we should be efficient, it is prudent to consider whether God was efficient. And if we look closely at the narrative of the bible, we see that God often works in surprisingly inefficient ways. God chose to bless the world slowly, generation by generation, through the offspring of one man. He patiently and faithfully brought an imperfect chosen people through cycles of idolatry and ungratefulness. He took the time to live as a human, to suffer as a human and die as a human, in order to bring to full completion His work of justification. God also works in our lives in an often frustratingly-slow pace. He doesn’t just snap His fingers and transform our hearts and minds. Rather, He sanctifies and renews us through cycle after messy cycle of sin, repentance and forgiveness. He doesn’t just reveal himself and His plan of salvation to us in irrefutable ways. Rather, He uses people to shine His light and love and convey His gospel.

When reading the parable of the lost sheep, I used to think to myself, ‘How inefficient, to spend all that time looking for one measly sheep.!’ Or, ‘What a waste of time, to sweep the house searching for one lost silver coin.’ But I was missing the point. What God values above efficiency, above far-reaching evangelism, above widespread service, is people. For God, the salvation of even one of His lost children is the most joyous thing in the world.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
— 2 Peter 3:8-9

So does God call us to be efficient? My short answer would be… sometimes. But He always calls us to love Him and to love people. And sometimes that means we need to be a little more inefficient.

Let me end by sharing some good advice that I’ve been given on what this might look like for a student or academic, and briefly describe how each is playing out in my life as a Ph.D student.

  1. Take a weekly Sabbath.
    Princetonians tend to be rather proud of their ability to work hard and play hard. As a grad student and researcher, my natural impulse is to maximize my efficiency as a student by spending every free moment either understanding all the materials relevant to my coursework, or working on a problem related to my research until I find a solution. I still haven’t found the courage to take a Sabbath, but God is slowly teaching me to trust, rest and find my worth in Him, and to be at peace even when I don’t understand anything or haven’t managed to prove anything.
  2. Publish good quality work.
    In the academic world, efficient research paper production is a highly coveted skill. Many both live by and fear the need to ‘publish or perish’. I have recently been convicted of my desire to publish an unpolished paper as quickly as possible, in order to check off another item on my ‘to-do’ list and to further prove my worth. At some stage, I plan to think more carefully through what it looks like to engage in publishing and academic discourse as a Christian.
  3. Teach students, not subjects.
    Teaching in a university setting is time-consuming, tiring and offers very few tangible rewards. When teaching a large class, it is tempting to ‘make efficient use of my time’ by conveying the material in the most efficient way possible, setting office hours for the most inconvenient time possible and leaving it up to the students to learn things on their own. God is teaching me to see all my students as individual people with individual needs, and to respond to them accordingly. This has meant answering emails at inconvenient hours, meeting up for coffee chats or bringing them step by step through a difficult homework problem. I’m still working through how I can be a better teacher, and how I can better show grace to my students.
  4. Be Interruptible.
    I have a strong tendency to be ‘in the zone’ when I am studying or thinking about a problem, because it means I get through to a resolution more quickly and efficiently. I also like to plan my days out and fill them with small schedules and goals, so that I can make the most of my time. God is teaching me to let go of control of my time and to let my eyes and ears be attuned to people or things that He is calling me to.
  5. Sit in the Pit.
    As a (fake) engineer, I have a bit of a ‘fix-it’ mentality. When people come to me with problems, my first instinct is to offer them advice on how to solve their problems. At a recent church retreat, Abe Cho of Redeemer spoke on how God does not always call us to immediately fix our problems and become joyful and righteous before Him, and gave us permission to be vulnerable, honest and emotional before God. Drawing from the Psalms and Job, he demonstrated to us that sometimes we are not called to give nice, pat, efficient answers about God to those who are suffering, not called to fix their problem or to fix them, but rather to mourn with them in sackcloth and ashes and trust that God will deliver. This was a great retreat. I will probably have a lot to say about it in a later post.

Each of these is worth a separate blog entry, and I plan to revisit them in later posts. In the meantime, I hope that we can all go out and be a little more inefficient! Who needs efficiency when we have all of eternity?

Irene graduated from Princeton in 2013 with an A.B. in mathematics. She is currently in the first year of her Ph.D. in IEOR (equivalent to ORFE) at Columbia University, where she spends her time exploring the structure of graphs, pondering how to serve God in the academy and pretending that she knows how to be an engineer.

The Injustice of the Unspeakables

There is great opportunity for both justice and injustice in technology, and the line separating the two is razor thin. The same technology that’s designed to hunt down terrorists can be used to hunt down “terrorists.” Clever code and specialized hardware that is designed to unscramble an opposing military’s secret plans – used to great effect against the Nazis during WWII – could just as easily be mutated into monitoring devices listening in on the encrypted communications of one’s own citizens.

When the topic of injustice in technology comes up these days, we tend to think of privacy rights, freedom of speech, or oppression on the Internet. There’s a lot of baggage involved, mostly political. Leave that baggage aside for a second, because while I don’t deny that there is a major political element to the question of injustice in the technology sphere, I think these discussions unfortunately tend to ignore those who have most at stake in the debate: the actual victims. For them, these questions of injustice aren’t just a nice topic to discuss over cocktails – it’s a daily fear that’s justified every time someone disappears. They are the Unspeakables – deprived of a voice in the conversation almost by definition. So take a moment, and actually read the verses below, because thankfully, God cares a lot about those who are oppressed, and he’s given them a voice at his throne that no one can silence:

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
Preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
From the throng of evildoers,
Who whet their tongues like swords,
Who aim bitter words like arrows,
Shooting from ambush at the blameless,
Shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
They talk of laying snares secretly,
Thinking, “Who can see the?”
They search out injustice,
Saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.”
For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.
Psalm 64:1-6, ESV

The Unspeakables have hope, and we have hope, because God promises to bring justice. I think I’m also beginning to see how I may have the privilege of working, via my career in computer security, to extend God’s good and right justice to help the Unspeakables of our time.

You see, part of the problem “Out There” in the security industry (not targeting anyone in particular) is that once you’ve invented a great piece of security software, your job is to sell it. So you can start adding a little mac and cheese to your ramen-only diet. Are you going to sell it to whoever will buy it? No! Of course not, we have morals, duh! What if it’s a nation state? What if they’ll buy it for $20,000? $2 million? $20 million a year? Oh. And of course it’ll only be used to track down criminals who deserve to be punished. Ohh, ok, seems reasonable after all. Actually looking up their human rights record is a PitA when $10 mil is on the line, isn’t it?

Now before we get all worked up and self-righteous about those people “Out There” remember what Paul says in Ephesians 2: “and we also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, and following its thoughts and desires.” Until the day we die, “Out There” is also “In Here.”

So that’s one of the great struggles in this field. As a computer security guy, will I chose to help those who are oppressed to find freedom and regain the ability to communicate as they will, or will I help the deep-pocketed evildoers? Will I care enough to ponder the potential repercussions and alternate uses of technology I create and who might get their hands on it? Will I even remember the oppressed? That is my mission and my goal.

Just one more bite

I just finished downing about $75 worth of bbq with some co-workers and am super stuffed (this is yesterday night). It makes me wonder if I’m being a hypocrite on the following topic, but I suppose this’ll serve nicely as a concrete example to consider.

Gluttony

A few months ago, an interesting article blog post was made called: “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony.” In this post, the author makes the point that and explores why Christians seem to be fixated on homosexuality as a sin that needs to be addressed when there are other sins, such as gluttony, that are just as, if not more, prevalent throughout American society. Now, before I get any further, I want to make clear that I’m not going to be delving into the topic of homosexuality, nor am I really going to delve into her blog post (which can be found here: Link). The main reason I bring it up, though, is because I do agree that gluttony is a sin (out of many) on which we generally don’t focus.

Goal

I hope to eventually flesh out a few different facets of gluttony, including food-related temptations that one might not necessarily put under the umbrella of “gluttony” but are nonetheless related. Eventually, I do hope to begin examining why gluttony is an oft overlooked sin and discuss a bit about the consequences of gluttony. For now, I’ll start with a first pass at a definition and a quick application that many of us can relate to, even if we do not profess to find gluttony a struggle.

So what do you mean by gluttony? And what does the Bible say about gluttony?

So before I go any further, what do I mean by gluttony? Wikipedia calls gluttony “over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste,” which I think works okay as a first definition. The Bible is quite clear that gluttony is a sin, for example Proverbs 25:16 states: “If you find honey, eat just enough – too much of it, and you will vomit.” Another example is found in Philippians 3:18-19: “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” Before I move on, I would like to add that I believe an appropriate approach to gluttony should not be overly focused simply on the large quantity of consumption. Usually, we tend to think of gluttony simply to be eating a lot/past the point when we are full. This certainly is gluttony, but I believe a fuller understanding must incorporate this idea that “their god is their stomach.” Hopefully I can refine this definition in future posts, but we’ll leave this as is for now.

So why should I care about gluttony?

Wow, what a stupid question. Gluttony is a sin, so of course you should care, duh … (sarcastic tone, in case you couldn’t tell) But just some more food for thought, we live in a country where it is often stereotyped that people are more overweight and more unhealthy than any other country (this is temporarily putting aside the fact that there is actual data supporting this: Link). Of course, I do want to note that weight is a product of many factors such as genetics, exercise, disease, and more, and food consumption is only one of them. That being said, it cannot be ignored that over-consumption of food is a major player in the obesity and unhealthiness that is prevalent in America.

And as another food for thought, while many of us (meaning most people I know) may not struggle with gluttony in the traditional sense of constant over-eating, we unfortunately do exhibit behavior that is often quite gluttonous. And as I as before, gluttony is a sin, so we should care about it.

Okay, so gluttony is bad, that makes sense. But I’m skinny or I don’t eat a lot or (sadly) I actually have a problem with under-eating; that must mean gluttony isn’t an issue for me, right?

This is where I’m supposed to drop that cliché of answer “Yes! It is an issue for everyone!” But no, not going to do that. Instead, I think I’d rather approach the question of why I believe gluttonous behavior comes to many of us in avoidable doses. At the root (or one of the roots) of gluttony is a desire to please the body. As with most desires, pleasing the body is not inherently bad, but it can often lead to scenarios where we look to food in an unhealthy way that threatens to replace God. Whether it’s the eating ice cream after a hard day, mindlessly chomping away at snacks while we’re doing nothing, pulling out a dessert after an extremely healthy meal, or other common rituals with food, we can begin to subtly fool ourselves into believe that we can always satisfy ourselves with food. “When I eat ice cream, it will make me feel good and I will forget my troubles.” “As I keep munching on these snacks, I am making myself happy which is better than me doing nothing at all and being bored.” “I deserve pleasure from this dessert because I did didn’t get pleasure from my super healthy meal.”  When we commit those acts, especially on a repeated basis, these are the things we are saying with our body. We are allowing our stomach (pleasure) to be our god.

So what do I think of the bold question above? Maybe you’re slightly overweight, but it’s not really because you turn to eating to constantly please yourself. Or maybe you’re super fit and healthy, but go on binges of chocolate whenever you’re stressed. Or maybe you’re super fit and healthy and just have a healthy love of food. It’s not really my place to judge whether or not gluttony is an issue for you personally. But, it’s important that we not fall into the trap of using simple appearances to evaluate ourselves regarding gluttony.

So was I being gluttonous yesterday?

So given all I’ve said, was my huge consumption of bbq yesterday an act of gluttony? I hope that at the very least I’ve somewhat made you think that this type of question is one worth asking yourself occasionally. And additionally, I hope you’ll occasionally think about the habits you have with food and whether or not they exhibit gluttonous behavior.

So about that question, I sincerely don’t believe that I was eating so much simply to give pleasure to myself. I certainly wasn’t eating to escape sadness, or because I was bored, or because I thought I deserved to feel pleasure after a healthy lunch (although, side note, I did have a spinach salad that was way too healthy). These subtle things probably weren’t in play, but what about the more traditional definition of gluttony? Was I over-indulging/over-consuming? And where’s the line where a lot becomes “over.” Some questions perhaps to tackle in my next post!

The Tree of Pythagoras

How many penguins are there on the ice?
One, two, three, four, five. There are five penguins.

How many fingers are on a baby’s hand?
One, two, three, four, five. There are five fingers.

It is quite odd that, despite there being quite little in common between penguins and baby fingers, we can still proceed to count them in exactly the same manner. This is because counting is not so much about things as it is about us–about how our minds work with distinguishable volumes.

We take a mirror and observe ourselves amidst the counting process, and we find a lot of things going on! When we count, we recognize a large mass of interest, identify pieces that are similar and pieces that are different, associate a different number to each piece, and separate the unidentified mass with the mass we have previously identified.

Counting has three traits that make it very interesting. Firstly, it is a basic ability of (roughly) all human minds; secondly, it is consistent, producing the same result regardless of who is counting; and thirdly, it is intangible.

Although these are very crude distinctions, not many things satisfy the three traits simultaneously. For instance, desires, aesthetics, and opinions are intangible, and are capacities common to everyone, but they are not consistent, whereas  limbs, organs, and DNA are (roughly) consistent and common to everyone, but are not intangible. Even still, tradition, culture, and expertise are consistent and intangible, but are not common to everyone.

But to name a few other things that do (or could) share the three traits of counting are reason, justice, morality, and harmony.

A natural question to ask here then would be: is the process of counting at all more intimately related to any of reason, justice, morality, and harmony? Can we create an ideal world of justice through reason alone? Can we prove what is good and righteous with the tools of mathematics?

To begin with, the relation between counting and harmony had been known since the ancient times; its discovery is accredited to Pythagoras. Pythagoras discovered that every harmonious sound can be expressed by comparing two ways of counting, and it was striking, because well, there seems to be no immediately obvious reason for them to be related at all. Excited with this result, Pythagoras went on to establish an exclusive cult-academy of Apollo, where he preached the divinity of numbers and  taboos against beans as the ultimate truth.

One could say Pythagoras went overboard with a cult; but I would suppose he was only very optimistic that the aforementioned similarities between mathematics, harmony, justice, reason, and ethics would ultimately all point towards an essence that would unite them all. Pythagoras was just the first to carry the hopes that would later fascinate the dreams of Plato and the Enlightenment philosophers as well, of utopias governed by perfect morality and perfect faculties of reason.

Driven by the success in the theory of rational numbers, one of the things Pythagoras taught was that every existing number was in fact, rational, and was treated by his followers as a demigod with exclusive access to divine knowledge. However, his teachings turned out to be incorrect, as it did not acknowledge the existence of irrational numbers. According to folklore, Pythagoras is accused of murdering the student who approached him with the length of the diagonal of a unit square.

The Pythagoreans’ murder of this student seems to be only one of the many instances of persecution towards those with foreign knowledge, by those who defend a knowledge system already established in its place. In these instances, it seems as if there is a curious underlying connection between what the knowledge system would claim as right and what the moral system would pronounce as evil; is it natural to assume our knowledge systems capable of distinguishing even moral goods and evils as well?

But before we incriminate Pythagoras for the murder, I think we can at least first understand his desire to assume perfection and mastery, as also one that we might as well find in ourselves–to wish that every number must be one we have known very well already, to wish that everything that could be would already be something we were good at, seems a very common wish that anyone could naively hope for.

In fact, I think this desire can also be found in the story of Adam and Eve, the first created man and woman in Genesis. Adam and Eve also, I presume, knew of the same marvels of knowledge, the power of that godly point of view around which things seem to fall to complete order and harmony. They desired it so much that they were tempted to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that God had expressly forbidden them from eating. They assumed their knowledge was enough to tell them what was Good for them; but their knowledge could only foresee the forbidden fruit, as another harmless, nourishing fruit. With great excitement would they then have been tempted to believe, that the fruit would in fact, make them even more like God.

Instead, as the narrative turns out, taking the matters of Good and Evil into their hands resulted in a curse of humanity they could not have foreseen. The knowledge of Adam and Eve was not robust enough to predict the outcomes of good and evil as they had supposed. The story of Adam and Eve makes me wonder then, whether pretending our knowledge is all, that we can determine what is good by ourselves, that it would make us godly, will one day only make us realize how bare we really are, and our “perfect knowledge” compared to the light of God, or a spark of truth from an other, instead end up only creating space for fear, lies, and sin.

Reading Genesis as explaining the cause (rather than the origin) of evil, the story might be telling us that when we mistake our knowledge as godliness, it follows as a natural consequence to be banished from the lifestyle of Eden, of the joy in observing and cultivating the beautiful things of the world, wishing only the best of things to come.

I follow a Christian tradition that teaches that we are not to assume any righteousness of ourselves apart from the one given to us by grace, and that we are not to think of anybody as stupid, likening this very thought to the equivalent of murder. Though humanity has long been banished from the Garden of Eden, I think it may well be the case that we are still forbidden from writing the knowledge of Good and Evil ourselves. Rather, we are to obey what has been revealed as Good and Evil by the laws of God.

My own experiences of learning was as much a revelation of my ignorance as it has been an acquiring of knowledge; and it makes me doubt whether there can be ultimate knowledge of any kind. Even in matters of doctrine and theology, so deeply intertwined with the revelation that we hold ultimate, I think that what we know now has always been very little compared to what we have not yet known; and thus, that our growing knowledge should bring us to humility, instead of bringing others to our judgment.

In our current body of knowledge, there are two large portions of “facts” (statements considered consistent and universal) that constitute our ultimate notions of reality. One consists of historical facts, and the other consists of scientific facts. I think the reason they are so deeply trusted is because both kinds withstand the passage of time.

Historical facts withstand the passage of time by the way we understand the system of causality. Since an event cannot be influenced by any event occurring after it, a historical fact remains true for all moments after it occurs.

On the other hand, scientific facts withstand the passage of time by making average statements of time. Since we have taken the average  behavior of all time, the resulting phenomena are essentially timeless; ready to be imagined to reoccur at any arbitrary point in time, given the right preconditions. Scientific facts are produced after assuming the inductive hypothesis–that what has occurred today will occur tomorrow–which seems bizarre in the time scales of our schedules, but holds for much material behavior.

Both systems are powerful, but I think it deserves noting how the initial assumptions of the two types of facts are in fact, mutually exclusive. One assumes the fundamental particularity of every moment in time, viewing reality as consisting of events, while the other assumes the fundamental homogeneity of every moment in time, viewing reality to consist of timeless substances. Thus it is inevitable that these portions by themselves can only illuminate a portion of the reality that we believe is ultimate; what is really real, really important, really true.

As such, I think that even facts can only be as ultimate as the rational numbers had been to the Pythagoreans, and there will yet to be an infinitude of truths of faith that do not yet pertain to such facts, among the miraculous, the mysterious, and the cosmic imprints that have been revealed.

It sure must be exciting to share!

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.