Updated: Apr 11
A Testimony of Faith from a Recovering Engineer
"Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion. . . To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits." - GK Chesterton
It’s been close to seven years since I came across these lines by Chesterton. It’s been almost two hours since, once again, I reflect on how powerfully they capture the experience of someone who’s never been a poet, but has blindly given himself to inquiring about the Supreme Being witnessed in the Judeo-Christian faith traditions.
As a logician by nature, my head has split; painfully, yes, but necessarily so. Mental exhaustion is an understatement of what one goes through trying to put the heavens and their Source into one’s head. As an industrial engineer, son of a civil engineer who is himself son of another civil engineer, coming to grips with the God testified to by the biblical authors has been like asking an elephant to play a violin.
Although I’m clearly not the type of fellow who could write as cunningly as Chesterton, below is a fraction of my journey from being an innate rationalist towards attempting to live as poets do.
From Engineering to History
In a nutshell, that has been the broadest leap. I was trained to solve problems: obtain information, know what set of procedures to apply, throw in the data, and done. Crystal clear: quod erat demonstrandum ― or, in mathematical jargon, ‘QED’. One concrete, stable, specific solution. If errors are to be allowed, they are only granted for the sake of practicality: sampling a population is always cheaper and more efficient than doing a census.
And yet the confidence remains: ‘the facts’ always speak for themselves. In my discipline, most answers are black or white: a hydrogen atom is the same today as it was seconds after the Big-Bang, and falling objects on earth have always fallen, and will always fall, at an increasing rate of 9.8 meters per second.
Engineering knows little of human intention. There is no need for interpretation. Contextualization is unspoken of. Worldviews do not matter. For all the complexity of a chemical equation, or a multi-variable, third level integer, the mind can be stretched to eventually fully grasp any sort of fixed concept. I was thus perplexed when realizing that the way in which the Israelites lived and thought in the time of Moses was a world apart from the beliefs and practices in 1st century Palestine where the events of the New Testament took place.
But how could that be if the Bible was supposedly a book about eternal, unchanging truths? (Or, is it?)
From Formulas to Metaphors
Computer language is always obedient to the same instructions and it never changes its output. Equations and diagrams are all neat and orderly. They don’t account for personal problems, ambitions, or the half-hearted motivations that come with being human. Squared boxes, connecting arrows, and ordered bullet points are the daily bread of an engineer. Structure is everything. Mathematics and natural sciences are our common language.
Still, what or who is to be equated with the Living Source of the cosmos? What equals human nature? And what is to be made of a full-blooded drama that revolves around a Roman cross ― the worst instrument of shame and damnation of the ancient world’s most powerful empire? In my first years of following after the Christ, I was taught that to find ‘the answer’ I had to go and look for the definition of, say, ‘love’ in a 20th century Oxford Dictionary and then uphold such definition as the one clear and concrete counterpart in the equation. Question settled.
Metaphors had no place in my formulas and little room in my engineering mind. They were fuzzy, and admitted no bounds. I thought them to be merely irrational, lower truths. Stories, similarly, were for children. From my squared Cartesian vantage point, only rational argumentation could lead one into real spiritual certainties. If it was to make any sense, the Christian gospel had to be able to be explained in scientific terms. Analytical lenses used at arms’ length were always my modus operandi. I employed, as someone once hinted, a ‘Test-tube’ epistemology ― a very safe place to be, where I was the sober ‘observer’, even as ‘God’ was the ‘object’ scrutinized under my all-powerful microscope. (Some call this modern attitude ‘scientific materialism’; but perhaps it’s plain arrogance and sheer prejudice.)
From Laboratories to Endless Oceans
To complicate things further, some of the mentors who brought me to faith were rather box-minded as I was. One was an economist; the other, an engineer ― of the civil sort. That often led to talks and sermons entitled ‘The Five Steps for Having a Relationship with God’.
In hope of a more nuanced approach, I eventually fled to a more artistic Vineyard church. But after asking my new MBA pastor about his favorite book, he quickly pointed to an intimidating, thick volume on his shelf: Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.
For all their worth, some of my early inroads into Christianity made me believe that the divine plan could be dissected and pinned down as securely as a bug in a laboratory. In a way or another, so argued the greater doctors of the faith: Cutting my teeth with Thomas Aquinas’ summary of this Summa Theologica as my first read on theology did not help much. Neither did C.S. Lewis’ mind-leaning, almost neo-platonist account on Mere Christianity, for all its charm and wit.
To be sure, one of my later mentors brought me to the recognition that these and all other theological frameworks were like rowing boats: fragile, tentative, revisable; made for the purpose of exploring the infinite ocean. Still, the engineer in me has tended to avoid the messiness and fuzziness that comes with people ― hardly aware of my own. Human fragility and unpredictability had little room in the tidiness of my once-and-for-all equations. Rather presumptuously, at one point I did my best to shrink the story of the Bible into a one page diagram. At least I was honest. But my quest for understanding the world, Jesus, and life in all its fullness failed to come to terms with the realization that equations and diagrams were not only not big enough, but inadequate for the task.
“Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this mindset of death?”
Living through Poetry
For all that I’ve grown used to hanging out with Mr. Logic and Mrs. Formula, in my journey from engineering to history, sociology, etymology, anthropology ― and all the other “ologies” that come with the human experience ― one has to admit that befriending Mr. Interpretation and Miss semi-Ambiguity has been a worthwhile adventure. Not only do they exemplify the risky, but rewarding adventure of living the life of a poet. Most importantly, they make one realize that the task is to be undertaken looking up, like a child stares a parent: down from the earth and up to heaven, in awe, in expectation. One is to be surprised by hope and struck by wonder. And one should always remember that a snob like Nietzsche ended up in the cold abandonment of an asylum, but a dreamer like Disney is still smiling, frozen in time until his wonderful world comes true.
“In hope we were saved.”
In times past I had vaguely understood that God could not be reduced to human comprehension. But what my ears had only heard, my eyes came to dimly see. The Living Source and untamable God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is no object to be studied but a person to be known and followed. And loved. And if logic is to have a small part to play in the game, one is always to be mindful that reverence and trust are the ultimate hallmarks.
Come the time, my diagrams and boxes and formulas begun to break down. My narrow mind became a fractured clay pot whose pieces have slowly begun to fall, crushing to the ground ― a hatching egg whose inner Being has a life too vast to be kept captive. After relentlessly trying to shove in its own agenda, my engineering mindset could not bear the weight of realizing that the divine glory is the heaviest element in the universe.
It was walking home on a rainy afternoon when this realization suddenly found me. After years of helplessness and frustration, I was awakened to a strange new confidence. In a blinking of an eye, I got my mind around the fact that I was never going to be able to put my mind around God. Having done my honest and very best to grasp the universe and all its mysteries with my hand, in that moment I realized that life was about being sustained in the hand of the One who spoke the universe into existence.
So looking back ― whether from dancers, or engineers, logicians, or poets ― one thing I find: countless footprints. And they show how my stumbling journey has merged with one traveled for centuries by men and women of foolish faith. No doubt some have walked it staring down, figuring out what step to take next. But others have joined in like children, striding around taking hold of their Parent’s hand. Instead of the dull road, they stare at the birds on the trees, at the stars in the skies, at the mighty palace at the top of the hill towards which they’re heading.
This latter alternative has proven to be most rewarding, for the logician in me has found that life can have an altogether new dimension when one follows the steps of the poets. And in doing so, fellow pilgrim, allow me to share away this finding with you ― for words like Chesterton’s have ample space for all of us to write between his lines and to expand ourselves into a universe that’s not of our own making.
Edwardo Sasso is the co-founder of Earthkeepers and the author of A Climate of Desire - a book reconsidering the original roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change