Friday, May 15, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

There’s this image from Scripture about seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, the idea is that we can’t see clearly – it’s like there are shadows and distortions and smudges that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. It’s an image that has always frustrated me, because I love to think things through and put things together to gain a deeper and clearer understanding. And it’s like, no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to really get it. So, it’s frustrating, but there are moments when it’s also liberating.

I just watched an episode of Numb3rs – it’s a show about two brothers. One brother – Don - is an FBI agent and the other – Charlie - is a brilliant mathematician. Charlie is always getting involved, helping the FBI solve cases by applying mathematical models to the investigation. In the episode I just watched, Charlie has convinced Don that he can actually anticipate the next drug to hit the streets and can manipulate the market by “dirtying the brand”. The idea is that by buying up the limited early supply, the market will respond by increasing the price and actually cutting the quality in an effort to meet demand.

Charlie’s actually so confident that his plan will work that he is giddy with success. Ah, but wait! He hadn't figured on the intelligence of one of the bad guys to also anticipate the effect on the drug market if the brand became "dirtied" by high cost and low quality. So - being unscrupulous, he foiled Charlie's plan by murdering a couple other bad guys and seizing their drug supply.

Anyway, the point is that the model - which looked good on paper - failed to take into account ALL of the variables. The result was near disaster for one of the FBI agents, but also a reminder to me - to us - that no matter how smart or clever we are, we need to be careful of arrogance. Life is wonderfully complicated!

Actually, it reminds me of a workshop my husband and I went to many years ago (about 23!) at Memorial Univeristy in Newfoundland. It was a workshop about fisheries and some economists presented a model to explain why a certain course of action should be followed in the Newfoundland groundfish fishery. As we listened, my husband - himself a commercial fisherman with an astute grasp of the complexity of life in general and of fishing in particular - noticed that the economic model seemed to be missing something. More specifically, it didn't take into account the fact that fishermen often are involved in fisheries for more than one species. When he raised the issue, the economists dismissed his concern, noting that the "model" couldn't allow for that. Bottom line was this: they were presenting information and suggesting strategies based on information they knew was inaccurate and incomplete. And yet the model looked very persuasive - scientific, rational, sophisticated. I think it fooled them and they forgot that, in all areas of human endeavour, we look through a glass darkly.

Some people may find that discouraging or disconcerting. But I love it. I love the fact that God is smarter than we are and he puts understanding just beyond our reach. I embrace the mystery and accept - sometimes a bit grudgingly - my limitations. For me, that helps me to "walk humbly" with God...

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