Peak Complexity

I remember being a kid.  Things probably weren’t as simple as some adults seem to remember—society, even as a child, is complex.  You soon learned the important lessons: who the bullies were and how to avoid them.  Cars are dangerous, particularly if they’re moving.  God is always watching you.  Then you start school and you begin to learn things you simply didn’t understand before.  You study math and although addition and subtraction seem pretty easy, division and multiplication require some concentration.  By the time you get to high school the math has become so complex that hours of homework are required to figure it out.  I don’t know about you, but nobody explained to me what jobs you needed this for.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.

I’ve managed to get through so far with only the obligatory mathematical complexity of trying to explain certain problems to my daughter when she was in a similar situation.  Fortunately she understood how things worked better than I ever did.  The complexities, however, also come in other species.  I learned that being an adult meant constantly negotiating complexities.  That’s tricky for a guy like me because I tend to understand things by tracing them to their origins.  (There’s a reason history appeals to me.)  Social complexities often don’t allow such tracing—you need to figure out relationships and their implications and how you fit into the picture.  The same is true of jobs.  I’m sure many of you’ve had a job where the requirements change as circumstances alter.  You may have been hired to do one thing, but now you do another.

Then big life events come in with all their own complexity.  The other day I was wondering if there’s such a thing as peak complexity.  If there is, what happens when we reach it?  Do things in life simply become so intricate that society (I’m thinking here simply in human terms) implodes?  Or do we start to make things simpler again? Is there any going back?  I used to tell my students that my own grandmother was born before heavier-than-air flight.  By the time she died we’d been to the moon more than once.  Yes, rural life had its complexities, but since the industrial revolution the pace has been—what’s more than breakneck?  I know computer engineers and they tell me code is so complex that it’s actually a job to sort it out.  Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t mean you can put one together.  If we ever do reach peak complexity I have a suspicion that we won’t be able to tell, until in retrospect.  Childhood’s beginning.

Moon Base

Late last year scientists announced that a tunnel they’d found on the moon (remotely, of course) would make an ideal location for a human colony. The moon, you see, is quite cold and, lacking an atmosphere, constantly exposed to naked solar radiation. It’s a tough sell, even for first-time buyers. Still, with a little hole to crawl into, and some homey touches, this might be the future of humanity. Of course, offshore relocation has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning. Technically encumbered by the whole speed of light thing, we’re left with neighboring planets and moons that are either too hot or too cold, our species having evolved on the Goldilocks of solar system real estate. Moving to the moon might sound like a good idea right about now, but it’s going to take more than Two Guys and a Truck to get us there.

Fantasies of moving abroad come in two varieties—those of optimism and those of pessimism. Either things are going so well that we want to spread the evangel of our soaring success to the universe or things are looking so terribly Republican that even the dark side of the moon seems enlightened. There’s no question which phase we’re in at the moment. The moon is relatively close after all. It has been a fairly quiet neighbor over the millennia. We’ll want some good insulation, however, and despite the Weir version of Martians, we’ll depend on those back earth-side to send us some grub every now and again.

In ancient times the moon was frequently a goddess. Some ancient cultures pegged our satellite as masculine, but many saw her gentle light as more befitting a powerful female. Heading outside in the predawn hours with a full moon overhead is a pleasant, if chilly, reminder of just how bright our constant companion can be. Light without heat. Ancient desert-dwellers found the moon more benevolent than the sun, for night was relief from the fierce heat of day. Still, moving to the moon would meaning making a new world in our own image. Nothing, I suspect, would defile a goddess quicker. Our costly detritus already litters the once untouched face of Luna, and our size-nine-and-a-half prints are permanently left behind there. Heaven has always been that undiscovered country somewhere over our heads. The discovery of tunnels on the moon where we might snuggle down and be free may sound great. But we need to get things settled out on the ground first, otherwise our one and only satellite will merely become our next victim to exploit.

Somewhere out There

If last month’s election taught us anything it’s that nobody really knows anything. For many years now I’ve been saying that the sign of an educated person is s/he admits how little s/he knows. Socrates may have beat me to that idea, but there are still people whose intellect appears so great that we should pay attention. To my mind, such as it is, Stephen Hawking is one of those people. I don’t understand his formulas, but some of the concepts I can grasp. So when Prof. Hawking says we have approximately 1000 years before we make our planet unfit for human life, I think we should take notice. In just a decade we’ve gone from a Wall-e White House to a Dumb and Dumber one, and old mother earth is due to take a beating. Hawking, according to a story in The Washington Post, advises us to look for another planet to colonize.

 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Colonization seldom ends well. I wonder how the rest of the universe feels about us moving into the neighborhood. We dump our waste into anything pristine enough to carry it away so that people can make some of their number wealthy so that they can feel better about themselves. We can’t go one year without a war somewhere in our world and we kill one another just because we look different. We can’t even elect a president who’s smarter than any random undergraduate. Not exactly the kind of invasive species you want living next door. Any system can be gamed—capitalism most of all—and if it were up to me I’d prefer to have thoughtful neighbors. Perhaps the universe is politely saying to Dr. Hawking, “not in my backyard.”

What I find truly amazing here is that religion gave us the entitlement. Believing that the gods are like us, or that one deity made us in his white, male image, we’ve figured out this world’s ours to destroy. Just like entitled kids with too many toys. Daddy can always buy you another. So now we’re in the market for a new planet. One that’s not too hostile, but easily exploitable. A capitalist planet, but one that doesn’t mind a bit of help from former communists. You see, once we’ve figured out how to exploit another planet, there’ll be no stopping us. I have great admiration for Stephen Hawking. It’s just this time I think that we need to set our own house in order before we start inviting ourselves to somebody else’s home.

Time and Again

One score and ten years ago, I graduated from college. I also enrolled in seminary and worked in a United Methodist summer camp. I bought my own car and worked as a bag boy in a grocery store. I also met my future wife. Last night we watched Back to the Future, the sleeper hit and highest grossing film of 1985. There’s been a bit of buzz about it because, discounting the sequels, Doc Brown wants to travel thirty years into the future, yes, 2015, which seemed impossibly far off back then. I have to think his envisioned 2015 was more advanced than what we’ve actually managed. Technology, instead of sending us to Jupiter like Arthur C. Clarke imagined, has instead focused on the incredibly tiny. We now do finally have Dick Tracy wrist-phones with real-time images, but we’re still pretty much earth-bound and our rockets are aimed at other people rather than outer space. Instead of fighting aliens with lasers, we’re shooting fellow humans while at church, synagogue, or mosque. Instead of presidential candidates who want to see how far we can go, we’ve got a stagnant pool of people who want to turn the clock back to, well, 1955.


Don’t get me wrong—this is a fascinating time to be alive. Just yesterday I sat down to recollect the number of computers we’ve purchased as a family and what each could and couldn’t do. Our first couldn’t connect to the internet since no such thing existed. Our first laptop—which we still have—weights as much as a current desktop and has a black-and-white screen. Now we walk around with the internet in our pockets, never really disconnected from a web in which, I’m sure, lurks a huge spider. But back in 1985 you could make quite a few, as it turns out, false assumptions. Church attendance was healthy and would always continue so. We had space shuttles and were looking to walk on other planets. Rock had matured into a provocative mix of selfishness and social protest. Despite the president of those years, things seemed to be improving.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly returns to the same Hill Valley he left. A fictional town, I noticed last night, that had a seedy downtown square with adult themed stores and movies. The 1955 square had bullies and manure trucks, but a cleanness that was only on the surface. When Marty’s DeLorean reappears in the square in 1985, he crashes it into a Church of Christ. Although this detail had escaped me before, now it strikes me as somewhat prophetic. Thirty years into the future and, like Marty, we are backing out of the church into an age of nones. Our nones not only refer to our religiously unaffiliated, however. We have nones who’ve lost faith in our government, our economy, and our worldview. Instead of going to Jupiter, we stare at our palms. And like Doc Brown, we look back thirty years with nostalgia and wonder at how wrong we are when we believe in the status quo.


With its endless versatility, gold is many things to many people. Already at the dawn of civilization, both in the old world and the new, it was a valued commodity. It is one of the few things that conquistadors didn’t have to impose on their victims; love of gold was already there. One of the qualities of gold that makes it such a remarkable metal is that a little bit can go a long way. Gold plating, for example, can be accomplished with very thin sheets of gold. This made it ideal for decorating statues of gods in antiquity, or at least the heads of the statues, as reflected in Daniel’s dream of Nebuchadrezzar’s statue. “Thou art this head of gold,” even Daniel obsequiously crows. Today, of course, gold represents commerce and it often sits, unused, in great storehouses heavily guarded, so as to prove a nation’s worth.

Gold still has industrial uses in the book business, particularly with Bibles. A classic Bible with calfskin leather, gold letters stamped on the cover, and gilt-edged pages, can be a luxury item. The gold on the edge of Bible pages is only 1/300,000th of an inch thick, or thin, meaning that a Troy ounce goes a long, long way. Only books with an idolatrous value get this kind of treatment. And they still sell. Somehow an ebook just doesn’t compare. The irony here is that the contents of the Bible suggest that gold is of lesser value than the spiritual truths contained within. Still, we can’t help but smooth the outside with burnished gold. Show and tell it on the mountain.


Although the populace demanding evangelical standards such as the Scofield Bible are going ever more and more towards the large-print editions, the leather-and-gold crowd is still alive and has the cash to prove it. The same content is available online with just a few keystrokes, but there is no gold coating here. All that glitters is not gold, goes the old saying. As we turn our gaze ever heavenward, the glass visors of space helmets are also covered with a thin layer of gold, as if the deity we might glimpse is best viewed through gilded glasses. From the moon—humanity’s farthest step—back to the early statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, even though it may be the thinnest veneer possible, we look at the world through gold.