Part 4, The Language of Computer Science, Chapters 10- Squirrel Interrupted
By Andy Walsh
We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh. Today is Chapter 10- Squirrel Interrupted. The squirrel being referred to is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, an ongoing American comic book series published by Marvel Comics featuring Squirrel Girl. From Wikipedia: Doreen Green, known as Squirrel Girl, is a human superhero with the proportional strength and speed of a squirrel, as well as the ability to speak with squirrels, like her sidekick, Tippy-Toe. While originally introduced as a mutant, she was later retconned to be “medically and legally distinct from being a mutant.” She can also command an army of squirrels, which she typically uses to overwhelm her foes. As The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl begins, Squirrel Girl has left her home in the Avengers mansion to major in computer science at Empire State University.
She attends lectures on the fundamentals of relational databases, teaches finger binary (which allows counting to 1,023 on your fingers), and illustrates the core features of program flow control. Computer science seems an odd fit for a superhero, but the main theme of computer science is formalizing how we accomplish tasks. So the comic book uses computer science to formalize combating evil. The usual hero process is:
- Find a problem.
- Find the person causing the problem.
- Punch that person until they stop causing the problem.
Squirrel Girl’s approach to superheroics is to listen to that person to understand their underlying concern and then resolve it, or identify how they are causing a problem and circumvent it, or persuade them to pursue a different goal, or being a comic book, sometimes just punch them until they stop.
Walsh’s point is that many of us would like our lives to be planned in this way, heading toward some satisfying resolution that will make the challenges and diversions seem worthwhile. Christians generally cast God in that planning role. This creates expectations that God is doing all the heavy lifting on our behalf. It also informs how we tell the stories of events in our lives that already happened; we frame them such that the way things wound up was inevitable and intended all along.
He gives an example from his own life; he and his wife decided to move their growing family from a small starter home to a brand new house in a new development. To put a down payment on the new house it was necessary they close on the old one. That down payment initiated the construction process, meaning they had sold their current residence for a future one that wouldn’t exist for a few months. They were able to rent their old home from the new owner, but that arrangement was one month too short. So they cobbled together a plan involving storage, rental, crashing with friends and staying with his in-laws.
Then about a week and a half before the move-out date, they got word that the new house was finished ahead of schedule—a rarity indeed as anyone who has constructed a home knows. They just had to close, but the closing process usually takes a month. In their case, the closing process was completed in just two days and they were able to move directly from the old house to the new. Here is what Walsh says:
I could certainly tell this story in terms of divine Providence in which God arranges all the details so that there is a happy ending. We needed the weather to be clear so that the construction went smoothly; that’s something we might ascribe to God. Did God also orchestrate the supply chain so that all the materials were available? What about the painters and closing agents and mortgage brokers and everyone who contributed to bringing the plan together in the final weeks; was God affecting them in some way?
I could ascribe all of those outcomes to God, as they fall within common ideas of what he is capable of. And as a believer, I do feel a certain desire to frame my stories in a way that makes God look good. At the same time, I want to be careful how I do so, in order to honestly represent God and not inadvertently make him look bad. I want to consider how it looks to claim God went to all that trouble just to spare a middle class family some inconvenience in their move to nice house in the suburbs. That claim seems self-serving when so many other greater needs are apparently going unmet.
I have great sympathy for Walsh, here. There certainly was a time when I had similar notions of divine Providence and “how God works in our lives”. In fact, I had a similar experience with selling and buying a house that could have resulted in financial hardships for my youngest son, but didn’t thanks to propitious timing. And like Walsh, I have come to suspect that “evangelical narrative” is a first-world problem and just a little bit self-serving.
But still, it seems scriptures teach, and the church traditionally has had, a doctrine of divine Providence. Consider the Eastern Orthodox view, as expounded by Father Stephen Freeman:
We live in the midst of the Providence of God. That we exist, and how we exist are His Providence. Everything around us reflects the working of His goodwill towards our well-being and salvation. St. Paul describes this:
… the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9-10)
Of course, we encounter any number of difficulties and hardships, things that seem to work the opposite of our well-being and salvation. Those actions of human freedom are not considered God’s Providence. But even with these things, God’s Providential working makes our well-being and salvation possible, such that St. Paul can say, “For those who love God and are called according to His purpose, all work together for good.”
So, in every direction and every way, we encounter God’s Divine Energies, His working things together on behalf of all and for all. There is a path towards “seeing” these actions (energies): the practice of continual thanksgiving for all things. It is the giving of thanks that reveals to the heart the hidden work of God. It is a practice that silences the passions and, as an expression of our human energies, unites us with the very Providence for which we give thanks.
So, trust in Divine providence is a form of self-emptying on the part of the believer. As Fr. Freeman says it’s a cruciform providence. Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38) This is a clear declaration of His self-emptying and abasement, a kenotic action that is consummated on the Cross.
Walsh thinks that a better analogy for God’s Providence is the computer science process of “just-in-time-compiling”. From Wikipedia:
In computing, just-in-time (JIT) compilation (also dynamic translation or run-time compilations) is a way of executing computer code that involves compilation during execution of a program – at run time – rather than prior to execution. Most often, this consists of source code or more commonly bytecode translation to machine code, which is then executed directly. A system implementing a JIT compiler typically continuously analyses the code being executed and identifies parts of the code where the speedup gained from compilation or recompilation would outweigh the overhead of compiling that code.
JIT compilation is a combination of the two traditional approaches to translation to machine code – ahead-of-time compilation (AOT), and interpretation – and combines some advantages and drawbacks of both. Roughly, JIT compilation combines the speed of compiled code with the flexibility of interpretation, with the overhead of an interpreter and the additional overhead of compiling (not just interpreting). JIT compilation is a form of dynamic compilation, and allows adaptive optimization such as dynamic recompilation and microarchitecture-specific speedups – thus, in theory, JIT compilation can yield faster execution than static compilation. Interpretation and JIT compilation are particularly suited for dynamic programming languages, as the runtime system can handle late-bound data types and enforce security guarantees.
Walsh says that the Bible portrays God as a just-in-time God, and that there are several places in the Bible that discourages getting too far ahead of yourself. For example, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, they did not have access to a reliable food source. So God provided manna, but they were forbidden from storing it up. They had to trust God’s provision from day-to-day. In 1 Kings 17 there is the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow running low on food because of a drought. Because she gave of her limited resource to Elijah, the oil and flour didn’t run out until the drought ended. Walsh says this is an example of provision coming no sooner that it is needed, and also of someone who had a choice between looking out for themselves and trusting their own needs would be taken care of if they provided for someone else’s.
Then there is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:25-26, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Walsh says, and I agree, that we are discouraged, not from planning ahead, but from worrying ahead. And the main reason for that is because worrying is indicative of becoming too absorbed in yourself (which is definitely a first-world problem). You are only thinking of your own concerns and focusing on how you yourself are going to resolve them.
A cruciform providence, I can get on board with that.