Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Humility

Tuesdays in the Chapel
September 9, 2014
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Reading:  from Counting to God by Douglass Ell
This book is about a largely unnoticed consensus between the mystic and the scientist. It is about both asking us to look in the same direction, toward a glimpse of a greater reality. It is about wondrous connections among the concepts of number, universe, and God. By observing the universe, through number, we detect evidence of the existence of God.
The riddle of existence is as old as the human race. Why does the universe exist? Is what we see and detect all there is, or is there some type of greater reality, of greater truth? Why do we exist? Can we believe we were put here for a purpose, and if so, what is it?
These are “great questions.” There are many questions in our lives, many uncertainties, many doubts. The great questions are in a class by themselves, deeper than all others. Like shadows in the deep, the great questions wait beneath the surface of our lives. When things are well in our lives, when the waters are smooth, it is easy to forget the great questions. But when the waters are rough and the waves threaten to overcome out little boats, the great questions often rise to the surface of our thoughts. We may not say them out loud; we may not even phrase the words. We may be in pain, in danger, alone, or simply confused, and just ask “Why?” or “What now?” When we are in trouble, under stress, when events shake us out of our complacent lives, we have a heightened awareness of the riddle of existence. We are more likely to ask the great questions. We are more likely to step out of our daily patterns and more likely to ask why.
Although ancient, the great questions are more relevant, and more important, today than ever before. They are also deeply personal. How you live your life could depend, perhaps to a great extent, on your personal answers to the great questions. Some devote their lives to a calling they believe comes from God; others mock believers and follow no moral code. Still others invent their own moral code but doubt divine intervention or design.
The good news of this book—the good news of the third millennium—is that modern science strongly supports both belief in a greater reality and belief that both our universe and life itself were designed.

Thank you for being here  today as we begin our year of gathering. Our theme this year is a challenge to think of the one notion, trait or quality that is most important to how you order your life. Living as we do with at least one foot in the university where the search for truth is primary, I have come to believe that the single most important characteristic or quality we must cultivate in that search is humility.

Now some will respond that for me that will be easy. I expect that. It is not an inappropriate response and a good excuse to  avoid the task lest embarrassment follow, but the quest for understanding of the world we live in is a life long endeavor and it is important that we keep looking even we are convinced that we know it all. I have a standing rule that when it seems to me that I have seen it all it is likely that within a very short time something will happen to remind me that I have not.

Let me illustrate with the words of a recent book review that appeared in the magazine The Living Bird. Stephen J. Bodio reviewing a book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin writes:

Do not skip the preface, where the authors tell us why they have organized the book as they have, about the importance in human history of understanding science, and- a wonderful phrase I have never seen before- that science consists of not “the truth” but “the truth for now.”

Usually when I am confronted with something I have not run into it is behavioral, a student does something that surprises me. What we have here is a reference to a bit of humility that seems to me to set a new bar for recognizing the complexity of our quest for knowledge. The author has reminded us that there is more to know. The Apostle Paul, the most confident of Christian writers creating the New Testament had said something similar in the passage of scripture read out of context in 2/3rds of Christian weddings:  1 Corinthians 13: 12 “At present we only see puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole…”  We are comfortable hearing such words when applied to family matters such as marriage, less so when applied to our research in classroom and laboratory. Our reaction does not make them less true.

That is why I found Douglas Ell’s Counting to God: a Personal Journey to Belief helpful. Ell is a graduate of this institution and he recounts a journey that many will find worth attention. He was recently on campus invited by the Physics Department to share his journey. The book is worth a glance. He may claim too much but his sense of order in the chaos of creation and life is worth our attention.

So too the wisdom of Owen Gingerich our good friend from Harvard. I tend to shy away from those who speak loudly in capital letters. Gingerich is modest to a fault. Peter Gomes described him as “armed with often disarming understatement where others frequently hurl absolutes.”  He noted that Gingerich often quoted Einstein and reminded us that emulating Einstein was not a bad move for a scientist.
Einstein once wrote “The sense experiences are the given subject matter (of science). But the theory that shall interpret them is man-made…never completely final, always subject to question and doubt.”

There is much I do not understand in the world around us and the pace of this place still takes my breath away. I often feel on the edge of chaos and I confess that I do not understand how good people find themselves suffering terrible difficulties without seeming hope of surmounting them. Illness comes suddenly; freak accidents leave the vibrant redefining their lives. Some give up. The provision of freedom in an orderly world seems to demand the vagaries of chance that leave us gasping in horror at the results of actions taken in despair. I often cry out in anger: why?

Yet I also react to those who know too much and speak so loudly.
Hooded thugs who send messages to America remind us that evil hides
everywhere, but I still perceive an order and care for creation as I look out my real and figurative windows on the world. It is a foundational notion that helps me keep going when things are difficult and as the burdens of age and experience weigh even more heavily, I find it even more helpful.  In an environment like MIT it allows me to maintain the balance necessary to do good work.  We do not know it all and we need not claim we do in loud words that mask uncertainty, but we know some things and experience a comforting order. I am grateful.

Let me close with these words from Mary Oliver:

When we’re driving, in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown…
I imagine us rising
from the speeding car,
I imagine us seeing
everything from another place…
and what we see is the world
that cannot cherish us
but which we cherish,
and what we see is our life
moving like that,
along the dark edges
of everything—the headlights
like lanterns
sweeping the blackness-
believing in a thousand
fragile and unprovable things,
looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns…
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.


COMING HOME  in Dream Work (1986)

Reading: from God’s Universe by Owen Gingerich
If we regard God’s world as a site of purpose and intention and accept that we, as contemplative surveyors of the universe, are included in that intention, then the vision is incomplete without a role for divine communication, a place for God both as Creator-Sustainer and as Redeemer, a powerful transcendence that not only can be asomething but take on the mask of someone; a which that can connect with us as a who, in a profound I-Thou relation. Such communication will be best expressed through personal relationships, through wise voices and prophets in many times and places. The divine communication will carry a moral dimension, only dimly perceived in the grandeur of creation, yet present through the self-limitation of the Creator who has given both natural laws and freedom within its structure. Here, implications for human morality are discernible, for this view implies a kenotic or self-renunciatory ethic that is at odds with the “survival of the fittest” of evolutionary theory. As Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Chief Jim

JIM OLIVIERI
 Paul Lagace, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
September 12, 2014
            We come together today to recall and pay tribute to a person who touched our lives in many different ways and yet in some common ways.  In our recollection and sharing of these thoughts, we bring forward the meaning of this person to each of us and to our community.  I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts of the person who I came to know as “Chief Jim”.
            In order to properly relay these thoughts, I need to paint a somewhat different picture of the person speaking here with you today……  I arrived at MIT from Maine as a freshman 40 years ago this fall.  I soon discovered that I had much to learn, and to this day don’t believe I will ever stop learning here.  Yet at the same time, I found that there were a diversity of very willing and quite capable teachers here.  They were, of course, in the classrooms, they were in the dorms – housemasters, resident “tutors”, and upperclassmen, they worked as cooks and staff in the dorm dining hall I worked in.  And as I spent more time at MIT, I met and learned so very much from the array of teachers.  However, there was one person with whom my first meeting I did not look forward to in any way and was not thinking of finding a teacher when I walked into that office on the second floor in the front of DuPont that morning of my sophomore year.
            I will leave the details aside (they may still be in CP records), but let’s just say that I involved myself in a number of other ways of discovering new things as many of our students have and continue to do.  So that day I was called in to meet with the Chief of Police.  As I sat in the waiting area, I had no idea what to expect, but I certainly did not imagine what would transpire.  When I walked in and was greeted and asked to sit and the door was closed behind me, the tension only mounted.  But then it was suddenly relieved as the person who sat across from me began asking me questions about who I was as a person, where I was from, and similar items.  Leaving aside the specifics of the conversation, I still won’t leave aside that there was a rather stern message that was delivered.  It was made quite clear where one crosses a line and makes a mistake.  Yet, the message was delivered with such a personal concern, that I never looked at it as being disciplined, but only as being properly taught.  Yes, I had found another important teacher, and not in an office that I had expected to find one.
            That was, by no means, my only interaction with Chief Jim, but those interactions did change in time as to their purpose and to some extent our roles.  There were interactions to enable social gatherings, and to work to address those various items that arise in a community such as ours.  Throughout those efforts, whether directly with Chief Jim or with those working with him, there was always a clear dedication to the MIT community – allowing it to grow and explore and be itself, yet always working to assure its safety, and in caring for all those individuals who together were the community.
            As I found myself growing in who I was and in my roles here, I was also so fortunate to be able to look on this person as a colleague.  Yet although those interactions had a very different root with different defined roles, in some other ways, those roles never did change.  He was always so willing to be the teacher and to help and to guide.  And he always showed that personal concern for you whenever there was that interaction, whatever that might be.  And those characteristics served our community so very well as Chief Jim helped to teach our evolving community so much during his years as Chief here.  While there was always the need to draw lines of yes and no and work to achieve the base task, these were always worked with a concern for the individual and a concern for the community.  Those basic values lay much of the foundation that one sees in our MIT Police Force today.  There have been changes as society and the associated needs have demanded, yet I believe it is in those changes where the basic values still shine through.
            Even to this day, in dealing with members of our Police, I still sometimes see that certain smile coming from that office on the second floor of DuPont.  And with that I hope you will join me today in returning that smile to someone who contributed so much to each and to all, and in that, simply saying:  “Thank you, Chief Jim……”


Friday, September 5, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson, MO and what it means!

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
August 29, 2014



Today as tempers have cooled, as fears of Armageddon have faded, it is hard not to step back and think everything will be ok. There remains the desire to be really angry, but few of us can carry our anger for long periods without it eating away at our integrity.  The overly optimistic had proclaimed a post-racial era when we elected our first black President. There are those who claim they have reached a state of color blindness. And then there those who understand what Samuel Taylor Coleridge meant when he wrote:

“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.”

I think there are some things we can learn from history so long as we recognize that party and passion do blind us. Today as we gather the lantern light is cast on the life and death of Michael Brown. That is what has brought us here to think of Ferguson, MO a community that most of us had never heard of before the death of Michael. But the lantern may as well cast light on the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida who was  17 years old. Or we might remember Jason Moore in 2011 also from Ferguson who was older but died as well in police custody.

The lantern on the stern of our collective boat may also cast light on events in New York when a  bachelor party led to the death of a groom to be in a hail of gunfire by police responding to a report of a non-existent gun. The lantern casts light on the police in Albuquerque and the light reaches back to Mobile, Alabama in 1981 when Michael McDonald was picked up at random on a street by three men who were angered by the fact that a black man had been acquitted of a murder charge and wondered if they killed a black man would they be acquitted. They were not. The lantern casts light back to 1946 to the deaths of two black couples at the hands of a mob-the last recognized lynching in the United States. Three of the victims were members of the same family; all were in their 20s. We know the pattern has remained the same and only the designation has changed.

It is a pattern that calls us here today; it is a pattern that tells us that for more than 400 hundred years to be black in the west has meant to live in danger when you move beyond constrained boundaries—beyond family, communities and even then you are not safe. The black neighborhoods of Tulsa were bombed from airplanes. The name Rosewood comes to mind and the story is the same: destruction meted out because of racial hatred and fear.

The lantern casts light over the past to reveal that the disparities of wealth are a constant. To be poor is dangerous to your health. And when we see the realities of poverty laying burdens on generations now unborn we know this is not simply a problem for our day, but for years to come. We recognize that forces are being unleashed that turn poor people—black, white, brown—against the interests of the other. And the other shifts shape to become whatever can be defined as a threat.

The lantern reveals that too often the power of law enforcement is the
power that we give to those who protect us. When we are afraid we look the other way and allow people just like us to exercise power we have given them. We are surprised when the power is misused because we have forgotten the notion of accountability.  ” Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” has been forgotten in our desire to be protected from the evils that abound in our world. We cannot live with ambiguity and turn to the unambiguous acts of violence unleashed by the use of weaponry better suited to the battlefield. And we wonder why we do not feel safe.

When you are afraid of the other-however defined- and you place your trust in weapons the lanterns arcing light over the past reminds us of how inhumane humankind can be. So we are here today asking where to begin. We want to understand and we want to act. Where to begin?

Let me suggest a few things to keep in mind.

First, the notion of a post-racial society is a notion that is false and unattainable. We are to value one another with all of our differences. Here our religious traditions give us guidance. Human kind is shaped in the image of the divine and is to be valued as such. Here at MIT we talk
about the values of family, the worth of one another and that is the kind of tapestry of meaning we can aspire to see. A tapestry has a pattern visible on one side and on the other are the broken knots of good intentions gone unrealized, of projects that did not work, but still we work to make the pattern clear, the picture inclusive.

Secondly, at the same time we acknowledge our differences we need to recognize the benefits of privilege. To be white and tall and of loud voice has its benefits! To be blond and slight of modest voice also has its benefits!  Privilege plays out in many ways to benefit those of us of common ancestry –male and female. When privilege comes responsibility and that means we adopt an ethic of care for the other.

Third, we must acknowledge and understand the role of poverty in the issues we raise today. To be dropped into the maw of hopelessness and then told to pull yourself out of the abyss is a thoughtless exercise of privilege. We celebrate Horatio Alger, but do not account for the countless nameless casualties unremembered in our celebrations.

Finally, we are technocrats who solve problems and our solution at hand is education, but education that only advances the individual is not enough. We flirt with elitism unless we recognize that a 22 year old graduate of MIT who is black is still at risk when he or she walks down the middle of the street in the Fergusons of our nation.

If we leave here today with nothing else let us leave with a commitment to widening our friendship circles so that we maintain a commitment to
empathy for who are different than we are. Cultivate friendships that push you to see the world through other eyes. If you are not intentional about doing that your world will always remain defined by folk like you. Homeboys are important but being captured by a clique is still to be a prisoner. We can do better than that.

When I was younger I thought we would have solved all these problems by now. That we have not is terribly disturbing and yet experience tells me I should not be surprised. Human kind is flawed. We hear that in different ways and see it often. We care for me and mine and lose perspective on and empathy for the other. And there are those who tell us that is OK. I am here this afternoon to tell you that that is not OK.  Ferguson tells us it is not OK and that is what this afternoon is all about.

This is important work.  May we be guided today by powers that are greater than we are.



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Community

Tuesdays at the Chapel
3/11/14
Tim Hawkins

Community

Reading:

from JohnForeman.com, Data Privacy, Machine Learning, and the Destruction of Mysterious Humanity


"How should we respond to this distillation of human motivation into predictable models where mystery is replaced with math?

Well, one response would be to go along with it. There is no doubt that these models can make us happier. They’ll be able to place in front of us products and services that purport to match our needs. Or as the AI in Minority Report puts it, “Welcome back to the Gap Mr. Yakamoto! How did those assorted tank tops work out for you?”

But while happiness might increase, there can be no doubt that the meaning of our lives will decrease. As understanding of each person increases, as we all become predictable systems, our individual meaning and worth takes a hit.

The famous neurologist Viktor Frankl once said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

But in the face of sophisticated modeling and targeting the question is raised: in the future will we know our own mind enough to choose our attitudes? Or will the disingenuous arguments directed at us be so powerful that it will become impossible to know our own mind?

To Frankl, “A human being is a deciding being,” but if our decisions can be hacked by corporations then we have to admit that perhaps we cease to be human as we’ve known it. Instead of being unique or special, we all become predictable and expected, nothing but products of previous measured actions."


John Foreman, the author of the blog excerpt for the first reading and the recently released book called Data Smart, is the Chief Data Scientist for Mailchimp and more importantly a 2008 MIT graduate in Applied Mathmatics graduate program.

I met John before I became I began spending time with students at MIT.  John sized me up quickly when I asked what he studied:  “Math” was his reply to my naieve question, “So, what do you study at MIT.”  While factually correct, the answer was more of a way to end the conversation before I became more confused.

I spent a lot of hours peppering John with questions about algorithms.  Not really…I spent a lot of hours trying to understand how John thought about algorithms and how he was forming them to solve problems of waste in production of Sunkist orange drink…or whatever his current project.

We spent time each week over dinner, Bible study and cheap wine pushing through assumptions and questions about faith, what we believed about Jesus and how what we believed impacted things like algorithms.

John and his wife Lydia now live in the home of Mailchimp headquarters in Atlanta, GA.  Fortunately, because of my work on another board, I get to spend a fair amount of time in Atlanta each year and with John, Lydia and their three boys.


Shortly after meeting John, I met Craig, one of the first Fellows of the Legatum Center…an Sloan entrepreneur.  Craig is a passionate about free-markets, the challenge of distribution in developing countries and social enterprise.  A strong libertarian, our views on politics could not have been more at odds. 

He gives my kids copies of books about the history of money and global politics, and spends hours playing a board game with them called Acquire.  We spend days together skiing or at the beach with he and his wife, all while he makes fun of my hope for change during the election and presidency of President Obama.

I could tell you about Geoff, an Aerospace graduate student who was the first graduate student I met who enjoyed sports more than learning.

Geoff was an evangelical Christian, and one of his best friends a committed agnostic.  To Geoff I was not evangelical enough and to his roommate I was too much.

I could tell you more about Kyle, Christina, David, Kwasi Lisa and Michael.

Or the Thanksgiving when we hosted 24 graduate students from MIT from 9 different countries in our tiny, tiny 2nd floor Somerville apartment.


For years, a rotating group of these committed, thoughtful, intelligent people sat with us at our home.  Eating a home-cooked meal, drinking the best wine we could possibly afford on a graduate student and/or pastors budget (which is not really good wine at all I suppose!).  They took interest in our kids, invited us to be a part of their lives and thoughtfully engaged conversations about Jesus and the Kingdom of God (even if they were uncertain about their own belief).

I’m certain that my experience is not unique to those of us in this room.

And, as I reflected on a book or an individual that has changed/impacted my life, to share with you this morning, it gave me time to reflect not an individual or a book that I would identify this morning that has changed me or shaped me in a significant way, but this community, the MIT community.

And I hope that does not sound trite or pandering.

While those who have called MIT home or an alma mater might at times take the MIT community for granted (though I rarely if every have heard anyone say this), it is this revolving door of inspired world-changers that continue to challenge and inspire me.


Last week my conversations ranged from the ethics of free-market, to the current advancement/challenges of robotics, a short lesson on 3-D printing at which time I was shone an engagement ring designed and printed by a young man who will propose soon, to the Biblical view of suffering and natural disasters, the everyday life of a grandmother living in poverty in Venezuela, and origins and reliability of sacred texts. 


And my connection to the MIT community is relatively small.

The reading that you heard from John Foreman, and the reading you will hear after from Sherry Turkle, are readings from the MIT community.  They, along with others, are continuing to raise the questions about our understanding and assumptions regarding humanity and the nature of self, about our collective understanding of community.  About the difference between being connected and being cared for, about the difference between mechanized response and genuine empathy and if the difference matters, will matter or should matter.

Because these chapel reflections are self-reflections, I am not attempting to give either a philosophical position or a biologically determined defense our understanding of self.

Only that the shared food, shared, laughter, shared caring, shared stories, shared arguments, shared wine, shared differences and shared needs I have experienced are somehow life-giving and seem worth protecting and fostering.

As a pastor, I have heard probably every complaint in the book there is to hear about church.  And most of them have probably come from me.

But, the church at its best…


The community that, “[was] together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people.


from Sherry Turkle's Alone Together

"Ours has been called a culture of narcissism. The label is apt but can be misleading. It reads colloquially as selfishness and self-absorption. But these images do not capture the anxiety behind our search for mirrors. We are insecure in our understanding of ourselves, and this insecurity breeds a new preoccupation with the question of who we are. We search for ways to see ourselves. The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object."