The Russian Winter


Minard grafficDear Russell & Friends,

A short post on a long book?  The graphic by Minard above is hanging in my study.  I first saw it in consultation with our hospital’s statistician.  He described it as the best information graphic ever.  I purchased the inexpensive print in an Edward Tufte conference on the graphical display of information that my oldest and I attended together 5 years ago.  Hobby Lobby did the rest.

The graphic depicts Napoleon’s march to and retreat from Moscow in the War of 1812.  And that was the extent of my knowledge until reading Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace.  Like a visit to Israel, reading and reflecting on this book takes time.  Tolstoy has fascinated me since I read that his apologetic influenced but did not convince Gandhi.  I took Oprah’s advice to read Anna Karenina and found my favorite opening line ever, an explanation for my upbringing, and a hope for my children and grandchildren:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Like so many of you, my history and future is an amalgam of the clauses of this brilliant sentence.  I found that Anna Karenina was a profound portrait of humanity and I found in Levin a man I could admire and even emulate in his pursuit of authentic faith.  So, when the the itch to read War & Peace arose, I was ready to scratch.  I listened to the story from Audible, just less than 1 hour a day with occasional splurges on the way to the airport.  It took a quarter of a year.

And here I am – – done.  I wrote the topics that Tolstoy approached in my journal and I’d like to share them here soon.  It is astonishing.  Calculus, astronomy, medicine, literature, theology, history, philosophy and so much more.  The characters, at least 20 major, became friends or even worthy opponents.  And here I am – – done.  As the Texas Winter begins I can’t help but feel let down.  Finishing an amazing book leaves me wistful.  Will my life ever be apportioned with the time and knowledge to write like that, even read like that in more than borrowed minutes?

Consider this an introduction if you will.  I missed you in the blog and hoped that writing about reading would help get me off dead center.  May I ask?

  • Do you enjoy long books?
  • Do you feel a let down when they are done?
  • Have you read Tolstoy?
  • What were you surprised to learn in War & Peace?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  Charles Joseph Minard’s work, hanging in my study

Love & Friendship


Dear Russell and Friends,

I’m back a week now and so happy to be so.  The cobwebs of jetlag are clearing.  I’m so appreciative of Russell’s Paean to a Peon in the last post.  I thought I would add my perspective.  When will I speak of the impact of visiting Israel?  Not for some time.  There is so much to digest before I’m ready to synthesize and share.

Last night we drove the 1.5 hours needed to pick up our oldest son at his dorm and take him out to dinner with his brothers.  We met two friends of his from high school out on a dinner date and discreetly enquired as to their social status.  He said they said they were friends.  They looked happy, compatible and able to enjoy each others company.  P1 said it with a twinkle in his eye.  “Yeah – – we’ve tried to tell them there’s more to it.”

Perhaps our young friends are discovering what the older crowd knows.  ‘Just friends’ is a middle school perspective.  Friendship lasts when passion fades.  What then is the difference between love and friendship and how does it relate to my friend Russell and me?

Love is a decision.  For a follower of Christ it is a command.  Love God.  Love others.  It has a description:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  1 Corinthians 13: 4-7

It is hard.  At least for me.  Despite Russell’s insistence, I’m not kind by nature.  I actually enjoy sarcasm and that can be quite rude.  I am irritable and prone to resentment.  I don’t bear all things, don’t hope in all things.  Don’t endure.  Love is hard.  But to love and be loved brooks no description.  It is air and you only notice it when it isn’t there. Loving Russell was a choice.  I loved him because God loved him and I honestly admired him for the way he served his wife and daughters and cared deeply about the effects of his deconversion for them.

So, what is friendship?  I’m not sure that it is as much a decision.  It is actually harder to build than love in my opinion.  Friendship is aided by such things as common interests and disinterests.  Much of what Russell and I enjoy is spawned from the common interest of science.  Do our interests diverge?  Of course. Even in science my competency tends towards psychology & biology and his towards physics, math, engineering, computer science, formal logic … (you get the idea).

Friendship requires – – time.  I used to say that time was the currency of love.  That is true as far as it goes, but it is likely more true of friendship.  I can love someone out of respect for God and his commands or out of respect for a fellow human and her intrinsic worth as a co-member of the race.  I need not know her to treat her with love.  I only need the work of:  patience, kindness, humility, pliability, and selflessness. Only that.  Easy, right?  But friendship takes time.

So what if you start with friendship?  That is what happened with my wife.  We talked, walked, listened, wrote letters and realized that we enjoyed each other’s company.  We were teens and next enjoyed each other’s embrace then married and enjoyed sharing more and more of life.  But we were friends.  Still are. In marital love, friendship is an antibody to despair and divorce.

Russell and I inverted the process – – we started with a brotherly love.  The friendship has been building.

I’m curious as to the advice you might give another – – friendship, love, both?  How does it work for you?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  By Pictofigo (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Arguing with Ayn


Dear Russell and Friends,

There she is.  Demure smile, confident pose, piercing eyes & cigarette in hand.  She created the best book title ever – – Atlas Shrugged – – a title that compelled me to read.  Her first name rhymes with wine.  She is worth arguing with.  We could not disagree more on so many fundamental things.  And yet.

Ayn Rand is one of the best, smartest, most incisive writers that I have read.  She has strong opinions well reasoned that are diametrically opposed to my worldview and philosophy.  Is reading her an exercise in frustration?  No.  Not at all.


Reading her is pure pleasure and reminds me that my life is too short to pick lesser books.  I’ve just begun The Fountainhead in its 25th anniversary edition.  Rand wrote the introduction in 1968 – – five years before I was born and a full 25 years before I could digest her ideas.

Now I’ll wrestle with Howard Roark just like I wrestled with Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden.  From the grave their ideas and speeches echo.  And so it is with Ms. Rand.  I want to invite her to our table and listen. Then I’d share what enthralls yet disappoints me.  Her protagonists are my antagonists – – they are Übermensch, gleaming strong and clear.  I need these antagonists – – worthy opponents in the circus of ideas. Her antagonists are straw.  Caricatures of bias, bigotry and weakness.  If only she could revise.  Would she?  If only she had the courage to face the strong and not the weak.  Would she?  Oh well.  Her gift to me remains – – enemies that I can respect and answer with a clear conscience.  Enemies that best me in more areas than I usually admit.  Enemies of concrete, steel, arcs and planes of soaring thought.  Enemies that could become friends.

What of my antagonist to her protagonist?  I hope to return her gift and not to duplicate her greatest mistake.

Pascal – – 1:16


photo credits:

Ayn Rand portrait by Phyllis Cerf (1916–2006) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

“Objectivist1” by Michael Greene – originally posted to Flickr as Atlas 2. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Wealth and Power


Dear Friend,

I begin most of my letters here with a derivative of that salutation.  Dear Russell and Friends . . .  But the letter on my table is not from Russell.  It is from Steve Forbes, or rather it appears, from his desk.  I don’t know Steve Forbes but he asks me to join him by buying a magazine.  It is three and a half pages long, but a quick read due to capacious spacing and outsized font.  The first words that receive the inflation denote the thesis of the letter.  Mr. Forbes offers me something that he thinks I want:  wealth and power.

Is he right?  Before I discount advertising, I must assess its success.  It often works.  Very often.  And those who can afford Forbes magazine and even its peddled luxury wares are not less vulnerable. Perhaps they are even more so.

Mr. Forbes thinks that I want to read about the lives of billionaires.  In his words the magazine that bears his name is not all about business.

It’s also about enjoying the rewards of success.  Exotic supercars. Yachts to die for.  Hideaways that you can’t get to from here.  The private plane circuit, where wealthy flyers never see the inside of a terminal.  Plus, you’ll get ForbesLife, our guide to living the good life.

Is he right?  Is wealth and power a worthy goal?  Mr. Forbes is no fool, but I’ve been one.  I’ve been sorely tempted to mistake my gifts for entitlement.  I’ve been sorely tempted to direct my capacity toward temporary things that will not survive even my brief life.  I’ve been sorely tempted to seek approval, influence, and regard.  In truth – – I find power more tempting than wealth and view the latter as only the currency of the former.  I have been tempted and I have fallen.

One reason I follow Christ is so that I can answer Mr. Forbes with honesty.  Yes – – you’re right sir.  I do want wealth and power.  But, deep within me I know it is not enough.  Deep within me I know that it will not survive me.  Vanderbilt barely lived in America’s largest home.  So what can replace wealth and power as my desire? Following Christ has given me that answer.

Mr. Forbes and his team are no fools.  I’m not in the top 0.1% of income, but honesty compels me to acknowledge that I am in the top 1%.  I’m not in the top 0.01% of intellect, but honesty compels me to acknowledge that I am in the top 0.1%.  Honesty is not what I need.  I need humility.  By following Christ I see someone so much greater than me that I have no metric of comparison.  Yet he came to serve and to suffer with us (compassion defined).  Mr. Forbes may not be a fool, but I want to be.  I want to foolishly reject the call to wealth and power although I know that I could realistically attain a measure of it.  I want to foolishly love those who are poor and powerless.

Oh Mr. Forbes, you knew I would be tempted.  I am constantly tempted by goals that honor myself and not my savior.  Oh God – – please let me be wise and pursue your compassion.  Let me live differently as a steward of the capabilities that are only a gift from you.

Dear readers – –

1)  Does Mr. Forbes’ offer tempt you?

2)  Atheist friends:  how have you mitigated this siren call?

3)  Christ followers and those of other faiths:  same question.

4)  Any:  am I wrong to recoil from this letter?  I welcome your criticism.


Pascal  1:16

photo credit:  “Biltmore Estate 14-2” by Biltmore_Estate_14.jpg: Doug Coldwellderivative work: Entheta (talk) – Biltmore_Estate_14.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Letter to our Firstborn

Morning Study

Mrs. Pascal and I celebrated our first born son last night with his two brothers and our church family.  His real name is Caleb and here is the letter we read to him.  Blessings – – Pascal  1:16

Dear Caleb,

As we gather with our church family to celebrate your coming graduation, your Mom and Dad are pleased to write a brief letter with our thoughts. Just nineteen years ago we were talking about and praying about your name. The family joke has always gone that we chose Caleb because it had only two letters more than the abc’s and we wanted to start life out simple for you. But, being joke – – that wasn’t the real reason. Here’s the real reason for your name, found in God’s word in the book of Numbers.

But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Num 14:24

That was our prayer for you and prophesy over you when we gave you a name. And that is what we thank God for today – – that we have seen him say yes to that prayer and to fulfill that prophecy in your life. Yes Caleb, you have a different spirit. Yes Caleb, we have dedicated you, evangelized you, brought you to God’s house, baptized you, and discipled you. Now we see that you do follow Christ fully. There is no greater joy. Are we proud of you for working hard and for graduating from High School? Yes. Are we proud of your diligence and ambition going forward to college and the beginning of your adult life? Of course. But here is where our pride most lies:

Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord. Jer 9: 23-24

We don’t know if time and age will bring you wisdom, might, or riches. Those are good things, but not the first thing. Our desire as you move forward is for you to boast in the Lord and in knowing him. Then our pride is well placed. Our arrow well launched.

With Much Love,

Your Mom & Dad

Love Letter – – part 11



She said that my mother had been delayed but would pick me up an hour late.  My father had been hurt at work, she was getting more information, and we would go to see him together.  At work?  My father was a mechanical engineer.  Did he have a third degree paper cut or a pencil flesh wound?  As it turned out he was inspecting an air handling unit in the cavernous building in which he worked.  It required a ladder ascent and he lost his grip, falling twenty feet to a concrete apron.  Love Letter – – part 10   from the beginning

That’s what Mom knew when she picked me up.  To her credit, Mom was good in an emergency then – – an interesting mix of appropriate concern and protective detachment.  Kelly Air Force Base was contiguous with Lackland AFB, the home of Wilford Hall Hospital.  Dad had been transported by ambulance across a runway gate opened for the purpose of his transit.  Was he alive, paralyzed, worse?  For several hours we did not know.

He was in surgery early the next day – – a 12 hour spine marathon to rebuild a shattered L2.  He had a myelogram – – pre-MRI in 1987 which seemed to clear the spinal cord, but we wouldn’t know for sure until the operative findings.  The orthopedist, kind, cleancut and confident, said the dura was studded with bone splinters like so much shrapnel, but the cord appeared unmolested.  Bruised and battered, but not transected.  My first reunion with Dad was masked by morphine – – a drug I would learn to use cautiously and gratefully for the benefit of my patients.  Unlike spine surgery, morphine has changed very little since the Opium Wars.  It and aspirin are numbers 1 and 2 on my list of the ten most important drugs.

Those summer days heralded significant changes.  Some good, some bad, none escapable.  As Dad mended in stages we reclaimed time and healed like his spine.  I became a nurse, helping to bathe him and apply the awkward clamshell brace.  Six months later he returned to work.  Eighteen months after that the fusion failed and the stainless steel rods bent.  He went for a revision to place titanium plates – – a technique so new that the Air Force had sent its chief spine surgeon to Germany to apprentice with the surgeon who devised the procedure.  Patient positioning and exposure (you’ll be learning this very soon) was unique for this operation.  The surgeon and his first assist actually built an appendage for the operating table in a woodshop.  The operation was even longer, the recovery harder.  But, my Dad walked.  He couldn’t return to work even in a cognitive vocation.  As he was a federal employee injured on federal property on a ladder which did not have an OSHA specified safety cage he was granted an OMB medical retirement.  My parents had saved little for retirement.  They put two kids through college and encouraged me to work hard and earn scholarships on academic merit.  That must have been one reason they wouldn’t walk away from the house in Houston that would not sell.  They declined offers that they referred to as fire sale prices.  I understand it better now although I disagree with the benefit of retrospect.  We had a family fire of prolonged separation in my formative years.  A sale would have made sense.  With medical retirement then Dad attained a type of pension which essentially replaced his income for the next twenty years.

For a confluence of reasons I admired the U.S. Air Force.  Dad had been in the Air National Guard.  If I could not be an Eagle Scout I could be an Air Force physician.  The daily flag ceremonies at Wilford Hall Medical Center moved me and Dad’s surgeons seemed superhuman.  How could I pursue this and not contribute to family debt for the long road ahead?  As I returned to school to begin the sophomore year after Dad’s first surgery I sought out the counselor – – I would like to apply for the Air Force Academy.  She was a kind African American woman, heavyset with an easy smile.  I heard her say, “it is very competitive, but I think you can do it.”  When a man falls it is so hard to say when.  Is it iced coffee?  No.  That’s just when people knew.  I fell here – – setting my gaze so intently that I mortgaged the present to attain the future.  I’ve told Mrs. Pascal many times – – “I’m so glad that you didn’t know me in high school  – – I was unworthy of you.”  The problem is, no one knew it.  Not even, especially not even, me.

-to be continued-




Photo credit:  Handwritten letter by Descarte: by PHGCOM [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

Learning in Conversation


Dear Howie, Russell & Friends,

As Russell and I approach our first anniversary of blogging and second anniversary of friendship, I’ve been reflective.  I tend to be that way before milestones of all types.  As a runner and hiker, the milestone analogy has always resonated with me.  It also fits well with my realistic expectation that I’ll be dead in less than 50 years.  Where am I?  Where have I been?  Where to next?

The reading, writing, and breakfasts of the last two years have been invigorating.  I’m learning again.  I felt that way when I read both of your responses to my comments on Romans 3: 1-4.  I wrote this doozy of a sentence:

I think that my faith in my own love of people, justice and mercy would be shaken as my intellect finds non-theistic normative reasons less convincing.

This was in response to Howie’s question:

I’m curious: if tomorrow all scientist, theologians, and philosophers got together and came to a 100% consensus that there are no gods would you then stop loving people, justice, and mercy?

Russell wisely replied this (to me):

Can you clarify this sentence a bit? I think I’m misreading it.

I’ll work backwards.  Russell, you are not misreading, I am miswriting.  I know better (only because I keep failing) than to use big words obscurely rather than smaller words well-joined.  Here’s a replay of my sentence with better communication (more words, but less dense):

If I did not have God as a reason for my morality, I acknowledge that I would still be moral.  My reasons include strong and positive personal experiences with very moral very skeptical people (you first among them).  But, if God as the basis of my morality went away I would be less sure of myself.  I would not understand why I wanted to be good when there is a stronger impulse in me to do the wrong thing.  It may be (as I have often suspected) that my nature is more corrupt than yours.  Genes and experience have made me less kind, gentle, and forgiving.  So I may be that person who needs religion more to civilize me.

Back to Howie.  He replied:

When I was a Christian I chose to follow the Jesus I thought still existed because I believed that he represented what is truly good. I was drawn in by some of the beautiful sayings in the sermon on the mount. I wasn’t following because I thought he was the most powerful one with the keys to afterlife so I better listen to whatever he says no matter what he asks, even if it goes against my moral sense. This seems to be the theme of the Abraham/Isaac story, as well as the genocidal conquests in the old testament and those things go against my own moral sense.

Then Howie referred me to thoughts he had about morality.  I read for an hour and the time was well spent. I especially appreciate the referral to a clean article on the concept of infinite regress.  Russell has mentioned coherentism before and I didn’t take the time to learn that it was a possible solution to the problem of infinite regress (constant asking of “why?”, like a child).

Like Howie, I find this topic important.  Do I claim that the moral law is imprinted on our spirits by Creator God?  Do I allow that he did so with the behavioral aspects of human evolution?  Do I consider “these truths to be self evident”?  Did Plato get it right?  I do claim the first assertion, yet my reasons are not yet sufficient to reply to honest questions.  One thing I’m appreciating about this process is that I need more humility and patience.  I need to listen well.  I honestly find this more interesting than my current car listening adventure of why entropy validates the arrow of time and makes macroscopic closed timelike curves unlikely [insert wry grin].

This place is safe for respectful argument.  This place is safe for conversation.  I’m one of the most ignorant people here and I’m excited about learning!

Do you have skeptical or believing friends who exemplify morality to you?  I would answer:  Russell.  Why do you think they are that way?



photo credit:  Der kleine Kinderfreund by Anonymous Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Boiling it Down

Boiling it Down

Greetings friends,

In Russell’s post introducing the Ask an Atheist (or Christian) series Howie posed the following:

What group (denomination, organization, etc.), person, book, podcast, and/or video would you pick that comes closest to describing your own way of seeing reality?

I replied that the most influential non-biblical text in my life is The Call, by Os Guinness.  It is.  I gave my last annotated copy to a dear friend who was struggling with faith.  I have another copy.  I’ll read it again and write more, probably different notes in the margins.  That book is probably why I’m here.  I’m 42 years old and I still ask, “what should I be when I grow up?”  The thesis of that book:  be and do what you are.  I think that my life calling may be to reach out to the skeptical in my generation and to reach in to my precious brothers and sisters in faith so that we don’t lose compassion or leave others behind.

But, despite sharing a part of my bliss with Howie, did I answer the question well?  I tend to be less thorough in my answers than Russell.  Did that book come closest to my own way of seeing reality, or did this?

Durants Lessons of History


Meet the Durants.  Then, if you can spare 5 hours in aggregate (I listened for the third time in 6 months in the car), listen to  this summary of their life work.  Although I prefer hardback books with a pen in my hand, this is one experience where listening is superior.  In the edition linked above, you’ll hear the delightful voices of Will and Ariel interviewed at the end of every chapter.

I bought the Story of Civilization in a yard sale for a dollar a book.  It was on the top shelf, waiting for retirement.  I’m not waiting any more.  I just finished volume 2 and will begin volume 3 after an interlude with Sean Carroll.

Why does this work represent my way of seeing reality most closely?  Probably because I am remediating a liberal arts education.  My education in STEM and subsequent teaching career required reams of technical reading with little time for arts and history.  That’s not true.  I had the same amount of time that I have now – – 24 hours a day with an average of 6 off for sleep.  My priorities on how to spend that time were different.  That’s true.

I’ll discuss science to the best of my capability and honestly, my capability is higher than the average blog reader or writer in that space.  Russell’s capacity in that domain surpasses mine.  But there is more.  That’s my argument.  There are different kinds of evidence that should be considered in the search for truth.  The integrated experience of billions over thousands of years seems a good place to start.  I’m making the 11 volume journey with the Durants.  If you’d like to meet them and understand how I think (it is plastic) then the digest above in Lessons is a great place to start.

Would other readers care to answer Howie’s question?  It was a good one.



photo credit:  SuSanA Secretariat [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons