The Machinery of God

I went to a huge university with tens of thousands of students. Although it was crowded and impersonal, it was a generally happy place. But I had my eye on transferring to the Seminary of Engineering, a specialized college that studied the intersection of faith and physics. Being accepted to that college was like being admitted into a school of magic.¬†Finals at the Seminary of Engineering weren’t the kind where you sat in a room with a pencil and paper and answered written questions and worked problems. They were practicals where you showed off something you had built.

One of the about-to-graduate seniors, a student from Senegal, had brought with him a kind of small plane made of light wood. It had no skin – just a chair bolted to a wood frame, and metal grommets going through the wood to guide the cables that made up the steering mechanism. There was no visible motor or engine of any kind. This plane ran on faith.

The pilot climbed aboard and took the controls, which consisted of two joysticks – one for the front, and one for the back. Because the plane was driven by faith, it operated very differently from a plane driven by motors. The front and back moved independently, so one could perform amazing aerial maneuvers, or simply hover above the ground. But in order to stay aloft, one’s faith had to be pure and strong.

The plane was a bit shaky at its vertical takeoff, but it was hard to tell whether it was the pilot’s spiritual uncertainty, or his unfamiliarity with the controls. Once the plane was in the air, it climbed, swooped, raced back and forth, described pirouettes in the air. Those of us on the ground were initially astonished, then enthralled at both the spectacle and the engineering.

Such was the pilot’s faith that we were able to see his flight from his own eyes, entering his soul and seeing what he saw, feeling what he felt. He was filled with a love and certainty that was so strong that everyone who entered him was filled as well, and by the time his plane touched down as lightly as an angel landing on the head of a pin, any one of us could have flown it.

Many years later, my family and I are living in a tiny apartment in a crowded, dirty city. I am one of a very few people in the world who designs and builds the machinery of God – machines powered only by faith. It’s a complicated process that relies on a person being able to hold vast amounts of information and many competing goals in mind as one works out the physics of the machine. It can’t be done by computers, because one must design with faith, instilling one’s faith into the formula itself. Impossible for a computer.

I was heading downstairs when I looked out the lobby doors of our apartment and saw one of my kid’s teachers approaching the building. I knew she was going to lecture me about a recent project my kid had turned in about my work and research that she had given an F, despite the fact that it was not only factual, but fairly well-written for a 12 year old. I didn’t want to talk to her, so I ducked out the side door that led to the alley, but she followed me.

I turned into the alley where, above the dumpsters, there was a thing that looked like a mosaic of a building scene.

“What do you see?” I asked the teacher.

“I don’t know.”

We stepped back a few paces, and she realized it was a picture of the building that housed the Seminary of Engineering. She expressed admiration, and I took her arm and led her up close to it, so that she could see that each pixel of the mosaic was actually a bit of mathematical calculation.

“This is my work. This is the plans for a faith-powered passenger aircraft.”

She stood there with her mouth hanging open, not knowing what to say.

“Do you know what it takes to create one of these?”

Her mouth was still hanging open as she shook her head, her eyes traveling over the entire mural.

“I don’t even know how you would make a regular airplane,” she said.

“Exactly! But it’s not enough to just know the math involved in figuring out how to get a 2,000-ton aircraft into the air. You have to express all the¬†drag coefficient calculations and weight distribution formulas as an actual depiction of a physical object. That’s a picture of where I went to school.”

“How does doing that make the thing work?”

“Seriously? You want me to take five minutes and tell you the thing that I’ve spent my entire adult life learning and perfecting? Okay, let me just say that it’s all about the intersection of science and art, imbued with the faith of its creator.”

“This stuff is real?”

“Have you ever used a microwave? Newsflash. There’s no such thing as ‘microwaves.’ They don’t exist. The microwave works because you know it’s going to work. You have faith.”

Her mouth snapped shut and she stared at me in disbelief.

“That drawing looks like a close-up of a rose. I’ve seen it,” I said as she started shaking her head. “Now let’s talk about your giving my kid an F on a paper about a subject you don’t understand.”

But she didn’t say anything.