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Bits and Bytes

 Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way. Proverbs 19:2

I took a computer programming class in college in the 1970’s,. The lone computer at the university was the size of a small house with a fraction of the computing power of our mobile phones today. The computer read our instructions with punch cards, which required entering one precise instruction, i.e., “Start with 10,” on a single card before going to the next precise order on a different card. Our final class project was to write a program so the computer would count down from 10 to 0 by ones. It required 80+ punch cards. The slightest mistake in punching or ordering the cards resulted in a failed project. It was tedious, mind-numbing, and unforgiving work.

Bits and bytes are the building blocks of computer language, then as now. A bit (binary digit) is a single data point, either 0 or 1. There are only two options for a bit – on or off. A byte is a grouping of 8 bits. In a computer’s binary byte code, writing 0, 1, 2 looks like this: 00000000, 00000001, 00000010.

Prior to computers, we had pen and paper, typewriters, and slide rules with which to write and compute. Clearly, computers have provided giant leaps forward in making nearly every aspect of our lives easier and more efficient. In order for a computer to work, however, our information must be converted to a digital format – bits and bytes. Computers operate on a completely dualistic system – something must either be right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, on or off. There is no gray area in a digital language. A bit either has an electrical charge or it doesn’t, and therein lies the problem. No matter how small the space between on and off, there is an in between with an infinite range of intermediate possibilities – possibilities where the spirit inhabits.

While I am far from suggesting a return to our pre-computer days, much has been lost in return for convenience and efficiency. I would term was has been lost as depth of experience. It wasn’t that long ago that even an untrained eye could distinguish between a digitized picture, i.e., a pictures taken on a cellphone (which converts the image into bits and bytes), and a picture taken with a good, film camera. The difference was in the depth of field,  color, and contrast. Digital pictures were convenient, but not very representative. Now, with enough pixels (bits and bytes), the untrained human eye cannot tell the difference between a digital and a film picture in most cases. Yet, the difference is there in the spaces the bits and bytes cannot capture.

The situation is similar with sound recordings. The music we hear on the most prevalent sound sources today, reproduce only a small sample of the original sound. The result is usually difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish. The convenience makes it worthwhile for most of us, however, myself included.

Here is my concern in this discussion: Are we becoming blind to the depth of experience we lose for the convenience we gain? Far from suggesting a return to slide rules and typewriters, are there areas where we can distinguish the difference in depth such that the losses do not outweigh the gains?  For example, having a digitized church service available on line is a convenience for shut-ins, but the experience is far less than being present in the sanctuary. Listening to a recording of a live musical performance makes the performance more accessible but is usually a poor substitute for actually being present for the performance. Reading a book about love is not the same as actually experiencing a loving relationship. Bits and bytes, like words and phrases, substitute for the depth of the actual experience. The field of Artificial Intelligence, exciting as it is, is still incapable of reading between the on or off options available to each bit upon which it depends.

When we text or email instead of speaking in person, we are essentially converting the spoken word into bits and bytes by losing all of the non-verbal context. In the same way, we sacrifice the depth of a hand-written note for the convenience of a text.

Again, my point is not that our new technologies should be dropped for the old. Rather, it is that we need to be discerning about when and in what situations we use which method. Will we lose something of value by taking the easier, more convenient path? Our important relationships, like our spiritual development, cannot be captured in nor reduced to bits and bytes.

This is the 28th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Weightier Matters

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

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