Christmas season is upon us, and I recently listened to a sermon by Nicholas Piotrowski, dean of the Indianapolis Theological Seminary, that got my gears turning on a really interesting analogy between christian theological traditions and software architecture. Regardless of your position or thoughts on Christianity, we all celebrate the Christmas season, therefore I think it’s helpful for everyone that celebrates the season, even non christians, to think a little bit about the Christian theological tradition.
By any stretch of the imagination this post is going to seem bizarre, and I apologize in advance for any confusion it may cause. This post is intended to appeal to mainly two audiences:
My guess is that those two groups of people overlap in a very small subset. So as I go through the post and I pull upon a concept that centers on one over the other I will do my best to try amend the content with explanations to the other group. Apologies to one or the other that may be bored by rehashing concepts you are already familiar with, keep in mind this is to help the other audience.
For those that fall into the 1st group, in all likelihood I sincerely would like appeal to your curiosity and possibly ask you to suspend your visceral reaction to organized religion that you can see an interesting analogy in a totally different world view from your own. My hope is that it may either expand your understanding of software, and/or give you some sympathy or understanding for the utility of certain religious beliefs. If this isn’t possible for you, then I totally understand but respectfully ask you to read something else.
For those that fall into the 2nd group I want to preface what I am about to say by saying I in no means intend to diminish or rationalize theological concepts, but in fact I intend to do the opposite by showing how the thought process can illuminate a thread of thought that continues even today in something so different as technology. For those of you in this group I hope that this can go to be another illustration of the mysterious beauty and symmetry of the Christian God’s design.
I mentioned before that this post was inspired by a sermon by Nicholas Piotrowski, though I do not attribute any of these thoughts to him (for they are probbably not nearly rigorous enough). This first section I largely pull from that sermon. In his sermon, he was illustrating the Christmas story by drawing upon an Old Testament scripture which foreshadows the Messiah. In it he talks about three kings in the book of Isaiah. One the king of Judah, the seat of the Jewish church at the time, and two other kings set to destroy and dethrone him. The urgency felt by the Jewish king in the story was two fold. First the king felt urgency obviously to protect his kingdom, but the bigger concern was in protecting the temple or the seat of the Jewish faith. The reason being that those who believed needed the temple as their conduit or means of communing with the Jewish god. The message ended by referencing Isaiah. 7:14 which Christians interpret to prophecy the coming of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (700 years before his ministry):
a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel
For those not familiar the name Immanuel means “God with us”. The crux of the sermon was this: While the temple may be destroyed, a greater temple is coming which will establish a relationship with mankind forever. This is important because according to Christian tradition, the nature of the relationship between God and man at this time was something like this:
The relationship of God to believers in the Old Testement
Where the church played a central role in mediating the relationship between mankind and God. The main place that the church did this was in providing “atonement” or justification for sin. In essence, if you did something wrong, then you were required to go through the church in order to become in right relationship with God, normally in the form of some type of personal sacrifice. You can see the kings urgency in preserving such an institution, as without it the Jewish people would be unable to receive the justification which they believed to be necessary in order to go on living virtuously. The challenge however was this: The temple or church throughout the old testament was constantly under threat of being rendered unable to provide this critical service to its adherents. In fact you could almost interpret the old testament as being a story illustrating the challenges of God to connect to man through two main failure points. In software engineering circles we call these “central points of failure”:
The two failure points of the Old Testament Church
The Old Testament can in many ways can be viewed as God finding ways to operate this system of spiritual justification in spite of constant threat at these two failure points. The reasoning for the christian God choosing to initially establish his relationship to mankind in this way is unclear, perhaps it has something to do with God choosing relational paradigms that are synergistic the natural evolution of society over time (ie initially more communal and feudalistic and later more individualistic and democratic). Regardless you start see the need for God to have a closer relationship to mankind, perhaps a more direct connection for this system of justification.
In order to understand this section I want to bring up a Christian theological concept of the “angelic conflict” or the conflict between Satan and his fallen angels and God and his angels.
One argument that is leveled against christian theology is the paradox between God’s omnipotence and his proported infinite compassion. The Problem of Evil is often cast in this light, ie “If God were omnipotent and compassionate then why would he allow evil to exist in the first place.” Often times people that are vehemently anti-christian can trace their viewpoint to a pronounced moment of experiencing the evil of the world (perhaps even of the church), and then base the foundation of their disbelief on this inconsistency. However, for those that are less familiar with the details of Christian theology I want to illustrate this idea in the context of what’s called the “angelic conflict”. At the risk of failing to being rigorous enough to do the christian tradition justice (in order that I can get a point across to those less familiar with it) think of the “angelic conflict” in the following terms:
God and Satan at some point established an adversarial relationship, you can think of this as playing out as a game between God and Satan. Satan astutely observed from his initial interactions with God a set of “rules” for this game, and while not necessarily holding himself to these rules, insisted that God “play the game fairly” otherwise he is flawed and not fit to be God. God while not beholden to observing these initial rules nevertheless choses to impose “self limitations” in order to respect the rules of this game consistently and thus show a greater omnipotence.
Think of this like someone that is really talented at fencing agreeing to play with their non dominant hand in order to prove their greater proficiency at the sport. With this simplistic (and not at all theologically representative) analogy in mind, therefore think of places where you may be tempted to view something as a “limitation” of God (such as allowing evil to exist in the world), and replace it rather with God imposing self limitations in order to fairly play the game that has been laid out as part of the angelic conflict (or for other reasons, for example to respect free will). After all, the only being that could conceivably place limitations on an omnipotent being would in fact be itself.
Now for sake of argument, suppose that having a direct connection between God and mankind for justification, fell into exactly this category of things which God refuses to do in order to not “cheat” at the game that has been laid out between him and Satan. If this were the case then it seems possible that the Christian concept of having a savior in the form of a divine human on earth in order to establish this direct link perhaps may be the only way to fairly overcome that obstacle in the game. This may seem especially true when you consider the tremendous cost that Christians believe God imposed upon himself (or rather Christ) in order to do so. For those that are less familiar with christian theological tradition one might be tempted to look at that cost as being relatively small, ie just one life lost, but for context remember that Christians believe that Christ suffered more at a spiritual level for the sins of all mankind. No one knows exactly what that means but one aspect of this that seems to be poignant is that that sacrifice was for all sins of mankind for all time, therefore is temporally unbound. In this sense, it may even make sense to interpret this as some type of unending suffering continuing even to today. Now this is purely speculation, but the point is that this would be a much larger sacrifice than when people say “it was easy for Christ to die if he knew that right afterwards he would be made the prince of heaven, that’s almost no sacrifice at all, just a moment of pain.” This is a tangent, but for Christians, it also puts sin into context, because then Christ paying the price for your sins is akin to you continually punching your friend in the face over and over again every time you sin, rather than just once really hard a long time ago.
So assuming this in fact was a large sacrifice that God had to impose upon Christ (who in Christian theological tradition is an incarnate extension of himself) in order to fairly continue playing the game, you might see that this penalty that he imposed on himself may have fit the bill of paying the right price in order to justly play the game without cheating.
I view this idea as God doing what’s required to “install the firmware” onto his relationship with mankind in order to establish that direct system of justification. For those of the software camp, what I mean is that suppose that God were analogous to some type of operating system. Then in order for that operating system to directly connect to mankind without the intermediary of the church or the temple, then he would need to install the necessary firmware in order to do so. For those not in the software camp, think of it like this: In order to run the bluetooth mouse you just bought, you may have to install some software on your operating system that would then be waiting to receive and interpret the inputs that are coming from it.
To reiterate my previous points: I am not justifying or diminishing Christian theological tradition but simply drawing an analogy to it, and I’m hoping that my previous argument above about God’s self imposed limitations goes to show that God “being required” to install some type of firmware in order to have a direct connection with mankind in no way implies a lessoning the Christian theological position of omnipotence. You could even go as far as interpreting that needed software program to be analogous to the christian concept of the “Holy Spirit”.
So my argument is that Jesus was required to go down to earth as a man to live a human life in order to “run the cable” or “install the necessary software” in order to establish a direct connection between God and man for justification.
I argue that God achieves this through Christ as an “intermediary” or conduit between mankind and himself. Those from a Christian theology background are very familiar with this concept, as Christ as the mediator between mankind and God, Christ the substitutionary sacrifice, etc, these are all a common part of the Christian theological tradition. Therefore, for those in that audience, I want to substitute the word “mediator” for “proxy” as this is the analogous concept in software architecture and in fact I am going to elaborate exactly how a direct connection between God and man may have been achieved by drawing analogy to this concept. First let me explain what a proxy is to the non-technical audience. First i’ll start with the wikipedia definition of a proxy and then try to unpack it for you a bit:
In computer networking, a proxy server is a server application or appliance that acts as an intermediary for requests from clients seeking resources from servers that provide those resources
Essentially a proxy is like a gatekeeper or a conduit to an application on the web in which all the users of that application first go through before accessing the resources they are trying to get to. You can think of it like the following diagram:
Traditional Web Server Proxy
This can be used for a number of purposes such as helping the computers running the application decide how to break up the traffic (called load balancing), or to help with security or authorization. Hopefully from this definition you can see how a proxy is like a “mediator” in a similar way to how Christ is referred to in the Christian tradition. In fact relabelling the previous diagram and you have essentially the diagram of the relationship between the believers of the church and God from before, but you can also get the following diagram which illustrates the mediation between Christ and God:
Christ as a Proxy
Notice that the arrow or connection between Christ and God is green, and by tenants of Christian faith is assumed to always be green due to Christ’s sinless nature. Also ponder this quote from John 14:6 in the bible that seems to fit this description especially well:
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Let’s revisit the proxy server diagram from above. Suppose for sake of argument you had a proxy server and the connection between it and the web server was “perfect”. Meaning that the connection had 0 seconds latency, and that there was never any inconsistency or miscommunication between it and the web server. Then in many ways the only thing that matters is the connection to this proxy server, because once you’ve established a connection with it, you’ve established a direct link to the web server. IE the diagram simplifies to the following:
In many ways this is the same in the Christian tradition, ie the goal of connecting individuals directly to God without a earthly intermediary is achieved, in other words you get this diagram:
Immanuel meaning "God with us".
This is especially true when you consider that Christians actually consider Christ and God to be “one in the same”, a complex theological doctrine called the “trinity” (which I won’t go into detail about here).
Therefore christians believe that being in right relationship with Christ, you can, “by proxy” be in right relationship with God (or as its referred to in Christianity God the Father, to distinguish him from God the Son).
Back to the first section however, you can see one net effect that this reorganization has. It removes the central point of failure of the church in providing justification. In much the same way that you would tout the benefits of a decentralized computer infrastructure in having multiple redundancy or backups in the case of failure, because it is organized to not have a central “choke” point, you can see that the Christian theological tradition argues that the same benefits apply to the Christian relationship with God via the proxy relationship to Christ (which is believed to be in perfect relationship to God through Christ’s sinless ministry on earth).
You can see why such a reorganization is a “savior” moment. Because it is now impossible to sever the connection between mankind and God for justification in the same way that it is impossible to “fake transactions” in a block chain ledger, or take a decentralized social network totally down, because there is no central point of failure or manipulation, it is spread out between all the constituents. Stretching the analogy to its utter limits, could it be possible that this messianic reorganization may have even given God an analogous relief that a software engineer may have once experienced when reorganizing a codebase to be more resilient? Likely not, owing to Gods assumed omniscience, but it’s fun to imagine.
This brings up an interesting question to the non theological crowd which is not of a technical but of a more personal nature. And that is the following question:
Can one have a relationship with someone that is dead?
The answer depends obviously on your definition of a relationship. However, if the answer is no, then this relationship to God via the proxy of Christ doesn’t seem to have any effect, because Christ is no longer living. Now obviously Christians believes that Christ, while dead on this earth continues to live on in heaven. However, for those that don’t believe in heaven or a soul, I would still argue that the question is relevant.
For anyone that has had someone in the family pass away, I think they’ve experienced what it’s like to have an “on going” relationship with those that have passed away. For example, my grandfather passed away recently, and while he can’t talk to me directly, I am reminded of him at different times in a way that perhaps changes my perspective on certain things, maybe even my actions. The net effect, through my memory of him, was in some ways no different than if a person had said something to me changing my course of action. Some people might argue that a “relationship” with the dead is in reality a one directional relationship, because you can make expressions or even attempt to communicate with people that have passed away (for example at their grave), but they aren’t going to speak back. But, I would argue that their lingering legacy and memory sometimes comes up in a way that nonetheless usually has some type of effect on your life, in direct correspondence to the way a living person may have an effect on your life. This idea is somewhat mysterious, but I think for those that don’t believe in a soul or afterlife, I think they can nonetheless see the “effect” in this way of those who have passed even if it remains purely psychological.
I’m someone that has always strived to see and recognized a deeper more metaphysical dimension to life, so I would argue that this type of relationship to those who have pased away, while indeed having a psychological component, also has a meaning outside of the purely naturalistic (and perhaps those two ideas are actually one in the same). I think for Christians that take their theology seriously, this type of a transcendent relationship with Christ, the “perfect” proxy to God is exactly what motivates their actions to be constantly seeking a higher path, because he does indeed speak back to them.
This analogy I recognize is a little stretched, nonetheless I had fun crossing a Christmas topic with a technical one and I hope you enjoyed reading about it and draw some inspiration from it!