The Parable of the Engineers

‘Once a corps of engineers was assigned to continue the building of a magnificent cathedral which had already been under construction many centuries and which had benefited from the devout labor of great engineers of many generations. Some of the new engineers, however, began to question the architectural soundness of the plans. They said that the plans had numerous errors and contradictions in them. When asked for clarification by some of their fellows, they pointed out that architectural styles were changing and that the plans erroneously presented older stylistic characteristics and contradicted current styles. In reply, a few engineers noted that this did not make the plans erroneous or contradictory in themselves, and that it was the architect’s business to draw the plans and the engineers to follow them. The majority did not agree, but they did not want to cast direct aspersions on the architect or abandon the construction. So they had recourse to a number of stratagems.

1. First, they argued that though the plans were erroneous and contradictory this was not the architect’s fault and should be attributed to his draughtsmen. (Intransigent engineers claimed that the architect was always responsible for his draughtsmen, but this argument was brushed aside.) Endeavours were thus made to ignore the “draughtsmen’s errors” while accepting the architect’s “true ideas” as conveyed by the draughtsmen’s plans. But since the only knowledge of the architect’s ideas came by way of the draughtsmen’s plans, this endeavour miserably failed and led to more radical suggestions. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that while these discussions went on, relatively little building was done.)

2. Then the engineers argued that the purpose of the plans had been misunderstood. They were not intended to be followed as such, but contact with them would increase the engineer’s inner sensitivity to true building methods. But one engineer’s inner sensitivity did not produce the same results as another’s, considerable confusion set in, and a tower collapsed.

3. A particularly brilliant engineer now suggested that everything in the plans was symbolic of the architect himself. However, it was soon discovered that if everything was symbolic and nothing literal, no engineer could determine the real meaning of any particular element in the plans. More disputes set in, and another section of the building crumbled.

4. Now the people for whom the cathedral was being built were becoming more and more agitated and many would not enter the half completed edifice at all because of the danger of falling stones, loose mortar, and buckling floors. Some were even crying for a new staff of engineers. This made the engineers terribly nervous and excitable, and finally some of them, to placate the mob, began to claim that there was no architect at all, that the people for whom the cathedral was being built were more important than anything else, and that everyone was in as good a position as the inaccurate draughtsmen to draw up plans. Oddly enough, this seemed to infuriate the people even more, for the latter apparently considered it self-evident that the plans, the great engineers of the past who had faithfully followed them, and the earlier work on the cathedral (the work done before the present confusion) all presupposed an architect. They began to become violent and even claimed that the engineers were destroying their cathedral and making a mockery out of the engineering profession.

5. At this point a very vocal engineer tried to convince the people that such efforts as he and the others were making were really acts of great heroism and that even though the plans of the architect were impossibly naive and had been hopelessly muddled by past draughtsmen and engineers, he himself could lead them through the maze by direct communication with dead engineers of the past, thereby proving the deathless value of engineering science. But instead of being considered a repristination of heroic, reforming engineers of early times, this engineer was regarded as an epitomal fool by virtually all of his colleagues and the great mass of the people. Only the media of communication featured him, for they quickly discovered that people followed his exploits with horror and fascination even as they did the latest scandals of famous entertainers.

Thus did the great cathedral eventually crumble and fall, killing not only the people who had loved it but also the engineers responsible for its loss. Pathetically, there were a few engineers who, right up to the moment of final destruction, still pleaded that the only hope lay in following rigorously the original plans, that the engineers must bring their stylistic ideas into conformity with the architect’s, and that deviations from their notions of style did not constitute genuine errors or contradictions in the plans. But their voices were scarcely heard amid the din of engineering teams working at cross-purposes to each other, and the deafening roar of falling masonry.

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that cathedral; at it fell: and great was the fall of it’.

From John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, 25–27.


One comment

  1. Dear Jason,

    I enjoyed your story, though I think Larry Norman’s “The Tune” does it better.

    All the best,
    Peter Morris, Traralgon


    lyrics from LP “The Story Of The Tune”

    all lyrics spoken:

    Once there was a tune and everyone knew how it went
    But as time went by, people began to forget
    Until at last no one could remember.
    And there was hatred, and wars, and death.

    Then one day somebody said, “How does the tune go?”

    “There is no tune, there never was; it’s only a myth.”
    These were the philosophers.

    “You mean there’s no tune at all?”

    “Well, it doesn’t really matter what tune you play
    As long as you play something.”
    These were the religious leaders.

    And so the world played on.
    And there was hatred, and wars, and death.

    Then one day the people became weary of this song
    And they all sat down on the side of a hill
    And suddenly they heard a very strange voice
    And somebody said, “That sounds like the tune.”

    “There is no tune, there never was, there never will be.”

    “Well, it doesn’t really matter what tune you play
    As long as you play something
    And you don’t hurt anybody – especially me.”

    But the people listened
    And a man appeared before them
    With a smile on his face
    And a sad look, too,
    And he was singing the tune.

    And some of the people began to sing along.

    And the people who loved Him
    Decided to follow him,
    But the people who hated him
    Decided to kill him. And they did.

    And when it was finished,
    They went back to their houses of philosophy and religion
    And they sat down to their tables to eat and drink.

    Suddenly, they were interrupted by a familiar voice
    And they ran to their windows and looked outside
    To see who it was. It was him.

    And they became confused and afraid
    And they wondered how they could be rid of him
    Once and for all.
    And while they were watching him,
    Something very strange happened.

    “How did he do that?”
    “I don’t really know, but he’s gone…
    And when trouble goes, you don’t ask where.
    He’ll never return again. I hope.”

    Yet again they were interrupted.
    This time they ran out into the streets to lay hold of him
    But they couldn’t find him.
    Just a lot of people smiling, and they all know the tune.

    And when the people made a mistake
    They stopped and they listened.
    That’s how they knew the tune,
    Because they listened.

    And if you listen, you’ll heart it.
    It’s all around you.

    Just listen to your radio,
    Watch television,
    Listen to your leaders, to the authorities,
    To the governments, to the experts.

    But if you really listen,
    You can hear another tune,
    But you have to listen quietly,
    And you have to listen every day.


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