United We Fall
As I said in previous posts, my anonymity on this blog is mostly because in my off-the-net life, I'm still playing the part for now of a faithful Mormon, and not letting on that I don't believe in the church. Among other things, I'm still going to church on Sundays. (Well, most Sundays--I've been more lax about missing some weeks than I used to be.)
This week, in the priesthood meeting, the lesson was on unity, on how believers are supposed to be "of one heart and mind". Near the end of the lesson, the teacher brought up the analogy of the Tacoma Narrows bridge. The designers of the bridge, he said, forgot to take into account wind turbulence, so when the winds got high, the bridge collapsed--the parts weren't built to hold together in unity.
I was really tempted to say something about this, but I refrained. I can't help but think, though, that if the teacher had known what actually caused the Tacoma Narrows bridge to collapse, he wouldn't have used that analogy.
See, the thing is, it's not just wind turbulence that brought the bridge down. It's resonance. A system has a particular resonant frequency at which further impetus to the system will cumulatively increase its motion. Think of a child being pushed on a swing--if someone just gives a push to the child at random times, not much is going to happen, but if the child is given a shove forward each cycle just as it starts to swing forward anyway, the amplitude of the swing will keep increasing--the child will keep swinging higher and higher. It's a similar principle; if something is vibrating at its resonant frequency, further impulses at that frequency are going to give it positive feedback and get it vibrating more and more strongly.
Not every object or system has a single resonant frequency at which this happens. It could be that one part of an object has a different resonant frequency than another, and that the whole thing tends, on balance, to cancel out. That wasn't the case with the Tacoma Narrows bridge, though, and that's what was wrong with it--due to the design of the bridge, the bridge as a whole had a very strong resonant frequency, and vibrations at this frequency yielded positive feedback and tended to keep increasing indefinitely--or until the vibration got too strong and something broke, which, eventually, something did.
In other words, what was wrong with the Tacoma Narrows bridge wasn't a lack of unity. It was just the opposite. What was wrong with the Tacoma Narrows bridge was that it was too united--or rather, maybe, it was united in the wrong way. Its parts were united in such a way that they would, roughly speaking, all overreact together to certain inputs, and keep moving together, more and more strongly, until...well, until it was just too much for the bridge to take.
So if there is some moral to be gained from the Tacoma Narrows bridge, it's not that disunity leads to collapse. It's that unity can lead to collapse, if it's the wrong kind of unity. This isn't to say that people shouldn't work together, of course, or that arguments and infighting are good things. But it's important to be united in the right ways and for the right reasons--and to know when it might not be a good idea for everyone to go in the same direction. Sometimes it's better not to be completely united--it's better to examine what you're being asked to go along with, and consider whether it's really a good idea for everyone to follow it, or whether if everyone keeps moving that way it's ultimately going to end in disaster. You have to make sure you're united to the right cause.
Eh. I'm not sure I'm making a lot of sense here, and maybe I'm stretching the analogy too far. The point is, though, that the teacher tried to get across the importance of unity by bringing up a disaster that was, in a sense, caused by unity. And if we're going to use the Tacoma Narrows bridge as an analogy for religion, I think it works much better as an analogy for a very different point than the one the teacher was trying to make. Religions want their members to be united; they want all their faithful to follow the same rules, and to work in the same direction. Most, if not all, Christian denominations ultimately ask the believer to suppress his own individuality in favor of God's will, to become one in purpose and in method with God and the rest of the faithful. But it may be worth examining whether the directions the faithful are asked to move in are really the best ones for them all to take, or whether such single-minded unity could end up, like the resonant vibrations of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, in disaster...