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Summary: Sometimes tolerance is not a virtue; a deviation outside the specifications can be a matter of life and death, not just sub-optimum functioning.

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It’s been a week of tragedy, hasn’t it. Not on the scale of September 11, of course, but still - a tragedy. No one ever thought that the Columbia would crash. Particularly no one ever thought that it would crash on re-entry... But something did, and so today we are mourning the death of seven heroes, and feeling shaken by new doubts about the failure of yet another symbol of America’s power.

We don’t know yet what caused the crash. But at least we can be reasonably sure that it was an accident, not another senseless act of hatred. As one of NASA’s spokesmen said, there is no technology on earth that can shoot something out of the sky which was going as fast as the Columbia was. So it was an accident. Something just - went wrong.

How many of you remember where you were when the Challenger went down nearly 20 years ago? I was at work. It seemed for days - even weeks - after it happened that the whole country went around draped in a dark cloud of mourning. It wasn’t just the death of some of the best and brightest people our nation could produce, it was in a way the death of a dream, the death of one of our brightest symbols of the promise of the future. Maybe it wasn’t for you, but back in those days I hung around with science fiction fans, and most of them had dreamed since childhood of space travel - even star travel. And they were devastated.

It wasn’t too long afterwards, though, that the shock gave way to outrage and scandal, when it was discovered that cost cutting and carelessness components that didn’t quite meet the required standard being passed through quality control. The design specifies that components must be engineered to within a particular degree of tolerance. And the inspectors tolerated imperfections outside the specifications, and people died.

When lives depend on it, inspections matter. When lives depend on parts being tooled to a precision measured in millimeters, tolerating imperfections has serious consequences. As a nation, we are obsessed with eliminating risk to the absolute maximum degree possible - pollutants and pesticides and carcinogens are measured in amounts almost too small to grasp. , and even a single accidental death can cause outrage and inquiry and almost inevitably a new set of rules.

But far too many people who wouldn’t dream of tolerating the slightest degree of “unorthodoxy” in matters which affect our physical lives think nothing at all of ingesting any number of spiritual carcinogens.

Pergamum was a prosperous and famous city a little to the NE of Smyrna, and like Smyrna, it had earned Rome’s favor by joining in its campaign to bring the territory under Roman control. And like both Ephesus and Smyrna, it was a center of pagan worship. Where Ephesus was a center of goddess worship, and Smyrna was a center of emperor worship, Pergamum had two claims to spiritual fame. It was a center of the cult of Asclepius, the god of healing, and it was a center for the worship of Zeus, the father god of the Greek pantheon. It’s a spectacular site, on the top of a mountain with glorious views of the Mediterranean and you can still see the ruins of the temple, with a huge throne-like altar set in the middle of a courtyard.


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