Every college, country, city, company, church and so forth has some jargon that goes with it. There are some words or phrases that have some special local connotations or importance. “Everyone” knows about Times Square (pictured above). “Times Square” is jargon for, “the area around the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in New York.” That was easy to explain!
Here at Dordt College for some reason most of our jargon has to do with theology, and it is not so easy to explain. Some of the jargon at Dordt includes phrases such as, “cultural mandate,” “serviceable insight,” and “creation—fall—redemption.” A phrase on the ascendancy lately at Dordt is, “every square inch.” Of course these phrases, now overused, get used too lightly sometimes. After a while, maybe I even get sick of hearing such jargon. But let me take it seriously for a moment and show why these phrases have become part of the jargon here at Dordt College, and what this means for me, an engineer.
So here’s the origin of one of our bits of jargon, a quotation from Abraham Kuyper: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”*
I love that picture of Times Square above. It makes it easy to see that no, “single piece of our mental world” can be “sealed off.” The thought of Times Square brings to mind a whole raft of other thoughts with no logical connections between them. What does the photo above bring to mind for you? I am reminded of hamburgers, the Beatles and Abby Road, the subway, light-emitting diodes (as what make the billboards glow), potholes in the road, chicken (red and white stripes, trademark of KFC), stop-and-go-traffic, Friday’s (more red and white strips), New Year’s eve, newspapers, etc. And that huge variety of all things created (by God or man) all belongs to God. And it is all supposed to glorify God. This is the world we do our engineering in.
So the first thing about an Engineering Approach to “Every Square Inch” is that it all (and “all” is a huge variety of everything) belongs to God and is supposed to glorify God.
A second thing is that this variety of all that exists stands in a historical continuum. God created it all and initially the creation was all good. Then Adam and Eve sinned and the creation (all of it) now suffers from sin. Christ offers salvation and he will return to redeem (or restore to goodness) all of creation. This is the over-arching theme of the Bible, and we summarize it with the jargon-phrase, “Creation—fall—redemption.” My engineering work is done in the context of this theme, or at least that is what I strive for. Thus, the fruit of our engineering work belongs to God, is to glorify God, and should in some sense restore the creation closer to goodness. Being human and sinful, we cannot, by ourselves, bring about true goodness, but that is what we should be doing. But we can’t do it because we are sinful. What a mess! My engineering work ends up just like the jumble of stuff, good and bad, you see around Times Square—or maybe worse.
From the beginning—from creation—God intended for us to develop the world. That’s the “cultural mandate.” Think of all that stuff in Times Square. Or just think about the stuff immediately around you. That’s a lot of engineered stuff. (The fabric of your clothing, the building you are in, the electricity used to read this blog or charge your laptop’s battery, etc—lots of stuff, all engineered.) All that stuff started out as just dirt or water or air. Then the ore was mined from the dirt, refined, and eventually engineered into stuff. Lots of stuff. Lots of engineering—and manufacturing and marketing, etc. Engineering work is not the only aspect of the cultural mandate, but it is one of them. And because we are sinners, we can’t get the engineering just right. It is all tainted by our sinfulness.
Christians believe that a relationship with Christ, founded on the Bible, and with respect for the knowledge of God that nature reveals (Psalm 19, Acts 14:17, Romans 1:20), helps to direct our lives (and thus the fruit of our work) toward goodness. We believe that the creation has within it the potential for development, and that we are supposed to be developing it. In this development, we are subject also to limitations imposed on us. We call these limitations “laws of nature.” But in other aspects, we are given freedom to glorify God or not. (What glory to God could there be if there was no freedom?)
So for example I’m free in some sense to drive at 120 MPH on the interstate. But I cannot make the car fly no matter how fast I go due to the shape of the car and generally, the laws of nature. Although I might drive at 120 MPH, if I crash at that speed we all know that I cannot avoid the consequences. So there are “laws of nature” (which are really theories made by people about the way God’s creation acts) and there are “normative laws.” Normative laws are those rules or ideas we have in which we have choice. I don’t have to love my wife. That a husband should love his wife is a normative law (a theory made by people about the way we should act). It is through our faith-beliefs that we come to postulate normative laws for ourselves and expectations for others. These normative laws then motivate certain actions. These actions cause cultural development. This process of discovering and forming normative laws is always, for any person, deeply rooted in faith. That is because normative laws cannot be proven. You can argue about them, and certain denominations and religions try to codify them, but you cannot prove to anyone that one of these normative laws is “right.”
The law-structure (natural and normative laws) of the creation has been described in great detail by Protestant Calvinistic philosophers. Kuyper sees the laws as the boundary between God and creation (including us). God is above the law, the creator. The creation is under the law. Since we (and the whole creation) exist to glorify God, meaning and a sense of fulfillment and purpose in our lives come from understanding God (as best we can), his creation, and the laws (natural and normative, as best we can).
A “modality structure” has been proposed to help us think about the law-character of creation. The fifteen modal aspects are in an ordered list.
Each aspect in the list above depends upon and builds upon the aspects below it. Upon consideration, you will realize that the higher aspects have associated with them mainly normative laws whereas the lower aspects, mainly natural laws. (The last six are especially strongly associated with natural laws.)
Kuyper proposed that all objects (and plants, animals, and people) in the world respond in all aspects. But every object has leading functions and object functions. For example, a car is for transportation. It has a kinematic object function. But, some cars might make me more noticeable than others. A fancy or special car might help me meet people. After all, why do I need transportation? So the car has a social leading function. (Social–that’s one of the modal aspects.)
Thus for an engineer, Kuyper’s theories, and similar neo-calvinist theories, form an organizational structure for thought and design which gives meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to our work.
Well, that’s the short and dirty of a big topic. There are many different names for the modal aspects and other variations of the language regarding this world-view. But my faith which has lead me to this Christian worldview is the primary reason that I’m at Dordt. To study this and become a better engineer—an engineer who’s work and life give praise to God.
Interestingly, if you compare Dordt’s engineering curriculum to that of a state university, you will find much more emphasis on the lower modal aspects in the engineering curriculum at state universities. Those aspects are less controversial since they are dominated by the natural laws. But, if the neo-calvinists are right—if everything functions in all aspects—then an engineering education at a state university is lopsided in its heavy emphasis on natural laws. It only takes a little taste of real life to understand that having a certain design that “works” in the sense of consistency with natural laws is not good enough. An engineer also has to engender the confidence of others in order to get the design into production and into the world. Engineering is a multifaceted task.
So in summary, good engineering work needs to consider “every square inch.” The modal aspects provide one possible organizational motif for considering “every square inch.” It has worked for me in the sense that it helps me evaluate the goodness or quality of an engineering design. Designs that seem to follow normative laws in each aspect provide me with a sense of having done something worthwhile, something that the Lord would find pleasing. Without striving to please the Lord in my engineering work, that work would become just. . . work. With this perspective, my engineering activity becomes an extension of worship, a expression of my love of for the Lord that also gives me a sense of fulfilment.
*Kuyper, Abraham (1998). “Sphere Sovereignty”. in Bratt, James D.. Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. pp. 488
**Photo of Times Square from Stock.xchng