by Justin Vander Werff, engineering professor at Dordt College
This summer, I had the opportunity to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community and discuss itwith colleagues and students by way of weekly lunch gatherings. A quote early in this book captures Bonhoeffer’s wonderful insight into what truly Christ-centered life looks like:
“[T]he Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all.”
Bonhoeffer fleshes out this idea as it relates to our interactions in the Christian community, but I think his insight can be helpful in our interactions with technology as well.
Here at Dordt, we put a lot of thought into what it means to develop technological solutions that are faithful and responsible in light of God’s Word. This task of developing technology responsibly is daunting, yet vitally important given our understanding that all of life falls under Christ’s kingship. At times this task can feel downright burdensome, because the works of our hands are inevitably affected by our finiteness and creaturelyness. It seems that our solutions never fail to have short comings, to break down, or to produce unintended consequences. It can be easy to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use with this craziness of trying to think obediently and reformationally about technology anyway?” When faced with these shortcomings, it’s important to remember the last part of Bonhoeffer’s quote. We strive to do engineering faithfully and normatively, not by our own merit, but on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work. We are called to develop technology obediently because of Christ’s work in us, and we are called to be His hands and feet in our grateful response. However, we will not be the saviors of people or of technology. Paul’s words in the Areopagus in Athens recorded in Acts 17:24-25 are applicable here:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
When our human inventions fail, we should humbly seek to understand God’s creation more. We should strive to be more responsible and to do a better job of loving our neighbor with our technological solutions. Yet even in our inadequacies we need not despair, because we have the assurance that God is accomplishing his purposes, in spite of our weakness.
How the flip side of Bonhoeffer’s quote applies to engineering is also worth reflection. We very well may be blessed with the experience of completing a successful design that fulfills its purpose wonderfully, improves circumstances for something or someone, and does not producing any unforeseen difficulties. When we do so, it is easy to fall prey to our own selfish pride, as King Nebuchadnezzar did. Nebuchadnezzar’s words are recorded in Daniel 4:30: “Is not this the great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” The passage goes on to show how, in dramatic fashion, God humbled Nebuchadnezzar for arrogantly taking credit for the grandeur of the technology and development around him in Babylon. How easy it is for an accomplishment of ours to become a “Babylon” for us! Reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s insight helps us to avoid this pitfall. No matter what apparent successes we experience, we are reminded that “God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces [us] guilty.” Yet, Bonhoeffer’s quote doesn’t end there, and neither do we. Being reminded of our guilt amidst our apparent achievements doesn’t lead us to wallow in our misery. Rather, it leads us to marvel at Christ’s grace and that “God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces [us] not guilty and righteous.” It is a truly joyful experience to humbly praise Christ for his accomplishments through us, not for our glory but for his glory alone. Soli Deo gloria!