Already… and Not Yet… (Principle 5)

Authors: Justin Vander Werff and Joel Sikkema

We have worked our way through four principles that arise from a biblical Creation-Fall-Redemption paradigm and directly affect our engineering work. We might view the first principle as the foundation, with the second, third, and fourth principles rising out of that firm foundation. Continuing with this imagery, our fifth and final principle might be thought of as a cloud that encompasses the middle three principles but then extends far above and beyond them. The principle is:

We live in the already and not yet of Christ’s kingdom.

What we are trying to recognize here is that Christ has already begun his reconciliatory work. Although the effects of sin are all around us, Christ’s kingdom is already here. However, the full consummation of Christ’s kingdom is not yet here and will not be realized until His second coming. What the fully consummated kingdom will look like is largely speculative, since God reveals little to us in His Word regarding these specifics. However, 2 Peter 3:10 and Colossians 1:19-20 seem to teach that our current existence will be preserved and renewed in some way, shape, and form (see further explanation in our 2013 CEC paper). We believe that a proper understanding of the final consummation is immensely rewarding and challenging for the Christian engineer. Although we can only speculate on specifics, Christ is certainly using us to accomplish His work, and our day-to-day engineering work is part of His plan.

We want to be careful to not press this issue too far, however. God’s Word is clear and deliberate in presenting Christ as the one and only reconciler again and again (Romans 5:10-11, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Ephesians 2:16, for example) and nowhere do we see humans called to such a task. We, as humans, are not little “saviors,” rather we are entirely dependent on Christ’s saving work. If we lose sight of Christ as our redeemer, then our engineering work loses its meaning. The big narrative becomes disjointed fragments with far less significance if we do our work selfishly for our own benefit, or even only for the good of our neighbor. We must recognize that our work is part of our grateful service for Christ’s saving work and the continuing sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives.

So, there you have it: five overarching principles that arise from a biblical worldview and should have a profound effect on our work as engineers. We hope and pray that in the years ahead we can challenge ourselves and our students to apply these principles in order to grow in our understanding and obedience to Christ in our daily walk and work. What do you think? We’d love to hear from you if you have any comments or suggestions related to applying these principles or refining them to better equip Christians who serve in engineering!

Suffering from sin … it’s not just a human thing (Principle 4)

Authors: Joel Sikkema and Justin Vander Werff

We’ve recognized the ultimate purpose for creation, figured out the role of engineers in it, and then put on restraints to distinguish that we’re not the ones who do the saving. Now, maybe we’ve moved too fast. How can we focus on developing and keeping creation when there are so many things that are already messed up to begin with? Let’s address this question with Principle 4:

Our sin caused creation’s suffering. We have a responsibility to ease suffering by engaging the human and non-human creation.

We agree, the world is messed up. All of it has been corrupted by sin and that’s our fault. All of it? Our fault? Let’s dig into these statements. Genesis 3 describes humankind’s fall into sin. We commonly recognize our sinful nature by recalling Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. But, sometimes we forget that sin didn’t stop with humans—it permeated all of creation! Read Romans 8, which states, “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” and “the whole creation has been groaning”.

Recognizing that sin has messed up the world, what should we do? Ultimately, we look to Christ’s second coming, which will complete His eradication of sin once and for all. In the meantime, we see a directive to ease sin’s effects wherever we are able. There are various biblical examples of this obedient service, but we’re civil engineers, so let’s talk about King Hezekiah. Times were pretty ominous during Hezekiah’s reign. It was clear that the Assyrians were going to lay siege to Jerusalem in the near future. Like today, in biblical times siege=suffering. So what did this king who “trusted in the Lord” (2 Kings 18:5) do? He alleviated this impending suffering by building a tunnel to provide a siege-proof water source for Jerusalem. Of course, alleviating suffering isn’t just an engineering task; consider the actions of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or the establishment of deacons to help care for the poor (Acts 6:1-6).

Although Christ is the one who will ultimately eradicate sin, we certainly have our work cut out for us today!

We Are Creatures (Principle 3)

Authors: Justin Vander Werff and Joel Sikkema

Okay, we’ve reflected on God’s glory and sovereignty over His creation, and we’re also aware that we have a direct mandate from God to develop and care for His creation. Next we need to carefully consider our status as God’s servants in this mix, which leads us to our third principle:

We are creatures…always finite, currently sinful.

This principle is short and simple, yet profoundly important. There are two important aspects of our “creaturely-ness” that we explicitly state in this principle, our finiteness and our sinfulness, and we want to take time to consider each of them.

Finiteness: Often times when we think about what we will be like in the new heavens and earth, with sin removed, we like to think about ourselves being transformed into little “gods.” We like to think that without sin we will know everything, be able to do everything, be in control. This vision of our perfect selves is not biblical. The biblical narrative clearly shows that God, the Creator, created humans, the creatures. Indeed, humans are the crown of creation, as we read in Psalm 8, and we have a unique creaturely role that is established above the non-human creation. However, we never were and never will be on an equal playing field with God. Related to science and technology, our finiteness means that we cannot “know” creation beyond our human experience with creation.

Sinfulness: Of course, we are not only finite, but in the present era of God’s redemptive story we are conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5). Because of our sin we all fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). We cannot look to a salvation that comes from our own ingenuity. Rather, true salvation comes only through Christ’s reconciling work, and we as humans can only hope to be His obedient servants in His ongoing work. We do continue to exist to give God glory, but the worship that we direct toward our Lord and Creator is corrupted by pride, selfishness, and idolatry.

Considering our call as engineers, we always need to remember that designs that spring from our minds and works that our hands create come from finite, sinful creatures. There are certainly limits to our understanding, and accordingly we must exercise humility and caution in our engineering.

Developing and keeping creation—at the same time (Principle 2)

Authors: Joel Sikkema and Justin Vander Werff

Our first principle stated that God created the world for His Glory. Recognizing this ultimate purpose for creation, we’re left to ask: what is our role? We’ll offer an answer with Principle 2:

God gave us dominion over creation and instructs us to develop and conserve it (at the same time).

This statement contains two important concepts: (1) our place in creation and (2) our instructions of how to interact with it.

Our place: Humans are the crown of the Lord’s creative work. Consider the words from Psalm 8:5-6:

You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.

Reading this verse, it is clear that our place in creation is different from the other creatures he created. We are image bearers, God’s representative on earth. However, although we have dominion, the creation is not ours. It is the Lord’s. Recognizing that we have been tasked with being caretakers (or stewards) of the Lord’s earth, it is clear that our task to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28) carries a lot of responsibility. We find guidance for this responsibility in the principle’s second half.

Our instructions: At times we have wrongly equated dominion over creation with exploitation—we think the creation exists solely to serve us. This one-sided relationship does not fit with the truth that all things in creation (not just humans) exist to magnify God’s glory. We find a different set of instructions in Gen. 2:15, where God instructs Adam to both “work” and “keep” the creation. At first glance these, this two-fold task appears to pit dueling calls against each other. Do we develop and work? Or do we keep and preserve? There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but we can conclude that we cannot in good conscience exploit creation for our own self-centered purposes. However, we also cannot put creation up on a stand and say that it is best that our sinful human hands don’t touch it (Adams, 2002). Instead, we need to look for opportunities to repair humanity’s relationship with creation that has been broken by sin. Such that, when we take action to work or develop the creation, it enables the natural environment to flourish and bring glory to God. No doubt, this goal of interdependence with the creation is difficult to achieve. But if we find these opportunities, we find new ways for Christ’s glory to shine through all of creation, not just us.

God created the world for His glory (Principle 1)

Authors: Justin Vander Werff and Joel Sikkema

As introduced in the first part of this series, we have been working to develop a set of foundational principles that have specific implications for our work as engineers. The first principle is:

The world (and everything in it) was created for God’s glory.

To borrow a phrase from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 3): God made us and all things “for his own glory.” This recognition must be our starting point. Paul’s wonderful doxology in Romans 11:33,36 reminds us:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! … For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

We echo Paul’s resounding “Amen!” All of creation comes from God and is sustained by God and is directed towards God. When we say “all of creation,” we include the developed creation that continues to unfold around us through engineering means and methods.

What does it mean to keep God’s glory first and foremost in our engineering work? Sometimes we use this idea as a cop-out, thinking that it doesn’t really matter what we do as long as we do it for God’s glory. We want to guard against that sort of mentality, as we feel it is an intellectually “lazy” approach. We absolutely need to think carefully about being obedient in everything in which we are engaged. However, all too often we forget to enjoy and appreciate the praise that technological artifacts give to our Creator. God created the potential for the amazing engineering advances we witness today; He is the one that deserves the praise and the glory! As Charles Adams wrote in 2007:

We need to explore and develop our understanding of technology in light of God’s Word. Then one day we will be perfectly comfortable in paraphrasing the psalmist in Psalm 19 and saying: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the pump proclaims the work of His hands.”

Failing to keep God’s sovereignty in perspective lets everything get out of whack. In the next few posts we will dive into biblical principles that help us keep our focus firmly directed at the glory of our great God.

Overview: Guiding Principles for a Distinctively Christian Engineering Curriculum

Authors: Joel Sikkema and Justin Vander Werff

Sola Deo gloria, glory to God alone—Dordt College strives to use these words to direct all of its activities. We, the authors, are relatively new faculty members in Dordt’s engineering program and we are daunted! Our courses require a high level of technical expertise and this motto sets a high bar requiring that, as part of our work in teaching and mentoring students, we show that we do engineering differently here at Dordt because of our Reformed faith. With graduate degrees in civil engineering, we are equipped to develop the technical expertise needed for an engineering program; however, we recognize that we need to beef up our knowledge on what it means to do engineering for God’s glory alone.

To help us build this knowledge, we developed guiding principles that we can use to structure an engineering curriculum that equips and disciples students to serve obediently and effectively in the tasks God places before them. We’ve listed these principles below:

  1. The world (and everything in it) was created for God’s glory.
  2. God gave us dominion over creation and instructs us to develop and conserve it (at the same time).
  3. We are creatures … always finite, currently sinful.
  4. Our sin caused creation’s suffering. We have a responsibility to ease suffering by engaging the human and non-human creation.
  5. We live in the already and not yet of Christ’s kingdom.

In a set of upcoming blog posts, we will unpack these principles and share with you what each of these statements means to us and how they inform our work at Dordt.

Stay tuned …

Why Should Reformed Engineers Engage in Biomedical Engineering?

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you.

~Psalm 139:13-18

We are creatures who are created in the image of God. From the microscopic level of actin and myosin fibrils, to our macroscopic ability to run, jump and dance, the intricate complexities of our bodies sing out in praise of their Creator. At these and many more levels, the human body shouts “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But even as we rejoice in our Creator, our bodies bear the unmistakable signs of humankind’s fall into sin. Eyes that require correction in order to see, digestive systems that cannot tolerate gluten or lactose, and tumors that grow uncontrollably are all examples of a creation that is groaning to be set free from its slavery to corruption. These limitations remind us of our separation from God, but even in our fallen state, we can still sing out that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” because we are creatures who are created in the image of our Creator, and this means that we too are creators. As creators we have the opportunity to design devices that mitigate the groaning of our corrupted bodies. Creating devices that improve health and functionality allow people more opportunities to live, love and praise their Creator. Do people misuse these devices? Without any doubt, the answer is yes; we are finite, sinful creatures, after all. However when done correctly, the goal of easing physical suffering walks hand in hand with our calling to love God and neighbor. Broadly speaking this is the aim of biomedical engineering, which applies different aspects of traditional engineering fields (e.g. mechanical, electrical, materials) to augment the structure and function of the human body.

The devices and solutions that biomedical engineers create cannot reverse the groaning that results from humankind’s sin; they can only temporarily alleviate them. Perhaps this means that in the New Creation there will be no need for biomedical engineers. We can only speculate. But until then, the field of biomedical engineering provides an exciting opportunity to directly work toward easing the suffering caused by our sin.

“Out With The Old, In With The New!” (Hey, wait a sec.)

MajesticNokia Windows 8 phone

Old: Majestic 886                    New: Nokia 920

I just read a breathlessly exciting advertisement that came in my e-mail in-box today. Gotta share it with you it’s so good. . . It says, “Out with the old, in with the new! The new year is the perfect time to upgrade your Muchmuch XYZZY with the old Candy Corn operating system to the new Muchmuch ZZYXY ™ with the new Popcorn OS. Plus, with the beta user’s membership rebate plan you’re eligible for a $100 prepaid VISA(R) gift card if you trade in your Muchmuch XYZZY before June 14. Also, just for our beta members, get a 10% lifetime discount off a new service plan for your new Muchmuch ZZYXY(tm) when you purchase the service plan with your ZZYXY(tm). Its what Johnson Howard calls, ‘The Best Deal Of 2014!’” (OK, I changed the names and more than a few other details, “to protect the innocent.”)

So much for the advertising. In fact my XYZZY is less than two years old. That’s not really very old, but on the other hand, the original two year service plan is coming to an end. Conventional wisdom seems to be that I should take advantage of this deal. Let’s say I trade in my Muchmuch XYZZY for the new ZZYXY model. What becomes of the old XYZZY? Who would buy it? Maybe it can be refurbished and then sold in another, less advanced country. But the market worldwide for these Muchmuch gadgets is pretty saturated. Even if my old model is refurbished and put back into service for someone else, most likely that person will then recycle or discard his or her older Muchmuch gadget. Somewhere along the line, a gadget is going to get discarded in response to my purchase. Most likely the discarded gadget will go into a landfill or incinerator. Either way the material stuff of the gadget does not really disappear from the planet. It just gets dispersed somehow so that we don’t notice it so much anymore.

In the December 30, 2013 issue of Time Magazine there is a brief article (page 13) giving tips on how to “Make Less E-Waste.” One suggested solution is to code all the parts in electronic gadgets to assist with diss-assembly and sorting so that regulators can track and control the movement of e-waste around the globe. Another suggestion is to use the parts from old electronics to make new devices, like a, “3-D printer.” Finally, they suggest replacing the battery to extend the life of older electronic devices. Really? Is that all there is to it?

What’s a Christian to think of this? What’s a Christian Engineer to think of working for a company that makes things such as the “Muchmuch” gadget and promotes a new model every two years? I’m sorry, I have no easy answers. But clearly proceeding full steam ahead on maximizing the flow of revenue is not really what God wants for his creation. There is beauty and joy to be appreciated from the new Muchmuch ZZYXY(tm), but on the other hand, there is beauty and joy to be had from preserving and caring for the (not really very) old Muchmuch XYZZY. Maybe that’s why there are collectors of some of the really old electronic gadgets. But honestly, we can’t possibly collect all our obsolete stuff. I guess we should have the responsibility to purchase only what we can fruitfully put to use in glorifying the Lord, and no more. That’s not easy to figure out. I think God is interested in seeing how we respond to the challenge.

(This is a re-post from Prof. De Boer’s Blog, Engineering At Dordt College. You can read more posts from his blog there.  For example, The Twilight of the ‘Big K’)

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Halo or Hard Hat?

Nativity scene

I recently heard the Dordt College Kantorei sing the lullaby-like Christmas carol Some Children See Him.  It is a song that tells of children seeing the incarnated Christ born with eyes and skin and hair like theirs, except that this child wears a glowing halo.  A child sees Christ in their skin.  There is something good about this.  The child’s imagination gives us an inkling of what “God with us” might mean.  The God who gets under our skin is not a bad biblical image in more ways than one.  The danger is when we begin to envision a god recreated in our liking. 

There is a 1950’s era mosaic in a New Jersey church that depicts Jesus with a crew-cut.  I’ve been there.  To this day, a buzzed Jesus is still difficult for me to imagine.  While I expect there is an ongoing theological debate somewhere about exactly how long Jesus grew his hair, the depiction seems to forget that any image of Christ should always appear counter-cultural from our contemporary vantage point.

Imagination is a dangerous business, but there is no escaping it.  A human without imagination has no breath left in them.  The challenge for the Christ follower is not to escape our imaginations, but rather to allow our imaginations to be continually constructed, reconstructed, and expanded by our Creator.

After reading a great story, I often find the follow-up movie disappointing.  All the images I create in my reading are distorted by someone else’s imagination.  Surprisingly though, when I return to the book, the images that the written word etched in my mind are still intact.  Often, if the movie was well written, I am able to sustain both images and this collaborative imagination gives the character living in the original story greater depth.  Such expansions of imagination are possible when everyone reconstructing the imagery begins with the original story.

Which leads me back to the manger story…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1-5, 14a)

The Gospel according to John draws for us an image of Jesus that challenges, for our day and age, the traditional image of the Christ child.  It is a story that begs our imaginations to swap the luminescent halo for the neon yellow hard hat.  In John’s nativity we see a blue-collar God who creates and recreates, a God who is not afraid to get his hands dirty.  There he is, not just managing from the corporate office, but on-site, re-building a home to live in, right in the middle of our dark and neglected neighborhood.

Some children see him, tool belt on…

That’s incarnation imagery also.

 

For the complete text of Christmas carol see the program from the Dordt College Choral Ensembles Christmas Concert on December 6, 2013 (song starts at 23:00).

Public domain image from http://www.thefamousartists.com/bernardo-daddi/nativity

Anticipating Advent

If you dug through the closet in the bedroom where I grew up you would uncover more than one toy still in its original packaging; I enjoyed the anticipation of playing with the toys so much that I never actually played with some of them. Perhaps it will come as no surprise to you, then, that Advent is one of my favorite “holy-days”.  Anticipation is the central feature of Advent: hoping, longing and looking forward to the act of God-made-flesh. This opportunity to practice expectation for a specific event reminds us that we live in an unfinished story—that God has appeared in human form on the earth but that he has not yet fully restored his kingdom here on earth. In the time between these events we live a state of “already, but not yet” and we daily look forward to the time when God-made-flesh will again walk on the earth. In the daily rhythm of life it is easy to allow this great expectation to become part of the background noise—something we miss because it is all too familiar.

As engineers our privilege is to daily work toward the restoration of the kingdom here on earth. We acknowledge that our efforts can never mitigate the result of the fall, but with the choices we make on a daily basis (from the products we design to how we use our tools to interact with our fellow creatures) we have the opportunity to point toward the kingdom that will one day come. In these simple actions and choices we remind everyone that while we live in the “already,” we are called each day to anticipate the “not yet.”

The anticipation we practice each year at Advent cultivates in us a spirit of expectancy, reminding us that we should be living each day in a state of hoping, longing and looking forward. And so, as Advent begins, I am filled with excitement and joy, as I anticipate celebrating the arrival of God-made-flesh.