Holistic Engineering: What’s That?


Here at Dordt College we advocate doing holistic Christian engineering.  For that matter, we advocate that all work should be done in a holistic Christian way.  But what does that mean?

One can always turn to the dictionary.  “Holistic: characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” (From Google.)  But really, what does that mean when engineering is involved?

Engineering is the work of designing technical things that have practical purposes.  Christians desire that their works of engineering will be pleasing to the Lord. That means that a Christian engineer will need some sort of faith life in order to have a conception of what might be pleasing to the Lord.

An engineer might be asked to design brakes for a car.  Designing brakes to please the Lord will color a Christian engineer’s sense of what trustworthiness is.  When you step on the brakes on your car you really, really expect the car to respond appropriately!  Would an engineer’s sense of faith in the Lord, or absence thereof, possibly have some influence on the quality of the the design work this engineer might do on the brakes?  Here at Dordt College, we think it will.  We think an engineer steeped in utilitarianism (for one example) will evaluate the trustworthiness of automotive brakes differently than an engineer steeped in Christian faith.  Let me call that the “faith aspect” of engineering.

“. . .and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)  Good Christian engineering work promotes justice, seeks mercy, and is done with humility.  An engineer who does not have experience designing brakes for cars ought to work under supervision until sufficient experience has been gained.  It would be unethical to do otherwise.  It would also be unjust to deny the engineer the needed supervision yet require the work to be done without supervision (perhaps to save money in the design process).  There are legal and ethical aspects to the design of a car’s brakes.

“. . .whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think on these things.”  (Philippians 4:8) Maybe the brakes should be made a visible highlight of the car, as if a fashion statement. There is an aesthetic aspect to the design of a brake.

“. . .Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28)  There is an economic aspect to the design of a brake.

“. . .From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips.  Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:20-21) There happens to be a vocabulary of words associated with brakes.  Disc brakes, drum brakes, brake pads, brake rotors, brake cylinders, runout, fade, peak force, average power dissipation, etc.  A designer of brakes needs to know the related language.  Words can be used by people to clearly communicate the design and safety features of the brakes, or words can be used to obscure the salient issues.  In any case, words are needed to communicate, and the Bible has quite a bit to say about using words.  Call that the lingual aspect of brake design.

A person using the brakes on a car can talk about the “feel of the brake.”  On some cars you have to push the pedal only slightly.  The brakes might be said to be “touchy.”  On other cars the brake might feel, “mushy.”  Brakes ought to act with the right “feel.”  This would the the sensitive (or psychic) aspect of designing a brake.

Of course there are lots of shapes that could be associated with brakes, starting with “disc” and “drum” brakes.  And there could be lots of numbers involved.  These are physical, kinematic, spacial, and numerical aspects of the design of a brake.

Now let me get back to my original theme.   What is holistic Christian engineering?  The dictionary definition, “Holistic: characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole,” is not bad.  However ideally this would be engineering dedicated ultimately to the glory of the Lord, and encompassing all aspects of creation.  That’s what a Christian should connote from the phrase, “explicable only by reference to the whole.”  Not just by reference to the whole brake, not just the whole car, not just the whole universe, but by reference to God and his revelation to us.

You might notice that some of the words I used above, such as, faith aspect, ethical, justice, aesthetic, economic, sensitive (or psychic), physical, kinematic, spacial, and numerical, are words that relate to various academic disciplines.  Faith and theology go together.  Ethics and philosophy go together.  Similarly for justice and law, aesthetics and art, economics and business, sensitive and psychology, physical and physics, numerical and math.  Thus, an engineer needs an education in a wide variety of academic subjects in order to design holistically and responsibly for God’s glory.

In many engineering curricula basic sciences and math are emphasized as the foundations of engineering.  Liberal arts courses are required to, “round out one’s personality” but are not seen as directly contributing to engineering knowledge.  Engineering is sometimes spoken of as an, “applied science.”  Not so at Dordt College.  Here engineering is an, “applied life.” A life applied to God’s glory.

Here is another interesting point about the distinctiveness of Dordt College’s engineering major.  Notice that there is a little room for our sinfulness to warp our view of basic sciences and math.  Math, physics, chemistry, and biology are all about discovering the nature of God’s creation.  But if we have a wrong or incomplete theory in math or basic science, nature speaks and eventually the theory gets (at least partially) corrected or extended.  God’s general revelation speaks rather strongly in these disciplines.  Our limitations in these disciplines have a lot to do with our finite nature, and only some to do with our sinfulness.  But this is not so much the case in some other academic disciplines.  If we have warped theology, or warped laws, or warped aesthetics, or poor language, these matters do not become so directly evident by scientific experimental procedure or mathematical logic.  These matters are primarily set straight by reference to the God’s special revelation, the Bible.

The devil seems to offer greater temptations in areas that impinge more on ultimate purposes and directions.  If we do our engineering without considering all aspects of creation and without anchoring our lives in the Bible, then evil has a way of masquerading as banal everyday life.  We may be enabling sinfulness more than we could imagine.  On the other hand, if we direct our lives and desires in Godly ways, we may be enabling more grace and beauty than we could imagine.

Understanding engineering design in its whole nature, in all aspects, as it relates to glorifying God and caring for His creation, is holistic Christian engineering.  That’s what we teach.

Photo: Pixabay (public domain)


About Douglas De Boer

Please see my Dordt College homepage for more information about me. http://homepages.dordt.edu/~ddeboer/ Also be sure to see my "Curriculum Vita" for my personal testimony http://homepages.dordt.edu/~ddeboer/ddb/sum_cv.htm
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