Reformed Christian Engineering

            Jennifer Jewett VanAntwerp, Ph.D.

            Assistant Professor of Engineering

            Calvin College

            Grand Rapids, MI

            jjvanant@calvin.edu

            September 2005

1. The Place of Engineering in a Comprehensive Liberal Arts College

“Why did you decide to study engineering?”

This is perhaps the most frequent question of my professional life. Parents of prospective students ask me this during Fridays at Calvin visits. Generally, they are either trying to fathom their daughter’s choice of this major, or else they are trying to strengthen their own arguments for why their son should choose an engineering major (instead of theater or history, as he would prefer).

But I also ask this question of others. I ask it of the first-year advisee who is trying to decide if she wants to change her major to something else, because she can’t quite see the Kingdom value in engineering. I ask it of the second-year advisee who wants very much to remain an engineering major despite having failed the introductory courses several times.

The simple answers to this question (apart from the unfortunate, “My dad made me do it,”) have only a few variants. “Well, I liked math and science in high school, so my teacher suggested that I try it.” Or, “I just have always been interested in how things work. When I was seven I took apart my alarm clock and put it back together, and I have been doing it ever since.”

However, to understand the best answer to this question, it is necessary to also address the second-most common question I encounter: “Calvin College has an engineering program?” Sometimes the question reveals surprise or confusion, sometimes delight, sometimes disapproval. But whatever the motivation, the very fact that the question comes to mind is perhaps the most important point. Why does a Christian liberal arts college need an engineering program? And, vice versa. [jva1] 

To consider the question, I adopt Josef Pieper’s definition of the liberal arts, taken from his essays on work, leisure, worship, and culture. (Pieper’s definition may be a bit of a caricature of the liberal arts, but does provide a starting point.) [jjva2] “The ‘liberality’ or ‘freedom’ of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimated by a social function, by being ‘work.’” [1] But here is the apparent antithesis – is not engineering defined and legitimated expressly by function? Pieper certainly thought so. He in fact characterized engineering as an example of being “proletarian” and “bound to the working process” because such work “does not have meaning in itself, but is directed toward something socially advantageous, a bonum utile, the realization of practical values and needs.”[2]

Engineering is not, itself, a liberal art. And so, it is not the same as studying math and science together, as many people presume. In the liberal disciplines, purely to know is a sufficient and admirable goal. Engineers are different in temperament. Still, I take issue with Pieper’s implication that the engineer’s goal of utility somehow puts engineering in a lower or less noble plane. We are all called to create, in the image of our creator. Some are called to create poems, some to create descriptions and explanations of the created world or creatures, and some to create items of utility. Isaiah tells us that God’s work and word have purpose, so certainly creating objects of purpose has “meaning in itself,” in the very image of God.

 

As the rain and the snow
       come down from heaven,
       and do not return to it
       without watering the earth
       and making it bud and flourish,
       so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
       It will not return to me empty,
       but will accomplish what I desire
       and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.[3]

 

Engineering, because of this different goal for exercising its creative call, has something to offer the liberal arts community in which it resides. A worldview that values utility, creative problem-solving approaches that are effective and efficient, and a realistic understanding of the trade-offs and compromises required to solve most problems are just a few important examples. Just as importantly, engineering needs the liberal arts. No problem solved by an engineer was ever isolated, or in fact even separable, from the truths investigated by the liberal arts and sciences. Thus, there is a real interdependence if an education in either type of discipline is to be truly broad. 

2. Engineering within a Christian Framework

            Separating the Christianity from my engineering nature is as difficult as separating the engineering from my nature. I was drawn to engineering not only because of abilities, but also because of my interests and worldview. These were amplified over years of education and practice within the discipline. When I planned my wedding, I planned it like an engineering project because that is the way I know to approach problems. Engineering permeates my whole being: how I see the world and frame what I see in a context. It is similar in many respects to how being a Christian affects my thoughts and actions. I naturally respond in a particular way because my Christianity permeates my whole being. Thus, a question of how to integrate Christianity and engineering seems to me like how to integrate my blood vessels and organs into my body. I am not the same body without them, so the question becomes moot.

            Still, I can identify certain concrete goals or ideals that I do have for how Christianity should deliberately (not just subconsciously) be a part of engineering. The goals are important to always keep in the foreground, shaping thought and action. Further, as I am an engineer, inclined by nature to value practicality, I am also conscious of the methods I actually use to achieve the broader ideals. 

2.1 Four Principles for Reformed Christian Engineering

What I wish to accomplish as a Christian teacher and scholar is grounded in certain ideals. These principles establish how I see the role of engineering in building God’s kingdom, and why I see a Reformed Christian approach as the best way to teach and practice engineering.

2.1.1 Engineers construct models in an attempt to study the mechanisms and systems under which God’s creation operates.   

All scholars in technical fields, whether Christian or not, demonstrate great faith. Technical knowledge is advanced by observing phenomena and then constructing laws or models for what will happen in the future, based on patterns of what has happened in the past. But to believe that the natural world will continue to behave as it has previously takes an act of faith. Christians have the reassurance that the world will continue to operate according to the plan of a divine creator who is actively involved in setting limits on the created order. A Reformed Christian believes that natural laws, whether discovered by a Christian or non-Christian scholar, can be expected to remain valid in the future. Thus, Christian faith gives us confidence that the principles of the natural world, upon which we base all our engineering constructions, will be the same today and tomorrow as they were yesterday.

Of course, this is not always simple. I open my ENGR 106 course (Engineering Chemistry and Materials Science, for first-year students) each year with a worldview statement along the following argument:

a)    I believe in a God who is unchanging in nature or character.

b)   His rules that govern creation are unchanging.

c)    As engineers, we construct models of how the world (creation) works. These models are our human attempt to characterize God’s unchanging rules of creation so that we can make use of this to design and create in God’s image, to develop solutions through technology.

d)   Our understanding (constructed models) of God’s rules may change, because humans and our models are imperfect.

e)    Creation itself can change. God’s rules govern how it may change, but creation is designed to be dynamic.

So, the rules for creation are “perfect” or “good” (from God); the model of these rules is imperfect (from humans). To further complicate things, all of creation is touched by the fall. We cannot necessarily know what is from God’s original plan versus what is from the fall (e.g.  Mosquitoes? Viruses that cause illness but also drive change in creation?). But we can, as engineers, attempt to work all things for the good, driven in God’s image.

As an example, Chapter 4 in the textbook for this course[4] is titled “Imperfections in Solids.” I remind student to not overlook the profound value judgment in this title. These “imperfections” are merely deviations from our human-constructed model of solid materials. Those deviations may be true imperfections, the effect of the fall on a small part of creation. Or, those deviations may be merely the result of an incorrect or incomplete human model. Either way, engineers can be redeeming the world as they study to improve the model and/or find utility in the very ways solids do deviate from the “perfect” model.

2.1.2 A Christian engineering education must shape the character as well as the mind.    

Further, a Christian education in engineering should not only communicate technical content but play a part in instilling right values, specifically shaping the Christian character so that engineers may successfully engage in lives of Christian service. The core virtues delineated in the Calvin College core curriculum statement (diligence, patience, honesty, courage, charity, creativity, empathy, humility, stewardship, compassion, justice, faith, hope, and wisdom) [5] form a foundation for both teaching and learning in the classroom, and scholarship in the professional world.

Within engineering classes, I attempt to convey specific ways that these virtues are manifest. For example, creativity is a key element of the profession; engineers are primarily designers, participating with God in developing and continuing his work of creation. To best carry out this design process in the image of God, engineers must be taught to notice and attempt to copy qualities of God’s perfect creation: beauty, fitness/appropriateness, needfulness, etc. (These have been well-described as the “design norms” in Responsible Technology.)[6] Engineering design always involves choices between competing interests (cost, functionality, quality, production time, environmental impact, etc.) and so stewardship is a daily consideration. The products and processes engineers design will all impact culture in some way, and a responsible Christian engineer will evaluate that impact as a part of the design process. This has particular implications for justice, stewardship, wisdom, empathy, and compassion, among the others.

2.1.3   Learning professionalism is a key component of engineering education.

Engineering is a profession, and as such, requires that its members act professionally. I spend time thinking about what this means, and looking for ways to convey this to my students. A succinct definition of professionalism is difficult, as it includes a diverse collection of ideas and behaviors. (For example, a professional works with competence within the limits of his or her particular abilities and education in a certain area, works with honesty and integrity under a common code of ethics, and takes responsibility for the results of his or her work.) Ultimately, I believe a professional is one who acts as a loving, humble servant to others, to the best of one’s ability. This does not sound so different from the behavior to which we are already called as Christians. Thus, I try to inspire my students to see that doing their best work in the best way allows them not only to excel in their profession, but to act as God commands.

2.1.4   Redemptive work is needed within the field of engineering.

Christian engineers do not have to accept the field of engineering as a given, in the way it is found. We can try to change (reform) engineering itself to be more Christian. This may involve challenging assumptions, questioning motivations, or reprioritizing decision criteria, for example. We should be constantly stretching our students to think in these ways as well.

            For example, Christian and non-Christian engineers alike are drawn, by constitution and education, toward “efficiency” (in terms of economics, time, natural resources, etc.) in solutions. This is clearly desirable, in general, and part of stewardship. And yet, there must be a balance. When God first created the world, he said that it was good.[7] He did not say that it was “useful” or “efficient.” It is certainly, in some sense, these things. But that does not seem to be the purpose, the essence, of the creation.

Thus, efficiency and usefulness are the requirements of a secular engineering design solution. But for a Christian engineer, these are merely necessary, not sufficient, conditions for a design solution that is good. Without the solid foundation of technical training, an engineer cannot design a useful thing, and so the design is pointless. But without the solid foundation of the liberal arts, in a Reformed Christian context, an engineer cannot recognize a good thing, and so the design is worse than useless – it misses its chance to be good and take a place in creation as God intended. As an extreme example, the gas chambers designed for mass executions in World War II were technically very efficient designs, but they were created to do something evil.[8] The engineer is not morally exempt from this outcome. Engineering work has an enormous impact on creation, culture, and individual humans; through the work of Christian engineers that impact can be positive and redeeming.

Christian engineers can be engaged in redemptive work through their philosophical as well as technical contributions to society. Christians who are engineers can have enough technological credibility to be able to contribute a voice of reason to the modern technical world. For example, Responsible Technology presents a caution against technicism, the common tendency (among both the technical experts and society as a whole) to look to technology as the universal savior of humanity. 

 

The powerful line of secularization present in modern Western culture has as its reigning characteristic the belief in human autonomy and power. Humankind has put itself at the center of all things and declares that it will find progress and life – its own salvation – by taking its destiny into its hands and bending history to its will. … This drive for human autonomy and mastery apart from God and his will manifests itself in technology in what we will call technicism. Technicism reduces all things to the technological; it sees technology as the solution to all human problems and needs. Technology is a savior, the means to make progress and gain mastery over modern, secularized cultural desires.[9]

 

            This worldview was also represented by Walter Miller in a science fiction novel.[10] The author, with the example of the nuclear bomb, posits that humankind is ultimately unable to control its own technology – we must create what we are able to learn to create, and we must use what we can create. Or, as Jeremy Rifkin points out more recently, “We’ve come to view technological ‘advances’ much the way we view the evolution of nature, as if each is fated and irrepressible, the implicit message being that to oppose their introduction is as ill-advised and futile as opposing nature’s own steady advance.”[11]

A key identifier of technicism is the belief that there are technological solutions to the problems brought about by technological change. My own research in biological engineering provides many examples of this mindset, and I must be on constant vigil against these thoughts myself. For example, there are toxic environmental pollutants introduced by modern technologies. Through genetic engineering, we have developed microbes that can metabolize these pollutants without toxic intermediates and by-products. However, as with any genetic modification, there are risks associated with uncontrolled proliferation, as well as gene transfer to similar organisms. So, attempts are made to prevent this with further genetic modifications, such as “suicide genes” added to a microbe, to be activated after it has performed its job of bioremediation.[12] These techniques are valuable, but Christian engineers should be continually providing a voice of caution, from outside the realm of technicistic thought.

2.2 Six Practical Reminders for Implementation

            The goals or ideals are important in order to keep me properly grounded in my Christian teaching and scholarship. However, I also need specific methods to use to bring out this inherent connectedness.

2.2.1       Keep it dynamic.

Integration of Christian faith with engineering is a fluid process. My core faith never changes, and God never changes, but I change, and so our relationship changes, and my understanding of my faith changes. At the same time, I am interacting with a number of students, each individually experiencing this same ebb and flow and gradual growth. It is the intersection of each of these faith stories where we meet as Christian scholars. That makes it exciting but not something that can be once and for all achieved, documented, and maintained. What worked last year is artificial and hollow this year because I have changed and the students have changed.

As a new teacher, I found that students most identified with aspects of my faith journey involving feeling overwhelmed, out of my element, like an impostor among a sea of more informed individuals. Class devotions naturally sprung from my personal struggles with God. The students, though in a very different place overall, could recognize the same human emotions that troubled me and that had been experienced by the writers of the Bible. In teaching, I keep a record of devotions I have written. After a few years, I found some of these devotions were falling flat. Had the struggles facing students changed so dramatically? Of course not, but my personal faith journey had moved to a new place. I had lost an authentic connection with those emotions. However, in writing a new devotion, from the heart in a new place, I reached students in a different, but once again real, way. For example, the students could instead identify with my new feelings of wondering how to authentically serve God and fulfill my calling through solving equations and designing distillation towers.

[jva3] 2.2.2   Keep it honest.

Students recognize a phony. I need to be real and open with my students. Students recognize when I am sharing from my own soul the joys and struggles that I have truly faced, and they respond to this.

In ENGR 335 (Mass Transfer and Staging Operations), I often include an essay question on a take-home test that asks students to respond to and personally reflect on a devotion I have shared that semester. I have learned that this test question is in many ways testing my own rather than the student’s achievement. In years when I have been successful in sharing directly and connecting devotions to my own life, I see that honesty reflected back to me in their responses. Opening up my own faith journey to them establishes a sense of intimacy and trust even though I may never have had a one-on-one conversation (of a personal nature) with that particular student.

2.2.3   Keep it relevant.

 Explicit faith connections with specific course materials will not appear unless actively, continuously sought. This does not mean that I will always find them, but I certainly will not find them otherwise. [jjva4] 

I also see this as a reason why we must be good scholars in our fields, as well as good teachers, if we are to remain true to our Christian mission. The scholarship we pursue outside the classroom deepens our understanding and allows us to draw connections to God (and identify patterns of God) that we would not otherwise see.

2.2.4 Keep it conversational.         

Sharing faith with students is a two-way street. It is important to seek feedback. I have been surprised that the student perception of my faith integration (according to instructor and course evaluations) has improved even as I feel less and less competent and successful. These positive evaluations do not mean I have arrived, but that I must remember things may be working better than I realize. I must be careful not to abandon activities that seem fruitless to me but that have great worth to others.

For example, I once had a classroom visit from a trustee (for a previous reappointment). At the time, I felt it was a disappointing and muddled class, and was sorry to have had a visitor that day. However, several months later, he remarked positively on something I had said during class relating the material to faith issues. It was a point that I scarcely remembered, but that grabbed him as crucial. My students and colleagues bring their unique experiences to the table and so experience what I share differently than I do.

This certainly applies to scholarship as well, which in engineering is collaborative by nature. Thus, I am almost certain to be interacting regularly with non-believers as I practice my profession. In ENGR 335 I teach senior students, and the devotions I use are generally related to making them think about their transition from Calvin College to a secular workplace. One story I share is from my time in graduate school. A graduate research group in engineering works closely together, and functions in many ways like a family. So, it was not surprising that a time of high stress in the project was affecting all of us greatly. I admit I was stunned when a co-worker asked me how I managed to always stay so calm when everything was falling apart. As I then point out to the seniors, I was just given an open invitation to talk to a non-Christian colleague about the power of prayer in my life, and the importance of knowing God is in control.

I did not actually feel particularly calm at that time, but obviously something in my demeanor made an impression on my coworker. I remind the students that Christian witness is bigger than standing on a street corner reading Bible verses. It was only through our ongoing friendship and mutual respect from a working relationship that I was able to share Christ with that woman. Christ is seen through the work a Christian engineer does, but also in his or her conduct while getting the work done. And, it may be helpful to seek feedback from other Christians to find out how their conduct is interpreted, since it is not always how we personally feel. I tell seniors they may be surprised to learn that others perceive them differently than they realize, hopefully to the better credit for Christ.

2.2.5   Take risks.

I must continually stretch myself to have spiritual growth. For example, I have never been comfortable with starting class with an arbitrary, tacked-on verse or prayer. (And I cannot always find a verse that relates enough to the day’s lecture to not seem arbitrary.) But sometimes, I start class this way anyway, because it leads to more. And sometimes, I get more comfortable doing something, with practice.

On the other hand, I do not feel that I have to be all things; just myself. Of course, I must fight against complacency and stagnation, but that is one reason God puts others of diverse abilities in our path. We should learn from each other as it fits the nature God has given us, and complement each other when it does not.

2.2.6   Be vigilant.

A complete Christian education is not bounded by the classroom walls. Important teaching occurs through mentoring, advising, and role modeling, both formally and informally. Students should begin to see not only me but each other living distinctly Christian lives of servanthood, within the context of their own discipline.

Conclusion

            The relevant question for me now is, “Why do you continue to study, teach, and work in engineering?” In secular terms, I might say I am “following my bliss.” As a Reformed Christian, I do it because it is where God has called me. A small child joyfully if imperfectly helps his parent with household chores. He experiences delight and a sense of self-worth in accomplishing the jobs put before him, generally unaware that his parent could finish the task twice as fast without his “help.” In the same way, I am delighted to work in the image of my heavenly parent, creating technology that can serve the human family.

 



References

[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), 22.

[2] Ibid., Leisure, 42.

[3] Isaiah 55:10-11 (NIV).

[4] William D. Callister, Jr., Materials Science and Engineering, An Introduction 6th Edition (New York: Wiley, 2003), 65-90.

[5] An engagement with God’s world: The core curriculum at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College, 1999).

[6] Steven V. Monsma, ed., Responsible Technology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 170-177.

[7] Genesis, Chapter 1.

[8] Ibid., Responsible Technology, 170.

[9] Ibid., Responsible Technology, 49-50.

[10] Walter M. Miller,  A Canticle for Liebowitz (New York: Bantam Books, 1959).

[11] Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century (New York: Putnam, 1998), 230.

[12] D. Paul, G. Pandey, J. Pandey, and R.K. Jain, “Accessing microbial diversity for bioremediation and environmental restoration,” Trends in Biotechnology, 23:3 (2005): 135-142.


 [jva1]Delete all text up to this, and start with Pieper’s definition?

 [jjva2]I could expand this with additional definitions of liberal arts from other sources. At least, look for Calvin’s own definition from the mission statement or handbook or core curriculum.

 [jva3]I am considering deleting this entire paragraph.

 [jjva4]Need a new example of this.