Christian Engineers as Faithful Witnesses to Godís Redemptive Purposes for Creation

Harold Heie
Director Center for Christian Studies

Gordon College
255 Grapevine Road
Wenham, MA 01984-1899

Some of the best advice I ever heard about choosing a vocation didnít come from a guidance counselor or a minister, or my parents, but from a famous golfer, Jack Nicklaus. He is reported to have suggested the following: "Find something that you love so much and youíre so good at, that youíd do it for nothing, and then find someone who will pay you to do it." Thatís good advice, as far as it goes (I will soon argue that it doesnít go far enough). I have at times quoted this advice in discouraging parents from pushing their son or daughter into a college major where they can easily "make a living" (e.g., business), when what John or Susie really loves to do and is really good at, is to create works of art. I personally think itís better to be a struggling artist, loving what you do, than a well-to do business person who dreads the sound of the alarm clock on Monday mornings.

But surely something is missing in Nicklausí advice. To love to do something and to be good at it may be necessary conditions for a wise vocational choice, but they are not sufficient conditions. So Nicklausí advice is incomplete, from my perspective. I illustrate with an outlandish counter-example that makes my point. As a kid in Brooklyn, I may have loved and been good at stealing hubcaps off cars and selling them for a nice profit (not that we would ever think of doing that). But my love and gifts for such an activity hardly justifies it. I have to ask whether the activity is worthwhile. Is it important? To rephrase the question in terms of my Christian commitment: "Is the activity important in light of Godís redemptive purposes for creation?

But that question raises a prior question: What are Godís redemptive purposes for creation?

I was brought up on a narrow view of redemption, which was accompanied by a narrow view of what it means to witness as a Christian. I have since rejected that narrow view, and have embraced a broad view of Godís redemptive purposes. My explanation of this change in perspective will reveal my understanding of the ways in which Christian engineers can be faithful witnesses to Godís redemptive purposes for creation.

The view of redemption I was brought up on in my pietistic Lutheran church was that individual persons need redemption. And that is certainly true. As individuals, we need to embrace the good news of the gospel that God loves us as we are, not as we hope to be. And we need to appropriate for ourselves the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that reconciles us to God.

This initial view of redemption clearly defined what it meant for me to be a witness to Godís redemptive purposes. In terms of my witnessing as a Christian engineer in the aerospace industry in the late 1950s, such witnessing included the following:

ē Striving for excellence in all my work, as if I was working for God; not just for other people (Col. 3:23).

ē Developing caring relationships with my co-workers; trying to be sensitive to their needs and seeking to be a help to them in any way that I could.

ē As opportunity presented itself, bearing witness to the good news of the gospel, pointing my co-workers to a loving God who desires their redemption.

I want to state clearly that I wholeheartedly embrace these aspects of witnessing and the underlying view that individual persons need redemption. But is there more to redemption and witnessing than this; in addition to, not in place of? I now believe that there is.

The nature of the addition is best introduced by my noting questions I never asked myself as I tried to witness as an engineer, in the ways I just described. Is the work itself important? Is the product produced by this aerospace company, or the services rendered by this company important in light of Godís redemptive purposes for creation?

A major product of the company I worked for was a guidance system for ballistic missiles. Was it important for me as a Christian to contribute to the development of a guidance system for ballistic missiles? I donít want to suggest that there would have been a simple answer to that question, had I asked it. My point here is not to try to answer that question. My point is the absolutely amazing, and alarming fact that I never asked myself the question: Should I be contributing to the development of a guidance system for ballistic missiles? Is such work important in the light of Godís redemptive purposes for creation?

And why did I not ask myself that question? Because at that time in my pilgrimage, I had a very truncated view of redemption, that only individual persons need redemption, and a corresponding truncated view of what it means to be a Christian witness.

I would now like to tell you what I believe is "the rest of the story" (to borrow a phrase from Paul Harvey).

I must now return to that prior question: What are Godís redemptive purposes for creation (in addition to the redemption of individual persons)? In other words, what does God consider to be important?

Far be it from me to give you a definitive word on that. I invite you to join me in an exploration I began some 30 years ago, when this question of importance first pressed itself on my mind and heart and I began dissecting the pages of my Bible looking for explicit and implicit hints as to what God considers to be important.

Without wanting to truncate your exploration of what God considers to be important, here is my partial list, expressed in terms of my understanding of the work to which God calls those who profess commitment to the Christian faith, in addition to the redemption of individual persons.

ē God calls Christians to be agents of peace and reconciliation between persons and groups in conflict, from the farthest ends of the world to our places of employment, to our churches, to our own homes. Situations of conflict groan for redemption.

ē God calls Christians to be agents for justice; to work tirelessly for a more equitable distribution of goods and rights to the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed of the world. Unjust societal and political structures groan for redemption.

ē God calls Christians to be agents for the flourishing of the natural creation, the inanimate world, by wise stewardship of natural resources and concern for a healthy physical environment. A polluted earth groans for redemption.

ē God calls Christians to be agents for beauty; showing appreciation for beauty, both in Godís creation and in the artistic creation of humans, and fostering the further creation of such beauty. Ugliness groans for redemption.

ē God calls Christians to be agents for knowledge, for greater understanding of all aspects of the created order, that we may live in proper relationship with that order. Ignorance groans for redemption. Inadequate perspectives on the academic disciplines groan for redemption.

ē God calls Christians to be agents for the growth of other people, with each person growing in accordance with his/her special gifts and abilities. Persons whose growth is stifled through neglect or abuse groan for redemption.

The truth of the matter is that all of Godís creation groans for redemption. This large view of redemption was eloquently captured by the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, when he said "...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, ĎMine!í."

I propose for your consideration this large view of redemption. The associated large view of witnessing to Godís redemptive purposes is that I must go beyond working for the redemption of individual persons, as important as that is. I must commit myself to being an agent for various facets of Godís redemptive purposes, in accordance with my particular gifts and abilities.

If you accept this large view of redemption and this large view of witnessing, there are significant implications for engineering education at a Christian college or university. I will now propose some concrete suggestions for your consideration, including some curricular proposals, recognizing that you may have to adapt these to your particular college situations.

ē Create venues for your engineering students to struggle with the following question: What types of engineering services and products are important in light of Godís redemptive purposes for creation?

I was never encouraged to deal with this question in my own engineering education. This question should be posed early and often during the studentís college career.

In my idealized engineering curriculum this question would first be posed in a first year engineering seminar class, which would also include a healthy dose of dealing with worldview issues, including struggling with the prior question: What are Godís redemptive purposes for creation? (Recognizing that my proposal to you is only one possible response to that prior question).

ē Create venues that will enable your engineering students to take the giant step from knowledge to wisdom.

I am using the word "wisdom" here to refer to discernment as to how to use knowledge in light of Godís redemptive purposes for creation.

Christian engineers must avoid like the plague the common, rampant "technological fallacy," which is the idea that if we have developed the capability for doing something new, that is sufficient reason for doing it.

For example, to have the capability to build the next generation of automobiles is not sufficient reason for doing so. The discerning Christian automotive engineer will ask the prior question: For what purpose are we building the next generation of automobiles?

The discerning Christian automotive engineer will distinguish between automobile design and production programs intended to provide more expensive toys for the rich and famous and programs intended to minimize pollution for the redemptive purpose of creating a healthier natural environment.

Although I believe the discernment that I call wisdom is better caught than taught, by exposure to mentors who exhibit such discernment, engineering students must also understand the discipline of ethics, which if properly taught, can provide students with a framework for making discerning choices.

Therefore, my idealized engineering curriculum would include a junior level course in ethics, but not the common course on ethical theories taught by your philosophy department, as good as that might be. Rather, this should be an interdisciplinary course in ethics that reflects the ABET 2000 standards. Christian engineering educators should especially embrace the "criterion 3" expectation that "Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates understanding of professional and ethical responsibility...[and] the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context;" as well as the "criterion 4" standards that "students must be prepared for engineering practice through the curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on knowledge and skills...that include most of the following considerations: economics; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political."

These ABET criteria suggest the need for a well chosen set of regular general education courses, selected on the basis of the stated considerations that should inform the major design experience, which will lead up to my proposed junior level course in ethics. These criteria also suggest some of the interdisciplinary aspects that should be included in this required ethics course. In order to distinguish this ethics course from the usual fare, I might retitle it "Engineering Decision-Making in Societal Context."

ē Create opportunities for students to have a significant service internship (6-10 weeks during the summer between the junior and senior years) that focuses on your collective departmental understanding of Godís redemptive purposes for creation (which may differ from my understanding).

If I were developing such service internship experiences, I would focus on addressing the needs of the poorest and most marginalized peoples of the world.

This internship should be a credit-bearing experience which includes major reflective components, such as reading, writing papers and journaling, in addition to hands-on experience.

In my idealized engineering curriculum, this would be a requirement for all engineering majors, so that they get first hand exposure to pressing needs of the world prior to making career choices. A portion of my proposed junior level ethics course could be devoted to preparation for this service internship.

One of you posed the following question in a recent email message to me: "Many of our programs saw the ABET 2000 criteria as vindication of our broad, strong liberal arts approach. However, now everybodyís doing it, so how do we remain distinctive?"

The service internship proposal I just made could be distinctive if it focuses on addressing Godís redemptive purposes for the poor and marginalized of the world.

Likewise, my final proposal could be distinctive. It is patterned after the opportunity faculty in TIAA-CREF now have to direct their retirement investment into companies classified as "socially responsible."

ē Conduct a major job fair for your senior students, to which you invite companies that you judge to have a special commitment to provide engineering services and products that significantly foster the various facets of Godís redemptive purposes for creation.

You have by now detected my underlying assumption that all Christians are called to be agents for Godís redemptive purposes for creation, broadly defined. I believe that is the calling of Christian engineers.

My prayer for you as Christian engineering educators is that you will first model that calling in your own life and then create optimal educational structures that will best prepare your engineering students for a lifetime of devotion to that high calling of being agents for Godís redemptive purposes for creation.

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