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Faculty Resources - Integration of Faith and Learning

Making Room for Serendipity: The Illumination of Faith and Learning

Dr. Steven H. VanderLeest
September 1999


Calvin faculty members are expected to integrate faith and learning.  However, the very phrase "integration of faith and learning" can be problematic.  It implies that the two are somehow separate and need our cajoling and forming and mending to bring them together into one synthesized being. It implies that the task is to mend that which was rent apart, to reunite loved ones that were separated.  This is not the case.  I would prefer to talk about illumination, rather than integration.  Faith is that foundation out of which springs not only learning, but also teaching, and professionalism, and service.  In fact, it was difficult for me to prepare separate statements on professional development and on integration of faith and learning.  The illumination of faith and learning is the discovery of the source of true knowledge.  It is the recognition that all of creation, both natural and artificial, is a good gift from the Creator's hand.  It is the acknowledgement that all of creation, including learning, including my discipline of engineering, has been stained by sin.  It is the celebration that we are redeemed in Christ. 

Faith is foundational because Christ's rule extends over all creation.  Therefore, as a teacher, I must strive to make every part of my work obedient to His command: my teaching, the syllabus, the class project, student advising, and everything else.  I must make room for my students and for me to discover God's grace and His kingdom in the area of engineering.  As a Reformed Christian, I acknowledge that only through God's saving grace can one find true faith and recognize the Creator.  I must make room for serendipity, that fortuitous discovery of the incredible extent of Christ's rule (fortuitous not by accident, but by God's design).

The exploration of faith and learning in engineering must necessarily incorporate the focus of engineering: design of technology.  Engineering uses the discoveries of science to solve practical, human problems.  Engineering design casts its net far and wide, incorporating not only technical knowledge in the solution of a problem, but also considering other aspects of the problem and its solution, such as the economic, historical, religious, political, sociological, and philosophical aspects, among others.  Isaac Asimov has noted the difference between science and engineering:  "Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world."  Engineers connect God's good creation to humankind.  They harness the power and beauty and complexity found in silicon and steel, concrete and isobutane, to serve humans in their multitude of endeavors. Such a wonderfully challenging task is a noble calling from God, but sin corrupts here too, when engineers serve human greed, pride, and envy.  Corporate profitability is certainly an important goal in order for a business to flourish, but when technical innovation becomes subservient to the corporate bottom line alone, the engineer has fallen short of his or her calling.  It is my job to be sure that engineering students understand the full extent of their place in building God's kingdom, in discerning the original goodness of the creation as well as the effects of sin in the technology they produce.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Faith without works is dead.  In the classroom, this means that more than mere head knowledge of faith is necessary - "heart knowledge" is also required.  Demonstrating one's faith requires dynamism inspired by the Holy Spirit.  This means that not only the material facts are faith dependent, but also the classroom interaction, the pedagogy, the curriculum, the teacher, the students, the homework, the examinations - all of it is interwoven and held together and supported by faith.  I demonstrate my faith not only in what I teach, but also by how I teach it. Students must be valued as image bearers of God.  They should be encouraged to develop their talents and gifts for use in building the kingdom of God.  I challenge them with difficult material but also support them in their efforts to understand.  Acting as a mentor and role model, I hope that they see Christ through me. 

Lessons only reach students' hearts when the instructor has credibility in their eyes - personal piety is a prerequisite to teaching corporate holiness and righteousness.  I cannot credibly teach about the effects of sin on the computer unless I first acknowledge the effects of sin on me as an individual.  Then, by witnessing to a personal salvation through Jesus Christ, I validate my witness to the possibilities of shining Christ's redeeming light on my profession.

Demonstrating the faith aspect of technical material is not a simple task.  I can find a faith basis in the fact that 1+1=2  (e.g., faith in an organized, unchanging, upholding God), but pointing out this fact every time I perform arithmetic can make the point seem trite.  Going to the other extreme of never explicitly acknowledging the Creator's hand is equally troublesome.  I try to keep an open mind (and heart) for the connections to point out for students.  Critical evaluation and proper perspective of technology can grow out of the most technical of details.  For example, studying the physics of the electronic transistor as a device to perform logical operations on binary data will lead into discussions of the beauty of a universe created with organized consistency as well as discussion on the modeling of reality with digital representations, the engineering method of successive decomposition, and the attendant problems that come with the loss of a holistic approach to design.  The study of superscalar pipelining in microprocessors will lead into discussions of consumerism, truth in advertising, and stewardship.

Making Room in the Classroom

It is important to foster a classroom environment that allows the students to express their questions and ideas openly and freely.  Making room in the syllabus, in the daily lectures, and in homework exercises for the teachable moment is essential.  Making room for serendipity makes room for illumination.  Students become accustomed to such interwoven big-picture thinking and more readily respond to deeper questions about their profession, their faith, and their worldview. As the keeper at the inn of engineering, I never want to turn away Christ from ruling over any part of my discipline. I must always have room; I must always be ready and eager to find how Christ's rule touches every part of my work.

One of the useful tools of engineering is the design matrix.  When an engineer approaches a problem, she brainstorms alternative solutions to that problem.  HoweverBut then, how does she choose the best solution?  The design matrix can help.  Rows of the matrix are labeled with potential solutions; columns are labeled with the desired characteristics of the solution: low cost, expandability, aesthetic appeal, and so forth.  The alternative solutions are scored on each desired characteristic and then prioritized by how well they meet the goals.  I point out for my students that some engineers make the matrix too narrow, focusing exclusively on profit.  A broader matrix with a faith basis will include characteristics such as justice for all stakeholders, stewardship of resources, care for human welfare, glory to God, and so forth.  Not every category will be fully satisfied because engineering design involves trade-offs.  For example, we can obtain higher gas mileage with a lighter car, but at the expense of safety. 

Technology is really a cultural activity at heart, as the book ­Responsible Technology convincingly argues.  The decision to use a broad design matrix is really a decision to take a transformational stance toward technology, or to use Niebuhr's Christ and Culture taxonomy, a conversionist solution.  Engineers in the Calvinist tradition do not evaluate technology and then simply oppose it or accept it.  They recognize the implicit opposition between Christ's rule and a fallen technology, asserting Christ's redeeming power to transform humankind in culture - in technology.  This is a fine place to lead the student through the sin-salvation-service cycle as it applies to engineering.  As redeemed Christians, we can first recognize the good in creation reflected in technology.  We can see this good in God's physical laws, in the human creativity to design that reflects God's image, in service to others through the designed product.  Second, we can recognize the effects of sin on our own designs, in the physical faults in our products, and in the human abuses of technology because of sin.  Third, we can seek to shine Christ's redeeming light on our work in service to Him.  For example, we can produce appropriate technology that enhances God-given human abilities and prevents abuse by design.

Besides using spontaneous faith conversations, I also use a variety of "hooks" in my classroom to draw the students' attention to the faith foundations.  Like the baseball broadcaster that uses an egg timer to remind himself to frequently provide the score to listeners, I use regular interludes during class to remind students of where they are.  I have a "big picture Monday" time at the beginning of the week, where we spend some time looking at broader issues of faith and technology.  I challenge the students by presenting a variety of viewpoints that I ask them to critically evaluate.  Topics might include the disparity of computer usage between whites and blacks in the United States , the appropriateness of an Internet-enabled refrigerator, the problem of pornography on the Internet, the effects of the microwave on family life, using a computer to enact the fruits of the Spirit, or how a computer can lead to a reduced worldview.  I have found that these discussions were very important to the students and to me, as they helped us stay centered and focused.  The students learn that technology can aid humans in worshiping God, in building the kingdom through service to others, and in exploring God's creation.  They also learn that technology can amplify evil, putting great power into the hands of a sin-corrupted world.

Students often weight the importance of class material by what the instructor chooses to place on the test.  Thus, I regularly include questions on my tests that explore a Christian perspective on a current technology.  For example, on a recent test I asked my students to consider the autoPC, a computer now available for automobiles that allows the user to access email, weather reports, and roadmaps while driving down the road.  I asked the students to critically evaluate this technology from a Christian perspective, identifying the good and bad in this part of creation.

Making Room in the Curriculum

Christ's rule extends to the curriculum as well.  In 1985, the Association of American Colleges observed in a report titled "Integrity in the College Curriculum" that "we have become a people unable to comprehend the technology we invent."  I believe that this observation is true in two ways.  First, many college students with non-technical majors do not understand the technology they use daily.  This lack of understanding can lead to inappropriate use and abuse of the technology.  Second, students in technical majors may understand the science and engineering, but they often lack the insight and discernment necessary to appropriately deploy new technology.  In my opinion, Calvin traditionally has done a better job addressing the second deficiency than the first, i.e., the science majors get more perspectival instruction than the non-science majors get of technical instruction. My own personal approach in teaching both technical and non-technical majors to critically evaluate technology is my interim course titled "Science Fiction and Technology."  This course brings together a multidisciplinary cross-section of Calvin students to study technology through Science Fiction short stories, novels, and films. 

The new core curriculum promises to do better in teaching students to evaluate technology within a Christian worldview framework.  It was my distinct pleasure to be a member of the Educational Policy Committee that reviewed the ad-hoc core curriculum committee's report. During this review, I advocated a two-pronged curricular approach to technology: first, I supported the core committee's recommendation for a Research and Information Technology (RIT) course required of all first year students; second, I advocated a broad approach to technology integrated into the entire core.  Robert White in his Environmental Science and Technology has said "Technology shapes society and society shapes technology."  The new core will teach students to critically evaluate technology as it is used in a variety of disciplines.  I am currently the chair of the ad-hoc RIT committee, working to structure the new course to effectively teach students basic information technology concepts and perspectival evaluation. 

Making Room in the Profession and Society

Because Christ's rule extends to every corner of the creation, I work to build His kingdom not only in the classroom, but also in my profession.  With the encouragement and help of James Bosscher (Emeritus Professor of Engineering), I have been working at forming a larger community of Christian engineers.  Bosscher and I were involved in the organization of the first Christian Engineering Education Conference, which was held at Calvin, and recently I was general chair for a third successful conference, held at the Wycliffe JAARS facility in Waxhaw, North Carolina.

I have also been involved with the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) in the Liberal Education Division.  I have presented a paper in this division at an annual conference, I was a moderator for a section at the most recent conference, and I am currently the webmaster for the division.  My approach in this context has not been to push a "religious" agenda per se, but rather to establish good relationships and friendships with engineering colleagues in secular institutions.  Recently the engineering profession and, by extension, the ASEE has taken an active interest in ethical issues in engineering, often using a utilitarian approach.  It is at this point that a useful dialogue can begin.

This year has offered a unique opportunity for me to speak to broader audiences on the critical evaluation of technology from a Christian perspective.  The Y2K bug is a defect in the software of many computers that will cause them to improperly handle the change in date from 1999 to 2000.  Computers with the bug store dates internally with only two digits.  Thus when the data value representing the year rolls over from 99 to 00, this may be interpreted as a large negative jump in the year, potentially causing computer crashes or wildly inaccurate computations.  I have given a number of seminars on the Y2K bug for academic and church audiences.  Integrating a Christian perspective with technical material in the seminar demonstrates for a broader audience the same approach to technology I teach in the classroom.  Colin Norman has observed a type of Faustian bargain in The God That Limps:  Science and Technology in the Eighties. He notes that the technological revolution has given us material progress, but the cost is a loss of control over many everyday aspects of our lives.  The Y2K bug is evidence of this Faustian Bargain - what is efficient in the short term must be paid for in the long term.  The Y2K bug also illustrates a point we teach students studying engineering at Calvin: engineering problems are never purely technical.  Engineers must consider the broader societal context in which a problem is embedded, contemplating, for example, the economic, historical, cultural, and spiritual realms in addition to the technical aspects of the problem.


During my previous reappointment, I noted some difficulties in integrating faith and learning at Calvin.  While both of these difficulties remain, each has been at least partially addressed.  First, there has been a lack of forums to discuss integration of faith and learning.  Recently there has been more faculty development along these lines, such as through summer workshops.  My own department has also started to provide a forum by discussing these issues when a department member applies for tenure.  A second difficulty is a subtle emphasis on scholarship over teaching - in part, I believe, because of our collective desire to move Calvin to the "next level" of scholarship and reputation.  I understand and support this goal, yet I am concerned that teaching not suffer as a result.  While scholarly research can certainly enhance teaching, it can also impair when it takes away from preparation time.  The administration has been relatively clear of late that good teaching is honored as much as good scholarship, but I continue to see subtle demands on my time toward scholarship over teaching.

In closing, I would like to record my gratitude to God for the chance to teach at Calvin.  Calvin opens new opportunities for me; it challenges me to grow professionally, personally, and spiritually.  I count it a joy and privilege to be a member of the Calvin faculty and I look forward to many more years of service to students and to the college.