A Christian Bridge

Monday, November 29, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Could we determine whether a bridge was designed by a Christian?  A Christian engineering colleague of mine claims there is no such thing as a “Christian” bridge because everything we do is informed by faith.  The fact that the physical laws of the universe are understandable and predictable allows us to design and build a bridge. The real question is not whether a bridge could be Christian, but rather why atheist engineers don’t realize that their reliance on this understanding and predictability is an act of faith.  My colleague claims that one could not determine solely by examination of the artifact (the bridge) whether a Christian or a non-Christian designed it.  Furthermore, it is a form of arrogance for Christians to think they are the only ones who could design a bridge well, or the only ones who would take into account good morals or ethics.  The only difference might be in the purposes that the designer has in their heart for why they do the work, but this does not in any way impact their actual design decisions.

Abraham Kuyper had a high view of God’s sovereignty: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and 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: ‘Mine!’”. On the one hand, my colleague’s approach is philosophically Kuyperian in sweep – all engineering falls under the reign of Christ because it depends on God’s providential upholding of physical forces and material properties.  On the other hand, in practice it is non-Kuyperian because it dismisses any distinguishing of a Christian approach to engineering and denies that any engineering methods could be particularly Christian in character.

I would like to make the case for a Christian bridge.  I once heard someone react to the term “Christian Engineering”, wondering if that meant an engineer that designed machines in the shape of a cross.  Well I imagine that a cross-shaped building, sculpture, or machine might lead someone to Christ, I don’t think that the shape by itself makes the artifact “Christian” anymore than wearing a lapel pin in the shape of an elephant at a political rally makes one a Republican or anymore than placing wooden shoes and Delftware on the shelf makes one Dutch.  These things may be symbols to signify one’s position or worldview, but the symbol does not make the man.  The man makes the symbol.  Similarly, our actions do not make us Christian.  Carrying a Bible, giving food to the poor, attending church, singing a hymn – these are also symbols.  Could one do these things without really being a follower of Christ?  Certainly.  But by the same token, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17, NIV).  That is, a Christian will show herself by the symbols she creates – her actions, her words, her behavior.  The symbols are not so stark that we have a litmus test.  There will be false positives, where a non-Christian exhibits behaviors we expect of Christians (such as a Muslim or an secular humanist atheist who gives food to the poor).  There will be false negatives, such as a Christian that does not exhibit those behaviors (at least not to our eye) and yet truly believes.  These misdiagnoses merely lead me to conclude that many scriptural principles are not unique to Christianity (the theology of common grace gives some substance to that thinking) and furthermore, Christians are not consistent in their pursuit of scriptural principles (the theology of total depravity gives some substance to that thinking).  However, just because all dogs are mammals does not mean we cannot distinguish the dog from, say, the cat (though they have many similar behaviors and attributes).  Likewise, all Christian engineers may be engineers, but that does not mean we cannot distinguish them.  My colleague makes the question more difficult, however.  Even if we can distinguish the Christian engineer, can we distinguish their work? 

I believe we can.  Real problems nearly always have more than one solution.  Engineers use principles and design criteria to choose amongst those alternative solutions.  The choice of principles and the relative weight of them vary between engineers and might even vary for the same engineer from project to project.  It is likely that many of these design criteria are shared to some degree between engineers because of similarity of education, shared cultural and social background, and certainly due to the shared physical world and environment to which trade-offs must be applied.  Thus, most engineers probably include “cost” and “reliability” in their criteria.  However, engineers are unlikely to come to the exact same solution to a common problem because they bring different suppositions, values, principles, and worldviews to bear in solving the problem.  Their choices are not predictable, deterministic calculations that could be simply programmed into a computerized automaton engineer, but require human judgment and wisdom.  The shape, size, material, location, and function of the bridge are not foregone conclusions but are a set of choices among many possibilities.  The odds that ten engineers would make the same set of decisions resulting in an identical bridge, are no more than the likelihood that ten musicians would compose the identical piece of music or that ten pastors would write the identical sermon.  Thus a particular technology design is not entirely objective, but rather is the product of a particular set of choices that are related to the particular engineer.  The child bears a resemblance to the parent.

Returning to the original question, could we determine whether a bridge was designed by a Christian?  Not with certainty. Both a Christian and a non-Christian would be likely to choose materials that had sufficient strength to bear the anticipated load.  Both would likely attempt to minimize costs in order to make the project financially feasible.  Both would likely reference the same relevant codes and regulations to guide the design.  Despite these similarities, I believe we could determine whether a bridge design was compatible with Christian principles.  For example, a bridge that was located in such a way that it displaced a poor community while creating a convenience for a wealthy community would be an injustice that I claim would be incompatible with Christian principles.  That is, a Christian engineer ought to take justice into account when designing the bridge.  While justice might mark the decisions of many other engineers too, I claim that it is a necessary condition for those that claim to be Christian.  I claim that Christian engineers ought not compartmentalize their technical work from their faith because the technical work has impact far beyond the math once the design is physically realized.  Their faith should require additional principles (or added weight to principles they share with others) that guide their design of technology, principles such as justice, mercy, humility, stewardship, and honesty.  A Christian bridge honors such principles.

Justice and Technology

Friday, November 19, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

God cares about justice.  It is one of our primary directives as human beings made in his image and called to serve him:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV).  Requirements are familiar to engineers – they are the goals that a design is expected to meet, the bar we are supposed to reach.  This requirement to act justly is a key mandate in God’s word:  the concept of justice appears hundreds of times in scripture. 

Justice is about fairness and equity, about treating people equally, about providing a level playing field.  It is about recognizing certain rights that we ought to recognize that others have because they are human and our responsibilities to recognize those rights.  You might wonder: how could a concept that is so connected with people and relationships be related to technology? Technology at its best is all about people – a tool that aids us in being human, aids in creating shalom.  At its worst, it is dehumanizing and isolating, and could even create injustice. 

Like humility, which I discussed in an October blog entry “Humility and Technology”, justice is another virtue that I believe applies not only to our personal behavior but also to our technology.  It is a design “norm” that helps us direct our technological development and products towards proper and appropriate use.  Let me suggest three important viewpoints on justice that lead towards understanding its connection with technology.  First, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in emphasizing that the New Testament call for love is not a replacement of the Old Testament call for justice, also points out that justice is a feature not just of individuals but ought to be characteristic of society:  “And God loves the presence of justice in society not because it makes for a society whose excellence God admires, but because God loves the members of society… God desires that each and every human being shall flourish, that each and every shall experience what the Old Testament writers call shalom.  Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom.  That is why God loves justice.  God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that.  Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined” (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, 2008).  Technology is a ubiquitous part of our culture and society and must therefore be considered when pursuing aims of justice.  Second, Martin Luther King, Jr. called for love to temper power so that it is directed to the needs of justice: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” (“Where do we go from here?” speech, August 16, 1967)  While political position, knowledge, or military might could all be included, technology often is related to these and other sources of power.  Thus we should pay particular attention to how power in the form of technology.  Third, Archbishop Desmund Tutu noted that there “are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative - not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.” (Quoted in “Recovering from Apartheid,” The New Yorker, 18 November 1996)  In pursuing a just society, we must consider the sources of power in our society.  This restorative form of justice may be a useful model for justice related to technology. That is we should think not so much of the “long arm of justice” in the form of retribution supported by technology (though that is often the case), but think in terms of how technology can restore and mend, how it can bring about shalom. 

I conclude with one example where technology has apparently created an inequity – an unfair advantage that is an injustice.  I believe that in much of modern society, reliable Internet access has moved from the luxury of a few to quickly becoming a necessity.  The web is slowly supplanting other sources of information, such as medical and healthcare knowledge, legal guidance, methods of navigating the federal bureaucracy, and even finding a decent job.  Those with superior digital access have a strong advantage in all these areas and more.  But there is a gap in the distribution of digital access.  One might expect that those with more income tend to have better access, and that is true.  But what is troubling is that there are noticeable differences in access even after accounting for income and education – and those differences fall along racial lines.  The Associated Press reported in an article titled “Broadband usage growing even as gaps persist” on 8 Nov 2010 that “The U.S. still faces a significant gap in residential broadband use that breaks down along incomes, education levels and other socio-economic factors, even as subscriptions among American households overall grew sevenfold from 2001 to 2009…. What’s more, even when controlling for key socio-economic characteristics, the U.S. continues to confront a racial gap in residential broadband use, with non-Hispanic white Americans and Asian-Americans more likely to go online using a high-speed connection than African-Americans and Hispanics…. the new Commerce Department report is that African-Americans and Hispanics lag behind in broadband adoption even when controlling for factors such as income and education. The data show a gap of 10 percentage points in broadband use between whites and blacks and a gap of 14 percentage points between whites and Hispanics even after controlling for socio-economic factors.”  Why does this gap exist?  I think justice calls us to examine the problem carefully, identify the reasons and underlying issues, and then work to close the gap.  Otherwise this digital divide remains an injustice that technology perpetuates.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Why didn’t Jesus do bigger miracles?  He fed the 5,000, and that was pretty big, but it was only one meal.  Why didn’t he feed more people yet, and for more meals? Why didn’t he turn more water into wine, rather than only the last few jars at a single wedding?  Why were only a few lepers healed, when there were so many in need in the surrounding colonies.  Why calm the storm just that once – why stop there?  I think the answer may have to do with models.

When contemplating big or complex concepts we often start by creating a model.  It is not the real thing, but it helps us understand the reality.  It is often smaller or simpler.  The model is a representation, a symbol, a sign.  As school children we all have built models of one type or other:  clay models of a building, diorama shoebox scenes for social studies, solar system models out of Styrofoam spheres, or model volcano for science class.  Hobbyist young and old often work with models:  model rockets, model airplanes or cars built from tiny plastic parts glued together and painted, historical replicas, dollhouse scale models, model railroads.  Sometimes we bring together a group of people that work together to form the representation, such as a Civil War battle historical re-enactment, or perhaps a model United Nations meeting that mimics the real UN.

Scientists and engineers often use mathematical models that attempt to explain reality, characterize a system, or to extrapolate reality (either to unknown situations or to predict the future).  Business professional use financial models to analyze cash flow and evaluate business strategies.  Investment professionals use models to guide investment decisions and predict market movement.  Political gurus use statistical models to predict voter turn-out and voter issues, while election reporters use statistical models and exit poll data to predict winners well before actual counts are complete.  Meteorologists use computer weather models to forecast rain or sunshine.  The military uses computer simulations to play out various battle scenarios (though somehow in the movies, those computer systems never fail to get out of hand and start a real Armageddon, with the hero pulling the plug at the last possible moment).

Engineering models are used to guide the design of technological products.  The models are used to provide insight into optimum size, shape, and material for a desired end.  The model can help the designer determine clearances and interactions, tolerances and offsets.  Models can help the customer evaluate proposed solutions.  Electrical engineers use SPICE electronic circuit models to mathematically mimic the behavior of transistors.  Mechanical engineers use Finite Element Analysis (FEA) models that approximate solutions to partial differential equations, which themselves model physical material characteristics such as elasticity or strength of a material. Engineering models are used to predict the future behavior of an envisioned design, virtually acting out various scenarios with the model to detect failure conditions, anticipate wear or fatigue, confirm safety and reliability, and so forth. 

Though models can certainly be helpful in these many ways, they can also be dangerous.  In class, my students sometimes get the model and reality mixed up.  They simulate a circuit on the computer and then build it in the lab and measure the real behavior.  When they graph the simulated and lab results, the points don’t always line up perfectly.  But interestingly, often they conclude something is wrong with the lab results rather than suggesting that the model is not a perfect mirror of reality.  Why would we think reality should be so clean and pure as a simple mathematical model?  Is f=ma true?  Does force really equal mass multiplied by acceleration?  Precisely?  Or is that simply a model that we use that allows us to get our minds around the problem more easily?  On the whole, we thought Newton had the perfect mathematical model for how matter and forces interact over time—until Einstein showed that Newton’s models were just an approximation, that time was a relative concept.  E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered includes a chapter titled “A Machine to Foretell the Future” (pp. 223-240).  He points to computers as a promising new technology to forecast and predict—an amazing possibility!  “Are not such machines just what we have been waiting for?  All men at all times have been wanting to know the future.” (p. 223).  He goes on to consider the likelihood that our carefully constructed mathematical models will yield good forecasts: “What is the meaning of a ‘good mathematical fit?’  Simply that a sequence of quantitative changes in the past has been elegantly described in precise mathematical language.  But the fact that I – or the machine – have been able to describe this sequence so exactly by no means establishes a presumption that the pattern will continue.  It could continue only if (a) there were no human freedom and (b) there was no possibility of any change in the causes that have given rise to the observed pattern.”  I think Schumacher is on to something here.  Modern society is not satisfied with living merely in the moment but constantly is predicting what will come next – on the stock market, in the weather, in fashion, in politics, and more.  Our technological forecasting tools are dangerous because they give us a false illusion of precision, a false security about results that are far from certain, and a false impression that the future is deterministic.  This façade of certainty discounts human free will.  It discourages or even eliminates the use of human judgment concerning the likelihood and impact of future events. 

Now to return to the opening question:  incredible as they were, why didn’t Jesus do bigger miracles?  As God, he certainly could have provided more spectacular displays of his power.  Perhaps it is because the miracles of Christ are models.  They point to a bigger truth.  We need a scale model because the real thing is too big to see, too vast for comfort.  We need a simplified model because the real thing is too complex to understand, too wonderfully intricate to comprehend.  C.S. Lewis suggests this view of miracles in a article published in God in the Dock , as pointers to the greater miracle of ongoing providence: 

There is an activity of God displayed throughout creation, a wholesale activity let us say which men refuse to recognize.  The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale.  One of their chief purposes is that men, having seen a thing done by personal power on the small scale, may recognize, when they see the same thing done on the large scale, that the power behind it is also personal – is indeed the very same person who lived among us two thousand years ago.  The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see…God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine.  That, men fail to see…  But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off.  The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God:  it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana.  (p. 29) 

I am grateful to Lewis for such an insight.  Our world, including our technology, does not behave as it does through happenstance.  It is because our God providentially upholds his creation, caring for it and lovingly sustaining it.  Christ’s miracles are reminders of that intimate, personal touch of the Creator.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest