Friday, December 10, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
The Battlestar Galactica science fiction series that aired on television in the late 1970’s was recently re-imagined into a new series that finished in 2009 with a two-part finale titled “Daybreak.” In this final episode, the character Lee Adama comments on technology as the product of our science and engineering: “If there’s one thing that we should have learned, it’s that… you know, our brains have always outraced our hearts. Our science charges ahead, but our souls lag behind. Let’s start anew.” That’s not an uncommon notion in our society – that perhaps we need to step away from our technologically sophisticated world and get back to a simpler, purer time. I agree that there is significant truth to the idea that we develop technology faster than we learn how to properly manage it, often learning by hard experience what works and what doesn’t. (Civil engineer Henry Petroski has proposed that in fact we often develop and refine our technology precisely through learning from our failures.) However, though technology certainly has its dangers (physically, philosophically, ethically), the solution is not to reject all technology.
For Christians, I think there is additional motivation to pursue technological development. God does not intend for humans, his appointed stewards of his creation, to simply step back and let the creation revert to some “pure” state. Rather we are expected to develop the creation in ways that glorify our Creator. For example, consider how cultivation of the land is treated as a normal and expected part of duties. God’s blessing is described in Psalm 104:14: “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth.” Humans are expected to tend plants – to take action to modify the land in ways that help certain plants to flourish. Conversely, God’s curse is described as a time when human caring for the land goes lax: “I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.” (Isaiah 5:6, NIV). The land reverts to a primitive state that is decidedly worse in a practical and philosophical sense when humans do not care for it. That care once again includes development and even selective modification, such as pruning. I think this calling traces back to the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. The first task given to humankind is to fill the earth and subdue it. Although the initial reading of this command is to have lots of babies, the deeper meaning is to perform our role as stewardship and caretaking by cultivating the creation so that creation flourishes, and we ourselves flourish as a result. Consider the other end of the Bible (and the other end of history): in Revelations we see a technological development made better – not a new version of the garden called Eden, but a new version of the city called Jerusalem.
I recently heard an engineering student exhort his colleagues to put their faith to action by going beyond simply sprinkling Christian management principles into their work, but by a radical rethinking of their work, noting that he was going into the mission field. On the one hand he is absolutely right, that Christ calls us to turn aside from the world and follow him with all our hearts. This student was not suggesting that one must put aside technology, in fact likely intends to make technology a part of his mission service. However, what makes me cringe is that I also hear in that statement the implication that no Christian is really living out their faith unless they become a missionary in a developing country. The radical turning to Christ should go further than the mission field. It should encompass our whole world and life, all our thinking and knowledge, all our actions and behaviors, all our careers and roles. A corporate CEO is called to be a Christian in that role. A stay-at-home mom is called to be a Christian in that role. Teachers, nurses, politicians, musicians, and students are called. So are you—called to be a Christian in all your roles. Walter M. Miller, Jr. captures this idea well in his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz where an abbot in a monastery after an imagined nuclear holocaust says “I see nothing inconsistent in monks of Christ building a flying machine, although it would be more like them to build a praying machine.” Christians should certainly pray, but sometimes they should also fly! Christians should be pursuing the Great Commission, but this command from Christ did not replace the Cultural Mandate. Put the two together and I think it gives us an idea of the tension of being in the world but not of it: called to be not only members of the Kingdom of heaven, but also citizens on earth as transformative agents.