Christianity and Computer Science at Wheaton

We Christians are sent into the world as Christ's witnesses, to glorify Him and serve Him, to serve and love others, to help bring about His kingdom. The liberal arts education, especially at a Christian college, equips us for that call with a better understanding of God and of humanity, a profound appreciation of the wonders of creation, a thoughtful, gentle wisdom, and a hope for the way things ought to be. Thus equipped, we can exemplify and help bring about God's kingdom through our vocation and our other interactions in society.

The more mathematical aspects of computer science are similar to the natural sciences in that they consist largely in the discovery of and wonder at God's creation. The discovery that some problems are easy, some solvable but inherently hard, and some unsolvable by any computer that could ever be built; the discovery of formal definitions of deep concepts such as computability and information and method; the ability to model and simulate aspects of the world, both physical and non-physical -- these lead us to appreciate the beauty and complexity of God's creation, including the natural but non-physical world.

Computer science also has an engineering aspect. We create; we build something useful, beautiful, strong, right. We learn necessary skills and techniques, practice our art, and do our best for the love of God. And the utility and beauty of what we create is not ephemeral, as a musical performance, or of limited access, as a sculpture or painting, but easily and cheaply accessible world-wide.

Our faith has a more direct bearing on some foundational issues of computer science. The closer a question is to addressing what it means to be a person, the more likely the wisdom of the world is to be foolishness and the Christian view to be unique in addressing that question. One area in which such questions arise is artificial intelligence. Some of the practitioners of AI claim to be in the business of creating intelligent, living beings -- persons. Yet we as Christians know that this cannot be so. When God created Adam, he breathed life into him. This breath -- this Spirit of God -- is unique to humanity. Man alone is created in the image of God. The nature of this image is a very deep question, something Christians continue to learn about and explore throughout their lives; yet certainly it involves the fundamentals of what it means to be human: to be able to love unselfishly, to be responsible for our actions, to have fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Can a computer love unselfishly? Can a computer deserve punishment? In my view, not unless God breathes life into it.

Other aspects of computer science and the computer and communications revolution (called by Newsweek the "bit bang") warrant scrutiny from a Christian, moral point of view. We as Christians ought to try to understand the nature of the revolution, the effects on society, the dangers and the worthwhile uses. There is a need for the recovery of peace and beauty in the frantic world of endless entertainment, violent, consuming computer games, mountains of low-value information, the relentless pursuit of novelty, and the sterile socialization of "cyber societies." Yet these forces are transforming society. We need to understand the utility of the Internet, to find the beauty, to show others the way.

At Wheaton College we can pursue these issues in the light of faith, in the company of like-minded people. In this liberal-arts setting, in addition to learning the tools of the trade, we can contemplate the foundational, theoretical, and ethical issues from a Christian perspective and exemplify a Christian approach to the discipline. In this way we can pursue our calling as Christ's witnesses, for his kingdom.

Harry Plantinga
Wheaton College