Technology has been a common theme in my life. The passion began early with building crystal radios and other electronic projects, then moving on to experimenting with ham radio and delighting in the world of early personal computers. My interest in technology drew me to study engineering at a large, respected, engineering school. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, I felt confident I could tackle whatever technical challenges would come my way. Before long, I settled into working at a small high-tech company as an engineer.

Over time, the novelty of the technical aspects of the engineering job began to wane. I recall sitting in a cubicle farm wondering what impact my day-to-day work actually had for the kingdom of God. I was educated in electrical engineering, which is to say that I was not well-educated in anything else. It became apparent to me that my excellent technical training had lacked in providing me with a context and meaning for my work. Beyond witnessing to fellow employees in the lunch room, or sharing my faith with customers as opportunity allowed, what relevance did my faith have to my technical work? What do circuits have to do with salvation? What do bytes have to do with Christian beliefs?

This is not a new question. The early church father Tertullian once posed the question “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” What he meant by this was, what does Athens—a city representing culture, have to do with Jerusalem—a city that represented faith. Today we could ask: what does Silicon Valley have to do with Jerusalem?1

I was raised in Reformed circles, and so I was familiar with the notion that “every square inch” falls under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s easy to say that faith informs all of life, but that notion becomes little more than a platitude without a more detailed understanding of just what that means.

Eventually, I felt the call to move from industry into the area of teaching in Christian higher education, a job where one is expected to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). I soon realized that many Christian scholars were grappling with the same questions I had been asking in the cubicle farm. Most Christian engineers and computer scientists recognize that the Bible needs to be our starting place, but what do the ancient Scriptures have to say about modern technology? The word computer or engineer cannot be found in a Bible dictionary. The Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet, but how do the Scriptures light our way when we are traveling along new paths?

As a young Christian scholar I sought out answers, and gradually observed several different approaches to applying Scripture to the world of technology.2

The first approach I observed was one of dualism—an approach that divides life into secular and sacred domains. This approach asserts that the Bible deals only with spiritual matters and has nothing to offer on matters like technology. Christian education is simply about “Christians educating”—and perhaps adding chapel or prayer alongside class. While this approach recognizes the importance of having Christian faculty, it does not recognize any relevance between faith and the world of technology itself. Regrettably, a recent paper in Christian Higher Education found that “professors specializing in computer science, math, and engineering were the least likely to integrate faith into their teaching.”3

According to this approach, the way to “integrate” faith and engineering is to build products in support of churches or missionaries, or perhaps use your salary as an engineer to donate to missions. To be sure, these are important things, but this approach does not recognize any relevance between faith and the world of technology itself.

A second approach I observed engages a subject in the same way as one might in a secular environment, but shoe-horns something to spiritualize the content. For instance, you could ask engineering students to compute the buoyancy of Noah’s ark, or ask computer science students to sort items from “least to greatest” as a reminder that that the “last shall be first.” This approach is essentially a form of biblicism—attempting to fit verses without regard for the biblical context and treating the Bible like a textbook in all subject areas. For example, it has been suggested that Isaiah 31:5 anticipates airplanes, and Job 38:35 predicts wireless telegraphy. While this approach is based on a high regard for Scripture, it mistakes the Bible for an academic textbook rather than God’s salvation story. It stretches verses out of shape to make them refer to things that cannot be what they meant in their original context.

A third approach is one that seeks to draw analogies from the Bible. For instance, comparing God to a great computer, or comparing computer logic to the attributes of God. While such comparisons attempt to connect Scripture to subject areas, they blur the distinction between creator and creation.

Don’t get me wrong—I found some of these approaches among sincere Christians who were genuinely wrestling with connecting their faith to their discipline, as I was. But I found each of them unsatisfying.

A career change from industry to teaching in a Christian college provided me a unique opportunity to engage the question of faith and technology. I discovered an approach that made sense to me—one that combined a high regard for Scripture along with a thoughtful hermeneutic, one that avoided the pitfalls of dualism or biblicism, and yet takes the Bible message seriously for all of life.

Philosopher Alasdair McIntyre wrote “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”4 As Christians, we live within the grand Biblical narrative, and each of our own individual narratives are nested within this story. The big sweep of the story of Scripture shapes a Christian worldview, informed by the Biblical themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.5

The creation story tells about animals and plants, and stars, but it includes all the things that God has ordained to be, including technology. In the creation story, humans are given a responsibility to cultivate and keep the earth—to unfold the latent potential in creation. Moreover, God created human beings in his image—something that has many implications, including for our view of AI (artificial intelligence) and all the ways people are distinct from machines.

Somewhere near the beginning, the Biblical story tells us the human family fell into sin, and all creation fell under a curse. In the words of Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning.”

The fall also impacts our technology, which can be directed either in obedience to God’s intentions or towards more disobedient uses. Sin drives humans to seek their own autonomy apart from God, like in the story of the tower of Babel. Technology can become an idol as we trust it to solve all our problems—some even looking to technology for a solution to the problem of death.

But Christ’s work of redemption is where Christians place their hope. Colossians 1 tells us that Christ’s redemption involves all things—a cosmic salvage operation that involves not only human hearts, but every square inch of creation. In 2 Corinthians 5, God calls us to participate in his redeeming work as agents of reconciliation. Theologian Gordon Spykman once wrote, “Nothing matters but the kingdom, but because of the kingdom everything matters”6—and this includes the realm of technology!

As a part of creation, technology can, in principle, be directed in God-honoring ways despite the possibility for sinful distortions. Such efforts require being sensitive to creation laws, norms, and limits, and unfolding technology in the service of life, love for neighbor, and for the flourishing of creation.

The Biblical story begins with a garden, but ends with a city. In Revelation 21, we read how “[t]he glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.” The new heaven and earth will be a place full of cultural and technical artifacts that are renewed and restored and put in service of the Lord.7 In fact, I would not be surprised to find computers in the new heavens and earth!

A final point to share is this: the foundational Christian work in many disciplines is often the work of amateurs. Those who are immersed in engineering are rarely experts in philosophy or theology, and likewise, experts in philosophy and theology are rarely experts in engineering or computing. This should not discourage us from the work of humbly forging a Christian approach. Cultivating healthy cross-disciplinary conversations with colleagues can be extremely helpful in this regard as we work together on the shared project of Christian scholarship. Such efforts provide an opportunity to serve our students, the church, and inform a wider dialogue to help shape public policy towards more responsible technology.

Footnotes

  1. Derek C. Schuurman, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology, InterVarsity Academic Press, 2013, p. 11.
  2. These approaches are discussed in more detail in Derek C. Schuurman,“Approaches to Christian Education: From Elusive Towards a Larger and Deeper Approach”Pro Rege, Vol. 44, No. 3, March, 2016, pp. 14-20.
  3. Corina R. Kaul, Kimberly A. Hardin & A. Alexander Beaujean, “Predicting Faculty Integration of Faith and Learning”, Christian Higher Education, 16:3, 2017, p. 172.
  4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed., University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 216.
  5. A wonderful introduction to a Christian worldview is Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, Eerdmans, 2005
  6. Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics,Eerdmans, 1992, p. 266.
  7. A helpful discussion of this can be found in Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, Eerdmans, 2002.

Derek C. Schuurman

Calvin University
Derek C. Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.