This post will not be about me, but I think I owe my readers some context involving a bit of autobiography to make sense of what follows. I am a theologian who teaches in the math and computer science department of a Christian, liberal arts university (utilizing an MS in Computer Science). This unusual relationship initially emerged out of the stark realities of economic need in an increasingly tricky mission context. I was a freshly ordained Presbyterian pastor with a young, growing family, and my church—like a great many churches at the present hour—was struggling to learn what ministry looks like financially in an increasingly post-Christian society. At the same hour, so to speak, my university’s computer science department lost two faculty in a society where computer scientists and software engineers could easily find much better-paying work in industry—and also where specifically Christian faculty interested in integrating faith with learning in the applied sciences are rare to come by.
When word reached a faculty person in the math side of the department that there was a pastor-theologian with a master’s in computer science in need of a job he urged me to contact the chair, who in turn swiftly invited me to interview. I will never forget one particular moment in that interview: The department chair asked, “What will you do to evangelize our students?” I responded frankly, “I don’t know—but I’m eager to experiment.” We both laughed, sharing a missiological insight cognate to a struggle Derek Schuurman at Calvin expressed on this blog as recently as 2020: something there is about computer science that makes its subject matter like water to theology’s oil. Attempts at bringing the two into explicit conversation often come across as artificial, with outcomes ranging from cringing mediocrity to outright disaster for both science and the spread of the Gospel.
All that took place in 2015. I have been experimenting, in partnership with departmental colleagues, ever since. The primary classroom “laboratory” for those experiments has been our department’s “Ethical, Social, and Legal Implications of Computing” course; an important secondary setting just this past year was the opportunity to lead a discussion group serving the university’s course in worldview in public policy. My group focused on the evaluation of technology. I approached both courses by making the students ask, “Should we innovate technology that does ______?” Students in our postmodern culture often thrill at thoughts of dystopian futures so I invite them to imagine such futures emerging as unintended side-effects of innovation over a semester-long game.
Originally, my goal was mostly to break students out of the mindset that ethics is adjunct, rather than essential, to what computer scientists and software engineers do, and playing at one-upping George Orwell for horror was low-hanging fruit for doing so. However, over time a different motif has come to motivate and dominate my efforts. Being postmodern, skepticism of claims to objectivity comes naturally to my students. When I have them read recent papers, such as those taking the culture of tech to task for inadequate diversity, they generally find the claim that tech education is systemically prejudiced to be worth engaging.1 But, this willingness naturally leaves open room for a deeper question posed by specifically Christian thought: when we innovate and evils result, is that not just an unintended side-effect but also because of some disease (e.g. prejudice) gnawing away at our ambitions? Just like that, you have a room full of computer scientists thinking of the problem not just of evil, but of sin! That leads to thinking about what the human vocation might look like without sin or healed from sin.2
This past semester became particularly fruitful as this experiment unfolded. In one episode, I had assigned the class to read the ACM/IEEE Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct3 while having them also engage Abraham Kuyper on the human vocation4 and J.R.R. Tolkien on the nature of creativity.5 Their task was to write a three-part personal mission statement, a manifesto setting forth what they believed about the larger world story, and finally a “rule of life” or pattern of discipline they planned on using to help them become who they wanted to be.6 There were several students in the room who were devoutly Christian and three who were Muslim, as well as many students for whom faith was painfully related to their unfolding sense of identity. For the first time in my experience, several—and interestingly all of the Muslim students—enthusiastically took the opportunity to relate a faith-based vision of the world to their dreams. In another episode, after reading Kuyper three students—one Christian, one ex-Christian turned agnostic, and one self-proclaimed neo-polytheist pagan—rabbit-trailed during a class small group discussion time from talking about technology to discussing each other’s evolving beliefs, all in serious ways without rancor or fear.
Finally, in a third episode, I asked the students to respond to a hypothetical critic who posited that technologies are matter and energy hybridized with the ambitions of their creators. As such, they also share in their makers’ moral tendencies. (Think the rings of power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings!) Some agreed with the hypothetical critic; others said the critic was metaphysically confused. However, one student responded in a stunningly interesting way that I find myself now thinking hard about. He found the instinct of the critic to be intrinsically difficult to respond to with fairness—not at all easy either to affirm as intuitive or to deny as nonsensical—and he found himself longing for some heavier lift than he could shoulder on his own. And, where did he turn but to Thomas Aquinas!7 This (post)modern computer science adjacent major did not gravitate towards a near contemporary but to a medieval doctor of the Church.
All these episodes lead me to two hypotheses that I now intend to explore. First, what enabled these conversations with all the above students (and especially the last one in my narrative) was when their imaginations were challenged with the shape of innovation at the present hour (think of recent anxieties over ChatGPT or over diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech industry) on the one hand, and with heavy-hitters in Christian thought on the other. The students had to wade out into the deep in two ways, not just one. To wrestle adequately with the anxieties and existential questions now facing tech, students crave depth along multiple angles. The future of tech education, especially when facilitated from within a Christian university, should allow for such two-angled or multi-angled depth. At my university, we are beginning to explore ways of facilitating such interdisciplinarity by shaping our Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science explicitly to encourage double majoring.
Second, there is a place for intentional spiritual and pastoral leadership directed towards tech culture as towards a Christian mission frontier. Tentmaking pastoral ministry is no longer primarily a financial hack to allow churches and ministries to balance the books: it is a promising means of embedding Christian witness at a crucial point in global society. Over the next few months and years, I plan on exploring these questions explicitly as a research area. Pray for me!
- One such paper is Sepehr Vakil, “Ethics, Identity, and Political Vision: Toward a Justice-Centered Approach to Equity in Computer Science Education,” Harvard Educational Review 88, no. 1 (2018): 26–52, https://doi.org/10.17763/1943-5045-88.1.26.
- I acknowledge with gratitude Derek Schuurman’s suggestion of this biblical-theological framework in his book, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
- “ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct,” Association for Computing Machinery, June 22, 2018, https://www.acm.org/code-of-ethics.
- When having them read Kuyper, they took in Jan H. Boer’s translation of Kuyper’s Pro Rege of het Koningschap van Christus vol. 1, which Dr. Boer published under the title You Can Do Greater Things Than Christ: Demons, Miracles, Healing, and Science (Christian Council of Nigeria, 1991), obtainable through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at https://ccel.org/ccel/kuyper/greater/. Website last accessed December 28, 2023.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966).
- My wife, the Rev. Dr. Alyssa Bell, who is a spiritual director, graciously visited the class and coached them on how to draft this rule of life. This turn of phrase “become who you want to be” loomed large in her coaching.
- The student in question was wrestling in particular with the impacts of smartphones. He turned to the Summa Theologica Question 64 Article 7 (“Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense”) where Aquinas muses on how “Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended[.]” Smartphones and most other innovations are likewise complicated and polyvalent in the moral horizon they make possible.