How Then Shall We Engineer?

by Dr. Brenda Goranson

“We should have a lifelong goal to become true renaissance engineers, familiar not only with the technical disciplines central to the profession but also with the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences—in sum, the broad social-cultural symphony in which technology blends its voice. To contribute best to our society, to serve our neighbour, and to glorify God, it is not enough to do the math and the science well. Technical work must be done with discernment in service to greater and more noble ends.”

Ethan J. Brue, Derek C. Schuurman, Steven H. Vanderleest, A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers, Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2022, p, 65.

Recently Global Scholars Canada met online through the innovation of engineered internet technology, from places distant as Canada to New Zealand to discuss co-author, Dr. Derek Schuurman’s (alongside Ethan J. Brue and Steven H. Vanderleest): A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP 2022). Schuurman explained that the Field Guide’s genesis was formulated between his time at Redeemer University before going to Calvin, while at Dordt as a visiting professor, but significantly, it had underpinnings much further back, to his time as a newly minted engineer – delighted with building things and solving technical problems – yet caught in the grind of the industry’s ‘beige cubicle farm.’ 

Challenged to stay engaged in the technical processes without losing himself in the system, Schuurman had become keenly aware that his philosophical side –  his faith – was not something so easily worked into his long-time math and science regimen. Christianity seemed worlds away from the cubicle. Indeed, by the time most engineers become professionals, they have had spiritual questions and cosmic wonder– those more fluid dynamics and connections – trained out of them. In seeming confirmation of Kierkegaard’s warning, that “the greatest hazard of all, losing oneself, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all”1 , Schuurman found himself pondering what the biblical story had to say about engineering and technology.

Chapter Nine, ‘Letters to a Young Engineer’ is cri de coeur for those successful graduates, now challenged by the sudden reality of the cubicle worldview, ensconced somewhere along a chain of command, looking for something more. They muse that they might find again the curiosity and passion of the early classroom, by seeking out a former professor from not-so-long-ago Christian University days. The young engineer has found themselves tethered to the firm; a cog in the inner workings of the very machine that had so fascinated them, without a sense of self or where it all leads as they dutifully follow manuals and principles that in effect, keep them turning within an increasingly confined space.  It is an image of the end-result of Engineers’ undergraduate course loads – so full and focused that they get so technically minded, that the bigger picture – the social sciences, the arts, the holistic ‘Kingdom vision’ – ends up being lost. 

A University Chaplain attendee confirmed as much when he identified math and engineering students in his experience, as least able to approach or discuss in depth, philosophical and transcendent turns of thought. Schuurman’s solution for the underappreciated, unrecognized talent that is often young engineers looking to make a difference while on a path to burnout, calls upon an Iron/Bronze Age book (the Bible) to cope with Information Age problems where passion for progress and dreams of utopia can be tempered by post-modern dystopian visions of tech-turned against us, or collapsed in some reverse-engineered nightmare.  

It was agreed, it takes two strong wings – the analytical and the uniquely human side – for any engineering bird to fly.  Schuurman cautions: as many engineering feats and wonders as there are to celebrate, there are always reminders of the very same’s failures. Illustrative as many can attest, in some ways, the Information Age has served to amplify misinformation, more. He convicts that we need to know which story we are part of: Dr. Frankenstein’s?, the Monster’s? or God’s.

Scripture – our story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation – might be viewed as fuel for the parts of an engine that power how we as Christian human beings move through the world. The Biblical narrative presents a life cycle in itself; a model for us of the latent potential in creation that is most certainly not neutral; we move forward, powered by God’s Word, not just to work and solve technological problems, but also to dream and capture imagination. Consider the Wright brothers who had much work to do on the ground, but it was looking to the skies that fueled their movement toward flight. Engineering from a Christian perspective then, requires awareness and adherence to creational or design norms each with their own implications for the industry: justice, stewardship, caring, cultural appropriateness, social, transparency, delightful harmony (or beauty) and trust. Even so, our trust cannot lie solely within the norms and ethics themselves for they are complex, easily violated and are ultimately, human-dependent. Our trust when creating, must lie with the Creator.  Which leads to the perplexing question posed by the title of Chapter 9, as Christian Engineers, “must we leave our neural nets to follow him”?

Dr. Johnathan Vander Steen, the colloquium’s Respondent, revealed this to be his “life’s wrestle”.  He shared that his experience as a young and now more established engineer – from being a missionary kid growing up in Nigeria- has been particularly captured by the concepts in Schuurman’s book. He asks: “How then, shall I engineer?” Do we really need more of them? Do they resolve any of the many crises around us? Vander Steen admits that even altruistic job opportunities – engineering toward sustainability in parts of the world less advantaged – can offer deep struggle. Do we really need to engineer more products for consumption? And do our processes create lasting change for the better or do they lead to reliance and the perpetuation of poverty? Can tech take on broader social problems? 

He once left work in alternative energy out of just such frustrations and landed in a Monastery in Oka where he says he got much less technical and learned to get his hands in the soil. He also taught in Ghana, W. Africa – drawn there by his continuing interest in water systems and treatment. Still, he wrestled with bigger insights on how best to live within our uniquely complex and fragile biosphere. In the end, Vander Steen may have made peace with the perpetual struggle, and he did so according to his faith: he likens his discomfort and penchant for questioning to the story of Jacob who wrestled with an angel only to come out the other side changed by God, re-named Israel, which in fact means, to struggle

The practical work of the Engineer is in fact part of that very cyclical-struggle and learning to embrace the pessimism, the uncertainty, the injustice, the failures and even the cubicle, is part of learning to trust God in our faith. As Schuurman writes, “A common element of the engineering mindset is the desire to make the world controllable. The consequences… are a technological approach to nature, treating it like an elaborate mechanism to be manipulated.”2 But just as Schuurman’s Field Guide cannot directly and easily point to all things in the technological world and help us identify those that are Christian, he explains: the Guide is one that embraces those less ‘controlled’ aspects of the Engineering mindset – the theological and the philosophical – items often missing in the professional kits of modern Engineers who are schooled too well, in the practical and the immediate. They are not given enough opportunity to pause and look up, around, in consideration of things ethereal and eternal – like the call to be faithful, and ethical, to shalom and the coram deo – specialties perhaps beyond their well-tooled understandings and capabilities. It is a reminder that the separation of STEM and the Arts is an artificial and relatively new one – for centuries, the relation between religion and science was seamless. If ‘philosophy is the chemistry of the mind’, then it is time to engineer some liberal arts into all disciplines so that once again, ‘natural philosophers’ – yesterday’s scientists – might better represent the whole, interdisciplinary human being, cubicle and all. The Field Guide is a good place to start.

Engineers love to create. We have a creative muse that rarely stops singing, spinning new designs in our heads, new solutions for problems we encounter, new ideas for situations we notice”.

Ethan J. Brue, Derek C. Schuurman, Steven H. Vanderleest, A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers, Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2022, p.176.

1  Ethan J. Brue, Derek C. Schuurman, Steven H. Vanderleest, A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers, Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2022, p, 187.

2  Derek C. Schuurman, “In Control?” Christian Courier, April 12, 2021. P. 18.

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