Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Theological Rebar of Engineering

"I heard the rocks crying out,
'Be praised for all Your tenderness
by these works of Your hands
Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless
and bring to life Your land
Look down upon this winter wheat
and be glad that You have made
Blue for the sky and the color green
that fills Your fields with praise!'”

So sings the poet Rich Mullins in his song “The Color Green”[1]. Mr. Mullins was moved by the beauty he saw in creation and by what it revealed to him of his Creator. (see note A) The history of mankind is punctuated with similar responses to creation. And when engineers create, they echo the original creative Act.

In the book of Genesis we see two accounts of creation that reveal two independent characteristics about God. (Engineers might like to imagine these two characteristics along orthogonal axes: the axis of omnipotent creator and the axis of personal relater.) These two creation accounts are complementary and foundational and give us vital information about God and man.[2] Indeed, these two aspects of God and man (they are both creative and both personal) are multiplicative, sweeping out a product of rich and rewarding area. It is the goal of this essay to illuminate how engineering, as a profession, is well suited to join this song of creation with natural resonance and poetic elegance.

Genesis Chapter 1 describes how God created the cosmos out of nothing. The Hebrew name used for God in Chapter 1 is “Elohim”[3] which is a generic term for deity. He is portrayed as the Power that creates by His words alone and speaks into being the universe, the earth, and man. Verse 27 reads “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Something of God is woven into mankind at his creation, though the depth of the meaning of “the image of God” has kept theologians busy for centuries. Regardless of its exhaustive meaning, man has an imprint or signature of his Creator that reflects some aspect(s) of Him, however imperfectly. Summarizing Chapter 1 then: Elohim creates everything, including, significantly, “man in His own image.” God is a creator and engineers are creators; the basis for an engineer’s creativity lies ultimately in this truth.

Chapter 2 of Genesis seems to rewind the story and retell it with an entirely new perspective. The narrative takes us back to before the creation of man and replays the events with much more detail (see note B). Firstly we notice that the name of God has changed from the “Elohim” of Chapter 1. Chapter 2 uses the proper name YHWH or “Yahweh” throughout. Yahweh has the meaning of “self existent One” and perhaps could be loosely translated “the One who was not created, but just IS.” In fact, God himself seems to place a special significance to this name later in Exodus Chapter 3, when speaking to Moses. Verses 14-15 read with italics added:

"And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” And God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD [Yahweh], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations."

So the name Yahweh is an important name and a personal name. The creation of man as detailed in Chapter 2 is personal as well: God took special care of Adam, placed him into Eden, spoke to him and gave him special tasks. In short, we see a personal side of God in Chapter 2. If Chapter 1 paints a masculine picture of God, Chapter 2 paints a feminine one. Indeed, today most scholars agree that it was Moses’ wife that made him put in all that personal stuff anyway.

So in the first two chapters of the Bible, we find two important aspects of the nature of God: He is a powerful creator and He is personal. To be a successful engineer, one must have these same two structural members in place. Engineers must be creative and they must be personal. To be successful along the creative axis, engineers need to have mastery of the technical tools of their field. To be successful along the personal axis, engineers must become effective communicators, have “people skills” and dispel stereotypes.

Perhaps the most common role played by engineers is that of designer. A “design engineer” is one that applies the skills of mathematics, the sciences, manufacturing technology, computing, etc., to the problem at hand. Problems addressed by design engineers include designs as large as battleships, as minute as integrated circuits, as complex as interplanetary probes, or as simple as ball bearings. The degree to which engineers understand mathematics, the sciences, manufacturing technology, computing, etc., is the degree to which they are free to operate, to design, to unleash their imagination, and create. In fact, they must understand that the delineations between these disciplines are themselves artificial.[5] Over-specialization can be a hindrance to creativity. Ultimately, truth is unified and reality is singular. Mathematics and the sciences could be viewed as different languages, but both attempt to describe that which is true. To create (design) in this universe means first to conform to laws of nature that exist. In summary, to score high on the creative axis, engineers must be adept with technical know-how, but such an engineer, if lacking personal skills, will be stereotypically one-dimensional.

Engineers, being human for the most part, have the advantage of being intrinsically personal. All humans are persons, but being human is not enough to be successful along the personal axis. In practice, engineers don’t sit around performing triple integrals in isolation. (Indeed, the vast majority of engineers don’t perform triple integrals ever.) Design engineers often interface with people other than their own kind: people from different educational levels, socioeconomic status, and throughout the managerial hierarchy. Engineers in industry routinely interface with people groups as diverse as sales and marketing, machinists, assemblers, technicians, executives, suppliers, and customers. Many smaller companies, especially “high tech. start ups” tend to revolve around their engineering staff. They form a technical hub from which the rest of the company radiate like spokes. Engineers must work well with each.

“People skills” are harder to define, and harder to quantify, than their technical counterparts. However, at the top of any “people skills” list would be communication, including oral, written, and graphical abilities, and the important ability to tailor content to the technical level of the audience – without condescension. Also important are the ability to deal with difficult people, the virtue of treating coworkers with respect, and even salesmanship (in the best sense of the word). When both the creative and personal skills are developed the engineer is “optimized” to echo something central to the character of God himself.

What then, are the implications to engineering educators? The obvious points of cultivating technical ability balanced by personal skills have already been made, and in fact, most engineering programs will have long ago purposed to incorporate these goals into their programs.
The engineering program at a Christian institution, however, is in the unique position of being able to provide the theological rebar that adds strength, motivation, purpose, and meaning to a career in engineering. Students don’t learn to solve engineering problems for the sole purpose of getting the promotion. Instead, they strive to solve engineering problems because in so doing they glorify God and serve humanity. As the last lines of Bach’s manuscript compositions read “S.D.G.” for Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory)[8], so engineers might similarly dedicate their work, and in a sense make it holy.

Finally, engineering educators should encourage students to look for career opportunities of significance. These may or may not be the most prestigious or most highly paid (see note C). As an example of an opportunity to display the beauty of creation through engineering work, consider magnetic resonance imaging systems. MRI instruments require the leading edge technology in several fields at once: superconductors, electromagnetics, and imaging. In this technical sense, they are beautiful and elegant. Radio photons at other “colors green” paint the body, one slice at a time, on a high-resolution digital canvas. Medical reconnaissance. The level of detail obtained inspires awe at the wonderfully made human body. Finally, and fundamentally, the very purpose of MRI instruments is to help heal the sick. Engineers working for an MRI developer, therefore, may be motivated on a daily basis by the technical beauty and personal significance of their work.

Engineering, as a profession, is well suited to emulate two of God’s primary characteristics: His creativity and His personhood. The daily activities of many engineers manifest these characteristics, and like the cosmic background radiation, ring and reverberate in response to God’s creative acts. Engineering educators might make it their goal to expose students to these concepts, develop their the personal skills not just their technical abilities, and encourage them to find employment and career opportunities that are multi-dimensional in their significance. These goals, if well cultivated, will yield a crop of young engineers empowered with motivation and purpose, poised to serve mankind, and tuned to sing with the entire universe to their Creator.

A. Although some engineers might relegate “the color green” to a mere photon wavelength, none the less, it is a photon wavelength that sings at its unique, quantum mechanical pitch, to the glory of its Creator. “…if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”

B. This is a recurring literary structure found in Genesis. First, less important things are covered with broad strokes. This provides the setting into which fits the information more central to the overall theme of the Bible. The broad-brush information is dealt with quickly and moved out of the way. Then the more important information is expanded, detailed, and magnified as if focused upon with a zoom lens. Then the most central information within the central information is magnified. And so it repeats in a beautiful pattern: microcosm within microcosm. The creation of the universe in Chapter 1 puts man in his cosmic setting, and then more detail about the creation of man and God’s relationship to him is given in Chapter 2. See reference [2] from which this analysis draws heavily.

C. Engineering students should be exposed to the fact that job satisfaction has little to do with salary. However, salary issues are the source of much job dissatisfaction.[4] The reality baby should not be thrown out with the materialist bathwater.


[1] Mullins, Rich, The Color Green, from A liturgy, a legacy & a ragamuffin band, Reunion Records, Nashville, Tennessee, 1993, punctuation added for clarity

[2] Schaeffer, Francis A., Genesis in Space and Time, from The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume Two, A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, Crossway Books, Wheaton Illinois, 1982

[3] Ryrie, Charlse, The Ryrie Study Bible, New American Standard Translation, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1976

[4] Hardy, Lee, The Fabric of the World, Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1990

[5] Baylor News, Vol. 10, No. 8, October 2000, President Robert B. Sloan Jr., President calls for 10-year plan for University

[6] Veith, Gene Edward Jr., Postmodern Times, A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1994

[7] Thaxton, Charles B., and Pearcey, Nancy R., The Soul of Science, Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1994

[8] Colson, Charles, from speech “Does Religion Belong in Public Life?” delivered to Detroit Economic Club, Cobo Center, Detroit Michigan, November 13, 2000

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