Christian Engineers Discuss Their Work (Video)
In this video, New Testament scholar Sean McDonough argues that the profession of engineering has its roots in the Bible, specifically Hebrews 1 and Hebrews 11. Starting at minute 10:44 professional engineers share how the Christian faith changes their approach to their work. This video is part of Jesus And Your Job, a video series on how Christians in different industries view their work. To find out more about this series and how you can use it as a small group study, go to the Jesus And Your Job homepage.
The Biblical Basis for Engineering
Our theme today will be engineering, particularly big picture engineering projects on the grand scale, for reasons that I think will become apparent in our lesson. I wanted to start today in the book of Hebrews. The beginning of Hebrews says,
Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
That plural, worlds, is the word we’re going to be interested in for the second half of our devotional. But for the time being, I just want to reflect on the fact that it says here Jesus is the one through whom God created the worlds. This is a very powerful but sort of unusual truth that surfaces in a number of places in the New Testament: in John 1, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Colossians 1. It sort of shows up without explanation of where it came from – how they thought up this idea that Jesus was the one through whom God created the world. For that reason, it’s occupied my attention for the better part of a couple of decades. I have a few thoughts I want to share briefly as to how this idea originated, and then what its significance is for our Christian life in general but particularly for our understanding of work.
My supposition is that the first critical step in the process of saying that Jesus is the one through whom God made the world is remembering Jesus’ words and deeds. What Jesus said, but particularly what he did. If you cast your mind back to all the stories of the gospel, stories that we will rehearse in detail as our class goes on week by week, you’ll see that more often than not they are miracles of recreation. Restoring things to their primal created rightness. Think of all the healing miracles, whether it’s the man with the withered hand or the woman with the flow of blood. Whatever might be going wrong in the creation, Jesus sets right.
Suffice it to say (apart from the cursing of the fig tree or walking on water, which is still related to the natural world in that Jesus is showing his sovereign power over the natural order) the vast majority of Jesus’ miracles are works to restore what God has done. And they’re so dramatic, so intense, particularly something like say the raising of Lazerus. The early Christians looked at these miracles and had to believe that Jesus was the one through whom God was restoring the creation. Jesus did this in such a powerful and intense way that you could no longer separate who Jesus is and who God is. Jesus has to be who God is. And once you see that connection before you there, in 30AD or so, it’s impossible to decouple the Messiah from the identity of God. Jesus can’t just start being God at some mid-point in the story. If he exercises God’s prerogatives in what he says and displays the glory of God in what does, if he is who God is now, then it stands to reason Jesus has always have been who God is.
I think Christ’s work of recreation, visibly, palpably, and tangibly experienced in Galilee and in Jerusalem in the first century, led the Christians to the inevitable deduction that Jesus must be the one through whom God created the world in the beginning. As staggering as that seems, it is no less staggering than what they experienced day by day watching his ministry.
That’s how I think the early Christians got the idea that Jesus is the one through whom God created the worlds. And then with that fact up front, you’re sort of stuck with the trinity in Christian theology. I try to say “stuck” reverently. It’s not that the trinity makes perfect sense, and that you’re casting about for the second person of the trinity, as if the role of God the Father and the Spirit have already been filled and now you’re looking for some human to fill the remaining role – that’s not how it worked. Jesus shows up and is who God is, and then his disciples began to reason about that from the fact that this is how God has revealed himself to be. A lot of people get that wrong: they figure the trinity must make sense and then Jesus fits into it. But it’s quite the other way around. Jesus shows up, shows off, shows he is who God is, and then people begin to reason through the scriptures how it could be that Jesus is the one through whom God created the worlds. The trinity comes after. But for our purposes, suffice it to say that Jesus, as the incarnate son, is the one through whom God makes all things.
Therefore, even as we affirm that Jesus paid it all, it’s equally true that he made it all. What’s more, what Jesus made has integrity, importance, and fundamental goodness. So when we imitate Christ as we hopefully want to do, it’s not simply going to be a matter of being upright, kind, moral people in a generic way. Part of reflecting Christ’s glory is reflecting his creative power, his fabrication of the creation in the beginning, and his restoration and maintenance of that in the present time.
Now let’s go back to that pluralized word in Hebrews 1:2. “Through whom he also created the worlds.” This plural does two things for us. First it catapults us to Hebrews 11 which is going to help our engineering panelists in even a more direct way, and it will raise the question of the new world and the now world and how they relate.
You remember Hebrews 11 is all about these heroes of faith, including Abraham.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
If you hang around engineers and you are living in tents, eventually the engineers are going to say, “Wait a second. This is just so inefficient. We’re exposed to the elements, the thing can tear, rain comes and just leaks in. Here’s a design I came up with for a house. It’s going to involve a little work and some expense, but I think that this new design is really going to improve our lives exponentially.” The non-engineers such as myself always say, “Oh, the tent’s good enough. The house sounds like a real pain. I don’t think we can even do that.” But thankfully engineers push forward.
If Abraham is living in tents for a while, verse 10 gives us the good news, “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). We learn some interesting things here. First of all, it would appear from Hebrews 11 that God is happy to take the things we do every day and to see those as ways of talking about what he does and who he is. He takes the human jobs of architect and builder and says: that’s what I am. Of course, Hebrews 11:10 is talking about the future creation, the new creation, the world to come, and so there’s a little tension between the now world and the new world. If we think back to chapter 1 of Hebrews, the NRSV accurately translates Hebrews 1:2 as the plural “created the worlds.” I think it’s pretty clear in context that the plural worlds refer to the now world, which we experience as beautiful but also broken, and the new, unshakable world which will be beautiful and unbroken.
At this point you could say, Well, the only architecture and building enterprise that really matters to God is in the future. But I think that if we look deeper into Hebrews and deeper into the New Testament as a whole, we would see that there are both elements of discontinuity and of elements of continuity between the now world and the new world. I don’t want to be stuck with a faulty body forever – I want discontinuity there. I want a new body that will work better and look better and be better. Yet there’s got to be continuity too. If that new body is completely alienated from my now body, who am I? In other words, there’s got to be strong points of connection between the now and the new, as well as strong points of disconnection.
Hebrews 11 encourages us to think of God’s creative activity, focused in this case on the new world but also evident in the now world, as a kind of building or engineering or architectural project, like the projects we do. Therefore, when we do this sort of work well, we are at the very least creating a kind of workplace parable of what God is up to generally in the world.
With our panel of engineers, we’re going to see what it is that’s attractive to those people who do these kind of big picture projects which in their own way mirror what God is up to on the cosmic scale.
I have always thought of myself as either a sailor or an engineer. I really enjoyed having something that didn’t exist and making it exist. I’ve always loved working with my hands. I loved toys. I love gadgets, making things physically. And that actually was my escape for many years. I didn’t come to be a believer until late in life. So I would immerse myself in analysis and tests and all this partly to escape interpersonal discussions. I found those challenges greater than I could handle at the time.
Engineering isn’t always total success. I’ve had lots of successes but there have been extended periods that were very challenging. I had machines that would start a fire in a plant, or wouldn’t quite make what was desired. My wife gave me a little plaque which I still have on my dresser and it says, “You have not been called to be successful, you have been called to be faithful.” That sounds trite and all that jazz, but it actually was very helpful to me on those times when the things that I was trying to do just didn’t seem to be working. Those times could go on for three to six to ten months. But after I became a believer, I found that if I was faithful, and actually modeled some moderation in my language and behavior, that perhaps that was as valuable as the equipment I was designing.
How does my faith relate to my work? The first 20 years that I was in engineering I was a pretty coarse person. My language was awful. I actually had somebody come up to me and say, “You really mean to say that?” After I became Christ’s ambassador I tried to change that. On a daily basis, on almost an hourly basis, I’d try to count to ten real fast and then say, “Do I really want to use those words that are right on the tip of my tongue? Because that’s what they’re going to see. That’s what they’re going to remember. And is that how I want to be the representative of Christ?”
I’m a mechanical engineer, but I also work in systems. I’ve been working on the engineering side of the F18s, super hornets, and the hornets, as well as the T38s which is the air force trainer for NASA. I’m currently working on developing and testing an advanced helicopter engine for heavy lift, usually used for moving troops.
Every day I pray that: 1) that I don’t destroy something very expensive that our tax money is paying for, and 2) that I can maintain the relationships with my coworkers and get the job done when I go in.
I work for Raytheon, involved in ship controls, navigation systems, radars and sensors. I do what’s called ship integration, so I integrate those systems with the shipyards and the shipbuilders themselves. My job essentially is to bridge the gap between very smart people on radars and control systems with the shipbuilders. And they’re very different worlds. So I do a lot of talking. I do a lot of work between factions, trying to explain. I find that the fruits of the spirit are something I have to focus in on quite a bit in terms of my patience and my gentleness trying to work with people. I feel like that’s where my faith really integrates because we have a lot of smart people with a lot of great ideas, but they don’t necessarily know how to share them. It’s not their giftedness. My giftedness that God is using in me is to try to pull that out of them so that they can communicate better.
How often does my faith come into play in the course of my work? Everyday. I can just point back to Friday. I was having a very difficult email discussion with somebody on my team who wasn’t doing what I needed them to do. And as it happens, I was getting somewhat angry thinking, “Can we get this over this hump? We’ve been working on this for so long!” I had to step back and I had to say, “Lord, I can feel my temperature rising, I need patience on this. I need to step back and not respond. I want to respond immediately to this email, but I’m emotional right now – it’s not a good time. I need to step back because I’m not in the right place.” Just that quick prayer, “Lord help me to just wait an hour,” is how my faith comes to play in my work. It happens moment by moment. Literally my last work day I had that intervention of prayer to deal with a difficult situation.
- Hebrews 1:2 speaks of Jesus as the one through whom God created the worlds. How does Jesus’ work in the gospels relate to God’s creative work in Genesis?
- The world we live in today is not limited to natural creation -- we live in a world of human interaction, commerce, and technology. In what way was Jesus involved in creating this world we now live in? In what way is Jesus still involved?
- As a professional engineer, Ariana’s daily prayer is to 1) not destroy something expensive, and 2) maintain good coworker relationships. In your job which is harder: technology or people?