Approximations to Reality

Engineering and Theology: Approximations to Reality

William Jordan (Baylor University)

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To a Christian engineer both his faith and his engineering practice are very important.  As we work through what we believe about God and how we practice engineering, we find that they have something important in common.  Both theology and engineering are approximations of an ultimate reality that we cannot fully know.

When theologians attempt to systematize the faith, they are coming up with human models of how they see God acting in human history.  When engineers design a new product, they use models of how materials act when they have various forces applied to them.
Engineers use models of the physical world to guide their creation of actual products or artifacts.  Theologians use models about God’s activity in human history to guide their teaching about how to live the Christian life. For the theologian, his product is teaching on how to live based on his model of theology.

For example, in discussing end times, theologians have created models such as pre-millennial, post-millennial and a-millennial.  While end times are important to the Christian, they are human models of how someone thinks God acts in the world.  Similarly as a mechanical engineer I accept the model of Newtonian mechanics to describe the behavior of solid materials under stress.  However, this is just a model (though a good one) of how things behave.

While these models are human abstractions concerning ultimate reality, they need to be precise enough upon which to base fundamental choices in life.  If we are to experience the life God wants us to have we need to understand theology well enough to know what God expects of humans.  While Newtonian mechanics is not a perfect model it is good enough for us to use as the basis for the design of a new airplane.  In both situations, human life is at stake.  Good theology can make life more pleasant (and eternal life possible); good engineering can make human life more comfortable.

Not everyone agrees as to what is good theology or good engineering.  For example, Christians differ on what is the best form of church government.  With respect to an engineer designing a new car, the result will be very different if it is designed for manufacturability rather than for repairability.
With respect to innovations, both disciplines recognize their need, but also their limitations.   Whatever is developed must match the reality that we already know. 

A good theologian needs to be able to help Christians who face new issues such as privacy and the use of technology.  However, too much innovation in theology can lead to models about God that do not match the experiences of Christians throughout history.  Engineers are rewarded for creating new designs; however, whatever they create must still work in the real world.  Their designs have to be grounded in the real physical world that exists.

Both theology and engineering are approximations to ultimate reality, not ultimate reality itself.  However, they can become good enough approximations so that you can reliably use them to guide your life.