The Role of Religion in America’s Current Crisis:
Reflections on September 11, 2001

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Written originally in September 2001 for publication in the Dutch daily, Reformatorisch Dagblad

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I live in Dyer, Indiana, in the heartland of America, far away from New York City.

Last evening I was talking casually with my neighbor, Don, as we were both working outside in our yards, cutting our lawns and tending our flowers. When I complimented him for his display of a large American flag and for his colorful patriotic decorations, he explained why his home was decorated so colorfully. “I was there,” he said in a quiet voice. “In New York, you mean?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I mean I was on the 57th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit several stories above me. I was there on business, doing computer maintenance for a client, when the explosion occurred. And as I was walking down those stairs to get out of the building, I was praying that I wouldn’t die.” Last Saturday evening his family and friends joined him for a “Thank God I’m alive” party. And he’s been going to mass rather often since he returned home last Wednesday.

The tragedy of 9/11 (these digits 9-1-1 are more than a date–they are also the emergency telephone number in every American community) has been broadcast into our living rooms with images burned into our minds for generations. So too have many stories of survivors and rescue workers, narratives laced with thanks to God. Community gatherings throughout the nation feature prayers and religious vigils for the victims and their families. Like a pastor holding the nation’s hand, President Bush quoted from Psalm 23 to comfort the American people.

Suddenly religion has become prominent in America. An irony, really, in view of vigorous attempts to eradicate religious expression from American public life. Does all this public piety represent a genuine renewal, a national return to God—or is religion the spare tire Americans will be using until we can get our needed repairs?

Religion as instinct

There are no atheists in foxholes, so we’ve heard. War makes many people religious. In America’s current national crisis, religious expression is an instinctive response.

At 10:30 AM last Tuesday [September 11], less than an hour after the third airliner crashed, people were gathering for prayer in the Washington National Cathedral. At noon, more than 2,000 people filled another church for a memorial service called by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C. That evening, across America thousands of churches and synagogues held prayers service or candlelight vigils.

The events have occasioned interfaith services and ecumenical calls for unity. Because of Islam’s high profile in the current situation, many clerics are taking great pains to emphasize those elements common to all religions, namely, peace, love, and toleration.

Songs sung at public events are serving to express religious feelings and patriotic loyalties. When major league baseball resumed this past Monday, the traditional song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” usually sung during the seventh inning stretch, was replaced with “God Bless America.” In fact, this song, written in 1918 by Irving Berlin and revised in 1938, has become the public’s favorite, being sung more often than the national anthem. Members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the nation’s capitol, and members of the New York Stock Exchange sang it at the reopening of the trading floor this past Monday.

What we have been witnessing, I think, is the body politic, traumatized by terrorism, reacting instinctively by reaching upward for help from the God we all know exists. Religion is a natural human response (Acts 17:22-28; Rom. 1:20), and to the extent that it corresponds to God’s created purpose for the human race, we may be extremely thankful for spontaneous, instinctive, national talk about God.

From instinct to interpretation

But as the hours turned into days, and the days now become weeks, religious talk in America is moving from the level of instinct to the level of interpretation. At this level, religion helps to explain both the attacks and the response appropriate to them. Clergymen who read parts of the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek” and praying for one’s enemies are offering more than comfort. They are offering direction as well. And so were pastors who preached last Sunday on Romans 13.

At this level, religious talk employs some very heavy biblical words, terms like “forgiveness” and “justice.” Appeals to sacred writings and to the character of “God” are serving to justify both calls for non-retaliation and calls for military engagement.

Last week Thursday, former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (and colleague, Pat Robertson) made the controversial claim on television that God has removed His protection from America because specific secular organizations (whom Falwell named) had led the nation to condone abortion and gay rights while banning prayer in public schools. Other Christian leaders insist that God is judging America for its arrogance toward Third World countries, for supporting their despots while plundering their resources, for indifference to Third World poverty and pain. Unfortunately, in his subsequent correction and retraction, Rev. Falwell felt compelled to disconnect both the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and God from the tragic events at the World Trade Center, suggesting thereby that we Americans need not think about the religious meaning and divine purpose in these events.

The apparent unity on the level of religious instinct is now giving way to differences of religious understanding that have long existed in our nation. As we see from the quick public condemnation of Falwell’s premature moralizing, the contest has already become one of competing interpretations that then ought to guide public policy and national response. While we may well sing “God Bless America” together at the baseball park, national harmony fades as the music dies and the preaching begins.

From fear to faith: the opportunity of “religion” in America

To say that the attacks of 9/11 have made many Americans afraid is an understatement. Many fear the unknown. When and where and how will the next terrorist attack occur? Many fear the future of American society with its commitment to open democracy. What kind of society will our children and grandchildren inherit? Many fear Islam, a religion whose claims are as absolute and total as the claims of Christianity.

But such national fear serves simultaneously as an opportunity for biblical faith-obedience. It is no easier for American Christians than for Dutch Christians to distinguish between religious commitment and patriotic loyalty. America’s current crisis gives Christ’s church a fresh opportunity both to learn and to live out her unique calling in the modern world. That calling is to keep declaring and demonstrating the good news—the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only this power will transform “religion” in America from a means that serves human need to an end, the glory of the only true God. Ora pro nobis.

Shaping a Digital World: An Extended Review (5)

shaping a digital worldIn our previous installment of this book review, in connection with the question, “Does Christian technology exist?,” we reviewed Abraham Kuyper’s discussion of the phrase “Christian family,” and concluded with a promise of more.

Here’s the more, this time coming from volume 2 of Kuyper’s De Gemeene Gratie (forthcoming in English translation as Common Grace, vol. 2).

Near the end of this volume, Kuyper is discussing the effect or influence of (to use his terms) “particular grace” upon “common grace.” In this context, he embeds in chapter 89, entitled “Christian Civilization,” an explanation of the two senses in which the adjective Christian can be applied beyond the institutional, confessional, means-of-grace-administering church. The first sense is what Kuyper calls the non-confessional sense, and the second is the confessional sense.

Without apology for these lengthy quotations (important ideas require careful exposition!), here is Kuyper himself:

If this [foregoing discussion] establishes the fact that the Christian religion, i.e., particular grace, has been the means for bringing common grace to its most powerful manifestation, then the question arises how we must understand this effect of particular grace on common grace. It is customary to call the result of this effect “Christian,” and then to speak of a Christian civilization, Christian society, Christian government, and so forth. But we sense immediately that, as we have briefly indicated, the word Christian has an entirely different meaning in these phrases than, e.g., in the expressions Christian church, Christian literature, Christian school, Christian press, Christian theology, Christian singers, and so forth. This is because in the two series of expressions, the word Christian is used in terms of a different contrast. When we speak of Christian nations, a Christian society, etc., then this marks a contrast with pagan nations, pagan society, Mohammedan states or Mohammedan society. But when, by contrast, we speak of a Christian press, Christian school, Christian singers, etc., then we are thereby indicating a contrast with the liberal press, the neutral school, unbelieving singers, etc. In the first instance, we are emphasizing the unique character of the European states and nations in contrast to those of Asia and Africa. In the second, we are not thinking of Africa or Asia, but are thinking of the Netherlands and distinguishing in our own country between the groups of those who defend their confession of Christ and those others who live out of what people call humanism. The first contrast, therefore, is not confessional, but only the second one is. Or we could say that when we speak of a Christian state, a Christian society, a Christian civilization, etc., we have only common grace in view as it has been permeated by the gospel, but when, on the other hand, we speak of a Christian school, a Christian press, Christian singers, and so forth, we are referring to particular grace as it chooses to use the things of ordinary life (667-68).

We sense that this is correct when we ask ourselves, Can someone be a citizen of a Christian state, live in a Christian society, be part of a Christian civilization, without personally confessing Christ? The answer is definitely in the affirmative. The facts show and prove it. Many people who are averse to any confession of Christ are even prominent leaders in such a Christian society. But if we ask whether someone can be a Christian singer, Christian teacher, etc., without personally confessing Christ, then everyone will sense the impossibility of this. It is therefore clear that Christianized common grace does not depend on personally belonging to Christ; by contrast, fully developed particular grace always remains inseparable from it (668).

Yet until now, these two distinct meanings of the word Christian have been mistakenly confused. The thesis has even been promoted that the “Christian” school was the “best run” school [or: is the school offering the best education, having teachers who are Christian, promoting good morals; ndk]. And it is from this confusion of the two notions of Christian that the endless confusion between the life of common grace and the life of particular grace has sprung, under which we still suffer. On the one hand, people tried to tie down everything confessionally—state, society, popular culture; on the other hand, people tried to abolish the Christian church and to separate it from its confession, so that as national church it chased what was fermenting among the people. Thus on the one hand, we have the attempt to put the label “Christian” in its specific meaning as a stamp on common grace, and on the other hand, we have the attempt to deprive the word“Christian” of its specific sense even in the realm of the church (668).

We therefore direct our readers’ attention especially to the fact that they can never come to a clear insight into the correct relationship between church and world, between the communion of saints and society, and thus also between church and state, unless they take the trouble to clearly think about and think through the enormous difference between these two meanings of the word “Christian.” The term Christian as it is applied to the entire nation, the whole of society, the entire state, etc., stands in contrast to what is pagan or Mohammedan. The term Christian applied to a narrower group within the population, within society, or within the state, stands over against neutral, unbelieving, non-confessing entities (669).

In the present context, all that remains to be discussed is how we must envision this influence of particular grace on common grace.

Let us then pay attention to the following.

In the first place, those who confess Christ constitute a group in the midst of a nation, from whom a serious call to duty sounds forth unceasingly to the nation. That call to duty issuing from the people of the Lord works on the conscience. And in this way, the activity of the conscience that Paul describes in Romans 2:13 is stimulated and sharpened by this exhortation, this call to duty from those who confess [Christ]. In the second place, believers elevate domestic and societal life to a higher level through their example, and God grants to this example his effectiveness and his influence. In the third place, as believers in Christ also work in the public arena in order to proclaim, on the basis of the greater light they have received, firmer and clearer ideas take hold of the national consciousness. And thanks to this threefold influence, there emerges in the midst of the nation and of societal life a force for combating unrighteousness and for restraining sin, which, although it allows sin to continue in our personal life, and to stir and rage in secret, does not allow it to hold its ground in the national conscience, in public opinion, in the dominant ethos. Thus common grace is given a tremendous support precisely at the center of national life. This is the moral influence that proceeds from particular grace to the life of the nation as a whole, an influence before which unbelievers and scoffers must ultimately yield as well. And when the government, supported and pressed by this, finally expresses and codifies this higher moral life in its laws, then this influence ascends from public opinion directly to the life of the state and puts a Christian stamp on the state as such, whether it be a Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, or Reformed stamp. In a metaphorical sense, we may also call this a “Christianizing” or a “baptizing” of the nation as a whole, but always keeping in mind that this has nothing to do with the personal conversion of individual citizens and the personal application of the sacrament of baptism.

To this moral influence a second thing is added, namely, the blessing of the Lord. God loves his people as the apple of his eye, and he therefore extends his blessed influences in exceptional measure to those nations in which the church of his Son has come into existence. To those nations he gives the healthiest climate, the best-situated land, the greatest dominion over nature. He makes them belong to the best race. He endows them with the richest talents, the most noble gifts. He enriches them with the most wealthy families, with the most far-reaching inventions, and he thereby enhances the best opportunities for these nations to enjoy a comprehensive, undisturbed, and continually progressing development.

In summary, we may express it in this way: common grace intends a twofold restraining, the restraining of sin and the restraining of the curse. Particular grace helps to raise the activity of common grace to the highest level in terms of both: in connection with the arresting of sin, we see the moral influence of particular grace, and in connection with the arresting of the curse, we see the providential influence of particular grace (669-70).

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We’ll conclude this installment with (1) a reminder from our last post in this review, and (2) a preliminary answer to the question, “Does Christian technology exist?”

(1) Reminder: By analogy to the Christian family, if technology belongs to the creational, and if grace aims to heal creation’s institutions and processes from their lapsarian maladies and misdirection, then, yes, there’s a good chance that Christian technology exists.

(2) A preliminary answer: Yes, Christian technology exists—depending on one’s definition of technology, to which we turn next.

Compassionate Eating as distortion of Scripture: the discussion continues

Back on September 11, 2012, I posted an announcement of a review essay I had co-authored with Dr. Stephen M. Vantassel, entitled Compassionate Eating as Distortion of Scripture: Using Religion to Serve Food Morality, which appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Evangelical Review of Society and Politics (vol. 5, no. 1). Dr, Vantassel (Ph.D., Trinity Theological Seminary, USA) is Lecturer in Theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School, United Kingdom, and Project Coordinator, University of Nebraska (Lincoln), USA.

Recently, the author of Compassionate Eating, Matthew Halteman, has joined the discussion in the comments below the blog post. You can find the blog and related comments here.

It would be interesting and potentially instructive to read substantive engagement with the arguments put forward in the review.

Shaping a Digital World: An Extended Review (4)

shaping a digital world

Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology, by Derek C. Schuurman. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013. Paperback. Pp. 138. $18.00.

You would be excused for thinking, given the multiple installments and length of this ongoing, not-yet-ending, book review, that this book was some magnum opus destined to be immortalized and ribboned with accolades for its contribution to human thought.

It may well be, I dunno.

It’s just that I enjoy testing and teasing out ideas that lie close to the heart of what it means to be a Christian today in God’s world. And Dr. Schuurman does too, I think.

Last time we left you with these ponderables: What, precisely, is technology? If technology is value-laden, does Christian technology exist? The author asks the provocative question: “Does the Christian faith result in a ‘new kind’ of computer technology?” Putting a fine point to the conversation, he drives us to the heart of the matter by asking: “Can the end user discern the religious convictions of the programmer? If not, what difference does faith make to our work in computer science?” (73).

What is “Christian”? (1)

Somewhere along the way, we need to bite through this issue involving what, exactly, the adjective (or adjectival noun) “Christian” may modify.

In volume 2 of his Pro Rege, Abraham Kuyper discusses this very issue extensively (did he ever not discuss something extensively?). This arises in his analysis of the relation between Christ’s kingship and the family; his opening chapter on this subject is entitled: “The Family Is not a New Creation.”

Kuyper begins by distinguishing two spheres of human life: church life and civil life. “Family and society, state, as well as art and science can all be counted as part of this wider sphere of civil life. Civil life is common to all nations, regardless of whether they have been Christianized or not” (348; this and subsequent Kuyper quotes are italicized for emphasis and easier identification).

Sound familiar?

Kuyper continues:

This entire field of civil life in all its branches therefore forms a contrast to the church. Church and civil life form two separate spheres, and the varying significance of Jesus’ Kingship for each of these spheres is governed altogether by this principial difference between them. Our King’s regime does indeed extend over both of them, but in different ways. In civil life Jesus’ Kingship means something altogether different from what it does for our church life. . . . The significance of Christ’s one Kingship differs for each of these two spheres. Anyone who confuses the two will necessarily either weaken Jesus’ Kingship over his church so as to adapt it to civil life, or else impose upon the latter a pressure from the church that deprives this civil life of its original character (348).

Sounds downright familiar, yes?

According to Kuyper, the source of the difference between civil life and ecclesiastical life lies in their respective origins. Our civil life originates in creation, while our church life originates in redemption. In contrast to life under Christ’s Kingship in the church, our civil life, “both in family and society, and in the state and science, has a totally different origin, has a totally different meaning, obeys a totally different law, has a totally different goal, and leads a totally different life. Civil life proceeds not from grace, but from creation” (351).

What is “Christian”? (2)

Next, Kuyper turns to an analogy. Doctors study pathology, but before doing so, they start with studying the anatomy and physiology of the human body. That is, they begin with creation. Because their goal is to bring healing and restoration, they then need to go further to study surgery and medicine. The basis for the medical profession, however, is creation. The created human body can be healed and enhanced, but its structure, its components and composition, were given at creation, in Paradise.

The doctrine of grace is a doctrine of healing. “Whenever we attempt to cause grace to sanctify and heal civil life as well, then our starting point must remain the constitution of civil life in its original form as it existed in Paradise according to the design of God” (351-52). In that light, grace never creates ex nihilo, but always restores what already exists.

This is why we can speak of a Christian family. A Christian family is different than a pagan family, but it remains a family. Its Christian character consists especially in this: by grace it has become a family as God originally willed the family to be. By grace, its manner of functioning will come closer to God’s original ordinances for the family.

So the adjective “Christian” does not point to a different creation, but a re-new-ed creation.

So once more: There is a twofold order of affairs. The first is universal, and encompasses all of life, and alongside it there is a second order of affairs arising from grace. “And yet,” writes Kuyper,

the life of that church [instituted by Christ] does not remain confined within its own walls. The glow of its light radiates outward as well; those rays of its light are cast as well across everything that belongs to the first order of affairs. It is through such illumination with higher light that the institutions of the first order receive a Christian character (356).

To summarize: The transforming grace of the gospel does not remain confined to the institutional church, but radiates across all of creational life, and permeates all of creational life, whereby creational institutions and activities receive a Christian character.

The pattern of regeneration

In fact, this life-permeating activity of renewing grace follows the pattern experienced in regeneration. When a person is regenerated,

it is not as if the person who once existed disappears in order to be replaced by another, but the person who had already been there and had degenerated is restored in the likeness of God’s image according to which he had first been created. Christ does not abandon the world so as to replace it with a totally different world, but he takes the world as it has been created by God, separates the things in the world that are according to God’s image from the things that sinners have made, contends against and removes the latter, blows off the dust of the ages, and causes God’s original plan to reappear from the dust, and rebuilds upon the foundation he recovers, in the pure line of God’s design, in his style, and according to his plan, the ‘building’ that is the life of the world (356-57).

“Christian” = restored direction + growing + consecrating

When Kuyper turns to explaining the specific content of the Christian character of family life, he suggests that this is manifested in three ways: (1) in the family’s healing from sickness (think: from its lapsarian deformity); (2) in the family’s richer growth and higher development; and (3) in the self-conscious consecration to King Jesus of all the family’s members. Grace renews relationships, including those between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, masters and servants.

But what about those flourishing families of unbelievers, and those failing families of Christians?

Kuyper again:

The question is not whether in our Christian country unbelievers too have flourishing families, or whether the families of many confessing Christians leave much to be desired. This is the wrong comparison. The question is not one of personal influence. Rather, we must ask what difference and what contrast the Spirit of Christ has effected when compared to the situation we encounter in pagan and Muslim countries. Unbelievers living among us owe so much of the good they enjoy to the Christian morality that has been received [in the Netherlands], which they would never have drawn from their own roots. There is, indeed, a common grace, and even among pagans and Muslims you still find remnants of a higher view of family life; however, even this can hardly compare to the level that family life has reached in Christian countries. Whatever is beautiful, noble, and exalted in the general view of marriage and family as we find it in Christian countries has come to us through the influence Christ has had on them. For marriage and family, too, the direct starting point was the existing order of affairs and the original ordinance in Paradise, and yet the building that has been erected on this principle we owe to Christ and him alone. Although even in the pagan world, and especially in China, we find much in families that is excellent and that would put to shame many families among us, this fact still does not in any way make these families Christian families. A family is Christian only if Christ rules in it by his Spirit, if he pushes sin back and atones for it, and if he elevates this redeemed and blessed life so that it may flourish at an even higher level (364-65).

And here’s why “good” families are not thereby “Christian” families:

An excellent family is not for that reason a Christian family at all. Christian traditions, combined with common grace, may disclose that even among unbelievers there are families that are in many respects models of domestic virtue, but this does not make these families “Christian” families. For that reason, we ought to insist without fail that family life must have a Christian character. For a family to be Christian, three things must be present in it through the Spirit of Christ and the result of his work. The first is the restoration of what sin and misery has corrupted. The second is the elevation of original family life to its ideal. And thirdly, in order that this blessing might not be passing but fix its roots in the family and seek to be nourished there, the family must sanctify its communion by establishing a family altar before which the entire family (i.e., parents, children, and servants) kneel so as to give to God the honor and worship he is due for what he in his grace has given the family and to ask him to bless its life. Only in this way can Christ exercise his dominion as our King over the family as well. Only in this way will he be honored as King in the family and through the family (367-68).

Mutatis mutandis

Well, then, does Christian technology exist?

We’ve must yet define technology, or at least evaluate Dr. Schuurman’s definition of technology. But at this point, given the preceding discussion, it seems that by way of analogy, if the Christian family exists, and if yet-to-be-defined technology belongs to the creational, and if grace aims to heal creation’s institutions and processes from their lapsarian maladies and misdirection, then, yes, there’s a good chance that Christian technology exists.

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Next time: Kuyper on the two distinct meaning of the adjective “Christian.” Here’s a foretaste (from De Gemeene Gratie, vol. 2, 669):

We therefore direct our readers’ attention especially to the fact that they can never come to a clear insight into the correct relationship between church and world, between the communion of saints and society, and thus also between church and state, unless they take the trouble to clearly think about and think through the enormous difference between these two meanings of the word “Christian.”

Shaping a Digital World: An Extended Review (3)

shaping a digital worldGood books are conversation partners, and a good book review both joins the conversation and invites others to join. That’s what is going on here, in this third installment of our review of Shaping a Digital World.

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By the time we reach chapter 4 of this slender volume, we’re more than halfway through. But we’ve also reached the payoff of the discussion of how Christianity and technology relate.

The author begins by reminding us of the centrality of Colossians 1:16-20, and its teaching that Jesus Christ is the center of all creation.

“For in him [i.e., Christ] all things were created: . . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . . For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

These verses convey the essential “stuff” of a Christian worldview. Stated another way: these verses and a Christian worldview are correlative. (Parents and children are correlative; just as you cannot have parents without children, so too you cannot believe Colossians 1:16-20 without having a Christian worldview.)

Applying the insights of historian George Marsden’s writing on the relationship between faith and scholarship (The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship), the author identifies four ways that faith can make a difference in our engagement with (computer) technology. Faith’s functions are (1) motivational: faith should impel us to excellence; (2) ethical: faith informs technology about pursuing the good, not harm; (3) formative: faith shapes the questions relevant to technology; and (4) relational: faith integrates technology within a biblical worldview.

The rest of chapter 4 explains, with the help of Herman Dooyeweerd’s modal scale of being, how computer technology is governed by various creational norms. Along the way, important claims are registered about this technology—that it is value-laden, and that building and using this technology involves responsible adherence to norms like justice, stewardship, love, and shalom.

The book’s concluding two chapters are brief, and serve to warn us again both undue optimism (utopianism) and unwarranted pessimism (despair) with respect to technology. Part of the reason for this balance involves an interpretation of 2 Peter 3:10, regarding the coming purification of creation and culture when Christ returns. Casting his vote with those who understand this and other passages to teach a certain kind of continuity between the old earth and the new earth, Dr. Schuurman wants us to develop models for using technology now, which are rooted in the work of Christ, in the calling of Christians, and in the promise of the union of these two in the blessed consummation of history.

*  *  *

We will return next time to conclude our review with a few suggestive questions designed to sharpen terminology and advance the conversation. What, precisely, is technology? If technology is value-laden, does Christian technology exist? The author asks the provocative question: “Does the Christian faith result in a ‘new kind’ of computer technology?” Putting a fine point to the conversation, he drives us to the heart of the matter by asking: “Can the end user discern the religious convictions of the programmer? If not, what difference does faith make to our work in computer science?” (73).

Those questions will be our starting point when we resume.

A King without a Quarter: Jesus, Politics, and Easter

DenariusYou hear it said nowadays that neither Jesus nor Paul—nor the rest of the New Testament—ever said or did anything political. People claim that neither Jesus nor his apostles founded a political party, taught a political philosophy, or engaged in politics. The claim is defended that Jesus Christ, the gospel, gospel preaching, and especially the church were, are, and must remain apolitical. Jesus’ response to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18.36) is thought to seal that claim.

Well, then, here’s an invitation for your coming weekend: treat yourself to this sermon (by Tim Keller) on Mark 12.13-17, entitled “Arguing about Politics” (available here or here), and let me know in the comments exactly where you think he went beyond the text, or misinterpreted it. If you think he did.

Shaping a Digital World: An Extended Review (2)

shaping a digital worldShaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology, by Derek C. Schuurman. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013. Paperback. Pp. 138. $18.00.

For those interested in the relevance of worldview claims to cultural engagement, this book warrants careful study. Hence, our extended review.

The second of this volume’s six chapters features a discussion of computer technology and the unfolding of creation. The author registers this rather important perspectival claim: “Creation is everything God has ordained to exist, including families, governments, justice, art and also computers. God placed within the world the latent potential for technology and computers. . . . The possibilities ordained by God are not just limited to physical devices, but also the new vistas unlocked by complex computer software. These include such delightful things as computer graphics, imaginative virtual worlds, animations and games” (31).

Guided by the important distinction between structure and direction, the author underscores the relationship between computer technology and the structure of creation. Computer scientists catch glimpses into that awesome structure. They are in a unique position to behold creation’s patterns, majesty, and power. They discover, and are the first to enjoy, the “new” processes computers enable—processes involving human imagination, quantification, information, etc.

With deliberate dependence on the thought of Reformational philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, the author points to the danger of reductionism in evaluating computer technology, specifically in terms of the numerical aspect of things. If the only question worth asking is: How fast is it?, we risk falling into reductionism.

In his Christian philosophy, Dooyeweerd identified fifteen modal aspects of things in creation, arranged somewhat hierarchically as a modal scale of being. Things exist with greater or lesser complexity, depending on how far “up the scale” of modal aspects they exist, or how many aspects they possess. For example, a rock has fewer aspects than a human being.

Now, these aspects or modalities help us classify and organize and study everything in the universe.

Various modalities (aspects) come into play with computers: the numeric is most basic, the social is mid-range, as is the juridical, while the faith (trust) aspect is the most developed. All fifteen modal aspects are involved when working with information and computer technology. The numeric aspect belongs to the essence of computer science and engineering; the social aspect is involved in electronic communication and social networking; the juridical aspect involves legal issues of licensing and intellectual property. Ultimately, our faith shapes our values, and our values shape our tools and the technology (45).

At various intersections in the book, the author raises the distinction (drawn from Dooyeweerd) between laws and norms. “Whereas laws are in effect without human intervention, norms involve human freedom and responsibility. The first four or five aspects [on the modal scale], by their nature, are associated with creational laws that are fixed and must be obeyed. For example, the numeric aspect relates to mathematical laws. . . . However, the analytical aspect and later aspects have corresponding norms that involve human choices and freedom” (44). Creational laws are those that we have no choice but to obey, whereas norms involve human response-ability. Those aspects (modalities) involving creational norms are the historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical, and faith (80). Computer technology can be evaluated in terms of each of these aspects.

When Dr. Schuurman proceeds in chapter 3 to consider “Computer Techonology and the Fall,” he recalls the distinction between the creation’s structure and its direction. As Reformational thinker, Albert Wolters, has explained it, structure is “the constant creational constitution of any thing,” whereas direction refers to “the distortion of perversion of creation through the fall.”

Since humanity’s fall into sin, all of creation has been affected, marred, and distorted. This means that although the structure of creation remains as it was (a human being remains a human being, a tree remains a tree, etc.), the direction of creation has been distorted and misguided. Now, after the fall, everything in creation lies under the divine curse, and everything exhibits to one degree or another the effects of sin. “For we know,” writes the apostle Paul, “that the whole creation is groaning with [συστενάζει, systenazei] and suffering with [συνωδίνει, synōdinei] the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom. 8.22). (Incidentally, it is very instructive to consider the implications of this natal metaphor for the issue of continuity v. discontinuity between this present creation and the future creation.)

What many have termed “common grace” (referring to a kind of divine providential beneficence) enables unbelievers to develop creation via technology, sometimes better than God’s people do. Nevertheless, such “common grace” does not overcome the human heart-impulses whereby technology can become a tool abstracted from the Creator. This abstraction leads to absolutizing various features of created reality associated with technology, resulting in technicism (“the pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific-technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress” [Egbert Schuurman]), as well as informationism, scientism, and consumerism. Rather than viewing technology as a result of the fall, however, we should understand that: “Technology and rational methods are part of the structure of creation; however, they can be absolutized or misdirected. . . . [T]echnology is part of the latent potential of creation. Technology is not a result of the fall; rather, it is a human cultural activity that is part of the possibilities in creation” (64).