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).

Shaping a Digital World: An Extended Review (1)

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.

My wife and I met the author of this slender paperback, Derek Schuurman (Ph.D., McMaster University), for the first time last summer at a friendly, though rainy, picnic featuring the hard-working, buff-looking running group to which my ever-young Canadian son-in-law belongs. Dr. Schuurman is associate professor of computer science and chair of the mathematics/physics/computer science department at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.

He’s been educated in electrical engineering.

And he’s puzzled about how faith relates to work.

One thing led to another in our backyard conversation, including mention of the book he had just written, and so here we are now, finally, able to put down some reflections and suggestions in response to Dr. Schuurman’s fine book.

In his own words, “This book is an attempt to provide both practitioners and students working in fields related to computer technology a beginning framework for discovering how their faith relates to their technical work” (8).

Now you know why this book is, or should be, in everyone’s wheelhouse. Who of us does not live in one or more of those “fields related to computer technology”?

The book has six chapters, followed by discussion questions for each chapter, along with a bibliography and an author/subject index.

Naturally, the first chapter sets the table, so to speak. In order to explain what faith has to do with computer technology, we need to define technology, and to recognize that technology is not neutral or value-free. The philosophy-ethic of instrumentalism claims that a tool is simply a tool. By contrast, we need to see that the use of many tools is a matter of moral analysis. (I say “many tools,” because I doubt that we need spend much time talking about the values embedded in fingernail clippers, but the computer? Well, let’s just see.) The values of those who design technology are embedded in the objects they design. Beyond, or perhaps as part of, moral evaluation, technology alters the structure of our interests, the character of our symbols, the way we think and know. Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) has made this point well. If television has changed how we know what we know, in the areas of education, politics, and religion, the same can be said about computer technology.

One of the foremost powers of computer technology is homogenization. Computers increase the tempo of the homogenizing process (17). Information-as-data gets classified and thereby homogenized. Computers convert information into a form able to be stored, manipulated, and exported.

By now we might be asking: Where’s the morality in that? Well, values are expressed in the problems computers are designed to solve. In addition, the neurological effects of computer technology—the speed, quantity, and quality of information—entail values. Values are similarly embedded in the capacities of digital technology, involving the entire range of cultural and social relationships, structures, and purposes.

With the help of analysis and definitions offered by Christian philosopher Egbert Schuurman and political philosopher Stephen Monsma, the author defines computer technology as “a distinct activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God, to unfold the hardware and software possibilities in creation with the aid of tools and procedures for practical ends or purposes” (23; italics original).

Notice carefully that this definition identifies technology as an activity—a human cultural activity—not just a thing, an artifact, a product, or a device. We’ll be returning to this in a moment.

Most who are familiar with the “Christianity and culture” discussion will recognize the name and work of H. Richard Niebuhr. Dr. Schuurman briefly reviews Niebuhr’s categories in relation to technology (rejection of, indifference to, embracing, cultivating technology), en route to explaining the subsequent framework of his own analysis. The rest of the book reflects on technology as a cultural activity in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

* * *

That’s enough for now. We’ll be back, Lord willing, with more review and reflection.

The Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission: An Integrationist Model

tworoads_joinOne of the two lectures that I delivered last Spring at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary was entitled “The Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission: An Integrationist Model” (you can download a print version here).

At the heart of the essay lies a classically Reformed description of the nature and function of the Noahic covenant, an alternative understanding that differs from one contemporary view of Genesis 9 essential to the defense of a common realm of human history and living that is allegedly separated from the spiritual purposes of God in Jesus Christ.

The essay’s conclusion reads:

In response, then, to the contemporary Two Kingdom dualist model for relating [the cultural mandate] and [the great commission], we propose the integrationist model. Consistent with the whole-life Calvinism that constitutes the birthright of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, this paradigm seeks, along the route of grace-produced obedience to God’s law, the integration of creation and redemption, of nature and grace, of cult and culture. The integrationist model holds together in harmonious coordination the creational cultural mandate reiterated to the redeemed church in a fallen-yet-preserved creation, and the great commission assigned to the apostolic church by her risen Savior. Both together, until the return of Christ, with an eye toward and for the sake of the new heaven and the new earth.


Duck Dynasty and Natural Law: Where’s the applause?

DDWith a coarseness (not vulgarity) that need not be repeated here, Duck Dynasty patriarch and reality TV show star, Phil Robertson, has made what appears to me to be the best possible “natural law argument”  against homosexuality.

With explicit references to natural human anatomy, and implicit references to “the way things work,” he explained why (marital) heterosexual pleasure surpasses homosexual acts.

For several years now, we’ve been told by purported Reformed thinkers and churchmen (some of them theologians, others historians, of sorts) that Christians who take to the public square should draw their arguments not from the Bible, but from natural law—they should rely on reason, on persuasion, on “common ground” arguments, on “common grace” appeals. After all, we are being told, appealing to the Bible’s prescriptions and prohibitions is valid only for Christians in the church, but appealing to reason is for everyone everywhere else.

Okay then, let’s go with that. Phil Robertson has just dished up one of the clearest, most compelling natural law explanations for the folly and futility of homosexual actions.

Unless we start hearing applause for Phil Robertson’s natural law argument rumble across the blogosphere from West to East, how can we avoid concluding that the real issue, all these years, has been not purported concern for the manner of Christian public engagement, but personal embarrassment about engaging at all?

On the need for good editors

Book-EditorI think it’s easy for an author to be(come) a prima donna: “a temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience.” I know. I are one.

That tendency, in part, is why the recent flare-up about plagiarism by a prominent evangelical pastor deserves our thoughtful attention. James Duncan is an associate professor of communication at Anderson University,  who offers a very pointed analysis of the ongoing Driscoll-plagiarism episode. His focus is on plagiarism, and the high standards applicable not just to college students (like his own), but to published authors as well (like Pastor Driscoll), indeed, to all authors, including pastors.

As someone involved in translating, editing, writing, using, and evaluating published theological materials, I was arrested by this salient comment:

“If traditional publishers don’t aggressively defend the standards of the work they put out under their name, they ought not be surprised when readers abandon them and turn to independent voices and digital publishers.”

Every writer needs a good editor, and every editor must uphold professional standards in order to safeguard a publisher’s reputation.

To be clear, what I’m about to write does not involve plagiarism. But it does involve the inappropriately selective, inaccurate, and biased use of sources.

(It also involves, as I have complained elsewhere, a writer’s excessive reliance on secondary, English-language sources while pretending to offer a scholarly assessment of ideas and schools of thought whose untranslated primary sources are largely locked away in a foreign language, to which the writer has no obvious or competent personal access.)

In addition to my own complaints about this phenomenon, where I urge readers to constantly check out the footnoted sources, three recent versions of this competence-complaint can be found in the current blog series by Mark Garcia about union with Christ in John Calvin, in the Evangelical Quarterly essay by Ralph Cunnington dealing with the same matter, and in the review by William Dennison of “Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms” in the recent issue of the Westminster Theological Journal (75: 349-70).

One could say, then, that the recent Driscoll-hubbub involves culpability, whereas current ongoing dust-ups in the Reformed/Presbyerian world involve competence. You can multiply the appropriateness of Duncan’s warning sevenfold when it comes to theological publishers in that world.

The complaint boils down to this: Where are the editors?

Much of the disagreement identified in the  three illustrations above is rather academic. But we should not be surprised to witness the trickle-down effect, among the protégés of academicians, of bypassing established standards for handling one’s sources responsibly. There’s going to be leakage of incompetence and carelessness.

None of this establishes the superior competence of digital authors and publishers, of course. Today this arena seems to resemble the wild West of a bygone era. We’re living in exciting times, with respect to the burgeoning possibilities for education, communication, and information-based knowledge. Who can predict where the transitions will lead, to say nothing of where they might occur?

But many of us continue to have a stake in print media, primarily in the field of theological education and church formation. We who are authors require good editors—people able, and willing, to challenge and correct us in terms of both content and method—for the sake of careful readers, who are the ultimate beneficiaries, or victims, of our work.

Announcing: Living and Dying in Joy: A Devotional Guide to the Heidelberg Catechism


Blessed Reformation Day 2013!

What better way to celebrate than to break open the Heidelberg Catechism and bow in humble gratitude to God for this gift to the church.

We are pleased on this memorable day to announce the publication of Living and Dying in Joy: A Devotional Guide to the Heidelberg Catechism.

You can learn more about the book here, and mosey on over here to buy it. (Take careful note of the endorsements . . . they offer a rather helpful “feel” for the book.

From the publisher’s website:

The title of this commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism takes its inspiration from the catechism’s second question, which asks “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The comfort referred to is that which is described in the famous first question and answer, the comfort of knowing “that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The Christian art of living and dying in joy is explored in this guide to the catechism, which focuses on the biblical background and exposition of the grand themes of misery, redemption, and gratitude. This translation is published on the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism as an aid to the devotional reception of this historic and continually relevant symbol of the Reformed faith.

Cornelis Vonk (1904–1993) was a Reformed preacher and pastor in the Netherlands during the middle third of the twentieth century. His sermons and studies are widely known and appreciated today as a warmly devotional and pastoral treatment of the Bible text.

With a foreword by the Rev. Frans van Deursen. Co-published with Paideia Press.

Exodus (Opening the Scriptures) (4)

ExodusCover-01.95Today’s jewel of a quote serves several purposes.

First, it’s content is simply delicious.

Second, it’s biblical-theological perspective is crystal clear, providing a powerful framework for falling in love with the Torah as an essential part of divine special revelation given to equip every New Testament believer for living in God’s world.

Third, the jewel below helps us learn to sing with confidence every verse that the psalmist composed in his famed “Ode to the Law” (Psalm 119), including these:

97 Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.

98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.

99 I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.

100 I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.

Today’s quote is a bit longer, so please give it the “soak time” it deserves.

From what I have said above, it should be clear by now that the New Testament church may not ignore the law of Moses or shove it aside, as though the law had somehow been abolished. The law has not been abolished but fulfilled. Christ is the end of the law, its fullness. He appeared as the truth of all the shadows and promises, all the depictions and assurances. Therefore the church after the time of Christ’s coming may no longer be treated as an immature child (Gal. 4:1–5).

Yet the church would indeed be foolish if she completely ignored the healthy instruction that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ gave to his Israelite church, who made no use of it. What sensible children would ever do such a thing? Even if they have long been grown-ups, they still like to review what their parents said to them in their younger years when they were not yet mature. Bearing in mind the altered circumstances, they still profit from the earlier instruction. Therefore, today we should still devote attention to the wise torah that God gave to the ancient Israelite church into which we have been incorporated (Rom. 11:17–18, 24).

Paul commanded Timothy to abide in the sacred Scriptures in which he had been instructed from his youth on. By this the apostle must also have meant the Torah (2 Tim. 3:14–15).

From the law we get to know God, our Creator, who out of free grace made a covenant with Abraham the idol worshiper. From the law we get to know Christ and his works as a great picture book that the Lord employed to give his church visual lessons in what he could mean to her. From the law we learn much about the will of our heavenly Father for the life that has been restored in Christ. We must respect the authorities, have mercy on widows and orphans and on the poor and the strangers in our midst, pay the laborer his full wage, not condemn anyone without hearing his story, and so forth. (pp. 23-24)

(From Exodus, volume 2 of the commentary series “Opening the Scriptures”; to learn more, go here, and to order, go here).