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).
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?
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).
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.
* * *
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.”