The first time I'd really thought that God might have something to do with being an engineer was sitting in a lecture on the 'Professional Responsibilities of Engineers' at the University of Sheffield.[1] I had an uncomfortable feeling that something vital was missing. We'd looked at the role of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), some engineering disasters such as the Hatfield rail accident, and gone through various philosophers and ethical systems such as utilitarianism. The point was that we should take our professional responsibilities seriously, in the light of the fact that unchecked calculations, or putting money above risk factors could lead to the ultimate consequence – loss of life.[2]

The thing that bothered me was that clearly many engineering projects had valued money above life, and even the assumption that people are valuable was never explained or discussed. I wanted to know why. Why should we be responsible to others? Why is human life valuable? I never had the guts to say it, but the basic answer must be: God made us in his image, and thus gave us inherent value. If atheism is true, then ethics and the value of life is just flapping about in the wind with no foundation.[3]

What Does it Mean to be a Christian Engineer?

A few years later, at a church conference in 2007, someone articulated this very simple question: "What does it mean to be a Christian Engineer?" At the time, I'd just graduated with my degree in Mechanical Engineering and was about to start a job in the railway industry. So, given these two significant passions in my life – following Jesus and engineering technology, I decided I ought to try and find out the answer! So, here are a few thoughts in this direction.

Work is Part of God's Mission

God is an engineer. Well, the Bible doesn't put it quite like that, but we are his design and make project – as is everything else in the whole of the universe too![4] What's more – he made us to participate in his world. It's not like work is somehow not important to God and he'd rather we were singing hymns or doing something 'holy'. Work can be holy – so engineering can be holy! Work was God's original design plan for human beings on planet earth.[5] Although there is more to say than this, such a simple fact should give us happiness that our job is part of God's will for us.[6] Work should not be our idol (as it is for workaholics); it should not be just a means to an end (money); nor should we think the only Christian bit about work or study is evangelising our course-mates or colleagues (though that is part of it). Work itself is an aspect of God's mission for us. Worship is Monday to Friday 9-5 as well as Sunday 10:30-12:00. Whilst that applies to pretty much any university subject or career choice, being a follower of Jesus does have implications for issues specific to engineering.

The Complexities of Ethical Career Choice

God is concerned for the poor and the vulnerable[7] and for his world which he made[8] – and which he will redeem.[9] So it's not too difficult to see how we can use our engineering skills to serve Jesus as we pursue God's mission. There are plenty of ways engineering can help with humanitarian aid or environmental care. You don't have to be a follower of Jesus to care about alleviating poverty – but of course we have all the more reason to do so. A friend of mine worked on a portable stove where the excess heat was used to generate electricity for charging mobile phones in a poor and power-short central Asian country. Brilliant! Christians definitely ought to be doing this kind of work, and there are organisations which can help – such as Engineers Without Borders,[10] or Remap – a charity run by volunteer engineers who design and modify equipment especially for disabled people with specific needs.[11] It's possible for students to get some real world experience alongside helping people and so it’s worth talking to these organisations about possible final year projects or voluntary work experience during the holidays. When it comes to job opportunities though, this kind of work is either in short supply, badly paid or voluntary. But those should not be excuses to avoid considering voluntary work – especially if there are also significant opportunities to take the message of the gospel as we go.

But what about other types of engineering? Designing luxury gadgets for the UK market doesn't sound very Christian. And it doesn't feel very Biblical to work for a (Godless?) company that is just out to make money. Those sort of questions were rumbling around in my head during my final year university project. I was involved with testing and simulating a smart damper for a mountain bike suspension system. It's still the most interesting project I've ever been involved in as an engineer, and my supervisor invited me to carry on being involved in the project as a researcher after finishing my studies. One of the things that put me off going down this route long-term was that it felt a bit frivolous at the time. If God cares about the poor and the vulnerable and wants me to be involved in his mission, then shouldn't I be digging a well in Africa or something, rather than playing with some very expensive 'toy'? That was part of the reason I decided to take a job in the rail industry which I thought had a bit more ethical kudos. But looking back at the mountain bike project I think there were many positives to take out of it. The same type of smart dampers I was testing are actually installed in the framework of large buildings in Japan to provide earthquake vibration protection. I wonder if they saved anyone's life during the earthquake and tsunami in 2011? There's not a direct link, but I like to think that I've contributed something positive to the wider body of research for a technology that could literally be a lifesaver. That's without considering that promoting bike use in general is good for the planet (which God appointed humans to manage), good for the health of our bodies (which God created in his image, and if we're followers of Jesus, re-created to be the dwelling place of his Spirit) and even good as a sport for us to relax and enjoy God's world! So I've come round to the fact that whilst there were some elements of consumerism and hedonism in that project, there was plenty in it that was honouring to God in terms of what he made and redeemed us for.

In a similar vein, a Jaguar Land Rover engineer came and did a talk at my church – and he told us how he wrestled with feeling guilty about working on the Evoque – a gas guzzling 'Chelsea tractor'. In the end rather than just quitting and doing something that he thought was more ethical, he decided to stick it out and try to improve the environmental credentials of the car and company in general.

These stories might sound like a cop-out or a bit of self-justification – but there is a biblical precedent doing mission wherever God has put you. Nehemiah was employed by a Godless company (the Babylonian government). He worked diligently at his civil engineering project (rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem), but refused to compromise his faith in the face of difficulty, and was a witness to the transforming power of God in his community.[12]

Engineering for the Kingdom of God or for Myself?

Although it's easy for Christians to have too negative a view of engineering, we ought not to think too highly of it (or ourselves) either. I get the monthly Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) magazine, Professional Engineer, and if there's one topic that you can guarantee comes up in almost every issue, it's a moan about how engineers are underpaid and undervalued. "Nobody knows what I do." "Most people think the most famous engineer is the car mechanic on East Enders." We like to justify our profession as not only the most important: "Manufacturing is the heart of the export economy", but also the most virtuous: "Engineers have done more for the health of the UK than doctors" (designing sewerage and clean water systems and thus reducing water-borne disease being the prime argument behind that one). This quote from an article entitled 'Only technical talent can save the world' is typical of this kind of thinking:

There are two fundamental problems faced by the world today – global warming and depletion of natural resources. And both of those challenges can only be solved through technological innovation. That is why it is absolutely imperative that we encourage young people in the UK to opt for a career in engineering. Only if we have the necessary numbers of young engineers coming into the profession will we be able to tackle the key issues that we face as a society.[13]

Even if engineering is a positive thing to do, we ought not to have such an inflated view of technology (and our abilities), or a misunderstanding of the nature of the problems in our world. Technical talent can honour God, it can advance his mission and help to curb the effects of sin – but only Jesus can save the world. Do we understand that whilst engineering can be part of God's mission, the world's problems are deeper than simply technological ones – it's as deep as the evil in the human heart. That is something only Jesus Christ can engineer a solution for – through his death and resurrection. The Hatfield rail accident had many causes, but one major problem was the two companies passing the buck to avoid the track repair costs.[14] Money was the prized value, not people. Jesus said you cannot serve both God and money, and that the love of it is one root of all kinds of evil. Although in this case the evil was ingrained in the organisational structure, it was made by people, and people need their hearts turned towards God and away from money.

One of my very first projects in my job in the rail industry was a safety improvement. To be honest it was little more than a big tie wrap and a bent piece of metal, but you would not believe the amount of (design) work (and lots of waiting around...) that went into something so simple. If you saw it, you'd not call it particularly exciting, elegant or world changing. If you happened to be travelling on the particular train it's installed on, you'd never know it was there, let alone that yours truly designed it. Gone are the days of Brunel when one man got all the fame and honour – engineering is very much a team effort, and the designers are mostly anonymous to the end user. Engineering recruitment adverts tend to show off the aesthetically pleasing side of the job – and there is some really cool technology to study and develop – but sometimes engineering is just dirty and a bit rough. I'm thinking especially about my student placement in the steelworks, where the air was thick with grime and metal dust – so I was always sneezing black snot! So, often an engineer’s work is behind the scenes; and sometimes it's just not that glamorous. But why are we working or studying engineering? For our career advancement or a pay rise? For people to pat us on the back and saying what a fantastic contribution we make to society? For people to envy how cool our job is? Or do we genuinely desire to help people through use of our engineering skills? Will we be happy to do a diligent job for the boss – God – even if we get dirty and little recognition from our peers in the process?

In Summary...

Ultimately, whatever our subject of study or profession there are going to be particular pressures to conform to the culture around us. The call to follow Jesus is not just to avoid these pitfalls, but to honour him through our day to day work. The secular world sees sustainability, environmental care, labour- and life-saving solutions positively, but followers of Jesus have even more reason to do engineering along these principles. We follow a God who made the world to be utilised but not trashed, and where people matter more than products. We're not all going to be making blankets out of crisp packets for the poor in Bolivia[15] but every Christian can bring the values of God's kingdom into the lab, the shop floor and the office.


Further reading

With Christ in Engineering (booklet with some excellent articles – including the miracle of the universal joint!)
http://www.transformworkuk.org/Publisher/File.aspx?ID=46185

Christians in Engineering (UK organisation with some good links and reading material)
http://www.transformworkuk.org/Group/Group.aspx?ID=113631

Christian Engineering Society (US based university organisation which publishes journals)
http://www.calvin.edu/academic/engineering/ces/


References

[1] University of Sheffield, 'The Professional Responsibility of Engineers', https://www-online.shef.ac.uk/pls/live/web_cal.cal_unit_detail?unit_code=MEC306&ctype=SPR+SEM&start_date=25-SEP-06&mand=Optional.
[2] Brian Tomkins, 'Ethics in Engineering', http://www.ingenia.org.uk/ingenia/articles.aspx?Index=147.
[3] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/22201-the-total-amount-of-suffering-per-year-in-the-natural.
[4] Genesis 1.
[5] Genesis 1:28, 2:15.
[6] Ecclesiastes 3:22, Colossians 3:17.
[7] Zechariah 7:9-10, James 1:27.
[8] Genesis 1:31, Jonah 4.
[9] Romans 8:19-21.
[10] Engineers Without Borders UK, http://www.ewb-uk.org/.
[11] Remap, http://www.remap.org.uk.
[12] Nehemiah 2.
[13] Peter Fouquet, 'Only technical talent can save the world', http://profeng.com/columns/only-technical-talent-can-save-the-world-.
[14] Office of Rail Regulation, 'Train Derailment at Hatfield: A Final Report', http://www.rail-reg.gov.uk/upload/pdf/297.pdf.
[15] University of Sheffield, 'Students turn crisp packets into blankets for Bolivan community', http://www.shef.ac.uk/news/nr/crisp-packets-blankets-bolivia-students-1.174351.

© 2012 bethinking.org
This article is published by the kind permission of its author.