A Christian Perspective on Computing: One Person's View

by Joel Adams

Calvin College is a Christian college in the reformed tradition, embracing the biblical themes of

  1. God’s creation of a world that He described as good (Genesis 1);
  2. humanity’s fall, brought about by our ancestors’ rebellion against God, after which God cursed His creation (Genesis 3); and
  3. God’s act of redeeming us by sending His son Jesus Christ as a substitute to bear the punishment we deserve (John 3:16, Ephesians 1:7).

That is, God is working to bring humanity and the creation back into a right relation with Himself, a process that began with Jesus’ death (Romans 8:19-23), and that will be completed when His kingdom is finally established (Revelations 21, 22).

One of the distinctives of reformed Christianity is its teaching that all aspects of life have been affected by the fall. Genesis 3 shows this clearly when the fall disrupts people’s relationships with (i) God, (ii) each other, (iii) their work, and (iv) the world around them.

Another reformed distinctive is that Christians are the agents through whom redemption occurs. The idea is that as Christians, we are obliged to live all aspects of our lives in a way pleasing to Him, including our play, our work, and so on — all aspects of life are subject to Jesus’ lordship. By living all facets of our lives consistently with Jesus’ teachings, we redeem those facets, and advance His kingdom.

For the Christian computer scientist, one implication of this is that our work in the area of computing is one of the things to be redeemed. Put differently, humanity’s fall and God’s curse has affected a variety of relationships, including those involving computers. (It is an interesting thought experiment to speculate on how the human-computer relationship might be different if the fall had not occurred.) It is thus important for the Christian computer scientist to consider what aspects of computing are in need of redemption?

Since computers are a part of the creation, and God commanded ourancestors to exercise dominion over the creation (Genesis 1:28), then the proper relationship between people and computers is for people to exercise dominion over computers.

The vast majority of the people I know would describe their relationship with their computer as one of frustration, rather than dominion. Instead of enhancing our productivity and making life simpler, the computer dominates us far more than we dominate it. The reasons for this inversion are numerous: buggy or poorly designed applications, interfaces designed to simplify life for the implementer instead of the end-user, programming languages that seem to be designed with no concern for readability, and so on.

Thus, there are a number of ways that the Christian computer scientist can work to redeem computing:

  • One way is to refuse to cut corners, and only design computing systems that are robust, and whose hardware and/or software is as reliableand impervious to crashes as possible. Leaving the testing and finding of errors to one’s end-users is a deplorable practice that only raises a users frustration level.
  • Another way is for the Christian computer scientist to build systems whose interfaces are as intuitive as possible for the end-user, and so allow as many people as possible to achieve mastery of the computer. When 80% of Americans cannot program their VCRs, new human-computer interfaces are needed that empower such people, instead of expanding the gap between the techno-literate and the techno-illiterate. In this respect, Christians can also be redemptive by supporting companies who design reliable software and whose interface considers the end-user; and by refusing to support companies that do not.
  • In this age of networking, computers must interact not only with humans, but with one another, and so the computer-computer relationship is another area in which relationships can be improved. The development of fault-tolerant network protocols, tools and/or protocols that enable communication throughout a heterogeneous network, tools that simplify network management, and interfaces that make the vast amount of information available easier to access are just a few of the needs.

These are just a few of the areas where the computer scientist who is a Christian can work to redeem computing.

In summary, one task of the Christian computer scientist is to bring healing anywhere that pain exists in the endeavor of computing.