TESTIMONY OF AN ENGINEER
When he was twenty-eight years old, Charles Darwin began to contemplate marriage. Although he had no particular object for his affections in mind, he nevertheless in a systematic way set down in two columns headed “If Marry” and “If Not Marry” his conclusions on the matter. It was in much the same way that I decided upon my espousal of a career in engineering.
Although my high school aptitude tests showed a definite edge toward literary ablilities, my choice was made based upon the following rationale:
a) the engineer can see tangible results of his creativity,
b) the engineer betters mankind’s standard of living,
c) engineering is a masculine profession, and
d) monetary rewards suffice to allow devotion of leisure time
to studies in the humanities.
Now, all of the above considerations will fall into a better perspective when viewed in the light of an overriding dedication to Christianity as my primary interest in life. As with William Carey, who was a Christian first and who just cobbled shoes to pay the bills, whatever career I decided upon would always take second place to my primary allegiance to God. As it falls out, however, my faith and my work have proven to be highly complementary to each other, since the God of the Bible is also the God of the mathematical equation. Talk about serendipity! I found that by recognizing truth in the natural sciences I could become closer acquainted with the Author of truth Himself.
In view of the long-standing hostility between the two camps of science and religion, however, it may seem incredible to some that such an amicable accord between the two could have been attained in my life. No doubt, many partisan observers would accuse me of trying to “serve two masters” or of lapsing into some kind of philosophical schizophrenia - as with those folk who serve God on Sunday and mammon throughout the week. But in looking back over my life I can perceive that these convictions have been imparted through a divine guidance, which has led me to my present place and profession through a series of “open doors.” I believe that God opened the door for me to follow a technical vocation, and that it was a fortunate response on my part that when He selected this particular portal, I stepped through it!
Here’s how it all came about. I was raised in a remote area, in an adult environment, with few playmates and plenty of books. These conditions coupled with a great deal of curiosity led me to explore many areas of knowledge. I especially remember an intense interest in astronomy during my elementary school years. Also at that time I discovered classical mythology. I came to know all of the Greek legends by heart.
Even more influential were the Bible stories I picked up in Sunday School at the local Baptist church. Having a strong religious bent, I persisted in getting to church as often as possible. And when at age eleven I joined the church, my parents and my younger sister followed suit on the next Sunday, and we were all baptized together.
I continued reading all kinds of books, but my main emphasis was the Bible and mythology. It remains my belief that the highest form of education is in these two fields of study. The Bible and classical mythology are the foundations of Western culture, civilization, law, history, language, philosophy, and art, etc.
At an early age, I voiced this prayer in my heart, “God, please help me to be a Bible scholar,” and this aspiration has never left me over the years. But in the long process of striving toward this goal, I have found that to be proficient in theology, one must be a well-rounded scholar in many fields, for theology is a serious, complicated discipline of study. In the words of H. G. Wells, “If there is no God, nothing matters. If there is a God, nothing else matters.” Religious things must never be treated lightly. Flippancy can become blasphemy, and nonchalance can lead to error. And the man who will not take time to really know God will find himself facing a meaningless life and a lonely eternity.
It is the mark of an educated man that he can read and enjoy Milton and Dante. And this being the case, the Bible and classical mythology should be given prime consideration in our public schools - not taught as religion, of course, but as literature. I believe that studying the Bible as literature is better than not being exposed to it at all because of religious differences. Let the student decide the question of religious affiliation for himself (as he must in any case), but let him not be denied a scholarly approach to the world’s great literature. In the meantime, Americans will remain cultural boors abroad and philosophically shallow at home until our school system gives them a proper appreciation for these twin keys to culture.
Very early I came to be intrigued by the existence of prehistoric ancestors of the human species. The disparity between the story of Adam and the fossil evidence of pre-human hominoids quickly came to my attention, and by the ninth grade when I took biology I had accepted the validity of evolution. The Origin Of The Species is, next to the Bible, the most influential book I have ever read. And further along this same path I was confirmed as a theistic evolutionist by reading Lecomte du Noüy’s Human Destiny several times through while in high school.
There are fourteen great books that have been foundational to my thinking: The Bible (RSV), Darwin’s Origin Of Species And Descent Of Man, du Noüy’s Human Destiny, Frazer’s Golden Bough, Charles’ Apocrypha And Pseudepigrapha Of The Old Testament, Renan’s Life Of Jesus, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Will Durant’s Story Of Philosophy, Thoreau’s Walden, Pascal’s Pensees, Plato’s Dialogues, Professor Estep’s The Anabaptist Story, and Dr. Moody’s Life After Life. This is not to say that I necessarily espoused everything in these writings. In the case of the Rubaiyat, for example, I rejected the pessimistic determinism of the Persian poet - just as I also reject the pessimistic cynicism of Ecclesiastes. The value of many of these books is that they forced me to evaluate their profound ideas and to formulate my own basic system of beliefs and values. The authors that I most admire and seek to emulate are William Foxwell Albright (archæologist, linguist, Bible expositor) and Harry Emerson Fosdick (preacher, philosopher, Bible expositor). I have often referred to these two men as “my patron saints.”
All of this emphasis on books caused me to examine my own personality in the light of attitudes of my peers, for I recognized an anti-intellectual current in America that labels bookishness as effeminancy. Notwithstanding popular sentiment, however, I never doubted my own masculinity. Also, I was certain that the masculinity of the world’s great thinkers, who shared these same propensities, was the essential quality that made them able to meet persecution without flinching when it came. In like manner I also rejected those mistaken views about the milktoast “meekness” of Jesus. Although it is true that I enjoyed painting, playing a musical instrument, studying Latin, and being immersed in great literature, at the same time I participated in athletics and made good grades in scientific courses in school. As stated above, part of my decision to pursue technical studies was to assert the positive quality of my manhood while at the same time enjoying the “feminine” facets of liberal arts as well. To this day I dislike feminine traits in males and oppose any emphasis on “fashions” in male clothing. At the same time, however, I disdain the brutishness, profanity, and alcoholic bravado that some call manliness.
At the University of Florida I went into æronautical engineering. At the same time a high school classmate of mine opted for chemical engineering. Subsequently, however, he felt God’s call into the Christian ministry, and he became an Air Force chaplain. His approach to religion and science was much the same as mine, and he later shared with me how much his background in the natural sciences added to his effectiveness in the pulpit and in pastoral duties. We both commiserated over the de-emphasis of technical subjects in our seminaries and of the weakness of our pulpits in this regard. As society becomes more and more technically oriented, the seminaries will do well to equip their graduates in a general way in the natural sciences. Also, as a by-product to these types of studies, the fall-out would be an enrichment of the theological viewpoints and an enhancement of the mental acuity of our clergy, such that their messages would become more relevant to future world conditions and needs.
As an example of theological enrichment, my scientific orientation has helped answer many primary questions of religion, such as “what is the purpose of man in God’s creation?” I have come to believe that the primary raison d’etre of man is to subdue the universe. This is stated as the first commandment of God in the Bible: “Thou shalt be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). But if in reality man is to tame his world and harness all its unruly elements, including his own violent nature, he must be a seeker of truth. He must know before he can overthrow. He must even be willing to grapple with God Himself, for God is the ultimate Truth. (Absolute Love, absolute Truth, and absolute Goodness are the three highest qualities, and they are also the supreme attributes of the triune Deity.)
This all derives from the fact that when one finds Truth, he has found God. A man must wrestle with Truth just as Jacob strove with his nighttime Visitor. Now, truth is generally attainable, as promised in the Bible. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). Also, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Yet, even though it is attainable, Truth is elusive and multi-formed, and it can only be captured in bits and pieces by the Dedicated, the Perceptive, and the Enlightened. These, in turn, pass it on to whoever will hear. Unfortunately, it is hard for narrow sectarians to accept many sources for truth - the fact that no matter where it is found, truth is truth.
Like Diogenes one must search high and low to find an honest champion of truth. Sad to say, most men are unworthy of the task and rule themselves out of the struggle. They have little concern for man’s purpose and their part in it. Contributing nothing to the ongoing progress of mankind, they are, as Spurgeon observed, just “living strainers of bread and beer,” and when they are gone the world will not miss them.
It is the Dreamer who is the real man. Such a one is the prophet, the philosopher, the poet, and the saint. And this does not rule out the scientist as well, who can also embody all of these traits. Now without exception, such a one must be ready to face some kind of persecution - be it ridicule, ostracism, a cup of hemlock, or a cross.
Realistically speaking, the price of progress is persecution. Still, it is a comforting thought that God is aware of the struggle that He has set in motion. And although the evolution of the race is a slow and painful process, with “truth ever on the scaffold,” He watches and He cares. And His will is reavealed in the lives of inspired Innovators and Reformers throughout all the ages and in all of the races of mankind. Whatever is real and whatever is right in the words of Moses, Socrates, Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Buddha, Isaiah, and Paul is from God. But for the Christian, the last Word is Jesus - God in history.
Jesus revealed God as He is. To his credit, Moses had tried to perceive the ineffable God in totality, but he was not granted a full view of his Deity (Ex. 33:21-23). Still, his observations were true enough to become the foundation of a great religion. But when Jesus came on the scene, Moses was forced to retire. The faith of the Pharisees was rejected and replaced by something far better. Thus, Moses is now obsolete. Affirming this, the New Testament says, “In speaking of a new covenant, He (God) treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). Moses’ portrait of God was blurred and misshapen. The loving Father of Jesus would never have commanded the slaughter of entire cities of men, women, and innocent children. He would not have caused a man to sin by hardening his heart. He surely would not have been the racist that the Hebrew Scriptures said He was. Thus, there are significant differences between the Jewish and the Christian God. But God does not change, and this fact makes Moses wrong...if Jesus is right. And so, one cannot be a Jew and a Christian at the same time.
The theistic evolutionist believes that God has set the cosmic ball rolling in a certain direction, and that it is rolling uphill(!) toward a goal known only to the Director. Thus, man is in the process of becoming. He has evolved, and he continues to evolve toward some future destiny and destination that is within the Divine Will. Conceivably, man will eventually arrive if he remains in the pathway of the quest for truth. Several great minds have perceived that at some point man will proceed into the next stage in the growth process of the race, which is spiritual evolution. The germs of the concept of spiritual betterment were found in the writings of Henri Bergson, Lecomte du Noüy, and Teilhard de Chardin. (It is interesting to note that all three of these prophetic voices came from France.)
As optimistically stated by Paul: “Eventually we shall all achieve a common Faith, we shall know the true identity of the Son of God, and we shall attain spiritual maturity even to the height of the Perfect Man, Christ” (Eph. 4:13). It is an interesting parallel to this idea, that individually, this spiritual awakening begins with conversion and continues into the Afterlife, where “we shall know as we are known.”
Such a philosophy may well be described as Christian humanism. In history, religion was infused with humanism as the result of the Renaissance movement. The medieval scholars of Europe, those men who could read and who had access to the Scriptures, caught a glimpse of a new kind of Christianity - what was to become Protestantism. And Protestantism, which juxtaposes an open Bible with an open Mind, is just another term for Christian humanism.
Now, the reputation of humanism with ecclesiastics, like that of many another philosophy, has been degraded by the fact that some of its adherents have happened to be atheists. But to equate humanism with atheism is neither just nor accurate. Humanism is not in opposition to religion, unless it be authoritarian or hierarchical religion. The established Church has often stood for the suppression of religious freedom and the domination of a priestly class. But the Christian humanist proclaims that every man is his own priest before God. The humanist also says that man and his works have an essential goodness, which is the divine spark of the Creator. Humanism is optimistic, saying that the evils of society - disease, poverty, war - are capable of being overcome. The Christian humanist says that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in His people, to win the world, to bring in the Kingdom, to end oppression, and to accomplish God’s ultimate purpose in making this universe. Theistic humanism accepts science as a partner to religion, since one of God’s divine attributes is “omni-science.”
Now, the biggest hurdle that humanism must overcome in becoming acceptable to many Christians is its optimistic view of the human species. As William Faulkner put it, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” As opposed to this, the doctrine of Calvinism teaches that man is essentially evil and that his society is doomed to depravity and destruction. The religion of the long face is all some people know, and the “abundant life” never dawns for them. Prophets of doom take the doleful preaching of the Book of Revelation - which was colored by Roman oppression and which concentrated primarily on the vengeful fall of Rome - and apply it to whichever generation they happen to be living in. They run around like Chicken Little in a panic that the sky is falling whenever an acorn hits them on the head.
Pessimism has still another downside. It is a limitation on the sovereignty of God. It is as though God and Satan were playing a game of checkers, and the Devil kept on winning. So, God, in exasperation, finally just turns over the checkerboard. If this be the case, if God does not have the power to redeem this world and can only destroy it to get rid of sin, then His great experiment is nothing but a colossal failure!
It is a gloomy fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross, and the Calvinist and the Romanist love to dwell on this morbid theme. But it is a glorious fact that Christ arose! Praise God! This is the symbol of triumph that is the foundation of Christian humanism. To dare to live and even to die for the on-going of God’s new society, with a confidence that right will prevail: this is the humanist hope.
An appreciation for both the Bible and science has been conducive to my avoiding the two extreme pitfalls of biblicism and scientism. God’s revelations in His Book and in His world have necessarily been received, interpreted, and written down by men, and man is prone to err. Nevertheless, the kernel of truth resides in both areas of inquiry, and knowledge in one aids in the discovery of elements of reliability in the other.
A return to the ideals of the Renaissance would be a great boon to the advancement of both religion and science. It should be obvious that a well-rounded appreciation for the arts and the sciences, as was evidenced in the lives of such men as Leonardo da Vinci, could not fail to enhance the cultural stature of mankind. Sad to say, however, there is presently an opposite trend of narrow anti-intellectualism abroad in the world. In our country an anti-technology element of the population yearns for the good old days of the horse and buggy, submissive women, and fundamentalist faith. The issue of teaching Creationism in our schools is a case in point.
God has been ill served by fundamentalists, such as the Creationists, over the years. In pressing their extravagant claims of a literal one-week creation, a world-wide flood in historical times, reverse evolution from an original perfect pair of human beings, and verbal dictation of the Bible by the Divinity, they have caused many to reject all of religion as mere foolishess.
Also, fundamentalist beliefs, including male supremacy, primitive cosmology (such as a subterranean hell), literal dragons and unicorns, a fear of black magic and witchcraft, and genocide by divine decree (as in the Hebrew conquest of Canaan), have given religion a bad name. Fundamentalist withdrawal into an exclusive society of provincial thinking, private schooling, block voting, book burning, name calling, political meddling, armament promoting, handgun defending, immigrant hating, poverty ignoring, minority deprecating, and demagogue adulating has effectively stunted social progress in America for many years. Fundamentalism has ruined Iran, Egypt, and India, just to name a few, and a takeover by the likes of the Moral Majority would be the ruination of our land as well.
Now on the other hand, just because the creation stories of all the world’s religions contradict each other is no reason to deny the obvious fact of supernatural creation and the divine ordering of the universe. Myths were necessary at first - like the stork stories told to youngsters about the origin of babies - to explain the mysterious act of cosmic birth (creation), but now primitive cosmology can and should give way to research into all the possible ways that the Supreme Being may have brought our universe into being. Enlightened religion has nothing to fear from scientific analysis of the basic laws of our world, for every new discovery is just another step in understanding the mind and will of God.
Considering all factors, the highest form of religion will be grounded on a few basic truths, such as: the demonstrated purpose and order in the universe, the existence of human intelligence, the fact of beauty, the universal sense of sin, the progressive revelation of Deity throughout history and in the Bible, the theistic evolution of the world and mankind, religion’s betterment of society, the extraordinary lives of saints, mathematical probabilities of the supernatural direction of the cosmos, individual experience of the divine, life-changing religious conversion, fulfilled prophecies, validated miracles (such as healing), the essential historicity of Bible accounts, the otherworld testimonies of those who revived after being pronounced dead, and the authenticated resurrection of Jesus Christ. The best type of religion should be characterized by rational theology, acceptance of truth regardless of source, respect for the human mind, and historical optimism (since pessimism is no more than “practical atheism”).
Looking far downstream, faith grounded in superstition is bound to pass away sooner or later. That is because “faith” should not be synonymous with gullibility. Instead, it should be applied to a few areas such as intercessory prayer, the existence of Deity, experiential salvation, authentic miracles, and promises or prophecies related to future existence and destiny. “Living by faith” should be like the deep-sea diver’s dependence on his life support equipment for air while still putting out his own effort to get his job done.
In the event that all faith should pass from society, the result would be a setback for mankind, because religion would be replaced by a repressive atheistic scientism. This would prove to be just as bad as if the world had come to be ruled by superstitious fundamentalists. Both extremes, biblicism and scientism, are out of touch with reality and militate against man’s freedom to pursue truth - which must be exercised in both the mental and the spiritual realms in order to be complete. Neither of these elements should be lacking, for in the words of Albert Einstein, “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.”
Among my scientific colleagues it is interesting to note that, like society as a whole, not all of them have achieved a harmony or working relationship between technology and theology. For many engineers, religious considerations play little or no part in their personal or professional philosophies. And even with many church-going engineers their worship and their work remain divorced each from each. It is a matter of great amazement to me that some technical people regularly exercise a great deal of mental activity on their jobs, but then they shut off their brains in the religious realm. Such people either accept everything in the Bible hook, line, and sinker, with a kind of superstitious faith, or, in a spirit unworthy of their profession, they disparage the role of scientific inquiry in this particular area.
To me, an unexamined religion is just superstition. Even worse, it is idolatry - as with the bibliolater who never dares to question the oracular Holy Writ. And this failure to examine one’s faith is to me highly sinful, for I have concluded that a particularly repugnant form of sin is satisfaction with ignorance. And the man who venerates a god of Anti-intelligence is doomed by his fear of that terrible Tyrant to never dare to ask any questions, and hence, to get no answers. He is fated to ever wander about in a foggy morass of blind faith and never get his feet on solid ground. It is my belief that blind faith is commendable in dogs, but not in human beings. Surely God must want something more from man than the canine devotion and unreasoning obedience of “man’s best friend.”
I have come to the conclusion that sin is essentially twofold. It is whatever separates a man from God and whatever impedes mankind’s evolution or progress. Having developed up to a point, man retains brutish elements in both his body and his soul. So, the task of the human race is to transform this worm into a butterfly - which being a miracle, can only come about with the help of God. But worm-like intellects cannot conceive a winged future for the race. They are content that they and their descendants should live and die in the present caterpillar stage.
As for me, applying the scientific methods of investigating, experimenting, hypothesizing, and rationalizing to the development of working principles by which to live, that is the best way. God gave me a mind, and He also gave me His Spirit as a guide to all truth. Not to use either or to employ one without the other would, for me, entail the rejection or perversion of the will of God for my life.
There is now evidence of a high degree of intelligence even among certain advanced species of animals. But still, man has primacy among the primates, for he alone is the truly reasoning animal. He alone knows how to ask questions and how to seek for underlying causes in natural phenomena.
Mankind was born with a question and a quest - the question “Why?” and the quest for answers to all the “whys” in his universe. Sad to say, in this quest, an unfortunate factor has been revealed: achievement of an answer to a problem can result in satisfaction and stagnation. If an answer is accepted as final truth and is not itself subject to further investigation, a plateau of knowledge is reached and the quest is halted. When this happens, progress is very effectively blocked by closed minds and solidified attitudes until some daring new thinker comes along. Regarding this tendency to be satisfied with status-quo knowledge, Ralph Waldo Emerson advised: “Seek truth and not past apprehensions of truth.”
Furthermore, thinkers do not always get the right answers. And this means that the quest for truth is like a Tower of Babel, being built of bricks of half-truths, near-truths, and many outright falsehoods. In his trial-and-error process of investigation, man has often had to demolish his tower and start over again on a firmer foundation.
Everyone has his own Tower of Babel - his own pet prejudices, his own sensitive conceptions that he defends against painful inquiries. He guards his tower and strengthens its defenses but never raises its elevation toward truth for fear that it may all collapse. Oh, how much useless labor has been expended in defending grotesque edifices of false philosophies!
Only a man of courage and wisdom will dare to remove a brick of falsehood and watch his precious tower come tumbling down. Only a wise man has the courage to keep an open mind. Only a wise man will remain the master of his thoughts and evade becoming their captive.
It is especially inappropriate for a man of science to fail to be receptive to new ideas. For, to exclude the possibility of discovering new insights from any quarter is to build a dam against the stream of progress. Freedom to think, to experiment, and to chart unknown waters of the mind is the greatest legacy of our race and our nation. This country was founded by men who dared to be different and who, consequently, were rejected by their closed-minded peers in “the old country.”
Fortunately, when the darkness is at its worst, someone will always light a candle. Out of the dark ages will come a renaissance; out of an inquisition will come a reformation; out of tyranny will come revolution; and out of slavery will come emancipation.
In 1870 a Methodist bishop paid a visit to the president of one of his denomination’s universities. In the course of the conversation the president voiced the conviction that within about fifty years men would learn to fly. The bishop was offended by this idea. He stated that the very thought was not only absurd but was also blasphemous, since God had only given wings to birds and angels. That bishop’s name was Milton Wright. In his home were two small sons - Wilbur and Orville!
As an ærospace engineer, I am committed to human flight - to the conquest of the heavens. As a theistic humanist, I am also committed to spiritual flight - to transporting the human mind and spirit into the uncharted realms of ethereal space. And I believe that wingless, earthbound man will yet break the gravitational bonds of his earthly nature and his earthly habitation. For man was made to fly!
Richard L. Atkins