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The meaning of technology

The book of Genesis opens with the creation account describing a beautiful world of sea, earth, sky, plants, fish, birds and other animals. And then God places a man in the garden. Immediately following this part of the story is  a curious verse, which at first seems out of place. The verse is Genesis 2:12, which parenthetically mentions that “The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.” A small footnote suggests that aromatic resin might refer to pearls. Why is this significant enough to be included in the creation account? As an engineer, I wonder whether these raw materials – latent in creation – have any implications for the role of technology.

Curiously, the materials gold, onyx and pearls which appear in the second chapter of the Bible reappear in the second last chapter of the Bible. Revelation 21:20 describes the Holy city, the new Jerusalem, a “city of pure gold” and one decorated with precious stones, including onyx, and with gates made of pearls.

In between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21 we read that these materials are not always used to God’s glory. In Genesis we read of how the “treasures of the Egyptians” were given to the people of Israel as they fled Egypt. St. Augustine wrote about how unbelievers can also uncover “gold and silver” dug up from “certain mines of divine Providence” that Christians can also take and use. However, later, in Exodus 32, we read about how Aaron fashioned Israelite gold into a golden calf. Later in Daniel 3 we read of how King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold and forced people to worship it.

But there are other references to gold, pearls and precious stones throughout the Bible. A few chapters following the golden calf incident in Exodus 35 we read about Bezalel, who was “filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts” (Ex. 35:31-33). Furthermore, Bezalel along with Oholiab were given the ability to teach these skills to others so that the tabernacle could be built. These skills were put in the service of God in the construction of the temple.

Refiner’s fire
After the birth of Christ we read about how the wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matt. 2). Here, the gold noted in Genesis is one of the materials presented as a gift to the Christ. However, Christ was later betrayed by one of his followers with another precious metal: 30 pieces of silver.

In 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 we read about how our works are compared to “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw” and that they will be shown for what they are when fire tests the quality of each person’s work. If our work is built with gold it will survive the flames and we shall receive a reward, but if it is built with straw it will be burned up and we will saved but “only as one escaping through the flames.”

The mention of gold and precious materials in Genesis 2 is not simply a superfluous detail of the creation account. These are the materials latent in creation with which we forge cultural artifacts, ones that may be directed away from God or towards him. We can use these materials to build golden calves or to build temples that honour the Lord. We can use them as a gift to the Lord or to forge our own idols. Colossians 1:16 reminds us that all things were not only created through Christ, but also for him. The implications of this are significant: all things in creation, including the raw materials we fashion, have meaning and purpose (telos), and that the purpose is found in Christ. That includes technology which also has a meaning, and the meaning of technology is found in service to God. 

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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