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The biblical way to fly an airplane

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The biblical way to fly an airplane |

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Over the years, many critics as well as honest inquirers have reacted to the idea of a comprehensive biblical worldview with something like a trained skepticism. Unbelievers and many Christians alike don’t fully understand how the Bible can actually apply to every area of life. When they hear the idea, they react with confusion or disbelief. Some retort, “The Bible is not a textbook for _______”—fill in the blank. Unfortunately, this really misses the point, and that hinders Christians in their understanding of the world in crucial ways.

I recall, for example, a line by the secular libertarian Murray Rothbard. Expressing his skepticism at the comprehensive nature of a biblical worldview, he quipped, “Is there really only a Christian chemistry, a Christian mathematics, a Christian way to fly a plane?” The surprising answer (to some), as we shall momentarily see, is, “Yes, indeed!”

Likewise, I recall a critic from the radical “two kingdoms” perspective scoffing once at a group like the “Christian goat breeders’ society.” On the surface of it, the argument sounds just. Is there really a distinct Christian way to breed goats? The craft of goat breeding has been perfected long ago. It involves a very mundane set of techniques and practices that anyone can learn. It is an art and science. It involves simple observation, thinking, planning, testing, and replication. You don’t need to be a Christian to learn these things, and being a Christian does not necessarily mean you will learn them or perform them better. That’s why you can find people all over the world throughout history from nearly all backgrounds herding and breeding goats just fine: Muslims, secularists, Jews, pagans, etc.

Martin Luther is often reported once to have said he would rather have a wise Turk than a foolish Christian as prince. While that quip is most likely apocryphal, the sentiment is not. In the heat of the Peasant Revolt in 1525, Luther criticized the Peasants for forming a kind of Union and calling it “Christian.” He said that in the dispute over land, rights, finances, tithes, etc., “there is nothing Christian on either side and nothing Christian is at issue between you.” Indeed, in disputing such things, there was no “Christian” answer, but “both lords and peasants are discussing questions of justice and injustice in heathen, or worldly, terms.” Calling their Union “Christian” was bearing the Lord’s name for a secular purpose in Luther’s view. Adding the name of Christian, Luther said, suddenly made it a church matter, but wrongly, and thus, “I must accept the fact that I also am involved in this struggle and consider you as enemies who, under the name of the gospel, act contrary to it”

I call this view a “trained” skepticism because the reaction is to a large degree a product of the environments in which we find ourselves. We are taught in schools and churches, through assumption, osmosis, and direct teaching alike, that religious life and secular life are two separate things. This is certainly a learned behavior. It is also innate to our fallen nature, but it is reinforced by a pervasive mythology—dualism between religion and the rest of life—that gets applied for us in everything we do, and we unfortunately do not question it nearly enough.

Granted, there is also truth to it all on the surface. The Bible certainly does not provide us a training manual on how to fly a Boeing 767. But this really misses the point. The point is not that the Bible contains all the technical details. The point is that without the biblical worldview to begin with, there would be no technical details—no technology, science, or ethics—and the technical details would not be meaningful or coherent. As the apologist Cornelius Van Til once said, paraphrasing, it is not that the unbeliever cannot count, but that his worldview cannot account for counting. Unfortunately, too many Christians as well have assumed the unbelievers’ views of things.

We need to unlearn this assumed-assimilated worldview of the sacred-secular dichotomy and retrain ourselves to think differently. We need to think beginning with the assumption that there is not a single molecule of this universe that God does not call “mine,” and of which He is not fully in control in every way.

This is true of the whole created order and all human action within it, from the lowliest to the highest.

This brings me, finally, to my subject test case: is there really a Christian way to fly an airplane? The dualists wish to imply, “No,” because flying a plane is a mundane activity that any properly trained person from any background can do. Religion doesn’t apply here. But the real answer is not only an enthusiastic “Yes!” but should be something more like, “There is absolutely no other right way to fly an airplane.”

First, this is true on the creational level. The whole of science is utterly dependent upon the Christian worldview. The lift created by a properly designed wing only works because that’s how God’s creation works. They may call it Bernoulli’s law, but it’s actually God’s law of how nature works. Bernoulli merely discovered this and wrote it down for us—for which we are grateful. We accept scientific laws as absolutely true only in the sense that we believe the Triune God of Scripture to uphold nature absolutely. So, in a sense, there is indeed “only a Christian chemistry, a Christian mathematics, a Christian way to fly a plane.” Since laws in general—both ethical and natural—only exist because they are upheld by the Christian God, we can engage in these activities only to the extent that we follow his pertinent laws.

Likewise, this includes the whole of all technical knowledge, the predictability of it in this universe, and thus the ability to know, teach, transmit that knowledge.

In these senses, even when Muslim, Jewish, pagan, or secular individuals fly an airplane, they are still doing so in God’s world, in his providence, in his grace, according to his laws of nature, according to his created laws of logic, his laws of thought, his created humanity, etc. Every single one of these facts is inescapable, and every single one can only be obeyed the way God intended, because that’s how the world he created necessarily works.

Second, this is also true on an ethical level. Like all human action, flying a plane involves a whole array of choices and decisions. Each one of these choices involves moral and ethical values. Flying a plane, like all jobs, is a trust, a stewardship. The pilot is entrusted with other people’s lives, property, time, safety, comfort, and other aspects. He has contracted obligations and agreements. In every one of these, there is a Christian and a non-Christian way to make those ethical decisions. These decisions cannot be escaped, nor can the standard by which they are made.

For example, one non-Christian way to fly an airplane can be illustrated simply with a single picture which ought to end all debate on the issue. Here it is:

I think we can all agree there is a fundamental moral failure involved here. I think it should suffice to illustrate that there is at the very least one non-Christian way to fly a plane.

In general, of course, every pilot, whether Christian or Buddhist or secular, is going to make the bare minimum decisions to get you from point A to point B in one piece in a reasonably comfortable manner, even if the cocktails are $8 apiece. Nevertheless, that basic range of moral rectitude is in itself biblical or Christian. When people do right, even if they are not Christians, they are acting outwardly like Christians should.

Going beyond this, however, we can also distinguish Christian ethics within the range of what is morally acceptable in the general sense. When the pilot genuinely cares about the people he serves, and he serves them in his capacity with a loving, thankful, servant’s heart, he is doing it better, even if imperceptibly to most people. The one who manifests this, however he is able, is going above and beyond even the best practices written in the manuals—because his ultimate manual is the Bible.

We all know this is true in every area of life. The best business always comes with a smile and good service. The best business always knows the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong. This is the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice for service and love of neighbor. The businesses that practice it are the ones that thrive.

When Paul said, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), I think he really did mean “whatsoever.” This includes math, chemistry, and even how to fly an airplane. It is all to be done to the glory of God, only to the true God, and only his glory. This means recognizing that every quark of the universe is his creation. He is sovereign over all. It all behaves according to his decree. All science, technology, engineering, architecture, art, skill, and trade should praise him for every bit of that knowledge and power. Likewise, when we carry it all out, we must glorify him according to his moral and ethical standards in how we do it, going so far as to humble ourselves with the mind of Christ (Phil. 2) in service and sacrifice to others.

God’s world is magnificent. In it, we have these things in which we can fly 7.5 miles above the earth in a matter of minutes, cruise at 530 mph, traverse a thousand miles in a few hours, visit foreign countries, experience foreign cultures, and rewatch the whole Lord of the Rings series along the way. What a gift. What a responsibility.

So yes, there is definitely a Christian way to fly an airplane. For one, because there is a genuine slippery slope running from the grumpiness of a gruff pilot, through the carelessness of the drunk pilot, all the way to the terrorism of those who flies plane into buildings. And the only cure for all of these comes from humbling ourselves before Him.

(9-11 photo credit: 9/11 Photos on Flickr under CC license 2.0.)

Notes:

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