Whole-Life Integration: An Interview with Al Erisman
Al Erisman is the Former Director of Technology at Boeing. He currently serves as the Executive-in-Residence at Seattle Pacific University, Director, Executive Editor at Ethix magazine, and Co-Chairman of the Theology of Work Project. He was recently interviewed by centered.org, a Seattle-area team seeking to center leaders on the life and story of Jesus.
Centered: What personal spiritual disciplines have helped you over the years?
Like many people I talk with, I struggle with being as regular as I would like to be in doing what I know to be best: reading, praying, and resting on a regular rhythm. I am very thankful that early in my life I memorized a great deal of Scripture, and I can call on this on a regular basis when I have too many early morning meetings. But I need to get better here. I attend church on a regular basis, because being a part of a community is vital. I also have a practice of trying to read widely and often. I started reading a book a week more than 20 years ago, and have tried to stay this course over time. In addition to Scripture, reading ranges over theology, fiction, business, science, technology, current affairs, biographies, and history. I don’t always achieve the goal but come close.
As a follower of Jesus, how would you define social justice, and how might we as individuals seek to practice it?
I think it relates to how we approach the vulnerable in our world, whether it is the poor in Africa, or the person at work who is powerless and defeated. It is easy to get caught in our own bubble, to believe we have earned all of the opportunity we have, and to assume that others struggle because they don’t work hard. But we need to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. How did he look at the vulnerable? I believe that every person is an image bearer of God, and hence has value and worth. How do we demonstrate that in our interactions? Beyond the personal, we need to see what we can do about systemic injustice as well. There are a great number of needs in our world, and each of us cannot take on all of them. But we can do something where God has given us insight and a nudge. One danger here is to deal with such issues as an extra in our lives (in a far-away land, in a special project) and not see how what we do every day can bring hope to those around us.
How has your background in advanced mathematics and technology informed your understanding of faith and God?
This is a much longer answer than I could give here, but here is a snapshot. In mathematics, I worked on problems in thousands of dimensions. The mathematics is fine, but you can’t draw pictures except two dimensions at a time. It caused me to realize my frame of thinking about God and life can be very limiting as I try to understand the one who is outside my frame. A tech friend said it well when he said, “When we work in technology, we try to figure things out. When it comes to our relationship with Christ, we must understand and even enjoy the fact that God is greater than we are and we cannot subject him to our limited understanding.”
What is the Theology of Work Project, and what key insights have you learned since embarking on this monumental project?
I have been privileged to be a part of a team of 17 people from around the world creating a commentary on the Bible and what it has to say about daily work. Every book of the Bible speaks to what we do every day, and we often miss it, perhaps because we look at its application to our “spiritual lives” rather than our whole lives. The process we used is to start with a draft of a paper written by a theologian. From different walks of life (pastors, academics, business and professional people) our committee studies the document with the Scripture, suggesting changes, applications, etc. The final document goes through a rigorous review process to make sure it is faithful to what the text says, readable, and applicable to our work. I have learned a great deal about theology, I have come to value different perspectives, and have learned to see how applicable the Scripture is to our Monday—Saturday lives.
What advice would you have for a young professional entering into a STEM profession (science, technology, engineering, math) on living out one’s personal faith?
I deeply value the training and work I have done in these fields. I also think it is exciting to explore this work and study from a Christian perspective. Sometimes Christians fear these fields but they should not. This is part of the work God called us to do in the first two chapters of Genesis, in continuing to explore and develop His world. That said, it is common to encounter scientists who make strong statements against faith. I recently heard a Nobel Prize winning physicist say that he loves science because it gives him an opportunity to create purpose because there is no purpose in the universe. This kind of statement is clearly his opinion, but he stated it as if it were science.
A very helpful book on these issues is The Language of God by Francis Collins. There he challenges Christians who would duck away from science because they think it is in conflict with the Scripture. But he also challenges fellow scientists who would make “scientific” statements beyond the realm of science. He does this with authority as the former head of the human genome project and currently the director of the National institutes for Health.
Have you seen God work in your weaknesses or failures?
Absolutely. I have seen God at work in my life through my own weakness or failure in all aspects of life (home, work, worship, community,…). It is helpful to be a part of a community so we can see the diverse talents God has given to others that allow things to be done that we could never do. That is one dimension of this. Another is when I fail, I know that as painful as it is, I can learn from it.
I think there are three reasons to connect our work and our faith: to be a representative of the Kingdom of God where He has placed us, to do the work that he has called us to do and that he cares about, and to be shaped by the challenges of our work. Of course, failures and weaknesses are not pleasant to confront. But as the writer to the Hebrews (12:11) says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” I rarely recognize this at the time. Beyond myself, God often takes the brokenness and works his purposes in an important way. Times when I have needed to apologize for my bad reaction can also bring a blessing to others.
What challenges have you faced following Jesus in the workplace?
Have I ever taken a stand that cost me something? For sure. Getting passed over for a promotion I thought I deserved, is just one example. I need to be careful here, though. Sometimes we think we are suffering for Christ when in fact it is our own bad choices. On the other hand, I think I have a realistic view of what it is to live in a broken world. That starts with my own brokenness. If I can see it in myself, I can expect to also see it in others. So it isn’t necessarily easy. Yes, there are pressures to do what the boss wants, even if it doesn’t seem right. There is unfairness in the market. There are people you encounter who want to deny what you stand for. But rather than see these as unusual, they are expected. It is important not to be cynical, to continue to expect the best in myself and others, and to also recognize that sometimes I am the one who didn’t see the situation correctly. How do we respond? I wish I could live this as well as I can think about it! But Jesus said it clearly, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
How do you approach the concept of work-life balance?
I have several different responses to this question. First, I don’t like the term. Work is a part of life, and the term suggests it is somehow separate. Second, in a balance, we are pitting one against the other. Going back to science, a balance is an unstable point and the least change can tilt it one way or the other. We live in a changing world, so we will always be frustrated in trying to achieve balance. But third, I think the idea behind the question deals with the competing demands on our life from family to work to worship to, of course, our own well-being. Paul puts it well in Philippians 2: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The goal is to live out our lives from God’s perspective. I prefer to call this integration. No lists that say God, family, and work in that order. It is God in my life, period. My own life could use more focus on quiet times with God away from the schedule, and more time in rest. Others may face different tensions. But the idea that we can gain balance seems futile to me.
What do you believe is your greatest career accomplishment?
I am very grateful for each of my kids and grandkids. I am thankful for how they are living their lives. In my time at Boeing, I was privileged to be able to create and lead a high-tech team of researchers who did wonderful things for the company. I remain friends with many years later. I am thankful for my new book that was just published, The Accidental Executive: Lessons of Business, Faith and Calling from the Life of Joseph. I have loved the opportunity to serve in many parts of the world. My wife of 53 years has been a partner in everything. I am blessed beyond expectation with what God has allowed me to experience. I came to realize I was in full-time Christian service while working for Boeing, and I trust this service can continue as long as I am able.
Special thanks to centered.org.