The Creator’s Canvas: How should Christian science teachers approach controversial issues?
Science education, like the scientific enterprise itself, is an eminently Christian activity. Theologians for centuries have acknowledged the “two books” of God’s revelation: the book of God’s word and the book of God’s works. To study God’s works is to place yourself before a non-verbal form of God’s communication to humankind. A Christian scientist is, in some ways, like a museum-goer or art historian. The work of science and science education is to study and admire the artistic expression upon the Creator’s canvas which is the cosmos. What is the artist trying to communicate?
One could therefore easily make the case that the faithful student of God’s works honors God and seeks to know him with the same virtue and validity as the student of the book of God’s word. What a strange, bright light this casts upon the fact that science has been the battleground of warring forces for so long. What should be acknowledged as a holy vocation is as much the occasion of denunciation and vitriol as any ecclesiastical or theological controversy.
Like the children of soldiers engaged in the battle, students trying to learn science can suffer the effects of the war going on around them. In many cases, they are taught from an early age to suspect the opposing side of treachery, irrationality and impiety. In the worst cases, science education devolves into as much an polemic against science as a study of the wonder of God’s works.
The good news, and the hope for a way forward, is the fact that deep down inside, the guileless and open-hearted constituents from both sides want the same thing, that is, good science, true knowledge, accurate learning, and intelligent students. Both sides believe this is what they are striving for. It seems helpful to speak of “sides” because of the polarization that persists, and because it creates mental space for the idea of a “third side” or middle way, a voice that stands between the extremes of secular versus faith or works versus word. The best Christian stance is this middle way that does not force a choice between word and works, but sees the two as God’s grace in speaking to humans so abundantly and diversely. It sees science in the same way a biblical scholar sees the field of hermeneutics: a method for engaging with God’s revelation.
A true Christian perspective takes the tenet that God created the world and declared it good, and deduces from that the creation speaks truly. And it speaks about a variety of things: it speaks about history, about the properties of substances which God created. Creation speaks accurately and believably about processes in nature and offers us ways to utilize nature. Creation submits itself to mathematical characterization in a way that is unexpected and amazing. But it also can speak accurately about the Creator himself, his glory, and his attributes, as Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20 teach.
How then should a Christian science teacher approach the administration of her class? It is not enough to memorize the names of muscles and bones, parts of the cell, universal constants and formulae. Nor is it sufficient to study only those topics that steer clear of controversy. A faithful science course will endeavor to bring students into the conversation. It will strive to nurture wise disciples of Christ who can speak to the issues. It seems to make great sense that where the entrenched forces of the warring sides cannot make progress, fresh perspectives of the faithful young men and women educated to reason and dialog may be the best hope for not merely a détente but an exciting future in which Christians are able to admit their own short-sightedness of the past, as they slowly did after Galileo, and engage with the God-honoring enterprise of delving into the seemingly bottomless wonders of his creation.
A number of issues stir up strong feelings in science education—climate change, the age of the earth and all that goes with it (plate tectonics, dinosaurs, radiometric dating), ecology. Evolution, however, is the undisputed hottest topic of the unfortunate and unnecessary science/faith debate. But again, if Christians understand that they have nothing to fear from the study of the world because God made it and it speaks truly, then what we find in genetics or anthropology or paleontology is not dangerous; they are brushstrokes on God’s canvas for our continued study.
When the day comes in biology class that evolution is the topic of discussion, a Christian teacher should immediately begin by creating safe ground for conversation. She should announce that all questions and serious comments will be entertained with respect, and that there are no landmines waiting to blow up if a student makes a statement that seems to align him or her with a controversial opinion.
Most Christian students have a lot of questions about evolution and the other controversies, but are afraid to ask them for fear of the adults gasping in horror. The right way for a Christian teacher to proceed is to accommodate questions, foster inquiry, and encourage students to think and engage with the issues. She should teach in such a way that does not give away her own opinion, but clearly explain the details of the science with a goal to enabling students to enter the ongoing conversation thoughtfully, not merely armed with polemics.
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