Why Do Trees Make Air? Talking To Your Kids About God and Science
INTRO BY CHRIS: When my children were young and asked questions about things they observed, I confess I sometimes used the old stand by, “That’s just the way God did it”. It has the advantage of being both true and short, which can come in very handy when you’re negotiating the multiple challenges that come with parenting young ones. It especially came in handy when I didn’t really know the particular science behind what they were asking. Today’s post by Mario Russo challenges parents on this front. Can we be more intentional in our responses so that what we teach about the natural world and God’s actions faithfully honors both?
“Why?” It’s my 4 year old’s favorite question. So when he asks me why caterpillars change into butterflies, why ants make dirt hills in our backyard, why grass is green, why tree leaves change color, or why bees make honey, what do I say? Do I simply answer “Because God made it that way,” or do I tell him “Because that is how it evolved”?
As a parent who has transitioned from a young-earth creationist position to a evolutionary creation view, there can be some apprehension in a simplistic answer of “God made it like that” on the one hand and some guilt in an accurate answer of “it evolved that way” on the other. In the former instance, I feel like I am offering an insipid answer similar to the ones I received as a kid, which ultimately do not sustain scientific curiosity. On the other hand, in the latter instance, I feel like I am reinforcing naturalism to my kids—excluding God entirely.
So what should I do? When the inevitable barrage of questions come from my kids, what do I say? Should I simply ascribe everything to the design of God, or should I explain (in an age appropriate way) how nature has evolved to this point? I believe the best answer is “yes.” There is no need to exclusively limit our discussions to God or science when explaining nature to our kids. There are times when it is appropriate to limit our answers to one or the other, but I believe the best approach to explaining nature to our kids is to integrate both science and faith.
It’s OK to give a theological, non-scientific answer
My wife is extremely creative. She mostly writes poetry now, but she has dabbled in many other art forms. One of my favorite pieces of art is her pottery that sits on the bookshelf in our living room. Inevitably, whenever friends come over to visit, they notice the pottery and ask me about it. I tell them what it is and how it was made and what function it serves, but that isn’t what gives me the greatest pleasure. What I love the most about those pieces of pottery is that I get to tell people about the person who made them. Why? Because I love the person who made them, and I love how those pieces of pottery show off some of her best qualities to everyone who is willing to look.
It is the same when we talk about God and nature. God is the ultimate cause and source of all Creation, therefore, it’s OK to talk about him in reference to it. When our love for the Creation meets our love for the one who made it, it should feel like the most natural thing in the world to talk about God as the King of Creation that he is. So when I tell my son (or daughter) that God makes caterpillars turn into butterflies, this is more than a theologically true statement. It’s designed to help my kids understand and see the work of God in the things he has made. So when my kids ask me questions about nature, I can feel perfectly free to just tell them about God as the Creator who made it.
It’s OK to just give a scientific answer
There are times when explaining how something works requires a pragmatic answer. I’ll never forget driving in our minivan with my kids a few weeks ago when a question came from the backseat: “Papa, Why do trees make air?” I turned to my wife with what I can only imagine was a look of utter shock. How did my not-even-4-year-old son know that trees make “air”? There was no time to find out. My son will keep repeating his same question until he gets what he deems to be a satisfactory answer (which makes no difference anyway since he will just follow it up immediately with another “why?” question). In a flash, my mind raced back to sophomore biology class in college. That’s right, to photosynthesis.
Don’t get me wrong, I was tempted to leave it at “God made them that way.” But why not explain it in scientific terms? Did I walk him through the photosynthesis formula? (6CO2 -> 6H2O -> C6H12O6 -> 6O2) No, I didn’t. Did I tell him that humans breathe in something called oxygen and breathe out something called carbon dioxide and that trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen? Yes, I did. Why? Because eventually “God made it that way” just doesn’t cut it; not for a four-year old’s curiosity, not for a teenagers curiosity, not for an adult’s curiosity, and not for our human curiosity.
It’s important to help our kids understand at an early age that there are natural processes behind what we see in the world, and these can be understood through the tools of science. Thus, when our kids become teenagers and adults, science doesn’t feel foreign, confusing, or threatening to their faith. Understanding from an early age that plants take carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen or that all life descended from a single-celled common ancestor promotes a familiarity with Creation that enhances our future understanding of the Creator and leads to a more mature faith.
In the words of natural philosopher Robert Hooke:
Tis the contemplation of the wonderful order, law, and power of that we call nature that does most magnify the beauty and excellency of the divine providence, which has so disposed, ordered, adapted, and empowered each part so to operate as to produce the wonderful effects which we see; I say wonderful because every natural production may be truly said to be a wonder or miracle if duly considered.1
It’s OK to talk about God and science at the same time
Whenever it is possible, I explain to my kids that God and natural processes can both be “responsible” for the same thing, in different ways. God is the ultimate agent behind Creation, and natural processes are the immediate cause (to cite the Thomistic understanding of the relationship between God and nature). Natural processes don’t replace or negate the need for God, and God, as Creator, doesn’t necessarily replace natural processes. Rather, all of the powers and causes of nature ultimately point to the power and agency of God their creator. Paleontologist Robert Asher, in his book Evolution and Belief, uses the illustration of a steam engine to explain the relationship between God and evolution:
[Evolution] explains how biological change occurs. It does so in the same way that you might explain how a steam engine works, or the process by which its action is caused: water heated to 100 °C boils into steam, which rises and powers the rotation of a turbine, which then generates electricity at the local power plant, and spins the wheels of your nineteenth-century train… It is equally valid to note that Thomas Savery designed the first steam engine, or that James Watt (among others) later improved it… However, the latter explanation is of a different sort: it is one of agency not cause.2
Asher goes on to explain that if one was to ask “how does this engine work” and someone is to reply, “Savery did it, helped by Watt,” that this would be true and that Savery and Watt deserve credit as the creative agents behind the steam engine. However, this answer says nothing about how the steam engine actually works. There is a mechanical explanation for how the steam engine functions. In other words, there is a natural causation involved in the function of the steam engine that does not directly involve Savery or Watt, but does involve heat, water, a turbine, and other observable materials. Savery and Watt are the creative agents, and the combination of materials is the cause of the machine’s function.3 And so it is with the relationship between God and nature. God is the creative agent, and natural processes are the cause.
As your kids grow in their understanding and faith, It’s worth pointing out to them that nature has a God-given ability to participate in the act of creation, which makes nature a bit different than a machine like a steam engine. (This might even segue nicely into the discussion of where they came from, but no pressure there). God makes things that make other things; he doesn’t just drop things from the sky. But again, it’s fine to start simple and provide deeper answers as their questions deepen.
So practically speaking, what does this look like in my family? My wife and I let our kids explore the world for themselves. We turn them loose in the back yard and let them discover rocks, leaves, anthills, caterpillars, bumblebees, and the sun, moon, and stars. We let them uncover new things they’ve never seen before and revisit things they’ve asked us about a thousand times. Inevitably, when the questions come—and they do—we do our best to explain things in a way that they can understand.
Let me give you a real life example. Not too long ago my son and I were playing in our swimming pool in our backyard. He spotted a honey bee hopping from flower to flower. He turned to me and asked, “Papa, why do bees make honey?” My answer went something like this:
That’s a great question, son. God made bees, and he made the flowers. In fact, God made everything, and all the things he made are connected to each other in some way. The flowers rely on the sun and the rain and the soil to grow and make pollen. The bees rely on the flowers to make pollen, so they can collect it and turn it into honey. The bees eat the honey as food. Bees then store the extra honey so that they can eat it over the winter when there are no more flowers. Other animals eat the honey as a source of food too, and so they rely on the bees to help them survive. And that’s why bees make honey.
I’d like to think that my answer wasn’t too long or too complicated. It was a simple answer that covered simple botany, chemistry, and ecology, all while giving glory to God for how he made and designed everything. I pointed my son to the agency behind the cause, while explaining the natural mechanisms. By pointing out how nature works and ascribing credit to God for that design, we are able to show the infinite wisdom of God in the things he has made.
Conversations with your kids about nature don’t have to be difficult or complicated. Sometimes a simple answer of “God made it that way” is enough. It’s simple, true, and inspires awe. Sometimes just explaining the natural processes of the world is satisfactory. Caterpillars turning into butterflies through metamorphosis is awe-inspiring in its own right. However, an integrated approach to explaining nature to our kids can broaden their understanding and deepen their faith at the same time. If we set this solid foundation, our children will know that no matter what science discovers, it will be further cause to glorify our Creator God.
About the author
Mario A. Russo
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