Sea Slugs and Scorpions: the Art & Science of Christian Education
In church and the outdoors, texts were central to guiding our experience, but transformation always occurred through direct engagement with nature and with God in the present.
In this post, we hear from a homeschooling dad to three boys who’s also an artist, writer, and former BioLogos staff member. Mark’s childhood provided ample opportunity to tangibly explore the mysteries of God’s work in nature, and through these experiences he came to embrace God in increasingly meaningful and rich ways. He and his wife sought to educate their sons using a similar framework.
My belief that biological evolution is consistent with a biblical Christian faith did not come as the solution to a perceived conflict, or a crisis of faith. Instead, from childhood on, I have felt God’s presence equally in the Scripture-focused liturgy and worship of the Church and in the beautiful, complicated and truly mysterious creation that he sustains. Because I first knew God as Creator, then as Savior, and then finally as Lord, that initial unified experience was the foundation for my later conversion into a fully-devoted follower of Jesus. Indeed, at each step in the evolution of my life in Christ, an increased commitment to the Gospel seems to have been accompanied by an increased passion for the Creation as revealed by science—and the message that God is the author of them both.
Today as an artist, I tend to recognize God’s authorship of evolutionary creation by the way it aligns symbolically with the whole biblical narrative of salvation (the slowly miraculous process by which God transforms nations and individuals into what he desires them to be), and by the way it provides subtle and often surprising new images to remind me of truths about God and myself. In fact, “found” natural symbols illuminated by scientific knowledge were key elements in the maturing Christian self-understanding I described above, and much of my recent writing has centered on exploring such poetic connections between science and faith as a means of worship. But that sense that analogies speak truth about God and nature has as much to do with my own education as a child as it does with my practice as an artist, and has been expressed as my wife Beth and I have homeschooled our boys, as well.
Word and Deed
Growing up in the small city of Denton, Texas, I attended public schools until going off to college. My parents were not particularly ambivalent about public schooling, either; my mother spent her professional career as a Latin teacher at the junior high and high school levels in the same system I attended. Yet when I think back upon the most formative and influential lessons I learned as a child (many of them about faith, many more about creation and creativity), most of them occurred not in the formal classroom, but outside of it. Usually, those lessons took root most deeply in me when they came through a combination of text and experiential learning. My parents modeled the importance of being widely read and paying close attention to words given to us by others, but it was also impressed upon me that those words become fully alive in us only when we are freed, encouraged, and equipped to explore and experience what we read with our whole persons—with our hands as well as minds. In an educational as well as spiritual sense, my sister and I were always encouraged to “be doers of the Word, not only hearers.”
In church I did hear the Scriptures read and taught, but I also participated responsively in the liturgy, speaking the Psalms to make Israel’s story mine and connecting with centuries of other worshippers by singing with my parents in the choir. My education in the natural sciences was no less interactive than these experiences in church. Our family subscribed to more than a few science and nature-focused magazines—from National Geographic, to Scientific American and the American Scientist, to Texas Parks & Wildlife—and I poured over all of them. But I also spent a lot of time playing in the dirt and in creeks near home and exploring and puttering more extensively around my grandfather’s farm near Corpus Christi, Texas. No books were as well-loved and widely travelled as were our copies of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Texas and the Golden Guides to rocks and minerals, reptiles, and shells, and plants, and they all got an extra workout during annual camping, fishing, and hunting trips on Padre Island National Seashore and in the Mesquite brush country near the Mexican border.
In both church and the outdoors, the texts were central to guiding and directing much of our experience, not to mention helping us make sense of what we found. But (and not to imply the Bible is only a “Field Guide to the Living God”), the primary and transforming experience was always through direct engagement with nature and with God in the present, not through descriptions of his appearances in the past. No book compares to seeing, touching, and holding a creature in the flesh, and even the text of Scripture does not prepare one fully to experience the presence of the Lord. There is a profound difference, after all, between knowing about Jesus and knowing him.
Similarly, affirming the truth that God is the author and sustainer of the material creation becomes a much more direct, visceral, and complicated reality when you spend time looking, touching, and even tasting the natural world directly. We are used to images of Jesus as the Lamb of God or the Lion of Judah and have a pretty good handle on what it means to be a wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. But what might a swimming sea hare (Aplysia brasiliana—a large aquatic slug I got to know during one particularly memorable beach camping trip) have to say about the way God “equips the called” by developing and transforming latent talents in us? How do vestigial parts (like the sea hare’s thumbnail-like “shell,” leftover from its fully-shelled ancestors) remind us that God makes us new creatures but does not erase the evidence of our past or his patient work to call us to himself?
Or how might we see God’s providential creativity poured out on “creeping things” like the scorpion—a creature I found particularly unpleasant until a 1984 Scientific American article on the amazing and complex way they detect their prey using vibrations in the desert sand caused me to see them in a new light—as a reminder that he does, indeed, love and still provide for the dangerous, the unloved, and the unlovable—including each of us?
Yes, we may be awed by the power of super-storms and rushing waters or the vast scales of time and space we can now understand better through astronomy. Yes, we may be astounded by the beauty of sunsets, flowers, birds, and stars. And yes, we can be moved by the innate orderliness and lawfulness of the universe’s most basic structures. But in my own life growing up in the outdoors and now with my own family’s experience as well, I have been most moved to ponder and revel in God’s identity and character when we have been surprised or even dumbfounded by creation: not only by novel and strange creatures, but by the way those creatures—even the most weird and unsavory, like the scorpion and sea hare—are intimately and intricately connected with the others and with the earth itself. Discovering how even the most obscure and unexpected creature is woven into the tapestry of all life on earth (the very thing that evolutionary creation seeks to understand and describe) suggests the loving sovereignty of God to me in a way that is every bit as rich and true as how I see his hand in the history of Israel, or of all humankind.
However limited are the merits of my own youthful scorpion or sea-slug-induced epiphanies, they were significant and unexpected waypoints on my walk with the Lord, facilitated by a framework for understanding God’s sustaining presence in the world that did not require me to reject science for the Bible nor have every aspect of primordial gastropod or arachnid ancestry proven beyond question in order to see the elegance of an evolutionary creation. As a husband and father, I have been in a position, with my wife Beth, to foster a similar framework for our own boys.
For us, education is not principally about imparting fact-based knowledge. It is not about sheltering our boys from this or that secular ideology on one hand or giving them an airtight apologetic strategy on the other. Instead, we have come to see a robust Christian education as being about fostering our children’s God-given curiosity, equipping them with the intellectual tools, the spiritual grounding, and the time to seek God’s truth in every realm of investigation—to recognize (not prove) God’s sovereign love and grace at work in human history and natural history alike—and opening their hearts and minds to the work God is wanting to do in them. Education, like science more generally, is a messy, mysterious business, guaranteed to produce more challenging questions than easy answers and always more humility than pride. But this sounds right, exactly because the same can and always should be said about the life of following Jesus.
This post was originally published on November 16, 2015.
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