By Adam Lang, Upper School Science & Math Teacher
I began our first class of the semester last week by asking a simple question: “What is this desk made of?”
Several of the students, recalling that I had said we would soon begin a unit on matter, eagerly and smugly answered that the table was made of “atoms”, “molecules”, and “matter” (when all I was looking for was “wood”). After asking them what those things were, one student answered that it was what things were made of, and that’s all there was to it.
I could see it in their eyes. They already knew all there was to know about atoms. Everybody knew about atoms. They were just another boring everyday thing. Desks are just desks, atoms are just atoms, air is just air, photosynthesis is just photosynthesis, rain is just the hydrological cycle in action. Once you can name a thing, it loses its wonder.
The Problem: Inoculating Ourselves against Wonder
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.” – C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
I believe that as we age, we tend towards losing our sense of wonder. A four year old will ask the question “why?” 100 times in a single day. As a child first begins to explore their world, wonders abound (my son is currently obsessed with ceiling fans).
By the time we graduate high school however, much of the world has lost its wonder. The leaves change every year, because that’s what leaves do; I can show you the science behind it. Winter is always followed by Spring, because that’s what the seasons do–we learned about it in science class. There’s an explanation for everything, and therefore everything is not only undeserving of our awe and wonder, but everything is boring.
I believe this is partly caused because our science classes today, even in some Christian schools, as they tend towards habituating a scientistic or reductionistic mindset in students. Some study science because they believe science is our savior. Science can do anything and can deal with our every problem. Thanks to the “God of Science,” all the world (including ourselves) is just malleable matter waiting to be formed according to our whims. Therefore, why should we care about matter? Why should we care about the world at all, except how it will conform to our wills?
For some others I know, usually in reaction to the first group, they study science, but only just enough to be able to show that science is bunk and that we can’t trust a word of it. This is helpful as far as it goes in actually exposing the assumptions beneath a materialistic worldview. But it is not a satisfying way to study God’s creation. I will admit that the science curriculum I used growing up did a bit more than this. There was the occasional exclamation of God’s glory in creating such a world, but it was never more than something tacked on in the final editing process. And tacking something on to a lesson doesn’t form hearts.
In either case, the study of science has become largely utilitarian. For the first group, its purpose is to conform nature to our wills. We name things to show our power over them, and glory in our ability to do anything. For the second group, we study science so we win the arguments. Neither of these encourage the formation of a heart that loves God, nor worship of the God who made all things.
“What is this world? What is it for? It is art. It is the best of all possible art, a finite picture of the Infinite.” – N.D. Wilson
I believe that our task as Christian educators in teaching science is two-fold. First, we should aim to teach the students the same basic concepts their peers are learning in other educational contexts. Second, and more importantly, we should be driven by the desire for our students to be filled with awe and wonder at who our God is. Our task is to not to simply tack the second on to the first, but to make wonder fundamental to every lesson.
In an Augustine School science class, we ask the question of why things are the way they are, but not just in the immediate material sense. When we asked last semester how photosynthesis works, we didn’t simply study the chemical reaction and call it good, but we asked how this aspect of creation brings God glory. Why did he make it this way? Our entire existence on this planet is dependent on starlight crossing millions of miles to be absorbed (along with our breath) by little leafy shrubs to be turned into things like raspberries.
Our very lives depend on water falling from the sky. What does this fact tell us about God, about ourselves, and about our relationship to Him? Science is a tool for experiencing awe and wonder and glorifying God.. We are made to glory and to be awed, and a scientific education should help cultivate and foster a sense of wonder in our students appropriate to the greatness of God.
At Augustine School, I have the pleasure of modeling a childlike wonder at God’s creation. Not a wonder at science nor at what science does, but at who God is and at what He’s done. I have the pleasure or worshipping God with the students as we study the creation together.
Studying Creation as Worship
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” – Psalm 16:11 (ESV)
I ended class last week with my heart full of love for my creator, and I hope some of my students ended class in the same state. Because we talked not only about the composition of matter and how it is studied, but also of what it tells us about the God who put us in such a world. Matter is physical substance, anything that occupies space and can be detected by at least one of our senses.
Following this line, I asked the students to imagine how different our world could be. God could have made a physical creation out of some different type of matter, one without the possibility of variety. The students imagined a world without color, without smell or without sound. A world that all felt same to the touch. A world where we would eat (because we would have to) but without taste.
What does it tell us about our God that he instead put us in a world with near-infinite variety? A world with tastes and touch, with smell and sound, with beauty to please the eye, and, because He never does anything in moderation, much more of it than we could ever experience in a hundred lifetimes? What does it tell us about His creation and ourselves to see that nothing stands on its own, but that all beauty and sweetness come from entities working together as their creator designed?
To my dear parents: Don’t hide your wonder. Don’t explain away marvels. Let your eyes stare wide at the incredible, beautiful, dangerous world we live in every day. Raise your children to see and wonder, and let us together worship our creator as we seek to learn more about him. And not only through stories, but through the birds and the beasts, the bushes and the fish, that they might teach us about the Lord.