By John Mays
O science teachers, consider the joys of your vocation! In this post, I want us to think about some of the amazing aspects of God’s creation and to reflect on some of the astonishing things God has said about his creation. I also want to reflect a bit on what we know and don’t know, and how these things relate to what we communicate when we teach science. Our reflections will lead eventually to a meditation on a short passage from Job 38.
My previous post touched on one of the non-textual components that should be part of science instruction. Today we consider another one—leading our students in being in creation and listening to what God reveals to us through his creation. But as I have said before, you can’t give what you don’t have. We cannot effectively lead students in being in creation and listening to creation unless we ourselves are practicing being in nature—first, just to be there (because being there is good in innumerable ways), second, to listen to what creation has to say, and third, to meditate on creation together with what the Scriptures have to say about creation. These practices are essential for us if we are to be effective science teachers.
Unique Joys of Teaching Science
It seems to me that there are unique aspects to our knowledge of nature, and these lead to some unique joys in teaching science. To explain, consider the teaching of history. Historians often know how things happened (the sequence of events leading up to an incident), but they rarely know why—at least not in teleological or ultimate terms. It is risky for historians (or anyone else) to speculate on the ultimate reasons surrounding why something happens because historical events can happen for any number of reasons—an act of human kindness, human error or sinfulness, natural processes, an attack by the Evil One, or an act of grace or judgment from God (and of course these categories are not mutually exclusive). We know why Pharaoh and his army were destroyed—we are told in the Scriptures; but for most events, historical and contemporary, it is not at all clear why they happen.
I think science teachers are sort of in the opposite position. Our scientific knowledge about how things happen is limited (though it may not seem so). But we do know a lot about the whys of the natural world. Consider the first question of all—Why does creation exist? Christianity has some robust answers to this question. In your theological tradition, the answer might come straight from the Westminster Children’s Catechism: For God’s glory. Recall the first three questions:
Q: Who made you?
Q: What else did God make?
A: God made all things.
Q: Why did God make you and all things?
A: For his own glory.
I can still hear the lilt in my little daughters’ voices as they chanted these responses over 25 years ago!
Now, with all due respect to the Westminster divines, and to those who embrace the Westminster catechisms, as I have reflected on this answer over the decades, my answer to the why of creation has developed quite a bit. I have come to see the “God’s glory” answer as a shorthand for a more complex web of relationships. The creation exists because of God’s love—within the Trinity, for us, and for all creation. (This has a lot to do with the fact that the Logos—Christ—is in all things, and all things hold together in Him, as Colossians 1:17 and 3:11 declare.) The creation also exists because God wants to dwell with us—we as his people and he as our God (stated repeatedly in the Old Testament). God’s participation with us is a central element in creation, which itself entails the central element of the Incarnation. Further, we can say that the creation also exists because our destiny is union with God in Christ. These ideas are obviously cosmic, as cosmic as God’s plan for his creation, which he loves and called good.
Now let’s back up. What exactly do I mean when I say that our scientific knowledge is limited? Don’t we know a lot? Haven’t we put men on the moon and created carbon nanotubes? Yes, we certainly have discovered many amazing things, and have put them to use in fantastic technologies. But even so, the content of what we know is dwarfed by the volume of what we do not know. Scientifically speaking, how did we get here? We don’t know. How did the energy at the beginning of the universe form from nothing? We don’t know. How did life arise? We don’t know. What is it that happens when an organism dies—passes through that boundary between living (though perhaps injured or diseased) and not living? We don’t know. Why do radioactive atoms strictly follow statistical patterns in their decay rates, and what determines when a single atom of uranium will decay? We don’t know and perhaps cannot know. How does the brain in a developing unborn child generate 25,000 neurons per minute for nine months to produce a brain with a billion neurons, each connected to thousands of other neurons—especially when the human genome only has about 26,000 genes with which to generate the instructions that control all the myriad bodily processes? We don’t know.
“Now hold on there just a minute, buster!”—I can hear some of my friends saying. “We do know how man got here—God made him from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life. That explanation is as plain as a periwinkle!” Well, I too relish the beauty and profundity of the Genesis narrative, but I do not understand periwinkles or any other flowering plants (a subject for later, perhaps). And it is certainly not adequate to say that after reading the Genesis narrative we know how man got here. That’s like saying that because we know what spiderwebs look like we understand how spiders know how to build those things. Just take a look at this picture and tell me if there is anything here that you don’t understand.
We don’t really know how we got here. However, I do suspect that there is a lot more to it than just saying poof! and there Adam was, blinking awake for the first time, dazed and marveling at the warmth of the sun on his bare shoulders, and wiggling his toes in the dirt.
“But hold on there, you reckless naysayer!” my other friends will say, “we do know how man got here—he evolved.” With all due respect, this explanation is no more illuminating than Genesis 2. It might even be less illuminating, but we don’t know that either. Even if there were some element of evolutionary process involved—and I’m not saying there was or there wasn’t—that is a far, far cry from explaining Man. There is still a lot more—way more—to it than that.
Let’s go back to what we do know—some profound things about the why of creation (none of which came from science). Why are hundreds if not thousands of physical parameters in nature fine-tuned for the benefit of human life? So that human life can be! Why must human life be? Because God loves us and wants to dwell with us. Why do things die? Scientifically, it is impossible to say. But in Psalm 104:29 God reveals to us a different way to answer this question about life in the world he made: “When you take away their breath they die and return to their dust.” This is the real answer to the question of why things die—they die because God takes their breath away.
Materialism—In Our Classrooms?
This kind of biblically informed thinking is really necessary to counteract the materialism that constantly tries to sneak in the back door of our science classes. And I’m not talking about public schools; I’m talking about materialism in Christian schools, because if all we do is cite scientific findings when explaining the creation to our students, then we are being materialistic. There is much more to say about the natural world than we can say or will ever be able to say merely from scientific research.
Some Christian educators try to combat materialism by wielding the Bible like a bludgeon to smash it: Bible verses and prayers in every chapter, in every class, on every page of a text. But such methods are heavy-handed, and students can find them off-putting. An example of this I once encountered in a chemistry text was the statement that atomic bonds are supposed to make us think of God’s power. Now, I would agree that some things do directly remind us of God’s power—storms at sea, for instance. The Bible even connects these together in the narrative of Jesus calming the storm. But it seems contrived to make the connection in the context of atomic bonding. The atomic bond is still very much a mystery to us, even though we may have cataloged the bonds with bonding theory, mathematically modeled the bonds with quantum mechanics, and described the bonds in terms of the mediation of bosons.
The persistence of mystery here provides us with a rich context for making much deeper connections with our students between creation and its Creator. For example: 1) the apparent limitlessness of the complexity in atoms—a complexity that seems to many (though not to all) to go far beyond what the human mind is capable of understanding; 2) the orderliness, regularity, and continuity in atomic bonds, which points like a flashing neon sign at the intelligence behind the natural order, God’s intelligence; and 3) the unbreachable wall of mystery surrounding the question of how energy and matter can be brought into existence, along with time itself, from nothing. That is, the mystery of reality—that this world is. We deny that it is a dream of God. We claim that it has objective existence apart from God. But when we say this, we don’t even know what we mean or what we are talking about. Probably there is no such thing as “objective existence apart from God.” We must teach these things to our students.
If we science teachers in Christian schools are to bring a biblical perspective on nature to our students, it is essential that we spend time in nature meditating on nature. We should, of course, encourage our students to do the same. (Such encouragement must be delivered while looking the student straight in the eye, communicating through the gravitas of your aspect that you do not consider it an exercise in futility to suggest that students take time to meditate.)
As an illustration of where our minds and spirits can go as we meditate on creation in light of God’s word, the following is an example meditation (a very short one), an attempt to think God’s thoughts after him—faith seeking understanding. The subject of this meditation is: The Sea.
Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
What can we know about the sea that goes beyond what science can tell us? Let the thoughts ramble . . .
If I may say so with reverence, throughout Job 38–41 God is essentially boasting about the works of his creation. His comments are all about the splendor and mystery in creation. In the passage from Job 38, we see God’s own love for the sea, his joy over it, and his pride in its magnificence. I learn more about the ultimate reality of creation from this simple passage than from all the books of philosophy I have read. Creation is not an illusion—God made it. Creation is not evil—God positively delights in it. God called the seas good when he made the earth, and indeed they are for without them life on this planet would not exist. God’s Spirit hovered over the face of the waters.
There is something of tremendous importance here when we consider the nature of creation and its status in terms of God’s ultimate purposes. The present creation is not the end of the creation journey; there is more to come. Romans 8 describes creation as subjected to futility and groaning as in the pains of childbirth. These are colossally complex theological statements, and I don’t think we can say we have a very clear idea of what they mean. But we at least know that creation is still in process—there is an unfolding, as some writers have put it. We are face to face with mystery and must accept it.
But the fact that creation is in process does not mean that creation as it now stands is totally corrupt or broken. There is a strong tendency in sermonizing about Genesis 3 to infer from the curse on the ground that much in nature is now hostile or ugly. It seems to be clear that humans must endure lives of exhausting toil as a consequence of the Fall, but the attitudes ascribed to God in Job should place firm limits around how far we go in describing creation as a hostile place. God delights in the sea, even though the sea sometimes wreaks havoc. Mysteriously, God claims sovereign authority over such events in passages such as Isaiah 45:7: “I form light and create darkness, I make well being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does these things,” and Exodus 4:11: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” And the statements elsewhere in Job about the predator animals God made are strong demonstrations that many creatures (most, in fact), as God made them, are predators—a profound and dizzying idea. I often think that our judgments about the present order—an order that includes predation and calamity—are generally simplistic and fail to see the present order of creation as part of the unfolding of God’s supreme plan for all that he has made (and will make). Yes, human sin led to disobedience and corruption for all mankind and has made our lot in life profoundly more painful than it otherwise would have been. But we are too quick to leap from this to describing as evil everything in creation that causes us pain. Somehow, in the infinite wisdom of God’s creative economy, even the pains we endure now are part of our growth as humans, a necessary component of what God intends for us to become. C.S. Lewis dwells on this extensively in The Problem of Pain.
After much reflection I still feel that my understanding is minuscule. With Job I must confess that I have uttered what I do not understand, things too wonderful for me.
Here shall your proud waves be stayed... Because we understand the history of the earth as entailing total and repeated changes to the shapes of the continents, we don’t often consider the deliberateness of the coastlines, which have been more or less as they are throughout human history. God prescribed limits for the sea, as he has for everything. All things have their rightful places and these places are not random, they are intentional, part of the harmonious order God recognizes by saying, “It is good.” The human race lives at a particular time in the history of the universe, a time when hundreds of necessary factors have coalesced or aligned to enable us to live. The boundaries of the sea, in place by God’s specific decree, are part of that harmony.
They are also a gift, as is the entirety of creation. Isn't the Mediterranean Sea gorgeous? Aren't the towns along the Mediterranean coast lovely? Even if we don't live there, how impoverished we would be without the Mediterranean and its history—all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians? (And there is Israel, right at the end of the cul-de-sac, as it were.)
We are all aware of the abundance and strangeness of life in the sea. God created this abundance: “Let the waters swarm with living creatures...” John Steinbeck was fascinated by the abundance of life in the sea, and by its apparent recklessness. In his book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck observes of the creatures in the sea that “everything ate everything else with a furious exuberance.” Like Annie Dillard, Steinbeck was astonished by the fecundity of nature. Steinbeck continues, considering a sea snail called the “sea-hare,” by writing: “a California biologist estimated the number of eggs produced by a single animal in a single breeding season to be more than 478 million...!” Comments such as these compel continued reflection. Four hundred seventy-eight million.
And for what a long time and to what a great extent has the sea been a source of food for humans! And what tasty food at that! Thousands of years of fishermen collecting the bounty of the sea's fecundity to bring sustenance to families, villages, and cities. Eventually, humans created sushi. One of the most glorious foods ever imagined. God gave us the gift of sushi. Think how much He must love us!
Here shall your proud waves be stayed... I am enraptured that the writer calls the waves proud. What does it mean that through the inspired author of Job the Creator speaks of his creation in such terms? Obviously, this passage is poetry, conceived and written in the most elevated style possible. Still, why does God call the waves proud? Why this particular choice of adjective? What ineffable mystery lies behind this divine communication?
The context for the meaning of the term proud is not in the sense of the human sin of pride, but in the sense meant in the titles All the Proud Ships (a novel by Charles E. Friend) and “The Proud Peaks of Scotland” (a Scottish folk song). Proud as in majestic. But with respect to the sea, we must regard even the term majestic as an understatement. Sublime is better, but not because sublime means beautiful beyond words—that’s not actually what it means. Sublime means simultaneously beautiful and terrifying beyond words, and the terror is part of the fascination in the beauty. South of South America, the ocean completely encircles the globe, giving rise to huge waves called Cape Horn rollers, waves 60 to 90 feet high that race around the globe at 30 miles per hour. (We read about them in Alfred Lansing’s tremendous book Endurance, the mind-numbing story of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic escape from Antarctica in 1914 after his ship was destroyed in the ice.) I cannot conceive of a 90-foot wall of water coming at me at 30 miles per hour. Where are the boundaries now? Where the staying of the proud waves?
Referring to the waves as proud suggests that God imbued the waves with their own dignity; they inspire and mystify. The personification is so compelling that we are virtually forced to ascribe volition to them, just as we personify the mountains that seem like great giants to us. We give them human names, like the Three Friars of Cabo San Lucas that Steinbeck wrote about. Jesus himself joined us in personifying the rocks by saying that if his followers did not offer forth praise the stones would cry out. I take his statement to be more—much more—than mere metaphor. As in, not a metaphor.
And speaking of the doors of the sea and the staying of the waves, where were they on Boxing Day in 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami wiped out 200,000 people and the homes of 1.7 million others?
What do we see when we sit on the beach or a rocky coast and gaze at the sea? What is the effect on the mind of the haze, the ceaseless waves, the clouds, the vast emptiness, the repeated and endless sound of the waves? (That sound is so difficult to describe that I'll not even try.) Why is it that for both my wife and I these things are so calming that we have taken trips to the beach every year for over half a century? Why do I feel that I could so easily become a meditative beach bum, a sort of desert father of the beach?
There is so much more, so much more. The vastness of the sea, described and pondered countless times since the very dawn of writing. The dangers of the sea. (Moby Dick comes to mind.) Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink. Getting lost at sea. Storms at sea. (St. Paul comes to mind.) The ecosystems of the sea—the unbelievable complexity and beauty of the coral reefs, the tidal pools, ghost shrimp living in the sand, dolphins that frolic for pleasure, the Mariana Trench (far deeper than Mt. Everest is high), and pelicans.
Our meditations could obviously continue for hours. May they do so beyond the present medium. If we have a vocation for teaching children about God’s creation, we must meditate on creation in light of God’s word if we are to know at all what we are talking about. May we each faithfully do so, again and again.
(An earlier version of this article was published in our old Novare Newsletter back in October, 2014.)