Statement on integrating faith and learning for 3rd-year reappointment to Calvin College, fall 2001
Physics & Astronomy Department
Sometimes we know what is good, but we lack the zeal to do it. Other times we have zeal, but we misdirect it and do more harm than good. "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way." (Proverbs 19:2, NIV) Zeal and knowledge are both needed.
Teaching transmits knowledge. Scholarship pursues new knowledge or creative ways to express old knowledge in new contexts. Learning and scholarship can do more than increase our knowledge. When done rightly, they increase our wisdom and our zeal to do good. For example, learning about the intricacies of creation and learning about the harm which humans do to the environment can motivate us to become better stewards of creation. As Christian faith informs and guides our teaching and scholarship, they become acts of obedience to God.
My own personal calling to scholarship is in the natural sciences. How should my Christian faith affect my scientific scholarship? This is a complex question. I find it helpful to consider separately five types of questions about science:
- The basis for science: Is it possible to discover new truths about nature? If so, how and why?
- The process of science: What is an effective scientific method for learning about nature?
- The conclusions of science: What does the scientific method tell us about nature?
- The inferences of science: Are there meta-scientific implications of the scientific conclusions?
- The human aspect of science: What are our motives, ethics, and goals for doing science?
The first and fourth categories are "worldview" questions. Science influences how we answer these questions, but science alone cannot answer them completely. They draw heavily upon religion, philosophy and other disciplines. Examples of such questions include: "Why does something exist rather than nothing? Is there a creator? What are the fundamental characteristics of the cosmos? What is the significance of life? What is the significance of human beings?" Christian and non-Christian answers to these questions are often fundamentally different. My own scholarship on these questions is explicitly Christian. I draw on the resources of scripture and Christian theology -- along with the sciences -- to answer them.
The second and third categories of questions (what is an effective scientific method, and what does it actually tell us) are typically answered within the natural sciences themselves, with very little reference to other disciplines. Christians and non-Christians use essentially the same scientific method and, when doing their work properly, reach essentially the same scientific conclusions. Why do Christian and non-Christian scientists agree about these questions? Some people (both Christians and non-Christians) claim that this agreement exists because Christians have adopted an atheistic/naturalistic method of doing science. Other people more familiar with the history of science claim that the reverse is true -- that atheists and agnostics have adopted a scientific method which grew out of Christian theology. I believe that the second answer is closer to the truth, although both answers are too simple. There isn't space here to explore this issue in depth. I will content myself for now with this answer: A biblical view of God and of creation does give us reasons for expecting to find regular, understandable patterns of God's governance of creation. The scientific method, as typically practiced today, is for the most part the proper method for Christians to gain knowledge about the functioning of the natural world. Because scientists of many worldviews agree on this method, Christians and non-Christians can work together in a scholarly community with very little disagreement about methodology or scientific (as opposed to meta-scientific) conclusions. This agreement is something which Christians should celebrate rather than fear.
The fifth category of questions -- about the human aspects of science -- has answers which vary with each individual scientist. As a Christian, I endeavor to bring under the lordship of Christ my personal motives for doing science, my behavior and ethical standards, and my hopes and goals for science. Despite the variety of worldviews amongst scientists, it has been my experience -- and my joy to witness -- that most scientists have a remarkably common set of commendable motives, excellent ethics, and altruistic goals for their scholarship. Of course, sin lurks in every heart, Christian and non-Christian. The effects of sin should not be ignored. Some scientists do, in fact, have ungodly motives and goals for their work. Yet I have found that most scientists pursue science out of praiseworthy motives. The Harvard Society of Fellows Declaration of Principles says:
"You have been selected as a member of this society for your personal prospect of serious achievement in your chosen field, and your promise of notable contribution to knowledge and thought. That promise you must redeem with your whole intellectual and moral force. You will practice the virtues, and avoid the snares, of the scholar. You will be courteous to your elders who have explored to the point from which you may advance; and helpful to your juniors who will progress farther by reason of your labors. Your aim will be knowledge and wisdom, not the reflected glamour of fame. You will not accept credit that is due to another, or harbor jealousy of an explorer who is more fortunate. You will seek not a near but a distant objective, and you will not be satisfied with what you may have done. All that you may achieve or discover you will regard as a fragment of a larger pattern of the truth which from the separate approaches every true scholar is striving to descry. To these things, in joining the Society of Fellows, you dedicate yourself."
In the language of Reformed theology, that declaration contains a great deal of God's "common grace." Yet as commendable as the declaration is, it pains me that it does not acknowledge the proper place of God as the Alpha and Omega of all that is excellent. God's presence and God's promises give context to everything we do. We exercise creativity, we seek knowledge, and we pursue wisdom because God created us to do so. The creative process and the discovery of new knowledge fill us with joy, because that is how God intends us to explore his creation. As we learn more about creation and its astonishing beauty, we are prompted to glorify the Creator. The knowledge gained by science also helps us better serve our fellow human beings and helps us to be better stewards of creation. Scientific scholarship, done to the glory of God, deepens both our knowledge and our zeal.
When I teach science at a Christian institution, I strive to show students how scientific knowledge can be part of a distinctively Christian worldview, how the scientific method is an appropriate method for Christians to investigate God's creation, and how the pursuit of scientific knowledge can be part of a life of faithful obedience to God.
The Apostle Paul encouraged those with knowledge and abilities to use those gifts to benefit the entire community. Christ admonished leaders to consider themselves as servants. Therefore, I see that my students are not means to an end (to give me a secure job so I can pursue my own interests). My students are not my servants (who must behave in certain ways and achieve certain things in order to please me). Rather, I am their servant. Ideally, my motive is to do what is best for the students. I choose teaching methods which I believe are most useful for them, not merely the methods which are most convenient for me. When there is choice of course content (as there often is), I choose content which I believe is the most beneficial for them, not merely the content most enjoyable for me. I make myself available, in both time and in demeanor, for dialog with my students. My concern for the students does not stop with their performance in my class. I care about them as whole persons. I am motivated not simply out of altruism, but out of altruism informed by the knowledge that my Savior God loves those students even better than I possibly could.
When I teach physics, it is tempting for me to rely exclusively upon lectures and textbooks. Lectures and well-written textbooks are extremely useful tools for teaching the basic principles and standard applications of physics. But a physics education which begins and ends with those tools does not serve the students best. In addition to the physics itself, physics education provides an excellent opportunity for students to improve general skills of quantitative analysis and problem-solving, empirical investigation methods, and skills in communication of technical material. Moreover, a well-designed physics class provides an excellent opportunity to help students develop virtues such as creativity, diligence and patience in solving problems, charity when working together, and honesty in laboratory work.
All of my students, to one degree or another, have a sense of the beauty of nature. I try to demonstrate how a scientific understanding of creation actually increases our sense of its beauty and awesomeness. Many hymns and Psalms praise God for the beauty of creation. I often use those songs for in-class devotions. In this way, students see that each new discovery, each new bit of scientific knowledge, can lead us to renewed praise of the Creator. This emotional understanding is important, but students also need an intellectual understanding of how science can be done "to the glory of God." Many voices in popular culture, in academia, and even in the church, still claim that faith is opposed to reason and that science is opposed to religion. To deal with these misconceptions, and to help the students develop a Reformed Christian understanding of science, I include a series of mini-lectures and in-class discussions on these topics. They are scattered throughout the semester in places where the scientific concepts motivate the contextual discussions. I also challenge my students to seek God's calling as they choose a career path. Modern North American culture tells us to put our careers first, and to squeeze family, society, and God into whatever time is remaining after the work is done. I remind my students that our vocational calling must fit into and be part of our lives of faithful service and gratitude to God.
Statement on the integration of faith and learning for 5th-year reappointment to Calvin College. September 2003.
Physics & Astronomy Department
Friends and parents of prospective students sometimes ask me -- out of genuine curiosity -- what I teach about certain "controversial" issues where science and Christian theology intersect. I often preface my answer by saying, "I speak the truth in love." [Ephesians 4:15] I place this concept, speaking the truth in love, at the heart of integrating faith and learning.
It's not enough simply to speak the truth. Any teacher or scholar worthy of the name values the speaking of truth in teaching and the pursuit of truth through research. But the Apostle Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13 that knowledge without love is worthless in God's kingdom. The way in which the way I speak the truth as a teacher, and the way in which I pursue the truth as a scholar, must be shaped by love.
Speaking the truth in a loving way, while necessary, is not yet sufficient to qualify as "integrating faith and learning." By God's common grace, many non-Christian scholars are also inspired by love for their fellow human beings to shape how they speak the truth. True integration of faith and learning is modeled in the surrounding verses, Ephesians 4:11-15. "It was Christ who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ."
Integrating faith and learning means using our knowledge to build God's kingdom. Whether researching or teaching, whether speaking to Christians or non-Christians, we do our part to bring everything under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Christ calls different people to different vocations. For those of us called by God for a time to be scholars and teachers, obedience to God requires us to pursue the truth and speak the truth. Especially when confronting controversial issues where Christians disagree with each other, it can be tempting to avoid speaking the truth when a brother or sister in Christ might take offense. We might even convince ourselves that it is out of love that we avoid speaking. But Paul points out that teachers are called to speak the truth so that the body of Christ will grow in knowledge and maturity of faith. We must pursue and speak the truth for the good of Christ's body, and we must let love guide the way we do it.
The basic equations, facts, and theories of physics do not explicitly refer to God, which leads both students and teachers to wonder sometimes how faith and physics can be integrated. Even in physics, there are a variety of ways students this is possible. I teach my students that we are studying God's creation, in all its vastness and astonishing variety. The regular functioning of the laws of nature is a reflection of God's faithful and orderly governance of the universe. Our abilities to do science are themselves gifts from God. Understanding God's creation is one way in which we are God's image-bearers. The understanding we gain can make us better stewards of creation, and is yet another way we exercise our own God-given creativity.
There are topics where some claims made on behalf of science seem to conflict with other claims made on behalf of Christian theology. (e.g. the history of the universe, brain functioning and human behavior, the reliability of scientific knowledge versus religious knowledge) I've had the opportunity to study these questions and discover satisfying answers in my own life of faith. By confronting some of these issues in the classroom, I seek to help students grow in their maturity of faith, so that they will be less likely to be "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men."
Following Christ's example, my role as teacher is to be a servant-leader. My knowledge, my time, and my abilities are gifts over which I am a steward, and which I use to benefit my students. Likewise, I encourage all my students to think of their own knowledge, time, and abilities as gifts which they, in turn, must use to advance God's kingdom.
I feel called to do scholarship in topics where claims made on behalf of science are seen, by some people at least, to conflict with Christianity. Over the years, I've found that two Reformed doctrines have served as cornerstones of my scholarship: God's sovereignty over every part of creation and our lives, and God's grace as the centerpiece of our relationship with Him. These doctrines encourage me to delve into science, philosophy, and theology with confidence that God does not teach conflicting truths -- one thing in nature and another thing in scripture -- but that all truth is unified in God. I may still be struggling to see a unity of truth in some area, but faith in God's character makes me believe it is a worthy pursuit.
My faith also gives context to the basic scientific research I do in physics and neuroscience. Both as individuals and as a community, scientists act as God's image-bearers, and obey God's cultural mandate, as we seek better understanding of the creation in which we have been placed. The exercise of creativity and sense of discovery inherent in science, combined with the practical benefits of science which allow us to help suffering people and to care for creation, make basic scientific research another area where we can discover and speak new truths, out of love, for the advancement of God's kingdom.