Recovering the Nature of Science: Some Guiding Principles and Practices for Middle School

Confessions and Repentance
“Mr. F, can we blow something up today?” When I began teaching middle school science nine years ago, a certain sixth grade boy asked me this question at the beginning of almost every class. It was earth science, by the way.

Day after day I laughed off the eager boy’s request and told him that he would have to wait for eighth grade physical science before we could “blow stuff up.” Somehow in my mind it seemed more appropriate to indulge a teenage boy’s craving for explosions once he had been introduced to the more “advanced” sciences—once he could tell me what an atom is. Truth be told, I think I enjoyed fueling his curiosity by dangling bits of “secret knowledge” in front of him, promises about the true nature of things, revelations that would give him more control, more power—the power to blow stuff up.

A few years into teaching, however, my default disposition toward the field of science and science education—and, by extension, the natural world—began to sit uncomfortably with me. There seemed to me a conflict between how I had been taught to view the purpose of science and what Scripture teaches about man’s epistemological relationship to God and His creation.

It wasn’t until I began hearing the voices of C. S. Lewis, Parker Palmer, David Hicks, among others1, that my presuppositions about the purpose and limits of scientific study, fossilized under years of conventional education, gradually began to be unearthed.

As I continued this excavation, it became increasingly clear that I had been committing two major sins in my teaching. First, I was training my students to view “science” as discretized, disembodied knowledge coupled with precise methodology. The rich stories of scientific enterprise that lay beneath the veneer of the modern science textbook—the messy tales of men like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, striving to synthesize empirical observations with a Christian ontology—these stories had no place in my classroom.

My second sin was more subtle, though perhaps more injurious. Mirroring my own posture toward knowledge, I motivated student learning not by reverence and love for God and creation, but rather by the appetite of curiosity.2 To borrow Lewis’ phrasing, rather than presenting the study of the natural world as a means by which to “conform [my students’] souls to reality,” I offered science as objectified knowledge with which my students could join the progress of modernity and “subdue reality to the wishes of men.”3

Last fall, the SCL Alcuin retreat provided a fresh alignment for my journey as a middle school science teacher in a classical Christian school. I had uncovered those long-buried presuppositions about science and science education, but the readings and discussions at Alcuin acted like the archeologist’s brush, bringing further clarity to how I might begin this process of recovering the true nature of science in my classroom.

Guiding Principles and Applications

I have recapitulated my takeaways from various readings and the Alcuin discussions into what I will call “guiding principles for a recovery of science education,” four of which I will discuss presently, including examples of implementation in two middle school science classes. These principles are governed by a fundamentally Christian ontology—an affirmation and sanctification of the material world, bound up in the goodness of creation, the incarnation of the Son, and the resurrection of the Son.5 Moreover, this governing ontology is participatory— that is, “being is a gift from the transcendent Creator such that things exist only insofar as they participate in the being of the Creator—whose being is goodness. Within this framework, the vocation of things is both imitation and reference.”6 This “restoration of the sense of natural interiority, of the metaphysical ‘depth’ to all things,” gives back to the world its “sacramental quality, its dimension of mystery.”7 Such a distinctively Christian ontology must reframe our epistemological approach to the natural world, an approach which I hope to articulate in these guiding principles and examples of practices.

The first guiding principle for a recovery of science education is that we must model for and inculcate in our students a humble, reverent, and charitable disposition toward creation and the study of creation. Our students’ growth in their knowledge of the natural world should lead them toward a life marked by responsible dominion of God’s creation, which looks more like cultivation than coercion.

One way to inculcate this charitable disposition is through nature study, according to the tradition of Charlotte Mason, in which our younger students take part at my current school. I used to think that nature study was just a “cute” way to do science with young children, not understanding its value beyond that. Then I had kids of my own, and I began to see the beauty of God’s world anew through their eyes. Once I watched my two girls examine a cicada carcass for nearly half an hour, turning it over, poking it with a stick, holding it delicately in their tiny hands. I have come to realize that young children do not have to be taught to wonder at creation—it is their nature
to be wooed by the reality of God’s world. In the words of Anna Comstock, an early 20th century educator and leader in the nature study movement, “Nature study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are.”8

If you pick up the nature study sketchbook of one of our young elementary students, you will see in their attention to detail, color, and form a truly humble, reverent, and charitable disposition toward creation. Young children seem to have the power to see and express natural beauty in ways that adults have long forgotten.

But when nature study is displaced by “science class” in the later elementary years, reverent observation tends to give way to curious analysis. Some of this change is appropriate—children should begin to ask why and desire to know how. But I wonder if we are rushing them to this analytical stage a bit too eagerly and, perhaps unwittingly, opening the door to atomism while simultaneously stifling the cultivation of a charitable disposition toward God’s world as it is.

“The expression of things as they are,” Comstock says. I should have mentioned, my girls never pulled that cicada apart to see what it was made of.

Taking my lessons from nature study, I have begun to reintroduce some reverent observation in middle school science. For example, before we begin a unit on heat transfer, I place a lit candle in front of each of my students. I then provide white sheets of construction paper and colored pencils, followed by succinct instructions: “draw the flame.”

It never fails: some students immediately begin drawing not the flame in front of them, but the vague representation of “a flame” that lives in their memory. Others make an attempt at capturing the form of their flame, but with sparing detail. I allow this activity to continue for several minutes, then clarify my instructions: “Stop what you’re doing and put your pencils down. Now, spend a few minutes studying the flame in front of you. After that, make a very careful and detailed drawing of what you have observed, using the full time we have remaining.” With these new instructions, the entire mood of the room changes; one could hear a pin drop as students work studiously to capture vivid detail.

The next day I ask the students to describe in writing the flame they had sketched. The students are able to produce effortlessly—with no flames or sketches of flames visible–descriptions that are not only accurate in detail but artistic in expression. This exercise does not teach them what a flame is or how a flame works, but after two days of study they certainly know a flame—poetically, in a way that moves them not toward intellectual pride but rather toward adoration. This is the foundation on which we build our more analytical study of heat.

This mention of adoration leads to the second guiding principle for a classical, Christ-centered approach to science education: the study of creation should be affirmed as a form of worship of the Creator. Science instruction should be situated within doxological bookends.

A few years ago I stumbled upon the awe-inspiring macro-photographs of snowflakes by Russian photographer Alexey Kljatov.9 I created a slideshow of his snowflakes set to the music of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. During a day on which we serendipitously had some residual snow on the ground, I welcomed my students into my classroom by playing the slideshow for them. Afterwards, the students were eager to collect some snow from outside and view the crystals under a microscope. After observing the fleeting beauty firsthand, I asked them to write a reflection. I have included just a few here:

“The detail God has put into these snowflakes makes me want to know more about the wonderful things He can do.” 

“To see the beautiful detail in a snowflake reminds me that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

“The snowflakes are not much different from us. We both have the same purpose: to glorify God.”

We are wise to “consider the lilies” and encourage our students to do the same. Such an incarnational epistemology invites our students into a knowledge of God and His creation that not only complements but transcends scientific knowledge.

This reference to a more human way of knowing leads to the third guiding principle toward redeeming science education: Against the positivism of the modern textbook, we must re-humanize science. That is, we must tell the story of science, examining closely the philosophical and theological implications of scientific thought as it has evolved with human consciousness throughout history. A winsome re-narration of this rich and messy history appropriately tarnishes the shine of scientific knowledge while also redeeming the coherence between the pursuits of science and the pursuit of Christ.

Last year my eighth graders researched and presented on the history of atomism instead of taking a semester exam. They studied thirty different people— from Democritus to Heisenberg—and explored their contributions to the ontology of atomism, considering
also theological implications. Together we became better acquainted with man’s struggle throughout history to wrap his mind around the nature of being.

The same students not only learned to apply Boyle’s Law, but also read about Robert Boyle himself. We did the same for Mendeleev during our study of the Periodic Table and Lavoisier during our study of chemical nomenclature. Students learned that Boyle funded Christian missions to the Far East; that Mendeleev was the youngest of seventeen children whose mother cared so much about his education that she took him across Russia from Siberia to Moscow to attend a better school; that Lavoisier, despite being renowned in his own time for his scientific brilliance, died by the guillotine during the height of the French Revolution. In stories, the objectified knowledge of science becomes reconnected to actual people who lived in space and time. My students’ interest in and appreciation for the truths uncovered by the cycle of scientific enterprise found new life when these truths became connected to a narrative, one that now can be seen as just a micro-narrative in the grander story of man’s relation to creation and Creator.

But latching on to these truths—this new knowledge about the natural world—can have a dangerously intoxicating effect. As history has shown, “where knowledge grows without wisdom and without reverence, it threatens both our humanity and our world.”10 Thus the fourth guiding principle is necessary: a normative framework should gird all of scientific study. More important than the question of can we do something with our knowledge is the question of ought we to do something with our knowledge.

We began second semester of earth science last year by reading the second chapter of Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, where we find Digory engaged in a frustrating discussion with his Uncle Andrew, moments after Digory’s friend Polly touched a mysterious ring in the uncle’s study and disappeared. While Digory is preoccupied with the whereabouts of his companion, Uncle Andrew insists on lecturing him on the merits and costs of scientific advancement by way of a self-aggrandizing explanation of his own research, which led to the magic rings and Polly’s current predicament as the newest subject in his experiment. Accused by Digory of being “rotten,” Uncle Andrew replies,

“Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”

Digory advocates for Polly as well as other innocent creatures that have vanished to an uncertain fate, but Uncle Andrew replies,

“Can’t you understand that the thing is a great experiment? The whole point of sending anyone into the Other Place is that I want to find out what it’s like.” (emphasis mine)

At the completion of our reading, I asked my students to answer the question: “In Uncle Andrew’s perspective, what is the purpose of scientific investigation?” This prompt launched us into a rich discussion of Lewis’ main argument from The Abolition of Man, giving us that normative framework for scientific study.

I followed this discussion with a picture study of Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump11,
a beautiful reprint of which hangs on a canvas in my classroom. In this painting Wright depicts a scientist surrounded by a gathering of folks, each of whom displays a varied reaction to his recreation of one of Robert Boyle’s air pump experiments. The pump contains a bird, being deprived of air, and the scientist looks out at the viewer of the painting, hand on the air valve, almost inviting the viewer to decide the fate of the bird. The battle between curiosity and charity is palpable, and that scientist looks out at my students every day, beckoning them to take a position.

He beckons me as well.

The Stones Cry Out… and the Flowers…And the Birds… and the Clouds: Discovering God (and Ourselves)

Here at Regents School of Austin our campus is blessed to have a science and nature center. It includes a barn with stalls for farm animals, a large chicken coop, an amphitheater-like area for outdoor events, a classroom with tables and benches, and a sizable garden area for students to plant both fall and spring crops. Each class in grades K through 4 has on its weekly schedule a science and nature studies period in which the center is the classroom.

The nature center began about 13 years ago as a labor of love. A number of Regents families sought and received permission to reclaim an under-utilized corner of the school property that had been the site of a homestead and farm for several generations. The original farmhouse was gone and the barns and outbuildings were in disrepair. The families organized volunteer workdays and raised funds in order to give the students at Regents the fabulous facility now known as the Regents Science and Nature Center.

With the facility in place the teachers were invited to bring their students and plant gardens, take nature walks, or visit the animals at the barn. Many came and learned. Some came often, some came occasionally, and some came not at all. I worked here part of the time, when I wasn’t farming, to help the students with their gardens.

When Rod Gilbert became our Head of School, he decided all students should have the opportunity to learn at the Nature Center. He added Science and Nature Studies to the class schedule for kindergarten through sixth grade. I came on full time to work with the classroom teachers and develop curricular connections for the students. This will be our eighth year on the class schedule and we continue to grow and flourish.

The Regents Mission Statement is at the core of all activities and lessons. It states:

“The mission of Regents School is to provide a classical and Christian education, founded upon and informed
by a Christian worldview, that equips students to know, love, and practice that which is true, good, and beautiful, and challenges them to strive for excellence as they live purposefully and intelligently in the service of God and man.” Each lesson or activity should include elements that lead to understanding (to know), attract attention and stimulate the emotions (to love), and reinforce the acquiring of wisdom that informs the will (to practice). Using (and honing) our skill of observation and tapping into our curiosity, we begin to explore our world. With grade level science curricula and a Bible we discover the creatures and materials that are a part of our amazing planet. We are participating in what is probably the original pedagogy! Rom. 1:19-20 states; “…what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes- His eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, because they are understood by what has been made.” As we begin to discover “His invisible attributes…” we can begin to see ourselves in a more biblical way. After all, He has made us in His image! Pursuing a deeper understanding of God by studying the created world leads directly to a better understanding of ourselves as bearers of His image. It leads to a better understanding because it is the habitat designed specifically for us. This is surely at the heart of any true educational endeavor- to know our God and to know ourselves. Science and nature are simply the vehicle for this journey.

In Kindergarten we begin the year in Genesis with the creation account. We study the five senses and see how they can gather information about our environment. We study insects, the solar system, wildflowers, oceans, and we grow lots of carrots in the fall.

First graders learn about the animal kingdom.

We begin with insects, learning key characteristics and observing life cycles. We make our way through some of the more notable classes; arachnids, fish, mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians; learning key characteristics and finding out that some characteristics are unique and some are shared. With each subject the students make an entry in their science and nature sketchbooks. A drawing, along with sentences relating the characteristics, becomes a record of our lessons and experiences with the animal kingdom.

Second grade science is focused on the plant kingdom. After an initial lesson on the variety within the plant kingdom, we narrow our focus to the flowering plants. The study is introduced to the students as “Parts of the Plant!” followed by the student’s dramatic “DAH, DAH, DAAHHH!”. We begin with seeds and discover the two types of flowering plant- monocots and dicots. We also see three main jobs (supply, support, storage) of each part. Lessons continue on with roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit which brings us back to seeds. At each part we see the differences between monocot and dicot and look for the three main jobs. Along the way we check the Bible for insight into how the parts help us to understand God, His kingdom, and ourselves. Some examples: Seeds- Gen. 1:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:23; Mark 4:30-32. Roots-Prov.

12:3; Eph. 3:17. Stems- John 15:1-5; Isa. 11:1. Leaves- Gen. 1:30. Flowers-Ps.103:15; 1 Pet. 1:24. Fruit-Gal.5:22-23; Luke 6:44-45.

Second graders also study the fungus kingdom for a month right after Christmas break. (It’s an invisible kingdom that is always around us, even in the air we breathe, and we only notice it when it produces fruiting bodies. What does that sound like a metaphor for?)

Third graders begin with simple machines and ancient Egypt. We do an archeological dig and build life- size working shadoufs. The students bring food scraps from home and make compost in order to study the decomposition cycle. We observe the changes, learn the three states of matter, investigate the creatures involved with magnifiers and microscopes, and are in awe of the Creator who has thought of everything! We then move on to earth science where we find out about our amazing spaceship Earth (where we get to ride on the outside!). Moving through space at an approximate speed of 575,000 miles per hour we learn about the crust, the mantle, and the core. We learn of rocks and minerals, tectonic plates, earthquakes, and volcanoes. AWESOME! There are so many scripture lessons here.

Fourth grade studies pond life at our large pond complex. Complete with waterfalls, a stream, a bog, and 3 large fish ponds there is plenty to keep us busy. We put on waders and get in which leads to many exclamations of “best day at the garden, ever!”. Fourth graders also learn about sound and light. We finish the year with a study of body systems.

Now, a few words about why we teach. Romans 12:2 states “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” The Regents Mission Statement, mentioned above, is basically a restating of this scripture. With the mind we think, we believe, we understand, and we form our individual worldview. We live in a fallen world and a culture that continually hammers us with information. Most of this information is void of any mention of or reference to the Kingdom of God. The implication of this Scripture is that without renewing our minds we will not know God, His will and Kingdom, or ourselves. Eph. 4:11-13- “It was He who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, that is to build up the body of Christ until we attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God- a mature person, attaining to Christ’s full stature.” Teaching is a calling given by Jesus. Some might say that this scripture pertains only to the church but we are the church and all of life is included in our relationship with God. As someone has said, “All is sacred. Nothing is secular.” I agree. This means that no matter what topic you happen to be teaching, it can only be understood properly by recognizing its relationship to God, His kingdom, or ourselves who are made in His image. In the verses from Ephesians above, it states that the reason He gave teachers is to help us move towards “attaining Christ’s
full stature.” No pressure! The first thing to realize is that we are all on this journey together. Some of us are just farther along which positions us to be of service to those coming after. Nature studies allow for us to discover God together. Instead of stories about God we see His creativity on display. I have found that it usually takes less than one minute for the students to find something that excites, amazes, or raises questions. This is much more than a fun activity for students. This is discovering who we are by learning about the environment/habitat in which we were physically designed to live. A turtle is designed to live in a pond spending its time seeking food, sunning itself , and interacting with other turtles. If you take the turtle as a
baby and raise it in a box in the corner of your bedroom, away from the pond, other turtles, or even the sun, it will

never be able to truly function as it was designed. Similarly, we have taken ourselves out of our natural habitat and
now live in carpeted, climate-controlled boxes staring at screens. Is it any wonder that we struggle with confusion on nearly every front? Confusion about where we came from. Confusion about what is objectively true, good, and beautiful. Disconnected from the Garden and the Creator by sin, we strive to find comfort. Comfort for our bodies through climate control, comfort for our souls through décor and diversion, and comfort for our spirits through cloistering ourselves away from the fallen world. Just going outside will not automatically fix everything, but time in nature and nature studies, as an integral part of a person’s upbringing and education, can provide many opportunities to learn who we are and grow into the people God has made us to be.

Before God made man in His image, He made a place for man to live. That place was a garden. Romans 8:19 states,“For the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.” The creation not only displays the glory of God but, also, the effects of the fall. Weeds, thorns, drought, creatures which bite or sting, oppressive heat, or freezing cold all testify to the fact that something is not right. Romans goes on to say, in verse 22, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together…” Psalm 19:1 says “The heavens declare the glory of God…” When God wanted to make a point with Abraham, He used the stars or the sand. When He announced the birth of Messiah, he did so in a field. Jesus took His first breath in a barn among the livestock.

God speaks to us in three distinct ways; through the Bible, by the Holy Spirit, and through His creation. We can help our students know God, themselves, and His Kingdom if we just get back to the garden. If you listen carefully, you will hear the stones cry out “Great is the Creator!” and you can hear the Father saying, “ I love you.”

Analogical Knowing: Creation is a Temple

The church prays Psalm 3, saying:

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God.


But Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; My glory, and the lifter up of mine head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice, And He heard me out of His holy hill.


I laid me down and slept;
I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, That have set themselves against me round about.

Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God:
For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone;
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.

Salvation belongeth unto the Lord: Thy blessing is upon Thy people.


Christians have prayed this prayer many times, reciting or reading it. But should they?

I want to ask a simple question but I’m not sure how. Let me try it practically: Is it fitting for you as a Christian to pray this prayer? Let me ask analytically: can we see the “ten thousands of people” as demons? These are the same question in that both ask a larger question: what kind of world do we live in?

Is it a world in which the material is ultimate and only people trying to hurt you physically can be considered your enemies? Or is there some other realm just as real, of which the material is a manifestation but not an exact likeness.

Do we live in a naturalistic a-cosmos in which power rises against power producing, by some unapprehended logic, the wonders of the world we live in?

Or might we live in a magical cosmos – in a sort of Hegelian dialectic where some transcendental force works in and through events (thesis battles antithesis, releasing new glories in a synthesis of creative destruction).

Or might we, in fact, live in a world that is an image?

King David lived in an image. He could speak of ten thousand people surrounding him quite physically (I will not say “literally”). There they were and he could see them. Opposition arose time and again, sometimes ten thousand people.

When David spoke of the holy hill whence God heard his cry, he had a specific place in mind, bearing all the antiquity of Abraham’s offering and all the freshness of his own temple-building resolution.

So was that all David had in mind? Was he thinking only of a physical mountain on which Jerusalem would be built and on which a temple would manifest the glory of God to the nations? Did he have in mind only ten thousand human people surrounding him?

David himself stretches the physical interpretation when he says in verse three, “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.” Surely he doesn’t mean that he walks around with a round or octagonal version of God attached to his wrist. God shares a quality with a shield: He will preserve David from harm.

Clearly, metaphors are used throughout the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs and common sense helps us understand them 95% of the time. Does that justify sweeping the whole of Psalm 3 or the whole book of Psalms or even the whole Bible into some spiritualized interpretation that clouds the obvious and plain meaning?

Well, no, not if you put it like that. I would never want to lose sight of the obvious and plain meaning. But we can’t ignore the clues given throughout the Bible that God is not only talking about historical physical events. The whole Bible, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, presents reality as, ultimately, not a physical place, but as a temple of the living God. Yes, the physical is physical. But even it is not ultimately physical; it is meant to be spiritual. You could even say that our vocation as human priests is to offer the physical to God and by doing so to “spiritualize” it. It won’t lose its physicality but transcend it, finding and fulfilling its purpose (a house, still a house, becomes a house in which God lives – a temple).

Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of a temple and the placement and eviction of its priest. The same pattern is repeated in Exodus and throughout the Bible until we reach Revelation, where the temple of God, the very holy of holies, encompasses the whole cosmos.

This creation is a temple.

When we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven,” we don’t mean that He sits up on the clouds in a blue sky, but that He inhabits the holy place where His throne is surrounded by ten thousand times ten thousand angels. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Moses all saw it, and Hebrews shows that the earthly tabernacle and temple were an image of the eternal temple in the heavens.

There is an eternal heavenly temple that is the dwelling place of God and an eternal manifestation of His nature. The earth and the physical heavens are an imitation of this eternal temple (thus earth is His footstool, heaven His throne, etc.). The tabernacle and temple are specific imitations of the eternal temple because, having fallen, we can no longer see clearly the heavenly image in this earthly mess.

The church is the earthly fulfillment of the temple of God, in which the Holy Trinity takes His habitation by the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ. It cannot be understood apart from its nature as temple. The spirit of man is the temple of God. Its inmost dimension is the holy of holies, possessing the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat sitting upon it and the law of God contained within it.

We do have a problem though: perhaps the first manifestation of God’s extraordinary humility is that He allowed the first priest to evict Him from His own temple. Since then He has stood at the door knocking, but He will only come in to those who open the door.

It is more natural to pray Psalm 3 analogically than

We are the temple. Within us is this holy hill. If God

is welcome there, He abides there and He hears us when

we cry to Him. But we are surrounded by “ten thousand people,” Those spiritual beings rise up against us with challenges and accusations, speaking directly to our souls, telling them, “There is no help for him in God.”

It is no “spiritualization” or “allegorical” interpretation to say with David, “Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.” The allegory would be to look at the people David fought and to think that it had actually happened to them.

Those spiritual beings speak, and that is all they can do now. They tell us lies. We don’t hear physical voices because they are hovering around that deep inaccessible part of our beings, the place where a still small voice keeps beckoning to us, simply and unobtrusively. They make as much noise as we allow them to make so we can’t hear the still small voice.

“There is no help for you in God.”

That is the one thing they most want us to hear. That way we’ll try to help ourselves. That way we’ll turn away from the one thing needful. They speak. But they speak with a disjointed jaw and broken teeth.

This is everything. Do you believe that you are the temple of the living God, living in a cosmic temple, whose task it is to receive into your inner sanctuary the God of life so that you can have, like the garden of Paradise, rivers of life flowing out of you into the four corners of the earth, renewing the whole earth with the life of the eternally living God?

Do you believe that the world around you is a temple and that you are the priest, called to offer it to God?

Do you teach your students as though they are temples and priests – images of the God of heaven and earth – or do you teach them like they are beavers whose highest calling is to build a house that dams up the river?

The cosmos is first a creation, a temple, a work of art; it is not a scientific experiment. We live in a cosmological analogy. That is the first step to understanding the cosmos, the human soul, or, for us, education. You can’t put things together by cutting them up.

And that makes all the difference.

We have the opportunity to offer our schools to God by thinking of them with the right analogies used appropriately.

First, we must subject analytical thought to analogical (i.e. to acknowledge the power of our governing analogies).

In particular, we must learn to think using sound

analogies in the following areas.
1. School governance and leadership. We tend to

use military and industrial analogies. We need to think with more humane and ancient analogies, such as farming, building a temple/house, and weaving.

2. Teaching. We need to teach analogically, under which I include mimetic and Socratic teaching. The goal of our teaching is love from a pure heart, and that pure heart is able to see both the whole and the right relations of the parts to each other. Administering information on behalf of a text book company or a state or accrediting agency might be necessary since as slaves we are told to submit to our masters. But we mustn’t do it without transcending it with more sound approaches.

3. Curriculum. A curriculum is already and always an analogy because it is the model of reality from which students learn as much or more as they do from the content. The curriculum that is not integrated lies to the children and confuses them. It must model the harmony of reality, giving due honor to each art and science and aligning the relationships among the arts and sciences.

We must recapture the Christian classical meaning of arts and sciences. An art is a mode of making something and a science is the knowledge made by the liberal arts. We must reexamine the nature, power, and limits of the natural sciences. I refer you to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, lecture 3, paragraphs 22ff. for a discussion starter.

We must learn to treat the cosmos as a temple where the skies are spread out as a roof and the earth is

the King’s footstool. We must learn to view the soul of each student as the very Temple of the Living God, the center of which is the only place where the King of glory waits to sit on the Mercy Seat from which will flow rivers of life to the whole world

4. Assessment. We must not be governed, driven, or anxious over analytical assessments, which wrench student performance from its context and reduce it to something that can be measured. Again, we have to submit to our masters, but to be intimidated by them is distracting folly. We must realize that whoever assesses us is our boss, that assessment determines how we teach, and that conventional assessment undercuts the apprenticeship that characterizes a classical school (I specifically protest against standardized tests and the A-F grading approach, neither of which would ever have entered the mind of a classical educator prior to this age that is lost in the wrong metaphors).

5. Community: We cannot manufacture or produce a community. We can only nourish and grow one.

The fact that these are hard challenges is irrelevant. The child’s soul trumps all other needs. Teachers must
be hired, equipped, and valued based on their ability to nourish the children’s souls through the sound analogies that lead them on the path to truth, goodness, and beauty – without which they are lost, no matter how successful.

Hearing Heavenly Harmonies

In the early 1960s, Flannery O’Connor addressed a group of English teachers concerning the aims and methods
of teaching fiction. She said that she (as a novelist) and the teachers “should be able to find ourselves enjoying a mutual concern, which would be a love of the language and what can be done with it in the interests of dramatic truth.” Having rejected a view of literature which was moralistic or utilitarian, she declared: “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”

O’Connor assumed that the teachers she was addressing were eager that their students not be captive to the prejudices of the modern mind. After all, she knew (as expressed in one of her letters) that “if you live today you breathe in nihilism.” Since the modern mind was disoriented, popular fashions and fads in literature and typical habits of reading were disordered. So the challenge facing the teacher of literature was a great one. “I don’t know whether I am setting the aims of the teacher of English too high or too low when I suggest that it is, partly at least, his business to change the face of the best-seller list.” Teachers could effect such a change by instructing their students to attend to the form of literary works, since “the form of a story gives it meaning which any other form would change, and unless the student is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work, except what is extrinsic to it as literature.”

In an essay written at about the same time, O’Connor offered advice for the selection of fiction to be taught in high-school classes. She concluded her brief remarks by anticipating an objection: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

The work of teaching everything, not just literature, is about forming taste, about guiding the loves of students. The modern mind, as Miss O’Connor knew, finds such a task uncongenial. Modern men and women resent the idea that their emotional responses need to be trained, since modern thought has taught us that our instinctive, untrained desires are the most honest, the most sacred part of our being. We have come very far from a Christian, or indeed, a classical anthropology and psychology.

The classical tradition—reaffirmed by the Christian tradition—insists that education is nothing if not the training of the affections. As C. S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man (his most important book), “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it— believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.” Lewis also noted that St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. “Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

It is heartening that a growing number of Christian educators are recovering an understanding for the lost goals of teaching. But there is a great deal of ground to be retaken. The most challenging recovery involves our perception of music. As is well-known among the readers of this journal, music—along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy—was one of the four disciplines included in the quadrivium, the “four ways” which completed the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and which together comprised the seven liberal arts. If you wanted to prepare to study theology and philosophy in a medieval university, you had to study music first. Music was the experience of the numeric realities of the cosmos, in time, through the senses. Even today, people describe music as a way of ordering time, or a way of perceiving the order that is time. One of the manuscripts in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach was a treatise on counterpoint written in 1725 in which the author, Johann Joseph Fux, referred to “art which imitates and perfects nature, but never destroys it.” This idea, first articulated in Aristotle, was one that the very Lutheran Bach also embraced. As Bach scholar Christoph Wolff argues, “For Bach, art lay between the reality of the world—nature—and God, who ordered this reality.” In Bach’s thinking and in his compositional efforts, musical structure—harmonia, in the Latin terminology of the day—ultimately refers to the order of nature and to its divine cause. Or, as one of Bach’s students wrote, “Music is a mixed mathematical science that concerns the origins, attributes, and distinctions of sound, out of which a cultivated and lovely melody and harmony are made, so that God is honored and praised but mankind is moved to devotion, virtue, joy, and sorrow.”

In his biography of Bach, subtitled The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff presents Bach as a musical Newton, as a man consciously committed to discovery of and delight in the ways of God in creation, specifically as those ways could be known in musical form.

Bach believed that there was a perceptible order in the universe, an order that should serve as a model for human making and doing, for art, as well as for science, for our relationships, for law, for agriculture, for politics, and, perhaps most importantly, for the life of the Church. In other words, in this older way of perceiving reality, cultural institutions and forms were not to be arbitrarily or capriciously or willfully engineered and selected, but developed and approved in faithful resonance with the order God has established in the cosmos. The goal of education was to help the student perceive and delight in that order.

But even by Bach’s day, the apparent glimpses of the transcendent in music and in other forms of artistic expression were coming to be regarded by many as wishful thinking—not so much because their view of music was more modest, but because their view of the cosmos was changing. In our time, that transition has long been complete. “Nowadays,” writes Jamie James, “most scientists would accept the thesis that the cosmos has no underlying logic in the classical sense, but is rather a confluence of accidents, which are governed by laws. However, the laws themselves are irrational and do not arise from any fundamental orderliness. The concept of the universe as a random, meaningless place was expressed on the earthly level by the theory of evolution: the mutations that determine the course of life on earth, and indeed the very creation of humankind, were revealed to be largely fortuitous events.”

Since the modern mind denies an underlying cosmic order—denies, that is, that the world is a Creation of a Creator—artistic forms are regarded as arbitrary and capricious expressions of entirely personal imaginations. Any effort by teachers, parents, or church leaders to train the taste—especially musical taste—can only be understood as an unwarranted exercise of power. “Elitism” is the charge commonly leveled at such efforts, since, as music critic Julian Johnson has observed, in our day, “in matters of musical judgment, the individual can be the only authority.”

Christian educators, indeed all Christians , need to examine more critically this assumption of the modern mind. As Johnson explains, the view that musical taste is purely private and subjective is a peculiarly modern assumption.

This is in sharp contrast to the relatively minor status of individual ‘taste’ in Western musical practice and aesthetics from the ancient Greeks until the late eighteenth century. To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism
in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about music than about science. Music was no more ‘a matter of taste’ than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form. Its success was no more a matter of subjective judgment than the laws themselves.

Our belief about making judgments about quality in any art form is now captive to what art critic Jed Perl has called “laissez-faire aesthetics,” which, he writes, “has left us with a weakening of all conviction, an unwillingness to take stands, a reluctance to champion, or surrender to, any first principle.” This relativism in aesthetic judgment is simply a part of a larger modern suspicion about all value judgments, a suspicion that has been described by Alasdair MacIntyre and others as “emotivism,” “the doctrine,” as MacIntyre explains, “that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.”

The displacement of many of our society’s artistic standards by the enchantments of entertainment is an indication of cultural decline with a complicated set of causes. Among them is an ever-more radical celebration of the autonomy of the individual self and a hostility toward authority; an increasing suspicion that the past has anything useful or instructive to offer us; a growing impatience with cultural pursuits that are demanding on our time or intellectual effort; an aversion to the idea of cultivation and a celebration of forms of expression that are untutored, instinctual, and allegedly “authentic”; and a fascination with anything “transgressive” coupled with cynicism toward the maintenance of a tradition.

It is the flourishing of these mentalities that has led to “laissez-faire aesthetics,” and to the indifference within our society to the greatest achievements of the Western cultural tradition. In his 2007 commencement address at Stanford, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia commented on this forfeiting of artistic opportunities: “I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life.”

And it is happening in our churches as well. The Church once assumed a role of cultural leadership, believing that it should set a good example for her neighbors, not just in morality and theology, but in forms of aesthetic expression: in architecture, in poetry, in art, and in music. Today, it is a rare congregation in America that assumes that responsibility.

This negligence has very sad consequences for the Church’s testimony. If we add momentum to the prevailing assumption in our culture that our engagement with Creation—including the sonic order in which music resides—is to be defined only by personal preference, and not by something actually residing in the nature of things, how can we hope to bear witness to a Sovereign Creator who ordered all of reality, and who stands in judgment against those who reject his ordering of things?

Music is a great and unique gift from God, and the Western musical tradition that developed into what we commonly call classical music was in significant ways shaped by the influence of the Church in its desire to cultivate the full and remarkable capacities of this gift. By failing to sustain a mature appreciation for the capacities of music within the Christian community, we lose one of the greatest resources God has given us to assist in bearing witness to his glory and to something of the glorious order he has imparted to Creation. Christian students are in need of the training of affections with regard to beauty no less than with truth or goodness, although they are culturally disposed to resent it even more. But particularly with regard to music: if music really is the unique merging of spiritual and material, of temporal and eternal, of intellectual and emotional realities, if it is the perpetual activity of angels and the eternal destiny of the redeemed, then its capacities shouldn’t suffer from neglect or carelessness or expediency or impatience. Like the Kingdom to which it bears witness, it is a pearl of great price, worthy of sacrifice, diligence, and joyous discovery.

The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity

Colin Gunton, late professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College in London, undertakes a monumental task in The One, the Three, and the Many. Gunton wrote the book to “illumine both the gospel and the modern condition, so that a continuing dialogue between them may take place.” In the introduction of his masterpiece he states, “I have hoped to contribute to modern thought and to what is now called the renaissance of Trinitarian theology in our times.” Gunton’s contribution has left a lasting mark on the implications of a truly Trinitarian understanding of reality. He traverses the arcane and mysterious with due humility, but also with imagination and wisdom. It is a demanding read, but well worth the sweat.

There are two parts to the book. In part one, “The Displacement of God”, Gunton analyzes the roots of modernity and the subsequent cultural crises, namely fragmentation and disengagement. He argues that modern culture (he includes postmodern culture) has bred an anthropology that views others as instruments. He says, “…we use
the other as an instrument, as the mere means for realizing our will, and not as in some way integral to our being.”

Christian theology did not provide a sufficient apologetic to combat this defective conception of man. In fact, Gunton argues that the proclivity towards a more monistic, hegemonic medieval theology laid the foundation for the Enlightenment revolution. Both extremes, a conception of man as independent and autonomous and a Gnostic conception of man, are equally awed. Gunton argues that much of modern social and political thought is a revolt of the many against the one. But, in revolting, man has been displaced, making himself god, where he was never intended to be.

Because he is displaced in his relation to God, he has consequently been displaced in his relation to creation and his fellow man.

What Gunton offers, in part two of the book, is an attempt at a Trinitarian metaphysic, one that accounts for a proper relationship between the created world and man, between man and God, and between man and man. He emphasizes that due signi cance be a ributed to the one and the many, which can be found only in the Trinity. Gunton seeks to formulate a “trinitarian sociality in the light of which we may understand something of who we are and what is the world in which we are set.” He argues that human beings must be understood relationally rather than in terms of fixed characteristics, such as reason or will. He says, “Individualism is a false creed, because it teaches that I do not need my neighbor in order to be myself.” According to Gunton, reality reflects the inherent relationship of the Trinity; everything “contributes to the being of everything else, enabling everything to be what it distinctively is.” Gunton calls Christians to a deeper understanding of the Trinitarian order of being and, more importantly, to reflect that order in our lives and in our world.

In a culture where pervasive theological and philosophical aberrations abound, Gunton’s approach grounds the reader in the most fundamental truths of Christianity. If there truly is a renaissance in the study of Trinitarian theology, then reading Colin Gunton is a must for thinking Christians and classical educators.