All Things Vile and Vicious: Seeing God’s Glory in the Horrors of Nature

We’ve all seen the pictures: hairy spider faces with hungry eyes. Long-toothed, translucent deep-sea monsters. Nightmarish creatures on land and sea. Poets, philosophers, and theologians have wrestled with hideous animals and shocking behavior in the animal kingdom. But are such aspects of creation suitable for children? As Christians studying God’s more unsettling works, we can be drawn into deep reflection about God, the world, and ourselves by observing the forms and behaviors of creatures in the animal kingdom. In this workshop we will discuss what some great minds have said about the disturbing animal kingdom. We will discuss topics of parasitism, fecundity, and predation, and what theological and pedagogical implications can be drawn.

Jeffrey Mays

Jeffrey works with a team of representatives at Classical Academic Press primarily advancing Novare Science curriculum. Besides helping schools and homeschoolers implement excellent science programs, Jeffrey is a writer and conference speaker. His degrees include a BS in Computer Science from Baylor University, M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has been a pastor and a school teacher of science, history, math, Bible and apologetics in public and private schools. He is an avid reader and is interested in advocating the harmony and compatibility between science and Christian faith. Jeffrey lives in Austin Texas.

Finding Wonders, Work, Wisdom and Worship in Natural Science

Natural science teachers love to delight their students with natural wonders and see jaws drop. But as students get older, teachers feel pressure to increase rigor, which can squeeze out room for wonder. But Einstein says that the state of mind which enables a man to do serious scientific work is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the effort comes straight from the heart. So how can a teacher teach science excellently and retain wonder? This workshop will explore how recovering natural history and the common arts provides the appropriate context for wonder and work in natural science and teaching along the narrative of discovery in conversation with biblical thought can cultivate a wisdom that culminates in worship.

Ravi Jain

Ravi Jain graduated from Davidson College with a BA and interests in physics, ancient Greek, and international political economy. He worked at various churches, received an MA from Reformed Theological Seminary, and later earned a Graduate Certi cate in Mathematics from the University of Central Florida. He began teaching Calculus and Physics at The Geneva School in 2003. During his tenure there he has co-authored The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Classical Academic Press, 2013) and has presented more than 50 speeches and workshops throughout the country on topics related to Christian classical education.

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.

Re-Imagining Grammar School Science

We want our graduates to be the best technical scientists, without exception. At the same time, we also know that all of us, teachers and students alike, are called to something more than technical proficiency when it comes to understanding science. Scientists in our schools need to be masters of facts and frameworks, knowledgeable in narrative and well-formed in imagination, Modern culture’s scientistic and reductive narrative for science instruction will not lead us where we are called to go, and so we need to reclaim some lost tools of science learning in order to chart a new course, particularly in the earliest years. In this session, I will highlight several ways in which we have successfully moved our Lower School science curriculum towards a new paradigm, one that engages not just the head, but also the heart, through the hands. Through multi-generational gardening, a series of units called Skills of the Tracker, exploration of the history and philosophy of science, and a special kind of STEM that moves beyond pre-fabs and programming, we are forming our students’ imaginations alongside their technical skills.

Chris Hall

Chris Hall earned a BA in Philosophy from Ge ysburg College and an MAT in Elementary Education from Towson University. His naturalist pedigree starts far earlier than his college days: roving far and wide through the local streams and fields on his bike at a time when such things were not yet frowned upon by community associations, earning Eagle Scout, training in tracking, and logging years of outdoor time as a backpacker and ancestral skills practitioner. Before serving as Lower School Academic Dean at the Covenant School in Charlottesville, VA, Chris was a PK-8 Science department chair, a teacher of Conceptual Physics, and a wide-ranging classroom teacher in elementary and middle schools. He currently lives o the beaten path in central VA on a homesteaded microfarm with his wife, Catherine, and three sons.

Encouraging Science as a Noble Profession

Many view science as an enemy of the Christian faith. Astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Zweerink, will provide tools to help teachers equip students to pursue scientific careers in a way that will strengthen their faith while contributing to our understanding of the universe.

Jeff Zweernik

Je Zweerink (PhD, Iowa State University) is a research scholar at Reasons to Believe, as well as author of Who’s Afraid of the Multiverse? and coauthor of more than 30 journal articles. He also serves part-time on the physics and astronomy research faculty at UCLA.

Earth Science and Classical Christian Education

Earth Science (ES) enjoyed a prominent place in classical scientific enquiry, and the weight given to ES continued through medieval and modern times and into the present. Unfortunately, the centrality of ES as a field of study is being lost, even in many classical schools. Increasingly, ES is diminished to facts learned in the Grammar stage or, alternatively, to fragmentary insertions into other Logic- or Rhetoric-stage classes; both approaches are ill-advised. ES lends itself to study in the Logic or Rhetoric stages for several key reasons, three of which will be explored in this seminar. Properly conceived and situated study of ES prepares our students for wise stewardship of the Earth, and for responsible involvement in societal dialogue and decision-making.

Steve Mittwede

Steve Mi wede is incredibly privileged to be an instructor of Earth Science and Bible at Providence Classical School in Spring, Texas. In 1981, he was graduated from “Their Majesties Royal College” (The College of William and Mary) with a B.S. in Geology, a er which he concurrently worked as a mineral resources geologist for the South Carolina Geological Survey and completed his M.S. and Ph.D. in Geology at the University of South Carolina. He is married to Dana, and they are blessed with four sons in close succession – all now grown and married. Steve and his family served in Turkey for 23 years, during which Steve was awarded an M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Columbia International University and an M.Th. in Modern Evangelical Theology from Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He is currently pursuing an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership at Columbia International University. Steve and Dana make their home in Tomball, Texas.

The Heavens Declare the Glory

Christians have always affirmed this testimony from Psalm 19. But the breadth of the revelation of God’s glory in nature is far wider than we often appreciate. In this seminar we will examine a wide variety of ways in which the heavens declare God’s glory to us, including anthropic implications in contemporary science that have been responsible for driving some notable atheists to faith. We will also examine the implications of our role as God’s image bearers on the question of God’s revelation in the book of His Works—Nature.

John Mays

After receiving his BS in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University, John D. Mays spent 14 years in industry in engineering and engineering management in the areas of electrical, controls and telecommunications systems. Vocationally drawn toward the eld of education, John acquired an MEd in Secondary Education from the University of Houston in 1989, and subsequently completed 36 hours of graduate study in Physics at Texas A&M. Shortly a er joining the faculty at Regents School of Austin in 1999, John began work on an MLA at St. Edward’s University, which he completed in 2003. John served as the Math-Science Department Chair at Regents School from 2001 until 2009 when he became Director of the Laser Optics Lab at Regents. He founded Novare Science and Math in 2009, and is the author of numerous student science texts and teacher resources. Now working full time as writer, publisher and consultant, John continues to teach students part time at the Laser Optics Lab at Regents.

Creation, Design, and Evolution

Are students and parents in your school asking about creation and evolution? Students are growing up in a culture full of heated battles between young earth creationism and atheistic evolution. Yet Christians today are discussing many other options, including old earth creationism, intelligent design, and evolutionary creationism. Come for an overview of the key scientific evidence in God’s creation from astronomy, geology, paleontology, and genetics, and how it all intersects with biblical faith and Christian worldviews.

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma serves as the President of BioLogos, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Many congregations, Christian high schools, and Christian colleges use the book as a guide for navigating Christian debates over creation and evolution.

Narrative Approach to Darwin and His Critics

This seminar will survey how change in thought and growth in knowledge from the Middle Ages into the 19th century led to Darwin’s theory of evolution. We will explore the shift from the motivating ideal of love to struggle and competition as well as the shift from sacramental participation to nothing but mechanistic motion. Particular emphasis is made on integration of biological knowledge with literature and history classes.

Robbie Andreasen

Robbie Andreasen has been teaching Life Science, biology, and Anatomy & Physiology at The Geneva School since 2007. He received his BS in Marine Science and Biology from the University of Miami and an MA in Bioethics from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Robbie has a contagious passion to study the intersection of faith and science and his students have come to expect a challenging, active classroom characterized by their teacher’s love and enthusiasm for learning. He was the upper school recipient of the 2013 Paideia Award for Teaching, an award that recognizes excellence in teaching. Robbie and his wife Janet (a math education professor at the University of Central Florida) have two children—both students at TGS. In his spare time, he enjoys challenging himself through activities such as jiu-jitsu and training for and participating in Tough Mudder.

Science: Discovery and Discipleship

The history of science is a history of discovery, but the historical role of discovery is now threatened by the limited exposure to nature that is now common among young people. In this seminar, we will examine ways teachers can reinvigorate the study of science in the midst of a culture that has lost a sense of the relationships between nature, quietness, meditation, observation, and discipleship. We will also examine the challenging implications of God’s benediction on nature and the example of Christ on the question of our own growth as Christ’s disciples.

John Mays

After receiving his BS in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University, John D. Mays spent 14 years in industry in engineering and engineering management in the areas of electrical, controls and telecommunications systems. Vocationally drawn toward the field of education, John acquired an MEd in Secondary Education from the University of Houston in 1989, and subsequently completed 36 hours of graduate study in Physics at Texas A&M. Shortly a er joining the faculty at Regents School of Austin in 1999, John began work on an MLA at St. Edward’s University, which he completed in 2003. John served as the Math-Science Department Chair at Regents School from 2001 until 2009 when he became Director of the Laser Optics Lab at Regents. He founded Novare Science and Math in 2009, and is the author of numerous student science texts and teacher resources. Now working full time as writer, publisher and consultant, John continues to teach students part time at the Laser Optics Lab at Regents.