This school year my daughter is taking AP Biology online through a Christian classical academy. The class meets for an hour and a half twice a week in synchronous sessions.
In a unit on cell biology, the instructor brought up the endosymbiosis theory. This hypothesis posits that at some point in life’s history, early cells engulfed a different kind of cell and lived symbiotically as a way of gaining the ability to use oxygen for metabolism. Scientists propose that this symbiotic relationship eventually gave rise to modern eukaryotic cells, with their membrane-bound organelles such as chloroplasts and mitochondria.
As the teacher explained the theory, the chat box lit up with multiple students protesting–“That’s evolution!” “It’s only a theory!” Several students contributed snarky remarks about the presumed deficient intelligence or delusional mental state of the textbook authors for buying into such nonsense.
My daughter called me over to share the reactions. As we read through the student comments, she sighed, “It’s like every time evolutionary history comes up, they think it’s an invitation to fight. How about we relax and learn the science?”
It is my impression that my daughter’s teacher is doing an exemplary job introducing the class to the wonders of biology, sharing scientific insights into the complexities of life and how it works. (Mitochondria truly are a wonder!) But the instructor’s task is complicated by the fact that many Christian students arrive in the course ready to fight science, not learn science.
At the heart of this defensive and aggressive posture seems to be the fear that letting their guard down will dismantle their confidence in the truth of the Bible and jeopardize their faith. Perceived conflicts between science and Christian teaching are not new. History offers multiple examples of new discoveries or theories that posed difficulties for the ways Christians were used to thinking about the world or interpreting certain parts of the Bible.
Amid these difficulties, scientists of faith have maintained that there is always a way to harmonize the truth we know about God from his revelation in the Bible and the truth we can learn about God’s creation through various scientific disciplines. However, when the way to reconcile the science and our religious beliefs isn’t immediately obvious or when it seems as if science is telling us something that contradicts our understanding of what the Bible teaches, the cognitive dissonance can understandably cause a lot of distress.
So how should educators respond to the distress their students feel when they can’t reconcile what they are learning in science with their beliefs and thus respond defensively? Teachers can start by admitting that we do not have control over the messages students hear outside of school that engender some of these attitudes. However, we do have the opportunity in classrooms to challenge the idea that we have to oppose scientific evidence in order to embrace the Bible and live in God’s truth.
Over the past four years I have been on a team creating the Integrate curriculum, a faith and science program that invites parents and teachers to bring “Christ-centered faith, rigorous science, and gracious dialogue to your students . . . [to] explore theological and ethical questions raised by modern science, while cultivating virtues such as humility, wisdom, and wonder.” This curriculum for grades 6-12 is designed to equip educators trying to detoxify classroom environments and instead integrate what we know from the natural world and what we know from the Bible.
Teaching science in Christian schools is hard, particularly in today’s polarized environment. Our team thinks it’s important that science instructors in Christian classrooms be equipped to approach the following areas with confidence:
- Equipped to teach all the science. Christian teachers shouldn’t shy away from teaching content that some students (or their parents) find challenging. If teachers try to protect students from the distress that might be caused by certain ideas, evidence, or consensus views, the students never get a chance to understand the ideas in question and figure out what they believe and why.
Avoiding topics such as evolution, the Big Bang, and climate change might make students feel confident and comfortable in the short term, but such omissions can lead to a crisis of trust later in life. Students are going to encounter the evidence for an ancient earth and universe, the evolutionary model, and human-influenced climate change in college and in the wider culture. If this evidence disturbs them, isn’t it better to hear and discuss it first in the context of a caring relationship with a Christian mentor than in an impersonal freshman lecture hall, disconnected from their community of faith?
Besides examining the scientific theories themselves with students, Christian instructors who are well-informed and up-to-date about pressing scientific issues can guide students’ evaluation of modern technologies and bioethical dilemmas in light of distinctly Christian values and commitments. This kind of wrestling with emerging issues in light of faith influences students’ developing worldview at a crucial time, setting a trajectory for future wise discernment.
- Equipped to ask good questions and make space for processing. Teachers know that simply communicating the “right answers” is not the central task of education. Effective teachers ask the right questions and set the right learning tasks to guide students as they discover the answers for themselves. Fostering nuanced, productive discussions about controversial topics requires preparation and careful thought. Creating a classroom environment where students feel safe, respected, and affirmed as they offer opposing viewpoints, confront their doubts and fears, and work toward satisfying answers is another challenge.
But the rewards are great: teachers who invest in hard conversations find that the Christian science classroom can be an ideal place to foster a supportive community that honors everyone’s personal journey toward harmonizing the truth God reveals in the natural world and in the Bible.
- Equipped to recommend science as a Christian vocation. Teachers can help students work through the propensity to approach science with hostility and distrust. Science doesn’t have to be seen as a potential corruptive influence on faith. Instead, Christian students with aptitude in STEM areas should be encouraged to see their gifts as God-given and the pursuit of scientific learning as God-honoring. Christian science teachers can honor scientific careers as a way for students to serve their neighbors and deepen their understanding of God and his world; students need to see respect for scientists modeled by people they trust. They need to hear the personal stories of intelligent Christian science professionals who have found satisfying ways to harmonize their love of science with their values and beliefs.
Whereas I sympathize with my daughter’s sentiment, it’s never as easy as simply telling students to “relax and learn the science.” But teachers who are intentional about presenting all the facts, making space for processing them, and inviting students to perceive science as a legitimate Christian vocation are taking the steps needed to help students let go of their fears. In such an environment, learners may unclench their rhetorical fists and open themselves to the wonders of God revealed through science.