Science in Christian Perspective
Al Eterno Enthusiasmo Faith, Enthusiasm, and Botany
Lytton J. Musselman*
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA 23529-0266
From: PSCF 48 (December 1996): 256-257.
"And I attribute that to your faith," said Dan, my department chairman. My enthusiasm for plants and botanical research linked to my faith? I fumbled some hasty response attributing this to a personality trait more than my Christian faith. Dan knew my faith as well as my often irrational excitement about plants. According to him, this enthusiasm had not wavered in the almost quarter century we have been colleagues. Dan saw a link between my botanical zeal and my Christian faith that I didn't.
At a botanical symposium in Cordoba, Spain, just a few weeks earlier, I was presented with the Al eterno entusiasmo award. Honored by the recognition, I had failed to see any interplay between enthusiasm and faith. I did not appreciate Dan's comment nor did I see its connection with the Cordoba award until I read the editorial in the June issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (48/2:73) titled, "Are evangelical and scientists practical atheists?" In it, we were challenged to consider "... the question of how ... Christian faith plays a role in ... scientific work."
Okay, I confess. Until recently, I have been operating as a practical atheist. As Mark Noll painfully reminded us is in Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, many evangelicals are good, even notable, scientists but few explore the link between their faith and their practice of science. Reasons for that hiatus are many and would be a worthwhile study on their own. Opposition to a personal God, embarrassment by well-meaning, but often ignorant, supporters of a "young earth," and a pervasive mechanistic philosophy are some of the reasons. We all bring our tenets of belief into our science consciously or unconsciously. For me, one outcome of my belief system is enthusiasm.
Embarrassed that I had never considered the question before caused me to ponder it carefully, "What is the link between faith and enthusiasm?" At its simplest, I believe my unabashed enthusiasm for plants is because I know, really know in my heart of hearts, that these wonderful organisms have been designed by a skillful Creator! And I know that Creator in the person of Jesus Christ! He has given me the opportunity to spend a career engaged with plants, studying their beauty, diversity, and utility.
As an ethnobotanist, I am awed at how plants are used in a multitude of ways by people around the world. My own thrill of discovery has involved research on the bizarre Hydnora along the Nile and Sudan that is totally subterranean except for flowers that break through the cracked clay. Also in Africa, I am researching the witchweed of the genus Striga that are some of the most refractory problems in subsistence agriculture in the African Sahel. Even after two decades, I am still amazed at their parasitic behavior. Closer to home, I am working with an engaging group of furtive fern allies, Isoetes, abundant in parts of the Southeast, yet so poorly known that new species are being discovered. It has been exhilarating to have the responsibility to maintain and restore the northern most stand of longleaf pine. I could go onóand usually doóbut the bottom line is that I find something intrinsically interesting in each plant, population, and community. And behind it all, I see the Creator.
Are there biblical patterns for this deep appreciation of plants? Certainly. Although not one of the best known biblical characters, Jotham is one of my heroes. Like myself, he lectured on Mount Gerazim. He was addressing a political question; I was a Fulbright Professor at An Najah National University located on the same mountain. In Judges 9:8-15, Jotham outlines the salient features of important plants. To do this, Jotham had to have a knowledge of plants and the enthusiasm to lecture on them.
The greatest student of natural history in the Bible is Solomon. He had a profound appreciation of plants, perhaps inherited from his shepherd father who wrote worshipful psalms about creation. More plants are mentioned in connection with Solomon than anywhere else in the Bible. "He (Solomon) described (Hebrew dabar, Greek equivalent is logos) plant life, from the Cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall" (1 Kings 4:33). Dabar implies more than verbal description, it incorporates the idea of speaking with authority and, I would suggest, enthusiasm.
The Lord Jesus spoke about plants and linked them with Solomon. In Luke 12:27, Jesus says that one of the common "lilies" (likely Anemone coronaria) was more resplendent than Solomon in all his glory! And Solomon was the most glorious king recorded in all of Scripture! Doesn't this imply an appreciation and enthusiasm for this strikingly beautiful but common wildflower?
Ultimately, enthusiasm for the creation leads to worship of the Creator. This is the paramount eterno entusiasmo! I am thankful to have been reminded of this and jolted into considering the connection between my faith and the practice of science.