Science in Christian Perspective



The Label Problem

John H. Woodburn, ASA Member,
105 Meadow Green Court
Amherst, VA 24521

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (December 2000): 230.

As teachers, we experience satisfaction in helping young people to enjoy and to benefit from the wonders and realities of our natural world. We nurture curiosity and help our students to acquire a repertory of concepts, principles, and laws. We develop interrelationships that transform apparent disorder into order. We find satisfaction in adopting the methodology that successfully matches our wits with the ways and means of nature.

At the same time, our peace of mind is always threatened by the student who asks: "How and when did all of this begin? What are the origins of matter, energy, and life? What powers the animate and inanimate machinery of the universe?" And most challenging of all, "To what end?"

Faced with this challenge, teachers often say that such questions fall outside the domain of science. In effect, science teachers have the option to consider only those questions that apply after the appearance of the universe. Questions that involve circumstances prior to this moment are fodder for other disciplines.

But this response only evades a crucial problem. Points of view regarding the origin and destiny of the universe tend to provide both subtle and overt support for collateral agenda that reach far beyond the usual domain of science. Classroom presentations are subject to disabling criticism, not so much because of the accuracy or legitimacy of their content but because they are in conflict with core beliefs or values. Conflict between opposing points of view provides attractive grist for the media and exposes young people to mind-bending controversy before, during, and beyond their classroom experiences. At risk is the rejection of any point of view that extends beyond the domain of science.

A step toward reducing this risk is to clarify opposing points of view in ways that meet several criteria:

1. Explain the positive features unique to each perspective in ways that are understandable to students.

2. Reduce to fundamentals each point of view so that one view features a creative power that controls the total universe while the second sees the primeval entities of matter, energy, and life as interacting randomly with chance determining the affairs of the universe.

Labeling these points of view seems to stand in the way of reconciliation. To use such labels as "religious" and "non-religious" risks burdening both points of view unduly. Religion evokes interests that go beyond accounting for the origin of the universe and the interactions among its entities. The term, "non-religious," tells us no more than what this point of view does not include. Even such labels as "first" and "second" can be misleading. Either point of view could have preceded the other. Similarly, the acceptance of each is equally dependent upon hope supported by faith. Labels that focus on the creative process are doubly troublesome. Both points of view agree that the universe with all of its entities had a beginning. The problem is to label this beginning in a way that does not introduce controversy at the very advent of effort to understand our origin and destiny.

Consider labels that focus on the fundamental distinguishing character of the two points of view, namely. "Design" and "Chance." Because design implies a designer, it is easy to equate design with God. On the negative side, chance evokes ideas of gaming and connotations far less consequential than that which is being labeled.

Will these proposed labels favor keeping student curiosity and open-mindedness alive? Will teachers be better able to nurture admiration and respect for the natural world and to encourage treating its entities as gifts to be sustained rather than needlessly depleted? Will clarification of these labels help to restore respect for and greater adoption of the methodology and discipline that characterize the pursuit of science? And will theologians of all faiths and denominations be better able to convey the unlimited inspiration, guidance, and comfort that religion provides?

What will be our heritage if young people realize that they are choosing between two opposing points of view, "Design" and "Chance"? Will they realize that this choice will be a major influence in how they think of themselves and how they are seen by others? Will their choice create more fulfilling lives in a world where greed and aggression would be on the wane?