Science in Christian Perspective



Science, Sand, and Spirit

Bruce Beaver

Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry 
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, PA 15282

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (June 2000): 118-122.

Soon after the death of Aldo Leopold in 1948, these autobiographical words were published in an essay from his classic work, A Sand County Almanac:

What value has wildlife from the standpoint of morals and religion? I heard of a boy once who was brought up an atheist. He changed his mind when he saw that there were a hundred-odd species of warblers, each bedecked like to the rainbow, and each performing yearly sundry thousands of miles of migration about which scientists wrote wisely but did not understand. No "fortuitous concourse of elements" working blindly through any number of millions of years could account for why warblers are so beautiful. No mechanistic theory, even bolstered by mutations, has ever quite answered for the colors of the cerulean warbler, or the vespers of the wood thrush, or the swansong, or goose music. I dare say this boy's convictions would be harder to shake than those of many inductive theologians. There are yet many boys to be born who, like Isaiah, may see, and know and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this (p. 230).1

My class reads portions of this masterpiece, which is the poetic fruit of a lifetime of experience, contemplation, and exhortation by arguably the twentieth century's premiere conservationist. An important aspect of Leopold's writing is his ability to use poetic language that speaks to the soul and conveys his visceral love for the natural world. Leopold's prose inspires readers to look anew at creation with a sense of awe and wonder.

Trying to create a sense of awe and wonder about nature is an important part of what I do. I teach an introductory chemistry course as part of a general education requirement for non-science majors at a Catholic university. I call my approach to this class "value-added education." I have borrowed this name from the wood products industry. This industry produces raw-green lumber in such large quantities that, owing to the law of supply and demand, it does not have much value. Therefore, the industry is constantly seeking ways to modify green lumber to increase its value. My experience with science education suggests that this analogy can be applied to the way non-science students are educated. We process a lot of raw-green students (lumber) through general science education courses (mills) that, according to student surveys, are ineffectual. In addition, many studies indicate that the general public, including college graduates, is scientifically illiterate.2 Clearly, just like raw-green lumber, the current output of general science education is low in value. This is unfortunate. Like the wood products industry, however, the educational community can modify operations to create value-added education.

Value-added education is my attempt to address this issue and also the larger issue of the relationship among science, technology, and spirituality. I believe value-added education can be an effective vehicle for expanding students' vision of God, be it in science, literature, or art classes.

I define value-added education as secular education that is in dialogue with the transcendent aspect of existence. By secular education, I mean the usual academic content taught in all disciplines. In my discipline, this includes the laws of thermodynamics and other such esoteric things. By transcendent, I mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience.

A testimonial to the fact that secular education by itself is not enough is found in discussions concerning Ex Corde Ecclesiae occurring in Catholic higher education today.3 I do not claim to know precisely what the "Catholic" part of Catholic colleges and universities is or should be. There has been much discussion about it over the years. I have nothing to add but this: Christian colleges and universities should be in the business of value-added education. Courses should encourage students to engage the discipline being studied with their personal understanding of transcendent reality. I believe that such a process expands students' vision of God by reinforcing the importance of God and his legitimate role in their world. This can perhaps most easily be done in courses such as literature, economics, sociology, history, philosophy, and psychology. In this paper, I offer my approach to value-added education in a general science education course.

In my course, I attempt to attain three goals. First, I strive to give students a basic understanding of the nature of science, its power and its limitations, and some appreciation for the physical and chemical principles that shape the material world. Second, I seek to illustrate the multifaceted relationships among science, technology and society (STS). I believe that these goals are found in secular general science education at its best. Value-added education occurs only to the extent that I am able to do justice to the first two goals and to explore the dynamic relationships between the realms of STS and transcendence (spirituality), which is my third goal.

Value-added education blurs the boundaries between disciplines and also the boundary between immanence and transcendence. It is the essence of what Thomas Merton advocated when he wrote:

There must be a renewal of communion between the traditional, contemplative disciplines and those of science, between the poet and the physicist, the priest and the depth psychologist, the monk and the politician.

In my experience, the best way to weave these boundaries together is to encourage students to make intellectual and emotional connections to the material. Since this is difficult to do in a science course, I use A Sand County Almanac both as a science book and as a way to evoke passionate feelings for nature. Only after students become impassioned are they ready to engage in the value-added approach.

Leopold's essay, "Thinking like a Mountain," solicits the most enthusiasm for discussion with my students. In it, Leopold tells how time changed his world view with respect to the importance of the role of wolves in a healthy ecosystem. He says:

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes--something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view (p. 138).

Many students are moved by this essay and want to know how Leopold could have been so cruel to the wolves. This is a wonderful opportunity to teach about world views and the variety of factors that shape them. I am convinced that the emotions raised by Leopold's story are critical in making students receptive to a world-view analysis. I continue this reasoning using Leopold's quote that opened this essay, to illustrate how STS can influence our sense of spirituality and world view. To simplify the complex, dynamic relationships among STS, our world view, and our spirituality, I use the diagram below in my classes.

In his writing, Leopold proposes the creation of a land ethic in which the land community, or ecosystem, is viewed as an extension of our society. Thus, in the initial quote, Leopold explains how his sense of awe and wonder toward nature (a part of his society) inspired him to change his spirituality and presumably change his world view. I suggest that the change from atheism to theism may result in a new world view that contains a transcendent dimension.

Leopold's experience was clearly different from that of many today. We have a serious problem with the denial of transcendence. Charles Taylor in his book, Defining Science: A Rhetoric of Demarcation, has explored this situation from a rhetorical perspective. In class I use every opportunity to point out that science and technology, in themselves, should not negatively affect our concept of transcendence. Rather, the findings of science should inform our world view and thus enrich our spirituality with new dimensions of understanding.

To illustrate how such a change can happen, I present some aspects of Leopold's life and work, showing how a field of science (ecology) can influence religion (a domain in society). In 1919, Leopold became an assistant district forester for the twenty million acres of national forest in the Southwest. At the age of thirty-two, he was in charge of operations, business organization, personnel, finance, roads and trails, and fire control. These responsibilities were not enough to occupy his creative talents. While inspecting the national forest, he simultaneously was observing, thinking, and practicing the art of "reading" the land. These efforts culminated in 1924 with the publication of a classic paper in environmental analysis of the erosion problem in the Southwest.4 Through careful observation and reasoning, he developed an interpretation that integrated soils, vegetation, topography and climate, geologic and human history, fire, and livestock grazing into a single system of interactions. Over subsequent decades, Leopold and other ecologists developed an understanding of the importance of the entire, complex, interconnected web of processes which constitute an ecosystem. In 1949 with the publication of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold incorporated his understanding of ecology when he proposed the following conservation philosophy:

A system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts (p. 251).

Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise (p. 262).

The 1960s heralded the emergence of a public environmental consciousness. Undoubtedly, A Sand County Almanac played a role. Most interestingly, this environmental consciousness influenced the Second Vatican Council, which was occurring at approximately the same time. In that Council, the Catholic Church was engaged in dialogue between her theology and various "modern" concepts, such as ecology. This resulted in a "modern" synthesis of Catholic faith. It was not until 1994, however, that the Vatican published, for the laity, a compendium of contemporary Catholic thought (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Examination of any part of its text dealing with environmental issues reveals an ecologically enlightened view of creation. It says:

339 Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. ... Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.

340 God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.

I believe this example illustrates how the science of ecology, probably promulgated by A Sand County Almanac, has influenced the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Another reason for exposing my students to A Sand County Almanac is to inoculate them against "the technological fix." In my course, the text used is Chemistry in Context (Applying Chemistry to Society) published by the American Chemical Society. The book tries to stimulate student interest by using current issues to help illustrate chemical principles. There is much coverage of environmental topics, for example, ozone depletion, acid rain, and global warming. The text does a commendable job of exploring both the physical and chemical aspects and the political complexities of these issues. A potential problem with this educational approach, however, is that it sends the following message to students: Although technology has adversely affected the environment, technology can also be used to fix the environment (technological fix). This statement, of course, is true. The problem is its accompanying message: As individuals, we do not have any personal responsibility in creating environmental problems nor in finding their solutions.

In Leopold's view, the root cause of all environmental problems lies in our individual relationship with the natural world (which he refers to collectively as "land"). He states:

The problem, then, is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness. This is the problem of "conservation education" (p. 210).

The nature of the disharmony between people and land is illuminated in the Foreward to A Sand County Almanac. Leopold says:

Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.

Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free (p. xix).

I believe Leopold was correct in asserting that "a shift of values" is necessary to effectively counter materialism and minimize environmental problems. However, it is impossible to intelligently explore the topic of "values," without first intellectually examining the transcendent realm of reality. I believe that Leopold had it correct when he said:

No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions (p. 246).

I believe that to date Leopold's questions remain largely unanswered. Namely, what values should be shifted or added, and, most importantly, how can these values be lived? I believe healthy spirituality is the only way to correct and sustain a value system that is beneficial toward us, our community, and the environment. Healthy spirituality can promote the use of the fruits of science and technology to better serve these ends.

In summary, I have tried to illustrate the essence of value-added general science education. Value-added education can be effective only when students become passionate about the subject material. I have found Leopold's A Sand County Almanac to be a fertile work for facilitating an emotional connection between the world of technical ideas and the world of the heart, which is the realm of spirituality. I am convinced that Leopold's masterpiece can be used successfully in other courses, and encourage my colleagues to consider its use. To be most effective, the transcendent theme of value-added education should reverberate through all general education courses at Christian colleges and universities. Although I spend only about 20 percent of my class time directed at value-added education, I believe it profoundly changes some students' appreciation and understanding of the other 80 percent of the course content. Value-added education enriches the course material and makes it more meaningful.

Our world is in desperate need of citizens who have learned how to live peacefully with themselves, their neighbors, and the environment. It is my belief that value-added education can help us live more holistically and make a better world for our children. Leopold notes:

I have congenital hunting fever and three sons. As little tots, they spent their time playing with my decoys and scouring vacant lots with wooden guns. I hope to leave them good health, an education, and possibly even a competence. But what are they going to do with these if there are no more deer in the hills, and no more quail in the coverts? No more snipe whistling in the meadow, no more piping of widgeons and chattering of teal as darkness covers the marsh; no more whistling of swift wings when the morning star pales in the east? And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods, and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sandbars-- what if there be no more goose music? (p. 233).



1Unless noted otherwise all Leopold quotes are from Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970).

2For instance, see Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. A review of undergraduate education by the advisory committee to National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, NSF 96-139, 1996.

3Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) is Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. The document is an attempt by the Vatican to strengthen the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities. The text can be found in Origins 20:17 (1990): 266-76.

4Aldo Leopold, "Grass, Brush, Timber, and Fire in Southern Arizona," Journal of Forestry 22:6 (1924): 1-10.