Since the beginning of The Colossian Forum (TCF), we’ve used the conflict between faith and science as an opportunity for virtue formation in the midst of often-heated debate. In Christian schools, this debate takes on added emotional intensity because biblical reliability, historical reality, and human value seem to be in question. It is easier to avoid these pressured conversations altogether or charge into them, guns blazing. Much is at stake when believers engage science in either of these unproductive ways. That is why TCF, along with the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning, launched the Faith and Science Teaching (FAST) Project, which focuses on the productive relationships found at the intersection of faith and science rather than on the polarization that often occurs in Christian schools and faith communities.
Faith and Science Teaching (FAST)
According to project co-lead and director of Kuyers Institute, David Smith: “Teaching FASTly means allowing both faith and science to remain in play, each with its own integrity, neither canceling out the other” (CEJ, 5). Such an approach expands the conversation, allowing other interesting and fruitful questions to be explored, such as:
- What are the character qualities needed to be a good scientist, a good colleague, and a good learner?
- What virtues are involved in doing careful lab work, in measuring and writing accurately, in observing well, and in thinking rigorously?
- Are any of these related to Christian virtues? If so, how do we grow in them?
- What about collaboration? Since professional science is usually practiced in teams, what virtues are needed for collaboration and how might we teach them?
- How much time is given in school to considering ethical issues that arise from scientific practices? How about the impact of science and technology on society?
- How do applied science and technology fit into faith-framed visions of human flourishing and love of neighbor?
- Is there anything about how science is taught that leads students to beauty, wonder, and gratitude, rather than just task completion, deadlines, and grades?
- What kind of relationship between the Bible and science do we implicitly model in the classroom?
Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the FAST Project produced a website that offers free faith and science teaching resources, to equip high school teachers to broaden the faith-science conversations beyond Genesis. It guides teachers in the many ways to look at how faith and science intersect.
Considering the Intersections of Faith and Science
Most often we relate to the intersections of faith and science according to the truth claims each makes about the world and whether the claims conflict or are in harmony. When these claims align, we celebrate the wonders of God’s creative work and our human capacity to explore and understand it. When they don’t seemingly align, Christians often begin from the conviction that since God is the Creator, faith and science cannot, ultimately, conflict. Therefore, any current disputes between the two must be due to human error and sin.
This approach encourages a tendency to think that faith and science only interact when they make conflicting claims. It also offers us little remedy for the error or sin that is causing disharmony and provides little help for relating to non-Christians who reject Christianity because it seems to conflict with science. Relating faith and science based on their truth claims is of obvious importance, but there is a larger context that must be considered if we are to do justice to either faith or science, for both are more than sets of propositions about the world.
As Christians, our primary calling is to love God and our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40), and science is one of the many arenas in which we have the opportunity to live this out. Thinking FASTly means relating faith and science not only according to their truth claims, but also as a way of practicing the virtues called for in these “greatest commandments.” The concept of virtue is a rich area to explore. We often think of virtues as moral traits, like humility, patience, or courage. But the term virtue, in its broadest sense, refers more generally to capacities or abilities acquired through repeated practice to accomplish a particular goal. Considering virtue forces us to also think about practices and our motivations.
For example, if we desire the virtue of humility we must repeatedly practice accepting the limits of our abilities and how easily we can be wrong. If we desire the virtue of patience, we must practice responding to situations where we do not immediately get what we want. These virtues demand discipline, which we submit to because we realize the result will help us to more fully love God and others.
Science is the discipline in which we practice certain activities as a part of a scientific community. Distinctly scientific practices include observation, making hypotheses, making predictions based on those hypotheses, and running experiments to see if those predictions hold. Scientists then share their work with the world, submitting it for peer review to see if it stands up to scrutiny. These practices have the potential to cultivate the virtues of objectivity, attentiveness, honesty, and humble receptivity to the world. The necessity of collaborating with others in scientific work provides opportunity for practicing the virtues needed for relationships that display service, care, and respect for others. These practices, when motivated by love of God and love of neighbor, have the potential to develop virtues that empower humans to live well together in the world God has created as well as to love God, neighbor, and creation more deeply.
Teaching FASTly means not settling for thinking about the relationship between faith and science as just a series of arguments about what is true. It means being explicit about how we shape the practices of science and science education and how they shape us, about the virtues cultivated through those practices, and about the goals those practices and virtues are oriented toward. What practices should we adopt to cultivate the virtues we need to teach science with the goal of loving God and neighbor? Raising questions such as these opens up a host of interactions between faith and science rarely explored, yet pregnant with possibility.
What’s at Stake?
The rate of scientific and technological change is now exponential, ushering us into truly uncharted territory. According to scientist Darrel Falk in his article, “Science and the Christian Faith in the 21st Century,” in the last fifty years “knowledge in biology as a discipline has taken us way beyond anything we could have dreamed. We have decoded all three billion bits required for the emergence of the human body from a single fertilized egg, and through new gene editing technology, anyone with very little training can alter the code of life. Synthetic biologists are able to construct cells with a new genetic code, allowing the production of engineered proteins, which contain never-before-used building blocks, to make new machines geared toward particular highly specific tasks. As neuroscientists map connections in the human brain, we are on the cusp of being able to manipulate its inner signals to change behavior and even personality. In fifty years, we have moved from discovery of the code to rewriting it” (CEJ, 7).
Advances in science and technology are enormously helpful in eliminating human suffering brought about by disease and inherited disorders. As Christ followers, we are called to participate with Him in healing illness and bringing wholeness to diminished and broken lives. Yet, these advances can be a double-edged sword, opening up a potential Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. Decoding the genome unleashes technological options aimed at much more than relieving human suffering. Options available for those who can afford it (e.g., genetically enhanced children) as well as for those with nefarious intent.
As the lines are blurred between human and artificial intelligence, the question of what it means to be human becomes immensely important. Who should be leading the way in grappling with these critical questions? How can truth shine coherently and winsomely into deeply complex and murky ethical issues? According to Falk, “If there ever was a need for young people whose lives are centered in Jesus to be moving into careers in science, it is today.” The arguments of the world are persuasive, yet the power of the resurrection brings Christ’s redemptive work into every facet of culture—including bioethics. Now, as we witness the exponential advances in science—accelerated by technology—we as Christians are called to eloquently articulate and embody what it means to be human; thus, to be image bearers of God.
Looking to the Christian School
Christian schools, as an extension of the church, not only have the privilege of teaching science within the expansive context of faith, they have the responsibility—even the mandate—to do so. Scriptural authority is acknowledged. The Holy Spirit is invoked in the learning process. And the created world brims with meaning because the Creator is worshipped. Clearly, Christian schools should pursue excellence in science education by procuring adequate funding and staffing to teach mathematics, science, and technology. STEM programs provide students with a launch pad for success in the post-secondary training required to excel in chosen vocations. Yet, motivation for establishing a competitive STEM program must extend beyond the pragmatic need to keep pace with other schools. Our motivation for excellence derives from the truth that Christ is the creator and sustainer of the universe—of all that can be known and learned. Because of their Christ-centered mission, Christian schools are intrinsically motivated to prepare students for a life of service and stewardship.
Christian school chemistry teacher and teachFASTly.com content contributor Brian Polk asserts that “teaching at a Christian school, and teaching Christianly are not necessarily the same thing. Put another way, Christian curriculum does not guarantee Christian pedagogy” (CEJ, 13). Recognizing this challenge, the FAST Project reflects a pedagogy that approaches students as whole people with beliefs, commitments, motives, callings, virtues, vices, and relationships—not just as recipients of knowledge. It creates a space in which teachers and students are invited to engage a variety of issues—including the big questions—in ways that encourage the very best teaching and learning practices within the context of Christian faithfulness.
Over 180 teaching activities along with training materials, book reviews, resources for school community conversations, and advice on teaching strategies are available on teachFASTly.com. The FAST activity maps provide learning resources from topics such as Bible, biology, chemistry, ecology, and physics. It’s encouraging to hear responses as teachers engage with this resource. One STEM teacher from Vermont recently wrote that she “has been inspired to teach science to my students joyfully and proactively, not in a defensive manner (often the tone of the textbooks we have).” Additionally, a recently added section of the website provides resources to assist school leaders and teachers in hosting faith and science forums within their school communities. Like all FAST activities, these new materials are free and do not require sign-up or registration to download and use.
Our mission at The Colossian Forum is to equip leaders to transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness. TeachFASTly.com, as an extension of our mission, demonstrates how the Christian school science classroom can become a remarkable occasion for student discipleship and faithfulness. When a “faith or science” posture becomes a “faith and science” posture, doors and windows are thrown open. Now, cultivating able thinkers practiced in Christian virtues and empowered by God’s Spirit seems possible.
Christian Educators Journal (CEJ), Vol. 57, No. 1, Oct. 2017.
About the Author
Michael Gulker is President of The Colossian Forum. He has a long-standing interest in the often-contentious intersection of faith and culture and how both thrive best when rooted in worship. Michael has, during his six years leading The Colossian Forum, become a leader turning conflict into opportunity for both deeper discipleship and more beautiful witness. A native of West Michigan, he studied philosophy and theology at Calvin College, has a divinity degree from Duke Divinity School, and is an ordained Mennonite pastor. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.