Editors’ Note: In the following essay, Dr. James Wanliss considers how Christian parents can encourage a love of science in their children, for the glory of God
First Published in Reformation 21: The Online Magazine of the Alliance of Confession Evangelicals
As young boys among friends we would flit like tiny birds from one inquisitive hobby to another. For a time it was tadpoles, then various bugs, later egg-eating snakes. One day it was silkworms. I do not recall who first had them; it was not me. But my friend shared with me a few worms. It does not take much to excite a child, their eyes fill with wonder as they gaze each day on a world opening like a flower before the sunny curiosity of their minds.
Silkworms have soft, white backs that are a pleasure to touch. I recall feeling how I needed to refrain for fear that my tender attentions would polish their skin right off. My silkworms were tenaciously devoted to one thing alone: to eat. Their concentration was formidable, their appetite voracious. Nothing could deter them from their gastronomic obsession. We fed them various foods, settling on leaves of mulberry and beet plants for a regular diet to swell their fat little backs. The former resulted in the worms spinning thread golden as the ray of noon sunlight, the latter in shades of dusky sunset. They were beautiful.
Why were they such avid eaters? What could motivate them to such culinary heroics? They ate for a purpose. But the purpose was not their own. Made unreasoning creatures, not merely unwilling but unable to rise to the dignity of argument, they ate from compulsion. They ate because God produced in them this gluttonous instinct.
And then, suddenly, without warning, they grew quiet and sluggish, mastered by some new urge. Marshaling all its energy – the worm knew not why – for the trial, it waited some secret signal then acted without hesitation, building its cocoon with the same enthusiastic effort it had before applied to its nutrition. It is not for worms to wonder, but for humans.
The healthy child feels a near insatiable urge to know.
Sometimes adults need reminders to look up. A colleague of mine was raised in a culture mad about education. She loved to please her parents, who drove her relentlessly to rise early and sleep late for the sake of a good education and a promising future. In spite of this she came, in time, to love learning.
In this fallen world, every good thing can be twisted in ugly ways, like fingers bursting with arthritis. In Eden the Devil exploited Eve’s beautifully curious nature, dangerously warping it. Instead of skipping like a stone, leaping safely above treacherous waters, staying in daylight and truth, her imagination careered suddenly to dive down into deep darkness, entombed in an abyss-like search for illegitimate knowledge. Imagination and curiosity are good, but can be twisted to excuse all manner of sin.
One day, as my colleague spoke with a friend, she accidentally stepped in a puddle of water. As her shoe splashed and grew wet the two friends cackled and jumped at the surprise. Silver water drops, which for a moment hung in the air, were not nearly as high or brilliant as the sparkling voices of the girls.
Looking down, then past her damp foot, her eyes opened wide in astonishment, she grabbed her friend’s hand and squeezed hard. “They’re moving,” she cried, her voice shaking with the glory and wonder. There, in the now still puddle, she saw reflected the high clouds.
Her friend laughed in disbelief. Could one really live eleven years in this world and never realize that clouds move? Remarkably, yes. Sometimes we become so focused on something, that we fail to look up. For her it was book learning that devoured every attention. Learning simply for the sake of learning is like eating simply for the sake of eating, to satisfy an urge, like a worm. A spiritual being should never live like this. While the world pushes, ebbs, and flows, how quietly the green grass grows.
…she saw something new and startling about her world.
All parents take delight in feeding to their children new and beautiful experiences. They all know the pleasure of seeing their child learn something for the first time, the overflowing joy, wonder, and enthusiasm awakened by the unexpected. We might take them to see athletes race like chariots of fire before the wind, feed them their first ice-cream, witness their first wobbly step, or their first frantic solo doggy-paddle. “Watch me, daddy!” These words make my heart sing with pure delight when my daughter cries them out to the heavens, high and unashamed.
We take delight in their delight, a tender echo of how Christians love because Christ first loves them. Here is a second aspect of human nature that we need to encourage in our children – the ability to take pleasure in, to be amazed by, the surprising, the unexpected, and the beautiful. If we wish our children to delight to learn about God’s creation, then we must practice to exploit these God-given appetites. We must delight them with the wonders of Creation.
Unlike clouds, or even worms, human beings are capable of rising to high argument. Our minds are made to know. This single fact tells us that truth exists. For a world without truth, one in which there is at best a shifting standard of ‘truth’, necessarily is a world without a fixed standard of morals.
But the universe is a world of truth. God has revealed a permanent standard (Psalm 19:7; 119:160), a key to that truth – His Law. There cannot be truth without Law. His Law, being perfect, allows us to learn of His own eternal, unchanging, nature. And that Law is reflected in everything God does as He upholds this world by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). The burden of carrying this fallen world is great. Yet, because His love bears it, for us life under Heaven need not be grievous; love feels no loads (1 John 5:3).
God’s first creature was light, the sense of whose warming the first worm felt, invigorating it to deeds of glory and food. God’s last creature – man – He gave over to another light, the light of reason settling the work of six days. In our hearts, as Romans 1 shows, each human has engraved a law which teaches, by all that we sense and feel, that the Author of truth, is close to each one of us. As it is written,
“For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Psalm 36:9).
Because God is a God of light and truth, each human being, made in His image, knows the warmth of light and truth. Light is then not merely photons falling on retinas, but part of a complex spiritual linkage in which we exercise our reason to make sense of the world, a world that reveals God’s eternal power and Godhead (Romans 1:20). The silkworm has what one might call a will to eat. Humans have what one might call the will to truth, that drives innate human curiosity and delight in knowledge.
Curiosity killed the cat, and not a few children. A healthy newborn child almost immediately interacts with its world, exploring and experimenting. It overflows with impulses of curiosity, surprise, and delight. And why? It is because God engraves a law on the heart of even the youngest child. Every human being, though to greater and lesser degrees in this fallen world, remains bound by the eternal law which is the love of truth.
God impels each one of us, young or old, Christian or not, to yearn for truth. Scripture urges us to buy the truth, to treasure it above precious silver and gold. The reason is simple. It is because Jesus is the Truth, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and the Father is the God of truth. Satan is the Father of lies, Lord of Flies and ugliness.
In teaching our children it is therefore incumbent that we constantly turn again and again to remind them that one of the great purposes of education is to aim for truth. Our impulses to curiosity, our need and ability to be amazed, must be moderated by the habit of truth seeking.
What is truth but the expression of the beauty of God? Almighty God is exalted chiefly by His divine beauty, that in which, according to Jonathan Edwards,
“the truest idea of divinity does consist.” (1)
There is nothing more ugly and vile than a lie, because the lie is a revolt against God. Also, there is nothing more lovely and handsome than truth. Truth is very good. In Eden, before the fall into sin, humans knew and delighted in divine beauty, reflected in the nature of all things, but especially in their own nature. In Eden, God cast His infinite gaze on His works, and declared them very good. Today, even amid a world warped by human sin and perversion, a world groaning beneath a curse, there remains in most things some irresistible inclination to beauty. Lies, hatefulness, and sin claim the devotion of very little. Of all God’s creatures, it is alone the fallen angels and humans that delight in evil.
Philosopher physicist, Blaise Pascal, wrote,
“Christianity is strange. It orders man to acknowledge that he is evil, even abominable. Yet it also bids him to desire to be like God.” (2)
Each human experiences this desire, we feel it poignantly, painfully, we hunger and hunger and thirst for it.
Even in the depths of sin we cannot escape the desire for God, the yearning to true beauty. The rich man does not pile up disgusting dung, but surrounds himself with handsome barns, and other riches, hedges, he thinks – things on which he can finally rest to find the safety and peace for which he longs. He seeks to be rocked tenderly in the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27). But the desperate craving he feels is not satisfied. He never has enough.
The glutton hungers not for tasteless food, but for that which exceeds in beauty and pleasure the flavors and textures of the past. The one with eyes full of adultery seeks not pain, but pleasure. Hunger is never satisfied. Instead, like the prodigal son, they degenerate until they find themselves scrabbling in the mud with the pigs, fighting for the dregs of feelings that they once enjoyed at will, and with clear conscience.
This yearning to loveliness in every human heart is precisely their desiring God.
If we, like worms, become fixated on the world in which we live, feasting on untold pleasures, yet never looking up, we miss the point God gave those pleasures. We become like the child who delights in the wrapping paper, rather than the exquisite gift. Or like the child so distracted by the pleasure of receiving and enjoying the gift that her love for the giver suffers neglect. We become like the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well, always climbing to slake her thirst, drinking much yet ever thirsty, always with a man for her pleasure, yet never with a husband to satisfy her love.
Many streams in Dan, in northern Israel, rumble rapidly over strong smooth foundations of hard, liquid polished rock, their brilliant, icy waters eventually plunging into the river Jordan. These streams seem to cascade everywhere, feeding lush tall trees that shade the wonderland. As a physicist, a natural scientist, though limited in my research to existing phenomena, I am palpably aware that God inscribes grandeur on everything examined.
The search to explore this grand creation is the subject of science. Though perhaps not as sparkling as the racing waters of Dan, streams of science flow at our feet. Like our sight, they may not be crystal clear, yet their loveliness is transparent enough to make humanity inexcusable before the Creator (Romans 1:20).”The heavens declare the glory of God;” says God’s Word (Psalm 19:1-3), “and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.”
Thus Scripture explains why we might weep for joy at a sunset, be moved beyond words by blackbirds trading tremulous riffs among the cattails, or be stirred to the core of our being by looking into the eyes of a child. These all speak the original language of our hearts, and the hearts of our children. Science is the attempt to put down their voice in words and equations. I do not consider that science is quite thinking God’s thoughts after Him. For that we have the very Word of God (2 Timothy 3:15,16; Hebrews 1:1-3). But science may be more our try to sing along the notes of the beautiful melody by which He colors and orders the world. Should we not encourage our children to enjoy this beauty, which they so keenly feel?
There is a chair at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. On it lays an inscription with the following words, set there at the behest of Sir William Hamilton: “The greatest thing in the world is man; and the greatest thing in man is mind.” With such warm and true praise a sinful and proud man might become puffed up like an iguana displaying itself before the blazing sun. In seeking to know, in pursuing science, thoughtful, Biblical, balance is a definite need.
The word science stems from the Latin “scire” meaning ‘to know’. That means every human has the capacity for staggering scientific genius, for we are made to know. In encouraging our children to develop their talents we need to remember, contrary to the self-esteem movement, that humans are inveterately prideful, and science is notorious for perfecting such pride. Scripture puts it like this: “Knowledge puffeth up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Since Eve we all think we know better. Children take after parents.
Unfortunately, humility is distinctly absent in much of what is advertised as science. Many Christians are understandably revolted by the public pride and blasphemy of countless scientists, the intolerable arrogance, and would not want their children to end up like that. Each show in the government funded TV series ‘Cosmos’ began with this insulting aphorism: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” (3) This deeply religious statement, the spirit of which is exceedingly common, is a mockery of the truth (Revelation 1:8), deifies the cosmos and arrogates to scientists omniscience, which is the prerogative of God alone.
Pride is ugly, repulsive. It reeks of hell. Many Christians react to what is mistakenly advertised as science by turning away from science. This is a mistake. It is no coincidence, and a shame, that many colleges of Christian persuasion do not have physics, the most exact of the sciences, available as a program of study. Hostility, even ambivalence, as if the physical sciences are without positive value, is not a good position from which to seek to instill in our children a love of science. Ironically, biology is popular in Christian colleges, yet the theory of evolution, not strictly a science, but a religion, dominates the worldview of modern biology. And whether rightly or no, evolution is equated with science.
. . .the pursuit of science is a pursuit of God
Of course, the worldly vision of science enormously complicates this task. Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin caters to the flesh when he explains how the love of science comes from the love to exercise our power. He says,
“It is not the truth which makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth.” (4)
Never, says Christ, who is the Truth, is this the case. To the contrary, He says in John 8:32,
“The truth shall make you free.”
Lewontin, among many others, serves as an example of how our sinful nature necessitates that we pursue science on our knees.
Some seek science as an exercise of their pride and power, building Towers of Babel to proclaim their greatness. Others love opinions rather than truth, taking pleasure in pageant and the applause of men. Others love talking. For them, science is a helpful foil on which to display their intelligence. Others just want a job in a well-paying field. Still others, like Lewontin, try to use science to mock God and urge deranged dogmas. Whatever the reason, parents need to be aware that mere diligence and patience in study is not enough. If our children are motivated to study parents should pray they do so, or will come to do so, for the sake of love.
Every child has the capacity to pursue science, and to love doing so. Yet all have not the same aptitude. Some, as Jesus said, have many talents, some have few, but all have enough intellectual riches to appreciate the purpose of science, which is to know and glorify God.
How may Christian parents encourage in their children a love of science? Perhaps by now it is clear that this is difficult to answer by means of a program or five step plan. Learning and love are not buttons to press for an automated outcome.
Even young men grow weary, and even an apostle Paul struggled with the fragility of life; how like a vapor we are. We are not so naïve to misunderstand an often unbearably exhausting world, filled with outrageous slings and arrows, and a thousand shocks. We feel, if we are honest, keenly the madness, seas of troubles, heart-ache, and struggles of life. We work, by the sweat of our brow. Children, though they have yet to learn the anguish of power, the dull emptiness of pleasure, and the vanity of riches, know the struggle to love the good.
Children would play all day unless forced to study. This is why God reminds their guardians, to train them up (Proverbs 22:6), to spare not the rod (Proverbs 13:24). Discipline is necessary training, but godly morals can no more grow nor root earthwards and bear fruit upwards while darkness shrouds the heart, than the rose of Sharon can flourish in beauty without the rays of the sun.
Some encourage children to the discipline of study by threats of future poverty. Some appeal to their vanity, have them stand before crowds to applaud their brilliance, or show science as a way to power, self-knowledge, and realization of human potential. Some appeal to the constant novelty of science, a way to have curiosity satisfied. We might show how their study could help others.
Whatever the secondary motives, we might encourage them to linger and rejoice in light, take them higher, to a place where blind men see. While in this world of grief and sin, there is much that humans have lost. We are cursed to die, made to see in our natures the struggle for beauty, knowing that God brings vengeance on those who believe him not when he tells the truth. But, like the tender shoot or pale worm breaking bonds of mire and dirt, encouraged up by the gentle rays of God’s love, human beings may have again the dignity of entering in God’s own life by repeating his beauty in time and space. All Creation, of which we are the masterpiece, is a mirror reflecting again and again the rays of his love.”But ask now the beasts,” God advises, “and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee” (Job 12:7,8).
My daughter Grace dashed inside today, her eyes flashing. She was amazed to find a tiny bird, its nest and four eggs, resting on our gravel driveway. It feigned injury as she approached it, limping away with one wing dragging, hoping to lure Grace from the eggs by the prospect of an easy meal. Later in the day it rained and thundered mightily, and yet the bird remained faithfully shielding the eggs. In the morning its place glittered with pearls of dew.
Grace was fascinated in so many ways. She saw in the bird a kind of faithfulness, courage, and devotion, which not only aroused her curiosity, but a transcendent sense of justice and love. She studied and soon gave me the name, behavior, and other characteristics of the fowl. It was a Killdeer, a tiny plover. To promote the love of science in wholesome avenues I used this experience to encourage Grace to read deeper, and explore further. She did so willingly, glad for the vistas opened to her imagination by concentrated study and book learning, finding intense pleasure in knowing more of the beauty of the Creation discovered by others.
The book was not the point, not for Grace. As C.S. Lewis wrote, in ‘The Weight of Glory’,
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (5)
I have no doubt that God’s purpose with the Killdeer is to show us the captivating beauty of Himself, who so much more cherishes and protects His church, which to Him is altogether lovely. He wants to captivate us by the exquisite lily of the valley, the rose of Sharon (Song 2:1), which is Christ. The preacher declares (Ecclesiastes 3:11),
“He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.”
God made the world which is still a great mystery to us – scientists hardly understand the nature of light and matter. He made it for observation and investigation. By exercising our children’s minds through opportunities to learn about and interact with the world, we point them to a great gift. Each fold and wrinkle in the gift-wrap reveals more and greater reason to delight in the Lord. The Creator peculiarly designs each new pleasure to awaken within us, to intensify, the hunger and thirst for Him, to long to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9).
Aptitude, discipline, diligence, and patience are necessary for the mastery of some or other department of science. Certain secondary reasons are valid for pursuing science. But the supreme goal should be a pressing on toward God, a genuine curiosity to see what is true. That is what it means to love science. It is the pure and sacred love of knowledge, and then, chiefly, love for the heavenly author of all truth.
God has given to us a world to contemplate, to examine, in which to discern and perceive His beauty. Heaven is a world of love, and beauty. It banishes deformity. Like silkworms, which eat to become exquisite butterflies, we – adult and child alike – partake of this life to become something different. We stretch forward.
Dr. James Wanliss (sounds like One-liss) is a senior fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and author and speaker for Apologia Educational Ministries. He speaks and writes on the application of the Biblical worldview to science, education, government, and environmental policy. He has published the book Resisting the Green Dragon, and over 48 peer reviewed scientific papers in various areas of space physics, in psychology and medical areas, and in popular Christian journals. He has served as a ruling elder in the Free Church of Scotland.
Dr. Wanliss is the recipient of several awards and honors, notably an NSF CAREER award. His research work has been almost entirely supported by NASA, and the NSF. Dr. Wanliss is Associate Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College.
1. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, Religious Affections, (ed.) John E. Smith, Yale University Press, 2009, p. 298.
2. Blaise Pascal, “Christian Morality,” in Mind on Fire, (ed.) James M. Houston, Regent College Publishing, 2003, p. 219.
3. Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Random House, 1980, p. 4.
4. The quotation is from Richard Lewontin’s review of Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, which appeared in The New York Review of Books. The review was also published in The Australian of 12 March 1997.
5. C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”, in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, London: Collins, 1965, pp. 97-98.