The Creator’s Canvas: How should Christian science teachers approach controversial issues?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

In my class I try to present every view in the strongest way possible and provide critiques from opposing views. When my students are debating between themselves whether or not I am a YEC or an evolutionary creationist, then I know I have done my job well.


So here is a question to consider:

How much should a science teacher model for her/his students an ability to reach and even defend a conclusion (even while it is still held tentatively) vs. an ability to remain open on live issues?

I totally hear you on taking satisfaction that your students have trouble nailing down your stand on issues. There can be a lot of reasons for that – some of them good ones. Even after decades of teaching experience I still have to chastise myself with embarrassing regularity about tipping my own hand too soon, and thus possibly depriving myself of learning what a student (or conversation partner generally) really thinks. Someone may be entertaining certain thoughts, but after they realize where I am, they might be inclined to keep their opinion under wraps. And how much truer does that become if it is an unequal student/teacher relationship where the teacher carries the power of the gradebook. (And it matters not at all how ‘benevolent’ a teacher may insist they are or actually be about not penalizing those who disagree - the pressure is still there anyway.)

To go to a bit of a rhetorical extreme to drive home a point, I presume that no teacher would let a situation remain standing for long where it was in doubt as to whether they were a flat-earther or not. Sure, we may play-act for fun to explore with a class how evidence can be gathered, considered, and used. But I’d wager most of us would go on to reach a public conclusion that evidence has been in for a long time that the earth is not flat. (Or at least we would probably not let any publicly expressed contrarian notions about that remain undisturbed.) And would we be doing a disservice to our students if we model or encourage defense of such conclusions, rather than allowing it to be seen as an open issue?

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Interesting question. How much should a science teacher model for her/his students an ability to reach and even defend a conclusion (even while it is still held tentatively) vs. an ability to remain open on live issues?

In my context I have representatives of 90 different churches ranging from Catholic and Anglican to non-denominational to Pentecostal. I have had families that are strongly YEC and strongly evolutionary creation. In that context my goal is to help students have better, more informed conversations with each other. My goal is also to broaden the types and depths of questions that are involved in this ongoing conversation between science and faith.

Many of the big questions that play a role in this conversation are ones that should take a good long time to ponder e.g. how does God speak to us through Scripture? What is God’s relationship with his creation? what is the nature of the physical world God has made? Is mechanism the only thing functioning within God’s creation? Christians today and throughout history have answered these questions differently if they have thought about them at all, but whether they have or not they all have answers to them and answer other questions accordingly. I cannot provide answers to all of these for my students, but I can help them understand how Christians have answered them and how different answers lead to different conclusions about the integration of science and faith.

Maybe this is contentious, but I don’t intend to be, but I also try to make my students a bit skeptical about phrases like “settled science.” For example, at the end of the 19th century people thought that they knew pretty much all that needed to be known with the exception of how the earth moved through the ether and this strange jumping of values in electrons. Well now we have relativity and quantum mechanics. Mendel figured out there are factors called genes that are separate from an organisms’ traits. Neo-Darwinian synthesis combines Mendel’s ideas with Darwin and the race was on to figure out what these genes are. Genes became sections of DNA that code for proteins, and there must be 100,000 such strands. Well no, sometimes they are sections of DNA that code for proteins, but maybe they are also part of control regions; oh, and now from human genome project there are 25,000 ish. Oh, and now the genes can’t be all that; there is epigenetics. . . . The concept I try to paint for my students is that there is mystery in truth. Truth does not exclude mystery. The deeper we go into understanding things about God’s creation, the more we can learn, and yet there will always be more to learn. Why? Because an infinite God has made a finite creation, so that finite creation has got to be pretty darn amazing, yet not fully comprehensible, as God himself is not fully comprehensible.

Here is one long (sorry for that) example of trying to push my students to be still and think about things bigger than themselves, questions that may not have complete answers. Students should never fear going into science in order to study God’s creation, but they should have sensitive ears for the philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions that scientists/people bring to the issues before us.

So I think in saying all of this I am saying that I don’t model so much reaching and defending a conclusion as much as trying to uncover hidden presuppositions people bring to big questions and use in their reaching and defending a conclusion. I don’t think I over problematize, but in my experience I keep students between the two guard rails of not losing faith over issues of science and being able to see through simplistic arguments.


@rkandreasen If you’d like info on piloting some units from Integrate, the biology supplement BioLogos is developing, get in touch with @Kathryn_Applegate. She is looking for teachers who could give feedback and it sounds like the material would be right in line with what you are already doing. Introducing BioLogos Integrate - Post - BioLogos

I suggest that there should be a distinction made between “science being settled” and “something being settled by science”. The former, perhaps being exemplified by the late 19th-century attitude you mention that most important discoveries had already been made and all that was left was a bit of custodial tweaking of the constants. They were obviously wrong, and as we know with fair certainty now science will never be “settled” in any such way in our lifetimes if ever.

But the second notion carries a stronger argument with it which is (and actually has been!) neglected at our peril: that a particular issue can never be regarded as “settled by science”. If we are unable to even so much as acknowledge that the “round earth” person is much less wrong than the “flat-earth” person was, then we have thrown open the doors to all sorts of fake realities that indeed thrive today (climate change denial? Faked moon landings? …) All sorts of stuff then clogs up any progress we might hope to make since we can never move on beyond discredited opinions. This isn’t me arguing that you would appear to doing any of these negative things. This is just me pursuing your comment that when students don’t know where you are on an issue, then you feel you’ve done your job. I do agree that in your context, long-term impartiality is important. And that thought provoked for me the question of how far such impartiality should be willing to go in science classrooms before it should give way (if ever) to anything even more important.

I’m guessing that you already model quite well how to remain impartial, open, and holding all conclusions tentatively (even if not equally).

Okay, I see what you are saying. Not all ideas are equally good ones or worthy of being entertained. I have never had a flat-earth argument in my class so I guess I missed the distinction you are trying to make. I have been straining my memory for something like what you are talking about (since no flat-earther has been in my classroom) but I do remember a conversation about a student thinking it would be a good idea to make little parkas for earthworms in the winter. Several students thought that would be a good idea to keep them warm (ironically of course none of them can sew). I did use that as an opportunity to talk about metabolism, endothermy and ectothermy, etc. At the end they realized that it would not be such a ‘hot’ idea.

One of the big ideas for me that I wrestle with (and try to introduce to my students) is the overall mechanical philosophy that is the underlying assumption for all positions relating science and faith. What if mechanism is a true but incomplete way of understanding the reality God has made? Francis Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Descartes all started the scientific revolution after most natural philosophers had become nominalists (13th century - 14th century debate over the existence of formal and final causes). What if nominalism is incorrect? It is interesting to me how scientists like J. Scott Turner can write a book “Purpose and Desire” trying to mechanically explain the obvious, that living things act with purpose and desire when such a thing was explained by the ancients for centuries by the existence of final cause. What is the cause of all the parts of a frog making the frog one frog? Its final cause, according to the ancients (pre-scientific revolution). These are the big questions and issues that fascinate me. I don’t pay attention to discussions about the earth being flat.

Thanks. I know Kathryn from the first BioLogos conference. She is a real nice lady. I will check it out.

Nor was I ever suggesting otherwise. It was a rhetorical extreme to help illuminate a point.

And that point, to be much more literal about it is that most scientific thinkers see age-of-earth and common descent issues in just exactly that same kind of settled light. [edited to remove a lot of fluff. Maybe didn’t get it all :wink:]. But I will cease and desist since my “flashlight” became the new featured distraction in and of itself rather than the object I was trying to illuminate with it.

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