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(Nov.1994) The commitment to maintaining the ethos of a Church School when delivering the Science Curriculum

It is often thought that Science and Religion are at odds with each other. It appears that the more we find out about the workings of the atom, the processes of evolution, causes of earthquakes, the very structures of life itself, the less room there is for God. He is no longer 'up there'. 'Acts of God', that is to say hurricanes, floods, thunderbolts and other natural phenomena have been explained away. There are even convincing scientific theories for the parting of the Red Sea.

But although Science can explain how life is sustained by breathing oxygen and digesting compatible food materials, it cannot explain the vitality, the spirit of life, the sense of worth that we all need to feel if we are to realise our potential as people; people, that is, not just bodies. Science can begin to answer 'How?', or 'What?' but is not so hot on 'Why?'. The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy refers to it as 'The Meaning of Life.' and evaluates it as 42, before forgetting exactly what the question was.

In a Church school we are brought very closely into contact with this debate. Helped by our own faith in Jesus our primary aim is to develop, educate and motivate children, in the words of your prospectus, 'to make the most of his or her world'. In this we must bear in mind the whole child. That is, Body, Mind and Spirit.

A Science curriculum without an accompanying moral or religious input will in effect deprive the child of the opportunity to develop a balanced emotional or spiritual response to life. When faced with real challenges to faith or existence, it is not really helpful to consider life as a series of electrical connections or chemical reactions. On the contrary this in my view would inevitably lead to hopelessness and despair.

On the other hand, to neglect Science would do no justice to the faith we are hoping to encourage. A child's natural urge is to find out about the world in which we live. The effect of a programme of religious education without grounding in reality would be that the status of God would soon be relegated to the level of F.C. or the T.F., benevolent but fictitious. John Habgood, writing in 1964, talks about the process of making sense of the world.

Scientific understanding has an important part to play in this process, because religion is always in danger of degenerating into fancifulness, and grasping its satisfactions too cheaply.

But scientific understanding by itself is only half the story. George Carey, in an address given at York Minster, 1987, puts it this way.

The essence of Anglicanism is that the basis of our authority is located within the nexus of three sources - Bible, Church and reason.

So although religion and science have been in conflict many times in history they are in my view complementary to each other in the wider need to 'make sense' of our lives and our world. With our commitment to encouraging and developing a Christian ethos within the school day we should not see science as a threat to that ethos. In fact, looking at the Gospels we can see that Christ himself used science ideas to illustrate his message.

One of the most famous of parables, appearing in all three synoptic gospels, is the parable of the sower. The ideas expressed in part one of this story, far from conflicting with science ideas, actually dovetails fairly well with the programmes of study in the recent Dearing revision at Key Stage 2. The main text is taken from Luke. (R.S.V.)

A sower went out to sow his seed;
Life Processes: 3d about the life cycle of flowering plants, including pollination, seed production, seed dispersal, and germination.
And as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it.
Life Processes: 1a, that there are life processes, including nutrition.... ....common to animals, including humans.
And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.
Life Processes: 3a that plant growth is affected by the availability of light and water, and by temperature.

Matthew's gospel has more detail on this aspect of the story.

Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away.
Life Processes: 3c that the root anchors the plant and that water and nutrients are taken in through the root and transported through the stem to the other parts of the plant.
And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. (Luke.)
Life Processes: 3b that plants need light to produce food for growth, and the importance of the leaf in this process.
And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.

Or with slightly more enthusiasm from Mark..

And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
Life Processes: 1b that there are life processes, including growth, nutrition and reproduction, common to plants.

As you can see there is a wealth of scope for testing ideas and experiments with seedlings. The mistake we could make here is to leave it at that. Instead we should try to use, as Jesus used, the material that the children can see to be grounded firmly in reality to develop their spiritual outlook.

Incidentally, the information can be taken at several different levels. At key stage 1 the story still has a lot of scientific relevance.

Life processes: 1a, that animals move, feed, grow, use their senses and reproduce;
Life Processes: 3a, plants need light and water to grow;
Life Processes: 3c, that flowering plants grow and produce seeds which, in turn produce new plants.
Life Processes: 5b, that there are differences between local environments and that these affect which animals and plants are found there.
Physical Processes: 3a Light comes from a variety of sources, including the sun.

Another theme that occurs repeatedly throughout the bible is that of light. Matthew 25 gives us the story of the 'Wise and foolish maidens. In Mark's Gospel, and also in that of St Luke, immediately following the story of the sower comes the passage about placing a lamp stand under a bushel.

The programme of study for Key Stage 2 (physical processes) includes reference to light travelling from a source, the formation of shadows and reflection from shiny surfaces. In approaching materials and their properties there is also reference to the irreversibility of changes that occur when most materials are burned.

Having pursued a topic covering these issues we can then take the opportunity to extend the ideas on a more spiritual plain. We can use an old fashioned oil lamp as a stimulus.

The body of the lamp has been carefully created, the work of a craftsman. It is designed to fill a need. It has a task to do. But on its own it cannot fulfil that task. It needs to be lit. To be set aflame.

Looking at ourselves in this analogy we are created, whether spontaneously or through the process of evolution, to fulfil a need. As Christians we believe that to fulfil our role we must accept Christ, the light of the world.

But once alight the lamp cannot burn without fuel. As the foolish maidens discovered, to maintain the light the lamp has to be kept in good order. The oil is important. In our analogy this might be equated with the power of the Holy Spirit, the strength God provides to carry on in the daily struggle against sin, the world and the devil.

But oil does not automatically appear in the reservoir of the lamp as if by magic. There is a process of transfer from an external source to the lamp. Thus we arrive at the need for regular and meaningful prayer.

There is of course a danger of presenting ideas that are so intricately contrived as to make little sense, confusing rather than helping. But encapsulated in Jesus' invitation to 'consider the lilies of the field' is, I believe, a challenge to find God in scientific exploration; to consider the role of each discovery in the plan of the creator.

Linking well known bible stories with science programmes of study is all very well, but there are the inevitable occasions where science and the bible do seem to be at loggerheads with each other. These are the issues that made life so uncomfortable for Galileo, that stirred up a hornet's nest among Nineteenth century theologians confronted with Darwinian evolution, those things that a few hundred years earlier would seem to give one a very good excuse for some human barbecues.

Some of the fiercest arguments have undoubtedly been concerned with the stories of creation, and of the fall; Adam and Eve, the serpent and the Garden of Eden. It was the mistake of many to take the writings of Genesis as a sort of scientific text book. But Scripture is not in itself an alternative source of scientific ideas and was never meant as such. Accepting that the story of creation in six days is not exactly in agreement with scientific theory it is often very tempting to relegate them to legends and myths, composed to explain, to 'make sense' of the world of the Biblical writers. This may well lead to a complacent attitude towards those parts of the bible we cannot explain in terms of science. To do this is to miss the point of the writings. We know that many stories, leaving scientific argument aside, just do not tally historically with each other. Through educated criticism of the texts we have come to know more about the contexts in which Biblical writers wrote. As George Carey puts it

Suffice it to say that after two centuries of higher and lower criticism we just cannot approach the Bible in the way that former Christians did. This conclusion....does not lead to a rejection of the bible or a diminution of its claims or, necessarily to a weakening of its authority.

The fall, for example, may well be a myth created to provide an explanation for an aspect of the human condition, but that does not prevent it from being a deeply relevant insight into that same human condition as we encounter it today. W.H. Griffith Thomas' commentary on Genesis points out that, leaving aside the time period 'day' which cannot be assumed to be twenty four hours, the steps of the creation of vegetation, reptiles, mammals, and man are essentially true to modern science.

To separate science from religion is likely to diminish the relevance of each. Pure science breaks down all aspects of life so that they inevitably lose meaning. With no spiritual dimension we are in danger of losing our reason for being.

"...dividing the organism into heart, brain, nerves, muscles and so on turns the living being into a corpse."

On the other hand to brush science aside as soon as we get to the R.E. lesson will ultimately, in my view, give a very weak foundation on which to build a faith. If our faith is to be seen to be real then it must be grounded in reality.

John Habgood sums it up like this:

Those who take their starting point in Christ find themselves commissioned to make sense of their experience, as He made sense of it, by using it for God.

The Diocese of Exeter's 'Supplementary Material on Christianity' expresses the hope that:

...through the ethos of the church school, pupils would not only learn about religion but what it means to be religious. There is an obvious link with Worship, but the whole curriculum should offer opportunities for spiritual growth.

So in maintaining our commitment to the ethos of a Church school we should not see science as a threat to Christian belief. To avoid science in any way, apart from being illegal, would not do any service to our children. Rather we should in all areas of the curriculum consider the child as a whole person, body, mind and spirit and provide a balanced education in which they can develop in all areas of experience and enquiry.

References.

Religion and Science. John Habgood. Mills and Boon. London 1964
I Believe. George Carey. S.P.C.K. London 1991
Genesis, A devotional commentary. W.H. Griffiths Thomas. Eerdmanns. Michigan. 1946