As a scholar of physics, a product of Christian liberal arts education, and current physics professor at a Christian liberal arts college, I hold the value of critical thinking in high regard. In preparing my physics class material, my ultimate goal is to help my students achieve a higher level of problem-solving, which hopefully, they will retain even beyond remembering how to calculate gravitational attraction. In Colossians 2:23, Paul writes to those in Laodicea, “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” While written for a different time and place, this summarizes the attitude of the learning I want to foster in my classroom, particularly with regards to faith integration.
In addition, the standard physics curriculum, I design my classroom to be a place where students can explore difficult questions regarding faith in science. The material focuses on the physical world, and I ask my students to consider the age of the earth/universe, independent of their views on biological matters. Students are required to ponder the compatibility of faith and science. I have asserted that I welcome all views and each philosophical perspective can bring its own richness to the conversation. My non-religious students are assured that I valued their perspective and that this class was a safe place for them study their secular viewpoints in greater detail. It was my perception that I was capable of holding an unbiased position in evaluating the papers of my students. Further, I believed my approach was welcoming to students of all cultures and scriptural beliefs.
When I first started teaching, I would devote time early in the semester to discuss a few different Christian and secular perspectives on the age of the earth and faith and science compatibility before assigning a reading. This assignment varied by the level of the class, but always affirmed an old earth view of the world. Students were told they could use any form of reasoning to make an argument and were not limited only to scientific arguments. In this particular class, weary with the questionable science of the Answers in Genesis (AIG), I further gave my students the instruction that they were not allowed to use fringe scientific theories as their primary source of argument. Naturally, with such good scientific evidence before them and a strong persuasion against the scientific methods of AIG, surely my students would at least consider the rationality behind the Christian reasoning for an old earth. In doing so, they could become socially acceptable, productive members of the society. Further, this assignment served to demonstrate my open-mindedness. I was willing to allow my non-religious students to make arguments against the validly of a created universe. That preconception was challenged by a student who made a simple request that helped me realize which students I was leaving behind.
Ruth (name changed) came forward one day after class with questions about her assignment. She told me she believed the earth to be young but understood that this view did not agree with scientific consensus. Unwilling to deviate from the assignment criteria, she asked me if I could help her reason through the theological arguments for a literal interpretation of Genesis chapter 1. I realized I had nothing to give her. In my own bias, I had never sought out respectable material that contained a biblical argument for a more literal interpretation. I could only provide her reading with the arguments based in questionable science that I so despised. I was depriving my fundamentalist students the opportunity to critically engage the arguments with sound reasoning that supported their own perspective. I could provide valid arguments for a Christian old earth perspective or even an atheist worldview, but I could not offer this student any arguments she could use to understand her own perspective better. If I had not given her the space to understand her own point of view, how could I expect her to be critical of her views? Did I want students to be indoctrinated to my way of thinking, or did I dare to allow them to critically think even if this should cause them to diverge from my own views?
I stepped back from this student, and I began to see the world through her eyes. Here was a student who was willing to defend her views and critically engage. How many sciences classes had she sat through where teachers had told her that people like her were not welcome to approach the material? How many individuals had sneered in her direction implying she had a simple, closed-minded view of the world that was a product of her culture? She was brave enough to continue to take science classes. How many students have heard the unwritten (and sometimes loudly proclaimed) rule that people from their cultural background were not welcomed into science classes? How many had even been given the opportunity to critically think through their own views without being told what to conclude? I realized how wrong I had been and how exclusive my practices were. Further, I realized how snide I had been towards others in the past. I have known people of great brilliance who hold a young earth view. It would be untrue for me state that this has any relation to individual intelligence or critical thought. I will not give any credence to the scientific validity of the young earth view, however I could work to understand the theological reasons. In doing so, I could respect the processes that these students were undertaking in delving deeper into their understanding of scripture and the role that God’s world plays within their lives. The questions of resolving questions of the physical world while living in an spiritual reality deserve slow, and careful thought.
I did just that. I sought and found resources that made theological arguments in favor of the young earth view. In the process, as often the case when we read opposing arguments, I developed a greater compassion for my students and a deeper understanding of my own perspective. I was reminded that ultimately my purpose is to draw people into the study of God’s Word. Ruth wanted to understand her Bible better, and reading arguments on differing interpretation methods ultimately guided her in reasoning through her belief. She did not come around to my way of thinking, but she told me at the end of the semester that no assignment she had done previously had helped her faith grow as much.
My experience with Ruth taught me how to better check my assumptions about students from different backgrounds and beliefs, in particular my prejudice against Fundamentalist students. Fundamentalist students do necessarily lack critical thinking skills. However, the approach in teaching may need to be different. If assignments are designed in a way that students feel attacked or the prejudice of the instructor is apparent, then it is natural for these students to feel defensive instead of feeling welcomed to explore ideas. These students should be affirmed that the classroom is a safe space to ask questions, that their thought process is respected. They need to know that they can take the time they need to reason through questions. Fundamentalist students do lack curiosity. Ruth and others I have had the pleasure of teaching had deep desire to learn more about the created universe and a hunger for wanting to truly understand the Bible. When I started allowing them to speak without pressuring them to debate, I found they added a richness to my classroom discussion and intellectually challenged other students with good questions. Fundamentalist students can be taught to respect the scientific method. Ruth understood empirical reasoning and saw its place. The questions that come from attempting to resolve the rules for the physical world with our understanding of the spiritual realm are deep and complicated. For example, miracles, the greatest of which is the resurrection of Christ are sources of dissonance and many Christian wrestle as to what extent empiricism is appropriate for understanding. We draw different lines in the process, but it does not mean that the scientific method has lost importance through the struggle of probing the hard issues.
Guiding students through these questions is a tough task, in particular if we want to create an atmosphere of critical thinking as well as the space to allow students to play with and consider different ideas. It easy to allow our views to dominate, but in doing so, we may risk an attitude that leads students to believe they are not welcome within our classrooms. In the process we could lose people who could go on to become good scientists. Within a Christian institution, our goal should always be to draw our students into an independent and lifelong study of scripture. Had I not made my classroom more welcoming, this might have been lost on my students. The art of educating Fundamentalist students is something which demands more study. I am still striving for how to effectively welcome them to study science while giving them intellectual space to ponder the realities of the physical world along with deepening their understanding of a loving, non-physical God.