Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Father's World

Some accounts of my personal campaign against NDD--nature deficit disorder--the subject of our last post, are worth sharing. As a college freshman, I was privileged to have poet John Ciardi for my professor in English composition at Rutgers University. One bit of advice I recall from him was “Get the ‘For instance’ habit.” So, in the spirit of that advice, I’ll discuss examples of the many outdoor teachable moments I’ve shared with my pre-school grandchildren during their visits to our northwest Illinois home. All of these experiences were within easy walking distance of our home. Most of them, in fact, were in our yard. None of these activities or observations, individually or collectively, consists of proof for the existence of God. The evidence tilting one person toward a theistic belief system may not operate the same way for someone else. Individual human will functions regardless of evidence. Therefore, evidence is not the sole factor molding our beliefs and worldview. But the evidence which points to God from the world of nature is startling.

I have referred to our neighborhood as “bird heaven.” Each grandchild has observed dozens of different birds and their behaviors. A few of the most notable ones were bluebirds with their ebullient liquid warble, the catbirds’ incessant chatter, pileated woodpeckers’ far-reaching “cuk-cuk-cuk” call, or a great horned owl’s somber, early evening mantra. On one journey to our clearing in the woods, a female turkey took umbrage at our presence, approaching us threateningly, no doubt to divert our attention from her well-hidden young. The hummingbird, opposite on the spectrum of size, will approach to arm’s length if we stand motionless next to the flowers of interest to him. And our mulberry tree doubles as a natural bird feeder just outside the dining room window.

Seemingly endless differences in the behaviors and characteristics of our neighborhood’s living creatures contribute to endless fascination as we study them. These differences are easy to observe, even for pre-school children. Their uniqueness and complexity bespeak divine creativity, a far more credible origins scenario than evolutionary randomness or chance. Sometimes we’ve spoken of the great ideas God had when he designed living things.

Plants have also offered multiple opportunities to enhance our wonder. We watched the bare winter branches of our black walnut tree awaken to bud, bloom, and full leaf-out. Then, over time, we observed tiny nuts slowly develop into fully formed fruit exceeding golf-ball size. Digging up several baby walnut trees growing from squirrel-buried nuts this spring was a lesson in itself (the nut was still intact). This autumn we are on track to harvest over 1000 nuts from our front yard tree. Later, we’ll continue our long-established walnut-cracking sessions and consume the fruits of our labors.

As if four-stage metamorphosis of monarch butterflies, including the collection of milkweeds which supply nourishment for the caterpillar stage, offered insufficient fascination, I also harvested some milkweed pods last fall. After drying the pods over winter, this spring we launched the milkweed down parachutes bearing seeds into the wind, combining seed “planting” with just plain fun. One fall each child shelled kernels from a corncob. Then one warm December day they planted some of the kernels in the mulch under the walnut tree. After that winter’s record snowfall, the seeds unexpectedly sprouted the next spring. The potted transplants reached 18” high over the summer. We’ve also shelled soybeans, an important agricultural product of this area, pulled weeds to examine their water-absorbing roots, and picked a large variety of wildflowers for Grandma’s bouquets.

Insects are a never-ending fascination for young children. Our grandkids were impressed by ants, digger wasps, centipedes, bumble bees, daddy-long-legs, pill bugs, and butterflies, especially when one of the latter alighted on a sleeve. Magnifying glasses made the world of the tiny more visible and real; binoculars brought the distant world close. One evening we sat on our driveway to watch Jupiter and Venus slowly set like the sun. We even saw the Milky Way after dark--not an easy achievement on most nights. The steep driveway offered lessons on the reality of gravity and its effects. “Watch out! Gravity will get you!”

These events involved asking What? When? How? and Why? We noticed beauty, design, and function and informally discovered the meaning of cause and effect. Parents and educational church personnel should become more aware of nature’s potential for faith strengthening for our young people and adults. The activities I described were merely natural outgrowths of going outdoors. They did not demand the development of systematic lesson plans. They do, however, demand a modicum of planning, generous amounts of motivation, and a sense of mission.

In the sense that nature speaks of the glory of God, we may assign an additional meaning to Deut. 11:18-19: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nature Deficit Disorder

There has been a sea change in our culture in the past sixty years. This change has affected the ways in which science is able to strengthen faith, particularly for our young people. Contributing mightily to the change was the onset of television at mid-century, the social ferment which began in the 1960s, and the plugged-in electronic era of the last two decades. This is far from a complete catalog of causative factors in the societal sea change.

Corresponding with these changes has been a retreat from natural play, particularly in the outdoors, by our children. Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, has skillfully described the problem. In the introduction to his book, Louv says natural play for children seems like a quaint artifact, and intimacy with nature is fading.

Our church leaders and Christian educators have not been particularly successful waging the battle for the minds and hearts of our young people using the terms of discussion set by our contemporary society. There are other battle venues where Christian parents and educators could be more successful in their efforts to teach children a world view that would bring them closer to belief in the reality of God. Immersion in nature is one of those significant venues. Of course, there are many other benefits.

The book of Proverbs uses “My son” many times, suggesting the importance of the mentoring of a parent or parent figure for a younger person. In those times child-raising parents did not face the same instructional challenges we face today. Children and adults now spend enormous amounts of time cloistered indoors, watching movie DVDs, television, video games, or on various electronic social networks. Children of Bible times had far less to occupy themselves indoors. Those children were outdoors, perhaps learning the nature lessons of Job 36-41 along with their work and play. Before 1950, our children were experiencing adventure, natural phenomena, and wildlife outdoors, learning how nature works and how living things behave--creating, savoring, and enjoying. Almost any person past retirement age could confirm the adventurous outdoor dimension of their childhood years.

Richard Louv refers to “the contribution of nature to the spiritual life of the child, and therefore to the adult.” He quotes Paul Gorman, director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an ecumenical group: “The extent that we separate our children from creation is the extent to which we separate them from the creator—from God.” Gorman also states, “The purpose of creation really is to bring us—children and all of us—closer to the creator.”

My experience points to nature as a powerful means of affirming the reality of God. Nature is not God, as some might claim. However, nature reveals many qualities of the Creator, suffused as it is with beauty, order, and design. Nature is tangible, not abstract. Other evidences of God’s reality may not be so tangible, such as the evidence of historical revelation. Therefore, we should take full advantage of our children’s positive responses to the tangible evidences for the Creator’s existence in nature, along with their experience of healthy enjoyment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Metamorphosis Miracle

Recently another example of a “teachable moment” for young people presented itself. Our young grandchildren had visited their uncle and aunt for a few days. They were being delivered to our home for the next leg of the journey to their parents on the following day. A few miles from our home, our son called to explain why they would be a little late. They had stopped to search for milkweed caterpillars. Our grandchildren have become fascinated with the metamorphosis of monarch butterflies. This was just a continuation of the fun. Check our last post on this topic:

When they arrived, we were given one of the several milkweed leaves they had collected which bore one tiny white sphere they suspected might be a monarch butterfly egg. A check of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies revealed that such eggs would be 1.2 X 0.9 mm, pale green, ribbed, and pitted…shaped like a lemon with flat base. Seeing these characteristics was far under the capability of our eyesight, but not our magnifier. We had struck paydirt. Our granddaughter insisted on giving us one of the leaves. I accepted it without much assurance that anything would happen.

In the next few days the leaf became brittle and crisp. I checked it periodically, but without much confidence. Four days later, however, an incredibly tiny larva emerged. As I write, our pet “cattie” has increased its size ten-fold in only two days and seems on track to fulfill all the potential of second stage metamorphosis. In my decades of monarch propagating, I’d never had the patience to track down stage one.

Who could fail to see the value of such an incident as an example of a child’s “teachable moment"? Rare is the child who could not be made to understand and become excited by this mind-boggling sequence of events. Children are able to contemplate the beauty, design, functionality, and fulfillment of egg to larva to pupa to adult, not to mention thousands of other processes in nature both in the biological world and in the physical realm.

Young people are able to understand cause and effect at an early age. They grasp principles of design and the actions of a designer. They can understand that order is not accidental. This knowledge prepares them for the teaching onslaught of naturalistic evolution which permeates our culture. It also helps them grasp the absurdity of molecules-to-man evolution as an undirected process producing the complex designs and functions of living things on this earth.

Parents, Christian educators, and preachers should be warned that this type of apologetic is not easily achieved. Time and effort are required, just as it takes time and effort to pursue and present any rational theological instruction. Properly interpreted science reinforces theological studies for children as well as adults. Likewise, good theology supports good science. We must not neglect either one.

Sequel to this story: This special monarch entered our home as a tiny egg on a leaf August 8, hatched into a tiny caterpillar August 12, became a chrysalis on August 29, and finally, hatched into a beautiful butterfly and flew off on September 8. Bon voyage!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Teachable Moments

In science studies, teachable moments are abundant. But they are also abundant in everyday life. As a career science educator I formed strong, positive views of the value of science and scientific thinking skills as a tool to strengthen reasoning power, to understand cause and effect relationships, and to promote a sense of wonder about the world around us. This is but a minimal listing of the benefits inherent in science studies. If science is poorly taught or approached with tedium or indifference, the value of science for the student is diminished, as it would be for any subject. At worst, negative attitudes could prevail into adulthood.

What are the positive values of science as a faith strengthener for our young people? I propose that using a scientific approach to affirm the reality of God has definite advantages across the complete age group spectrum from youth to mature adult. Much of the curricular material in our church educational programs centers on social and interpersonal relationships as these connect with Bible events and Scripture passages. This is appropriate, of course, but not to the exclusion of other approaches which may have more apologetic value in our post-modern society.

We might ask how Moses presented his apologetic case to the Israelites. How did he channel the chosen people toward belief and obedience? We have a clue in nearly the entire book of Deuteronomy--three great speeches which may have been three of the longest sermons in the history of preaching. After nearly 40 years of wilderness wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land, none of those who left Egypt, except Joshua and Caleb, was permitted to enter Canaan. Those who would enter were all first or second generation witnesses to God’s awesome personal presence during those four decades. They had experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder, lightning, clouds, and earthquakes. They had seen the stone tablets engraved by God. They observed Moses’ radiant face after he talked with God, and miracles in the wilderness such as a guiding cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. They witnessed production of water from the rock, and provision of quail and manna.

When Moses delivered his lengthy sermons there was little need for references to nature’s glory, for they were eyewitnesses to God’s glory. Nevertheless, he did say, in his second speech, “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth, and everything in it” (Deut. 10:14 NIV). Moses sermon, therefore, was primarily exhortation to obey the statutes of God who had visited them in many direct, physical manifestations. Belief, therefore, in God’s reality was easy, but consistent obedience to Him in future times would not be so easy.

In our 21st century, we have the voice of the natural world which speaks loudly of God’s reality. Science has unlocked previously unknown secrets of the functionality and fine-tuning of that natural world. In Moses’ day, very little such knowledge existed. The first several centuries of the scientific revolution produced exciting, yet primitive concepts compared with the complex and wonderful discoveries of the last century. Today it is difficult to keep abreast of the profusion of knowledge.

In God’s plan, today we may never experience transcendent miracles such as the original creation of time/space dimensions “In the Beginning,” or the transformational miracles of Moses’ or Christ’s day, such as parting of the Red Sea, creation of new forms of physical life from earth’s raw materials, and the healing of a diseased body. Historically, such miracles have occurred infrequently. But we have plentiful examples of what are termed sustaining miracles, such as God’s maintenance of the universal conditions necessary to support life--the “holding together” of all things. We now understand design features which point to many past transcendent and transformational miracles, such as the incredible fine tuning necessary for God’s initial creation event, or clear coding features evident in the DNA molecule--evidence of the intelligent mind of the code designer.

Moses instructed the Israelites, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 11:18-19). There are plentiful opportunities to speak to our children about the wonders of God’s created order and the evidence for His creative works of past ages and those that are manifest in our day. These opportunities occur when we are sitting at home, walking along the road, lying down, and getting up. Parents, teachers, youth leaders, and preachers should be careful not to ignore our many available “teachable moments.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are Those Stars?

“Grandpa, are those stars?” queried my 3 ½ year old granddaughter one late fall evening when I carried her out under the dark night sky of our community. The regulations of our residential association insure that dark skies prevail. But our granddaughter’s home neighborhood, well-lit and secure, does not offer the same observing opportunity. Aware of the healthy “early to bed” routine in her household, I realized it was entirely conceivable she had never seen “real” stars. Storybook graphics do not substitute for the real thing.

Young children in Bible times had ample opportunity to savor the magnificent glory of the darkened heavens. The nightly experience of dark skies enabled Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to grasp how difficult it would be to number their descendants by counting stars. God had proposed that idea directly to the patriarchs. He told them their descendants would be more numerous than the stars of heaven and asked them if they could number the stars. Surely they had observed that the darker the skies, the greater the number of stars coming into view. They may have even understood the object lesson to imagine the uncounted myriads of stars present in the heavens even beyond the limits of their dark sky vision.

Abraham was the first patriarch to receive the promise of offspring more numerous than the stars (Genesis 15:5). We could speculate on his trip with son Isaac up to Mount Moriah. Perhaps they camped out under the stars the night before the planned sacrifice. What did they talk about? During our March visit to Israel we stood near, or possibly even at the site of Abraham and Isaac’s faith adventure. Historians think the present day Jerusalem Temple Mount or even Golgatha may be the very spot. Several days earlier we had stood under the stars singing “Joy to the World” at the likely pastoral site of the birth of Christ. We overlooked the currently electricity-lit town of Bethlehem in the distance. The stars were bright as we sang, but how much brighter were they when Jesus was born and the angels sang?

Christian parents should start building a strong science/faith connection for their children at an early age. As they progress through elementary school, middle school, and high school, the opportunity to foster knowledge, appreciation, respect, and even awe for the Creator and His works never wanes. Parents must then also trust instructors at school, in Bible school, and in youth programs to carry out this responsibility. I’ll confess to being an idealist in this regard. Fostering interest in and awareness of the scientific principles operating in the physical and biological world is, indeed, difficult work. The effort, however, has wide-ranging and long-lasting benefit, because it calls attention to God, the Creator.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Evidence or Revelation?

Bible topics widely thought to refer to scientific topics should be approached with care. We must be sure we are using the Scripture mainly to affirm God’s sovereignty and His relationship to His creation rather than as a science textbook. One startling 80-year-old discovery, however, seems to have been addressed in scripture 2700 years ago by several writers, and is now revealed to be prescient from a scientific perspective. We speak of the expansion of the universe, an artifact of the Big Bang.

There are eleven Old Testament passages which address the agency of God in “stretching out” the universe. Six of those passages are found in the book of Isaiah: 40:22, 42:5, 44:24, 45:12, 48:13, and 51:13. Job 9:8, Psalm 104:2, Jeremiah 10:12 and 51:15, and Zechariah 12:1 complete the catalog. Five verses use a verb to indicate the stretching was action completed, while seven others use a different Hebrew verb to indicate the stretching is a continuous, ongoing action. One verse, Isaiah 40:22, uses both verb forms.

In 1998 astronomers discovered, to their surprise, that the stretching was accelerating. This caused great excitement, because in an expanding universe the degree of fine tuning necessary for life to exist anywhere is incredible. Many well-known Christians in the science profession cite this particular example of fine tuning as evidence of the hand of God, the Designer. As I read the responses of atheistic, naturalistic scientists to these design proposals, it is clear they are unimpressed. They propose alternate explanations, such as creative multiverse theories, and generally scoff at the idea that our universe’s obvious design features have any theistic significance. Scientists who support naturalism do not envision the possibility of an omnipotent designer at work in the cosmos. Their commitment to philosophical naturalism forbids it.

Scientists, thanks to Albert Einstein, recognize the relationship between energy and mass. The mysterious dark energy apparently driving the accelerated expansion makes up about 72% of the “stuff” in the universe. With respect to the necessity of exquisite fine tuning in an accelerating expansion, the verses in Jeremiah cited above caught my eye: “God…stretched out the heavens by his understanding” (NIV). It could mean an omniscient and omnipotent God is stretching the universe at precisely the correct rate to allow life to exist. Consider Psalm 68:34: "Proclaim the power of God...whose power is in the skies." Psalm 89:5 reads, “The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord.” In this passage, the Hebrew word for wonders could also be translated as miracle. Of course, this could refer to angelic adoration of the miracle of redemption. But it is fascinating to imagine God’s miracle-working hand controlling the precision of universal expansion!

The Bible passages cited above do not consist of scientific proof with respect to the “stretching” of the heavens. Absolute proof is a difficult and elusive standard. My personal leaning on matters of the science/faith connection is toward evidentialism, but one cannot rely completely on evidence. A belief system is made reasonable and rational by evidence. Faith is strengthened by evidence and reason, but confirmed as truth in our hearts by revelation.