Education as love

The separation of science and religion has recently been discussed on BioLogos in the context of Ted Davis’s mention of Langdon Gilkey, who advocated the complete separation of science and religion. Pretty soon in that discussion Gilkey’s particular approach was compared to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), in which science has to do with “facts” and religion with “values”.

The general agreement was that this is an erroneous way to proceed, but the main arguments involved the necessary attachment of Christian religion, at any rate, to the world of facts: there is only one world, and it cannot be neatly divided up into compartments like that. But there is another, complementary reason for rejecting NOMA, and that is one pointed out in my current reading, Personal Knowledge, by Michael Polanyi . It’s a challenging, but worthwhile, investment of effort. His overall thesis about science is the opposite of Gould’s: far from being an objective, “view from nowhere” pursuit, it is a deeply human activity ultimately grounded in passion and personal commitment which cannot be expressed formally. In other words, not only is religion intimately related to facts, but science is inextricably related to values and convictions.

One particularly striking instance of this is his talk of science (and of other comparable human activities) beyond the “discovery” stage, and before the next exciting time when paradigms change or new theories are found – the time, if you like, of stasis between sudden punctuations (to give Gould a positive nod):

A valid articulate framework may be a theory, or a mathematical discovery, or a symphony. Whichever it is, it will be used by dwelling in it, and this indwelling may be consciously experienced. Astronomic observations are made by dwelling in astronomic theory, and it is this internal enjoyment of astronomy which makes the astronomer interested in the stars. This is how scientific value is contemplated from within…

…A true understanding of science and mathematics includes the capacity for a contemplative experience of them, and the teaching of the sciences must aim at imparting this capacity to the pupil. The task of inducing an intelligent contemplation of music and dramatic art aims likewise at enabling a person to surrender himself to works of art. This is neither to observe nor to handle them, but to live in them.

Another way of saying this is that education should be the imparting of love for an understanding, whether the object of understanding is the structure of a science, of mathematics or of an artform. And one could really add any worthwhile subject to that list – to appreciate the structure of the past is history, and not a list of dates or an account of someone’s foreign policy, just as a list of the sizes of the planets is not astronomy, which has to do with passion, as Polanyi adds:

But awareness of this joy is dimmed when the formulae of astronomy are used in a routine manner.

Well, the loss of joy in work is a sad fact of life in a fallen world – amateur musicians often love music more than professionals, and the medical student’s desire to make people well can easily become a desire to better his bank-balance or administer an efficient system. But Polanyi means something rather different: the sacrificing of imagination and awe to supposed objectivity.

Now I’m not a teacher – Merv Bitkofer would be better placed to say how much such things are, or should be, part of science education. But we probably all remember the teachers who fired us up for a subject, and it was undoubtedly their love for the subject, and not just their impartation of objective knowledge, that did the job.

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, though reflecting the cold rationalism of 150 years ago, nevertheless has many resonances with modern educational priorities, at least in the UK. But the love of understanding – of science, mathematics, or art and other humanities – is in itself almost a religious thing, and in a Christian education ought to be overtly religious. The contemplation Polanyi (as a celebrated scientist, remember) advocates is, in one way or another, contemplation of the glories of creation viewed through the clarifying spectacles of theory. For the believer those spectacles should be the window through which to glorify God, its Creator.

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the heaven espy. (George Herbert)

If trying to achieve “the view from nowhere” is detrimental to science education, how much more is it in the teaching of religion. Maybe that doesn’t apply in the USA below college level, though not to teach something is a strong educational message, too. But in the UK we still have “religious education” in schools, and with typical British even-handedness, the authorities insist on an objective study of all religions (or at least, certain privileged ones – Melanesian Frog Worship and Mormonism get pretty short shrift compared to Islam and Sikhism, and there’s a tendency, from bending over backwards in fairness to minorities, for Christianity to become less equal than others).

But of course, the very essence of religious faith is commitment, and to teach about religions whilst studiously avoiding anything that might encourage commitment to any one of them is not to teach religion at all, but spiritual dilettantism. It is probably the most boring of all subjects, about how some people in mosques kneel down, other people in temples get married or different people in churches get wet. It is no wonder that religion declines wherever that sort of religious education persists – it was the best weapon the secularists ever acquired.

But it’s interesting to consider that the same can also be true of science, and to ask what sort of science results from it.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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