As the old saying goes, “Good teachers teach and bad teachers teach teachers how to teach!” I do not share this quote to offend any of our followers who may be in the profession of teaching teachers, but instead offer a bit of solidarity with you as I have now joined your ranks. After being a “Teacher Priest” for seven years at the high school level, I am often asked by the Diocese to put together presentations for our Catholic school teachers to help update their religious certification. This means I have a yearly experience of intellectual awkwardness standing before “students” I once called colleagues, knowing all too well what they dislike about presentations at “Teacher Inservice.” This year, I have my own parish school, pre-k thru 6th grade, meaning my “students” for this inservice will be my own parishioners. Awkward? Actually, no, it isn’t. We have a wonderful group of teachers at our school and, even though I have little experience teaching grade school kids, I know it will be an enjoyable day for them and for me.
As part of my preparation, I would like to share with you, the readers of the Catholic Astronomer, an outline of what I wish to accomplish with my teachers. As always, I would love your feedback to help make this day something that will be life-giving for those who teach our parish youth.
Introduction: How Do Catholics Talk About Faith And Science?
The theme of the day will be exploring how the Church understands the relationship between faith and science (I am going to expand this to the broader subject of reason as the day goes on). From my high school teaching days, I often found a troubling cycle of false presumptions, both from students and teachers, that somehow faith and science were at odds with one another. On the student front, I would have very bright, well intentioned students come and talk with me about the struggles they had trying to choose between being a Faithful Catholic or a Faithful Scientist? First of all, I would need to pastorally broach the question of what they thought it meant to be a faithful Catholic and a faithful scientist? This discussion alone was very revealing of what the underlying tensions actually were. Misconceptions, poor understanding of how to translate the Bible, peer pressure, and a political culture that wants a fight between faith and science is enough to create confusion in anyone regardless of their age. Nevertheless, I always found that it was important to assure the student that to be a faithful Catholic encourages them to be a faithful scientist! For some, this was a relief. For others, the struggle continued. In short, I find that, as basic as it sounds, emphasizing at the beginning of this Inservice that Catholicism is not a faith or science religion, but rather a faith and science religion in pursuit of truth is essential. (From here on in I will broaden the scope to faith and reason, including the natural sciences, but not limiting the discussion to natural sciences.)
Practical Application One: Understanding St. John Paul II’s “Wings”
What can we do to affirm in our students this vision of Catholicism being a religion of faith and reason? The starting point for this is the beautiful sentiment shared by St. John Paul II at the beginning of his Encyclical Fides Et Ratio.
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.(Fides Et Ratio. Blessing)
It would be ridiculous to have first grade students try to read Fides et Ratio. However, is there a way we can invite young children into the exploration of these “two wings” that is age appropriate and foundational for further exploration of both aspects of human knowledge and ascent? To explore this question, I will first have my teachers discuss in small groups the question, “How do they see faith and reason assist them to come to truth about God and the world they live in?” The purpose of this discussion question is two-fold: 1.) Get them talking about faith and reason, but, 2.) Give them permission to talk about faith and reason. Something I find interesting among some Catholic science teachers, from grade school to college, is that, despite their brilliance, there can be a hesitation to talk about issues of faith and science out of fear they will say something wrong about faith. I often find these moments humbling, having minds far more brilliant than mine ask, “Father, is it wrong for me as a scientist to talk about connections I see between what I do in the classroom or lab and my faith life,” as if I were the final say on the matter (of course, I encourage them to share these connections with their students). This discussion is meant to emphasize my first big point of the inservice: If we want our students to feel confident to explore faith and reason, we, as educators, need to be confident exploring faith and reason.
From this foundational point, we will then do some curriculum planning under the theme of “St. John Paul II’s ‘Wings’.” This project will be a simple application of things the teachers are already covering in their science and religion classes. I will have them create something that allows them to write down two columns or “wings” named faith and reason. The teachers will use the columns to encourage their students to identify the core themes of faith they have been studying in religion and reason in their science classes. From there, the students will be asked to discuss how each “wing” assists them to grow in knowledge and what they learn about God and the world by studying these topics. To simplify this idea and express it in the language of our students, I will invite our teachers to ask their kids, “How do these ‘wings’ help your soul ‘fly?'”
The goal of this section: Integration of themes students already know. One of the most influential books on education I have ever read was John Henry Newman’s, The Idea of a University. In this text, a core theme was how Catholic education, done properly, forms a fundamental unity of our intellectual disciplines that help us understand the source of all truth: God. In light of this, our project’s goal will be to help both teacher and student develop a trust that exploring faith and science is a way of coming to know God. Therefore, it’s not that we need to “change” anything they are learning, but rather adapt a new interpretive lens to see the foundational unity in their studies, avoiding a fragmentation of their subjects into “mental boxes” that never inform one another.
Practical Application Two: Faith and Reason as Pursuits of Wonder
For round two, I want to explore how children love to dream and wonder. God has blessed them with nimble imaginations that yearn for the playful exercise of their mind. What can we do to teach students about faith and reason that feeds this gift of imagination? From my limited experience with grade school students, my biggest successes come when I can give them a concept that is far beyond anything they can comprehend and then put something concrete in their minds to make a clear point of connection. For example, I shared with my students how scientists can look at the “Blood Red” moon of a lunar eclipse and not just see something beautiful, but can analyze the color to understand how our atmosphere is doing. The richer, more beautiful shades of red, the better the atmosphere. The students grasped this quickly, being most of them witnessed the eclipse since it was a beautiful, warm, and clear night here in Menomonie when it occurred. I then shared some thoughts on Pope Francis and how in Laudato Si’ he is asking all of us to take better care of our common home. I then asked the students, “How can we take care of our common home so we have a healthy environment and keep on enjoying ‘Red Moons’ when solar eclipses happen?” It was a wonderful moment when something that makes young people wonder, a lunar eclipse, was met with a practical life application, the color of the moon literally reflects our environmental choices and their impact upon the environment.
Central to this reflection is that the beauty of this world points to an essential moral vision. This moral vision can be understood through natural reason (such as the Commandments), but also through Divine Revelation (the grace promised by Jesus Christ, particularly through the Sacraments that help “restore” us to our “original” beauty). As a second discussion point for my teachers, I will ask them to think about images of Jesus Christ in art that speak to them. For me, as a musician and a hobby artist, images of Jesus tell me a great deal about what the artist is trying to emphasize of Christ’s ministry. The Icon of the Pantocrator provides us with an ancient canvas of rich symbolism that affirms the two natures of Christ and evokes a kingly undercurrent of Jesus as our source and final judge. More modern paintings of Christ are often softer, evoking a contemplative, serene, and pastoral image of our Lord. Whether it be the ancient Icon or the modern painting, the ancient spirituality of praying with such images asks us to wonder at the image so we may become the image. This spiritual practice does not boast that we will become the Messiah. Rather, in the “altar christus” spirituality of imitation and sanctification, we strive to allow Christ’s actions to become our actions, his sight become out sight, his heart to become our heart. This will be the backdrop for the second curriculum project, inviting their students to wonder about their favorite image of Jesus Christ, inviting a discussion about the second big question of the day: If we can gaze in wonder at a painting of Jesus Christ and are inspired to love God, do we love our neighbor when we see them, knowing they are made in God’s image and likeness? Yes, a rather deep question after nap time and a milk snack, but it points to a dimension of ethics we seldom talk about when teaching religion: People, by nature, want to protect beauty. One aspect of Laudato Si’ that has not been spoken about much is Pope Francis’ call to see creation not as a “thing,” but as a gift (this idea, grade schoolers can grasp). Therefore, the moral statement on ecology is not simply “thou shall not litter,” but more importantly “thou shall love God’s gifts.”
Now, apply this to science. If we can see beauty in creation, can we see God’s “fingerprints” in every tree, flower, stream, ocean, animal, and creature? Yes, we can. If we are to love God’s gifts, is there also a moral and ethical call to care for creation? Yes, there is. Unfortunately, just as sin can make it difficult to discover God’s image in ourselves and our neighbor, can we also see the ongoing impact of Original Sin upon our world through violence, war, disease, death, and hatred? Yes, unfortunately, we can. Therefore, does God give us the gift of natural reason to understand creation so as to protect it and help us find our dignity? Yes, he does. However, can we also misuse this gift, not reflecting upon the proper application of science, leading to great violence and destruction in our world? Yes, unfortunately, we can. In short, with every gift comes a responsibility and when that responsibility is lost, all can be lost.
The goal of this section: Make clear the connection between beauty and goodness. A struggle I face when trying to defend the Church’s moral teachings is when morality gets reduced to an arbitrary list of “rights and wrongs.” When this happens, the broader context of beauty and wonder is lost, forgetting that the reason why we strive to do the good is to find joy and happiness though the most essential relationship of our lives: Our relationship with God. My hope is that by instilling a connection between beauty and goodness in our youth that they might find a healthier foundation to understand moral choices in the years to come, especially when dealing with more complicated issues that cross over faith, science, ethics, and morality.
Practical Application Three: Faith and Reason as Pursuits of Humility
For the third and final round, we will look at the subject of humility. As I have shared with you before, I find many people experience profound humility when gazing into the night sky. I experienced this a couple weeks ago when some college kids came by the rectory to look through my telescope in the early evening. One student, seeing Andromeda through a telescope for the first time, realizing that the “fuzzy little ball” she was a looking at was a galaxy about the size of ours, quickly exclaimed, “I feel so small.” It is true, in material terms, we are not even a spec of dust on a plate-glass window in comparison with the known universe. We are not mythical gods who manipulate galaxies with the thrusting of a sword or create new planets through destruction and violence. Instead, we are, as G.K. Chesterton named us, the pigmies: small, insignificant creatures that are bound to a pigmy’s life. Ironically, however, this is also the key of undressing our place in the world: In smallness we find purpose.
Something I have come to enjoy in my visits to our grade school students is trying to help them understand just how amazing our universe is. Students love to play “guess the age” games when it comes to the age of the Earth, our Solar System, or the Universe itself. They think they come up with unthinkably large numbers like 1,000 or 2,123! Their look of amazement when I speak of things that are millions or billions of years old gives me a moment of being a character in a good children’s book that uses over exaggeration to draw the reader in, but the numbers I use are not exaggerations and might be far larger than we think. What I find interesting, however, is that children do not feel a sense of insignificance when these types of reflections are thrown around. Rather, they become even more excited, realizing that this must be something “really amazing” if it’s “that big” or “that old” or “that far away.” For example, when I brought a meteorite to class and explained that the process that made this object occurred some 450 million years ago, the first response wasn’t “I’m insignificant,” but instead it was, “Cool! Let me see it!” I held the meteorite, in its case, while they held the magnifying glass to get a closer look.
This example of their excitement and wonderment points, again, to a great mystery of life: When we embrace that we are small, humbling ourselves to have a “childlike” heart, our smallness ceases to be something that evokes anxiety and loneliness, but awakens a world of constant wonder and awe. Do we not hear throughout the year at Mass these constant calls to be the “pigmy.”
Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43b-45)
Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. (Matthew 18:3-5)
Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. (James 4:10)
The final discussion I will have with our teachers reflects on one of the greatest questions of life: Where is our place in the universe? This question isn’t of great concern to most of our grade school students right now. They’re just happy to be able to play all day this coming Thursday while we have our inservice day. Nevertheless, my hope is that this day will help our teachers discover that, despite our material insignificance, we find our significance though embracing our smallness and showing humble gratitude for the fact that God has called us to the same vocation: To educate our students and help them grow in faith and knowledge. Though the material world can give us painful reminders of our smallness, limitations, and insignificance, our faith reminds us that if we embrace that smallness, we will be glorified by God and come to find joy and peace in this world of beauty and goodness, pointing to a fundamental truth that lies at the end of our exploration of faith and reason. In regard to curriculum application, my only suggestion will be to ask, “How can we affirm the ‘smallness’ of our students, reminding them that God asks us to be small, to be generous when giving of ourselves, and not count the cost when living a life in Jesus Christ?” From here, I will invite them to use their intelligence, prayer, and experience as educators to take these principles and apply them to that which they already know after years of being effective teachers in our Catholic school. With that, I will conclude with a closing prayer and, hopefully, have an early completion of the day so they can rest a little or catch up on work in the afternoon.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Well, there is the day. What do you think? I offer this reflection publicly so our teachers can go back to this page and be reminded of the themes of our Inservice. However, for you, the reader of the Catholic Astronomer, what would you add as your “thought of the day” on this subject? One thing I love about contributing to this blog is that I struggled for most of my life to find a community to explore these ideas in a way I felt was consistent with my faith. Having found that community, I invite you to allow your thoughts to enrich this community.
Post Update: For those interested, here is the handout from the Inservice.