FASTLY - Faith & Science Teaching

Activity Map: God and Natural Causes

Overview

What's the Focus

Do you ever find yourself associating God with things that we cannot yet explain, or suggesting that because something seems miraculous it must be the work of God? Do you ever have a sense when science offers an explanation for something that was formerly understood in terms of faith, that faith has been undermined or has to give ground?

A great deal of popular discussion about faith and science works with an implicit assumption that God’s engagement with the world and scientifically describable natural causes are alternatives—things we must choose between. This opposition does not actually sit well with Christian theology, which sees God as active in all things, mysterious or ordinary, nor with the language of the Bible, which often sees natural and supernatural causes as happily coexisting.

This Activity Map offers a selection of activities intended for Bible class (though some could be used in a science course, if desired), that seek to help students think through how God might relate to natural causes and scientific explanation. It aims to help students see the relationship between the Bible and science as rich and complex, and not simply as a battle between competing explanations. It tries to engage them in thinking carefully about God’s action in the natural world and about our ability to describe that world.

You can find further resources connected to this idea in the Activity Map on Newton’s Laws, which explores in more detail the relationship between miracles and natural laws.

It is not necessary to use every activity in your class. The Activity Map is intended to offer a range of possibilities to enrich your existing teaching resources. While some of the activities form a possible sequence, you can select the ones most suitable for your context, and adapt them to connect to your own plan for learning.

Discover activities offer brief ways into the topic, which are designed to set the stage and get students thinking.

Delve activities promote more extended learning. This is where the main substance of the lesson unfolds.

Debrief activities bring the sequence of the study to a thoughtful close by helping students reflect on how they have been invited to see science and faith anew.

You can mix and match these activities as you wish. It is not intended that all of them should be used with the same class.

 

Quick Stop Lesson Plan

The best way to use this Activity Map is to explore all of the activities, and see which ones best fit together in your particular teaching context. If you just need a quick lesson outline, you can use the links below to preview and download a lesson plan based on activities selected from this Activity Map.

PreviewDownload Files

Discover Activities

Discover activities offer brief ways into the topic, which are designed to set the stage and get students thinking.

  • Activity

    10 min

    What is a Person?

  • Activity

    10 min

    Boil the Water

  • Activity

    15 min

    Who Scored?

  • Activity

    10 min

    God’s Nostrils

What is a Person?

In Brief

This short introductory activity aims to get students thinking about the relationship between the scientific language used to describe natural processes, and other kinds of language, including theological language. It asks students to reflect on how they would react to a report card that described them only in natural scientific terms.

Goals

Students will begin to reflect on the relationship between the scientific language for natural processes and other kinds of descriptive language.

Thinking Ahead

Popular science writing online can sometimes give the impression that scientific language trumps other types of definition. For example, that scientific language codifies what we once thought of as love—or faithfulness, or friendship, or prayer—as combinations of chemicals, neurotransmitters, and biological impulses. It is implied that the scientific definition is somehow more real than definitions from other disciplines or schools of thought. The result is a kind of reductionism that leaves the feeling that human experience can be boiled down to material processes.

This activity aims to begin a process of thinking about linguistic choices and predispositions. It introduces the idea that more than one account can be true simultaneously, and that we may not always have to choose. The goal of this activity is not to detract from scientific description, but to establish that while it is true and useful on its own terms, it could possibly miss some important things. Another goal is to introduce the thought that there may not be a question of choosing between faith and science.

Related Book Review: The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions by Karl W. Giberson, Francis S. Collins

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Directions:

You should handwrite each student’s name in the appropriate space on the handout as well as the semester information. If you have students with disabilities, there are parts of the handout that might make specific aspects of the description inaccurate. It would be best to modify these before giving them to students. Placing these “report cards” in envelopes marked “confidential” would add an extra touch, and may also delay students’ realization that the reports are identical.

Teaching the Activity

Tell students that you have prepared a report card that focuses on their progress thus far in the school year, and that you are hoping they will read it carefully and use it to think about how they can approach the rest of the semester. Hand out personalized copies of What Is a Person and allow time for students to read it. Once students have realized the odd nature of the report card, discuss the following with them:

  • What would your reaction be if this were a real report card that was written this way?
  • Why does this not feel like a proper report card? Is it because any of the statements are not factually true?
  • Would your parents or friends describe you this way? Why not? Can their description and this one be true at the same time?
  • Would this be a more accurate way to describe you?
  • What is this kind of scientific description useful for? What is it not useful for?
  • How does the Bible show God describing us? How does that fit together with the scientific description? If one is true, does it make the other false? Or can both be true at once?

Explain to students that in subsequent activities they will be thinking further about the relationship between God’s actions in the world and natural causes, and between scientific language and theological language for describing how the world works.

Boil the Water

In Brief

This is a short starter activity intended to get students thinking about whether events can have multiple causes. Using the example of boiling water, you will encourage students to explore all possible angles of causation. This activity offers a quick introduction to the more substantial exploration in the activity Why Not Both? of what multiple causality has to do with the Bible and science.

Goals

Students will understand that the same event can be seen as having multiple causes, depending on the level of description.

Students will understand that the idea of multiple causes is relevant to questions about how God relates to natural processes and how faith relates to science.

Thinking Ahead

Discussions of faith and science online often exhibit a common pattern: faith is pitted against science, and they are assumed to be competing explanations of the same phenomena. For instance, there might be debate about whether some phenomenon is inexplicable in natural terms and, therefore, must involve God. Alternatively, there might be a question of whether a phenomenon can be given a scientific explanation, thus removing the need to think of God as having anything to do with it at all. Similarly, research on what happens in the brain during prayer might be presented in a way that implies that either something spiritual is happening or it’s a chemical reaction in the brain.

This activity, along with the later activity Why Not Both?, opens space to question this binary pattern of thinking. Consider your own verbal practices in the classroom—do you ever speak of things as either scientific and naturally caused or spiritual and involving God? Do you model a way of seeing in which both could be true?

Because both this activity and Who Scored? focus on establishing that there can be different kinds of causation at the same time, you may want to choose just one of these activities to present. Each of these activities paves the way for the more direct focus in later activities on divine and natural causation.

(If you would like to explore ideas about causation further, you could introduce students to Aristotle’s influential schema of four kinds of cause, summarized in various online resources.)

Related Book Review: Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology by Darrel R. Falk

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Water

  • A saucepan or kettle

  • Heat source

  • Coffee or tea

  • A cup

  • A spoon

  • Or, alternatively, an image of boiling water

Teaching the Activity

Boil some water in a kettle or saucepan at the front of the room as the class begins. Make yourself a cup of tea or instant coffee using the boiled water. (If this is not possible, show an image of boiling water and adjust the following discussion accordingly.) Then address the students, drawing their attention to the boiling water, and describe it using very neutral, descriptive language:

“Did you notice that the water in this container started to make a noise, move around, and give off vapor just before I poured it out? I am told this is called ‘boiling,’ but I am not sure I really understand what makes it happen. Maybe you already learned about this in school?”

Write on the board: “Why did the water boil?” Ask students to help you out, working in pairs or small groups to write a short paragraph explaining what caused the water to boil. Be careful not to specify the kind of explanation (e.g., scientific, philosophical) that you want them to produce.

After allowing a few minutes for this, ask students to share their answers. Continue to feign ignorance and encourage them to flesh out their accounts. If all of the answers are basically scientific in approach, ask the class, after several answers have been shared, why they chose to answer scientifically, since you did not tell them to do that when you asked the question. Ask if there are other valid explanations for why the water boiled. If students offer different kinds of explanation, express interest in the differences and move on to the next part of the discussion.

If students do not arrive at it themselves, offer the explanation that the water boiled because you were thirsty and wanted a cup of tea or coffee, so you turned on the kettle. This may elicit groans, but ask students to pursue it as a serious explanation. Would the water have boiled if you had not wanted a cup of tea? Suggest that you all sit and watch the kettle to see if it boils again on its own, now that you already have your tea. It seems that you were, in fact, in some sense, the cause of the water boiling.

Ask students to think about the relationship between two kinds of explanations, one involving natural processes that can be described and predicted by science, and the other involving the intentions of an agent that are not scientifically predictable (i.e., you could have waited until after class for your drink, or you could have chosen to drink juice).

  • Is one kind of explanation better than the other?
  • Can either of them fully explain on its own, without the other, what happened at the start of class?
  • What does each kind of explanation help us to explain?
  • Can we do without one or the other of them?

Conclude by drawing a parallel to questions about faith and science. Ask students to consider whether the idea of multiple levels of valid explanations can help us think about questions such as:

  • Whether God caused an event, or whether it was caused by a natural process that science can describe
  • Whether religious experience is an encounter with God, or a release of chemicals in the brain

Tell students that they will explore this idea further in subsequent activities.

This activity could be used to lead into the activity Why Not Both?

Who Scored?

In Brief

This is a quick introductory activity intended to get students thinking about whether events can have multiple causes. It uses the story of a game-winning free kick in a soccer match to create conversation around this topic. The more substantial exploration of what multiple causality has to do with the Bible and science is in the activity Why Not Both?

Goals

Students will understand that the same event can be seen as having multiple causes, depending on the level of description.

Students will understand that the idea of multiple causes is relevant to how we think about miracles and about God’s action in relationship to natural laws.

Thinking Ahead

Discussions of faith and science online often exhibit a common pattern: faith is pitted against science, and they are assumed to be competing explanations of the same phenomena. For instance, there might be debate about whether some phenomenon is inexplicable in natural terms and, therefore, must involve God. Alternatively, there might be a question of whether a phenomenon can be given a scientific explanation, thus removing the need to think of God as having anything to do with it at all. Similarly, research on what happens in the brain during prayer might be presented in a way that implies that either something spiritual is happening or it’s a chemical reaction in the brain.

This activity, along with the later activity Why Not Both?, opens space to question this binary pattern of thinking. Consider your own verbal practices in the classroom—do you ever speak of things as either scientific and naturally caused or spiritual and involving God? Do you model a way of seeing in which both could be true?

Because both this activity and Boil the Water focus on establishing that there can be different kinds of causation at the same time, you may want to choose just one of these to present. Each of these activities paves the way for the more direct focus in later activities on divine and natural causation.

(If you would like to explore ideas about causation further, you could introduce students to Aristotle’s influential schema of four kinds of cause, summarized in various online resources.)

Related Book Review: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything by Gerald Rau

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Directions:

Though this activity is about a soccer match, it can be adapted for other sports, if desired.

Teaching the Activity

Describe the following scenario to the class, displaying the text below on the screen (it is provided as a slide in Who Scored):

On a blustery afternoon, a tense soccer game is nearing its conclusion. The Home Town Heroes are vying with their archrivals for the championship, and the game is tied, with only seconds left on the clock. The Home Town Heroes press forward toward the opposing net, bringing the crowd to its feet, but just as the striker is about to shoot, he is fouled.

The teams prepare for the resulting free kick. The crowd is roaring encouragement, and the TV commentator observes that the goalkeeper is looking nervous amid the clamor. The striker seems fidgety, too, as he prepares for the kick, but seems to regain focus after a word from one of his teammates.

He jogs forward and connects solidly with the ball. The crowd gasps as the ball flies at an angle that seems sure to miss. There is a fierce gust of wind, and the shot curves at the last second into the top corner of the goal. The crowd goes wild as the teams play out the dying seconds, and the home team wins the championship.

Ask students to turn to a partner and discuss what caused the winning goal to be scored.

After allowing a short time for discussion, take suggestions from students, asking for explanations of why we might view each suggestion as a possible cause. Consider with students the merits and weaknesses of the following as causes:

  • The natural laws that determine the path of the ball through the air once it has been kicked
  • The home-team forward
  • The other home-team player who encouraged him
  • The crowd
  • The wind
  • The away-team’s player who committed the foul
  • The preceding defensive play that had kept the game tied
  • The goalkeeper

Ask students to consider whether reducing it to one cause, removing the others from consideration, helps explain what happened:

  • Which cause would we choose?
  • Would it provide a satisfactory explanation of what happened?
  • If we provide an explanation using the language of physics, does it make the explanation that involves the participation of the players and the crowd less relevant?

Conclude by noting that it is tempting, when considering faith and science questions, to approach matters as if there is a zero-sum game (a situation in which the solutions compete with each other and only one can be correct; see the activity Zero-Sum Games for more details). An example of this is the idea that either God causes something and it is a miracle, or we can describe its natural causes and it is just nature.

  • How might the soccer example help us begin to think about this in a richer way?
  • Can events have more than one kind of cause at the same time?
  • If we become able to describe an apparent miracle in scientific terms, would that mean that we could no longer say that God brought it about?

Since this activity is intended as a brief thought-provoker to introduce more substantive exploration, tell students that they will be thinking about this more later. This activity could be used to lead into the activity Why Not Both?

God’s Nostrils

In Brief

This short introductory activity engages students in reflecting on the differences between metaphorical, literal, and scientific descriptions of the same events, and on how these differences inform the relationship of the Bible to science. To serve as a starting point for this ongoing discussion, this exercise uses passages from Exodus about the crossing of the Red Sea that elucidate different versions of the same event.

Goals

Students will understand that both literal and figurative language can be used to describe things that are real, or really happened, and that the Bible uses both kinds of language, sometimes for the same event.

Students will understand that an ordinary language description (literal or metaphorical) and a scientific description of the same event need not be in tension with one another.

Thinking Ahead

As you approach the question of literal and figurative language in the Bible, you will need to take into account the unarticulated assumptions that may be in students’ minds, and may hinder clarity of thought. Many people carry some assumptions that come from older views of language that are now widely discredited. One commonly held viewpoint is that literal language is associated with truth—facts and things actually being real—while figurative, or metaphorical, language is associated with fiction—make-believe and mere decoration. This is a fallible way of making the distinction between truth and fiction.

Science uses metaphorical language to name factual states of being (e.g., “black holes”). In everyday speech, we frequently use metaphors to describe things that really happened, and even to achieve greater precision in communication. For example, “he grew angrier and angrier until he finally exploded with rage.” Or, “she shattered the world record, ” which actually gives us more information about the importance of what happened than the factual “she exceeded the previous best time.”

In spite of this, some students may still see the statement that “a biblical text is not literal,” as a kind of veiled way of saying it is less true. Make sure these distinctions are clear in your own thinking as you preview the activity, and have some additional examples ready, in case some students need more time to think the matter through.

Related Book Review: The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate by John H. Walton

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Display Exodus 15:8 using the presentation slide from God’s Nostrils:

By the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up,
the flowing water stood upright like a heap,
and the deep waters were solidified in the heart of the sea.

Ask students if they can identify which biblical event this verse might be describing. Once they (or you) have connected it to the crossing of the Red Sea at the Exodus, have students turn to Exodus 15:1-21, and read through the passage silently. When they have done this, read it a second time aloud.

Next, ask students to find the verse in Exodus 14:13-31 that describes the specific event being referred to in Exodus 15:8. They should be able to identify Exodus 14:21:

Moses stretched out his hand toward the sea, and the Lord drove the sea apart by a strong east wind all that night, and he made the sea into dry land, and the water was divided.

Display the second slide that shows Exodus 14:21 and 15:8 together.

Next, ask students what the relationship is between the two descriptions of the same event. One says that a strong east wind drove back the water and exposed the ground; the other says that God drove the water back with his breath, and the water became solid. Are we to take both literally? Elicit that Exodus 15 uses richly poetic, metaphorical language. The point is not that God literally blew the east wind from enormous nostrils in the sky, but that the wind is serving as God’s agent.

Ask students: If a statement is poetic and metaphorical, does that mean it is not true? Allow a few minutes for students to grapple with this in discussion. As students suggest answers, ask if they can give examples. Provide additional examples yourself, such as:

  • “That home run was an absolute bullet.” (Is this a metaphor? Yes. The home run was not literally a bullet. Does that mean the event described did not actually happen? No.)
  • “My last test really stunk.” (Is this a metaphor? Yes. The test did not have a literal aroma. Does that mean this statement is not saying anything literally true about the test? No.)
  • “I have butterflies in my stomach.” (Is this a metaphor? We hope so. Does that mean the statement is not saying anything literally true about your feelings? No.)

Establish that the difference between literal language and metaphors is not that the former refers to real things while the latter is just fantasy—both can describe what really happened, but metaphors often make it more vivid, or give us a more complex picture that relates something to a richer context. You could explore this further by looking at the metaphors in Exodus 15:8 and surrounding verses, and asking students how these metaphors fill out our picture of God and how the events at the Red Sea revealed God to Israel.

Then ask students how a natural scientist witnessing the same events might have described them in scientific terms. Gather suggestions before asking students how this new description would relate to the other two.

  • Would it cancel them out?
  • Would it be describing a whole different event?
  • Would it be the only version that really referred to what happened?
  • Or could all three descriptions, in principle, stand alongside each other, and each one refer successfully and truly to what happened?

Reflect with students on how this might help us think about how biblical language relates to scientific language. These themes are explored further in the activity The Pillars of Creation in the Activity Map on Wonder and Wisdom.

Optional Extra

Ask students to think of a significant event in their own life and write:

  • A short scientific description of what happened
  • A short, simple description of what happened, as seen by an observer
  • A metaphorical description that emphasizes the meaning of what happened
  • A short reflection on how these three descriptions relate to each other—what does each offer that the others do not?

Delve Activities

Delve activities promote more extended learning. This is where the main substance of the lesson unfolds.

  • Activity

    20 min

    Brains and Covenants

  • Activity

    45 min

    Why Not Both?

  • Activity

    40 min

    He Sends the Snow

Brains and Covenants

In Brief

This activity is intended to get students thinking about how multiple levels of description, scientific and non-scientific, can coexist. It uses the story of David and Jonathan to offer a quick introduction to topics explored further in the activity Why Not Both?

Goals

Students will understand that scientific and non-scientific descriptions of a phenomenon can be complementary and both important, rather than in competition.

Students will understand the concept of reductionism.

Thinking Ahead

Both in the school curriculum and in the wider society, students encounter a variety of discourses describing human beings. People are described using everyday language, poetic language, theological language, biological language, and psychological language. It is common to find articles online explaining how various aspects of relationships can be explained by neuroscience. Sometimes the impression is given that such studies have explained away other kinds of accounts, or that they offer a more fundamentally true picture of what is going on. This is part of the wider cultural and psychological context in which we think about faith and science, and is sometimes echoed from the theological side by a “God of the gaps” perspective that finds God in the places where scientific explanations fail.

This activity, and variations on its theme in Who Scored?, Boil the Water, and the more detailed exploration in Why Not Both?, open space to question this pattern of thinking. Think about what opportunities your students have in school to see how the languages of different curriculum areas, such as science class and Bible class, relate to one another. Do our curricular practices make space for such comparisons, or leave them to students to figure out on their own?

Related Book Review: Science & Theology: An Introduction by J. C. Polkinghorne

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Display the first slide from Brains and Covenants and have a student read the passage aloud:

When David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan and David became bound together in close friendship. Jonathan loved David as much as he did his own life. Saul retained David on that day and did not allow him to return to his father’s house. Jonathan made a covenant with David, for he loved him as much as he did his own life. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with the rest of his gear, including his sword, his bow, and even his belt.

1 Samuel 18:1-4 (NET)

Point out the intensity of Jonathan’s friendship with David. Ask students in general terms about close friendships they have experienced:

  • Why are friends important to them?
  • Are friends only valuable for what they can do for us, or do we see them as having their own worth?
  • Has anyone made sacrifices for a friend, such as engaging in an activity that they did not enjoy or spending resources on a gift?
  • Has anyone ever made promises to friends and then felt good about keeping them or guilty about breaking them?
  • Why do our commitments to our friends matter? Is it okay to break promises if we feel like it?

Point out the word “covenant” in the passage and ask students what that word means and implies. Elicit that this talks about friendship in terms of moral commitment and responsibility before God. Keep this discussion moving; the purpose is not to exhaust the topic, but simply to evoke a way of talking about friendship that uses the language of moral commitment and faith, and appeals to our everyday experience of relationships.

Next, show the second slide and have a student read the passage aloud:

Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes social bonding. Elevated levels of oxytocin in the brain, and imitation of behaviors observed in parents as a small child, enabled David and Jonathan to engage in communicative behaviors that fostered repeated open interaction. Repeated patterns of interaction and memories of past positive emotional stimuli from time spent together led to the presence of the other becoming an environmental affordance that reduced the production of stress hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the brain. The presence of the other came to support increased oxytocin production, leading to feelings of happiness.

This slide offers a summary of some of the ways in which brain processes enable friendship. Check that students understand what it is saying about how brain processes support friendship (an “affordance” is a feature of the environment that makes a behavior possible). Ask students if this paragraph also accurately describes the friendship between David and Jonathan. How is its language different from the language in the biblical passage? How does it draw our attention in a different direction?

Display the third slide, which shows the two passages side by side. Ask students:

  • How are the words and concepts in each passage different? (Scientific language versus everyday language that draws on emotional, moral, and religious categories.)
  • What does each of these languages help us to do or to name? (Scientific language enables us to be technically precise, to study emotional problems and create therapies; moral and religious language enables us to name what is personally and ethically important about relationships and other people, and why we value them.)
  • What would be lost if we got rid of the way of talking about relationships in one of the passages and just relied on the other? What would we no longer be able to explain? (Our sense of the profound worth of the friend and the friendship, beyond what they do for our feelings, seems to diminish in the scientific language; the friend becomes a stimulus in our environment. The moral framework of covenant with its binding nature also seems to fade—stimuli seem more interchangeable. Yet the everyday language offers fewer resources for understanding and treating disorders or researching how emotions work.)
  • How might a close friend react if we suggested to them that our friendship with them is nothing more than the operation of chemicals in our brain? Why might they find that offensive? (It does not honor their worth as a person.)
  • Would the Bible be more accurate, or truer, if the passage had been written in scientific language rather than everyday language?
  • Do we have to choose between the scientific story and the natural language story, or could both be true but answering different questions?

Conclude by noting that it is tempting, when considering faith and science questions, to approach matters as if there is a zero-sum game (a situation in which the solutions compete with each other and only one can be correct; see the activity Zero-Sum Games for more details). For example, we sometimes talk as if either humans are spiritual beings made in God’s image, or they are complex biological organisms subject to natural processes; either we experience God in prayer, or we are just experiencing chemical processes in the brain. Could both accounts be true and important but telling us different things?

Optional Extra

Ask students to rewrite the passage from 1 Samuel using only scientific terminology (some online research about brain science and friendship may be needed), and then discuss:

  • Whether the results of the rewrite are an improvement over the biblical language. (Should God have made the Bible scientific?)
  • How the results of the rewrite relate to the purposes of Scripture. (Could the new version be preached, or used to comfort or inspire, or to awaken faith?)

Why Not Both?

In Brief

This activity introduces students to the concept of multiple causality. In biblical theology, multiple causality can be used to describe how the Bible presents the causes of events. It is also relevant when thinking about faith and science because of its connection to the question of whether an event can have both divine and natural causes. This activity engages students in investigating biblical texts with a focus on the students’ implicit view of causation, and then transferring that learning to a consideration of an online discussion of brain science.

Goals

Students will understand the concept of dual causality as it relates to interpreting the Bible.

Students will understand how the Bible’s approach to dual causality can inform how we think about faith and science.

Students will understand that neuroscientific accounts of brain functioning are not necessarily at odds with faith.

Thinking Ahead

This activity helps students see that in many biblical texts, there is more than one account of what caused things to happen. It also helps students make the complex and sometimes unexpected connections between faith and science.

The Absalom story may not seem to have much to do with brain science, but in the biblical texts studied, divine, human, and natural causes are all present and are not viewed as providing competing explanations, but are viewed, rather, as all being involved at once. God is not just involved when there is a mystery; God is involved within all of the natural processes that are presented. Identifying a political or social cause does not mean that God’s involvement has been explained away. Similarly, in discussions of brain science, scientific explanations of what happens in the brain when we pray, for example, do not in themselves imply that God might not be involved when we pray. We may not have to choose, or fight over, one explanation or the other.

As you prepare to teach this activity, be sure to read through the passages to gain a clear sense of the different strands of causal explanation in them. You might also consider whether there are any aspects of your existing verbal practices in the classroom that might challenge students’ grasp of this issue. For example:

  • Do you contrast things that have a natural, scientific explanation with things that must be caused by God because they do not have such explanations, implying that we can only see God at work where there is no other explanation available?
  • Do you tend to associate God with the mysterious and miraculous, but not with the normal and everyday?

Take some time to consider how you might align your own speaking habits with what students are to learn in this activity.

Related Book Review: God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens by John F. Haught

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Bibles

  • Copies of the first page of Why Not Both for half the class, and copies of the second page for the other half of the class

Teaching the Activity

Do not announce the larger theme of the activity yet, but inform students that they are going to investigate the causes of the temporary success and later failure of Absalom’s rebellion.

Divide the class into groups of four, and then ask each group to divide into two pairs. Tell students that each pair is going to work on a task and compare their results. Each pair should receive one of the two versions of the handout in Why Not Both, so that each group of four has one pair working on one version and one pair on the other. Both versions cover the same large textual unit, but each focuses student attention on different sections of the text. Ask students to investigate the causes of success and failure for individuals in the story. The main points that students will find are listed below:

Version A, unlabeled first page of the handout (focuses on human causation):

  1. 2 Samuel 14:25-27 – Absalom is widely admired as the most handsome man in Israel.
  2. 2 Samuel 15:1-13 – Absalom has worked to build popularity among the people, and they are on his side.
  3. 2 Samuel 16:20-23 – Absalom has a wise counselor to give him instructions.
  4. 2 Samuel 17:15-16 – Hushai leaks information from Absalom’s inner circle to David.
  5. 2 Samuel 18:6-9, 14 – Absalom’s army is defeated, and Absalom accidentally gets caught by his hair in a tree.
  6. 2 Samuel 19:9-15 – The king delivered the land from Absalom.

Version B, unlabeled second page of the handout (focuses on divine causation):

  1. 2 Samuel 15:21-30 – Everything will happen as the LORD decides, and the king submits to God’s will.
  2. 2 Samuel 16:5-13 – David is under a curse from the LORD because of his involvement in past bloodshed.
  3. 2 Samuel 17:14 – The LORD has decided to confound Ahithophel’s advice.
  4. 2 Samuel 18:9, 14, 19-20 – The LORD has vindicated the king before his enemies.
  5. Psalm 3:1-8 – The LORD is a shield that protects David, and the LORD strikes the wicked.

Once pairs have had enough time to work through the texts, ask them to return to their groups of four and compare their findings.

At this point, at the latest, students will discover that they have been studying different texts and have arrived at a different list of causes.

After some time for groups to compare notes, draw the class together, and ask what students have learned about the way this story talks about the causes of events. Elicit that the text does not seem embarrassed by offering both divine and natural causes for the same event.

Draw students’ attention to 2 Samuel 16:18:

Hushai replied to Absalom, “No, I will be loyal to the one whom the Lord, these people, and all the men of Israel have chosen.” (NET)

Hushai is not speaking honestly here, but his utterance implies a way of thinking about Absalom’s success in which it is not strange to think of both divine and human causes simultaneously. This way of speaking seems to be intended to make natural sense to his hearers. His insincerity with regard to the Lord really being with Absalom does not change this.

Now introduce the notion of dual causality, and explain to students that theologians have used this idea to explain the Bible’s way of speaking of events as having both divine and natural causation, without one cancelling out the other. Point out that this is different from a common assumption that causes have to cancel each other out. For example, when someone says that something that happened must have been caused by God because there was no apparent human cause, or conversely, that something did not involve God because its human cause has become known or understood.

(If students are interested in taking this theological discussion further, you could invite them to think about how the Bible’s view of the coexistence of divine and natural causes is related to the logic of creation—if God is the creator of all, and not a thing like other things within the universe, then God does not compete for space with natural things and processes; rather God creates and sustains them.)

Next, ask students how this view of causation in the Bible might be relevant to conversations about faith and science. It may be helpful to allow a few minutes to let students discuss this in pairs, to seed the class discussion. Take suggestions from students. It does not matter if students’ ideas are unclear at this point.

After a few minutes for discussion, read and/or display Exodus 14:21:

Moses stretched out his hand toward the sea, and the LORD drove the sea apart by a strong east wind all that night, and he made the sea into dry land, and the water was divided. (NET)

Ask students to identify the story and then to name the cause of the waters falling back. The text says it is the Lord and a strong east wind.

  • Do the two explanations contradict one another?
  • If an observer had been able to describe scientifically how the wind caused the waters to recede, would that mean that we could not also say that the Lord was involved in this event? Is this still a “miracle” if both explanations are true?

Similar questions can be asked a few verses later, in verse 25:

He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving, and the Egyptians said, “Let’s flee from Israel, for the LORD fights for them against Egypt!” (NET)

  • Why was it hard to drive?
  • What if an observer had noticed this involved very high wind and mud and panic on the part of the Egyptians?

Finally, move to a current topic in debates about faith and science: the relationship of prayer to brain science. Since students have been reading intensively for the earlier parts of this activity, it will be a good change of pace and mode of engagement if you switch now to a different approach.

Write the word “God” at one end of your blackboard or white board, and the word “Brain” at the other end. Tell students that you are going to present an actual example of an online discussion about brain science and faith. (Source: Abovetopsecret, retrieved Wednesday, October 12, 2016)

Explain that an agnostic person who was experiencing a stressful time reported on a discussion board that he/she had been turning to prayer and meditation as a stress reliever. After a while, this person suddenly experienced the conviction that he/she was not just engaging in an exercise to make himself/herself feel calmer, but was communicating with God. This person experienced a sense of God’s presence as he/she prayed, and his/her question to the discussion board was: Does this mean that God (whatever God might be) is real, or does it just mean that my brain is tricking me?

Act out the two kinds of responses that arose in the online discussion that followed. As you give voice to one set of arguments, stand at the “Brain” end of the board; for the other set, move to the “God” end of the board. You may also wish to use different voices (without making either voice ridiculous), or wear different hats for the two sides—the goal is simply to make the two positions clear and visually distinct.

Present both sides as measured, intelligent views, despite their flaws, to avoid implying that one or the other should simply be dismissed.

Share the following arguments in your own words (they are loosely paraphrased from several posters’ comments).

Brain

  • What you experienced has nothing to do with God. It’s just your brain being trained by the repetition of your praying. What is causing your feeling that God is real, and that you are talking to God, is just chemicals being released in your brain. It’s scientific. Neuroscience is telling us that the practices in which we engage can rewire our brains, and that having a belief can give us a feeling of euphoria. Our brain generates beliefs that make us feel good. You’d have to be a sadly misinformed and ignorant person, or just plain crazy, to think this means God is there, especially in a scientific age, because we know now that the brain causes those feelings. Talk to yourself long enough and you go crazy.

God

  • Brain science doesn’t disprove God. You are experiencing God’s presence. People who invoke science as if it disproved God are just appealing to vague authority, and not respecting people’s faith. Blind belief in science is ignorant. Prayer is spiritual and you need to humble yourself and open yourself up so God can speak to you. When I have prayed, I have seen God do miracles, and that makes me believe prayer is really connecting to God. Once you stop praying, you might as well be a robot; there’s no hope. Believing as a result of prayer is not a trick of the brain; it’s how we find the truth.

Move back to the middle of the board and discuss the following questions with students:

  • How would you respond to these views in light of what you have learned about the view of causality that is implicit in the Bible?
  • How might the idea of dual causality help clarify this discussion?
  • Does acceptance of the findings of science force us towards one answer or the other?

The key question here is: Could a spiritual experience be caused both by brain functions and by a real encounter with God? Considering this possibility suggests that there may be flaws in both of the positions just enacted. Draw out the following:

  • If prayer connects us to spiritual realities, to hope, and to God, would we expect it to do us good? Would we expect it to be connected to brain mechanisms that help generate good feelings?
  • If neuroscience tells us that various kinds of experiences reshape the brain, does this mean we should start doubting that other things we experience are real, once we start seeing how they affect the brain? Are changes in the brain the cause of making things up, or are they responses to something real?
  • If God made us with brains that support the practice of praying, wouldn’t we expect processes in the brain to play a role in prayer?

As you debrief this activity with students, be sure to clarify what might and might not follow—this kind of account does not prove that God is involved in any particular process. It simply means:

  • That it is not the Bible’s view that investigating natural causes and claiming God’s involvement are alternatives to be fought over so that science or faith can win. A biblical perspective suggests that often both may be true at once.
  • That when a natural explanation is provided for a phenomenon, this need not count as a reason for quickly concluding that God could not have been involved.
  • That investigating scientific causes for things is not necessarily in tension with belief in God, and belief in God need not mean discounting scientific findings.

Optional Extra

You may wish to extend the discussion by introducing the idea of the “God of the gaps,” and letting students explore its weaknesses. This is the common way of speaking about God’s agency, as if God is only involved when we cannot find any natural cause for some event, so we therefore view it as a miracle.

One problem with this view is that God’s role tends to get smaller as more things are studied. Another is that it is not how the Bible portrays God’s involvement in the world; God is involved in sustaining normal, everyday processes. You can find further resources connected to this idea in the Activity Map on Newton’s Laws, which explores in more detail the relationship between miracles and natural laws. Consider collaborating with a science colleague to explore this idea in parallel in science and Bible classes in order to extend and reinforce learning.

Another way of extending this theme might be to explore other biblical episodes where the question of different kinds of causes and processes might arise. For instance, you could explore with students the New Testament’s account of who was responsible for Jesus’s death (various passages point to roles for Judas, Pilate, the crowds, the soldiers, God, and Jesus himself). Another kind of example (and also a briefer one) is a passage such as Acts 13:1-3—what kinds of processes might we consider to have been part of the Holy Spirit speaking to the church at Antioch? If the church members, for instance, noticed gifts in Barnabas and Saul as they served together, would that be at odds with the claim that the Holy Spirit spoke?

He Sends the Snow

In Brief

This activity helps students see that “Word of God” refers to a range of things in Scripture, including God’s sustaining the processes of the natural world. It engages students in reflecting upon how this might help us think about the relationship of the “Word of God” to natural science. Students will read passages from the Bible that refer to the “Word of God” and will explore the range of possible meanings for this phrase.

Goals

Students will understand that “Word of God,” or “Word of the Lord,” is used in the Bible to convey a number of different things.

Students will understand that the Bible affirms God’s “word” as sustaining the regular natural processes studied by science.

Thinking Ahead

Popular accounts of debates about origins, online, with schoolmates, in classes, or in churches, sometimes talk in terms of the Word of God versus science, where the phrase “Word of God” refers to the Bible. The activities in this Activity Map aim to make students aware that the relationship between the Bible and science is a complex one.

This activity engages students in exploring some of the different things the Bible means when it refers to the “Word of God,” before asking them to focus on the Bible’s picture of the Word of God as related to the regularities of the natural world, regularities studied by science.

As you prepare, consider whether your verbal practices in class when referring to the Word of God suggest the breadth of the concept in Scripture. Are there ways you could collaborate with science colleagues by relating this activity to discussions in their classrooms?

The themes in this activity connect with those in the activity Where is Wisdom? in the Activity Map Wonder and Wisdom, the activity In the Beginning in the Activity Map on The Drama of Creation and Evolution, as well as several activities in the Activity Map on Newton’s Laws.

Related Book Review: Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation by Calvin B. DeWitt

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Ask students to write down what the phrase “Word of the Lord” or “Word of God” means to them, allowing a minute or two for them to reflect and write their answers.

Once they have completed this task, you have two options to explore with this activity, depending on how much time you would like to devote to it. For a longer investigation, you could assign students in pairs to use an online tool such as BibleGateway to search for instances of “Word of the Lord” in Scripture. For a shorter activity, you can have students work in pairs to look at the following passages (use Slide 2 of He Sends the Snow and/or the handout He Sends the Snow) and record what “Word of the Lord” seems to be in each case:

  • 1 Samuel 3:1; 2 Samuel 24:11-12; 1 Kings 17:7-9 (In these passages, “Word of the Lord” refers to God’s direct revelation to a person or group delivered directly or through a prophet, perhaps as a result of a vision.)
  • Deuteronomy 31:12 (This passage does not directly use the phrase “Word of the Lord” or “Word of God,” but is one of many that presents the law as carrying divine authority as an extension of God’s word to Moses.)
  • Acts 13:44-49 (In this passage, “Word of God” and “Word of the Lord” refer to the gospel of Christ that is being proclaimed by Paul and Barnabas as part of the early church’s mission.)
  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (While “Word of the Lord” or “Word of God” most often refers in Scripture to a spoken word, this is a key passage used to extend the idea to the written form of God’s Word in the Scriptures.)
  • Psalm 33:6-9 (In this passage, “Word of the Lord” refers to God’s creation and God’s upholding of an ordered universe, as seen in the stability of the world—creation is not just a one-time, past event.)
  • John 1:1-3 (In this passage, the “Word of God” is Jesus and also the source of order on the basis of which the world was made.)

After students have done one of the two exercises to investigate the range of meanings given to “Word of the Lord” or “Word of God” in the Bible, discuss student’s findings (using Slides 3-8 of He Sends the Snow to review the findings) and ask them which ones surprised them. Did it surprise them that “Word of God” refers to many ways in which God speaks, most of them not found in the first example from Scripture? In particular, ask students what they make of the “Word of God” in creating and sustaining the world.

Display Slide 9, which repeats the Psalm 33 and John 1 passages and adds two more:

He sends his command through the earth;
swiftly his order reaches its destination.
He sends the snow that is white like wool;
he spreads the frost that is white like ashes.
He throws his hailstones like crumbs.
Who can withstand the cold wind he sends?
He then orders it all to melt;
he breathes on it, and the water flows.
He proclaims his word to Jacob,
his statutes and regulations to Israel.

Psalm 147:15-19 (NET)


For to the snow he says, ‘Fall to earth,’
and to the torrential rains, ‘Pour down.’ 
The breath of God produces ice,
and the breadth of the waters freeze solid.
He loads the clouds with moisture;
he scatters his lightning through the clouds.

Job 37:6-11 (NET)

Ask students to notice how in the Psalm 147 passage God’s commands to creation and to Israel run together, both as words from God. Help students explicitly think through which versions of the “Word of God” might be relevant to the claim that the “Word of God” causes water to become solid at the freezing point and then flow again when it melts:

  • Does this imply that there has to be a special prophesy for this to happen?
  • Or that somehow it is the Bible that makes ice cubes melt in summer?
  • Or that the best way to find out the freezing point of water is to consult the Bible?
  • Or that somehow evangelism affects the molecular state of water?
  • Or that water only freezes for Christians?

Elicit the understanding that God is involved not only in special acts, such as visions and miracles, but in the everyday regularities of the natural world, such as rain and snow, heat and cold, water and ice (as seen in the Job 37 passage). In other words, the biblical claim is that we live in an ordered world with dependable regularities, because of God’s creation and sustenance of the universe. The dependability of the universe is rooted in the dependability of God’s character.

Finally, ask students what these passages imply for the relationship between the “Word of God” and science.

  • Should we expect this to be mostly a question of challenging the findings of science?
  • How might the “Word of God” actually support the everyday practice of scientific study of the way the world works?
  • Could we do science in a world that was not predictable?

Ask students to write a reflective journal entry in response to the prompt:

  • What does the “Word of God” have to do with science?

Debrief Activities

Debrief activities bring the sequence of the study to a thoughtful close by helping students reflect on how they have been invited to see science and faith anew.

  • Activity

    35 min

    Clothe Yourselves

  • Activity

    An Essay

  • Activity

    20 min

    Iron Chariots

Clothe Yourselves

In Brief

This activity uses two New Testament passages to engage students in exploring Christian virtues and their relevance to the practice of science. It encourages them to see that the relationship between faith and science can be a question of virtues, and not just one of truth claims.

Goals

Students will understand the concept of virtue and its relevance to the New Testament.

Students will understand that a focus on Christian virtues can make a connection between faith and the practice of science.

Thinking Ahead

The focus of this Activity Map is to explore the complementary roles of different kinds of causation when looking at inherent conflicts that might exist between scientific and theological explanations. How should we respond to conflict and disagreement—does faith push us just to defend what we see as the right answer, or also to cultivate virtues of engagement? We include this activity to suggest that approaching conflicts between faith and science only as intellectual puzzles, and not attending to Christian virtue, is inadequate.

In preparation for this activity, you will want to make sure that you are familiar with the details of the two assigned passages and the contents of the List of Virtues handout (even if you decide not to use it).

As with other activities in this Activity Map, a key concern here is to help students see that the relationship between the Bible and science is not restricted to the early chapters of Genesis, or to debates about conflicting truth claims. It may be helpful for Bible and science teachers to spend some time discussing together how, through teaching practices, to help students open space for the relationship between faith and science. Is the relationship only one of conflict based on certain issues and specific beliefs, or are virtues brought into the discussion and to other aspects of the relationship?

Related Book Review: After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N. T. Wright

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Hand out copies of Clothe Yourselves 1. Students can use Bibles, or if you wish to provide printed copies, the passages are included on the second and third pages of the handout.

Have students work in pairs to address the following questions and tasks on the basis of a close reading of Galatians 5:22-6:10 and Colossians 3:7-17:

  1. Make a list of the positive character qualities in these passages that are said to be the mark of someone who is living in Christian faith.

    (Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, mercy, humility, patience, forgiveness)

  2. What in these passages suggests that these are meant to describe the kind of person we become, not just our actions as we do good things now and then?

    (We are to “live by,” “keep in step with” the Spirit, and not “become weary” or “give up”; we are to “clothe ourselves” in these qualities as daily dress.)

  3. What in these passages suggests that these virtues are intended to be practiced in all circumstances, not just in some settings?

    (We are to do good to “all people,” the peace of Christ is to be “in control in your heart,” and these instructions relate to “whatever you do in word or deed.”)

  4. What in these passages suggests that even though these qualities come through grace and from the Holy Spirit, our effort is also required to develop and to practice them?

    (Each is to “test their own actions” and “take pride in themselves alone,” as they “carry their own load.” We are to “sow to please the Spirit,” “put off” vices, and are instructed “clothe [ourselves]” in virtue.)

When students have had time to complete the activity, compare results as a class. Point out the reference to virtues in Colossians 3:14. Make sure that students are clear about the concept of a virtue as a good quality that belongs to your character, a tendency that is stable over time, rather than just a good act. (To reinforce this discussion, and for later reference, you could hand out copies of the brief guide to the concept of virtues in the handout List of Virtues.)

Ask students if they have ever been part of a conversation about the relationship of faith and science. Would it have occurred to them that either of these passages might have a bearing on how we think about the relationship between faith and science? Tell students that they are going to think this possibility through in a little more detail.

Hand out copies of Clothe Yourselves 2, which names five different aspects of the practice of science that might have a connection to character. Ask students to return to their pairs and consider how these aspects of science relate to the list of virtues they compiled from the two passages. Ask them to write on the sheet at least one specific, concrete example of how a character quality they listed could be relevant to the practice of science. Circulate as they work on this, providing hints if particular pairs get stuck with the potentially unfamiliar train of thought. When students have had time to complete this, gather multiple examples from the whole class. (Note to the students that while the focus is on science here, a similar exercise could have been conducted in relation to other callings.)

When a range of examples have been shared, return the discussion to the larger question of how the Bible relates to science—point out that we did not use these passages to argue with any scientific findings, but to suggest that science, as a human practice, is not immune to the dynamics of virtue and vice.

Return students’ attention to the potential conflicts in previous activities, such as the online debate in the activity Why Not Both? about whether a sense of God’s presence is real or just the brain’s chemical processes. Point out that in addition to the question of who is right, Christians should be concerned about how people are conducting themselves toward one another in such debates. Discuss with students how seeking to live out the virtues that they have just been considering could affect how we handle the relationship between the language of faith and the language of science, and how we interact with those who have different views of how they fit together. Conclude by asking students to write a brief reflection on whether this activity added to, or changed, their view of how the Bible relates to science.

An Essay

In Brief

This activity provides a substantial assessment of learning from the previous activities in this Activity Map while fostering family conversation about faith and science questions. Students will write an essay based on an article they read and discuss it with a parent or another adult.

Goals

Students will show that they have understood that natural scientific and faith perspectives can be complementary.

Students will engage in family conversation about faith and science.

Thinking Ahead

This activity offers a more substantial assessment of student learning than can be provided by the reflection opportunities at the end of some of the other activities. It also invites students into the practices of sharing their learning with a parent or another adult, and listening to and fairly representing the views of others.

If you plan to regularly involve parents and other adults in homework activities, it is advisable to communicate with them early in the school year about why this is happening, so that expectations are clear. (See the Activity Map on Engaging Parents.)

Related Book Review: Emerging Adulthood and Faith by Jonathan P. Hill

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Student access to the internet

Teaching the Activity

Ask students to find an article online that discusses the scientific basis for a common human experience that has a moral or spiritual component. Articles offering scientific accounts of the brain’s or the body’s role in matters such as love, friendship, marriage, or belief, are good candidates. Assign students to write an essay based on this article that explains:

  • What can be learned from the article about the natural processes involved in the phenomenon under discussion?
  • What does the article’s rhetoric imply about the relationship between the explanations offered by science and those of other kinds of models? Does the article imply that the scientific model is the best way of talking about the phenomenon?
  • How might the phenomenon under discussion be described from a faith perspective? (Attention to relevant biblical material may be included here.)
  • What might the relationship be between the two perspectives: Are there any tensions between them, or could they both be true?

You can determine the length according to your usual parameters, in proportion to the time allocated for the assignment.

In addition, once students have written their essays, ask them to initiate a conversation with a parent or another adult, in which they orally describe what they have written in their essay. Have them discuss the topic with their adult conversation partner. They should explain to their conversation partner what they have been learning about faith and natural processes, and ask if this material is new to the conversation partner. Students should then add a paragraph at the end of the essay describing their adult conversation partner’s reaction, and have the adult sign the essay to indicate that the conversation took place, and that the adult’s thoughts were fairly represented. It would be helpful to debrief this assignment as a class afterwards, to help students think through any challenging ideas they encountered.

Iron Chariots

In Brief

This activity offers a briefer assessment of students’ understanding of the idea of multiple causality in biblical narrative explored in the activity Why Not Both? It asks students to apply those ideas to a fresh passage.

Goals

Students will show that they have understood the concept of multiple causality in biblical narratives.

Thinking Ahead

This activity asks students to apply what they learned in their study of the Absalom story in the activity Why Not Both? to a passage from Judges, offering a chance to reinforce and assess understanding of multiple causality in biblical narrative. In the passage, Israel is oppressed both because of God’s response to its evil deeds, and because of the superior power and technology of its oppressors.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Briefly review with students the concept of multiple causality as explored in the activity Why Not Both? Have students read Judges 4 and write a paragraph responding to the following questions:

  • What are the natural causes presented in this chapter for Israel’s initial slavery and eventual victory?
  • What are the divine-agent causes presented in this chapter for Israel’s initial slavery and eventual victory?
  • How does the chapter see the relationship between the two sets of causes?

You could also handle this activity as an oral class discussion and bring in Judges 1:19-21 for comparison.

In Judges 4, verses 1-2 and 23 suggest that the key issues were whether Israel sinned and whether God was on their side. Verse 3 implies that the Israelites’ crying out was a factor in the situation changing. Verses 3 and 24 suggest that the reason Israel was unable to overcome Jabin was his superior technology, but that later the Israelites became more powerful. The interlude with Jael suggests that individual initiative and deception also played a role. The narrative does not present these strands at odds with one another—God works in and through social processes and human initiative.