What does being a teacher mean? Prior to setting foot in the classroom, the objectives of this vocation seemed clear. As a former research chemist, I was to explore with my students the atomic building blocks of everything that they see. We would traverse many paths together to accomplish this, from laboratory experiments to direct instruction to independent research. But despite a diversity of methods, my ultimate goal remained singular– to teach them chemistry. It didn’t occur to me to consider whether there might be another equally important goal on par with that of teaching gas laws and the periodic table. In chemistry class students should learn chemistry, but is chemistry all that they should learn? My entire instructional philosophy changed one day when I opened the floor and invited my students to ask me any science-related question. One could hear a pin drop when a student raised her hand to ask:
“Please do not be offended, but which do you believe more - science or religion?”
Pause for a moment and consider the student’s question. When given carte blanche in the classroom, she did not ask about grading criteria or if there would be a retake of the last test. When given the opportunity to sit and think, this student chose to ask a question not of technicality but of meaning. In my vocation as a Catholic and a scientist, I have been asked questions like this one a great many times, in classrooms, on airplanes, even while picking up my children. How to answer such questions would become the new focus of my life and scholarly work.
Growing up in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in a Catholic household, attending Catholic schools where I studied science and received religious instruction side-by-side, I never felt that I had to choose between science and religion. However, I would not go so far as to say that I embraced the complementarity of the two, either. It was only in the moment of trying to answer the student’s question, and yet failing to articulate a clear explanation, that I began to feel the urgency of inquiring into the science-religion relationship. In the next 8 years of work I would discover that I was not alone. Many young people across the country, in both religious and secular schools, were asking very similar questions of their teachers, and like me, many of these teachers needed support in answering these questions.
What was needed was a centralized effort to educate at the intersection of science and religion that was both academically-rigorous and pastorally-aware. In addition to the personal testimony of teachers nationwide that young people were craving discussions at this point of intersection, a study commissioned by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame presented a stark reminder of the status quo. They discovered that over half of emerging young adult Catholics, former Catholics and “nones” agree that science and religion “often ultimately conflict with each other.” Furthermore, the pervasive belief that the “uncertainty” of religion is displaced by the “certitude” of science, however misleading such a binary may be, leads youth away from religion, and with it, important questions of meaning. It seemed that many young people were asking my student’s question, “What do you believe more, science or religion?”
Returning to that moment, I had an intuition that science and religion are not locked in conflict, and even felt that they must be mutually enriching paths to truth. But at that moment my answer lacked the academic substance required to do justice to her question. I knew of no texts to draw from, nor any role models who are persons of faith and thought-leaders in their fields of study, nor how one might frame the relationship in a way that shows harmony yet also properly respects the legitimate autonomy of both. In the midst of this uncertainty, I received an invitation from the McGrath Institute to come to the University of Notre Dame for a week to learn from scientists, philosophers and theologians about how to relate faith and science to each other, and I eagerly accepted the invitation.
For five days, in June 2014, I joined science and religion teachers from across the country to learn from internationally-renowned experts in particle physics, biology, chemistry, and theology – all experts in their own fields of study. Together, they presented a most remarkable vision for Catholic education and what it means to be an educated person in the world who is also part of a faith tradition. We were shown a powerful counter to the secular narrative that study at a Catholic university and, by extension our schools, puts artificial limits on scholarship. In the lectures from scholars, the reading of key texts in diverse disciplines, and in disputations, we were shown that to study and live a life of faith was freedom personified, the key to seeing reality as it truly is.
Eight years later, the program has not just survived – it has thrived. Now called the Science and Religion Initiative (SRI), the program has served teachers from 302 schools in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Spain in its week-long seminars. Since the founding of SRI, 2700 teachers from America’s high schools have participated in day-long professional development programs entitled “Faith and Reason” days.
Through the educators it has trained, SRI has served an estimated 32,000 students– giving teachers the tools that I did not have when I was asked, all of those years ago, “Which do you believe more - science or religion?”
But the aforementioned numbers, as strong as they are, do not reveal the impact of the program at the level of the individual. Charles Miller, a physics teacher at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville Minnesota, described the impact of SRI programming as follows:
Before I attended the SRI summer programs, I was a physics teacher who believed my faith and my science must be kept in separate boxes in my brain. Through participation in the program, I came to understand how science and religion are seeing the same world, but from different perspectives: both equally important and true.
Giving teachers the tools to think about science and religion in an integrative way is transformative. Theologian Dr. Timothy Kettenring, at The Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, describes the program as empowering him to transform his classroom through modeling “the relational unity of faith and reason.” He cherishes his role as an SRI facilitator, which allows him to assist numerous other educators to do the same.
Motivating and equipping teachers to be living witnesses of the relational unity of science and religion carries over to their students, whose eyes are opened to a much wider world of possibility.
When given the freedom to explore not just the analytic “how” questions but also the “why” questions burning inside them, students begin to value the knowledge offered by both science and theology.
When taught science and theology in a truly integrated way, students respond with gratitude, and often in ways that reveal a yearning for a transcendent meaning and purpose. After completing a semester-long course on faith and science offered by an alum of SRI programming, one student arrived at an experience of God through a new level of wonder and the beauty of the natural world:
Before taking this class, I was an atheist. When we learned about awe, I remember thinking, ‘Of course there has to be something out there, otherwise how could things like this happen?’ I had that feeling of awe when I woke up this morning and saw the snow piling atop the thin branches outside my window. I think that I will never forget the feeling of seeing something so perfectly beautiful in creation…
Challenging students to go to the frontiers of science and religion gives them the freedom to think about the world and their place in it. This motivates these students to think differently because they are empowered to discover the fullness of their place in the world. And this is what being a teacher means.
Heather Foucault-Camm is the Program Director for the Science and Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She has degrees in physical chemistry, taught at university and high school levels, and is currently completing a degree in theology.