Natural Science: God’s Second Book

While not numbered among the seven liberal arts, natural science has long been part of a classical education. At its core, natural science involves observing the world around us as God has created it. Now because we believe that the world is a creation wrought through the Word of God, our understanding of natural science will differ from the secular view, both in what we seek to learn from the world and what we do with our knowledge of it.

The Church has long understood nature to be God’s second book – second, that is, to the Holy Scriptures. While nature does not tell us that God is Triune, or that the Son of God gave his life for us, nature is by no means silent about its great Artificer. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” David sings in Psalm 19, “and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4).

And what is it that nature says? When commenting on the folly of idolatry in Romans 1, Paul notes how the created world testifies to the true and living God – not just to Christians, but to everyone: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” The creation teaches us that there is a God, and that he is powerful, and it even shows us some of his unseen qualities. Let us reflect on a few of the things which we learn from nature.

God’s Eternal Power

One of the first things we learn from nature is God’s eternal power. Reading his second book is and ought to be a humbling experience. Such study leads us to ask: Who has founded such a world? Who stretched out the heavens over us as a tent? Who sets the clouds on high and looses stores of rain and snow and hail? Who carved the great canyons of the earth, and with what arm and graving tool did he do it? Who spread out the seas, and who can plumb their depths? The roots of the mountains and the sources of the deeps are still a mystery to us, yet certain creatures have strength enough to inhabit such realms; how much greater their Maker?

Which of us can look up at a mountain without feeling small? Which of us can weather a storm without feeling powerless? Which of us can turn on enough lamps or light enough fires to drown out the darkness of night? Which of us can escape the heat of summer or the cold of winter? Or does the thermostat make us demigods of our minuscule plots on the earth’s surface? Many prefer the indoors. It’s easy to control things there. It’s easy to feel big there. It’s easy to forget about God there, and pretend to be God there.

But God’s book of nature is never silent. We are creatures ourselves, and there’s no hiding that behind drywall and siding. And so Tertullian wrote in Carthage in the early third century AD, “God will never be hidden, God will never be absent: he will always be perceived, he will always be heard, and he will be seen in whatever manner he wills. God has his witnesses: this entire creation, which we are and in which we live” (Against Marcion, Book I, ch. 10).

Now God’s power may seem an odd starting point for the study of natural science. It sounds more churchy and less sciency. Perhaps I can clarify by defining what science means. The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, and simply means “knowledge.” Natural science, then, means “natural knowledge.” Now the fact that God is the “Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, tells us how we should approach natural science. Science is not something that we manufacture. Science is not man’s way of imposing his will on the world. But because God is Almighty and we are his creatures, therefore science is a gift that he gives and we receive. The study of natural science begins with turning a receptive eye to nature and seeking knowledge from someone greater than we are. The study of natural science begins by taking the world as it is, and not as we want it to be. The study of natural science begins with thanksgiving to the Creator, not with an effort to change the creation.

Orderliness and Providence

The next most obvious thing we might learn from nature is the orderliness of its Designer. The earth revolves on an axis and follows an orbital path. Every day the earth makes a full revolution on its axis – or rather I should say that because every revolution of the earth takes the same amount of time, we can have a standard of measure called “days.” The same can be said of our yearly circumnavigation around the sun. Likewise, the other heavenly bodies stay on their axes and paths, such that outer space resembles a very elegant ballroom graced with very coordinated dancers.

The seasons come and go in predictable cycles. Seeds produce the same kind of plant whence they came, so I can plant a bean and know that I’m going to get a bean plant, and not a dandelion or an oak tree. In this way the second book bears witness to the first: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth: and it was so” (Gen. 1:11, emphasis added).

This orderliness shows us God’s providence. We can practice agriculture on the earth: we can plant seeds in the spring, knowing what kind of crop we can expect from them, and we can count on the early rains to water the earth and make it fruitful. We can rest securely, knowing that we’re not going to drift closer to the sun or have a ninety-seven hour day, either of which would wreak havoc on our fields (to say nothing of other catastrophes). We can assume that our crops will be safe from blizzards in the middle of July. We can rely on the maturing of the fruits of the earth, and the cool autumn that invigorates us for harvesting and completes the growth cycle and readies the earth for winter.

We see this same orderliness with animals, and again the second book testifies about the first: “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:25, emphasis added). Animals are made according to their kinds. A bird gives birth to a bird, and not a goldfish. A cow brings forth a calf, and not a lion. Again we see God’s providence in that we can practice animal husbandry.

Darwin’s Imagination

And here also the book of nature stands with the book of Scripture in denouncing evolution. Louis Agassiz was a brilliant natural scientist of the nineteenth century, to whom Charles Darwin sent a copy of his book On the Origin of Species. Agassiz critiqued Darwin’s work, and his critique carries the weight of a man who has actually spent a great deal of time looking at the world as it is, such that he can spot others who speak of the world as they wish it to be.

Agassiz wrote an article in 1874 for the Atlantic Monthly called “Evolution and Permanence of Type,” which still serves as one of the most concise and poignant reproaches of evolutionary doctrine. There are excellent quotes throughout his article; I’ll cite but a few of them:

[Darwin’s] doctrine appealed the more powerfully to the scientific world because he maintained it at first not upon metaphysical ground but upon observation. Indeed it might be said that he treated his subject according to the best scientific methods, had he not frequently overstepped the boundaries of actual knowledge and allowed his imagination to supply the links which science does not furnish….

[T]his book [On the Origin of Species] does but prove the more conclusively what was already known, namely, that all domesticated animals and cultivated plants are traceable to distinct species, and that the domesticated pigeons which furnish so large a portion of the illustration are, notwithstanding their great diversity under special treatment, no exception to this rule. The truth is, our domesticated animals, with all their breeds and varieties, have never been traced back to anything but their own species, nor have artificial varieties, so far as we know, failed to revert to the wild stock when left to themselves….

It is not true that a slight variation among the successive offspring of the same stock, goes on increasing until the difference amounts to a specific distinction. On the contrary, it is a matter of fact that extreme variations finally degenerate or become sterile; like monstrosities they die out, or return to their type.
(read the full article: ‘Evolution and Permanence of Type’)

Here is a natural scientist who actually gets his science (knowledge) from nature. While Darwin did include a great amount of natural science in his book, the links that string the science together into the doctrine of evolution are, as Agassiz says, products of Darwin’s own imagination. Plants and animals are firmly fixed in their kinds, and we praise our Creator for making the world an orderly place. This orderliness allows us to cultivate plants and animals. Indeed, the entire scientific endeavor depends on and assumes order, without which we could learn nothing absolute.

Beauty and Reality

Besides God’s power and orderliness, we also learn from nature that God is beautiful, and that there is such a thing as objective beauty. The Greeks called the world the κόσμος (cosmos), related to the verb κοσμέω (cosmeo), which means “to adorn” (it’s the same word from which we get the English word “cosmetics”). The world is “the adorned place.” It is decorated and beautified, and unlike the Greeks, we can name the God who did the beautifying.

The world’s adornment is objectively beautiful, not merely beautiful subjectively in the eye of the beholder. Who has ever watched a sunset and called it ugly? Who has ever thought fireflies twinkling in the dusk looked repulsive? People flock to islands and mountains and beaches and forests and lakes because these places are beautiful to behold. Going to them is like stepping into a glorious painting in which one can reach out and touch the brushstrokes.

The beauty of the world inspires us to wonder, to stand in awe of God. Man can only manufacture poor spectacles in comparison with the spectacles that God has given us in nature. A single maple leaf changing colors in autumn is a more wonderful sight than anything man can devise, and there’s no substitute for holding the leaf yourself. Man-made spectacles tend to serve false gods – simply consider what happens in stadiums and movie theaters. The Church has long combatted idolatrous spectacles, preferring instead the spectacles of nature, which put us in awe of the one true God.

There is a certain treatise called De Spectaculis (On the Spectacles), attributed to Cyprian of Carthage, who lived early in the third century AD. The treatise argues how unseemly it is for Christians to love the world’s spectacles: the races and games and theatrical productions. We would do well to be as guarded against the world’s entertainment, which is much the same today as it was in the third century.

Toward the conclusion of the treatise the author writes about the true and beautiful spectacle of nature:

The Christian has better spectacles, if he wants them. He has true and profitable pleasures, if he will recognize them. And, to say nothing of the things which cannot yet be contemplated, he has the very beauty of the world, at which he may look and wonder:

He may behold the rising of the sun, its setting back again, as it recalls days and nights by reciprocal interchanges; the sphere of the moon, as it marks out the courses of the times by its waxings and wanings; the choruses of glittering stars, and those that continually flash because of their supreme mobility, their greatest members divided on high through the changes of the whole year; and the days themselves, along with the nights, divided across the lengths of the hours; the balanced mass of the earth with its mountains; and the flowing rivers with their fountains; the outspread seas with their waves and beaches; meanwhile, agreeing equally with the highest harmony and the bonds of concord, the air, spreading out in the midst of all, enlivening all things with its delicacy – now pouring forth rains from its densely gathered clouds, now calling back serenity with restored spaciousness; and in all these places their proper inhabitants: in the air birds, in the waters fish, on the earth man.

These, I say, and other divine works, should be the spectacles for faithful Christians. What theater, built up with human hands, can be compared with these works? Though it be built up with a great heap of stones, the crests of the mountains are loftier; and though the paneled ceilings be resplendent with gold, they will be surpassed by the flashing of the stars. Never will he wonder at human works who has recognized himself as a son of God. He throws himself down from the height of his nobility who can admire anything besides the Lord.
De Spectaculis, §9

Thus natural science makes us become bored and disaffected with our screens and theaters and arenas, and draws us outside to marvel at what is really marvelous. Natural science delights us with genuine beauty, and gives us to admire things made without human hands. Natural science brings us out of our virtual realities, in which perception is filtered through dots-per-inch and sampling rates, in which mind is over matter, in which a man can self-identify as a woman – natural science, I say, brings us out of virtual reality into actual reality, where vision and hearing are unmediated, where matter doesn’t care what our minds think, where a bull is a bull no matter how much he wants to be a milk cow. The real world is a beautiful place, and natural science frees us from our garish fabrications by directing our wonder outside of ourselves toward the mighty and beautiful and true works of God.

Natural Science and the Classroom

From God’s second book we can learn of God’s existence, his power, his orderliness, his beauty, as well as his providence and the true nature of reality. The question now is, how do we study natural science in the classroom? We start by looking at things in the real science classroom: the outdoors. Natural science is about observing nature, receiving knowledge from that observation, and drawing conclusions from that knowledge based on the assumed orderliness and predictability of the world.

But there’s more to the study of natural science than simply glancing at things and pontificating. Learning how to read God’s second book properly means that we also listen to the voices of the great observationists who have come before us, just as when learning how to read letters on a page we seek help from those who know how to do it. And so we pick up some of the writings of Agassiz or Isaac Newton’s Principia, or, going further back, the Geography of Strabo, and even Herodotus’ notes on the weather and terrain of various countries in his Histories.

Through guided observation and through the voices of natural scientists, the teacher instructs students in the art of science. The teacher shows students what to look for, perhaps using pictures and diagrams, more often pointing and saying, “Look!” The teacher trains students to use observational technology, such as binoculars, telescopes, and microscopes, and how to experiment and test hypotheses. All of this teaches the students to discover order in the world. The teacher also continually reminds students what they can and cannot conclude from their observations (a skill sadly lacking in much pop-science, which, like Darwin, misuses both science and imagination).

Godless Science

In secular schools, children are taught about things like the seasons and the water cycle and the circulatory system. But they’re not taught to marvel and wonder at them, because that would mean acknowledging some Designer behind all the orderliness. Instead, teachers lie to their students – or rather engage in Orwellian double-think – by saying that all the orderliness, all the evidence of God, is not designed (to the great confusion of any pupils who actually happen to live in the world), but is in fact the bastard child of some purposeless force called evolution. There is nothing of the existence of a great Architect: his power, his providence, his beauty. Even if the science teacher himself is a Christian, he is forbidden from teaching as if God existed, meaning he is forbidden from teaching science as it is meant to be taught. In the secular science classroom there is simply empowering ourselves and enslaving knowledge in a great effort to recreate the world to our own liking.

Now if there’s a Christian student sitting in this classroom who knows that this is all bunk, he still will not escape unscathed. He may still believe that this is all bunk by the end of the class, but nevertheless the whole scientific undertaking has been compromised from the start. He has not learned the proper study of science (as much as he has still received some knowledge, insofar as he has accurately observed nature). Instead he has learned that knowledge is power, and the person with the most power gets to decide how the world works. This perversion of science does nothing more than mimic the ancient serpent, saying, “Ye shall be as gods.”

Learning to Read

So let’s teach our children actual science. Let us observe the world with them and discern God’s existence and power and order and beauty. Let us be content to be creatures instead of aspiring to play God like the rest of the world. Let us use our science, our knowledge, in a way that accords with the Scriptures and serves our neighbors. Let us step outside and read God’s second book.

Painting: Landscape with a Shepherd Playing Flute by Laurent de La Hyre, 1647

“Evolution and Permanence of Type” by Louis Agassiz first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, January, 1874.

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of Tertullian and Cyprian are my own.