Scientific Inquiry and the Catholic School

In September of 2016, a Catholic school in inner city Detroit opened a $15 million STEM building. In a city known more for its economic woes and racial unrest, it is remarkable that a Catholic school would raise such an enormous fund from private donors for a building dedicated to the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Has the Society of Jesus, which sponsors the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, finally recognised what so many of the new atheists would have us believe, that we should abandon the study of theology and dedicate ourselves exclusively to the pursuit of science and technology? More waggishly posed: Why build a chapel when you could build a chemistry lab?

During my years as a secondary school teacher, students were often gob-smacked when I emphasised, over and again, that religion and science, faith and reason, were not at odds with one another. ‘Yes, lads, you can be a thinking believer!’ Indeed, I insisted that both the chapel and the chemistry lab must be seen as integral to Catholic education. Each provides a venue for the rigorous and disciplined exploration of reality in all of its beauty and perplexity. In both settings, the student learns never to settle for facile answers to questions, pressing onward in a quest not merely to acquire information but, more importantly, to understand more deeply the intricacy of creation. At the heart of authentic theological and scientific inquiry, there abides a courageous spirit that does not recoil in fear from asking pointed and incisive questions. Thus, in a sense, we might regard both the liturgy and the laboratory as apprenticeship programmes wherein one is trained to see what to superficial eyes remains otherwise undetected.
The ritual of inquiry
Science teachers know the frustration of trying to guide students through dimensional analysis and Punnett’s squares, of memorising the Krebs Cycle and of deriving physics equations. To instruct them, we lead them through a process: identify the known, isolate the unknown, and employ a strategy to find an answer to our question. We insist students ‘show their work’ and demonstrate that they have gone through all the steps necessary to reliably arrive at the correct answer. Even if they do not recognise it, teachers are indoctrinating students into the ritual of inquiry. By rote practice, memorisation, and some cajoling, we encourage students to adopt as habitual the rituals of disciplined inquiry. But, as we know, repetition is seldom a mark of intellectual excellence: we expect our students to probe deeply and engage creatively with the material. We encourage them to confront what is known with questions that push the boundaries of knowledge, turn up new insights, and make richer the realm of science. Rituals of guided inquiry make possible the work, the liturgy, of science.

Frustration, irritation, some sweat, fruitless and failed searches: these are not limited to the laboratory! Anyone who has spent time in real prayer, anyone who has allowed the ritual of the liturgy to draw his or her spirit more deeply into the depths of prayer, knows that there is no assured formula for success. Neither public liturgy nor private prayer furnishes practitioners with never-fail incantations. Instead, we have as part of our heritage of spiritual inquiry rituals that have reliably guided generations of seekers into a deeper relationship with the Creator. Every now and again, we are given the grace of a Eureka moment of radical insight as the hours of time spent in arid prayer reveal an expanded horizon that gives the individual a renewed appreciation for the power and majesty of the Holy One.

Catholic educators should encourage the study of science for the same reason we hope for frequent participation in the Eucharist: by pushing, prodding our students to peer beneath the surface, by wading into the dark waters of the unknown, we enable them to risk being struck by insight and shaken by revelation. Training our students in the rituals of inquiry – theological and scientific – we empower them to enter into the greater liturgy of creation where they may be ‘caught up’ in the beauty of nature and find inexhaustible delight in their realisation that, no matter how many questions one answers, a new question will arise that will elicit one to explore further.

Both chapel and laboratory
Patient and deliberate inquiry, attentive to ritual and appreciative of the vast liturgy into which we are called: these are traits shared by theologians and scientists. Both the chapel and the laboratory are necessary because both are arenas wherein we can risk an encounter with our Creator. We train our students in the chapel and the laboratory because they complement each other marvelously. Patience, wasted time, and steadfast perseverance are as necessary for obtaining, analysing, and processing data as they are every time we dare to pray. We, as teachers, invite our students to become what we know ourselves to be: apprentices to those who have come before us and who continue to inspire us as we press on in our inquiry. A student need not become another Marie Curie or Richard Dawkins, a Mother Teresa or St Francis for them to be successful. Our students, and our Church, succeed when they see that we are enriched by their investigations and that we, their teachers and fellow seekers, support their unwillingness to accept facile answers to their most pressing questions. Both science and theology encourage students to enter more deeply into the liturgy of creation and to celebrate the richness found therein.

Imagine what might happen if we taught theology, or encouraged students to experience the Eucharist, with the same brio with which we teach biology, chemistry, and physics. We could approach the Eucharist as the moment in the liturgy in which the matter we study actually addresses us and beckons us to approach, to question, and to celebrate the Mystery at the heart of reason itself?  Contrary to the worries of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who fear that religious education clouds human reason, we just may find ourselves graced with our own Athanasius Kirchner and Gregor Mendel: models of faithful reason who consecrated scientific exploration to the greater honour and glory of God.
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