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An Interdisciplinary Quest

Seeing God in metaphysics

PILOT Spring 2013
By Shelly Barsuhn

Professor of Philosophy Walter Schultz, Ph.D., and Professor of Biology Lisanne Winslow, Ph.D., were deep in discussion, creating a sprawling and complex diagram on the whiteboard

. “Theology, ontology, divine compositionalism…” The terms were clues to a groundbreaking research project that they conducted partially inside the classroom this spring when they taught a course called “Metaphysics, An Interdisciplinary Quest for a Christian Understanding of Mechanisms in Science.” How did these scholars from separate disciplines find their fields intersecting in this rare and wonderful way? And what made this class unlike any before it?

Although Winslow and Schultz both officed in Nazareth Hall, their paths seldom crossed. One day in April 2012, they were making copies in the office center. Small talk led to a conversation about the book Schultz was writing, God Acts: The Dynamic Underlying Reality, and his need for a biologist to help write one crucial chapter. Winslow’s enthusiasm confirmed that they should meet and talk in more depth.

That first meeting was electric with intellectual energy. Both viewed their scholarly work as an expression of love for the redeeming God of the Bible and both were fascinated by the opportunity to conduct research joining their areas of academic expertise. They chose one very specific and complicated mechanism in biology to study—protein synthesis (how human bodies make protein)—and determined to try and understand every piece of it and the powers that drive the molecules.

“There’s this whole world of nature that scientists explain without God,” said Winslow. “Walter and I approached thenatural world from biblically grounded faith, asking, ‘Where is God in the actual molecular world?’” This question placed them inside a very new field of study, Christian philosophy of biology, also called the philosophy of scientific mechanisms. It was so new, in fact, that no scholarly papers in this area had been presented yet. They decided to be the first. The term they proposed to describe this activity in the universe: divine compositionalism. 

During one meeting they thought, “Why not conduct the research and let students observe and help inside of a course?” They proposed the interdisciplinary class to Janet Sommers, Ph.D., senior vice president for Academic Affairs, received approval and developed the course over three months of intensive planning.

“We had a syllabus,” said Winslow, “but we really didn’t know how it was going to go. It depended on discussions in class. How would students perceive and understand with their brilliant minds?” Scholars have biases, but students would have no agenda, just inquisitive minds. 

In the classroom, the professors’ different teaching styles came together in a unique synthesis. They began with deep theology and philosophy, then offered foundations of scientific mechanism and finally brought the parts together.

Students learned how to analyze a scientific mechanism theologically and philosophically.

They participated in interactive group work, with each of five groups having a little piece of the protein synthesis mechanism to analyze. Finally, they wrote a critical paper on a scientific mechanism from a theistic worldview. Schultz said, “The class was designed like a graduate-level course.We pushed students way beyond traditional undergraduate expectations.”

Their diverse group of students—philosophy majors, biology majors and others—rose to the challenge. 

“The facial expressions have been really great,” said Schultz, smiling.

“… and the e-mails,” added Winslow. 

Students did strong, integrative work and even requested a voluntary online forum to discuss their research. Neither professor had ever seen this intense desire to continue conversations outside of class. “It was the first time in my life that I wished the course were a semester long instead of a half semester,” said Schultz.

Biology major Jennifer Terhark, ’14, valued the class because “it wasn’t just about introducing us to materials. It was about a project. We were working toward a goal—proving the professors’ thesis. I never really thought about how philosophy relates to scientific mechanism and how it all relates to God.”

While satisfying a philosophy or biology requirement, “Metaphysics” gave students a taste of what it means to do Christian scholarship in a field outside of theology. Students came to understand in a whole new way how God acts, and in the process helped enhance their professors’ research.

Schultz and Winslow have written two papers on divine compositionalism. They presented the first in late May for the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences at Bethel University. They also traveled to Harvard University in early May to present at the International Conference on Occasionalism.

Did God create the world and bow out or is God intimately involved in even the movement of molecules? Through biblical scholarship, logic and science, Schultz and Winslow are seeking to show that the universe is a dynamic composite process and that the fundamental truth of Scripture is that God is sustaining and guiding creation.