“The way in which we describe the world determines what we think we see. What we think we see determines how we act on what we think we see. Descriptions matter.” This summer I had the privilege to hear Dr. John Swinton speak. He is Chair of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen and a leading voice in disability theology. He is also a thoughtful and experienced person of faith who shares a wisdom that is shaped by his experiences as a nurse and healthcare chaplain. Long after the conference was over, his line about the connections between description, seeing, and acting stuck with me.
I think this is part of the value of Christian education. When we help students learn the richness of a Christian worldview, they should begin to describe all of reality differently. We are not just living on Earth; we are in creation. We have no ground to call other people evil when “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We need not despair in the face of war, because Christ “is making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)
When our students learn to describe the reality around them using the language of our faith, it will change what they see and how they act. In faith, we can describe the people who live around us not as consumers or voters, but as neighbors. In faith, we can recognize that together they form more than a network to be utilized or human resources, they are a community. With this more faithful description of our surroundings, we can see our neighbors as who they really are, the beloved of God, and then act accordingly.
The truth of how description shapes vision, which determines action is also an endorsement for the value of liberal arts education. Those required general education courses, or foundations courses as we call them at my institution, have the ability to teach students new ways to describe the world, leading to new observations, and more informed actions.
When the shortage of people of color in the sciences is described as evidence of systemic racism, rather than just unfortunate, it allows students to see unjust hurdles that may be in place at their own institution. When students learn to describe industrial pollution of waterways as a tragedy of the commons, they are able to see how modern pollution from burning fossil fuels has the same underlying structural problems.
From my own discipline of biology, the ways I teach students to describe the world will impact what they see and (hopefully) how they act. For example, I teach them that humans are mammals, heterotrophs, and aerobes. Being described as a mammal helps us see that we are not our own but exist because someone once carried us for nine months in their womb and later fed us from their body. To be described as a heterotroph helps us see that we can only survive because we take energy and molecules from other beings through eating. I am dependent on the other creatures around me for my sustenance. My strength and energy literally come from their bodies. Finally, to receive the description aerobe helps us see that our life continues only because I take one breath after another, filling my blood with oxygen that was produced as a gift by a green creature somewhere in the world.
The power of descriptions to shape sight could, inadvertently, be used in ways that do harm. When biologists describe the gazelle as “prey” we strip these remarkable animals of their complexity, their social hierarchy, their interconnectedness. If I were to slip and call bacteria “germs” I would incorrectly reinforce the view that all bacteria are dangerous, even the trillions we depend upon for health. Likewise, any reference to humans as animals must be articulated carefully lest an insidious “just” slide before the word animal. Biologists could do great harm to our students by teaching them to see themselves as just animals.
Simple biological descriptions can help us see that we are dependent on other people for our birth, other creatures for our food, and the whole environment for our breath. We are dependent. My prayer is that all of us will see this dependence and be led to act with humility and gratitude. How can we care for and love those we are currently nurturing someone yet unborn? How can we care for and love our fellow creatures that live and die so that we can eat? How can we care for and love the vegetation that God told the earth to put forth? (Genesis 1:11)
No matter your discipline, I encourage you to think about how your subject matter teaches you to describe the world, because as you share this perspective with your students it certainly shapes what they see and determines how they will act.