What is a tree, scientifically speaking? A mere googling gives the following answer: “a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground.” We can increase detail by describing its family, genus, species and other classifications, but this doesn’t help us with what it is; and we aren’t any closer if we add that the wood is 50% carbon, 42% oxygen, 6% hydrogen, 1% nitrogen, and 1% other elements. These are ingredients, certainly, but trees are more than what they are comprised of, just like we are more than our individuated material.
We can get lost in the minutia, the atoms, the quarks, leptons, the regressing infinitesimal alphas and omegas comprising all, but it brings us no closer to knowing what a tree is. In any event, this work is done by scientists and we call this work of discovery science.
“Scientist,” as a term, has existed for less than two hundred years. It was coined by polymath Rev. William Whewell, a geologist, philosopher, poet, astronomer, mathematician, economist, translator and of course famed educator, orator and reverend. He was mentor and advisor to the luminaries in all branches of science from Michael Faraday to Charles Darwin, John Herschel to Charles Lyell and perhaps best demonstrates to us moderns what a true scientist is like.
The Latin word scientia, like the Greek word mathema, means knowledge, so a scientist is a devotee to knowledge. A “polymath” is someone who is learned in many areas of knowledge, though, in one of the great ironies of language, somehow “poly-sci” means the complete opposite. Nevertheless, the term Scientist replaced Natural Philosopher as the preferred nomenclature for those that follow the scientific method, but more recently the term has been co-opted by materialists to indicate deep thinkers of their ilk.
The problem is that true science cannot be restricted to materialism, for it is an inadequate explanation of existence. Materialism cannot account for the unity of consciousness across time, through memory and symbol. If I asked you who you were and you provided your genetic code I have not been given the weightier matters of your being. Height, weight, eye and hair color are elements as well, but what really gets at who you are is your history. Born here to such a man by such a woman, trained in this, experiencing that, employed there, loving this, marrying her and siring them. We are our stories.
Our catechisms define God in the pseudo-exactitude of a dictionary, God is a spirit, infinite eternal et cetera, but God defines himself by his acts, the God of our fathers, who brought forth from Egypt, who created, who is pure beingness, the ever I AM.
Theology must be returned to her proper place as Scientia Scientiarum, the science of sciences, for either Theology must be the Queen of the Sciences or else she will be the adjunct professor drearily plodding along the esoteric halls of the humanities. The sciences have seceded from the queen by ripping substance from the story, mistaking the scalpel for precision and the microscope for exactitude. Without the true story the church is ill-equipped to resist the lure of evolution’s story, a turgid bit of fanfiction compared to Genesis, but one of great power if left in a vacuum.
So back to the question of a tree, the only way a tree can be known is if its story is understood. The way forward is to recognize, as Alexander Schmemann observed, that reality is symbolic and symbols are real. Biblical symbolism is the story of the created world. Reading Scripture we learn that trees are men, trees are ladders to heaven, trees are kingdoms. We can’t truly know an olive tree unless we know that it was a sacred plant created on the third day, associated with the temple and the wood upon which the Savior was crucified. The horticultural technique of grafting is integral to understanding salvation, but unless we understand the mechanics of it we do not fully appreciate the miracle of our new life in Christ.
The Biblical picture in Romans 11:17 is the wild olive branch being grafted into the olive tree, but in actual practice, the scion (that which is ingrafted) bears the desirous genes, so the process is reversed; the good branch would be grafted into the wild plant in order to produce good fruit. St. Paul expects us to recognize this oddity of wild branches grafted into the domesticated tree.
We cannot understand the world, imbued with intentionality, unless we consider the telos of the world. If the world is Christotelic then no amount of hierography is wasted. Ceding the story to the evolutionist has meant that the Bible doesn’t quite fit in our science classes, though we are sure to garnish our courses with Psalm 19:1 (“The heavens declare the glory of God…”) and Psalm 139:4 (“…for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…”).
Until the formation of mountains is studied in the context of knowing that mountains are altars or an entomologist studies the ant to understand the heart of man, then Christianity will forever be seen as an adjective to be sprinkled onto words that it otherwise has no claim upon; Christian Astronomy, as opposed to Astronomy, Christian Geology as opposed to Geology; there will be music and Christian music, education and Christian education.
What this means practically is that a scientist must move forward in dumbstruck gratitude and terrible pleasure, the fear that begins knowledge and the joy that is man’s chief end. To return to Whewell, he recognized that pleasure was what tied the kingdom to the King. “As clearly as light and the eye are the work of the same author, so clearly also do our capacities for the most exalted visual pleasures, and the feelings flowing from them, proceed from the same Divine Hand.”
It’s a deft argument, the pleasure we get from the creation ties us to the creator; immaterial joy and the capacities of consciousness enlighten our study of the material world, and to sever this tie is to make science less than itself.
Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.
 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Creswood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1973) 128.
 James Jordan, Biblical Horizons, 84 (1996).
 W. Whewell, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with reference to Natural Theology (London: William Pickering, 1833) 258-259