- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Like matter and antimatter, science and spirituality for years could not coexist quietly in the mind of David Pruett.

"I felt like I was going to be pulled apart sometimes," the James Madison University math professor said.

What he hadn't considered during his struggle was that great scientists in history had felt the same forces. They found harmony by giving science and faith a chance to balance, the math professor said.

Aiming to awaken a reverence for the universe in JMU students, Mr. Pruett turned his inner journey into an award-winning honors course. His class, which examines links between American Indian religion and modern physics, has won a $10,000 award from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that seeks to bridge science and theology.

Students in his class learn that American Indians see the universe as a web, with every animal and blade of grass somehow related. Mr. Pruett then introduces the students to several recent scientific theories and asks them to examine the parallels.

Einstein's widely accepted theory of relativity, as its name implies, connects universal constants previously thought to be unrelated, such as space and time, matter and energy.

"The Native American idea that there's this web of life is not all that far-fetched," Mr. Pruett said.

He suggests that all the bodies in the web of the universe — planets and even people — are the spiders.

"As the spiders move around on the web, they're wiggling and stretching it," Mr. Pruett said. "You walk back to your office and you disturb the whole fabric of space and time."

That suggestion has affected Mr. Pruett's students, who have given the course great praise.

Joanne Gabbin, English professor and director of the JMU honors program, said the students wrote glowing evaluations.

One student called the class "an experience of my lifetime."

Another said, "The ideas we covered forced me to expand my mind and examine what I know, who I am and my place in the universe."

When he first proposed the class, though, Mr. Pruett wasn't sure he could impart the importance of that lesson to an honors program panel.

"In some research universities, this would be frowned upon," Mr. Pruett said.

"It's taking away from their narrow focus, perhaps polluting science with metaphysics."

He said he chose American Indian religions to move students out of their comfort zones and to help them see parallels more easily — much in the same way that studying a foreign language can help students learn English grammar.

Mr. Pruett, who has taught the course for two semesters now, said he developed an interest in American Indian belief systems while studying in Arizona years ago.

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