Posted in reflections

A tale of two scientists

September, 1981: Prof. Keyes

Fresh off a gap year of honest but repetitive work in the produce department of a Rochester area supermarket, I drove 8 hours to Quincy, Massachusetts and waited in the freshman registration line at Eastern Nazarene College. “Principles of Biology” was the default choice for non-science majors. Chomping at the bit for an intellectual challenge, and even though I’d already declared my major as religion, I jauntily checked “Introduction to Zoology” instead, the entry course for biology and pre-med majors,

Little did I know what I’d let myself in for! Over the next semester, I painstakingly mastered the details of the Krebs cycle, encountered the Latin names of genera and species, and studied Prof. Glen Keyes’ carefully etched chalkboard drawings of cellular components and reproductive systems. Prof. came to class sporting a white lab coat, answering students’ questions, encouraging them as they diagrammed formulas or microscopic organisms in their lab books. Chapter 1 of the course textbook matter-of-factly presented Darwinian principles like natural selection and how life on earth had evolved and continued to do so. That chapter made me wonder about whether my Christian faith and evolution could be squared. I’ll always be thankful for a conversation with Dr. Alex Varughese in the religion department, an Old Testament specialist with an M.A. in Marine Biology. He sagely replied when I brought my quandary to him:

“Genesis 1-2 is not so much about how as it is about who.”

God is creator, and evolution is the mechanism God used and continues to use to create. The elegant solution of theistic evolution came clearly into view that day and has helpfully guided my thinking ever since.

After Christmas break, I registered for the new semester and headed to the bookstore to buy textbooks. Prof. Keyes walked in and spotted me, a look of concern on his face. “Greg, I just received the print-out for ‘Botany’ and your name was missing. That’s the next course for pre-med majors.” He looked surprised by my reply: “But Prof., I’m not a pre-med major. My major is religion.” He could have tried to convince me to drop religion and pursue pre-med, but he understood the value of both. His last words that day have lingered with me:

“I’m glad to know we’ll have another pastor behind the pulpit who understands that you can believe in both God and evolution.”

But back to 1981. Hard work in Zoology paid off. Going into the final exam, I stood near the top of the class of thirty plus students, down by around ten students who’d dropped the course along the way. When final grades were released, on my report card appeared a much-coveted “A.”

March 2022: Prof. Periodic Table

I drove to the memory care unit west of town. Things were going well with hospice Chaplaincy. Especially rewarding were patients’ stories, often told by their loved ones. Today would bring another story, by turns fascinating, frustrating, and tragic. This day, I would meet Prof. Periodic Table, or PT for short, a nickname the reader will soon understand.

PT was pushing a century old, but despite a faltering short-term memory, he recalled things that happened long ago. He could still recite many details related to science, especially biochemistry. On his wall he proudly displayed the Periodic Table of the Elements, a shout-out to his having taught biochemistry for nearly 4 decades at the collegiate level. At the end of each hospice visit, our tradition was for me to randomly choose one element on the chart. PT would take joy in telling me all about the chosen element and its uses in industry or space. One day, when I pointed on the chart to helium, he lamented that it’s now in short supply, and wondered how chemists would be able to do their work since it’s an element often used in the laboratory. Talking about the Periodic Table was a way to celebrate the hundreds of young scientific minds he had shaped through his expertise and fatherly guidance.

From the start, he was respectful to me, as he was to religion in general. Through his late wife, he maintained a nominal connection to a mainline Christian denomination, and sometimes donated to support their charitable causes. However, underneath the respect was a painful memory nearly 80 years old yet still fresh with emotion. PT grew up in a fundamentalist church, but he also loved chemistry. As a highschooler, his chemistry teacher let him stay after school and work in the laboratory, knowing he could trust the budding chemist not to blow it up with some ill-advised experiment. Soon, PT realized that science would be his life work. Unfortunately, his pastor took PT aside one Sunday at church and warned:

“You have to decide what it’s going to be, PT. You have to choose either science or God. You can’t believe in both.”

PT paused as he delivered the verdict: “I chose science.”

The next visit when PT told the story again, I found the right moment to tell my own story of Zoology, and the wise words of Prof. Keyes and Dr. Varughese to a young, eager college freshman. He listened carefully, and when I was done, he tearfully remarked: “You don’t know how much I wish I could have heard that many years ago.” That science and religion could be simultaneously affirmed was something that PT appears to have never heard clearly articulated. Instead, at a crucial moment, his pastor had tragically given him a false choice.

Later, taking an out-of-state job, I said goodbyes to PT and other hospice patients. Not long after moving, one day my phone pinged with a text message from a former coworker: “Mr. Periodic Table passed away today.” I grieved my friend’s passing and thanked the Lord that our paths had crossed. Whether PT adopted theistic evolution or rediscovered Christian faith, I’ll never know, but his openness to my prayers gives me hope that his earthly journey ended in a peaceful acceptance of God’s reality and gentle embrace.

False dilemmas

To the question, “Is it science or faith?” many answer YES. exists to explore the nexus between scientific inquiry and faith, creating a space for scholars who understand that being forced to choose between the two is a false dilemma. From Gregor Mendel, the Catholic monk who bred peas and became the father of modern genetics, to John Polkinghorne, the British theoretical physicist turned theologian and Anglican minister, to Francis Collins, an American physician and geneticist who spear-headed the Human Genome Project and directed the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the history of science includes persons of faith who saw no conflict between science and religion.

When your Christian teenager comes to you and expresses their intent to pursue a career in ministry, I hope that you’ll find wise words like my Zoology professor did for me that day in the bookstore, words that encourage. Likewise, when your daughter or son excitedly tells you they want to pursue the sciences, I hope you’ll affirm them and not discourage them. Both are paths to God’s truth, and neither profession is an easy path. They’ll need all the support that they can get.


Image credits

test tubes and periodic table — Via Wikimedia, and the Creative Commons Licence, accessible here.

Posted in reflections

From conditioning to encounter: A response to Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxely (1894-1963)

The interface between theology and psychology has always intrigued me. Yesterday, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1932 classic from the British novelist and philosopher presents a vision of a far-off future where humans no longer fulfill the role of “father” and “mother.” Instead, reproduction is carefully engineered by the State, social classes predetermined from fertilization and gestation in closely-monitored bottles.

There are many themes to explore in the book, and the dystopian vision still resonates well at a time when The Hunger Games is all the rage. Allow me to focus this brief essay on a single topic, namely, whether we believe in God only because others have conditioned us to do so.

Conditioning is a psychological technique whereby humans are molded to think and act in ways determined by the person in control. Brave New World portrays a system whereby young children are spoon-fed ideas while they sleep, messages repeated over-and-over through tiny speakers hidden under their pillows. In this passive way, the various classes – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon – acquire their worldview, especially their prejudices toward members of other castes.

Though the novel never explains exactly how the rulers of the “brave new world” condition people’s thinking about God, the Divine Being comes up at the end of the book in a conversation between the Savage and Mustapha Mond, the Controller (p. 183):

The Savage interrupted him. “But isn’t it natural to feel there’s a God?” “You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those odd fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reasons for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’re conditioned to believe in God.” (italics added)

There’s some truth in what Huxley says. Can there be any doubt that Christian education – what Huxley would no doubt consider a form of conditioning – affects a child’s worldview, like a hand imprint left in wet cement? Children who have not yet learned to reason are particularly open to whatever teaching is given, positive or negative, whether it is training to be an altar boy or a child soldier.

Yet Huxley’s critique leaves unaddressed other considerations, particularly the role of religious experience. This experience is both individual and corporate. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Scripture may be considered largely the experience of the divine as lived across time by persons and peoples. Further, it is not a mystical experience devoid of any historical reference, but experiences that transpired in real time. Isaiah saw the LORD lifted up, but it happened “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 1:1). Likewise, The Apostles’ Creed assumes historical reality, portraying a Saviour who “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

More than any other Christian tradition, evangelical faith has discerned the importance of moving past conditioning to encounter. John Wesley (1703-91) had been conditioned by his father and mother to believe that God existed, to pray and to read the Bible. Yet on May 24, 1738, Wesley recorded his personal experience of God’s grace, that his heart was “strangely warmed” while listening to someone read the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. Whether we call this his “evangelical conversion” or simply the moment of the assurance of faith matters little. The point is that – to use Wesley’s later term – he moved in his own self-perception from having the faith of a “servant” to that of a “son.”

Religious experience is always a slippery subject to discuss. Any faith – to be held as true by its adherents – must account for the religious experiences of those who espouse other faith traditions. Why should our community of faith’s experiences be considered more valid? Further, what one calls “God” the skeptic might call hallucination, but at least now we’re having a conversation not about “brainwashing” but something empirical, experiences that can to at least some degree be analyzed and evaluated.

The power of encounter should never be underestimated. Saul had been conditioned to believe certain strict tenets as a boy who grew up under Pharisaical teachings. It was only later, however, when conditioning met encounter in the person of the Living Christ on the road to Damascus that his vision was transformed. Through a radical experience of the transcendent, some of his conditioning was modified. No longer would he seek out Christians to imprison them as enemies of the Jewish faith. Instead, he now became one of their key leaders. Experience trumped conditioning.

Yet one must be careful. God exists independently of our experience of God. One might be tempted to conclude: “For you, God exists because you’ve experienced him, but for me God does not exist since I have never experienced God.” Yet the tree that falls in the forest still makes a sound, whether or not I am close enough to hear it. What matters is that the effects of encounter are measurable. Like a strong wind topples a tree, the fallen tree serves as evidence of an invisible reality. So it is in the spiritual realm. Lives transformed from drunkenness to sobriety, husbands who stop beating their wives, children who were before disobedient to parents who suddenly become more compliant and helpful, these effects and many more testify to a Cause, and that Cause is God. When it happens to enough people, we call it a religious awakening.

Brave New World is a fascinating book on many levels. Aldous Huxley has  done Christ followers a favor by forcing us to begin to think through our assumptions, including how we have come to believe what we do about God. But what do you think? Is Christian faith – or any faith – no more than the result of conditioning? Weigh-in below in the comment thread.


Photo credit: Diccionari Cultural