A Faith Journey in a Medical Science Career, Part 1

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February 11, 2013 Tags: Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by John Pohl. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

A Faith Journey in a Medical Science Career, Part 1
Photo courtesy of Alex E. Proimos
Hearken unto this, O Job: Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God. (Job 37:14)

The majority of health care workers deal with the confusing issues of life, death, and the apparent random tragedy of disease that can devastate families emotionally, financially, and spiritually. In fact, when I separate myself from the sterile aspects of a lab test review or ordering of radiographic images, I often find myself extremely saddened by the reality that children suffer from chronic disease, and in that aspect, I have found my faith to be a salve for me. I have been involved in the field of medicine for a relatively short time, only 21 years since first starting medical school. I marvel daily about the advancements of this tool that we have named “modern medicine”. Indeed, in the past 20 years alone, the progress we have made in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and infectious disease has been seemingly unstoppable. Despite these advances, we have not adequately addressed how we handle various aspects of suffering (physically, spiritually, and mentally) in long-term hospitalized patients, in patients with chronic disease, and in the elderly.

I have often been asked if my faith has been affected by being exposed to illness and death. I would resoundingly say “No”, but I know health care workers run the entire gamut of a belief in God. There was a time when I would have said otherwise; however, my lay interest in the processes of our Earth (biologic and geologic) has convinced me of a Creator. I am a Christian, and this essay will discuss how I use my scientific and medical background to justify my faith. If you are an atheist reading this essay, you will have realized that you and I have belief differences from the beginning of this writing. If you are an evangelical Christian, I want you to realize that I am not going to talk about my conversion or my baptism. That aspect of my life is not the point of my essay, but you should know, for background, that I do accept Jesus Christ as my Savior.

I was born and raised in central Texas where a large percentage of the population is evangelical Christian. As I progressed through public education, I had convinced myself that I was agnostic. This was a personal decision, not based on any family influence. In fact, I had Christian parents who were educators and who had an interest in my pursuing a science career as a way of opening my mind to the needs of humanity and intellectual fulfillment. However, my trail away from my Christian faith lasted about 15 years and was most influenced by many of my evangelical classmates, especially in high school and college. I was exposed to Young Earth Creationism (YEC) by many friends, and at that time, I did not think it was even possible to reconcile a Christian faith with my interest in science.

In particular, I was interested in pursuing a career in paleontology or ecology, and I became even more convinced in college, that I had to make a profound choice – either I chose a career in science and reject YEC claims that had no basis in reality, or I would have to abandon a science career all together. I was only aware of those two options at that time and was not aware of a third way leading to a reconciliation of my faith. I will admit that I was fairly angry about the absolutism provided by so many of my YEC-minded friends in the face of massive amounts of biologic and geologic data. I became angry about the concept of religion in a very self-centered sort of way. Eventually and after much contemplation, I ended up going to medical school after college as opposed to a career in natural history, as I decided that the job market was more stable in medicine.

Two particular events enabled me to completely reconcile my faith with science. First, I took a field research class that involved traveling through the southwest United States during the summer of my junior year of college. Seeing geologic layering and signs of erosion up close in areas such as the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, as opposed to hearing about the concepts in the lecture hall, made me truly appreciate deep time (Figure 1). For example, although random events over millions of years formed beautiful geologic structuring of hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, the wind and rain making these amazingly beautiful sandstone columns spoke of the mechanistic properties of erosion. Seeing the effects of long-term erosion as being “beautiful” led me to wonder in my tent at night why consciousness was formed to allow humans to appreciate the majesty of nature. I was able to see the Milky Way at night as I camped in the various national parks, and I further contemplated the mechanisms of gravity, light, and star formation. I was captivated by this imposed beauty on the desert floor around me, the stark ruddy canyon walls, the conifer-filled woods, and the cloudless night with a waning moon. I kept a journal during my trip which I wrote in daily. I have read it again years later, and there are passages written, crossed out by pen, then written out again with some my first inklings that I likely believed in a Creator God.


Figure 1: In this picture, I am showing my daughter the various rock groups of the Grand Canyon at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. My visit to the canyon in college brought home to me the immensity of deep time and the beauty of a natural structure suggesting to me, in a strong way, that God must exist. When this picture was taken, I wanted my daughters to see what I saw, felt what I felt, thought what I thought, when I began to really be convinced there was a Creator.

The second aspect that brought me back into Christianity was exposure to a pastor in my late 20s. At this point, I was deep into my medical training as a pediatric gastroenterologist, but I was starting to attend church again, although not regularly. I also was working in a lab where we were using “knock-out” mice (mice with a gene removed to assess the resultant phenotype, or the observable traits) in order to determine the mechanisms of cirrhosis of the liver. Although my contribution to the lab was not ground-breaking, I was fascinated as to how a single gene deletion could lead to down-stream effects, including morphologic changes in the liver (i.e., cirrhosis). My research had demonstrated that specific gene mutations were leading to a diseased organ, and I came to believe that the genetic code encompassed in all living creatures was not likely explained as a random, undirected process.

The pastor with whom I was interacting with at that time had trained in astronomy prior to going into ministry, and it was fascinating to hear him reconcile his belief in an ancient universe with his faith. He was not the least bit worried about an ancient Earth and a far more ancient universe. He believed in a Sovereign God who could certainly provide for the mechanisms of the Big Bang and the resultant world that we live in. Over the months, my discussions with him led me back to reading my Bible daily for the first time, really, in my life. In my very humble and limited opinion, I could see that God, especially through the Gospels, provided an answer to what my purpose consisted of during my time here on Earth. I was to love and serve others as best I could, and I should let God be in control of the big stuff of life.

Here in the lab (and previously for me in the American southwest) there appeared to be sublime mechanisms at play in the world. Even when I looked at random processes (and I do believe that God allows randomness), the grandeur of life forms that have been present on our planet for hundreds of millions of years fascinated me. I did try to convince myself that randomness was evidence of no God, but I then decided that a Creator could certainly build randomness into any biologic or geologic system to allow for the abundance of detail that we see in the natural world around us.

Taken together, all of these views of the world in the micro- and macro-scale convinced me to come back to Christianity. I believe strongly that there is God who has allowed natural mechanisms to take place, random or not so random, which are exhibited throughout the universe. I certainly know that my wife, my children, and I will die someday, but a re-reading of the Gospels as well as reading the great Book of Nature around us reinforced in me that there was something more for all of us, even after death.

I have never regretted the re-discovery of my Christian faith. I especially take these thoughts with me, when I have to talk to families about sick or dying children. These are hard conversations to have, and I find comfort knowing that evidence of a creator God is ever present around us, even as each of us heads towards the end of life and subsequently, eternity.


John F. Pohl MD is a pediatric gastroenterologist and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. He went to medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas and completed his pediatric residency at Phoenix Children’s Hospital / Maricopa Medical Center (University of Arizona) in Phoenix, Arizona. His fellowship in pediatric gastroenterology was completed at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio (University of Cincinnati). His clinical and research interests include cystic fibrosis and pediatric pancreatic disease. He attends Missio Dei church with his wife (a family physician) and two daughters in Salt Lake City. You can follow John on Twitter (@Jfpohl ) where he rambles about theology, science, gastroenterology, and his weekend activities.

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Chip - #76515

February 11th 2013

Hi John,

I came to believe that the genetic code encompassed in all living creatures was not likely explained as a random, undirected process.

Thanks for the essay.  Be careful though:  it’s a very small step from not likely random and undirected to designed, a conclusion that’s not likely to sit very well with your BioLogos sponsors.    

Question:  Other than the “knock-out” mice you refer to, are there particular lines of scientific/genetic evidence that you find most convincing in this regard?


PNG - #76534

February 12th 2013

4 part series, Design in Nature

http://biologos.org/blog/series/barclay-series


Seenoevo - #76527

February 11th 2013

“Seeing geologic layering and signs of erosion up close in areas such as the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, as opposed to hearing about the concepts in the lecture hall, made me truly appreciate deep time.”

 

How old is the Grand Canyon?

Is it 5 million years old, or 20 million years old, or 70 million years old? http://www.npr.org/2012/11/30/166260519/grand-canyons-age-still-not-set-in-stone

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/science/earth/study-sees-older-grand-canyon-stirring-controversy.html?_r=0

 

Could “deep time” be just a safe, euphemistic phrase to hide deep uncertainty?

 

Five versus 70? How would a pediatric gastroenterologist feel if, after many years of practice, the experts in the field revised the recommended medicine dosage for a specific infant ailment by 1,300%?

 

How would anthropologists feel if, after many years promoting the storyline that a famous 70,000 year-old fossil “proves” hominid transition to homo sapiens, the famous fossil actually turned out to be only 5,000 years old?

 

Just some deep thoughts.

I’m particularly struck by the last deep thought here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSrXpFb7jFo&list=PLB335B562D29E3369


JR - #76939

February 27th 2013

Seenoevo,

The Grand canyon walls date back to ~ 2 billion years. The date about how long it took for the canyon to erode is less than 80 million years because that is when the last sea was present in the basin. The debate about the variation in the time it took is based on when the Colorado river formed and began eroding the canyon and that is a ligitmate scientific debate. This is called Science. None of thes dates are anywhere near 6000 years.

Since I dont know you, I will refrain from making any ad hominem accusation, but by reading your comment you seem to lack an understanding of what science is. I might suggest you read the article on the home page of Biologos titled: Evolution basics so that in the future you can avoid embarrassing yourself like many of my young earth friends ( who are quite bright and very good people) do when they try to attack with a lack of understanding science.

I really appreciated the Drs. Testimony and it brought great encouragement to me as I find his story very similar to mine as an ex -young Earth Creationist and Surgeon.

Always will beseeking Truth!


lancelot10 - #77456

March 14th 2013

There is no proof that the Grand Canyon dates back to 2 billion years.  When Noah’s flood waters retreated the sediments were softer and the depth of the canyon was easy for trillions of gallons of water to erode.    C14 dating also proves a young age.

Have a look at the 30 yr old canyon at Mt St Helens - ancient looking and layered hardened rock only  30 yrs old with fossils. These mini canyons were scoured out with much less water than Noah’s flood had available.

The evolutionists age for the GC is determined by circular and a priori reasoning.


Will - #76802

February 19th 2013

Very incouraging article, Dr. Pohl. I’m a Biochemistry, Pre-med student and have come from a YEC background as well. When I first stepped into college at a secular university and took those first biology classes I almost lost my faith because I didnt know how to reconcile my faith with things like evolution and an earth that is billions of years old. I started having that same battle between choosing whether I wanted to keep my faith or pursue my ambitions of being a doctor. How foolish I was! Thank God for Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” (my biology professor reccomended it to me, haha). I have now taken more of a BioLogos view of things, and I look forward to each of my science classes as I learn more and more about the beautiful design God has created, without having to fear taking hits to my faith.

More articles on Christians in the medical field, or advice for budding scientists/doctors are more then welcome cheers!


Will - #76803

February 19th 2013

*encouraging


lancelot10 - #77457

March 14th 2013

Will - why not be YEC doctor ????     I am a YEC professional - there is no problem.

Science does not rely on the singular theory of evolution - the founders of the scientific disciplines were YEC’s.   Evolution theory has no bearing on the rest of science whatsoever.  Whether you are YEC or TE will not affect your work one iota as a doctor.


JR - #77486

March 15th 2013

Iancelot10,

“Why not be a YEC doctor???”

Sure you can practice medicine and be a YEC. Problem is that the mountains of Scientific evidence overwhelmingly support an ancient old earth. THats Why over 99% of earth and ife scientist believe te earth is old. YEC and global flood geology fail spectacularly.

Its ike having a 12 y/o boy come to your office 2 days after stepping on a Nail that penetrates his big toe joint. Presenting with painful red, hot swollen big toe joint, 102.5 temp. and WBC of 26000 and telling him its Gout and sending him home with advil. 


JR - #77491

March 15th 2013

“C14 dating proves a young age”

Since were talking about he Grand Canyon can you name any layer in he Grand Canyon that  with C14 dating or any radiometric dating technique gives a 6000 year date. You would think that everthing would date the same 6000 years if the flood was soley responsible. Just give me one.


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