A Faith Journey in a Medical Science Career, Part 2
Here is the issue that keeps me up at night: I have been an active church member for many years, but I fear for the future of the church and its youth. As a member of several churches during my moves across the country, I have seen ignorance and fear of science in many congregations. In some evangelical churches that I have attended, YEC is preached from the pulpit as an indisputable fact. In such settings, children are taught early on in Sunday school that a strict literal interpretation, especially of Genesis, is the only one way to view the Bible.
Far worse, I have experienced, and others have told me of incidents in which a person’s faith is questioned if they have accepted evolution (albeit divine in nature, in my opinion) as a source of life’s diversity. More studies, more journals, more scientific meetings have continued to show that we live in an ancient universe, that we live on an ancient planet, that evolution occurs, and that we (humans) are miniscule in the history of time and nature. To me, the scientific evidence shows a Creator who is allowing us to discover the world around us.
My belief – my faith – in a God who is the author of such a marvelous creation does not scare me in the least. In fact, it comforts me knowing that God is awesome enough to handle a creation of an ancient universe; that He is able to exist outside of the deep time of reality; that the perceived randomness around us creates beauty as perceived by us; and that we exist in a biological world in which human life protruding from the “left wall” of all life is remarkably unique. In the concept described by Stephen Jay Gould, life tends to stay biologically simple, mostly consisting of bacteria (next to a metaphorical left wall). Complex organisms such as reptiles, birds, and mammals (including humans) are quite rare occurrences, symbolized as moving away from the left wall of simplicity (I would recommend that anyone who has an interest in evolution, Christian or not, read Gould’s wonderfully descriptive essays).
As a Jesus-loving, church attending Christian, I am concerned that these science topics seem to perturb, and I think even scare, many Christians. There is no scientific conspiracy to undermine YEC. There are no grant committees at the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health that are intent on keeping YEC evidence from the scientific literature. If there were solid evidence of a 6000 year old universe, astronomers and geologists would be reporting such findings en masse. Humanity’s understanding about the working of the universe is based on the very simple tool of the scientific method, which utilizes our ever-improving methods of observation and experimentation at the microscopic and macroscopic scale.
In particular, I worry about those Christians with no science background who continue to have doubts about the validity of our current scientific knowledge. God loves us; he doesn’t hide or distort the evidence of the world around us. Thus, when children grow to young adulthood and have been told by a church that science is wrong in so many aspects, is it any wonder that these young men and women leave the church when they learn and actually participate in observations of the natural world? Think about it for a minute…
Are our youth leaving the church because of an atheist or secular agenda at the university level? I have many secular friends in the sciences, and they generally are too busy with their research and teaching load to participate in any particular movement to convince young Christians to leave church. Likewise, I have Christian friends in the sciences that also can be too busy to talk about their faith at work.
I can see how the process works in many churches today. A young woman is interested in biology or medicine. She grows up in a church that teaches YEC in Sunday school or from the pulpit. She constantly is told that scientists “have it wrong” or “are hiding the evidence” or “will try to make you an atheist when you leave for college.” She then goes to college and takes classes in bacteriology, ecology, comparative anatomy, organic chemistry, and vertebrate biology as examples. Perhaps she takes a freshman level course in astronomy to get her science requirements finished. She takes upper division courses in genetic, sedimentology, and structural geology. She reads the articles and book chapters assigned to her. She participates in observational studies in class and sees that genetic mutations occur over time, that erosion can happen over millions of years, and that continental drift occurs at an immensely small rate. What happens to her?
Well, of course she would be expected to have doubts! Her reality has been challenged. She has spent the first 18 years of her life hearing about processes that do not match what she has observed in college and more importantly, in the natural world. She knows that the people who taught her in church were nice enough, but they weren’t science educated; in fact, looking back on it, they acted as if they were scared or superstitious of anything that was science related. Now she has doubts about what she learned growing up due to inaccuracies from otherwise caring people. Now she decides it’s not worth coming back to church because she can’t reconcile her faith with what she has learned in her science classes in the university. No one has ever explained to her that she can reconcile her Christianity with her science education.
These thoughts are just my personal observations of what has happened to many young adults in the generation behind me. Through the years as an academic physician, I have had medical students or post-doctoral students express such private concerns to me by visits to my office, or phone and email correspondence. I hope that my essay will help provide a nuanced view of someone who works in the world of science (medicine) and who can reconcile his faith with the world that we are continuing to discover in all of its complexity.
The next part of my essay will discuss how the intricacies of one disease process, cystic fibrosis, reinforce my belief in God due to the complexities of the genetics and protein functions that are involved. I hope to illustrate how a genetic mutation that can cause both disease as well as a protective mechanism, demonstrates the complexity and wonder of one tiny aspect of life.
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.