A Faith Journey in a Medical Science Career, Part 4
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
In my previous post, I described just a small bit of pathophysiology in relation to human disease. The understanding of the CFTR gene and its resultant protein function is the result of years of fastidious research. There is an inherent beauty to the structure of DNA and its function. Yes, there is disease and its associated tragedy, but the underlying molecular mechanisms of the human body are fascinating and, to me, point to something more—the beauty of the complexity of nature seen in the field of medicine leads to my belief in God.
I would like to conclude my essay with a plea. Readers of BioLogos are well aware that many Christians working in science (whether as scientists, physicians, engineers, or as science teachers in our children’s schools) read the site to connect with others who also believe that there is no issue reconciling their scientific discipline with their faith. On the other hand, there are other Christians who read this website who cannot begin to fathom why people like me can be at peace with our acceptance of an ancient universe, evolution, and mutation, and still consider ourselves Christian. People like me (and many others who read BioLogos) belong to your church, teach in your Sunday school, and bring our children to church with your children. As members of the body of Christ, we cannot deny our understanding of the beauty and simplicity of the scientific method. We appreciate the power and limitations of statistics as well as the process of writing and reviewing scientific journal articles. We want to go to church with you and not be made to feel uncomfortable. We want to raise our children in the church and not have them told that a belief in YEC is the only correct view. Indeed, young people are leaving evangelical churches in large numbers, and forcing them to ignore scientific evidence and research is one of the risks, in my opinion, of an upcoming tragedy in the church.
I want to discuss ways in which we, as Christian brothers and sisters, can begin to come to an agreement about science issues that really should not necessitate arguing but instead lead to an open conversation and contemplation.
To the minister or parishioner who attends church with a scientist or someone with a science background:
- Acceptance of evolution or an ancient universe is NOT A SALVATION ISSUE. There are many ways to view evolution. Yes, there is the atheist approach to evolution; however, there are plenty of Christian scientists who see God involved with His creation. I cannot tell you how hard it is to be open about one’s faith to a minister when one is told that he or she is essentially “not Christian enough” if one accepts any aspect of evolutionary theory. I strongly recommend that one reads the psychology literature regarding the “spiral of silence” to understand how a person would become quiet in church conversations and would be at risk of leaving and never returning to church. A forced dichotomy on this issue can cause a tremendous amount of psychological hurt.
- Read popular science books to learn about what the scientist in your congregation knows (just ask them for recommendations!). There are the well-known Christian scientists, such as Francis Collins or Simon Conway Morris, who write for the public, but there are other very good science authors from the secular world such as James Gleick. Likewise, reading the science section of a newspaper or magazine is helpful. I find The Economist to provide an excellent overview of the latest, important science research in a weekly format. Podcasts can be helpful as well, and I think a weekly listening to the Nature or Science podcasts will increase your understanding further.
- Understand what we are losing when a scientist leaves her church. She has a tremendous educational background and likely has some training in education that would undoubtedly be helpful in Sunday school or in helping prepare a sermon. Remember that she goes to work every day and tries to be a good Christian witness by how she treats others, yet she risks not receiving the same respect by her congregation or church leadership. It puts a strain on her daily Christian walk, and it could even lead to losing her faith. Even more important, her children see that she is frustrated with what is taught in church, and they may decide not to attend when they get older.
To the scientist or person with a science background who attends church:
- Be gentle with those who have decided that a YEC worldview is the only acceptable option. They may be incorrect in their science knowledge, but they are still God’s children, just like you and me. In my younger years, I would be quite vocal if I heard an incorrect comment about evolution in church, and I can guarantee that I never once changed a person’s mind…not once. My anger was the problem, and I was sinning by thinking I was smarter than the other person. Anger does not help and likely makes the problem worse.
- Find other Christians who think like you do. It is helpful to know that your belief system is not odd or isolated. Communicate with them through meetings, email, and social media. I have found like-minded physicians, paleontologists, and engineers through social networking tools such as Twitter, and they have helped me work through issues like talking to evangelical leaders about evolution.
Likewise, support BioLogos. Consider joining the American Scientific Affiliation or the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation. I have recently wondered if these organizations, with the support of like-minded fellow Christians, should consider developing consensus statements or white papers regarding how to address an ancient universe or evolution in seminary training. Perhaps retired scientists, emeritus professors, or science historians could help teach survey courses about science to seminary students.
- As I have become older (and likely not wiser), I have become quiet and reserved when meeting with a church leader about these issues. In a one-on-one setting with a minister, elder, or deacon, one must be humble when discussing the scientific evidence for evolution. Be willing to offer a good explanatory book or website recommendation. Offer to teach a Sunday school class discussing the different ways the creation story in Genesis can be interpreted. However, I have learned that pushing this issue again and again does not help. Your fellow believers still may disagree with you on these issues, but at least, you have started the conversation. It will be helpful to your congregation if you are known as an expert in these areas of discussion.
- Involve your children in activities inside and outside of church (Figure 6). As a Christian, I am thankful for the world God has given us, and I am fascinated by its intricacies. Corporate worship, singing hymns, and communal prayer allow us to realize God’s grace. I do not believe that church attendance is just an occasional Sunday option. I am a strong believer in modeling.—I go to church; I want my children to go to church as well when they are adults.
Additionally, exploring the world with your children through the wonderful gifts of God known as “science” and “education” promote a child’s appreciation of what God has given us and helps them realize His power, revelation, and relation to us. Taking children to observatories to see the planets and stars through telescopes, going to natural history museums to see the diversity of life, and talking about science at the dinner table allows children to appreciate God’s involvement in their lives and in the world around us. Learning how small we are in relation to the size of the universe, and how short-lived we are when considering evolution and deep time, help our understanding that “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Peter 1: 24-25). Odd as it may sound, nothing personally speaks to me about God’s Glory and His love for us more than looking at the fossils of a past epoch.
I will end this essay by thinking about the future. Many of my arguments have been stated before by many others on the BioLogos website. If one considers the case of Galileo Galilei, his critics of had a faith problem – they failed to believe in a God who could have allowed the Earth to rotate around the sun. I think we parallel this faith problem 400 years later. I think it will take several generations to work through such issues as the evolution controversy, but I am hopeful that the change doesn’t take as long as I sometimes fear. My plea is for Christians, Christians working in science fields, and our churches to work together in this most important transition in order for the world to appreciate the wonders and awesomeness of what our Creator has allowed.
I would like to thank the following reviewers (with their diverse medical, evolutionary biology, engineering, and theological backgrounds) for their helpful comments in preparation of this manuscript: Ryan Haupt, Raza Patel, Michael Sossenheimer, Robert Thoelen III, and my wife, Susan.
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.