John Pohl

A Faith Journey in a Medical Science Career

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.

Science and the Future of the Church

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.

John Pohl
About the Author

John Pohl

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.