Praveen Sethupathy

A Transformation of the Heart

On December 23, 2019

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My name is Praveen Sethupathy. That is the name of someone who hails from South India, in the Brahmin caste. There is a rich tradition of Orthodox Hinduism that’s followed in my family. That’s what I grew up with. Even though I grew up primarily in America and was born in Canada, it was still very rich part of my upbringing. Every Orthodox Hindu home has what’s called a swami room, which is a room with various pictures and images of a lot of the different gods and goddesses. And so we’d usually sit in front of this room with the idea being to humble yourself before the presence of God and sing these worship songs. And I used to do this every day growing up.

It really wasn’t until I went to college that I thought about any other faith tradition in any kind of serious way.

It was actually my very first day on campus. One of my roommates had asked me the question, “What are you?” To which I thought he meant, “What do you believe?” And so I told them I was a Hindu and he followed up by saying, “Well, what does that mean?” And I was sort of embarrassed that I didn’t have a coherent answer for him. I had been practicing this faith for 18 years and yet I was not able to articulate to him what it meant to me.

For me, the leap that I took is not to a particular culture or to a particular tradition, but to a person. And that person—the person of Christ—transforms and wants to transform every aspect of who I am.

Praveen Sethupathy

I always love telling that story, actually, because that was the beginning of my coming to Christ. I think there’s nothing The Lord won’t do, no route he won’t take, to draw people ultimately to him. So for me, it started with wanting to actually know more about Hinduism, which then led me to want to compare that with other faith traditions that I was starting to become more aware of and more sensitive to. In the mix, eventually, although I was resistant to it at first, was Christianity.

I felt strongly that if I were to understand a religion, that I had to read the texts that the people that follow that religion felt were the word of God, or at least were inspired, and taught about who God was. So I read the Upanishads and the Vedas. And that process was incredibly enjoyable for me. I learned so much that I didn’t know about my own faith tradition. But it was in that process that I became sensitive to other faith traditions, what they taught, and how it compared to what I was learning about Hinduism. I read Buddhist texts, I read the Koran, and I read these things with the help and guidance and advice of people on campus who followed those faith traditions. When I was reading the Koran, I took a class on Islam, and when I was reading the Buddhist texts I took a class on Buddhism. Usually the professor was a practicing Buddhist or Muslim. And so I’d often meet with him or her and ask my questions to learn more about the faith.

But this whole time I had been resistant to Christianity because I grew up hearing about and learning about missionaries who would go to India and trick people into following Jesus. There was a kind of lack of dignity that they gave to the people to whom they were ministering. That left a very bad, bitter taste in my mouth about missionary work and about Christianity. I grew up in this country, so I had friends who said they were Christian and there was nothing particularly compelling or attractive about their lives. I never considered it seriously. Nor did I really want to take it seriously, even though I was happy to do so with these other faiths. But as I went along doing that, I felt this nagging sensation that it was incomplete; that I was not being honest in this process. And the whole point of all of this was to be open, learn and be vulnerable to what I was going to find. So I was broken at one point and I decided, you know what, I can’t put my dukes up on this. I’ve got to be willing to read the Bible as well.

When I was going through my spiritual journey at the back of my mind I had been hoping that at the end of all of this I’d be able to say that all of these things are really pointing at the same type of being—they’re all just different cultural manifestations and ultimately we can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. I really wanted that to be true. But as time went on, I found that to be an intellectually untenable position, particularly as I interacted with the person of Christ.

Aside from the person of Christ, I didn’t find what I was reading in the Bible to be particularly more compelling than a lot of the other faith traditions that had been interacting with. You hear about the golden rule, for example. This is not a uniquely biblical concept. You can find it in many other faiths, traditions in slightly different words. But it was the person of Christ that kind of blew the lid off. Because here I found someone who was completely disabusing me of my notions of power. [In] a lot of these other faith traditions, if the God character were challenged, he might become 60 feet tall and let his divinity be known to you in no uncertain terms. But here was the hero of the story, naked and broken and pathetic on a cross. It was very difficult for me to think of the protagonist of a story in this way. And even more difficult for me to imagine such a story to have been fabricated by a human mind. But what I would learn soon enough is that it wasn’t pathetic. He wasn’t on the cross because he was powerless to stop it. It wasn’t a broken hero. That was exactly how he chose to exercise his power. It was solely for the sake of others with no sense of self-promotion. And that was completely new to me. I hadn’t seen it in a character who claimed to be God. That was something on a totally different plane that took me on a trajectory to Christ.

The shared theme in both science and this particular faith journey was that I couldn’t really prove either my scientific claims nor my claim that Christ is the way and the truth and the life. But what I could do is share my experiences and lay out all of the supporting data and evidence that ultimately serves to suggest that the explanatory model outcompetes all others, tremendously. And even in my scientific work in my lab, that’s what we do. We don’t really prove things. We have a hypothesis and we go and test it and evaluate it and then we generate data that is either supporting or not supporting that hypothesis, taking us into all sorts of new forks in our research.

At some point we get to the spot where we say, “You know what? All of the data that we’ve accrued, if you put it all together, this particular explanatory model makes a lot more sense than B, C, and D.” And that’s really what the process is like for me when we’re dealing with things of faith and who God is and how he relates with us.

But there is one minor exception. In religion, if you get to the point where you feel like there’s an explanatory model that’s making a heck of a lot more sense of the data, there’s something far more serious about that decision than maybe which model explains the data in some arcane scientific question. And so there is a leap of faith that needs to be taken, which I did take. But it was not until I felt as though it was already an explanatory model that was making a lot of sense of the world and the brokenness and the suffering and the sin that was observable to me.

gloved hand using microscrope

And of course, there are implications to every corner of my life that have come from the leap of faith that I took. For me, the leap that I took is not to a particular culture or to a particular tradition, but to a person. And that person—the person of Christ—transforms and wants to transform every aspect of who I am. There was some concern at first among my family members about what this meant. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of hurt. Was I rejecting my brownness or my Indian-ness? Was I laying aside centuries of beautiful, wonderful heritage so that I could be white? So that I could abandon my ancestral heritage and adopt the colonialist’s religion? What’s going on here? Why is he doing this? Is he going to change his name to Peter?

Even though it’s taken a long time to break down those misconceptions, it has provided opportunities for me to convey that becoming a Christian has nothing to do with any of those things. It doesn’t mean I have to start eating meat and make my family feel uncomfortable around me. It doesn’t mean that I have to change my name. Those are not the things that Christ is calling me to change. There’s a transformation of the heart, a difference in why I do what I do. And that’s what has been important for me to try to convey to my family members. I think it has made me love my family more than I ever thought I would or could. It makes me give to them and sacrifice to them and be a model of Christ to them in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated before being a Christian.

Praveen Sethupathy
About the Author

Praveen Sethupathy

Praveen is a Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics at Cornell University, where he directs a research lab focused on genomic approaches to understand human health and disease. He received his BA degree from Cornell University and his PhD in Genomics from the University of Pennsylvania. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Human Genome Research Institute under the mentorship of Dr. Francis Collins, he moved in 2011 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics. The same year he was selected by Genome Technology as one of the nation's top 25 rising young investigators in genomics. In 2017, he returned to Cornell University as an Associate Professor. Praveen has authored over 95 peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals and has served as a reviewer for over 35 different journals. Recent honors include a faculty merit award for outstanding teaching and mentoring and the prestigious American Diabetes Association Pathway To Stop Diabetes Research Accelerator, which is awarded to only three people per year. Praveen has been an invited speaker for the Veritas Forum, has served on the advisory board for the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, and serves on the Board of Directors for BioLogos. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife and three children.