Reasons: Why I am a Christian

“U Illinois arrays, by contrast, use the traditional semiconductor gallium arsenide (GaAs) and conventional metals for diodes and detectors.” — Coxworth, Ben. Flexible, Biocompatible LEDs Could Light the Way for next Gen Biomedicine. Gizmag, 22 Oct. 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

“How can you believe in God and science at the same time?”  

Even though I am rarely asked this question so plainly, it is often implied in conversation.  Many atheistic advocates think that there is a conflict between the two. They may suspect that a belief in the supernatural is used primarily to explain the physical world with non-physical means and to “fill in the gaps” for conundrums for which there is no better or more reasonable determination. They may believe that beliefs are driven by a search for meaning and cohesion, and that this persistent pursuit of Reasons may mistakenly (and somewhat ironically) lead people to become more irrational. They may believe that science, as the ultimate paradigm in methodically inductive, deductive, and reductive Reasoning, is consequently the most obvious arbiter of truth. They may then believe that the willful denial and rejection of conclusions arrived at by science is therefore illogical, irrational, and subsequently idiotic. It is therefore reasonable to see why people would automatically consider those who believe in the supernatural to be willfully ignorant, regarding them with suspicion, condescension, and/or frustration.

I grew up saturated in both religion and science. My father is an electrical engineer, well accomplished and respected in his field. As a child, I was surrounded by gizmos and textbooks, not understanding what “GaAs Semiconductors” were but curious to find out. His approach to the world has always had the paradigm of a scientist: always thinking, observing, and making his own private conclusions. He had a very strong moral sense, but it was strongly grounded in a Confucian sense of discipline, orderliness, and character virtue. He was not a Christian at the time and he generally took an agnostic and aloof stance towards religion, seeing it as a generally positive force in shaping his family’s sensibilities but still regarding it cautiously. It was almost as if he was wary towards the existence and significance of a God who seemed to be a relatively benign but otherwise untested hypothesis.

My mother is a firm Christian and a nurse, nearly opposite to my father in temperament and belief.  Where he is cool and detached, she has been deeply suffused with emotion. Where he sought out natural principles and laws of order in the physical world, society, and human relationships, she has been attuned to spiritual precepts and looks to them as Rea­sons why things are what they are. She is diligent and meticulous in this way, always keeping an eye out for them, an ear cocked for the whis­per of a con­se­quence or a les­son. Most were sim­ple illus­tra­tions and object lessons of basic char­ac­ter: an irri­tat­ing per­son was placed in my life to teach me patience; a flat tire the day after a stingy finan­cial deci­sion was a reminder to be more gen­er­ous; an unex­pected piece of good news was an exam­ple of God’s con­sis­tent good­ness. Some links were easy to see and under­stand. Oth­ers were not.

I grew up lis­ten­ing to both these nar­ra­tives, never really seeing a conflict between the two paradigms. They are both internally consistent in their logic. They are both meticulous in assessment and constantly rework the available evidence into a deterministic and causal understanding of the world. I had been taught that, though science could inform much of the “how” of life, only religion could provide the “why” with any degree of functional certainty. I sup­posed it was the way in which every­one learned to make sense of an oth­er­wise hap­haz­ard world, how we main­tained the hope to cope through dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. But as I grew older, rea­son began to chal­lenge the Reasons.

It started with the big ques­tions. Were peo­ple really poor because they were lazy? Was HIV really God’s pun­ish­ment to homo­sex­u­als? Was evo­lu­tion really at odds with Chris­tian­ity? And of course, the biggest of them all: is there a Rea­son for suffering?

Hungry

For nearly each of these ques­tions, I had trouble accepting the answers from my mother.  We would go through end­less cycles of argu­ments, some of which were very heated and charged with bit­ter words. Some­times I held on to prove a point, but I often found myself fight­ing out of sheer stub­born­ness and pride. I was chal­leng­ing the Rea­sons because I began to doubt that there were any.  I was not certain that any amount of goodness truly governed the natural world, and strongly suspected that humanity was alone in its struggle to survive sentiently.  This breakdown in faith in the divine, which began in college, blossomed in medical school.

Mad­ness and chaos. That was what dis­ease seemed to me, the strug­gle between life and death in the hos­pi­tal wards. Kind and gen­er­ous patients suf­fered from hor­rific fates while those who were malin­ger­ing and mali­cious fed off of the system’s gen­eros­ity with­out pun­ish­ment. The hos­pi­tal was a new and dis­ori­ent­ing place in which the old rules, the old Rea­sons (either physical or spiritual) no longer seemed to apply. Who lived and who died was less a func­tion of moral­ity as it was of bio­log­i­cal processes, state vari­ables, and lots of luck. In a world where so much was at stake, only the new rea­sons, the Evi­dence of hard data and tight cor­re­la­tions mat­tered. And yet even there, the most basic assump­tions about stan­dards of care were chal­lenged and occa­sion­ally over­thrown by the lat­est and great­est stud­ies, and many rea­son­able, long-standing asso­ci­a­tions between health and dis­ease once thought to be clinically objective dis­in­te­grated under closer scrutiny.

My own shift in per­spec­tive was sub­tle at first, and I wasn’t able to artic­u­late my dis­com­fort with it until one of my friends began using “evi­dence based argu­ments” for every­thing. He would launch into a polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion with oth­ers and pep­per them with the ques­tion, “Where’s your ref­er­ence? Show me the study.” It was an irri­tat­ing thing for him to do in the con­text of oth­er­wise casual con­ver­sa­tion, but the inflam­ma­tory nature came from the real­iza­tion that most of what we say on a daily basis is com­pletely speculative. We make con­clu­sions based on very lit­tle evi­dence because that is how we must deal with the com­plex­i­ties of daily life, but if we truly real­ized how une­d­u­cated and spo­radic those deci­sions were, we would lose the con­fi­dence to make it from one moment to the next.

Some­thing in me hard­ened. My faith in God, the Ulti­mate Rea­son, which had once been so strong began to set­tle for lesser things. God may count the hairs on your head, but I can tell you now that it will be exactly zero once your chemother­apy is started. You can pray for a mir­a­cle, but if we don’t ampu­tate that leg tomor­row you might lose your life. Pray­ing is good, but pray­ing 20 hours out­side in the snow is not; please restart your bipo­lar med­ica­tions or we won’t let you out.

And so prayer, some­thing I once loved to do, became more an act of des­per­a­tion and a super­sti­tion than one of faith. I didn’t know what to pray for, mainly because I was tired of being dis­ap­pointed. I began knock­ing on wood and cross­ing my fin­gers because they seemed to be just as effec­tive: barely, if at all. I was tired of BS and really just wanted to admit: I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.

Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-1902. Tower of Siloam, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55003 (retrieved March 28, 2014). Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Tower_of_Siloam_(Le_tour_de_Silo%C3%AB)_-_James_Tissot.jpg.

Finally, at the end of a long year in clinical rotations, a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) knocked me out long enough to mull it over in my mind. True to form, my mother insisted that there was a Rea­son behind my lung col­lapse, that the tim­ing, the method, the stresses I was going through were all too coin­ci­den­tal to be due to any­thing else. And we talked, per­haps for the first time, about what it meant to use rea­sons and to look for Rea­sons. It reminded me of the Tower of Siloam:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had min­gled with their sac­ri­fices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sin­ners than all the other Galileans, because they suf­fered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all like­wise per­ish. Or those eigh­teen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offend­ers than all the oth­ers who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all like­wise per­ish.” — Luke 13

When­ever I talk at length about the nature of suf­fer­ing, I men­tion an exam­ple a men­tor once used. Suf­fer­ing is just the push that tips a cup over; it has no bear­ing on what comes out. This is what I have come to believe about suf­fer­ing, ill­ness, death, and all Events with con­se­quences for which we seek a Rea­son: they reveal what is inside me, deep down inside that refuses to come out oth­er­wise. I may have no con­trol over my envi­ron­ment or the insan­ity of this small earth we inhabit, but there is always some­thing in me that I can ask to have transformed:

Do not be con­formed to this world, but be trans­formed by the renewal of your mind, that by test­ing you may dis­cern what is the will of God, what is good and accept­able and per­fect. — Romans 12

It made me reconsider epistemology, or the study of how we know anything to be true at all. It made me wonder why I should remain decidedly Christian.

[To be continued…]

Rosette Nebula

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David

David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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