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Saving babies in the ICU (and other things evolution can’t explain)

Neonatal doctor Erik Strandess responds to a new debate on Adam, Eve and evolution

Unbelievable? recently featured a fascinating scientific discussion between Joshua Swamidass and Nathan Lents regarding Joshua’s new book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve. Justin did a wonderful job of helping to simplify the subject matter for the lay person and then masterfully directed the discussion to the far more important question of how all this data should impact our Christian walk. Joshua stated that the purpose for writing his book was to help bring faith and science together. A worthy goal to be sure, but does it succeed?

He wanted to form a bridge between faith and science that would allow one to freely move from the city of man to the city of God. The problem is that most people are tired of having to constantly commute back and forth when it would be so much easier to just work from a home where everyone is fluent in both science and spirituality. I got the sense that all he really accomplished was to get science and faith together in the same room, which sadly doesn’t eliminate the awkward silence that results when they have so little in common.

 

A trip to the doctor

Joshua was passionate about his faith but seemed to have no problem leaving its basic tenets at the laboratory door once he got down to work. When Justin pressed him about his reasons for being a Christian, he sounded more confident in his science than in his faith. Joshua even agreed with Nathan, the atheist, that God didn’t really add anything to his scientific understanding of human origins, but that it was the resurrection and his personal religious experiences that undergirded his faith. I found it quite interesting that a scientist who dissects the very spoken words of God in the laboratory is speechless when it comes to giving scientific evidence for God. He, like many other theistic evolutionists, doesn’t like an interventionist God in nature but does allow Him to get a WORD in when salvation is on the line.

The relationship between faith and science is an important topic but one which most often pits scientists against theologians. I think part of the problem is that we have been too eager to look to the basic scientists to help us bridge the gap. I want to offer the perspective of a physician, one who is deeply indebted to science in my efforts to eradicate disease, but who must also offer comfort to patients facing spiritual struggles.

Basic scientists work with the dirt of the earth while physicians deal with divinely breathed dust. The laboratory studies props in God’s grand story while physicians interact with the characters. Medicine is a discipline concerned with how immaterial thoughts and emotions can impact the physical functioning of the body. Therefore, if we want to find a connection between science and faith then maybe we should consult those who care for God-breathed physical beings. I think we get so distracted over arguments about whether or not the natural world gives us evidence for God’s existence that we neglect the most important evidence of all, ourselves. Augustine said it well:

“Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling ocean and the motion of the stars, and yet they leave themselves unnoticed; they do not marvel at themselves.”

The art of medicine

I have practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years and experienced the limits of science first-hand. I have seen glorious innovations developed at the research bench improve neonatal care, but I have also seen many of these drugs, theories, and technologies fail miserably at the human bedside. Physicians are a skeptical lot. They have listened to an endless series of drug reps touting their latest drugs, basic scientists theorizing about disease processes, and biotech companies luring them into using the latest medical devices. Our skepticism of scientific innovation leads us to be even more skeptical when we hear a scientist play theologian or philosopher. If they can make mistakes in their own field, why should we trust them to pontificate about things outside their area of expertise? Science has helped me save many lives, yet it merely slinks away when it fails, leaving me without any tools to mop up the spiritual mess left in its wake.

Intensive care medicine heroically rides in on its white stallion to save the day, but all too often is followed by the callous black horseman of death. The physician who loves the technological toys of neonatal medicine is often confronted with a puddle of toxic emotional mercury they don’t know how to clean up. I have been with many families as they mourned the loss of their babies. While the room is quiet as physical life ebbs away, the spiritual air is whipped up into a maelstrom of activity. Why did God take my child? What have I done to deserve this? Are they in a better place? Is this God’s will? Will I ever see them again? Questions, like tornadoes, tear the roofs off the parent’s worldview homes, exposing them to a torrential heavenly rain. These families didn’t grieve over lost atoms or chemicals because matter cannot mourn the loss of matter. They didn’t lament the death of neurotransmitters, but rather lamented the loss of the spirit that conducted them like a symphony. They didn’t shed tears because it was the end of the line for their selfish genes, but rather sobbed because a kindred spirit had moved away.

How is it possible for purely physical beings to have a spiritual hemorrhage? A material thing cannot even conceive of a spiritual realm, so from where does it draw that information? My scientific textbooks never addressed these difficult spiritual questions; they just offered anesthetics to numb them. The beauty of the Bible is that it doesn’t shy away from these queries but rather embraces them. Psalms, Job, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes basically put a divine stamp of approval on the exploration of these complex spiritual issues. We can bury the body but can never bury the memories. The deceased may rest in peace, but the families have just begun years of spiritual unrest. If evolutionary theory is, “all that and a bag of chips,” why is it unacceptable as a way to explain the death of a child to their parents? Don’t tell me humans are just chemicals or instincts, I have tested that idea out in the real world, and it doesn’t work.       

The cry of the corpuscle

Interestingly, medicine and the Bible both agree that the life is in the blood. In Genesis, God mourns as he listens to the cry of Abel’s shed blood rising from the ground, and we, as beings created in God’s image, also hear that cry. A cry that compels us to enter into the healing arts to offer physical and spiritual aid to others. While the atheist has no choice but to cling to a process of natural selection that seems indifferent to the dead and dying lying along the road to the most fit survivor, I worship a God that grieves every drop of spilt blood, a Jesus who weeps for a dead Lazarus, and a Spirit that groans on behalf of our mortal weakness.

Tinkering in Somebody else’s workshop

I have come to realize that this spiritual realm is also a library of complex thoughts. The longer I have treated diseases and saved lives, the more I have felt like a tinkerer in somebody else’s workshop. I didn’t create the factory in which I work, but I seem to be reading from its owner’s manual. In medical school, I was required to understand normal anatomy and physiology before I could enter into the world of disease treatment and prevention. The study of medicine assumed that a properly operating set of physical parameters existed before I even began my studies. The standard wasn’t created by physicians but was rather assimilated through years of scientific discovery. My textbooks were repair manuals for humans, not subjective Rorschach inkblots. Why would we assume a standard of body mechanics if we were haphazardly created on the evolutionary fly?

During my years of basic science research, I was amazed at how each newly discovered scientific truth opened up yet another layer of reality. Rarely did laboratory discoveries become immovable weight-bearing walls of scientific truth, but rather became doors into rooms of ever-increasing complexity. It was as if scientists were looking deeper into a complex mind rather than uncovering a fortuitous series of genetic mistakes. During a break from medicine, I taught high school biology and was struck by the inability of the textbook authors to express biological ideas without using terms that directly implied a mind. Words such as design, engineer, blueprint, mechanism, fine-tune, architecture, and master plan littered the pages and yet astonishingly their conclusion was mindless materialism. The writers of these textbooks hypocritically use words that were not found in their evolutionary lexicons, confronted by a mind they were forced to pull out of an Intelligent Design thesaurus.

Doubting Darwin

Justin recognized that merely tossing an Adam and Eve bone to the church wouldn’t address the primary issue for Christians, evolution. Joshua, while believing that God was behind everything, seemed to take a stance that embraces a Neo-Darwinian view of evolution and questions the ability to see an Author in the pages of the book of nature. I would suggest that for most Christians, a mechanism that posits random genetic mistakes sifted by the cruel colander of natural selection just doesn’t resonate with the heavens declaring the glory of God. Surely, when we read the biological writing on the DNA wall, we recognize the finger of God at work. 

I, like many of my medical colleagues, uncritically accepted evolutionary theory but failed to see our hypocrisy as we did very un-evolutionary things like caring for extremely premature babies on the edge of viability and repairing infants with congenital birth defects. We not only saved lives in the delivery room, but also outfitted them with expensive technological weapons to arm them in their ongoing battle with their evolutionary creator. We physicians are not the only hypocrites on this worldview stage. Our society mandates the teaching of evolution and then admires the care we provide to the medically unfit. Our culture pays lip service to its evolutionary creator and then funds the insurgency movement. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

Are we without excuse?

St. Paul said that God’s divine nature and eternal power were clearly evident in the things that had been made, so we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are making excuses when we deny the appearance of intelligent design. Did God speak creation into being or did he take credit for all the order and complexity after the fact? Maybe if we viewed the evolutionary tree as a train of thought we would get closer to the God of the Bible who had a thought and then spoke it into creation. And God said… may be the most profound link we have between science and faith. A God who spoke His mind formed creatures with divine voice recognition software who could contemplate what He had said and then offer it back as praise in the form of scientific research. I have expanded on this idea in more depth in my book, God Spoke: Bridging the Sacred-Secular Divide with Divine Discourse.

Were we haphazardly put together or were we fearfully and wonderfully made? As a physician, I am constantly amazed at the integrated physiological complexity of the human body as well as in awe of an immaterial soul that weeps, rejoices, and worships.

The case for overlapping magisteria

Stephen J. Gould, the evolutionary biologist, famously spoke of non-overlapping magisteria which allowed both faith and science to wear a crown but restricted their rule to only one domain. What if the magisteria actually overlapped? What if a speaking God recited a DNA code? What if a God who told the oceans “thus far and no further” established laws of gravitation? What if a God who said “let there be light” gave it a specific speed? What if the God who weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance created tectonic plates?

Clothed in Christ, we should never put Him on a hanger when we don our laboratory coat. If scientific theories and theological doctrines aren’t able to make it from the academic bench to the bedside of a world that is physically and spiritually dying, then they have both failed at their most important task. My hope is that one-day the lion of science will lie down with the Lamb of God. The scientific journal will be on the same bedside as the Bible. Until that day comes, we need more conversations like the ones put together by Justin on Unbelievable?.

Watch the debate and subscribe to the Unbelievable? podcast

Dr. Erik Strandness is a neonatal physician and Christian apologist living in the Pacific Northwest. He has authored three apologetic books and blogs on a regular basis at www.godsscreenplay.com.

About this blog

Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.

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