Science in Christian Perspective



Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.

From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 18-21.

In the last issue of this column the problem of approaching scientific colleagues and university students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in language understandable to them was discussed. In this issue I would like to share with you one approach which I attempted during an evangelistic mission at the University of Alberta earlier this year. The original presentation was given during the noon hour in the medical building and consisted of about a thirtyminute talk advertised as "A Biochemist's View of Life" followed by a twenty-minute open discussion period. Only a bare outline of the talk can be given here, which is presented not only for your reactions and criticisms, but also with the hope that this attempt may stimulate you to consider other approaches derived from your own special training.

Biochemists like myself are interested in life, and no less so because life is very difficult or impossible to define. N. W. Pirie has pointed out this difficulty very emphatically in a paper on "The Meaninglessness of the Terms Life and Living." (We recognize the viruses as being at the border line between the living and nonliving at one end of the spectrum, but we certainly use the term "life" to include a wide variety of phenomena at different levels. Thus we speak of the life (and death) of a cell rather independently of the life of the multicellular organism of which it may be a part. It is often a shock to rion-biologists to learn that the HeLa strain of cancer tissue, now cultivated in laboratories all over the world, has continued to multiply until its total living mass is now many times that of the woman from whom it was derived--even though she "died" several years ago! To some people it does not seem an unwarranted extrapolation to speak of the "life of a city" or the "life of a beehive," but to others this is stretching the biological notion too far. At any rate, the biochemist in interested in life, whatever it is, and tries to discover the mechanisms actually involved in these phenomena. And so far, even the simplest forms of life leave us with many puzzles yet to be solved.

Now, Christians claim to have discovered a whole new phenomenon when they became joined to Jesus Christ in a spiritual relationship, and the term most often given to this phenomenon in the New Testament is that of "spiritual life." Becoming a Christian is spoken of as "being born again into a new kind of life," and indeed, this kind of Life (with a capital L) is regarded in the Scriptures as being so superior to the ordinary, human kind of life, that in comparison mere human life seems equivalent to death! One of the claims for this Life is that it is eternal, that is, not bounded by time. Another claim is that it is abundant, that is, richer or more intense than ordinary life and not subject to all of the limitations and frustrations of ordinary life. This does not imply that the spiritual Life of a Christian and his physical life are unrelated. Every Christian knows that if his body is deprived of food or sleet) -his prayer life will be affected, and there are theoretical reasons to expect this. After all, the "life" of my body that I experience is related to the "life" of my liver cells which I cannot experience, and to the "biological half life" of protein molecules at a still lower level. We should expect interrelations ' of life at different levels--and expect them to be very complicated!

Because I am both a biochemist and a Christian, I have given some thought to the possible "mechanisms" of this spiritual Life of mine, based on what I know about mechanisms important in ordinary physical life. You may consider these remarks as being in the form of an analogy or parabolic expression in which ideas from two different realms are laid side by side for comparison. (The Biblical word "parable" and the "parabola" of mathematics come from the same Greek root.) Such an analogy is valuable if it opens minds to new or neglected ways of thinking, but, of course, should not be taken "literally" or stretched too far. I say this so none of you will tell your professors that I said that Christian metabolism is better than, or even different from, non-Christian metabolism, or that God is an enzyme or something-I've been misquoted before! I am merely trying to illustrate to you in terms you may understand if you have studied biochemistry, or even if you haven't, what it is like to be a Christian-how spiritual Life may be superimposed upon the ordinary kind of human life which you and I already experience in common;

Modern biochemists are generally "mechanists" rather than "vitalists." We operate on the basis that physical life represents the sum of complex chemical reactions rather than the result of the direct action of some nonphysical "vital force" at work in the organism. However, we still have another choice. We may consider these chemical reactions from the standpoint either of thermodynamics or of kinetics. Thermodynamics deals with the driving force which makes a reaction go and kinetics with the rate at which it goes. The two approaches can be quite independent, but we now recognize that consideration of both of them is necessary for an understanding of how living things work. In fact, the whole chemical basis upon which living things operate can be said to be the existence of compounds which under certain conditions can be thermodynainically unstable (that is. they have a strong tendency to react) but kinetically stable (that is, their uncatalyzed reaction is extremely slow). By providing catalysts at the appropriate time and place, the living system can utilize the "stored" energy in a controlled way to drive its own synthetic reactions. Adenosine triphosphate or ATP is a molecule which liberates a great deal of energy on hydrolysis but is stable in water at physiological pH values because the strong negative charge surrounding its ionized phosphate groups repels the attack of water molecules or hydroxyl ions. The energy can be released readily by removing some of this charge by acidifying the solution or by bringing up an appropriate enzyme such as ATP-ase. The relationship of thermodynamics and kinetics is seen in the familiar derivation of the equilibrium constant of a chemical reaction. In abbreviated form, suppose that compound A reacts with compound B. At any time the rate of this reaction will be proportional to the amounts or concentrations of both A and B, or:

where k1     is a constant of proportionality called the rate constant. However, if the products of the re action of A and B are, say, C and D, as their concentration builds upthere will be a greater tendency for them to react, and we can write the same kind of expression fortheir rate:
If the reaction is reversible, so that: A+B
= C+D then Rate1 will continue to decrease and Rate2 to increase until the two rates become equal, and the reaction will have reached a static "equilibrium." Since Rate1 = Rate2 at equilibrium, then:
and by dividing both sides by k2, (A), and (B), we get:

                              K=k1 /k2 (C)(D)/ (A) (B)

where K, the quotient of the two-rate constants, is called the equilibrium constant of the reaction. The
logarithm of this equilibrium constant is directly related to -the thermodynamic quantity called the
Standard Free Energy Change of the reaction, a direct measure of its tendency to "go."

In biochemistry, the reactions -of interest are enzyme-catalyzed, and one must deal with an intermediate step in the over-all reaction of substrate (the biochemist's term for reactant) going to products, namely, the formation of -the enzyme-substrate (or E-S) complex. Furthermore, the situation in living systems is such that the reactions, even though speeded up by the presence of enzymes, are generally not at thermodynamic equilibrium, but are in what biochemists call a "steady-state" or dynamic equilibrium. In fact, when a living system reaches thermodynamic equilibrium, it has ceased living! Living systems are "open" systems in which an inflow of energy prevents the attainment -of thermodynamic equilibrium. A closed system at thermodynamic equilibrium cannot do useful work without internal change, but a steady-state system is capable of doing work on its surroundings or on the components of the system. "Furthermore, thermodynamic equilibrium is unstable in the sense that it is shifted to a different state by a single addition of energy to the system, but the steady state has stability and is rapidly re-establighed," to quote from Fruton and Simmonds (General Biochemistrv, Wiley, Second Edition, 1958, p. 243). "Of special importance is the fact that the concentrations of the reactants at thermodynamic equilibrium are independent of the concentrations of substances that catalyze the reaction, whereas the stationary concentrations of the reactants in a Steady-state system are determined by the catalyst concentration."

Now I would like to turn from consideration of physical life to consideration of spiritual Life. To do so, first of all I must discuss the unique character of human life, which I admit is rather hard to do in bio-chemical terms. But without getting involved in biochemical complications, let me merely summarize the data from my own human experience verified by contact with other human beings directly and through their literature. I mean to make this the most general description of man and not just the familiar Biblical one. Certainly many non-Christians have expressed the same basic idea after a much more thorough analysis of the human situation. The essence is in man's unique self-awareness puts him in the position of being either subjective or objective in his view of the world and of himself, and however this difference in viewpoint is expressed, we all know it from personal experiences of having made choices between them at one time or other in our lives. Sooner or later we come across an experience to which we may react emotionally or rationally, and we are conscious of making such a choice. In fact, one might even say that it is the possibility of this consciousness of choice which makes us human instead of merely thinking machines or "feeling" organisms.

Now to put this somewhat oversimplified picture of the nature of human life into the kind of symbolism a biochemist uses for reactions, we can write:

                       Subj       ----->    Obj
where the symbol on the left represents the emotional, biological, existential aspect of our lives, and the sym bol on the right represents the rational, cultural, objective aspect. There is at least a sense in which the two aspects are mutually exclusive at any given instant, so that we must shift bark and forth from one to the other. Following the previous derivation we could write for the over-all process a kind of "equi librium constant" which would represent the ratio of the two aspects of a man's life.

What does Christianity have to do with all this? Well, many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, seem to have the idea that becoming a Christian means essentially a change in the "K" for the convert, although there is some disagreement about the direction of the shift. The Roman Catholics and some others argue that when a man becomes a Christian he becomes truly rational man. Others describe the nature of their Christian experience in terms that lead one to believe that their equilibrium constant has changed radically in favor of the emotional and existential or "mystical." However, I think these descriptions are neither very accurate nor very helpful in trying to convey what I mean by beinga Christian. Personally I think there is a whole range of individual values for this "K" among people who call themselves Christians as well as in the general population. Some people tend to be more emotional and some more rational, and some of each kind become Christians.

For my own view of what it really means to be a Christian, let me remind you that the Biblical expres sion is that it means to have a new kind of Life. That is, when one becomes "alive" in Christ he becomes part of an open system, a dynamic situation in which there is an inflow of what we may call "divine energy" preventing the attainment of the "death" corresponding to an equilibrium state. A Christian, in ,this way of thinking, is no longer merely human, he exists in a sort of "God-man" complex, bound up as a substrate is bound to an enzyme. And the interesting part of this analogy is the theoretical necessity for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in bringing this new Life to man: He is the "active site," providing perfect binding of man to God because of His perfect "fit" to both reactants-"God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself"!

Let me try to explain why this analogy is helpful to me in analyzing my own experience first as a lost" human being (a closed system!) and then as a Christian. As a human being, if I explore the subjective view of myself thoroughly and play around with the thought of my subjective choices, sooner or later I come up against the idea that I am not only responsible for those choices but also that I make poor choices or wrong choices, by whatever my standard of good and bad. If there is a God who is the Creator of the universe, all my responsibilities ultimately go back to Him, so that at this extreme I come up against my own inexorable guilt. The only escape from this distressing situation is to flee into objectivity, as all of us have done many times-"we are no more guilty than anyone else, the circumstances and not me were really to blame, we don't really know that God even exists," etc. However, when one explores objectivity to its depths, one again becomes "lost"-lost this time as one's self becomes swallowed up in the universe and we see ourselves as thoroughly conditioned and controlled and we become merely chemical reactions, etc. Because of these crushing ~influences of extreme subjectivism and objectivism, one tends to oscillate between -the two modes of thought in a state of terrific tension (which eventually shatters many people), or one finds the position of least tension-his equilibrium position-and "dies" there.

In contrast, there is a tremendous difference in my outlook as a Christian: Because the forgiveness of my sin has been provided for in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I am free to explore the possibility that I am in reality thoroughly guilty and never make an unselfish choice. No extreme of subjectivity can frighten me or shatter me now! And since I have learned in Christ something -of the nature and purpose of the Creator, I am no longer depressed when objective analysis shows me to be but a speck of cosmic dust, or a batch of chemicals, or a machine. My humanity is not extinguished because I now joyfully acknowledge Him as my Creator and share in His purpose even though thoroughly controlled. So, by being bound to Him in an "activated complex,

I have been set free from the inevitability of equilib rium and death-I have been "born again" and am now gloriously alive in Jesus Christ! And in practice, I find I am able to influence my surroundings, being an open system through which God's love may flow to do "useful work" on those around me. Furthermore, I find that I am more stable as should be true of a steady-state situation, my relationship to God through Christ allowing me to absorb pressures that would otherwise upset me. And finally, I experience an intensity of life possible only to one who has been introduced to the full significance of !his creatureliness on one hand and the joyous opportunity of full participation with his Creator on the other hand.

Jesus said, "I came that they may have life, and 'have it abundantly." "In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." "To all who received him, who believed in his name, be gave power to become children of God, who were bon, not of blood nor of the will -of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." "Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new bas come,"

If this is true, it is too good to miss! Don't miss it any longer.