Science in Christian Perspective




Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.

From: JASA 13 (September 1961): 84-87.

The subject under discussion in this column is the question posed in the March issue: "How does my being a Christian affect my scientific work?" The discussion will continue in subsequent issues, and the column is open to your comments and particularly to the sharing of your own experiences as an investigator whose over-all world view is that of an evangelical Christian. Do you do a different kind of research because you are a Christian, do you do the same kind of research in a different way, or do you experience little or no interaction between your Christianity and your research ?

In a talk I gave recently I was trying to emphasize how restrictive are "the rules of the game" in research, and said that I thought the research papers I publish should bear no mark that the work was done by a Christian, because my philosophical presuppositions should be immaterial to the research. In the question period following the talk someone said, "Then being a Christian doesn't make any difference to you in the lab, does it?"

"I didn't say that at all," I replied. "A lot of things go on in my lab besides research-probably too many! My lab is also my office, where I prepare lectures, counsel students, talk to colleagues, worry over budgets, answer the telephone and the mail; think about research (if there's any time left), etc.-and I try to do all these things prayerfully." The questioner objected that I was defining research too narrowly. I think he wanted to define research as "what scientists do in their laboratories," and I was defining it as "what scientists do that can be published in research journals."

It seems to me that much of the power of the scientific method lies in its self-imposed restrictions, and that it is desirable for scientific literature to reflect the barrenness of science. journals vary widely in many respects, some being more restrictive than others, but there is general agreement among scientists about what is appropriate in a research paper and what is not. The restrictions are set usually by editorial boards of scientific societies and enforced by editors and scientific referees. Few people who have not submitted manuscripts for journal publication realize that each manuscript is usually sent to at least two other scientists for criticism. These referees may recommend acceptance of the manuscript as it stands, acceptance with specified changes (sometimes total revision), or outright rejection; they are generally chosen because they have already published work of their own in the same field, often from among those who disagree with the author on critical issues. A referee may object that experiments were not well designed or not adequate or were not described in sufficient d that conclusions drawn from the results of an experiment were not justified, that attention was not given to the previous work of others in the same field or  essentially the same work has already been reported by others, etc. He tries to be sure that the work is reported in such skilled in that field could repeat the experiments and get the same results. He is not interested in the motives of the author or his philosophical outlook. In fact; even the scientific training, location, reputation, and record of previous publication of the author are essentially insignificant details; each manuscript must stand on its own merits, according to the rules of the game.

It is easy to criticize this system (especially when one of your own papers is severely criticized or rejected!) but most of us recognize it as the source of our confidence in the scientific literature, Occasionally an inaccurate or even downright fraudulent paper slips by, and occasionally a good paper is turned down by prejudiced referees; however, usually errors or frauds are quickly exposed by those who try to repeat the work, and it is possible to challenge a referee's opinion, to request another referee, or as a last resort to submit the paper to another journal for a fresh appraisal.

With this background, I wish to make the point again that if the research I publish is my real contribution as a scientist (and this is undoubtedly the basis on which I am judged by the scientific community), I do not want the fact that I am a Christian to show in it. In other words, I approve of the system of safeguarding scientific publication against inroads which might weaken it. When a theologian says that a Christian's theology should be revealed in his scientific papers, as in "the good old days" of 18th and 19th century science, he is essentially disapproving of the modern system of research publication. The theological barrenness of scientific literature should make one uneasy only if one fears the degeneration of science into a philosophical "scientism." It seems to me that the theologian who wants A.S.A. members to dedicate our papers "to the Glory of God as a Testimony of our Faith in His Son" as formerly done, is himself trying to convert science into a scientism. A better approach, it seems to me, is to insist that scientific publication remain devoid of theological and philosophical trappings, Christian as well as non-Christian; the philosophical barrenness of science should make the richness of the Christian Gospel stand out in contrast. We may then preach with conviction in a scientific age that science at its best cannot be ultimately satisfyin& no matter how powerful and penetrating its method may be.

However, as an evangelical Christian, I am concerned about living a life which is not torn by spiritual schizophrenia, and I want to be able to pray about every aspect of my life, including my research work. How might God influence my scientific work in answer to prayer? How can I worship Him in the lab, and how can my life best serve as a witness to Jesus Christ, if we are to keep our research devoid of theology? Well, such questions have made me think about the factors which seem to control the kinds of research I do and the ways in which I go about doing it, and I have come to a few tentative conclusions.

The first conclusion is a general one, that our research is greatly influenced by the same kind of personal choices and circumstances that influence the course of everyone else's life. What are the major factors influencing the kind of problems we tackle? The nature of the position we hold, the equipment, personnel, and financial support available, the extent of our training, our ability and personality come to mind first of all. Even in a university environment where we are theoretically free to work on anything, our choices are limited by previous choices we have made, and by circumstances that are beyond our control. I realize the danger of over-generalizing from my own experience, but let me explain what I mean. In tracing back through my own life, it is easy to find first of all certain key decisions which seem to have had the most profound directional influence: the decision to go to college, the choice of a curriculum, application for graduate school, choice of a major professor, acceptance of certain positions, etc. These are decisions about which any Christian would pray for guidance. Beyond this lie aspects of our character and personality about which we also pray, and which ultimately affect all of our choices. Often these psychological factors are more difficult to pray about specifically because they are too much a part of us to be seen clearly, but they undoubtedly have a bearing on the way we do research. We may tend to do things which are hard (or easy) for us, we may prefer to do research which must be done neatly (or rapidly), we may gravitate toward exciting, risky projects (or toward "safe," sure-fire ones), we may like solitary work (or "team" work), etc. Finally, there are those circumstances which are most difficult to pray about intelligently because we never have facts at hand to get anything like God's perspective: a position opens up (or a grant isn't renewed), a top-notch graduate student happens to apply to our department (or our technician quits), a completely unexpected result turns up which puts us on the right (or the wrong) track, etc.

As I thought of these factors which shape the course of our lives and determine the kind of research we do, I realized that my being a Christian does affect my research if it makes any difference in my life at all: The SEPTEMBER,miracle we may expect to praise God for is not to be seen in the experiments we do, but rather in the fact that we are doing the experiment at this time and in this place to which God has brought us. The rules of the game in science specify that we must not see the Hand of God moving in the experiment; the "rules of the game" in my Christian life require that I see the Hand of God moving in me as I do the experiment and in all that brought me to the opportunity of doing it. Is there a "carry-over" between the two games? That is, does learning to live as a Christian necessarily make me a better scientist? I think not. It might, or it might even make me a worse scientist. I might be less inclined to enjoy participation in the scientific game if the joy of watching the Hand of God move became an overwhelming experience for me. I might therefore do less scientific work than a non-Christian with the same opportunities, or I might do it with less intensity and therefore perhaps not as well as a non-Christian might do it. On the other hand, if I have been conscious of God's guidance and realize that the opportunities I have are really unique, the feeling that God has prepared me for a specific piece of scientific work (perhaps partly by keeping me from becoming involved in some other investigation) may motivate me to throw myself into the task more wholeheartedly than anyone else could. What is your experience along these lines?

My second conclusion is a highly personal one, that God has led me in a most remarkable fashion in my scientific career. As I began to look back over the events that led me to my present situation I found so many hints of a "direct" influence of God that it seems perfectly obvious that my being a Christian has affected my research work. At what seem to have been turning points there was no vagueness about God's guidance, so it is reasonable to postulate His involvement in the events of my career. Let me give a few examples of "turning points" in connection with a specific research problem on which I have worked for the past five or six years, a study of hormone release by the anterior pituitary gland:

The difficulty in trying to tell such a tale is that there is really no starting place; I believe God has been active on my behalf since "before the foundation of the world"! But let us start with graduate school: The chain of events which led me to the University of Illinois and to my major professor were so remarkable that even at the time I had an intense feeling of God's direction. In my last year of graduate work I applied for a Fulbright to do post-doctoral work in England. At that time the period between application and notification was inordinately long, and I accepted a postdoctoral position in the U. S. before hearing that I had been awarded a Fulbright. Having already committed myself at Yale, I reluctantly declined the overseas Fellowship, wondering at the time whether I had jumped the gun instead of waiting for a surer sign from the Lord about which way to go. As it turned out, my father became seriously ill during the summer I left for Yale, a circumstance which would undoubtedly have kept us from sailing to England had I accepted the Fulbright; at New Haven we could keep in touch with my family by phone and knew that I could fly home in a few hours if needed. After a year I felt I should return to Houston to be nearer my father, who was still in a relatively serious condition, so I wrote to Baylor University College of Medicine to see if a position in biochemtistry might be open. It was (remarkably), and it was offered to me. The situation there at the time was not particularly favorable for the kind of research I had been trained to do, and I spent several "lean years" working on small problems I thought I could handle. Dr. John Brobeck, Head of the Physiology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, came down to Baylor Med as the main speaker for a Religious Emphasis Week, of all things. Now, Dr. Brobeck had been at Yale when I had arrived there and we had gotten acquainted through IVCF before he left for Pennsylvania, so we were already Christian friends when he came to Houston for a few days. One day he introduced me to Dr. Roger Guillemin of Baylor's Department of Physiology, whom I had not met previously.

Out of this meeting with Roger Guillemin came the chance to work on the hormone problem-he was looking for a biochemist to collaborate with him on isolation of ACTH-releasing factors from the hypothalamus. We began working together and had some results to publish in 1955. That year, however, again through a most remarkable series of circumstances, a position at Iowa State opened up and I was "propelled" toward it by the Hand of God, almost unwillingly. For quite a while it seemed that I had abandoned any chance of contributing further to the hormone project, which seemed to go very well in Houston but couldn't get off the ground in Ames. Then several excellent graduate students became interested in the problem, now supported by a grant to Iowa State from the National Institutes of Health, and we began to work hard on it. Nothing much came of our efforts, however, and it looked like "lean years" again. We got discouraged and almost gave up.

A new assay was developed by Guillemin which seemed to offer a ray of hope for us, so I sent one of my grad students to Baylor to learn the technique. We decided to try again, using the new assay, but didn't have the trained manpower to run enough samples to follow our isolation work. Morale sank to an all-time low as we faced the hard fact that no matter how much time we put in we couldn't get the job done. just in the nick of time and by a truly fantastic series of circumstances, I discovered on our campus a girl trained in perhaps the best hormone laboratory in the world, who had come to Ames with her graduate student husband hoping but hardly expecting to find a job where she could use her training! I hired her immediately. almost unable to believe my good fortune because excellent technicians are exceedingly diffiicult to find in a small town, let alone someone with special training of such great value to us. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that she was also an evangelical Christian with whom I might pray! The Lord seemed to be letting me know that He wanted us to keep going when things looked black. With Peggy to help us we were in business, but the results we began getting were all negative. By now we had worked hard for several years with no publishable results, and it began to look as though we just weren't good enough to crack the problem. Mean while, the group I had left were publishing steadily on the problem.

I was very conscious of my responsibility toward the graduate students working with me, and was praying for some way to salvage a couple of Ph. D. theses out of what seemed to be a fiasco. Finally, in a desperation attempt to see what was wrong, we did a series of assays to check our technique and discovered that our values, although statistically valid, were quite different from those in the literature which we had accepted as standards. Our values gave us definite evidence that the substance we had been trying to isolate did not exist or rather, that its biological activity could be accounted for by another known hormone. I sent our results to the investigator who had published the other values for criticism; he could find no flaw in our experiments, so we gained confidence enough to publish our own results. Suddenly our whole outlook had changed, just in time for my students to complete their dissertations, and our work became a real contribution to the field. Of course, we may yet be wrong in our new conclusions (the other investigator thinks so), but the point is that we were able to obtain good data to support them because we were forced to do certain experiments in our desperation. Had I not left Baylor and not been led through the additional lean years and discouragement, I would undoubtedly not have had the chance to make this particular contribution.

This has all happened quite recently, and in fact one of our papers is now in press and the other still an incompleted manuscript to which I shall return as soon as I finish writing this column. I am still emotionally moved by the dramatic way God rescued me, after opening up the opportunity in the first place and sustaining me even in the leanest years. My prayer is that I shall always remember seeing His Hand at work in this particular piece of research and continue to praise Him for it and to trust Him in the future. No, there was nothing miraculous in our experiments, nor did God provide any insights inaccessible to a non-Christian
and our papers in the scientific journals will bear no indication that the work was done in an atmosphere of prayer. But there was a miracle-that God let me accomplish it-and it was a concentrated series of events that brought it about. How could I say that being a Christian made no difference to me in research? It does, of course; the question is, what is the best way to say so?