Guest Post: Suffering and the Grace of God

Secuencia de AND by Pablo Gonzalez. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most weeks in my work as an immunologist, I am faced with the reality of our evolutionary origins. Someone will give a talk, describing the function of this or that receptor in humans and – in passing – will mention that the same receptor is seen in bacteria. Or (hoorah!) we find that an antibody, created to identify a protein in rats, nicely targets the same protein in human cells. Or an online search to identify a human DNA sequence ends up with a piece of armadillo DNA as the closest match (yes that did happen!)

Tree of life By Ivica Letunic: Iletunic. Retraced by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal: LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But as a Christian, I am troubled by Darwinian evolution. What does it say of the character of God? On the face of it, God chose to make humans by a process which requires genetic mutation. Most of the time, mutations have no effect at all. When they do affect the creature carrying them, they can make them more fit for their environment – which is what drives evolution forwards – but more often they cause early death, pain, disability or disease.

I used to think of illness as the product of a fallen world, but now I cannot. Firstly, I cannot see any biological reality to the Fall. Secondly, I have to accept that suffering is a necessary part of our creation. It seems God requires suffering for our creation. God has mandated our suffering. And what sort of God is that?

Lab technician in the Immunology department by Sanofi Pasteur. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I am also a doctor, and in fact I am writing this in between patients in an outpatient clinic. Every week, I see people with serious disability from neurological diseases. Some of these diseases arise because of genetic mutations interacting badly with our environment. The same process that made me able to flourish as a healthy human, “wonderfully made”, means the person in front of me experiences progressive contraction of their possibilities, capacities and hopes. Their health has, innocently and unwittingly, been sacrificed for mine. Many past humans have had limited lives, and animals before them, and simpler organisms before them, so that I might live life to the full. There is a terrible danger of feeling these blighted lives are instrumental for me; and that surely is not right.

I don’t often talk to other Christians about this, because in the past these views have caused hurt, confusion, or worse. I wish these thoughts would not nag away at me. But then the next experiment comes along, and there it is: the antibody we are using to identify a human target has just picked up something that the databases say belongs to a mouse. And a little later, I am seeing someone whose life is limited by a genetic mutation.

What helps me is reminding myself that we are all disabled. We are all, more or less, constrained and limited. Our myopic perspective is that some humans are gloriously able whilst others are terribly disabled, and we are full of a sense of unfairness. But I suspect that to God, all our capabilities are childishly tiny and His sense of fairness is more about his great and underserved gift of grace to us, rather than the differences between us. Perhaps what matters is how we work out our calling within our particular disability, as a member of His generous creation, open and full of possibilities.

Coles mugshotRevd Professor Alasdair Coles is an academic neurologist in Cambridge, UK, whose primary research interest is in the immunology and treatment of multiple sclerosis. He is the Professor of neuroimmunology at Cambridge University, and has a small research team managing clinical trials and doing human immunological laboratory work. He also does clinical work for two days a week as a consultant neurologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospitals. Dr Coles was ordained priest in the Church of England in 2009 and is now a minister in secular employment at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Dr Coles has also done some research on the neurological basis for religious experience, stemming from managing a small cohort of patients with spiritual experiences due to temporal lobe epilepsy. He is now engaged in a study, funded by the Templeton Foundation, of the spirituality of people with neurological disease in Cambridgeshire, and is editing a CUP book on religion in neurological disease.

Wonder and Worship: Beauty in Science

Tamsin Whitfield. Silver contaminents crop
© Tamsin Whitfield

Last week saw the opening of my first ever science-faith gallery exhibition. The space is a white-walled corner of my church, set aside for creative members of the congregation to display their handiwork. The pictures were all provided by members of the church who are scientists and engineers. Our aim is to showcase some of the beauty we see in the course of our work, and communicate how it helps us to worship God. Continue reading

God’s Universal Orchestra: Tuning in with shrimp, mountains and stars

Rainbow Gate by Christos Tsoumplekas. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Bible says that all creation praises God, but our human-centred view might make us call this into question. How can non-human beings and even inanimate elements of creation praise their maker? How are we to understand Continue reading

Inside the Religious Mind: Psychology, Prayer and Compassion

Conscious – May there be Light. By Hartwig HKD. Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

How can a psychologist study religion? Today’s podcast comes from the newest member of staff at the Faraday Institute, Joe Tennant, who is a psychologist. Here I ask him about his life and work, and what methods a psychologist can use to study belief in an invisible God (transcript below). Continue reading

Guest Post: The Intricacy of the Ear

Sound wave by betmari. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Music, whispers, phone calls, the alarm clock, the cry of a baby – the ear mediates our auditory interactions with the world. The things we hear may make us laugh or cry, enhance a film or make a subtle point without words, cheer us up or soothe an angry mood. The interpretation of sound and what it means to us is the responsibility of the brain, but the pathway that takes Continue reading

Water and Life: The Unique Properties of H2O

A New Voyage by Brooks Bailey – Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Water is a strange thing. The unique structure of its molecules allow it take on three different forms: a liquid that is easily absorbed into porous substances (i.e. it’s wet!), ice that floats, and a gas. In the book Water and Life: The Unique Properties of H2O, the biophysicist Felix Franks has contributed a chapter explaining some of these properties, and how they may have played a part in the origin of life.

The chemistry of life has adapted to water and become very dependent on it, so that even ‘heavy water’[i] is toxic in Continue reading

Happy New Year!

Thank you for following in 2015, and here’s to another year of celebrating science and faith.

© Ruth Bancewicz

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