Photo from Test of FAITH. © The Faraday Institute

I interviewed a number of scientists on a recent trip to Spain, and this is an extract from the first of those conversations. Dr Raul García has a background in medicine and neuroscience, and is a Children and Adolescents Psychiatrist in Madrid.

I started university as a civil engineering student, but I didn’t enjoy my studies. I was more interested in people than numbers and equations, and towards the end of my first year I was looking for something else to do.  At the same time, I was involved in supporting a family friend who was suffering from mental illness, and I went with him to an appointment at the hospital where he was being treated. This person was a Christian, and during the interview he said that his future was in God’s hands. The medical staff laughed sceptically at him, interpreting his optimism as delusional thinking. This incident had a huge impact on me, and I began to think about studying medicine. I realised that I wanted to help people like my friend, and that this was both a scientific and a theological ambition. So I changed track, and studied medicine.

After I qualified as a psychiatrist I studied theology part-time. So now, alongside my clinical work and teaching I teach pastoral counselling and am part of the leadership team of a small church. In the history of psychiatry there are some well-known examples of psychiatrists who become philosophers or theologians. I think that the relationship between science and faith should be dialogic. Science has much to say to theology and theology has much to say to science, especially on the meaning of life and personal experience.

The challenge of neuroscientific advance is an anthropological question: what kind of human being is displayed in neuroscience? The brain is the cause of our thinking or feeling, but I think that there is another reality. We are not just our brains – we are also our experiences and choices, our motivations, longings, and desires. Christian theology says that God created us in his image and likeness. So we are intelligent and creative, able to express and receive love, and we have the capacity to take free moral decisions. A theological point of view is the most comprehensive one from which to interpret the human being, because it takes account of the transcendent.

What gives me a sense of wonder in my day-to-day work with children and their families is our developmental capacity. We have an amazing ability to adapt to an unfavourable environment and resist even the most negative situation. It is wonderful to see that, with a little help from me as a therapeutic agent, people have the capacity to ‘keep on keeping on’ in their daily life – they have resilience. Spiritually, they can transcend their difficulties, troubles and trials. Another source of wonder for me is the grace of God going in search of the ‘Prodigal Son’. In a certain sense we are all prodigal sons; God reaches out for us from difficult situations, even severe mental illness. And if someone has faith in God, he or she is in a better position to overcome their problems.

Maybe my year in engineering helped me to have a more objective point of view; but I haven’t really thought about it. I admire engineers very much because they build bridges and wonderful constructions, but I have always had a special interest in people: their mind, their behaviour, their conflicts, their gratefulness and their miseries. Studying medicine gave me the opportunity to understand the physical and psychological aspects of the human experience more deeply.

Raul García’s interest in the human person and how we function, for better or worse, is infectious. I wrote this while listening (not at exactly the same time) to Oxford philosopher Keith Ward’s lecture from the recent Faraday Institute ‘Science, Religion & Atheism’ course. Ward’s emphasis on experience and meaning is, I think, complementary to García’s approach. 

4 thoughts on “People

  1. Dr Ikechukwu Okadigwe April 19, 2012 / 4:59 pm

    Interesting that medical professionals that should have an open mind should laughingly dismiss faith in God as delusional thinking. A professional in psychiatry needs to use all advantages at their disposal to aid patient recovery, bearing in mind that for all our scientificand medical advances,our knowledge of the human brain and mind still remains rudimentary at best. To throw out faith in God as a weapon in their fight to aid recovery seems bad enough to be deemed negligent. No wonder Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to say: 22″For while Jews [demandingly] ask for signs and miracles and Greeks pursue philosophy and wisdom,

    23We preach Christ (the Messiah) crucified, [preaching which] to the Jews is a scandal and an offensive stumbling block [that springs a snare or trap], and to the Gentiles it is absurd and utterly unphilosophical nonsense.

    24But to those who are called, whether Jew or Greek (Gentile), Christ [is] the Power of God and the Wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1: 22-24)

    Thank God for the “unphilosophical nonsense, indeed the delusional thinking” that saves through faith in Christ Jesus, now and forever.


  2. Richard Hosking April 23, 2012 / 10:05 am

    Hi Ruth, Super stuff from Raul Garcia. Neuroscience is often considered to have a Spanish ‘father’ – the great microscopist Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934) – who was Catholic, I believe. Cajal’s writing is beautiful and frequently hilarious, especially when recounting his childhood (which included a spell in jail for destroying a neighbour’s gate while testing a homemade cannon!*)

    In a famous quote, he waxed lyrical about the aesthetics of brain microscopy: “Like an entomologist in pursuit of brightly coloured butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday – who knows? – clarify the secret of mental life.”

    Cajal believed that “any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain”**. Sadly, numerous factors (including mental illness) often hinder this. However, paediatric neurologist Andrew Curran – who shares Cajal’s enthusiasm, if not his artistic talent (which one reviewer describes as delightfully dreadful!) – has produced a fantastic ‘user’s manual’ of brain research. The introduction is entitled ‘All it takes is love’:

    “It is extraordinary to me how much understanding of myself and how much hope flows from my ongoing study of how the brain works. And perhaps the most surprising message for me from looking through billions of dollars of research is that the most important thing you can do for yourself and for others is to love yourself and others for who they are, because by doing that you maximise the brain’s ability to learn and unlearn …”

    … which fits nicely with Matthew 7:12 (to which Andrew later alludes) and 1 Corinthians 13.

    *Cajal ‘Recollections of My Life’ MIT Press (1989) p.70
    **Cajal ‘Advice for a Young Investigator’ MIT Press (2004) p. xv
    (Extracts available @ Google Books)

    Curran ‘The Little Book of Big Stuff about the Brain’ Crown House Publishing (2008)
    Available as Kindle, paper and iBook editions.


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