“Come in.” He looked at me over the top of his glasses as I entered the office. “And who have we here.”
“I was looking for Dr. Purcell,” I said. “I’m George, her new PhD student.”
“Ah.” The man put down his pen and folded his arms on the desk. “Trish has just popped out for vital caffeine supplies. She won’t be long. Make yourself comfortable.”
I took the only chair that wasn’t covered in paper. The room was small and stuffy. One of the two desks – the one my companion was sitting behind – was covered in files and pens and folders. The other, presumably belonging to my new supervisor, was empty apart from a laptop and fountain pen. I glanced at the man. He was the epitome of a mad professor, all wild hair and half-moon glasses, but there had been no name on the door other than Dr. T. Purcell.
“What’s your doctorate in?” the man asked. “Biology of some sort, I assume?”
“The origins of life,” I said, then flushed. “That sounds rather grand. I’m a microbiologist. I’m looking at prokaryotes and how they might relate to deep sea organisms today.”
There was the familiar silence that always comes when I try to explain my thesis to people. I looked around for something to say. The first time my eyes wandered over the desk and his arms folded on it, I didn’t notice the tattoo. When I did, it was so incongruous – this professor who could have been straight out of a children’s drama set in the 1940s, and the plain, bold cross inked on to his wrist – that I did a slapstick double-take. He gave a soft chuckle and I felt myself grow hot.
“How long have you had that?” I said, more to cover my awkwardness than because I wanted to know.
“A long time.”
“I thought that wasn’t allowed.” I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips. This was the last thing I wanted to be talking about. I laughed as if I’d meant it as a joke. “Faith and science – I thought they had to be kept apart.”
“Do they?” The man waited until my eyes met his, then he smiled. “I suppose I must have missed that memo.”
“So you’re a… you’re a…”
“A man of faith, yes.”
“And a scientist?”
“I like to think so.”
“Isn’t that…” I didn’t even know why I was continuing this conversation. “Isn’t that rather difficult?”
He considered my question for a few seconds. “Not for me. Not usually.” He nodded. “But for people I meet sometimes, yes, I think it is.”
Didn’t I know it? As an undergraduate I had made the mistake of getting involved with a group of Christians through my flatmate. They’d been friendly – more normal than I was expecting – and I’d been interested. They had this… this… something; something I couldn’t quite define but which I knew I didn’t have. I’d begun to think I might like to have it, whatever it was. Talking to them, playing football with them – it hadn’t seemed a mistake at first. It was another group of mates who showed me what an idiot I was being. How could I, a microbiologist, hang out with Bible-bashers? How could I even listen to them? Wasn’t it the church who had persecuted Galileo? Weren’t there still Christians out there who believed in a flat earth? It was ludicrous. I was ludicrous for asking the questions, for wanting to know more.
The man was watching me. “Why did you want to become a scientist?” he asked. “How have you ended up here today?”
I shrugged. “I guess I was a kid who wanted to know why and how all the time. I had so many questions about the world. I wanted answers. I still do.”
Maybe that’s all I’d wanted from my new friends at uni: answers. Why were they different? What did they have that I didn’t? But it was stupid. My other friends were right – of course I didn’t want to be involved with people like that. So I cut the ties. To not go to church with my flatmate was easy. It was easy to be busy when he went to play football. Life was full; to not be involved was not a problem. But to stop wondering, to stop thinking about them – about the God they loved – that was harder. A decade on and I was still working on it.
“You’ll forgive me if I say that you don’t look as if you have come straight from your first degree.” The man raised his eyebrows. “You have a few more years in you than many of Trish’s students.”
“That’s true.” I laughed. “I married after uni. Then we had a baby. She’s just started school.” I fumbled for my wallet, pulled out her photograph. “It seemed a good time for me to go back to school too.”
He looked at the picture of Lottie, then said, in the same casual tone, “Why did you have a child, George?”
He looked up. “Why did you and your wife have a child?”
“Ummm.. well… we wanted to I guess.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You had a child because the two of you set in motion a well-known biological process for combining your DNA in order to create a new living organism. This process was successful and now there is another individual of the species Homo sapiens.”
I wasn’t sure if I was meant to laugh.
“Well, isn’t that right?” he said.
“I suppose so.” I shrugged. “But mostly we just… wanted a child.”
“Ah yes.” He nodded. “Maybe we are both correct then. Maybe there is more than one way of answering questions. Scientific process is an excellent one. It is not, however, the only one.” He sat back in his chair. “I am thirsty for answers too. So I look for them every way I know how.”
“But what if your answers don’t match,” I said. “What if your science tells you one story about how the earth was made, and your faith tells you another?”
“Then one of them must be wrong.”
“Exactly.” The frustration I thought I’d abandoned ten years earlier, hit me in a sudden wave. “It’s impossible.”
“Or maybe your interpretationof either your faith or your science is wrong.” His eyes were fixed on my face. “Your data might be wrong, or you might be mistaking the Bible for the textbook it was never meant to be.”
“So you don’t think God created the world in seven days?” I said.
He thought about this for longer than I was expecting. At last, he sighed. “When Jesus walked the earth he taught people by telling them stories,” he said. “When there was a big idea to grasp, he told a story. I believe that Jesus is part of God, and that God is unchanging. Therefore it makes perfect sense to me that even before Jesus’s time God would have explained big ideas – like how the whole universe was created – using stories. The crucial point to grasp is not how God made the world, only that he didmake it. Imagine if, to understand the Bible, we all needed to have a grasp of nuclear physics or understand the structure of proteins.”
“What about all the rest?” I said. “All the stuff people like you dohave to believe in – the stuff you can’t explain away by calling it a parable: virgin birth, miracles, resurrection. It’s all too extraordinary.”
He laughed a sudden, bright laugh. “If God were not extraordinary, I don’t suppose he would be someone I cared to worship.” His face grew serious. “You are right of course. These things defy scientific explanation – at least as far as we know now. They pose questions. Luckily, I am not afraid of questions – even ones that seem unanswerable.”
“And there is more than one way to find answers.” I said.
I put a hand to my head. The room had grown hotter, the lights brighter. That strange pull – the one I had felt when listening to my flatmate talking to his friends – tugged somewhere inside me. For a moment I was tempted to let it pull – to follow the end of the thread; to see if this time I could find the Something I was looking for.
No. I wasn’t going through this again. I couldn’t.
I stood up. “I need to find Dr. Purcell.”
My hand was already on the door handle when he spoke again. “Galileo was a Christian, you know.”
I turned back to face him. I hadn’t mentioned Galileo.
“He thought studying the stars glorified the God who created them.” He picked up his pen again. “I happen to agree with him.”
Out in the corridor, I leaned my head against the cool wall and took a deep breath.
“Are you George?” Another voice now, coming from the far end of the corridor. “I’m Dr. Purcell. Sorry for the wait.” She opened the door. “Come in.”
I hovered in the doorway, unwilling to face the strange man again.
“Grab a seat.” Dr. Purcell nodded to the chair I had vacated half a minute before.
It was only when I moved to obey her, that I noticed the chair behind the other desk. It was empty.
Dr. Purcell saw me staring. “Are you OK?”
“Who… who do you share an office with?” I said.
“Nobody.” She laughed. “I dump all my stuff on that desk so the administrators don’t assign anybody else to this room. I like my own space.” She dropped my thesis proposal on the desk in front of her and put on her glasses. “Now, what do we have here? Oh yes, the origins of life.” She smiled at me. “A fascinating subject. Shall we begin?”