Sunday, July 5, 2009

Null Hypothesis

God really did make me a scientist before He made me a Christian, and that colors everything for me.

One of my great struggles is to understand how to use the person I am in the service of God when it so often seems that my very self is contrary to what I think it ought to be and what the occasion demands. Let’s face it, I have some not so attractive tendencies: temper, certainty, even tunnel-vision. These make me one terrific physician, even as a pathologist. (I am tenacious, I don’t tend to get distracted, and I have been known to be ferocious in the defense of patients). It makes me a much less effective apologist, at least in person, because the lawyer side kicks in: blunt, argumentative, and completely disinclined to leave any logical weakness in my opposition unexploited. It’s not exactly a recipe for good ecumenical relations, so I do try to keep my counsel in situations when I know that my usual take-no-prisoners approach is not likely to bear fruit (most of the time). For the record, I usually fail in that resolve because I also am a teacher: logical, orderly and inclined to lay out a subject in such a way that another can follow and assimilate it. This characteristic, as it happens, comes fully equipped with the tendency to keep attacking an idea until the student understands. Great for classes, not so good for cocktail parties or other social occasions.

As a result, I need an all-purpose, non-confrontational response to “What were you thinking when you swam the Tiber?” for those (many) occasions when I am not being paid to debate Catholic theology with an equally committed Reformer, in front of a paid audience of thousands. Thanks to a visit from my family and the sweet, honest attention of my sister-in-law, I’ve come up with what might just be that all-purpose answer.

It should be noted that the family tree has borne a great diversity of denominational fruit. I have a cousin who, at last check (and that wasn’t very recent), is at best an indifferent agnostic. My mother’s immediate family came through the Brethren Church by way of the Mennonite faith; in fact,my grandmother is reported to have suffered a bit for “marrying among the English.” On the other side of the family tree, my father’s grandfather was a C of E priest-missionary in Jamaica. Toss in a few odd Catholics (“Black Jack” Sullivan for one--a relative I’d really like to know more about, as he is reputed to be the family scoundrel), take note of the fact that the current generation has contained, at one time or another, Episcopalians, Baptists, folks in the Assemblies of God, Lutherans, Methodists, even those claiming no particular denomination, add my own brief drift through Judaism, and I think the clan had turned the available spiritual soil rather efficiently.

I suppose this isn’t a particularly unusual Protestant pedigree these days. For the most part, my immediate family stayed put in Methodism throughout my youth. As a consequence, I never felt the doctrinal or congregational “rubs” that so often compel people from one Protestant camp to another. I left a secure Methodist faith to enter college where I wondered about life and wandered away from church and didn’t really care much about any of the great answers in the world, being primarily occupied with test-tubes and anti-war protests. Eventually my groom and I settled into the Episcopal church, Methodism with its Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes on, for practical reasons and found it a comfortable home, safe and unchanging in our own parish, and supportive, until 2003.

If nothing else, I did manage from that stable history to garner the idea that real truth doesn’t change, and what the Church teaches as truth today cannot contradict that which she taught yesterday. It seemed reasonable that I ought to believe the same things that the people who actually knew Christ in the flesh, and their immediate successors, believed about what He taught about salvation, the Church, sacraments, and morals. For once in my life, I started looking at my faith with the gifts God gave me: my scientific mind.

In science, a hypothesis cannot really be ultimately proved, only disproved by the available data. After all the experiments are done and the proposals tested, all one can really say is that the data of an experiment, or all the data accumulated from the dawn of time, do not disprove the hypothesis. After a sufficient accumulation of evidence, these observations take on the power of certainty--but every scientist admits of the possibility that an as yet-unknown set of facts can change that.

Disproving--now, that’s another story. A hypothesis that is proved wrong by even a single set of facts is quite simply disproved and discarded. The scientific mind goes on, making the adjustments in the underlying set of assumptions to come closer to the real truth of the matter. Find a single set of facts that doesn’t fit, and it’s back to the drawing board.

Spring of 2003 presented those facts to me in a way I could not escape. Either sex outside marriage is wrong and is always wrong as the church I remember growing up in taught--or it’s not. The election and eventual ordination of an Episcopal bishop living in what he openly described as a sexual (even sacramental) relationship outside marriage meant that the Episcopal Church had a problem, and so did I. The fact that the Bishops adopted a new line of morality rather than support the traditions of faith meant that I was a de-facto exile and had to find another home. My hypothesis that I could rely on the teachings of the Episcopal church was disproved.

About that time, I started reading Scott Hahn’s books, and I discovered the teaching on contraception that ultimately drew him into the Catholic faith. There it was: the general set of circumstances that demonstrated to me that I had no Christian home except in the Catholic faith. Here was something, artificial contraception, that was taught as sinful for generations, and in one great, modern breath, was changed because of a vote of human institutions. That left me with only one place where the facts still fit my hypothesis about unchanging truth, and I went there as fast as my little legs would carry me.

I don’t propose that as a scientist that I can prove God exists or effectively demonstrate every jot and tittle of what He has set out for me to do, to honor, to profess. The Holy Spirit is still at work on our understanding--but He’s not in the business of making bootlegger turns with the Truth He’s already drummed into our heads. We as fallen individuals are always imperfect in our obedience to God’s will, but the standard never changes.

I can’t prove the fullness of faith, but as I scientist, I can recognize when something presented to me lacks some aspect of that necessary perfection in the light of what I do know. And why would I want to give my obedience to anything that I could demonstrate with my puny human mind had somewhere failed to be faithful to the Truth? If I could not rely on the answers about extramarital sex, or contraception--things I had the power to reason out--how could I rely on them for the Great Mysteries of faith that I have no hope of coming to grips with on my own?

And that’s my short answer. I came to Rome because I could not rely on any other faith to guide me faithfully to God’s own perfect, unchanging and revealed Truth.

25 words. Count 'em.


  1. Thanks, pewspective. I think that one, said with a smile, will take you a long way.

    Jim McCullough
    Our Lady of Grace Church
    Greensboro, NC

    PS: Re: earlier post on demographics--in many places Muslim birthrates have been not just falling (as Europe's has steadily for 100 years) but collapsing--Iran is one clear example.

  2. It always makes me smile when I hear of some scientist or anthropologist who uncovers yet another fact which switches him from agnostic to true believer.