Introductions is a blog series introducing members of New Zealand Christians in Science, our stories and journeys into faith and science. We hope you will get to know us and join the movement.
Gareth Jones, Emeritus Professor, Department of Anatomy, University of Otago
I first knew I was going to be a scientist in the second year of medical studies in University College London. Since the biomedical science departments were very research oriented, the anatomy department put on a research seminar once a week in our second year. These were by researchers in the department, and on this occasion, it was by an American electron microscopist who had had a major part in elucidating the structure of the cell membrane. At the end of that seminar, I knew I wanted to be a researcher.
From that time on, I set out not only to be a scientist but also a Christian who thought about science. This came easily to me since I had been very interested in scientific explanations and the whole realm of evolutionary humanism during my teens when I was beginning to think about Christianity. Hence my growing interest in scientific explanations and my growing interest in Christianity went hand in hand.
This interest in both realms gradually led me into the Christian faith, and it crystallised about a month before I commenced in university. I was, therefore, ready to take in much that biomedical science had to offer and much that the best of thoughtful Christianity had to offer. At university, I was exposed to scientific humanism and also to evangelical Christianity, and I am grateful to both – surprising as that may seem to many people. Consequently, I have never found any problems in bringing the two together, remembering that each has to be critiqued and seen as part of the world in which we live. That requires hard work and prolonged thinking. It also requires an openness to ideas that may not always follow traditional lines. The two areas have to be brought together in one’s own thinking and understanding.
While I am a neuroscientist by training and spent many years working on the plasticity of synaptic connections in the cerebral cortex of the brain in a range of experimental models, my interests over recent years have largely shifted to ethical questions. These encompass questions to do with the ways in which we utilise human tissue and human body parts. These stem largely from my responsibilities as an anatomist, but also from my Christian concerns about the uses we make of human embryos and therefore the status of embryos and gametes. These are issues that sit at the border between science, ethics and theology, and that utilise my commitment to science and also my commitment that arises from my Christian faith.
Any difficulties I have, if difficulties is the right word, is precisely in these ethical domains. This is simply because I cannot accept what I regard as simplistic answers to highly complex ethical issues. Since these touch on questions such as the dignity of human beings, especially of prenatal human life, humans as being in the image of God, and so on, some of them are highly contentious. However, I am happy to be embroiled in these debates, since I think I can bring scientific knowledge to theological and applied ethical questions.
When I was thinking of entering science as a medical student, I spoke to my pastor about it, seeking his advice. The latter was clear and definitive: “do not go into science since you will lose your faith.” I take advice from mature Christians very seriously, and I did that in this case. However, after considerable thought, I decided that he was wrong and that there was no reason that that should happen. And so I embarked on a career in scientific research. Alongside this I thought and subsequently wrote a great deal at the science-faith interface. Initially, this was in the evolution-creation area, but after a few years, I changed tack to look at the place of science in brain research and brain pathologies since this was where my research interests lay. This, in turn, became the area that was later to became an academic focus – the realm of bioethics.
In all these endeavours I have aimed to move seamlessly between what may be termed academic approaches to science from my Christian base (and that can and hopefully will be read by the academic community), and more explicitly Christian writings and talks. I have felt privileged to be able to do this because this engages the academic side of my life as well as my desire to speak to more general audiences. And I would encourage young Christians in the sciences to do the same, if they are able to.The most stringent criticism I have received has been from within Christian
The most stringent criticism I have received has been from within Christian circles because I frequently walk on very thin ice. I have never sought to talk in ethical riddles, leaving people with no idea where I stand. That to me is to relinquish the responsibility I have as an academic and a Christian. However, the result has sometimes been searing criticism from some Christians. This led me to write a book on how one copes with controversy when the disagreements are over what are sometimes termed ‘peripheral’ or ‘non-essential’ issues within the Christian community. But if scientists and ethicists with a background in relevant scientific disciplines do not contribute in these areas, we will all be impoverished.