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Faith and the Empirical

As an evidence based guy, and simultaneously a man of faith, I am often at two ends of a spectrum that do not necessarily harmoniously walk hand and hand. One camp takes the skeptics approach, demanding rigorously demonstrated evidence in order to proclaim the truth, the other proclaims the truth at the outset as a manner of faith, where no such evidence is necessary. How do I seemingly reconcile two very different life perspectives? particularly when the outcomes of which have a direct bearing on my life, that is, the knowledge of medicine and disease with respect to my cancer, or the hope that there might be something more beyond the tangible reality of our world.

This is a potentially controversial topic, as people tend to polarise to either end other spectrum, and very rarely find the middle ground. Perhaps, it was never meant to be a spectrum in the first place, but two ends of a piece of string that can be held in each hand. Holding the ideas in tension, constantly evaluating the merits of either, using it to measure up what real life has to offer.

The first camp is the evidence based camp. It requires strict adherence to a set of rules set by science, deemed to be truth by scientific consensus. The latter part of that statement is important. Scientific consensus is not one person claiming something to be true by science, but a collective of thoughts and agreements that have been repeated rigorously, with the same collective outcome. The classic example of non-scientific consensus is the publication of an article in 1998 that claimed vaccines were the cause of Autism [Wakefield et al. The Lancet, Volume 351, Issue 9103, Pages 637 – 641, 28 February 1998]. Consensus never agreed with this, it was the one and only paper with a sample size of 12, that anti-vaccine proponents jumped on. This was despite repeated studies that could not agree with the finding of the original paper. So much so that earlier this year it was retracted from the journal it was published in.

The second camp starts from somewhere else, it begins with an a priori assumption that something bigger exists beyond what can be touched, felt and heard. It claims that before time, God existed, and nothing exists apart from Him (or She, english does not give us a gender neutral pronoun so I will resort to the traditional). It claims that all things are possible, and that the miraculous occurs in day-to-day life, and does not need to be backed up by empirical evidence. This particular camp will often be proponents for a literal 7 day creation, it will also have tendencies for claims such as the inerrancy of the word of God. The premise here being that God is before, during and after, the alpha and the omega, and that all creation cannot exist part from Him.

Two very different camps, two very different ideas about the world. Both of which I have stakes in. So how does that work?

The world that I live in, the medical world, is empirical. People live and they die daily based on whatever ailment afflicts them, and whatever treatment is available to help them. Christians, people of faith, are unfortunately not statistically anymore likely to survive terminal illness than any other sup-population. We live in an empirical world. I have an illness that can be quantified, it can be measured, and it can be treated with the best treatment that is available for it. That treatment has known limitations, known side-effects, and known positive effects. All of which is weighed up when I receive this treatment.

The faith-based world believes in something beyond the empirical. It believes that no matter what happens in this world, there is a greater power that oversees it, that governs it, that gives it purpose, that gives it hope. I believe that HOPE is the distinguishing point that this life view offers over the empirical.

Without Hope, the world as we know it is just a meaningless machine, cogs moving, intertwining, a process that we are stuck in and have very little say in. With Hope there is knowledge and meaning that goes beyond the tangible world.

I live in a world where the empirical definitely reigns, but I also live in a world of hope. Yes, I have terminal cancer, yes the odds of my survival are not good. But with hope, there is meaning in the life that I have left. There is a chance that maybe, just maybe, I will beat the odds, that life will extend another 50 years. Empirically, I don’t see the evidence for it, but through the eyes of Christ, I can see the eternal. I can see the promise of something so much greater in this life, and the life to come.

Again, these two perspectives must be held in tension, God heals, but he doesn’t heal everyone. I believe we do Him a disservice when claiming the miraculous where it doesn’t exist. Christians are good at that. We claim this and that as miracles, yet 10,000 children die every day from starvation. We begin to enter a tricky mine field of what God is capable of and how he works when we begin to claim fortuitous circumstance as miraculous. Miracles happen…. the are just rarer than we believe.

I will always be torn between these two perspectives on life, seemingly incongruent, yet each has a hold on me that I cannot release either one. Perhaps that is the better way, to hold each in tension, to trust, and to acknowledge reality and the suffering that it might entail.

…. and through all of that is to Hope…. and that is what keeps me going.

Thanks for listening.

Categories: Blog, Faith Tags: , , ,
  1. May 3, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Excellent post Jared. Your analogy of a piece of string is excellent and completely apt. Keep holding on to your hope, because “hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5).

  2. hand3
    May 3, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Hi Jared,
    I have stage 4 colon cancer and too am caught in between the two worlds that you write of. I was diagnosed in January of this year and have noticed that stats. when reported to a patient can appear to give either a positive or negative message as well. Successful colon surgery raised my statistical chance of cure form 25% to 40-55% or a one-in-two chance. Hearing stats in words gives me more hope, one in two chance sounds better to me because of the way I think. However, then there is a 75% chance of re-lapse. I am hopeful and think i’ll win the battle, but maybe that is what everyone thinks. There are tensions within science too when language is used to describe it not just with science and religion.

  3. frances
    May 3, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Man of faith, man of science, both in the one man. That is you Jared, and you are much the better for it. Hold to both. We really appreciate your posts.

  4. Debbie
    May 3, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    beaut pic Jared. Deep comments but so true. At the end of the day all we have is faith and hope….but we are lulled into a false sense of security in the things of this world and the lives that we live…..many of us not having to grapple with the kinds of reality you are having to deal with right now, but we all get this moment, and it is how we choose to live it, is what matters in the end – be blessed and savour the moment:)

  5. rhys
    May 4, 2010 at 8:31 am

    18God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. 19We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. Hebrews 6

  6. Catherine
    May 4, 2010 at 9:38 am

    You have a storehouse of treasure within you, Jared that will renew your inner self day by day, though outwardly we are (all of us) wasting away. Therefore we do not lose heart. 2Corinthians 4&5

  7. Lynelle Taylor
    May 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jared – you sum up perfectly the dilemma I have faced since entering the medical world – medical management on evidence vs living by a faith that is not always evidence-based (and sometimes fabricated by well-meaning Christians to “make God appear better”). I agree absolutely that we do God a disservice in over-claiming miracles! Thanks so much – I’ve really struggled to put my thoughts into words – you do it so well, I’ll just use yours!

  8. Jared
    May 9, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks for all your comments everyone. 🙂

  9. October 12, 2010 at 12:05 am

    I’d like to point out flip-sides to both of your perspectives. Regarding scientific method and EBP: surely you have encountered at least a little of “the art of medicine”? If healthcare relied entirely on evidence-based practice, there would be a lot of untreated or partially treated patients.

    And regarding the faith: Jesus said (approximately) “the way is narrow….and few find it”. I imagine that you could probably insert “Christians” in a strategic place in that sentence. I bet the stats for mortality from disease for (sorry if I offend with my generalisation and metaphor) fat Western Christians (ie the overprivileged) are the same as anyone else, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t miracles happening somewhere else, probably to people who weren’t in that study. (They are, I’ve even seen some recently!!) I think we can be too quick to try to explain away the supernatural sometimes, to fit in with our “scientific worldview”. I know I do.

    This was supposed to be a quick comment, but sadly has become rather wordy, and still hasn’t said what I wanted. I guess I believe there is danger of becoming just a philosopher with a Christian perspective if you aren’t moving towards conversational intimacy with God, which by definition invites the supernatural into the everyday.

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