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Exploring, questioning, experiencing non-literal faith


Ken McColl

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Like advances in science and medical research, so too must religion grow and move forward

(Below is a preview to Professor Ken McColl's lecture - How Medical Science Makes Progress - And What About The Church? - which he gave at Cairns on October 27, 2016 and then read his own synopsis of his lecture.)

OVER MY forty years in medical practice and research, I have observed remarkable advances in the treatment of duodenal ulcers - from a condition that required major surgery to one that could be controlled by medication and now can be cured by a single course of antibiotics.

Interestingly, two former Cairns members, Sir Andrew Kay and Sir James Black, were central to this medical progress. I recently reflected on the characteristics displayed by these and other great original thinkers.  

The first is knowledgeable. A thorough knowledge of what is already known is important as key clues are out there somewhere. A wide knowledge is also important as new insight to a problem may come from work done in an entirely different area. As CLR James said: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’

The second characteristic is being observant. We tend to see what we want to see, are taught we should see, or have seen before, rather than what is there. Original researchers ‘look at what everyone else has looked at and see what no-one else has seen’. It is particularly important to notice anomalies, i.e. things that do not make sense, as they demonstrate that current wisdom is incomplete and investigating the anomaly will lead to new insight and understanding. As Frank Herbert said, 'The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand’.

The third characteristic is being inquisitive – curious and always asking penetrating questions. Einstein, probably the greatest original thinker, said: ‘I have no special gift, I am just intensely curious,’ and ‘never stop questioning’.

The fourth characteristic is imagination. This is necessary to come up with an explanation for the observed anomaly. It involves ‘thinking outside the box’. Original ideas often seem absurd to conventional thinkers and again Einstein said: ‘Unless at first it seems absurd it is not worth considering.’ 

Original insight is most often made by newcomers to the field unconditioned by traditional thinking. A dramatic new insight in science is called an epiphany – the same word used for a religious vision.

The fifth characteristic is a critical mind. Any imaginative new insight explaining an anomaly needs to be rigorously tested to see if it holds up in the real world. Most don’t or only partially do but pursuing the dream always advances understanding.

The sixth characteristic is perseverance. New ideas are viewed with suspicion by the establishment who see it as a threat to their authority. In addition, testing the idea is usually arduous and discouraging and needs perseverance to see it through. As Churchill said: ‘The secret of success is the ability to go from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm.’

The seventh characteristic is plasticity of mind. This is the ability to change your mind in the light of new knowledge and insight and most people find this difficult.

The eighth characteristic is dedication. Original researchers become immersed and all consumed in what they are investigating. They tend not to have hobbies as their work is their hobby.

During my reflections on these characteristics of original scientists it struck me that these same characteristics were displayed by those involved in the birth of the Christian church as described in the New Testament. The first time we meet Jesus he is asking questions in the temple and it is his challenge to the orthodox establishment which leads to his crucifixion. The disciples cannot make any sense of Christ’s death. As two of them walk and reason together, a stranger joins them and ‘opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures’ (Luke ch24,v45). This allows them to make sense of the death of Jesus as part of God’s eternal plan of salvation.

The new insight transforms and empowers them. The coming of the Holy Spirit was a similar event and referring to it John says in his gospel (ch16,v13): ‘When, however, the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth.’

Saul’s conversion and Peter’s acceptance of Gentile believers both also involved new insight and understanding which allowed them to make sense of observations which they could not explain. Paul also teaches young Timothy to ‘test all things, and hold fast that which is good’ -  an instruction which is a basic scientific principle.

Like science, the early church was characterized by original thinking and progressive change. These features are surely meant to continue to be displayed by the church today rather than an acceptance of dogmatic positions set in stone. God and the laws governing His creation may be endless and unchanging but our understanding of God and His creation is something which should be constantly growing and moving forward, both in the context of the church as well as that of our individual Christian faith.   

Professor Ken McColl is a Senior Research Fellow (Medicine) of the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, Glasgow University.



06.11.2016 17.38

Ian James

Some very good, insightful and original observations

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