The Interface

(June 18th, 2014)

Today's guest blogger: Crorey Lawton, Archaeologist

When I was in college, I took a class on religion and science. The premise offered was that the two were not incompatible, but rather responded to a different set of questions being asked of data. To give it a vast oversimplification, science is concerned with how things happen. And religion seeks to answer the why. I was unsatisfied with the class and the answers that it offered, even though it has served me well in discussions with colleagues on both the science and the religion sides of the table over the years. 

When he was 56 years old, my dad, Mac Lawton, was diagnosed with aggressive, Stage IV prostate cancer. Despite the fact that he was asymptomatic (it was caught in a blood test when he was changing insurance carriers), the news was dire. He was told that there was no treatment that could do anything. Anything they did would do nothing but _maybe_ give him a little more time. The physicians offered up some hormonal treatment, but not with any real hope of making a difference. There were even some cancer centers that actually declined to treat him - he was not going to be a likely 'success story' that would boost numbers. He was told to go, get his affairs in order, and say goodbye to the people who he loved.

Six months was the outside estimate.

Dad did what the doctors said. He got his affairs in order, expressed his love to all of the people that loved him, and accepted the hormone treatment.

And one other thing happened. His church got together - in a special service - specifically to pray for him. Combined with these prayers, Dad had faith that the God that he served had a plan, and that God's plan was bigger than Mac's plans. Dad asked (during our morning prayer 'service', every day of my life) that God's will be done.
Dad's response to the treatment was the statistical equivalent of the 200-pound canary. It was so far outside of the normal curve that the doctors didn't know what to do. The cancer did not go away. He was not given a clean bill of health. But every indicator said that he was to decline, and decline fast, and he stubbornly failed to do so. He determined to keep a positive outlook. And did so.

Was it just that he was the outlier in the population? The exception? Was it his positive attitude that kept him alive? Doctors had no answer to the questions, but each time the cancer began to grow again, another experimental drug was released.New chemotherapies. New designer drugs. New hormone treatments targeting specific types of cells. 

And he responded to each as the outlier. The success story. Researchers learned about the drugs through his participation in those clinical trials, some of which were worthy of a Spider-man comic book. T-cells were removed from his body, modified and then re-injected to hunt down and destroy specific rapid-growth cells. And it worked.

Not all of it was good. He came to Jazz Fest in New Orleans one year and could not enjoy any of the food offerings because of the chemo. He was often weak from the effects. Steroids kept him going, but also robbed his sleep. But time after time, he responded wonderfully to the newest drug that was not yet on the open market.

Eventually, the new trials could not keep up with his disease. And in January of 2013, 8-1/2 years after he was told to go home, fold his hands, and accept the inevitable, Mac died. Eight years beyond what he had been given as the statistical median of survival for men with his condition.

So now comes the question. What place did faith have in Mac's survival for those years? Was it just that he was a statistical outlier, and treatments just worked better on him thane anybody else? Was his incredibly positive attitude solely responsible for his unexpected longevity? Was it the fact that his church, his family, and his friends cheered him on? Was it prayer (his? theirs? mine?) that was responsible? Did God respond to those prayers with a physical change to Mac's body, making it more accepting of the treatments as they came available?

Does faith change our lives?

I serve a God who once said, "If you have the faith of a grain of mustard seed, you can say to that mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." But that verse has always represented a huge struggle for me. The approach is neither rational nor scientific; the results are not replicable; hypothesis testing goes out the window when you are talking about supernatural events. And believe me, if I did make it happen, I would be headed immediately for some serious therapy.

Dad, when he was my age, did a lot of reading about Christian mysticism. And read deeply about how to deepen that connection with the magnum mysterium. And eventually came to the belief that God asks us all to have that relationship, but that it boils down to a) do justice, b) to love kindness, and c) to walk humbly with your God.  So the faith that he had was in a God that he knew and served personally, rather than one in whom he had a mystic connection, one that you can follow a set of guidelines to re-create in a cabbalistic fervor. His faith made him different.

But did more people pray for Dad than prayed for my grandmother ten years earlier, who died of pancreatic cancer exactly on schedule? Was his faith deeper? Better? Was his family's need greater for him? What part did his prayer, his faith, his relationship with God play in what was a real success story?

I want to be a Christian scientist (note the lack of capitalization on the second word). One who views the world as explainable and mysterious, as a puzzle and as a part of a divine plan. Am I found faithless for wanting the answers? For having doubts? I have always loved the disciple we dubbed Doubting Thomas, both for his skepticism (desire for replicability) and for his fearlessness. We often forget that when Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem, everyone asked him 'What are you DOING? They're gonna kill you!', but Thomas said, 'C'mon, guys. Let's go and die with him.'

Faith. Doubt. Science. Grace. Head/heart.  

The questions are not academic for me. Last week, my wife of fifteen years found out that she has cancer. They caught it early, and surgery is likely to eliminate the long-term risk. But I'd sure like some scientific replicability here. I want to recreate whatever conditions were right for my dad to outlast the expert projections. I want my wife to outlive me, and see her grandkids have grandkids (though we're in no hurry on THAT score...). 

The faith that my father had is something that I work on, and not for the working of miracles. But it is also something that the Thomas in me struggles with. Even when I see the evidence firsthand.

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