Radiation Therapy and the Empirical Mind of God

Radiation Therapy and the Empirical Mind of God

Several years ago, a woman with late-stage cancer approached me and suggested I preach a sermon on radiation physics. She’d been undergoing treatment and was fascinated by the technology. She saw it as a healing gift and wondered what radiation therapy could tell us about God. I was intrigued but also daunted by such a complex topic.

Later that same week I received an email from my friend Jake Van Dyk, who was in town and wanted to catch up. I knew he was a physicist but had no idea then that he’d literally written the book on radiation physics—three textbooks (at that time), actually. Perfect timing—he could help me with the science for my sermon, and I could introduce him to a new theological take on his work.

As we spoke about radiation therapy, I began to better understand the mind of a medical physicist (and a scientist in general). Jake had always been good at physics and math in school and at any rationally structured course. A keen observer with a questioning curiosity, he wanted to know how things worked. He was organized, reasoned, and clear-thinking. To him, good science had to make a practical difference. His capacity to assess and measure came naturally—as did quantitative analysis. His well-developed ability to process large quantities of data enabled him to tackle complex questions. He took all the time needed to get to the right answer. He was good at seeing patterns. His love for teaching ranged from one-on-one interactions to writing textbooks. To Jake, knowledge was a gift to be shared. He loved research and analysis and wanted to do his part to help people with cancer and improve healthcare.

Engaging Jake’s empirical aptitudes, I began to catch glimpses of the mind of God. God clearly understands how things work. Divine reason holds the cosmos together. God sees, measures, and knows and has an infinite capacity to process data, recognize patterns and make every connection. God is rational—and good at math.

When a scientific mind is fully itself in all these ways it reflects God’s mind and—more than that—the scientific mind is close to its Maker. Physicist John Polkinghorne writes, “There is a remarkable congruence between the experienced rationality of our minds and the perceived rationality of the world around us.” Rational experiences, it seems, are made for a rational universe. When the two come together a scientist can experience the presence of God.

A scientist’s gratification in discovering a pattern is connected to God’s gratification in creating that pattern. The rational satisfaction of understanding how something works is akin to the rational satisfaction of having made that thing work. When science empirically engages a reality that was empirically conceived, it really does appear to be thinking God’s thoughts after God. In those moments, the mind of the Maker can be rationally experienced.

Near the end of my conversation with Jake, my physicist friend, another facet of his work reminded me of Christ. A medical physicist stands between science and technology. They bring the two together, speak both languages, and enable a healing synergy. Hearing him describe the mediating nature of his work caused me to recall the mediating nature of Christ.

I asked Jake if he’d ever experienced Christ in that place of mediation—not morally or ethically but scientifically, rationally, or technologically. His simple answer was yes. Because he was convinced that God made everything, every time Jake learned something new, he thanked God. When the new information led to improved patient outcomes, Jake recognized the love of Christ at work.

I probed more deeply, asking Jake if he’d ever experienced the empirical mind of Christ in a rational, scientific moment. At first, he equated the word experience with an emotional engagement of God. I could tell that—as a scientist—this was not his primary means of engaging reality. But experience doesn’t always have to be emotional. We spoke about recognizing Christ in rational ways, and Jake told me about a spiritual experiment he’d once tried. Years earlier he’d read a book titled Space for God, which suggested building into your schedule reminders of God’s presence in your life. Jake set his watch to beep every hour. Every time he heard the beep a Bible verse ran through his head, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Wherever he was—in a meeting, at a hospital, or reviewing new technology—he would have a timely reminder of who was in charge. This simple experiment had a deep impact on his practice of faith.

God has filled every second of cosmic time with reminders. The Spirit moves everywhere. According to the Scriptures, the Spirit gives spiritual gifts to God’s people, including wisdom and knowledge. In reference to Solomon’s wisdom, the Bible says, “He could speak with authority about all kinds of plants, from the great cedar of Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows from cracks in a wall. He could also speak about animals, birds, small creatures, and fish” (1 Kings 4:33 nlt).

Scientific wisdom is God’s wisdom. When a scientist experiences an innately scientific moment—learning something new, noticing a pattern, designing an experiment that yields good results, or talking knowledgeably about plants—there is an opportunity to be still and know that God is God.

This excerpt is from Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumnus Rev. John Van Sloten’s new book, God Speaks Science: What Neurons, Giant Squid and Supernovae Reveal About Our Creator, out with Moody Publishers in July. They have graciously provided the rest of Chapter 1 here, and the full book can be purchased from the publisher, or from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and wherever else books are sold.

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