I was talking about science and religion with a Dutch friend yesterday when he casually referred to the Van Schayk affair and asked me what I thought of it. My mind drew a blank, so he filled me in. It’s a bizarre and fascinating story that I thought I’d share.
In March of this year, a Dutchman named Onno van Schayk, a professor of medicine and the head of the CAPHRI School for Public Health in Maastricht, the Netherlands, caused a bit of an uproar when he gave an interview to an evangelical TV station. He mentioned his Christian beliefs a few times, and then segued into this remarkable statement:
“There have been moments that I’ve seen God’s work directly, up close. It involved a person whose leg was too short, who was being prayed for. And I saw that leg grow. …
I concede we have to be careful with that, and that the [stories] in the Bible — they should be tested, examined. We shouldn’t just assume things. We have to apply, very carefully, almost a scientific principle — establish that it’s incontrovertible. And in this case, it was indeed incontrovertible. You could see from looking at the X-rays that [bone] growth had indisputably occurred, something for which there was no normal explanation.”
In subsequent days and weeks, journalists and medical practitioners asked Van Schayk for details. Considering how unusual the event he’d witnessed was, it should have been seared into his brain. But the professor could recall very little that was useful in verifying the claim. It happened 25 years ago, he said. He could not produce medical notes, charts, or the name of the person whose leg was allegedly lengthened through prayer. Most crucially, the X-rays Van Schayk spoke of — which, to a believer, should have been priceless evidence as well as sweet vindication — were nowhere to be found.
Before the dust settled, Van Schayk decided to resign from his job at CAPHRI, saying he didn’t want to draw undue heat and attention to the school. That may be true, or it could be that he was forced out by his colleagues.
Either way, his exit from the job was probably for the best. I find it peculiar that someone in his position believes in miracles, but no more than I’d find it peculiar if he smoked a pack a day in his spare time. Such idiosyncrasies, though barely compatible with the ethos of a medical professional, shouldn’t be grounds for dismissal.
However, Van Schayk didn’t just say he believes in God and miracles in general. On TV, and in his capacity as the dean of an academically respected public-health school, he claimed to have witnessed a very specific miracle by the Lord; and he vouched for the medical evidence supporting that claim. That’s okay, but then he’d better be prepared to produce the goods.
If he can’t even begin to prove that the entire episode wasn’t a figment of his imagination, his credibility as a man of science plummets, and we can be forgiven for suspecting that there’s little that separates Van Schayk from the suggestible simpletons in this video:
***UPDATE*** I seem to have confused some people with that headline. Van Schayk officially wasn’t pinkslipped; he was either asked to resign, or resigned of his own volition. I tried to capture the ambiguity by saying in the headline that he “lost his job” in the scandal, but since that phrase is so close in meaning to “he got fired,” I left readers guessing about the circumstances of his departure. My apologies if anyone felt misled.