How Should We Respond? (RJS)

How Should We Respond? (RJS) March 22, 2012

We are all molded by a variety of influences and influencers – those who encourage and those who discourage. Nature, genes, environment, nurture, circumstance, heroes, the Spirit… parents, grandparents, pastors, professors, friends. We are also products of our time and culture. The way we interact with important issues in relationships – whether it be with colleagues, family, or friends is quite important.

One of the things that struck me about Karl Giberson’s new book The Wonder of the Universe was his description of the conflict that arose around Galileo and his view of the solar system.  I quoted this toward the end of my post Tuesday – but it is worth starting with the quote today.

The word fools, unfortunately, was often on Galileo’s lips as he enthusiastically ridiculed those who disagreed with him.

Galileo’s advocacy for Copernicanism grew with each passing year, despite his consistent failure to find the evidence he promised, He became bolder and more aggressive. His fame spread across the continent and he grew steadily richer, with increasingly more lucrative academic postings and endless sales of telescopes. Gifted at debate  and self-promotion, he steadily climbed the Italian social ladder, to the envy of his colleagues. He made enemies and backed many of his critics into corners from where they could do nothing but seethe and look for an opportunity to get even. Some more cool-headed Jesuit astronomers were quietly teaching Copernican astronomy in Catholic universities, and, had Galileo not turned the motion of the earth into a political controversy, their diplomatic approach would have probably carried the day and avoided what became a great humiliation to the church. As it was, they were quite frustrated that Galileo’s bombastic personal style got Copernicanism declared heretical and his book listed on an Index and Prohibited Books that good Catholics were not supposed to read.

…had Galileo been more diplomatic there would not have been any need or his great and celebrated confrontation between science and religion. (p. 52-53)

There are many lessons that we could take from this quote. There are two sides here that are important. One is the negative impact of debate and self-promotion and another is the importance of looking at the data however it is presented. Truth will win the day, eventually.

One of the things this brought to mind for me was a family story – a story about my grandfather, a devout Christian man. My grandfather was a doctor. More than a doctor, he was a compassionate innovator and a leader in his field. “Gifted at debate and self-promotion” is not  description I ever heard applied to my grandfather – gifted, patient, caring, godly – these kinds of descriptors carried the day. He is one of the people who influenced me, and influenced my approach to life, learning, and faith. I’ll tell a bit of his story below.

Who influenced you? What stories helped shape your life and your approach to life and to new ideas?

In the 1920’s and early 30’s medicine was changing, and the approach to medicine was changing. Science was having an enormous, and continuing, impact. Trained in surgery, completing a residency in surgery (1930-1933), it became apparent that surgery was the beginning, not the end of treatment. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation was in its infancy, but this was where the need was centered and this is where he focused his effort. As such he finished his residency in surgery and became, the next day, the head of The Department of Physical Therapy at the hospital – and later at the University (1939). This was not the easy route. In his own words from a book describing the history of the University of Minnesota Medical School …

After three years of living on borrowed money, work began to increase so as to pay office expenses and most of my living expenses.[Masters of Medicine p. 780]

Considering his family consisted of a wife, three young daughters (my mother one of them, a fourth daughter came later) and an orphaned niece, this is a particularly significant statement. He rode ambulance in those days to help make ends meet, something that definitely influenced my upbringing – choking hazards and fireworks were definite concerns in our family. This is an interesting bit of history, but not really the point of my story.

Polio, infantile paralysis, was a scourge of the day. The development of effective vaccines have removed this from our corporate memory, but March of Dimes originated as an organization dedicated to the treatment and cure of polio. Epidemics created an atmosphere of fear for many. Treatment of those who survived was less than ideal and the results were discouraging. Into this situation stepped an outsider – someone with no training and no real credential – but with practical experience and a claim of success. The reception by the medical establishment was somewhat less than warm (that is an understatement).

Sister Kenny was an Australian nurse who, when confronted with cases of polio and no available guidance, had developed a treatment which showed some significant effectiveness. It was certainly more effective than the standard treatments of the day. She came to the US in 1940 to get a hearing, wound up at the Mayo Clinic, and then in Minneapolis. She came for a short stop ready to return to Australia, and stayed for a decade.

For here in Midwest America, in the springtime of 1940, she had found a few doctors who were interested and who let her demonstrate on some patients. Partly because neither he, nor anyone else, could quite understand what she was talking about, one invited her to spend some days in his home. This was Dr. Miland E. Knapp, a specialist in physical medicine and a man described by his friends as “the most patient soul that ever lived.” He listened and watched her and said she should be allowed to show what she could do. [Sister Kenny pp. 4-5]

Her explanations were strange, she used words no one understood, her claims were extreme …

Her explanation was not in fact this clear or simple; it was murky and involved. and several of her terms – “spasm,” “mental alienation,” “mental awareness” – were peculiar. Some of the Minnesota listeners shrugged her off. One who did not was Dr. Miland Knapp, at thirty-five a patient yet highly progressive doctor, by training a surgeon, who headed the year-old Department of Physical Therapy in the medical school, so new it was not yet called “physical medicine.” He felt he had to know more. She was no lecturer, he decided. Maybe her performance would be better.

“I have a patient I’d like you to see,” he said … Knapp said later “It took me two months to figure out what she was talking about.” Meanwhile she visited more patients, with more cases, in Knapp’s words, of “return of function in apparently paralyzed muscles after a few minutes of reeducation.” [Sister Kenny p. 130-131]

Dr. Wallace Cole and Dr. Knapp (my grandfather) published the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association (116:2577 (1941)). My mother recalls Sister Kenny primarily as the lady in the big hats. Sister Kenny’s treatment took over. It wasn’t the last word, and today we would consider aspects of it obsolete. It spurred research and understanding, not just of polio rehabilitation but the rehabilitation of muscles more generally and the availability of other muscles to be recruited in compensation for damaged or paralyzed muscles.

Patience is one of the fruit of the Spirit. I didn’t relate the above story as a history lesson, but as an illustration. The willingness to listen, to understand, to persevere, these are traits we need to cultivate. Scientists and scholars should cultivate these traits, sure, but it moves beyond this small sphere.  These are traits we need in the church… when it comes to universalism, Calvinism, open theology, science, evolution, creation, intelligent design, the historicity of Adam. Ultimately we are in a search for truth, and all truth is God’s truth. Let me say that again … There is no truth that is not from God. We need to have the patience and the willingness to follow the data where ever it leads. I think the evidence favors evolutionary creation and a nontraditional understanding of Adam, and will argue that position – but always willing to listen to counter arguments with substance (i.e. data, evidence, demonstration, reason …).

No one who really knows me would ever describe me as “the most patient soul that ever lived” yet this vision of patience, openness, and exploration is an example I aspire to.

Who were significant influences in your life?

How did you learn to approach new ideas and challenges?

Is patience and openness a characteristic we should value in our church as we consider controversial issues? How would this work out?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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