Professor Jeff Hardin is a biologist who took time out of his scientific career to go to theological college. He is the only member of his university to have taught in both the science and religion departments. When I interviewed him for the Wonders of the Living World project we spent a long time covering a while range of topics, from beauty and purpose to the Bible and his love of music. Below are a series of extracts from that interview, alongside transcripts for those who prefer to read than listen or watch.
Why are you a scientist and a Christian?
Well, I became a Christian when I was in the 7th grade, and a friend invited me to an event at a local church, and I heard a lot of new ideas about who I was and who God is, and how it might be possible for me to have a personal relationship with God. And that started a lifelong journey for me. I went through high school, and then went off to college, and I became a science major in college. I have always wanted to be a scientist. Initially I had wanted to be a physicist, in fact I took German in high school because all of the really smart physics guys spoke German. But then I got to college and realised I wasn’t very good in math. I was pretty good in math but not good enough, and so I changed to zoology and took biology courses, continued to love science and initially I was going to pursue a medical degree and a PhD – a combined degree – but instead I decided to go to theological seminary where I received a Master of Divinity degree, so I’m a little bit odd in the sense that I have theological training, but then at the end of my divinity school education I felt a strong call to return to academic science. And so I pursued a PhD in biophysics, and there I discovered embryos. I looked at an embryo developing under the microscope for the first time and I was absolutely hooked, and so that’s been my lifelong research interest is understanding how embryos develop, and for me that has always been pursued from a profoundly Christian perspective.
What questions about meaning and purpose does your work make you ask, and how does your faith help you answer them?
I study embryonic development, and it really causes me to think pretty deeply about where did I come from? Where does each of us come from? What are the processes that underlie how each of us arose as an embryo? Those are pretty profound questions when you stop to think about it. We really have humble beginnings. We start as a cell that is one tenth of a millimetre in diameter – you can barely see it with the naked eye, in fact if you don’t look carefully you’ll miss it! That’s how we all began. And so the fragility of each of our lives is something to think about, I think “wow that’s, that’s an amazing process that leads to who we are”. And yet those processes of development are incredibly reproducible, most of us turn out pretty much the same way with the same structures. So those processes themselves are amazing, but it does cause me to think about who I am and the fact that the processes that gave rise to me are something pretty special and something that causes me to think about myself pretty humbly, frankly. I think one of the other things that for me… I happen to be a Christian, and one of the key ideas in historic Christianity is the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is actually God in the flesh. For that to be true, he’s human, and so he went through the very same steps that all of us went through, and that fills me with a sense of complete amazement, and helps me to see just how thoroughly and completely God identifies with us as human beings.
You have been known to use the Bible in one of your lectures – how does that work?
I teach undergraduate students every spring, and I teach a course on embryonic development. And I open that course by saying that one of my goals for my students is that they would… by the end of the semester – that they would think that embryos are cool. And I start by pointing out that people have been thinking about embryos for a long time. And one of my favourite passages that reflects that is from the Hebrew part of the Bible – a poem called Psalm 139. There the psalmist is considering all that God is involved in, and he is reflecting on the fact that God is everywhere. In fact God was present when the person writing this poem was an embryo, and he reflects on that, and he doesn’t really understand how embryonic processes work but he says that he… in some sense, through the processes of development God wove him in his mother’s womb, and he further says that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, in other words his own… the processes by which he himself came about are absolutely awesome, and it fills with a sense of wonder. For me that’s what drives what I do too, that these fearful and wonderful processes…what a joy! What a privilege it is, I get to study these things, I get to understand them in ways that no one else has thus far understood them. That is amazing, and for me that’s an exciting thing that I get to do, and something that really flows in profound ways out of my own Christian faith.
What thoughts are prompted by the beauty you see in the lab?
Beauty, yes that’s something very important to me. So for me, the world that God has made is beautiful. And that when I perceive things that are beautiful, to me that’s a pointer to God himself, the author of things that are beautiful – things that are true. When I look at embryos as they’re developing, the images that we capture with our microscopes reflect this beauty. Some of the images that we generate are to me as beautiful as a the stained glass of a cathedral or a beautiful painting by a master artist, and they cause me to ponder “Who is author of this beauty?” CS Lewis, the famous British academic and author, he talked about these kinds of experiences as what he called “patches of Godlight”, and for me that’s what they are. And so when I see an amazing image that our lab or some other lab has generated – many of them end up in text books because they’re so beautiful – those cause me to stop, to pause with wonder, to stand really stand rapt in awe and to thank the God who lies behind all of this beauty.
What do you think we can find out about God from his creation?
Well I think one of the things that we learn about God is that he loves amazing variety. He loves intricacy, I think that he must delight in the wonderful complexities of the world. I share the perspective that some writers in the Old Testament portion of the Bible seem to express very well. In a poem called Psalm 19 the poet says “The heavens declare the glories of God. The skies proclaim his handiwork…” and that’s the great big world, but I can say the same as I look through a microscope and look at embryos, to look at the creation that God has made that allows for this kind of incredible splendour and richness. For me too, I think pondering these great works that I can observe in nature fills me with a sense of wonder and majesty. And you know oddly, thankfulness. And thankfulness is an attitude that can you can really only express to a person, and for me as I experience that feeling of thankfulness, I realise that there is a person whom I can thank – and that’s God himself.
Can we use the language of purpose in biology?
You can think about purpose in multiple senses, and you probably need to make it clear when we’re talking about one versus another. So I think it’s very appropriate to talk about purpose with a capital P, big purpose – and certainly the entire natural world fits into that. God has purposes for the universe. One of those important purposes is that it generates creatures like us who can develop a relationship with him, and Christian faith says that God has gone to incredible lengths to make it possible for creatures like us to relate to him. So it’s clear in that sense, that the world is here so that we might exist, and that’s a big purpose for the world. So the processes by which we arose certainly reflect that larger purpose which transcends the universe itself. So that’s a great way to think about purpose as it relates to biology.
Now I think the question also had something to do with whether we can talk about purpose in more kind of mechanistic ways, as it has to do with biology. Scientists talk about purpose in some senses in that way as well, in the sense that certain processes have to happen in order that a structure in an organism or an organism’s function in an ecosystem occurs. Those don’t really presuppose someone behind the scenes tweaking things in a biological process in any particular way from the outside. What biologists mean by that is that the mechanisms within the biological process are leading to some event, and those are required for the final outcome that typically results from some sort of biological process. So often that’s what biologists are meaning when they use purpose language. They’re not meaning there’s someone behind the curtain pulling strings rather like a puppet – that’s not what they mean.
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The illustrated book that these videos accompany will be released (UK editions) in June 2021.