Ciara Reyes on Emerging Scholar Workshop

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  Dr. Ciara Reyes completed her PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology in May 2016 at the University of Michigan. She was a participant in an Emerging Scholars Workshop at CTI in June 2016. 

Someone once asked me, humorously, if biology is the study of biographies. I thought it was an interesting question and perspective. I told them that could be one definition of it - If biology is the study of biography, then it is the study of the biography of life. To which they responded, "that's deep."

The night before I had just watched the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” on the search for extraterrestrial life – perhaps this had filled my mind with existential questions and poetic ideas about our place in the universe, as one of the characters poses the following: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”1 I might otherwise have chuckled and regurgitated a textbook definition of biology as the study of life and living organisms, which would’ve been true, but only partially. Biology as the biography of life, is a deep and beautiful metaphor to consider as it is not only concerned with the essence of what makes up life, basic units like cells and the DNA and proteins inside of them, and the processes that sustain life, but also the history of life itself, its origin and the plots and twists between then and now, which are encoded in our DNA.

I am a Cell and Molecular biologist by training, which is a branch of biology that studies cells, the basic units that makeup all living organisms, and the molecular machines or components inside of them that perform functions important for survival. I just completed my PhD at the University of Michigan in Dr. Ann Miller’s lab where we study cytokinesis, which is the last step of cell division where one cell physically separates into two – it drives our development from a single cell to a multi-cellular organism. Even after we’ve reached adulthood, it continues to renew and replace old and dying populations of cells in our bodies. When cell division is not properly regulated, it can lead to miscarriage, birth defects and diseases like cancer.2,3,4

While I am a basic researcher studying life at the level of the cell, a relatively small scale, participating in the CTI’s Astrobiology workshop for emerging scholars has allowed me to think more deeply and broadly about definitions of life and what constitutes a living organism within my discipline. For example, biology is the study of life as we know it and living organisms as we understand them to be, which is terrestrial and has traditionally been mostly carbon-based, and reliant on nutrients like oxygen, water, or sunlight for survival. But as biology has revealed to us organisms that challenge our understanding of life as we know it and the conditions necessary to sustain it, such as extremophiles (organisms that can survive conditions traditionally thought too hostile for life), or viruses (who require a living organism as a host for their replication and life cycle), it is not hard for me to imagine the possibility of extraterrestrial life forms similar or even vastly different from our own that may also challenge us in a similar way and their potential even to enrich our understanding of life as we know and experience it.

A key emphasis of the workshop was thinking about the societal implications of scientific discovery in astrobiology. Astrobiology is most simply defined as the search for extraterrestrial life and the study of the origins of life – it is a multi-disciplinary endeavor drawing on the earth, physical and life sciences as well as others.5 The team of scholars I was fortunate to work with represented the interdisciplinary nature of the astrobiology inquiry very well, drawing on expertise in ethics, evolutionary biology and theology. As a scientist, I am trained to think about the broader impacts of my research – how characterizing one protein’s role in a pathway or how better understanding an important process like cytokinesis may help contribute to the good of the scientific community (continued research and advancement in knowledge) and the good of the human endeavor (health and well-being). Here, at CTI, I was immersed in a mostly philosophical and theological approach to broader impacts, which is different from what I’m used to in the sciences, but not altogether unfamiliar to me and certainly no less important.

For the past few years I’ve been attending the Midwest Religion and Science Society (MRSS) conferences, where I’ve been exposed to interdisciplinary scholarship that sought to integrate theological ideas, scientific understanding of evolutionary origins, and philosophical ideas on the emergence of consciousness and personhood in our evolutionary history. It gave me a good framework for interdisciplinary dialogue and thinking, piqued my interest in science and religion and later drew me to the types of broader impacts questions that inquiries like the astrobiology endeavor seek to answer. If we find life on another planet, how should we respond to that life? Would we respond differently if it is simple vs. complex and, why? What do we define as life or a living organism and what does it mean to be human? For me, when these questions are juxtaposed with a theological framework, they become even more interesting. I am eager to gain a theological framework to unpack these ideas during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity school, where I will start a Masters of Theological Studies this fall. I hope to develop a technical knowledge base in theology to combine with my technical biology background, while finding ways to put the study of theology in dialogue with scientific endeavors such as astrobiology, finding ways to reach beyond the doors of the academy and of religious institutions.

Citations:

  1. Zemeckis, R and Starkey, S (1997) Contact. United States: Warner Brothers.
  2. Fujiwara, T. et al. (2005) “Cytokinesis failure generating tetraploids promotes tumorigenesis in p53-null cells.” Nature, 437: 1043-1047.
  3. Lacroix and Maddox (2012) Cytokinesis, ploidy and aneuploidy. The Journal of Pathology, 226(2): 338-351.
  4. Storchova and Pellman (2004) From polyploidy to aneuploidy, genome instability and cancer, 5: Nature Reviews, 45-54.
  5. Catling, D. (2013) Astrobiology: a very short introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Joshua Mauldin: New Books at CTI

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George Graham and Dominic Johnson have recently published important books they wrote as research fellows at CTI. In The Abraham Dilemma: A Divine Delusion (Oxford University Press), Graham sheds light on the psychological concept of religious delusion. In God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes us Human (Oxford University Press) Johnson analyzes religion as an evolutionary adaptation that is central to human society. Johnson was a CTI Senior Research Fellow during the 2012-13 Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature, while Graham was a CTI Research Fellow during the 2013-14 Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity. Both books are noteworthy examples of social science that is sympathetic to religion without assuming a theological or religious perspective. Graham develops a conception of religious delusion as an alternative to that of Freud, who famously saw religious belief itself as delusional. On Graham’s view, delusion should not be equated with ‘false belief,’ both because many religious beliefs are not empirically falsifiable, but also because many religious beliefs are beneficial to a well-lived life, regardless of whether they are true. “Theism, in particular, may infuse and reinforce much that is valuable in a life, valuable not just prudentially but morally. The theistic convictions of a person may help to produce or motivate valuable actions and meritorious attitudes that even the most doctrinaire anti-religionist should admire.” (Graham, The Divine Delusion, 19)

But if religious delusion isn’t defined simply as false belief, how should it be understood? Graham provides several case studies to illustrate why it is important not to give up the concept of religious delusion, which helps distinguish religious beliefs that harm a person’s well being from those that support it. This means that psychiatry includes an ethical moment, as normative considerations of human well being come into play in the meaning of delusion. “Psychiatry should not and cannot help but be in the business of assisting people to get certain of their beliefs and values in proper normative order, broadly understood. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing, although it can be and, alas, often has been conducted in an unjustifiably morally authoritarian and insensitive manner.” (Graham, The Divine Delusion, 23)

Graham’s point underscores the value and indeed the necessity of interdisciplinary inquiry. It turns out that the concept of religious delusion—surely of interest to theologians—calls for dialogue between psychiatrists and ethicists. As Graham notes, rigid disciplinary boundaries are not helpful here: “Moral and prudential values and norms blend non-dichotomously with mental health norms in the present book’s understanding of religious delusion and a well-lived life—a psychiatrically healthy life.” (Graham, The Divine Delusion, 23)

In God is Watching You, Dominic Johnson explores the evolutionary benefits of religious beliefs amongst human groups, in particular the tendency of religion to encourage cooperation. Beliefs about the possibility of divine punishment can curb various inefficiencies that inhibit cooperation. Human groups have various ways to punish asocial behavior while rewarding that which is pro-social. But there are cases when no one is watching and free-rider problems arise. At these points belief in a supernatural divine being who punishes deviant behavior can be very useful in encouraging people to behave.

Johnson provides interesting insights regarding the implications for the secularization thesis as well as for the actually existing secular societies in some corners of the globe. Johnson notes that secular societies have increasingly turned to police surveillance, perhaps as a replacement for the watchful eye of a God in whom they no longer believe. “In the United Kingdom, there are estimated to be up to 6 million cameras on the streets—more than in all of China, and one for every eleven people.” (Johnson, God is Watching You, p. 219) What this means for the future of religion in secular societies is unclear. Perhaps the watchful eye of the state will suffice as a tolerable alternative to a watchful God. Or perhaps a resurgence of religion will replace the apparatus of state surveillance.

Religion will likely endure because of the need for societal trust. It turns out that atheists are among the least trusted members of society, even in secular countries. “Other studies found that—get this—even atheists do not trust other atheists (it takes one to know one, perhaps!).” (Johnson, God is Watching You, 215) It appears that human beings are hard-wired by evolution to think that belief in God and trustworthiness are somehow intertwined.

The possibilities for interdisciplinary inquiry are immense. Johnson has offered a framework that calls for responses from evolutionary biology, political science, theology, and ethics, to name a few. What are the moral and political implications of the adaptive value of religion? Should society be in the business of encouraging religious belief and practice? Are secular societies in trouble? Is religion reducible to the human need to deter asocial behavior and to facilitate cooperation? Only a wide-ranging discussion across many scholarly disciplines will suffice to answer such questions. Thankfully, both George Graham and Dominic Johnson have modeled precisely the kind of interdisciplinary approach that is required.

John Burgess: A View from Orthodoxy

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John Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He was a Research Fellow at CTI in the 2014-15 Inquiry on Law and Religious Freedom. This article was originally published in CTI's Annual Yearbook, The Commons. 

It was the icon of Christ the World Ruler that caught my attention. Against the flickering candles of the darkened church, the icon’s burnished gold glowed, as though Christ himself were present. Next to me, a handful of parishioners were making prostrations; above us, the choir sang the biblical story of salvation from the first Adam to the second. Then the priest in his black gowns turned to us and recited the prayer that accompanies Orthodox believers through the eight weeks of the Great Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, 4th century)

For a moment, I was transported back to Russia, where I have spent two sabbatical years over the past decade. I remembered times of great loneliness in a culture whose ways were foreign to me and whose language I was still learning. I thought of the tremendous efforts that my family and I had made as Western Protestants to enter into the very different world of Eastern Orthodoxy. And I gave thanks for the special friends in Russian parishes and monasteries who have welcomed me as a Protestant theologian into their lives.

But now I was not in Moscow or St. Petersburg but rather a small Russian Orthodox parish in Princeton, New Jersey, where the liturgy was in English and the priest a convert from Methodism. This church, only a five-minute car ride from the CTI townhouses, proved to be an important part of my year. At CTI, I was writing a book about Orthodoxy and Russian national identity since the fall of communism, and my trips to Russia have taught me that theological reflection depends not only on scholarly insights from books and papers but also lived experience with other believers in worship and Christian service. If I were to finish my work at CTI, I would need the prayer of St. Ephrem.

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The year at CTI kept opening up for me spaces of wonder, beauty, and thoughtful reflection between different worlds of discourse: religion and politics, Russia and the United States, and the Orthodox Church and my own Reformed, Presbyterian tradition rooted in the theology of John Calvin and his successors. The 2014-15 CTI inquiry, “Law and Religious Freedom,” brought together a remarkable team of theologians and legal scholars who helped me understand that religious freedom cannot be sustained by laws alone. Religious freedom ultimately depends on spiritual freedom—the realization that one’s life is held in the hands of the One who is the very source of being. Those who have been nurtured in Christian freedom commit themselves to freeing every human being from oppressive ideologies, so that we may together shape a more just, peaceful society.

It was indeed an important year to think about freedom. U.S.-Russian relations were quickly deteriorating. In the spring of 2014, the events on Kiev’s Maidan had ended in violent revolution, establishment of a pro-Western democracy, and deep tensions with Ukraine’s large and sometimes overbearing neighbor, the Russian Federation. Some political observers spoke of a new cold war. And while the threat of nuclear war seemed remote, the world was again divided between “West” and “East,” with each side unable or unwilling to understand the other’s point of view.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The end of communism had brought unprecedented opportunities for Americans and Russian to travel to each other’s countries. Trade and political ties were developing. The Internet had made it as easy to cross national boundaries and time zones as to walk across the street in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Even at CTI, I regularly spent Friday afternoon in the Commons talking by Skype to my language teacher in Moscow.

But for communication to become communion takes more than technological prowess. Whether theologians and legal scholars, Russians and Americans, or Orthodox and Protestant believers—people think in different categories and begin with different assumptions. The weekly Tuesday colloquium at CTI provided for rich cross-fertilization of ideas and humbling reminders that people do not always understand each other. We needed many conversations—at the colloquium table, over lunch, in the members’ lounge, and in each other’s homes on Ross Stevenson Circle—to build intellectual trust and friendship.

Making a home for scholars to move between different worlds of discourse is what CTI does so well. Director Will Storrar and Senior Research Fellow Robin Lovin invited me to organize two small but groundbreaking conferences. The first gathered historians, anthropologists, political scientists, theologians, and government officials to discuss the religious dimensions of Russian and Ukrainian politics, something that policy makers and the popular media neglect, even though it has played a central role in recent events. These scholars were meeting each other for the first time, sharing insights across disciplinary boundaries, and contributing to wiser U.S. foreign policy.

At the second conference, a group of Orthodox scholars and priests discussed my manuscript about Orthodoxy and national identity, raising key questions about the relationship of hierarchical politics and popular piety, and personal religious faith and cultural religious heritage. I benefitted tremendously from the discussion, and they discovered the unique space that is CTI. One of the participants turned out to live across the street from us on Ross Stevenson, and on my last day in Princeton I joined him and his wife for a two-lap walk around the Circle, as we returned to the question of how the Church can nurture a responsible freedom that speaks truth in love.

Earlier in the year, an Orthodox priest had invited me to speak to his congregation. Another had asked me to present my research to the Orthodox Student Fellowship at Princeton University. Protestant scholars and friends at Princeton Theological Seminary had helped me think about larger questions of religion and politics. And the university and seminary libraries had provided materials in Russian that I needed. I took pleasure in ordering the books from storage and watching the librarian place a check-out sticker on the inside back cover: I was the first person ever to use them.

By the end of the year, I had a manuscript ready to take to a publisher. The prayer of St. Ephrem had sustained me—as had Wednesday morning prayers at CTI, led by Will Storrar. And the experience of intellectual friendship and Christian community with Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers had taught me, as Robin Lovin has written so insightfully in reference to interdisciplinary inquiry, virtues of humility and hope. I see that humility and hope in Christ’s face in Princeton’s small, quiet Orthodox church, and I am thankful to CTI for a home in between different academic disciplines, national perspectives, and religious traditions.