UBC President's Speeches and Writings

Science and Faith : Servant Leadership and the Secular University Ono, Santa Jeremy 2019-05-13

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Science and Faith: Servant Leadership and the Secular University May 13, 2019 Refreshing Streams: Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada Pacific Gateway Airport Hotel, Vancouver Good evening, and thank you everyone. It’s an honour and a privilege to be with you today. I’d like to start by acknowledging the staff, board, and leaders of CMDS Canada, and the local CMDS members who volunteered as members of organizing team for this conference. I’m thrilled to have a chance to engage with you, health care professionals who are strong in your faith. This evening, I’ve been asked to speak about a topic that is very important to me; and, indeed, fundamental to how I’ve come to understand my purpose in life – “Science and Faith: Servant Leadership and the Secular University.” I certainly didn’t start out imagining that one day I would be called to be a leader. I became an academic because of my natural curiosity and passion for science. That passion and curiosity led me to an academic career in medicine and biology. My research encompasses the immune system, eye inflammation and age-related macular degeneration – a leading cause of blindness. As you as health care professionals are no doubt aware, early detection and treatment could reduce vision loss and allow more people to enjoy their retirement years and maintain their independence. It’s intellectually rewarding research that at the same time has the potential to transform people’s lives. For me, it allows me to use my scientific curiosity to help people. As I progressed in my academic career, I also began to assume administrative and leadership responsibilities, first at Emory University and then at University of Cincinnati and now at UBC. My own leadership style is based on a philosophy called “servant leadership”. A leader has to start from a position of humility and respect. There are all kinds of people that you work with or encounter as a university president. My style is to consider myself as their servant. Servant-leadership doesn’t mean that you don’t, at times, have to make tough decisions or assert yourself, but the foundation of how I interact with people is one of mutual respect. Part of how I reach out to the least-powerful individuals in an organization or society comes from remembering what it feels like to be undervalued. The other part comes from my faith. I’m a Christian and have been very involved in churches in the different cities that I’ve lived in. As Jesus says in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As a university president, my focus on service is agnostic of denomination or faith. It’s really about my responsibility for others and focusing on them. And so, it’s entirely consistent with my own faith that I can be supportive of all faith groups, and also of students who are still searching or have decided that there is no room for faith in their lives. I still need to serve them, regardless of what their beliefs or interests might be. At UBC, there are about two dozen student clubs that have a faith affiliation, including, of course, a student chapter of CMDS. I don’t focus so much on the similarities and distinctions of the particulars of different religions. I focus more on the fact that for individuals that do have a faith, it’s an important part of their identity. It’s an important part of their wellness. For that reason, at a secular university, I can be supportive of very different kinds of people with different faiths and different beliefs, understanding that for each different group of people there are different ways that are necessary to support them and for their wellness. When I was a graduate student in Montreal, I was very focused on my research and my studies. And I took it hard when that research didn’t go the way I hoped. But I was fortunate to have a pastor at my Sunday school who reminded me not to take myself too seriously. That advice has helped keep me balanced and focussed and whenever I get stressed, I try to remember it. I often remind students not to take themselves too seriously and to look after themselves. Doing well on exams is important, but being healthy – mentally and physically – is also important. I’d like to give a bit of insight into my own faith journey, which, as you will see, is also a personal exploration of science and faith. It certainly isn’t a remarkable journey in any way, shape, or form. In many ways, it wasn’t meant to be. I think I owe it to God that I was able to find Jesus and I will tell you how that came about. I was born in Vancouver in 1962, some years after my father and mother had emigrated from Japan to North America. At the time, my father was a professor of Mathematics at UBC. My mother and father were not believers and did not practise any religion. From kindergarten through 12th grade, despite growing up in predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant neighbourhoods, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore after leaving Vancouver as a toddler, I had very little concept of what happened in churches. I walked past them going to school, drove past them on the way to different places, learned how to play musical instruments, but I didn’t really know what happened inside churches. The only times we, as a family, would enter churches would be to listen to music. My father loves music, and we would go there on Christmas Eve, or to hear someone play in a church, just because that’s where the concert happened to be. I didn’t think the pews were very comfortable, but I was curious about what actually happened on Sundays, and on evenings and afternoons. These churches were really nodes of activity, places where people built community. In some ways, I was jealous of not being part of that mysterious activity happening in churches. But I thought that churches were community social clubs where people gathered on Sunday for coffee, and where my friends attended Boy Scouts group meetings. My first introduction to God and Jesus occurred in my freshman year, as a student at the University of Chicago. With the sudden freedom of living far away from home, and with no parental guidance, I slipped into a trap that perhaps some of you did as well. I partied hard and frequently drank too much on Friday nights and weekends. Indeed, I think that part of my binge drinking had to do with a deep dissatisfaction with my life deep inside my soul—maybe a lack of a reference point, a lack of a spiritual anchor. However, I didn’t know it at the time. There was one particularly risky evening, when I had had far too much to drink, and was hanging from an open windowsill on the 5th floor of my residence hall, on a very cold night in Chicago. I don’t remember much about that evening other than that two of my friends rescued me from the windowsill and helped me get into bed. It was a very difficult night and they stayed by my side the entire time to ensure that I made it through. I am sure that some of you have some friends to whom you owe your lives. These two friends were very active in church on campus and started to take me with them to church services. We went to Bond chapel, a Catholic chapel, and to Rockefeller Church, the large church on the University of Chicago campus. They took me to Inter-Varsity groups, both large and small. They also took me back home to their suburbs to attend their churches, to meet with their ministers and mingle with their home congregations. In particular, they took me to their families for some family love, because they thought that I was lost. I remember feeling very special when I entered these churches. I felt chills down my spine as I knelt down to pray, not understanding what that meant. Although I had virtually no knowledge of the Bible, there was something about simply being in those churches that moved me as I had never been moved before. After graduating from the University of Chicago, I made my way back to Canada to be a graduate student in Experimental Medicine at McGill University. My girlfriend from Chicago was meant to join me in Montreal but she never ended up doing so, and I quickly spiraled into a deep depression. I began drinking again, heavily, and had suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, I encountered a fellow graduate student. She played the piano. I played the cello. The pianist’s name was Wendy Yip. Sometime later we would start dating, and eventually she became my wife. Wendy took me to her church. I was a doubtful, smart aleck non-believer when I accompanied her to church, even though I had already these feelings, these chills down my back whenever I entered a church. We would spend hours talking about why I had problems believing in God and Jesus. I had been educated as a scientist, to look for proof, and I could see no proof of the existence of God or Jesus. After many conversations, and my attendance at a Sunday school with 11-year-old kids, I started to understand the concept of faith, and the persuasiveness of the Bible and the power of those who believed, as evidence that there must be a God. A particular pastor worked with me and my faith emerged and grew stronger day by day. I’ll never forget the day I was baptized in Westmount Baptist Church, on a glorious, sunny Easter Day. Although my attendance at church would be variable, I became an even more committed Christian once my first daughter was born. There was a pivotal moment when I was a Senior Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs at Emery University in Atlanta. Emery was originally a Methodist university but is now a secular, multi-faith university. I discussed the issue of faith with then-president of the university, Jim Wagner, and also with a professor that I admired greatly, Tom Flynn, a Catholic priest. President Wagner was relatively open about his faith (he is a Presbyterian) but he reminded me that, as a senior administrator, it was important for me to respect and support staff, faculty, and students of every faith, as well as those who had decided not to believe. Professor Flynn, on the other hand, was different. Although he was a Catholic priest, he was extremely discreet about letting people know about his faith. He encouraged me to hide my Christianity and to be, as he said, “a stealth Christian.” After more than a year of considering the possible options, I made a decision not to be a “stealth Christian.” In fact, I decided to immerse myself in supporting students of all faiths at Emery University. I continued this practice at the University of Cincinnati, and now at UBC. Since moving to UBC, I have maintained my approach in supporting faculty, students, and staff in whatever faith they might practice, and regardless of whether they are believers or not. I also do not hide my Christianity. For a large proportion of our campus community – whether faculty, staff, students, or alumni – faith plays an important role in their identity and their wellness. And, therefore, it’s important for me to respect each of those faiths. It’s important for me to be supportive of their needs and to advocate for them with respect to their needs on a secular campus, to fulfill that part of their identity and their well being. There are multiple gifts that result from having a spiritual path. My own faith keeps me anchored and keeps me focused on why I use my efforts to help individuals in the university community and beyond. I believe my spiritual path and philosophy of servant leadership are both very supportive of faith and science coexisting at a modern secular university. You, as Christian health care professionals, are aware of the importance of – and sometimes tension between – faith and science. On the one hand, science is evidence-based or proven, and on the other hand, faith is something that transcends human understanding and is not based on evidence. When we make the conscious decision to have a faith in a particular religion, whether based on indirect references in history or in the Bible or in some other foundational document, we take a leap of faith. This is true for me as a scientist, and it’s also true for many other scientists. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote the seminal book “The Language of God.” He is an American physician-geneticist who discovered the genes associated with a number of diseases and led the Human Genome Project. His faith journey is a fascinating and inspiring story. Like Francis Collins, I was trained as a scientist to prove everything, to only make pronouncements about something being true because there’s empirical data that supports that view or that statement. However, one of the privileges of being a scientist, is you begin to understand the limitations of human consciousness and human conceptualization of things that transcend our ability to understand or explain or to prove. For instance, my research focuses on how the eye works or how the immune system works. Some of the brightest people in the world that I know personally spend a lot of time trying to understand how these systems work. And the best of them admit they only have a partial understanding of the most fundamental aspects of those systems. Much of how the immune system works has been discovered in my lifetime, and it’s truly remarkable. I can tell you that it is so complicated, there are so many checks and balances, and there are so many layers of complexity that the brightest of human beings, the brightest of engineers, wouldn’t have engineered the immune system the way it is. As a scientist, the crux of my faith is learning first hand that the tremendous diversity and complexity of biodiversity exists beyond the explanation of the brightest human beings. Let me give you another example … The Urey-Miller experiment, conducted in 1953, was an experiment that simulated hypothetical conditions present on the early Earth in order to test what kind of environment would be needed to allow life to begin. The experiment is considered to be the classic experiment on the origin of life. The experiment provides evidence that undermines abiogenesis – the theory that, under the proper conditions, life can arise spontaneously from non-living molecules. The molecules produced were simple organic molecules, far from a complete living biochemical system. After hundreds of replications and modifications using techniques similar to those employed in the original Miller–Urey experiments, scientists were able to produce only small amounts of fewer than half of the 20 amino acids required for life. The rest require much more complex synthesis conditions. Evolution alone cannot explain how we got from simple amino acids to the complexity of the cell and from that to the even more complex immune system. I started my faith journey with a very closed mind, thinking that the only things that could be true are those things that could be proven. The deeper I delved in experimental science, the more I appreciated that so much that exists in this world that cannot be explained or proven. Not only did this realization open my mind, it was the pivotal force in my faith. My view of science changed when I became a Christian. In turn, my view of religion changed, and changes regularly, because I’m an active scientist. To give you some examples, being a scientist pushes me to think about the Bible and whether the stories in the Bible are literal or figurative. And my faith influences how I think about data, how I think about potential flaws in data, and how I think we have to be very careful in how we interpret data as a scientist. Thus, I don’t feel a tension between the secular university and my faith. All of the different views and questions and conundrums that are explored in a university, for me, underscore my faith. As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37: “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That phrase “with all your mind” invites us to welcome discourse and dialogue and difficult questions in our spiritual life. Through questioning our faith, I believe we become stronger individuals. For me, a real gift of the spiritual path is you grow as an individual and your faith becomes stronger because you’re constantly asking yourself questions and perhaps sometimes doubting your decision. This is really at the heart of what it means to innovate.  How do we welcome innovation in our spiritual lives? There are churches and congregations where there is active debate and sometimes tension between different members of the congregation or different parts of the congregation and the minister. And some people don’t want to be in that kind of environment, but I believe that those are the strongest churches. We really come to believe when our faith is challenged and we work through inconsistencies or differences of opinion. In the same way, the best universities are the ones where people have the freedom to voice different points of view, and to either change their mind or strengthen their belief based upon honest discourse. To explore the questions and mysteries of science and faith together. And to acknowledge the humility of what we don’t know. In closing, I’d like to once more say how honoured I am to be here and how excited I am to share my faith with you. I think what I have learned in my journey is that God is everywhere, not only in my church and your church, not only here today, but God is everywhere. Thank you.  


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