Winding Down

I’m on day 10 or so of conference lectures. Today it’s Stem Cell Culture Secrets and Patent Issues (which combine into quite the quagmire in the hESC field). Yesterday I only attended one talk, that of Gary Robbins, the Science Dude at the Orange County Register. Gary’s blog about local science news gets a lot of traffic. I picked up some good tips.

This week he is running two polls. One is about whether or not it will demean a trained elephant to temporarily encapsulate it in a giant bubble as part of a stunt at the Discovery Science Center (371 respondents said no; 353 said yes as of 6:42 am this morning). The other is called “Is Science Sinful?” It asks about a senior Catholic cleric’s declaration that certain types of scientific research (including genetic manipulation of human embryos) are sinful. This poll only got 68 responses: 43 disagreed with the cleric, 7 agreed and 18 said the question was too vague.

If these polls are to be taken seriously—and I’m not sure they are—more Orange County Register readers care about the temporary fate of a trained elephant than care about a prominent theologian’s opinion about what it means to be human.

Gary and I have emailed back and forth a couple times in regard to his coverage of local hESC news. It was good to meet him in person. He’s appropriately kinetic, and gave a current events talk about the impact of the Internet on the news business. He also handed each of us a dime to demonstrate how hESC scientists ought to talk to the press about their work. He said that when he talks to people about hESCs, he uses a dime to demonstrate that the 8-celled blastocysts destroyed in the research are the size of President Roosevelt’s eye on the coin. His was a lecture about educating a busy public about science rather than one about how hESC scientists can avoid being misquoted or manipulated by unscrupulous or untrained reporters.

After the lecture, I attended a party at the hotel where the students are staying. We sat together in a dark room on the 18th floor and watched the fireworks over Disney Land. I was asked my opinion of The Secret and will be researching that today for a lovely, accomplished scientist from another part of the world. She doesn’t want to buy into The Secret’s message if it is inconsistent with Christian faith.

I also heard last night that Hans Keirstead is being shadowed by an HBO film crew and that he’s toned down his rhetoric, which, if true, is good for everybody.

Tomorrow, the NIH course wraps with an all-day symposium on stem cell treatment for pediatric diseases. Then I’m off to Santa Cruz to meet a faithful blogging friend in person. While I’m there, I’m going to worship at Vintage Faith Church where my new friend Dan Kimball pastors. After that, I’ll be spoiling my family for a bit and getting down to some serious writing work.

Update: I was thinking more about Gary’s polls. There are other possibilities for the divergent interest. First, Gary said his readers respond more to local science news than national or international news. Second, perhaps readers rightly discern that the temporary fate of a trained elephant is trivial enough for a 2-second opinion poll, whereas contemplating what it means to be human requires a bit more thought.

Update 2 (3/15/08): The Bubble/Elephant stunt at the Discovery Science Center has been canceled after an outpouring of public protest.

Friday Fun with Religion, Science and the Press

Friday, March 7, 2008

ACT I:

12:00 pm, directly after a Psychiatry & Spirituality Forum lecture to psychiatric residents at UC Irvine

(Paraphrasing)

Senior Staff Doctor: “Hello”

Christine: “Hi, I’m Christine. I’m a journalist. I’m doing a story on the Forum for xyz news outlet.

Senior Staff Doctor: “Every time I talk to a reporter, I come out sounding like an idiot. …”

Christine: “Sometimes it’s not the reporter’s fault. It’s those word counts. You have to talk in sound bites.”

Dr. Kheriaty agrees, kibitzing follows.

Senior Staff Doctor to Dr. Kheriaty: “That reporter from wxt news outlet called. She wanted to know if you are some kind of religious zealot. I told her you aren’t, but you know, you ought to have my Native American friend speak. He really helped us get through a contentious work situation.”

Dr. Kheriaty: “We try to be imperically-based and inclusive …”

ACT II:

5:45 pm, CHOC Boardroom, before NIH Embryonic Stem Cell Training Course students arrive for lecture and dinner

(paraphrasing)

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “Hello”

Christine: “Hello”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “Are you a student?”

Christine: “No, I’m a journalist.”
Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “A journalist? From what publication?”

Christine: “I’m pitching a story to xyz news outlet. It’s non-sectarian.”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “It’s not Catholic is it?”
Christine: “No, but I’ve written from that perspective before. I’m not doing that this time. People should be able to disagree and still be respectful though, don’t you think?”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “I don’t know. I’m glad I asked.”

Christine: “Why, will you say something different in your lecture because I’m here?”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher (direct quote): “No, but the Catholics. I’ll be honest. I despise them.”

Christine: stunned silence

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher (paraphrasing): “The bishop of tzv came down to mwl saying he’s against IVF, ruining a lot of people’s happiness.”

Christine (to herself): “Nice to meet you too.”

[photo ©cas 2008, CHOC North Boardroom, Orange, CA ]

NPC Wrap UP

 

The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]

Spirituality and Suicide Prevention

On Tuesday, I attended a lecture at UC Irvine Medical Center called “Spirituality and Suicide Prevention.” The speaker was a psychiatrist named Aaron Kheriaty. Dr. Kheriaty is the director of UC Irvine’s unique Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum.

As is the case for Kheriaty, my interest in this topic is not merely professional. A few years ago, within a short period of time, three Christian young people that I knew died by suicide. It was the third death that convinced me to take my own depressed teenager to the doctor. I’m glad I did.

Here are my notes from what was an excellent lecture:

Mark Twain: Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.

Man is also the only animal that takes its own life, buries its dead, performs funeral rites. (Lemmings do not commit mass suicide during migration as is commonly thought.)

Suicide is a self-contradictory act; it is excercising autonomy in order to eliminate autonomy.

Artistic Expression of Suicidal Ideation:

“Amsterdam” by Coldplay

“Come on, oh my star is fading
And I see no chance of release
And I know I’m dead on the surface
But I am screaming underneath

And time is on your side, its on your side, now
Not pushing you down, and all around
No it’s no cause for concern

Stuck on the end of this ball and chain
And I’m on my way back down again
Stood on the edge, tied to the noose
Sick to the stomach

You can say what you mean
But it won’t change a thing
I’m sick of the secrets
Stood on the edge, tied to the noose
And you came along and you cut me loose
You came along and you cut me loose
You came along and you cut me loose”

John Donne : “Whensoever any affliction assails me, methinks I have the keys of my prison in mine own hand and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword.”

Statistics and Research:

There is one suicide every 17 minutes in the United States; over 30,000 each year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among the young. Teen suicide has tripled in the last 45 years. 1-of-10 college students has thought about suicide in the past year ; 1-of-5 high school students have.

CDC reports: The suicide rate rose 8 percent between 2003-2004; this represents the highest increase in 15 years.

Researcher Emil Durkheim says the suicide rate is a key measure of social connectedness. He found that religious institutions, when flourishing and healthy, act as a deterrant. Religious communities counter individualism. Results confirmed in other studies.

His Hypothesis:

  1. social support
  2. religious communities forbid suicide (Dutch study controlled for social cohesion–religion still protects)
  3. sense of meaning, purpose, hope, reason for living

Case Studies:

Patient 1: 25 year old male, panic disorder, depression, doesn’t believe in God. “I don’t see anything wrong with suicide.” Solution to serious debt problem. Mother had actually given her permission at one point if he feels suicide is the only way out.

Patient 2: 22 year old male, depression. Doesn’t want to go to hell. Social ties at church weakened by his depression. Conscience acts as preventive because he believes suicide is morally wrong.

Patient 3: 43 year old woman, post-traumatic stress disorder from years of sexual abuse by both parents. “If it weren’t for Jesus, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” Social connections lost amidst ugly church split. Very traumatic for patient. Still, faith gives her meaning and purpose and appears to be one of the few healthy, mature elements of her life.

Neelman and Lewis conducted 37,688 interviews in Europe and the U.S.; found four religious variables that lower suicide rates:

  1. religiosity (personal belief)
  2. religious service attendance
  3. religious affiliation
  4. religious upbringing

Religiosity was strongest factor in lower rates; attendance the weakest.

Religion in mentally ill: study of 155 psychotic patients; 43 percent had attempted suicide. Of those who hadn’t 25 percent noted the protective role of religion (religious coping, ethical norms); 10 percent cited religion as an incentive for suicide attempt–either patient thought they would be better off after death or had experienced loss of faith or anger with God. Only 3 of the 155 patients who had attempted suicide did so in context of delusional thinking.

2004 American Journal of Psychiatry published study of suicide rates in those with religious affiliation vs. those without:

Less attempts, less impulsivity, less aggression, less substance abuse , more reason to live and objections to suicide in those with religious affiliations than in those without. (Aggression and substance abuse are suicide predictors on their own.)

Views of Suicide within various relgious traditions:

Judeo-Christian: suicide serious sin; breaks 6th commandment.

Eastern–Hindu, Buddhist: discouraged, not right means to free self from suffering.

Islamic: as grave or graver a sin than homicide (suicide bombers, etc., abhorrent from orthodox teaching).

Advised medical professionals to involve members of clergy from patient’s religious community in dealing with them, and/or with family after suicide. Most hold much more nuanced positions on eternal destiny than commonly thought (eg. Catholic).

Enlightenment era: possibly worst treatment of suicide victims took place in 17th century France.  Bodies dragged through the streets, head down, then hanged from guillotine, and thrown in a sewer.

Older thinkers opposed suicide: Locke, Rousseau, Kierkgaard; newer appear ambivalent–A. Camus

Social Effects of Suicide:

Suicide appears to be contagious. Those vulnerable to suicidal thoughts are influenced by suicides of famous people; may romanticize it.

Symbolic Places: Mt. Fuji was leading site in world. Now, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. 1200 people have jumped. One every two weeks. Zero jumps off adjacent Bay Bridge. 26 have survived. Takes 4 seconds to hit water. Final thoughts of survivors:

K.B., 28 years old: realized that everything he thought wasn’t fixable in his life was fixable, except the fact that he had jumped.

K.H., 18: realized that he really didn’t want to die.

E.S. Schniedman, preeminent suicide researcher: the suicidal person can be described as someone who cuts their throat and cries for help in the same breath.

John Donne: “No Man is an Island.” Social isolation contributes to suicide. Often when suicidal person is preparing to take their life, they will isolate. Something to watch for in at risk people.

Last journal entry of one Golden Gate Bridge suicide victim: “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way there, I will not jump.”

Researcher Aaron Beck studied 9000 hospitalized patients over 10 year period. The key factor in suicide attempts and ideation: HOPELESSNESS. A foreshortened sense of the future. Give some hope; reduce risk. Other studies replicated his findings (J. Fawcett w/ outpatients).

Neurophysch studies indicate that the thinking of suicidal patients is constricted, inflexible, rigid; they cannot see options; they are unable to separate the future from the present. Hospitalization alone does not help. Hospitalized patients who attempt suicide soon after release often have denied suicidal thoughts.

Prevention [in addition to proper medical treatment]:

  1. Appeal to sense of responsibility to God and family—patients often have distorted view of what impact will be on survivors; help them understand their loved ones will not get over it quickly.
  2. Discuss afterlife; what do they think will happen to them.
  3. Spiritual practices: meditation, prayer, contemplation (no studies yet on effectiveness).

Hope, Despair and Spirituality within the Christian tradition:

Hope is a theological virtue: one of three highest–love, faith, hope.

To be without hope is to be separated from God; it is the definition of damnation.

Dante’s Inferno: Inscribed over hell are these words: “Abandon all hope, ye’ who enter here.”

Despair is a state proper only to the damned; to be without hope is to be in hell.

Religion may foster hope grounded in the past (Psalms) and the future (Prophets). It also provides meaning in suffering (Christ).

Hope and Acceptance: Job–“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Acceptance of death/mortality key element in most religions.

Kheriaty concluded with the story of close high school friend named Matthew: 27 years old, bi-polar, Air Force Academy graduate, varsity track athlete, medically discharged from Air Force after diagnosis: “Our pilots don’t have bi-polar disorder.”

Four suicide attempts, last spoke to him two weeks before death. Successful on 4th attempt because he used a gun. Mother psychiatric nurse; tried to get him to take meds; wouldn’t. Afterwards mother consoled Kheriaty: “You did everything you could.”

Kheriaty ended with a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins that I was unable to find online. Here’s the snippet I caught:

“I say that we are wound with mercy round and round…”

Amen

Points to Remember:

Kindness means everything; Instill hope in the despairing; Preach the Gospel. In other words: Faith, hope, love … and the greatest of these is love.

The UCI Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum meets monthly. This event was attended by medical professionals, clergy and at least one journalist : )

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved]