The Facebook Trap
By JIM NICHOLS
There is a subtitle for today’s contribution and that is “Avoiding a Place of Fear.”
Once again, two back-to-back items appeared in my reading. One involved Dr. Francis Collins. Dr. Collins is what in the academic world is referred to as a “physician-scientist.” He has both an M.D. degree (qualifying him in the medical doctor world) and a Ph.D. (qualifying him in the experimental science world.) He was centrally involved in the Human Genome Project of 20 years ago and currently serves as the Director of National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is in many ways the top scientist in the United States and one of the top in the world. As a point of reference, he is the “boss” and friend of Dr. Anthony Fauci, of COVID-19 fame.
Besides his academic and government service career, Collins is a serious Christian. He has written and made pivotal contributions to the interface between science and faith. Many of us who work at this intersection have been strongly influenced by him. As one might expect, his high profile life at this intersection has set him up for vicious criticism from people across the spectrum, including both other scientists and folks-religious.
This week Collins will receive the annual Templeton Prize. It is awarded to individuals who “. . . have made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” Some previous winners have included Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Essays and interviews by and with Collins frequently appear online and that is where I fell into the Facebook Trap. This is like quicksand where we enter and then sink deeper into distress even though we know we could disconnect at any time. It is almost addictive.
The article itself was typically brilliant Collins with clear explanations of some of the COVID science and wonderful reflections on how to think spiritually. It was followed by 75 “comments” and I read them all; I started and could not stop. They were fearful, attacking, frightened, grasping for explanations, unknowledgeable about faith and science, using only a caricature of them that the contributors had learned from some pseudo-thought-leader who also used only a caricature of them. My stomach hurt at the blatant fear and ignorance displayed.
This reading was followed in a helpful way by a near-verbatim account written by a chaplain friend. The friend himself has dealt with personal serious cancer treatments for years and was having an initial first encounter with a hospital patient with similar cancer.
I was particularly struck with the compassion, calmness, and perception of my friend as he dealt with this patient. In a short visit, he was able to lower the emotional and spiritual barriers between the patient and himself and let God enter into and direct the conversation. Fear was present but not dominant. Nowhere in the verbatim are unthoughtful comments made. It modeled the way believers should speak to one another, even about quite serious matters. He writes, “She did not express fear or torment save for the digestive distress occasioned by the radiation she had been receiving. I believe that she has peace in a deep sense with her decision to discontinue treatment.”
The contrast between these two articles was strong. Perhaps I am spiritually naïve, but I saw no form of peace in the Facebook “commenter” statements. I saw only fears, misunderstandings, and judgments. There were no hints of appreciation, wonder, or compassion.
I am embarrassed that I got stuck reading the 75 comments; it made me feel soiled, angry, and frightened. Clearly, you and I need to make sure that we are spending our emotional and spiritual energy on things that really matter. Philippians 4 says to “think on these things,” including whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, and things excellent and worthy of praise.
Author Phyllis Tickle in The Divine Hours more than once leads me in the prayer: “Grant that I, Lord, may not be anxious about earthly things, but love things heavenly; and even now, while I am placed among things that are passing away, hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain