Of science and spirit: I’ve Seen the End of You

Following my read of Faitheist, I was interested to read a memoir by a person of faith who was also a scientist. I came across I’ve Seen the End of You by Lee Warren, a neurosurgeon who struggles with the purpose of prayer when he is confronted by many patients with incurable brain tumors. How can he pray for their healing when he knows they are going to die? He is further challenged when his son dies tragically. How can God allow all this suffering?

While his position as a brain surgeon means that he is in contact with extreme, life-altering situations more than most people, the questions he has are common and relatable. Readers who don’t share his Christian faith may still be touched by his honest grappling with the events that challenge his notions of how life should work. And anyone who does hold a view of a loving Creator must at some point do the same inner wrestling, or else faith remains an empty and hollow thing.

I confess that the place Warren starts from seems quite naive to me. How can a person with any degree of education or life experience at all still believe that prayer is a matter of just asking for what you want and getting it if you are good and sincere enough? It’s obvious that not every deserving person who prays for healing gets it, even if some such prayers appear to be answered. And yet, apparently one can be a good doctor and a good scientist and still hold that view.

But Warren’s destiny won’t let him stay there. As he describes the events that overturn his simplistic views, his caring heart is apparent as well as his need to live in a universe that makes sense. When things don’t make sense, it’s a challenge to keep one’s heart open and continue to care. People have many ways of dealing with that tension, and we meet them through Warren’s patients, who respond to their own diagnosis of imminent death with various degrees of resistance, despair, defiance, and belligerence.

But there are also stories of transformation and radical acceptance, which are challenging in another way, raising new questions. What if a diagnosis of terminal cancer is not the worst thing that can happen to us after all? What if not living while we are alive is even worse than dying?

There are no pat answers at the end of this tale, just a human being who has grown through his questions. He has come to see prayer not as a way to change the things that happen to us, but to change ourselves and the way we respond to those happenings. Admitting the need for such inner transformation is something that I think can transcend differences between people, for we may not all believe the same things, but when life deals us a difficult hand, we all need to find a way through it. In his candid, courageous exposure of his own changing mind, Warren shows us the very human face of both doubt and faith.

W. Lee Warren, I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know (Crown, 2019).

Spiritual Memoir Challenge: A book that engages with spirituality in relation to science and nature

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5 thoughts on “Of science and spirit: I’ve Seen the End of You

  1. I was very moved by this memoir when I read it. I’m currently reading the sample of his newest book, “Hope Is the First Dose.” So far it has focused solely on the tragic death of his son. Even though the story is terribly sad, I want to keep reading more.

    1. It was very moving – not the most polished memoir writing I have read, but I really appreciated that he worked hard to tell his own story and not use a ghost writer. That authenticity shines through. I’ll definitely check out his next book.

  2. These are questions all of us grapple with at some point or other (especially when a child or animal suffers), but a thought which I came across this year which made sense and changed my perception vis-a-vis prayer, was not to be in a place where we are constantly asking for things, perhaps leave god/universe to lead us as it thinks right (even when we must bear suffering/pain), and use prayer to express one’s gratitude for what we have–I’m not quite putting it the way they expressed it, but the idea appealed, and I am trying to follow it in my practice.

    1. The way someone put it to Warren was that we pray (as Christians) not to try to manipulate reality, but to be more like Christ. That changed his prayer practice and has made me think a lot as well.

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