Through the Kaleidoscope: How Exploring Cell Biology Transforms My Relationship with God by Elizabeth Jeffries
Cells are not monolithic machines. They are communities. We’re made out of billions of molecular communities that are each composed of proteins, DNA, RNA and organelles which interact, intertwine and mutually transform one another. These communities are diverse: long, wispy nucleic acid strands wind tightly around blobby globular proteins only to unwind again upon receiving a signal that it’s time for the cell to proliferate. Tiny proteins latch firmly onto massive proteins, just to release again when they’re needed more urgently elsewhere. Key-shaped active regions fit perfectly into lock-shaped receptors, attaching and detaching in precise choreography. Each individual participates in a unified whole, coordinating and communicating to create the living community.
As a young science student, I expected to learn that genes are absolute; that they create concrete, direct and predictable outcomes. In reality, epigenetics has taught me that genes are like the colorful confetti pieces at the end of a kaleidoscope. The color and shape of each piece stays the same, no matter how you turn the chamber of the kaleidoscope. Although those pieces never change, they pass through an intricate system of mirrors, and they appear to be arranged in any one of ostensibly infinite patterns. Their transformations are mesmerizing. As the chamber turns and the patterns undergo their dynamic transformations, each colorful, eye-catching pattern is so different from the one that came before it that it’s hard to believe they’re all just different representations of the same basic material.
Genes are not monolithic predictors, but rather they define possibilities. Their outcomes shift over a vast array, transformed by context. Although there is such great elasticity in the products of genetic codes, there is still an absoluteness underlying their diversity of expression. Our own biology illustrates that it is possible for something to be true but not precise; constant but not fixed; explicit but elastic. In fact, this type of truth—the type that has the ability to shift, every context transforming its meaning—has a power and beauty that I couldn’t imagine when I believed all truth to be static, monolithic and unchanging. This dynamic kind of truth is wisdom that clothes itself in response to its environment. The truth that is seen through a kaleidoscope produces compounding variety. It generates infinite diversity from a finite underlying reality.
As a child, growing up in my fundamentalist evangelical community, I believed my task was to define and strengthen the boundaries of truth. I wanted to secure my place in the “godly” category. By directing my energy inward and obsessively scrutinizing my own behaviors, I overlooked the deep wisdom in the Christian spiritual tradition.
What if, instead, I approach biblical wisdom with an understanding of the power of contextual interpretation? Genes, the fundamental originators of traits, pass through an epigenetic interpretation system, and biblical truth passes through an interpretation system of its own: social structures, communal values, technological possibilities and so much more. What if I search for the underlying truth, the foundational truth that rests beneath these multifaceted layers of interpretation? When I see scripture through this lens, I begin to look beyond the directives and mandates at the surface, in search of the enduring truth that undergirds them.
There was a time when I thought the ultimate goal of genetics was to demystify life. I thought we could isolate genes, extract them from their context and still know exactly which traits they would create. Epigenetics shows how futile it is to attempt this type of simplification. To isolate a gene, apart from the epigenetic factors that regulate its expression, would be such an oversimplification that it would be a misrepresentation. Epigenetic factors—the various chemical groups that intermittently attach and detach from a gene, the cell components that cause DNA to spool in one orientation versus another inside a cell—all of these change the way that a gene is interpreted. These factors are lenses, filters, reflectors and refiners. They’re the complex system of interdependent lenses through which the gene passes before it creates reality.
It makes more sense to talk about what a gene renders than what a gene is. A gene’s impacts are so foundational, and they underlie reality so deeply that they are unpredictable unless we have the entire picture in our view; that is, unless we’re able to consider the full intricate landscape of epigenetic effects. Each biblical passage is just one rendering of spiritual wisdom. Each passage was created within its own cultural context, and to ignore this context would be such an oversimplification that it would be a misrepresentation.
To extract biblical verses from their cultural and historical context, and from the context of the surrounding passages, would be like extracting a gene from its epigenetic context. The text has no meaning until it takes on the nuance of real-life experiential context. The text is just words, until the word becomes flesh.
I need a vision that is expansive and compounding. I need a vision robust enough to accommodate the diversity of ways in which intangible realities can be interpreted. A kaleidoscope reveals infinite, compounding realities, which build on one another as the chamber turns to transform the reflected image. The collective whole of these images is breathtaking and marvelous. I can’t help but stare as I turn a kaleidoscope, mesmerized by the continuously shifting, morphing, and transfiguring of the images.
Having now seen that my experience of truth and reality is silently shaped by my lenses, I can celebrate the beauty of the unfolding truth that emerges as I turn the kaleidoscope. When I do, the truth is deep and strong enough to keep shifting, transforming and progressing, and I cannot help but be transformed with it.
Praise for Through the Kaleidoscope
“Through the Kaleidoscope blends poetry and biology in a way that will both inspire and educate. It’s a breath of fresh air in the conversation between faith and the sciences—and honors both as it unfolds.”
—Mike McHargue, co-founder of The Liturgists and host of Ask Science Mike
“Jeffries’ writing is inviting, weaving her love for cell biology with her love for God in powerful, poignant, thought-provoking stories. Her book opens us up to seeing the world of science and faith in a new way—in a way that gives us the space to ask ‘What if … ’”
—Rev. Donna Frischknecht Jackson, editor, Presbyterians Today magazine
“Elizabeth has found a way to articulate the things we all think but rarely know how to put into words. Her blending of faith and science to draw parallels between what’s going on in each of us at both a physical and metaphysical level is spellbinding. Each chapter will give you greater courage to face your deepest questions with confidence that life can and will emerge on the other side!”
—Ryan May, Lead Pastor of The Net Church in Chattanooga, TN and author of Stuck in the Middle
“Who would imagine that cellular biology would reveal truths about our spirituality and community? As she wrestles with her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Jeffries deftly explores worlds big and small, weaving together stories and science to give us a new lens on faith.”
—Rev. Sue Washburn, Pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church
About the Author
Elizabeth Jeffries is a science writer who invites her readers to find meaning in the natural world. In her laboratory research experience as a PhD molecular biologist, and in her work as a freelance science and medical writer, Elizabeth sees connections between the patterns of nature and the human experience.