Dr. Sharon Dirckx Continues LCU’s Legacy of Engaging Deep Theological Topics
Was there really an exodus from Egypt? What do the Dead Sea Scrolls actually tell us? Can Christians make peace with the warlike god of the Old Testament? Are we just our brains?
These are just a few of the questions that speakers for Lubbock Christian University’s Lanier Theological Library Lectures have addressed through the years. Lectures have broached topics such as tolerance, archaeological evidence related to King David and Mount Sinai, and even the Dead Sea Scrolls. In November, LCU hosted the 11th event in the annual series. It featured Dr. Sharon Dirckx, a distinguished speaker, author, and adjunct lecturer at the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics (OCCA).
The Lanier Theological Library was founded by nationally renowned civil trial lawyer, Mark Lanier. The Lubbock native and former LCU student has been widely recognized as one of the top civil attorneys in the nation by organizations such as The New York Times and The American Lawyer and has won nearly $20 billion in verdicts throughout his highly acclaimed career. Beyond his success as a lawyer, Lanier is also a dedicated Christian and apologist whose passion for his faith wrought the Lanier Theological Library, one of the largest private theological libraries in the world. It is through the tremendous generosity of Mark and Becky Lanier that LCU continues to bring world-class speakers and theologians to its campus to tackle deep, important topics pertaining to the Christian faith.
"I loved when I got to hear great national speakers—it was a nice bit of exposure that you don't always get in Lubbock," Lanier explained. "So, when LCU gave us a chance to help find some of those people and bring them in, I found it to be a thrilling opportunity."
Dr. Dirckx’s lecture, entitled “Neuroscience and Human Identity: Are We Just Our Brains?” added to the rich repertoire of Lanier lectures presented at LCU. Beyond the plenary lecture itself, Dirckx’s time on LCU’s campus brought great opportunities for students including a faith affirming presentation in LCU’s daily chapel, a private luncheon with students and faculty, an afternoon lecture specifically for students, and a dinner that included a Q&A session.
Dr. Dirckx’s first presentation on campus was in LCU’s daily chapel, where she spoke on the semester-long theme, “Hope.” She shared how Jesus dealt with each person he encountered on an individual level, and how he changed the very reality of what is possible, and by extension, the foundation of hope. Following chapel, she joined students from LCU’s Honors College and the Smith College of Biblical Studies for a private luncheon where she shared a bit more intimately her own journey to faith and ultimately her calling as an apologist.
Dirckx knew she wanted to be a scientist as she pursued her education in her home country of England. In one of her early secondary science courses, she read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, reflecting that, through her unreligious childhood, she absorbed a worldview that viewed science and religion in opposition to each other. As she began to study biochemistry at the University of Bristol, she recalled that even in the first week of classes her worldview was challenged, and she realized she had serious questions about the Christian faith. It was during this time that she truly learned to think for herself, and she was influenced by a few Christian friends who were truly living out what they believed. Halfway through her second year, she was deeply moved by a Christmas carol service. The music and worship engaged her in a way she had never experienced. The following Easter, after taking up some friends’ invitation to church, she came to the realization that she was embarking on the journey to her own faith. By that summer, she became a Christian.
After receiving her biochemistry degree, she worked in Switzerland for a year, where she discovered her interest in Functional MRI which allows scientists to examine how a brain functions. She pursued her Ph.D. in brain imaging at Cambridge, and this led to her holding research positions in both the UK and the US. During her time in the United States, she became inspired by a friend who was an evangelist. This new interest coincided with a growing number of questions concerning her Christian faith at work, and it was that combination that sparked her passion for evangelism. “I never want to forget what it was like to not believe, because I want to be able to speak into that,” she recalled. That passion called Dr. Dirckx back to the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics where she would spend the next fifteen years.
Today, she speaks and lectures primarily in the areas of science and theology, “mind and soul,” and the problem of evil. Dr. Dirckx has appeared on several BBC programs in the UK, including Radio 2 Good Morning Sunday and Radio 4 Beyond Belief. She is also the author of an award-winning book on suffering entitled Why?: Looking at God, Evil, and Personal Suffering (2013), as well as a book on human consciousness and identity entitled, Am I Just My Brain? (2019). More recently, Dr. Dirckx contributed to The Case for Heaven (2021), a book and subsequent documentary by best-selling author Lee Strobel. Her next book on natural disasters is forthcoming (Spring 2023).
After fielding questions from students, faculty, and staff in attendance at the luncheon, Dr. Dirckx spoke to students in a presentation entitled, “Are Science and Christian Faith in Conflict?” She began by noting that science has had a major impact on modern society through things such as the invention of the internet, the human genome project, advances in modern medicine, and space exploration. She reiterated her longtime love of science and the impact that writers such as Richard Dawkins had on her initial assumptions about the intersection of science and faith.
Many question whether science and theology offer competing perspectives on the world. Both seek truth, and both are concerned with the nature of reality. She posed her response to that question with a simple analogy—If one asks, “Why is the kettle boiling?”, a scientist’s response might refer to electrical currents, the conduction of heat, and energy causing the liquid to change to its gaseous state. On the other hand, another might respond, simply, “Because I want to make tea.” These answers aren’t competing, she said, but instead together give a more complete understanding of reality. She argued that science and faith give complimentary accounts of the world. One is concerned with mechanism, while the other focuses on meta-narrative—the universal questions about life. She spoke to the origins of the universe, specifically the difference between the questions “How did the universe begin,” and, “Why does the universe exist in the first place?” Both questions seek truth but in different ways and toward different ends.
Dr. Dirckx noted that there are scientists on each side of the debate—many leading scientists in the world are Christians, and many are atheists. The conflict, then, is not between faith and science, but between worldviews—those of naturalism or theism.
She quoted Sir Peter Medawar: “The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things—questions such as ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’” She also referred to C.S. Lewis, who said, “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a law-giver.” Both writers argued that science can find no good answer to order in the universe—for without that order, how could we trust any experience, or the way we think of those experiences? God, she argued, is necessary for science itself to function. All people have faith in something.
Later in the day, LCU hosted a dinner before Dr. Dirckx’s lecture, where she sat for a Q&A session with LCU’s own Dr. Jeff Cary (‘95), Dean of the Alfred and Patricia Smith College of Biblical Studies. Following the dinner, she delivered her plenary lecture in the Margaret Talkington Center for Nursing Education’s Collier Auditorium.
Dr. Dirckx’s presentation focused on the distinction between the brain and the mind—the problem of consciousness, as philosophers often phrase it. She demonstrated a number of ways how the brain and mind are connected yet distinct in humans.
In the end, Dr. Dirckx explained that no one really knows how consciousness occurs. Scientific studies and accounts of unexplained near-death experiences where the subject displayed no brain activity but maintained a sense of self or out-of-body experiences with verifiable factual knowledge retained strongly indicates to many neuroscientists that consciousness exists beyond the body. In fact, she shared that Dr. Eben Alexander, once an acclaimed atheist, became a Christian after witnessing his very own near-death experience that he believed validated these claims.
We don’t really know how consciousness physically occurs, Dr. Dirckx said, but if there is a God who is conscious, then conscious beings are exactly what we would expect. “We have a mind because God has a mind; we think because God is a thinker.” In this light, the image of God takes on a whole new meaning.
Following the lecture, Dr. Julie Marshall (‘89), Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, guided a question-and-answer time with Dr. Dirckx including questions submitted by the audience. One question inquired what happens in the brain when someone prays. Dr. Dirckx explained that in many ways, it is comparable to what happens when someone is in love, and it indicates that humans are integrated spiritual and physical beings.
Another questioner asked what Dr. Dirckx had learned about suffering, considering one of her earlier publications on the subject. Her response was poignant.
“If God does not exist, then this is just the way the world is,” she said. “And that isn’t helpful in helping me walk through that suffering. But if God does exist, then we can say that this is something broken, and this is not the way it’s supposed to be. And that is helpful as we try to make sense of the rawness and the brokenness of the world.”
Another question Dr. Marshall relayed to Dr. Dirckx focused on traumatic brain injuries, where individuals’ personalities have been known to drastically change following severe damage to their brain. Dr. Dirckx explained that there clearly is an effect from the physical brain to the mind and personality, but also added that even if the brain suffers severe trauma, there is still a “you.” She believes that the evidence shows clearly that the brain is not solely responsible for personality and consciousness.
Dr. Marshall was honored to share the stage with Dr. Dirckx. “I have enjoyed the Lanier Lecture series a great deal because of the centrality of the issues to Christian faith and the quality of the presentations and discussions.” This year’s presenter, however, was special. “Being able to interact with a scientist who has integrated theology into her life's work helped me examine my spiritual development through the lens of chemistry. It is powerful to have the opportunity for perspective in this way.”
Many LCU students had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Dirckx throughout the day, including the evening lecture itself. Sophomore Robert Cantu was especially impressed. “It is essential for LCU to hear from such prestigious experts and grow our understanding of such rich and deep topics.”
Dr. Cary believes that bringing speakers like Dr. Dirckx to LCU is a benefit not just for the students, faculty, and staff, but for the greater Lubbock community.
“The benefit of events like these is that it helps people come together to have substantial intellectual conversations,” he said. “We live in a world of clips, impressions, and soundbites, and a conversation like this reminds us of what it means to be deeply human—something we often ignore to our detriment.”
Dr. Dirckx shares that appreciation for important conversations and was impressed by her time at LCU.
“It’s been absolutely worth making the journey to Lubbock,” she said. “I’ve experienced a warm Texan welcome, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and loved my time here. Everyone has been so interested and engaging with the different topics we’ve looked at throughout the day, and there have been some very interesting questions. Questions of hope, about my journey to faith, about science, and then of course about our brains and minds—it’s all been such a pleasure. I’m grateful to have been here.”