When did the ministry first spark your interest?

Gomes: Well I had grown up with everybody else’s expectations.  And so when you reach a certain age, you decide whether you own those expectations or you reject them.  And I first rejected them because everybody thought I was going to be a preacher.  I sounded like one.  I looked like one.  I acted like one.  I enjoyed church.  It was fun.  I could memorize vast quantities of scripture.  I could play the part perfectly.  But there was a point where I wondered, “Is this the part I really want to play, or am I simply conforming to everybody’s expectations?”  So when I went off to college, it was with the view in my own mind that I was going to test this, and that I was going to become my own person.  I was not going to be the fair-haired boy who went off to college and became what everybody thought he was going to be – the great preacher.  So when I went off to Bates, I did not major in religion.  I played the organ, which is a wonderfully godless vocation.  You could be in church and not lead anything.  And I thought I was so smart because I was quicker than most of the poor, plodding preachers I listened to.  And I was what _____ called one of the “cultured despises of religion”.  It was only when I came to Harvard Divinity School – and I only came here on something of a gamble – that I actually saw very bright people whom I respected who were also very devout people.  And I had known bright people who were profane.  And I had known pious people who were not very bright.  And I wanted, above all, to be thought of as a thinking man.  That’s why I majored in history.  That’s why I didn’t hang around the religious types in college.  And it was why I thought I wanted my own world view, which was as a, I think, a reasonably thoughtful historian of sort of my field in college – history.  And I was going to go into the museum world where I could indulge my passion for beautiful things and elegant commentary in a stable world such as the museum.  That was what I really thought I aspired to.  But when I came to Harvard, I found that there was more religion in me than I had imagined.  Harvard was . . .  I may be the first and only graduate of Harvard Divinity School who ever found religion here; but it was a great moment for me.  It was the place where the two parts of my life – my mind and my heart – came together.  So I shall always be grateful to Harvard for that.  But I think it was here that it was clear to me that this was one of the few things that I was probably good at.  It was one of the few things that presented both a joy and a challenge to me.  And I didn’t have to be everybody’s image of what a preacher was.  I could be my own image of what a preacher was.  And I have been a singular person.  I think most people who reflect on me and on the ministry would have a very hard time trying to find exactly where I fit in the whole system.  And I’m frankly . . . I’m rejoiced in confounding people’s expectations and their experiences.

I like to think of myself as a thinking believer.  My mind is not a hole.  My mind is an interesting place – reasonably well furnished – and it ranges up and down a whole host of avenues.  But I continue to hold fast to the faith in which I was brought up.  And I like to present it as an interesting challenge to people who are smarter than I am.  That’s the fun of being the Harvard preacher.  I preach to people who are infinitely smarter than I am.  I know more than they do, but they are smarter than I am.  And that is great fun – trying to take them as far as you can before they overtake you.

"Well I had grown up with everybody else’s expectations. And so when you reach a certain age, you decide whether you own those expectations or you reject them."

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

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