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Life sciences leader juggles faith, science and business

November 3, 2012
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Religion is often viewed as incompatible with science and irrelevant to business. But David Johnson, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, sees all three harmonizing in his work as CEO of BioCrossroads, an Indianapolis-based organization that promotes and invests in businesses based on scientific breakthroughs.

The barriers between all three come down, Johnson says, when one realizes each realm knows less than it thinks it does, and that the practitioners in all three have to make “leaps of faith” of different kinds.

focus-david-johnson01-15col.jpg Johnson says science and religion both know less than they often claim to know. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Johnson captured some of his thoughts on faith, science and business in a book published this year titled, “Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith.”

He sat down with IBJ health care reporter J.K. Wall to further discuss the topics. The following is an edited transcript:

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IBJ: Faith and science are often discussed as being in conflict. Why don’t you see it that way?

JOHNSON: We were raised as Calvinists. In my background, faith and belief are different. The belief is the intellectual process through which you go to get to faith, which is the relationship you have with God and with Christ, in the case of Christians, going forward.

If you think about one’s own relationships, which I submit the Bible encourages us to do, then you need to bring everything you have to carrying out those relationships well. And a big part of that is your intellect—your powers of thinking, your powers of reason, your powers of doing things decently and in order.

But for a person to believe that simply because they’ve got a reasonably well-ordered mind and they’re reasonably perceptive and they get validated in various ways in life by figuring things out and being right, for them to think that somehow that makes any of us have a clue, to what’s really going on, is laughable. It’s not blasphemous, it’s just silly. There is no way. Truer words were never written than the apostle Paul saying “through a glass darkly.” Emphasize darkly.

IBJ: You suggest that some of the best scientists are the humblest scientists. Why?

JOHNSON: I think humility is a really important virtue. And I’m not talking about being self-effacing, and not having lots of self respect, and not having pride in what you do. But being realistic about what you can know and what can be accomplished.

I have been amazed by the humility of really, really, really smart, savvy, deeply thoughtful people—scientists—in having a pretty good understanding of what they know and what they don’t. Sometimes I think they have a more ready approach to think about matters of faith than lay people do. Because if anyone ought to be confident of his or her intellect, it’s some of these folks.

And yet the further they go in some of this, the more they realize they don’t know. And that doesn’t depress them or discourage them. It stimulates them. Even to the point of betting their careers, or forming a company and betting other people’s money on it, betting their own funding on it, and their own reputation on it. For them, that’s kind of a leap of faith, too, I guess, in the scientific sense.

IBJ: It seems like you see that being the case in business, too. You describe in your book how the investment decisions BioCrossroads makes involve huge gaps in knowledge, and so depend more on the people than anything else.

johnsonJOHNSON: Relationships are probably what we understand the best. Having a belief that is based on relationships, which is what Christianity is, is comforting in that respect. And frankly, it’s how we evaluate most risk. It’s not that you don’t read and call in experts. You do. And sometimes there are people you love, and people you would trust with a lot of things, but you go, “This guy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.” But that whole thing of relationships, that is very often how we will make a decision to invest in an emerging business or technology.

IBJ: How do you see the work of scientists and investors overlapping with how your father worked as a pastor?

JOHNSON: The thing I loved about my father’s approach to faith, and it’s one of my favorite conclusions I was able to understand in the process of writing the book, is that his was a faith that was several steps short of a system. The pieces fell together for him, but they didn’t all fit completely consistently. He didn’t think that was good. But he didn’t try to force them or make them fit where he couldn’t see it. Nor did he blame the pieces, nor did he blame the Creator. He blamed his own limitations in being able to see how they worked.

There’s a difference between understanding a system intellectually and then someone coming to you, as happened to him, who had been waiting for 25 years to have a child, and has a son and the house catches fire and the son dies in the fire, and then comes to my father and says, “Why did this happen to me?” And the facile answer is, “It’s part of God’s will, it’s part of a plan, it’s original sin.” Those really don’t work. And as poorly as they work on paper, they don’t work at all in human practice.

It’s like learning medicine and then having to be an emergency room doctor. There was an urgency to [my father’s faith], that I was privileged to grow up getting, by being privileged to be his son, and seeing the real-world application of faith and belief and, again, the humility of it.

IBJ: You interact with scientists a lot. Do you talk to them much about faith?

JOHNSON: A couple of them I have. It’s more intellectual discussions, like saying, “What’s your view, what’s your view of the world, where are you on all that?”

Ghassan Kasab, [a biomedical engineer at IUPUI], he’s really interesting. He’s an Iraqi Christian. Very strong and deep Christian faith tradition. He approaches the world very definitely from that standpoint. His approach to discovery is to root it in some basic laws and push the frontiers as far as they can go.

It’s not that every scientist that I work with here is a religious person, but I sense in many of the folks that we work with that same kind of comfort with ambiguity: “There’s some laws, there’s some fundamental principles that if I don’t believe in those, I can’t work. Because they are.” But then there’s some other stuff where you say, “Mmm, I don’t know. It could be this, it could be that.”

That’s part of the joy of being alive, is then being able to pursue and see how the pieces and parts fit.

IBJ: You didn’t mention evolution anywhere in your book. How do you deal with that issue?

JOHNSON: It’s impossible for me not to believe in the validity of that, I guess. To me, at least, I have a hard time understanding the amount of passion that’s injected around that issue, and why some people believe that evolution couldn’t possibly be true and that the universe was [not] created.

Speaking as a Christian, the notion that this wasn’t all created really, to be blunt, is really hard for me to believe—whether it was created in eight days or nine zillion years.

I don’t understand why the process of creation cannot be an evolutionary process, which is what I think it is. It’s not a fixed thing—that it happened, it’s over and that’s it. It’s still happening. The world has been created but the process of becoming that world is an ongoing thing.

IBJ: You ran, unsuccessfully, for U.S. Senate in 2000, which you describe as part of a lifelong dream of being a politician. Describe how your faith played a role in the aftermath of that “embarrassing” loss to Dick Lugar, and ultimately led you to help start BioCrossroads.

JOHNSON: I’m a huge believer in the concept of vocation. Not only is the universe created, I think each of us is created, and we are created to play certain parts and be certain kinds of people. I don’t take it to that level where we are also predestined and we are stuck in these certain roles. But I do think we are differentially gifted and talented, and God expects something from us.

I had always thought vocationally that this was where I belonged, in politics and the public arena. Apart from being embarrassed about losing, there was another part of me that was going, “You know what, I don’t really think you belong here.” I just didn’t have the, “OK, well, I’ll show them.” I didn’t have that spring-back.

So I retreated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a week or so after the election. And Bart Peterson [then-mayor of Indianapolis] found me down there. He called me and said, “You can’t really go back to what you did before this. You’ve stepped out in front of people and you engaged with people now differently.” And he said, “I have no idea what you’ll do, but you will do something different.”

So when he was putting together the plan, the regional center plan for Indianapolis, they had a special one for the Mile Square, and they were putting together the community coalition on that, and he said, “I need to appoint someone to be the businessperson on that committee and you ought to do that, because that will give a sense of what’s going on.”

That’s really when the pieces of this [BioCrossroads project] really started to fall into place for me, because I would talk to people, whether it was at Lilly or WellPoint or the state or elsewhere, at the medical school, and say, “What do you want to do with this Mile Square?” And I became aware of all these assets down here. All these guys either knew each other or they had friends in common, but they weren’t working together on stuff.

IBJ: In response to your book, many Christians might say that you find no conflict between faith and religion because you’re too wishy-washy in your theology. And scientists might say, well, he’s not a scientist and he’s too down on what science does know. What would you say to such critiques?

JOHNSON: I just marvel that people can really be so sure that they have it all so well figured out, that there’s not a role for wonder, ambiguity and openness, that is not threatening to them, but is exciting to them.

I am neither a theologian nor a scientist. So I’m equally unskilled or unschooled on both sides of it. And yet I have seen practitioners in each area, as opposed to theorists in each area who are in the books, wrestle with very common issues of limitation. And to me, the best ones are not the ones that deny the existence of the limitation, but who engage with it and try to get beyond and don’t try to oversimplify it. But who try to do something with that through what they’ve been given.•

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