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ss nucleus - Easter 2010,  know the man: John Wyatt

know the man: John Wyatt

Abigail Brempah interviews John Wyatt, author of Matters of Life and Death and Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London (UCL)

tell us how you became a Christian?
I grew up in a strong Christian family in Manchester and as a child you absorb all that you're taught. Then I went through a rather difficult period where I was questioning a lot, challenging what I'd been taught, and thought I'd been brainwashed by my parents. It wasn't until I left home at 18 to go to university that the crisis really came and it was really at that point that I decided I would devote my life to Christ. Suddenly something that had been theoretical became a reality in my life.

why did you decide to study medicine?
I went to university and read physics then I had a sort of spiritual crisis and realised that the God who had taken hold of my life was much more concerned about people than he was about neutrinos. Therefore I developed a very strong sense that God was calling me to change into medicine as a vocation. That was actually very difficult to do because it wasn't possible for me to stay at the same university. I had studied no biology at school and I couldn't get into medical school until I had it so I did a crash course in Biology O-level for two weeks and then took the exam. I somehow scraped through and so left Oxford and came to London to study medicine.

how did you end up in neonatology?
Part of my spiritual crisis was also a realisation that I had been called not just to the UK but to somehow serve the God of the whole world. So my plan actually was to become a missionary doctor, and the reason I was interested in paediatrics is because it is one of the most useful things that can be done in many developing countries. So my first exposure to neonatology was just as part of my training in paediatrics but I loved it. I also saw for the first time a really positive model of doing academic research in a way that would really make a difference for people's lives and I saw that you didn't have to choose between being an academic and being a really caring physician - it was possible to do both.

when did you decide against being a missionary doctor?
Well, I still had it in the back of my mind that this was what I would do but I then stayed on at UCL doing research and after a number of years I was offered the possibility of staying on as a consultant at UCL, without having applied for the position. That really was another big crunch point because clearly that wasn't the plan at all. So there was quite a lot of heartsearching and I spoke to a number of people for advice and prayed about this decision and rather to my surprise, it seemed that God was actually pushing me to stay in this academic position, to try to be an influence for Christ in this academic work.

you are also a professor of ethics. how did you get into this?
It was entirely because of my experience in neonatology; I realised that I was in the middle of an ethical maelstrom. As the technologies were advancing very rapidly, there were all these ethical dilemmas and questions that were being raised about their use. We were seeing babies survive who previously would have died, but the question was 'Was it right to resuscitate every baby?' I was working on new ways of detecting brain damage using different forms of brain scanning but then the question was 'What do we do when we discover that this baby has terrible and irreversible brain damage? What now? What is our responsibility with this knowledge?'

You couldn't avoid the whole question about abortion, particularly when the law changed in the early 1990s so that late abortions started to be performed. This led to the situation where in the same hospital we were enabling younger and younger babies to survive and at the same time considerably more mature foetuses were being terminated. I was regularly being asked to go and counsel mothers who were considering having an abortion and wanted to speak to a paediatrician about the decision.

I felt a great responsibility as a Christian to think 'how could I think through these issues?' and 'how could I develop a Christian response?' So I felt I was being pushed into ethics really; it wasn't something that I naturally thought I should just do but I couldn't avoid the challenge.

you've just written a new book - the second edition of Matters of Life and Death, (1) could you tell us more about that?
About eleven years ago, I was invited to give a series of lectures called 'The London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity', and part of the deal was that a book would be written out of the lectures. It really forced me to put down the ideas that I'd been developing over a period of 10-15 years and try to crystallise them in a book. I found it a real struggle to write, both the first edition and the second too. But I've been really moved and humbled by the way God has used this book, particularly (to my surprise) the way it has been used outside the UK.

When I wrote the first edition I felt it was important to really try to grapple with what was actually happening at the time. One of the things that I learnt from John Stott (who's been a big influence in my life) is that when we're trying to counteract the arguments of somebody with anti-Christian views, we shouldn't just try to grapple with their bad arguments but we should also try to grapple with their best arguments. So in the book, rather than caricature the secular arguments, I'm trying to take the best exponents and then show the faults of the arguments and how we can respond to these as Christians. I felt it was important to try to update it [in the second edition] and it was interesting to see how the arguments had moved on over ten years. I have tried to develop some new ideas in the new book.

you seem to think that it is important for us as Christians not to ignore ethical issues but to think about them, and to engage with and debate about them.
I do, and in fact I think it's not an optional extra; it's often put forward that you can just be an ordinary Christian and there are a few eggheads who will think about ethics but the rest of us can get on with living our lives. I really don't think that is biblical Christianity. I think the biblical perspective is that God has called each of us into existence in this particular time in world history so the challenge is 'How can I be obedient to Christ? How can I be the person that God has made me for, in this particular place that he has called me to be his witness?' Part of being an effective witness is understanding the world which God has put us in.

It's a little sad that often medical students and doctors develop their thinking in their studies to a high level, working at graduate or postgraduate level but when it comes to Christian thinking and ethical thinking they're quite happy to operate at GCSE level and are not prepared to develop their academic and intellectual skills to apply to these very complex and difficult issues. We're supposed to love the Lord our God with all our minds as well as with all our hearts, our souls and our strengths, and part of loving God with all our mind is to use the intellectual and academic gifts that God has given us in his service.

you are involved with the Christian Medics student group at UCL, how did this begin?
I've been involved since I was a junior doctor in the mid 1980s, and my wife Celia and I started inviting medical students to come for meals in our house. We've had the privilege of being linked with that group ever since. It's been a great joy; sharing our home and encouraging and supporting medical students. Many of the people who first came into our home as students are now established in their careers and we meet them from time to time. It's been one of the great joys of our lives.

what else do you do in CMF and how did this begin?
I got involved with CMF as a medical student and was then invited to become a member of the Medical Study Group, an ethical committee. I stayed as part of the group for a number of years and I'm now chair. What we try to do is horizon scanning - looking at the latest developments in technology, ethics and science and trying to develop Christian responses to new challenges as they arise. It's been a very exciting and challenging job, and we meet several times every year. I'm also a member of the CMF Board of Trustees - we have the privilege of helping in leadership and taking responsibility for the overall direction of the Fellowship.

you're a clinician, professor in perinatology and ethics, and involved with CMF, the UCL Christian Medics and with campaigning. I don't know if you have any spare time at all, but what do you like to do in your leisure time?
(Laughs) I've been a musician ever since I was a child and so one of the things we really enjoy as a family is playing music - all my three sons are musicians and quite often we have family jams... oh, nice! 'The Wyatts!' (Laughs) Yes, that's right! Also, one of the things I learned from John Stott was to value the created world and so I became interested in natural history and just being able to spend time in God's world. It's very restorative to our sanity. The problem within a city and within a hospital is that everything you're surrounded by is manmade and therefore man's preoccupations become predominant but when we go and expose ourselves to the natural world, suddenly we're reminded about God's creation and God's priorities, and that's the way it's meant to be.

are there any special words you would like to say to the Christian medical students all around the country who would be reading this?
Gosh! Well, I just see the fantastic potential that is locked up in any one life, what God can do with any one life that is given over to him. My sadness is for so many people, for whatever reason, they fail to find God's best in their lives. I think in the parable of the sower, 2 the most ominous aspect is where it talks about the thorns - it's the thorns which choke the seed and prevent it from being fruitful. The biggest danger for medical students is that their fruitfulness for Christ will be choked by those thorns. The positive thing is that God loves to work with the weak and the pathetic and the people who feel that they have little to offer, and so if there are people reading this who feel that they come into that category, that they don't have any special skills, that they are full of weaknesses, then they are precisely the kind of people that God wants to use.

Abigail Brempah is a 4th year medical student at UCL, and was assisted by Uju Ejikeme

  1. Wyatt, J. Matters of Life and Death, Nottingham: IVP/CMF, 2010
  2. Mark 3:3-20; Luke 8:4-15
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