RIP Adam Johnson

The Bethel community lost one of its most brilliant members this week. Adam Johnson, a neuroscientist who taught in our Psychology department, had first been diagnosed with cancer in 2010. After initial treatment, doctors discovered more tumors and told him his condition was terminal. Six years later, Adam finally died on Tuesday morning.

Adam Johnson and Carrie Peffley
Adam with his partner, Bethel philosophy professor Carrie Peffley

In Bethel’s nearly 150 years, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a more distinguished scholar serve on our faculty. Nor a more beloved teacher and colleague. Internationally renowned for his research on memory, Adam received an immediate tribute in the journal Hippocampus from David Redish and Marc Howard, who called him “a truly unique individual who has contributed mightily to our scientific understanding. He has affected us in ways beyond measure and has a legacy in the field of hippocampal study and beyond.” The extensive list of follow-up comments starts with a reminiscence from the Nobel laureates Edvard and May-Britt Moser, with whom Adam studied as a Fulbright Fellow in Norway. But tellingly, it also includes appreciations from former students like Rachel Nordberg, who wrote that “[i]t’s humbling, really, to know that someone could do anything with the last years of his life, and he’s chosen to pour into you.”

Adam once contributed a guest post to this blog, on moral psychology and American politics, but I regret that I didn’t get to know him better than I did. That’s entirely my own fault, for Adam was generous, kind, and hospitable, not just collegial but friendly. Relentlessly curious about his own field and matters far beyond it, he loved conversation.

As a scientist, teacher, colleague, citizen, and more, Adam asked good questions… but didn’t expect too much, too soon of the answers that came back.

That’s what strikes me as most remarkable about him. Both as scholars and Christians, people like us can be predisposed to impatience with ambiguity, paradox, and mystery. (I sure am.) But when invited to give a presentation in honor of his faculty excellence award for scholarship, Adam’s very first conclusion was that “we don’t know anything with complete certainty.” That didn’t vex him: his second conclusion was that it’s the probabilistic, contingent nature of human knowledge that makes teaching exciting.

“I’m comfortable living in a state of uncertainty,” Adam told our student newspaper in 2015. “I think a lot of people think they need the answers to everything… and right now, I don’t need the answer. I’m not there yet.”

Nor was he there last May. Invited to write an essay for City Pages, Adam reflected on a biblical story whose meaning is far less tidy than the “God has a purpose” bromides that he found so unsatisfactory:

At the end of losing everything, Job’s friends show up and chastise him about what he should’ve done or how faithless he is. (It turns out some folks like to do that when you tell them cancer news.) Job even throws a little tantrum before, at last, God decides he’s had enough. God gets angry, evokes Leviathan, and lectures Job about how small Job is. Job goes silent. His friends come back silent. And then, after sitting in silence for a while, the story moves on.

Job’s silence is my favorite part. After all the swearing and pounding on the steering wheel, there’s silence. We all feel small in the midst of terminal cancer. After all the anxiety-filled questions that caring-but-unwitting family members and friends repeatedly ask — Q: Are you going to get a second opinion? A: I already did. Q: Is there another treatment? A: Not really. Q: Isn’t there something you could have done? A: Probably. — there is silence. There’s nothing more to say, and there’s a deep comfort and peace if we can remain present with each other in that silence, eyes fixed straight ahead in the car, or on a point behind the bar at the Nook.

(I fear that some of our constituents got hung up on the profanities earlier in the piece — which means they didn’t read his explanation of the purpose of swearing. And failed to realize that Adam had essentially placed something like a midrash in the middle of the Twin Cities’ alternative weekly.)

Perhaps God is even now giving him answers. But much as I appreciate that Adam leaves behind a community of friends and family who can remain present for each other — whose mutual love was deepened as they cared for him and each other — I know that death, even more than dying, tempts us to fill our shared silence with questions. While I understand God very differently than did my current research subject, Adam’s death makes we want to echo words that I quoted this morning from Charles Lindbergh, in my own Bethel library talk: faced with the cruel reality of human suffering, “[o]ne questions the extent of God’s power. One questions the very existence of God.”

Having been through this once before, when Stacey Hunter Hecht lost her own battle with cancer, I know that faith doesn’t insulate us — isn’t meant to insulate us — from doubt. So let me close by adapting the request that ended my appreciation for Stacey:

Please pray for us: that we may grieve Adam as people of hope, as friends who love because we were first loved by the Friend who overcame death itself.

Peace be to his memory.

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