Dr. Francis Collins is retiring as leader of the National Institutes of Health and is being lauded in many places and is granting a number of interviews. He is the longest serving head of the largest health research agency in the world where he has served under three presidents and was key in overseeing the development program for the vaccinations for COVID-19. He was Dr. Fauci’s boss and successfully convinced Congress over 12 years to raise the budget for the NIH from $30 billion to $41 billion. He is also an outspoken and committed evangelical Christian and he is the author of The Language of God.
In this two-part blog I will review the remarkable life of this amazing Christian, review this seminal work of his, and use this as a springboard for an explanation of my own position on the important question of how science and faith interact.
I often jokingly refer to Dr. Collins as Saint Francis due to my extremely high regard for the man. He is both an exemplary scientist and a model Christian and he is also quite a character. He loves to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and he plays guitar fairly well and loves to compose and sing songs in public for almost any occasion. Given his position of influence, he is remarkably humble and transparent in his interviews. He was born into a rather counter-culture nonreligious family and was raised on a farm in Virginia. He did well in school and majored in Chemistry in college and went on for a PhD in Physical Chemistry. He really enjoyed the math of quantum mechanics and so the first thing you learn about Collins is that he is a very very smart man. Towards the end of this period, he began to wonder about the significance of this work and turned his attention to the human side of things by applying to and being accepted in medical school at UNC Chapel Hill. As he tells the story so well in his book, he was rather moved by the patients he met. Many were terminally ill but were at peace about this by way of their deep Christian faith. One patient in particular talked to him at length about her own faith and then asked him the question, “And what about you Dr. Collins? What is your faith?” This sent him on a quest that included an encounter with Mere Christianity by the famous Christian author C.S. Lewis. Collins found that Lewis seemed to have known every question he was going to ask and already had an answer. After much reflection and many questions, Francis Collins eventually became a Christian. The larger and much more interesting version of this story is in his book, The Language of God.
Collins was fascinated with medical genetics at just the right time in history as the tools and opportunities were becoming available. After a number of years of hard work, he and his team sequenced the cystic fibrosis gene and found the flaw that caused the disease. This led to the opportunity to take the lead of the Human Genome Project that became a huge international project to sequence the entire human genome. That was accomplished successfully in the early 2000s. Thanks to Collins and thousands of collaborators, we are now in the genomics age with a full knowledge of the 3.1 billion base pairs of the human genome. He then started an organization called BioLogos, a Christian group dedicated to the intersection of faith and science. Shortly after that he was invited to be the Director of the NIH, the central health research arm of the federal government. At the time of his appointment a number of folks were skeptical that an evangelical Christian should lead such an agency. The impression among many in the field was that people from this religious tradition were anti-science and certainly anti-evolution. Over the course of his tenure at the helm of this powerful agency, “St. Francis” seems to have proven his critics wrong based on the numerous accolades he is now receiving.
As his time at the Human Genome Project was drawing to a close, Dr. Collins published The Language of God. The book was favorably received. The book has several parts, several goals and several intended audiences. This is a gamble to take for an author. One might please one audience and annoy or bore another audience. Dr. Collin’s personal story tends to tie the book together and his clear and lucid writing makes for interesting reading.
The book starts out with the story of his own conversion, explained briefly above. He takes pains to make sure we know that his progress to faith was slow and deliberate as one might expect from a thoughtful scientist. Collins then takes most of the first half of the book explaining some of the reasons that it is reasonable to believe in God. He emphasizes several times that there will never be a proof of God’s existence, only signposts that it is not unreasonable. A step in faith is always needed. Two of the more important reasons to believe for Collins are the Moral Law and the Anthropic Principle. C.S. Lewis is a key guide for Collins and he quotes Lewis often in the text. Lewis’s explanation of the Moral Law was a key factor in Collin’s conversion. Every one of us is endowed with a strong sense of right and wrong. This universal sense seems to transcend race, creed, epic, and geography. It is hard to imagine it hardwired into evolution and yet it seems to bind us together as humans. Lewis points out that you might meet someone being particularly rude or selfish on a particular occasion. If you were to confront that person for their behavior, their response would not be to say, “Hey, I will do whatever I want. Who are you to tell me right and wrong?” More than likely, the miscreant would try to justify his misdeeds with some twisted version of right and wrong as he sees it. This shows that even when people are doing what is clearly wrong, they still justify their action by the universal Moral Law. Doesn’t this universal law suggest a universal Lawgiver?
Collin’s second argument is based on the extremely fine-tuned universe we live in. Without going into the details, he explains how the physical constants that brought about the universe the way it exists are very very lucky. If any of these physical constants were off by fractions of a percent, the universe or the chemical elements would not exist as they do and by extension, we would not exist as we do. This is known as the Anthropic Principle. We would not be here to even appreciate this if it were not for this string of absolutely amazing coincidences. Again, while not a proof of God, it certainly supports this idea nicely.
In other sections Collins takes on other hard questions that people often ask such as the question of evil in the world. If God is so good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world. In three chapters, he addresses this evidence from three points of view, atheist, agnostic, and Christian.
Collins then takes a turn and addresses the apparent conflict between science and faith, particularly Christian faith. He draws extensively on his own experience with the decoding of the human genome to stress the beauty of God’s creation. He sees the human genome as speaking the language of God, hence the title of the book. The scientific certainty of evolution is explained in clear language. He explains how the loopholes that Darwin himself was confused by have been amply and thoroughly addressed in the last couple of decades and quite directly resolved by the decoding of the genomes of numerous animals and plants.
This then leads to difficulties for some Christian believers who want to trust in a more literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. But not all Christians. Numerous denominations, including even the pope have made clear statements that they see no conflict between a proper interpretation of scripture and a right understanding of the science of evolution. Collins presents an interesting argument by bringing in the voices of faithful Christians who predated Darwin, in other words, folks who were not prejudiced by the threat of Darwin and his theory in formulating their theology. Among the most notable is Augustine, the fourth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He spent much time studying Genesis and concluded with these remarks: “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” Collins takes four chapters to examine this controversy from the perspective of a literal view of scripture, an accommodating view of scripture, an atheist view, and a theistic view that Dr. Collins calls a biologos view, his preferred view. He shows the weakness of each of the first three and the consistency of the last view.
In a final chapter the author reaches out to all his diverse readers and with a final story from his own experience encourages deep humility when it comes to questions of science and faith. He finishes the story of his walk to faith with the final step, his own encounter with Jesus Christ, the one who holds it all together.
This is a remarkable text. It is the journey of one man to faith and in the process the story of the unity of science and faith as a testimony to the greatness of the creator and the greatness and wholeness of his creation. I can strongly recommend this book to both potential audiences, unbelievers and skeptics who are interested in who this remarkable man is, and also to Christian believers of every stripe who want to see how this famous scientist married science and faith without compromise.
I have deliberately chosen this book review as a preamble or even maybe a pretext to share my own story of science and faith. I will do that in the next post of this blog. I will draw amply from Dr. Collin’s book.
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