It’s complicated. That is my new mantra. When I first became a Christian, 52 years ago, it all seemed so clear and straightforward; Jesus was Lord, heaven was up, hell was down, and there was no in between. I tended to gloss over the parts of the Bible that did not make sense. I doubted the faith of anyone who asked too many questions. If something looked confusing, then I said that I would understand it later. Well, it is now later, and I find that it is complicated. If you also find that it is complicated, then you are welcome to join me as a faithful Christian who is still asking questions and finding that I need a more nuanced understanding of the world and of our faith.
This is a follow up blog after my review of the book The Language of God by Francis Collins. In summary, I liked the book and recommend it as a clear explanation of the intersection of science and faith by a faithful scientist. My goal in this second blog is to explain my own evolving view on science and faith, a major milestone of which was my reading of The Language of God.
Briefly, here is my story. I grew up in a wonderful family. My father was a high school math teacher; my mom was an elementary school librarian. From first through tenth grade we lived overseas while my father taught in the overseas military school system in Japan, Germany, France, and Turkey. Practically every holiday and vacation we went and visited someplace extraordinary. I finished high school in a suburban school outside Albany, NY. We were a religious family in the traditional sense, and always went to church and Sunday School every Sunday. After my senior year, our denomination had a summer camp on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains that I decided to attend. My motives, as I remember them, were somewhat less than pure. There were a lot more girls than boys who went to that camp. I was also a budding intellectual. I had my own subscription to the New York Times and was reading On Walden Pond and other hip books of the day. Much to my surprise, the Holy Spirit had other plans and dropped like a bomb on that week of the camp and many of the campers, including me, gave their lives to Christ.
Within weeks I went off to college at Cornell University, quite a secular school, and was faced with a dramatically different environment. I joined a couple Christian groups, failed Biology, met my future wife, lived a year in a house of Christian men, got married just before my senior year, and graduated with a degree in Biochemistry. My first real experience of the possible conflict between science and faith came in my junior year when I took my first biochemistry class. One day our teaching assistant in the course was sick for our study section and the professor of the course showed up. The subject of the day was the glycolytic pathway. She expounded eloquently on the amazing intricacies of this most phenomenal subject. We were all completely awestruck. As the class came to a close, she wrapped up her lesson, acknowledging our interest by saying, “Yes, this is a fascinating topic. Isn’t evolution amazing.” Well, I was thunderstruck. As a Christian it was very clear to me that God and not evolution was amazing. But I came to see that by squinting a bit and reading between the lines, that Genesis 1 could look like a progressive creation and that both God and evolution were amazing. That was good enough for a while.
I gradually became aware of the larger debate between science and faith. I have since come to considerable embarrassment that the first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, was the primary protagonist of the modern supposed war between faith and science with his book The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. This book is filled with so many falsehoods that it would take another book or two to set the record straight. Here is one falsehood still in common usage. It is still widely believed that the Catholic Church in the days of Christopher Columbus believed the world was flat and for that reason opposed his expedition to India. A complete and unsubstantiated falsehood that first appeared in White’s book. He is also responsible for the equally fallacious notion that the medieval Church forbade human dissection.
My own experience was quite different. After graduation, our family joined a wonderful church that was just getting started. I went to work as a research technician, first in a Cornell Entomology lab, and then in a Nutrition lab. The work was deeply satisfying as I got to see every day new data on God’s creation get recorded in my lab book and get published. I came to understand what motivated many scientists of the past who were also clergymen. They found that investigating nature did not diminish, but actually expanded, true worship of God. The question I repeatedly asked myself was whether knowing more about God’s creation increased or decreased worship? Obviously, science, properly understood, should increase our wonder and praise of a creative God.
At about this time I was also introduced to the American Scientific Affiliation. This is a fine group of Christians in the sciences. These folks have their own journal and their own annual meetings. They are very interested in the intersection of science and faith. Topics that are often discussed include the evolution/creation debate (of course), creation care including climate change, medical and research ethics, chaos theory, extraterrestrial life, and more recently, artificial intelligence. Francis Collins has been a longstanding member and in 2018 gave the keynote address that was attended by a packed house.
Enter The Language of God into my life in 2006. I had gradually come to the clear notion that evolution was incontrovertible and the Bible just needed to deal with it. It was the Bible’s problem and not science’s problem. While not speaking in such stark terms, Francis Collins, one of the most renowned scientists of our age, confirmed and supported my view. To put it more humbly, I was deeply gratified that such a luminary as willing to take such a strong stand that I had been reluctant to take publicly. I am now proud to stand in his shadow and say, “Me too.” The real problem is with the too literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. Prior to Darwin’s appearance, theologians did not feel compelled to interpret that section so literally, per the long quote from Augustine in the first part of this blog. This too literal view only hardened with the advent of fundamentalism in the early 1900’s. Many Christian groups today, including the pope, have no trouble with a less literal view of Genesis and a more scientific acceptance of evolution.
But here is where it gets complicated, back to our theme. I am really quite tired of people who see the world as black and white. Yes, it is wonderfully simple and gratifying to know who and what are right and who and what are wrong. But scripture and the world are more challenging and nuanced than that. Case in point- creationism and evolution. Each comes with complications that must be acknowledged and there is a spectrum of beliefs between these extremes that are complicated to explain and differentiate. Dr. Collins explains some of his own progression of movement through this complicated area. Another scientist and theologian who has traversed this ground is Denis Lamoureux. He has spoken and written extensively on this topic. Dr. Lamoureux and Dr. Collins both identify a range of commonly held views that cover the spectrum from hardcore creationist to hardcore evolutionist. It is worthwhile looking at the different views and explaining some of the strengths and weaknesses, as I see them. Since this post has gotten a little long and since this is a rather self-contained description of my own story, I will stop here and next week will spend more time explaining the range of scientific and scriptural view on creation and evolution.
So, to my friends and readers, here is my own view. Science is a good tool for our expanding understanding of the world around us. It can tell us what is there and how it works. Our faith and the Bible behind it tell us why it is there and how to live morally in this world. There are indeed occasional conflicts between the two but less so if one understands that the Bible is not a book of science but a book about God and faithful living. It can still be complicated at times.
2 thoughts on “Personal Reflection on Language of God- Part 1”
Excellent post. Thank you!
Marty, this is a very thoughtful and personal piece. Although not a scientist, I’ve always been convinced that the truth falls somewhere between the creationists and the evolutionists. Lots to ponder here. I’m eager to read next week’s blog. Although I often quote the many nuggets of wisdom you shared with me, for some reason I can’t remember if the “camp” you referred to was Camp Fowler in Speculator where I first did business with the Lord at age 9 nor where you graduated high school.
Thank you for writing this.