Friday, March 30, 2007

Francis Collins: The Language of God

One of the books that I want to read is Dr. Francis Collin's The Language of God. Dr. Collins, as you may recall, is was the leader of the Human Genome Project, and his book describes how and why he came to believe in God. This book is particularly timely in response to the anti-religion polemics coming from such well-respected scientists as Richard Dawkins.

I recently ran accross s a very interesting review in the December issue of First Things by Stephen M. Barr, theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware. (Sidenote, this is where Nicholas Knisely did his graduate work in physics).

As Barr relates in the review, Collins' conversion began at the side of a hospital bed:

"It was in medical school that [Collin's] atheism suffered a blow: "I found the relationships [I] developed with sick and dying patients almost overwhelming." The strength and solace so many of them derived from faith profoundly impressed him and left him thinking that "if faith was a psychological crutch . . . it must be a very powerful one." His "most awkward moment" came when an older woman, suffering from a severe and untreatable heart problem, asked him what he believed. "I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words ’I’m not really sure.’" Suddenly it was brought home to him that he had dismissed religion without ever really considering-or even knowing-the arguments in its favor. How could someone who prided himself on his scientific rationality do that? He was deeply shaken and felt impelled to carry out an honest and unprejudiced examination of religion. Attempts to read the sacred scriptures of various world religions left him baffled, however, so he sought out a local Methodist minister and asked him point-blank "whether faith made any logical sense." The minister took a book down from his shelf and handed it to him. It was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

"Lewis gave Collins a simple, though crucial, insight: God is not a part of the physical universe and therefore cannot be perceived by the methods of science. Yet God speaks to us in our hearts and minds, both in such "longings" for the transcendent as Collins had himself experienced and in the sense of objective right and wrong, "the Moral Law." A key aspect of this moral sense is "the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return." Such altruism, says Collins, "is quite frankly a scandal for reductionist reasoning," for it goes directly contrary to the selfishness of the 'selfish gene.'"

And one of the reasons that I want to read this book is because of its defense of evolution and the scientific world view from a religious perspective:

"Up to this point he has been speaking on behalf of religious belief. He now turns around and speaks to his fellow Christians, especially his fellow evangelicals, on behalf of evolution. His fundamental purpose, however, remains the same: "to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit," a war that "was never really necessary" but "was initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides."

"Collins is appalled that "Young Earth Creationism is the view held by approximately 45 percent of Americans" and that "many evangelical Christian churches are aligned" with it. The persistence of this view, which is at once so theologically simplistic and scientifically indefensible, is "one of the great puzzles and tragedies of our time." The danger is not to science but to faith: "Young people brought up in homes and churches that insist on Creationism sooner or later encounter the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice they then face!"

. . .

"Collins argues forcefully that Darwinian evolution is, in fact, perfectly compatible with biblical faith. He avoids the trap into which so many liberal theologians have fallen: thinking that the lesson of evolution is that everything evolves, including God. Collins sees clearly that the key to harmonizing Darwinian evolution with Jewish and Christian faith is through the traditional teaching, so profoundly elaborated by St. Augustine, that God is outside time: "If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans. . . . In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process." With the aid of St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, Collins knocks down one theological objection to Darwinian evolution after another."

1 comment:

Tamara said...

I've never understood why many evangelicals and other biblical literalists were so bent out of shape about evolution. Francis Collins's belief that evolution was foreseen by God at the time of creation has always seemed completely logical to me. In fact, it didn't take all that much thought to reach the same conclusion if one assumes that there is a God in the first place. Hey, I'm an agnostic and I reached this conclusion. Why can't "true believers" wrap their heads around it?