I’ll never forget the day I nearly lost my faith over an old skull. I was sixteen and a sophomore in High School. My biology professor, a staunch evolutionist, was writing on the chalkboard. He looked suspiciously like the chimpanzees he admired—large protruding ears, prominent forehead, and thick lower lip. We had just opened our textbooks to chapter 12 and I was preparing once again to plug my ears and hum through the lecture when I glanced down at a picture on the left-facing page. I froze. There, staring out at me from blank and empty sockets was the most arresting skull I had ever seen. As the son of a physician, I had spent lazy summer afternoons browsing my father’s musty collection of anatomy books and I had the intuitive sense that I was now looking at something extraordinary. The brow bone was thick and ribbed like that of a Klingon, but the nose was slim and aquiline, surprisingly human, as was the mandible, the maxilla, and in fact the entire brain case. I was astonished. The label under the picture read, “Cro-Magnon Man”, or something like that. I don’t remember anything else about the class that day, or the next, or the next. I was in a fog, a trance. I had just seen the missing link, or what passed for it my sheltered mind. What on earth could it mean?
I wish I could say I had some great epiphany in church that Sabbath and got everything straightened out in my brain. But the truth is, from that single moment in time until now I have been revising my view of space, time, and creation.
The Language of God, by Francis Collins, is part of that revision. The book has breathed fresh wind and fresh fire into my quest to reconcile faith with science. And I am certainly not alone, as evidenced by the book’s handsome place on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Collins, like his hero C.S. Lewis, made the journey from atheism to belief as a young man. And now, as head of the Human Genome Project, Collins is a veteran of the war of worldviews that has repeatedly tried to split his faith away from his life’s work. Collins has come under heavy criticism recently from militant atheists like Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) who sneer at Collins’ “unscientific” belief in God. (See the February 2007 National Geographic and the November 2006 Time Magazine.)
In a brilliant touché, The Language of God refutes the tired stereotypes and straw man arguments that have created an artificial divide between science and religion. Collins demonstrates convincingly that faith is not the enemy of scientific rationality.
But the book is not for the casual saint. Collins’ honesty is apt to frustrate his admirers as much as his opponents. Collins is brave enough to walk the line between fact and faith in a way that is absolutely unflinching. He treads serenely over the sacred cows of both atheistic materialists and Creationists alike. For example, Collins clearly lays out the genomic case for a common ancestor of mice and men. This would seem devastating to those who cannot imagine God’s relationship to man apart from a special creation as advertised in Genesis.
Fortunately Collins does not leave us there. He deftly shows how our understanding of evolution, far from standing in the way of faith, reveals a universe of greater ingenuity and subtlety than would seem credible within the confines of Young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design.
Collins takes the view of theistic evolution, or “BioLogos” as he calls it. He speaks of it this way:
“The need to find my own harmony of worldviews ultimately came as the study of genomes—our own and that of many other organisms on the planet—began to take off, providing an incredibly rich and detailed view of how descent by modification from a common ancestor has occurred. Rather than finding this unsettling, I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this as the master plan of the Almighty who caused the universe to come into being and set its physical parameters just precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements, and life itself.”
BioLogos rests upon several premises:
- The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
- Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
- While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
- Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
- Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
- But Humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.
“If one accepts these six premises,” Collins says, “then an entirely plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent synthesis emerges: God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkable, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.
This perspective makes it possible for the scientist-believer to be intellectually fulfilled and spiritually alive, both worshiping God and using the tools of science to uncover some of the awesome mysteries of His creation.”
Collins gives ample space for all the questions this brings up, including “What about Adam and Eve?” But I’ll leave that to your reading pleasure.
Some believers may not want to stain their robes on the oily mechanics of science. But abstinence may not always be the best policy. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “Purity does not lie in separation from, but in deeper penetration into the universe.”
For me, the experience of reading Collins was like donning and doffing old clothes—comfortably uncomfortable layers of cognitive dissonance and smoldering suspicions that had been with me for years. Upon finishing the book I felt lighter, if a bit naked. Most importantly, I found that the old skull in my high school textbook had lost the power to haunt.
The Language of God is a landmark work in the ongoing discourse between religion and science. It’s a book that invites all of us¬—atheists, agnostics, and believers alike—to live a state of humble inquiry together. We are invited to listen more, argue less, and free ourselves from the toils of the ego. We are invited to seek the truth in all its stranger-than-fiction fullness and refuse to retreat behind ideological lines where emotional investment clouds our judgment.
Collins’ observations have the ring of truth of someone who has lived and battled long enough to know that truth seldom lies at the extremes—but instead, somewhere in the center of all that we know. In true sage fashion, Collins finds a middle way that a good many readers will find both breathtaking and satisfying.
Marc Wagner obtained his MD degree and Masters in Public Health from Loma Linda University, 2000. He lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife Janine, 4-year-old son Levi, and 10-month old daughter, Cortney. He enjoys words and music, windsurfing, snowskiing, and going on adventures with Janine and the kids.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/111