Francis Collins: Love God With a Scientific Mind (Part II)

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Part 1, Part 2

Ten years ago, the average person had probably never heard the word "genome," but Francis Collins was already the director of the Human Genome Project. It's a project many are calling the most important scientific undertaking of our time.

In 2000, Collins publicly presented the first draft of the human genome alongside President Clinton. According to his New York Times bestseller, The Language of God, Clinton's speech on that day took a surprisingly spiritual turn: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

As an outspoken scientist, Christian, and theistic-evolutionist, Collins sits at an incredibly controversial crossroads. Many Christians fear his defense of evolution while many Darwinists shun his faith. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, there is no denying that Christians can learn something from Francis Collins' approach to worship and scientific research.

In The Language of God, you talk about intelligent design as a "God of the Gaps Theory." Is the statement you just made relying on altruism as a "God of the Gaps Theory"? Who's to say that altruism isn't going to be chemically explained someday?

I think that's a very appropriate question, and I would not rest my faith on this argument that altruism is an indication of God's presence. I think it is an interesting argument; I think it's unlikely to be displaced by the sociobiologists, but I would not be horrified if some other explanations come along that seem to provide a naturalistic explanation for these human motivations. We have to be careful about trying to attach any kind of observation about the natural world as a definite proof of God's existence, but these arguments can be an interesting way to help skeptical people begin to think about what it might look like if God were not part of our world. Would these kind of altruistic impulses exist? Would good and evil have any meaning at all if our world is purely an artifact of evolutionary pressures? I think most people would be very alarmed at the idea that our concepts of good and evil are illusions imposed upon us simply by natural selection. That doesn't seem to jive with our own human experience. Even atheists bridle at that conclusion.

C. S. Lewis talks about those kinds of pressures in The Abolition of Man. He says, "Each new power won by man is a power over man as well." What power do you think modern genetics is winning, and how do you think that power will be held over others?

Some people are concerned we will use these technologies in ways that are not consistent with God's plan for our lives—to enhance performance or to design the next generation of human beings, for instance. Although most of those scenarios are scientifically unrealistic, I'm proud that the Human Genome Project invested a substantial amount of our budget in the ethical, legal, and social issues. A cohort of really remarkable scholars, lawyers, social scientists, ethicists, and theologians are quite engaged in some of these discussions. No single person is going to be able to make the decision about what boundaries we ought not to cross.

You describe DNA as the language of God. How has your study of DNA changed your understanding of God's Word, the Logos, that John writes about? "In the beginning was the Word."

Logos carries broad connotations. The Word is God; the Word was with God; the Word is Christ. For a scientist studying how life works looking at the language of DNA, it is not a wild connection to compare the language of life, that DNA alphabet, to what God was doing when He spoke life into being, including all of us. So how do I put together what I know as a scientist about life through the language of DNA, and what I know about God as the creator who speaks life into being? In the Greek terminology that's Bios, the word for life, through Logos, the word. I call this BioLogos: life through God speaking His Word.

Jesus, the Word, said to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself; these are the two greatest commandments. What does it look like when you love God in your daily work?

That's a great question. Notice that Jesus added mind when he rephrased the commandments, adding that to what you find in the Old Testament. I find it very interesting that Jesus does call us to love the Lord our God with our minds. That is a wonderful exhortation for scientists who use their minds to explore how things work. The tools of science are also a way to love the Lord your God, a way to worship. That's what it feels like to me. It's an incredible privilege to explore God's creation and get new glimpses of God's mind with each discovery. To see God's hand in science greatly expands the joy of the enterprise for me, and I say that as somebody who was once an atheist. I know what science is like without God, and I like it a lot better with God.

What does it look like when you go to work and love your neighbors in your daily work?

As a physician, I study DNA with the hopes that it is going to provide medical benefits to people all over the world. This seems to me like an incredible opportunity. Do you know what is spilling out of the research efforts around us? Discoveries about heart disease and cancer and diabetes that are going to change the way we prevent and treat these diseases. The tools of genomics are now being applied to malaria, the greatest scourge on this planet, one which I as a volunteer missionary doctor, marveled over and feared when I was in Africa trying to take care of patients with this disease.

I've heard people say BioLogos is just another name for Christian evolution. Are you comfortable with being the spokesperson for Christian evolution?

I see evolution as God's plan. As a scientist who studies DNA, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the evolutionary process is in fact how God worked out that creative plan. Some people express concerns that evolution is inconsistent with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, but 1,600 years ago St. Augustine had already explained why a literal reading of those passages is risky and unnecessary. Certainly those passages of the Bible have been debated for centuries without theologians being able to agree precisely on their meaning. Beyond that concern, I see no conflict in what I have learned about living things from the study of DNA and what I know about God's plan as a creator—right down to the creation of you and me, and our having this conversation.

One of the great tragedies of our current era is that evolution is being portrayed as a threat to God. If science is God's gift to us, along with the intelligence to explore his world, God could hardly be threatened by what we discover. It's all his creation. The truth is the truth, and it's all God's truth. I reach out as much as I can to my Christian brothers and sisters and try to make a case that this is an unnecessary battle. We can embrace evolution as God's plan and worship him in the process, without feeling anxious or apologetic.