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Monday, June 24, 2013

Dr. Collins and the Children of Light

In my never-ending quest to confuse myself by reading up on all the things that don’t concern me, I read Dr. Francis Collins’s largely inspiring book, The Language of God. I bought both this work and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, despaired of ever getting time to read them, and then bought the audio books and have now finished them both. Thank you, iPod and, for making my higher education possible.

This all started with the article that appeared in Time in 2006, with an almost genial debate between these two august and articulate scientists. Of course, I think that the “God vs. Science” title is bogus, but that’s my prejudice, being who I am. I can no more imagine a God opposed to science as I can imagine a chef who hates food. Religion vs. Science would be a better way of putting it, and actually, that’s the dichotomy that Collins wants to address. Dawkins, a much-published biologist from Oxford, is one of the world’s best-known apologists for atheism, and to him, the battle is probably more aptly described as  “Science vs. God.” Collins, an American geneticist and head of the Human Genome project, is a Christian who believes that science and faith are not and cannot be opposed. Both men are passionate advocates for their viewpoints.

My argument with Dr. Dawkins, and I’m sure he would quake in his sterile lab booties, is in two parts. First, he is very smart, and earned his credentials and his right to preach to the scientific choir. But why does his tone have to have the condescending ring of a putdown? Christians ought to be embarrassed, are embarrassed, over how little has apparently changed in the world due to our presence, and at the great harm, divisiveness, even murder that has been done in the name of the cross. We ought to be held accountable for it. But tossing out Christianity because people who believe in it don’t measure up to our own standards is making the baby-and-bathwater mistake. Collins adapts a metaphor used by others, and is seminally heard in Paul: the truth of God is pure spring water, but it is conveyed in some rusty buckets. We shouldn’t blame the water for the poverty and pollution in the leaky conveyance. “We hold a treasure in earthen vessels.” I’m quite sure that Dawkins has had to endure some awful attacks from believers of different ilks. Atheism is at least as reasonable an approach to truth as theism is, but that is because faith lays outside the realm of logic and the empirical and experimental domain of human science. I don’t blame Dawkins at all for this. Christians have anthropomorphized God much more than we admit to. Necessarily, in Christ, and by virtue of creation and our scripture itself, we attribute certain characteristics to the divine. But these attributions are, at best, shadows and metaphors for a reality that clearly lies outside our ability to know. To say that God is a “person,” or three “persons,” for instance, is to use a human attribute to describe something that lies completely outside human understanding. Nothing we say about God reveals more to us than it hides, and we have to be happy with that, and live as much in the “cloud of unknowing” than with any silly human gnosis about the divine.

There is much in Dr. Collins' book and its revelations that is cause for gratitude and awe from all of us non-scientists. My quibble with it is that it may need to understand that there are people who have put as much of their lives and work into the art and science of scriptural research and study as he has into genetics, biology, and physics. Let them do the work of exegesis, and then examine their hypotheses the way you do your own science. Don’t write off some theology as “liberal” simply because it doesn’t see with the same lens that you do. The synthesis of history, literature, anthropology, and faith that is the work of other experts has the same kind of validity that his does in the work of science. Use that information in the crucible of truth. It may be that a revised imagination about Christ and the nature of God will help, and not threaten, one's synthesis of science and faith.

To me, the most compelling quotation in either tome turns out to be this quotation from The Language of God. One thing to me is absolutely necessary in this whole endeavor of finding a “unified theory” that incorporates this double helix of science and faith: it is the conviction that truth is one, and that all genuine paths must lead in the same direction. For religious persons, God cannot be a deceiver who creates blind pathways in order to mislead us in our search for the truth; for the scientist, rationality, logic, and evidence cannot lead away from the conclusion that God exists. There must be harmony, not that we must make it, but that it must already exist, and it is incumbent upon us to seek it out somehow. The burden really falls on believers, though, because it is in our ethic to believe that God is light, and that the universe is charged with divine presence, and revelation is everywhere. This is how it is put in Collins’s book, where he is quoting Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, the American theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

We must not then, as Christians, assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of the light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them than we. None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads.

Now, there is a theology and a science that I can get behind.


  1. I think that you'd enjoy reading Edmund Pellegrino's literature. His integrated approach to science, the liberal arts and spirituality speak to the nanoethics of our own time with such wisdom that he's difficult to refute. Check him out.

    1. Sure, why not? Even if it's none of my beeswax.