In “The Language of God,” Francis Collins breaks into the debate between faith and reason with intelligible writing and with the strength of his experience as a scientist and the nine-years director of the Human Genome Project. He is a man who found God while deciphering the hidden codes of life.
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins (305 pages, Free Press, 2007)
I don’t know about you, but I studied Darwin’s evolution at school along with the pea thing by the monk Gregor Mendel, and even today the only thing it brings to mind is how good they would be with some ham and onion. I am not trying to belittle the work of the Father of Genetics nor to disqualify natural selection, but it has taken me decades to understand the root of the problem, and it wasn’t peas that helped me but authors like Newman, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, or the brilliant Peter Kreeft. Perhaps that is why now, years after those tedious classroom lessons, I so enjoy the books of the geneticist Francis Collins, who has just been awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for his defense of the dialogue between faith and reason, between faith and science. Dr. Collins would have been a wonderful agnostic, dense, boring, perhaps a little up himself, but he discovered God by accident while looking through a microscope, and was overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of life’s little details. Perhaps that is why he later wrote: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful.”
This is a good time to rethink an old dilemma. Twenty-first-century science seems all-powerful. Suddenly a pandemic arrives and puts things in place, but even in these circumstances we tend to think that science will one day be able to solve all the world’s problems. And it is true. There are millions of answers that science can give us. All, perhaps, but one: “Why?” The good news is that it’s only one question. The bad news is that it’s the only one that really matters. If you’re in a hurry, that’s all you need to know about the debate between faith and reason.
More than 1600 years ago St. Augustine unmasked time, a key convention in understanding our nature: “the past has ceased to exist and the future does not yet exist.” Only the present exists, said the Bishop of Hippo, considering that time requires movement, mutation. God does not change. That is his eternity. His omnipotence. Peter Kreeft explained it in his own way: “Only if a bird doesn’t swim in the ocean but flies in the air can it enter the ocean from above; only because God is not temporal can he enter into time.” After all, time is also something that has been created. St. Augustine laid the foundation for enriching an extemporaneous debate that is still raging today, between creationists and evolutionists. And the funny thing is that St. Augustine built this philosophical foundation without any influence from evolutionists, because when he wrote The Confessions, Charles Darwin was still just a twinkle in God’s eye—I hope that this theological colloquialism doesn’t spark a new conflict between faith and reason.
In his brilliant 2007 The Language of God, Dr. Collins broke into the debate between faith and reason with intelligible writing and with the strength of his experience as a scientist and the nine-years director of the Human Genome Project. After all, he is a man who found God while deciphering the hidden codes of life, taking the opposite path to that proposed by extreme rationalists since the Enlightenment. I guess we should never have expected anything good to come from morality by guillotine.
All of Dr. Collins’s research is tainted by the problem of evolution. As a man with little experience in a lab and being a fan of civilization, shaving, and bodily hygiene, I must admit that it disgusts me to concede that we might have anything to do with monkeys. In fact, since childhood, I have always felt more comfortable with a Christian creationism that had no great scientific pretensions, if only because it meant I shared no kinship with the beasts. But the truth is that over the years I have become more of a beast, and brilliant minds like Dr. Collins’s or Benedict XVI’s have encouraged me to reconsider this intellectual and spiritual option. It is no coincidence that Pope Emeritus appointed Dr. Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2009, while Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year. Insofar as his work contributes to unblocking the exclusionary positions of the old debate, Dr. Collins certainly frees us from the typecasting of a dead conflict, and insofar as he demonstrates with his experience that faith is an incentive for scientific research, his presence enriches the work of the Pontifical Academy and at the same time broadens its own point of view.
It has been written that Dr. Collins’s thesis is a better fit for Catholics than for Evangelicals, and that would seem to me as sterile a hypothesis as saying that Nicole Kidman’s beauty fits better in the Catholic creed than in the Protestant one. In fact, the geneticist has demonstrated with his work, that it is not his intention that anyone should need to adapt or bend to his discourse, but it is simply to open up paths to the truth. Science and faith seek, each in their own way, the truth. Reading The Language of God, one can find reasons to come closer to God and man, and perhaps that is all that should matter to a Christian. That, and something Benedict XVI said in 2005: “We are not the casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the fruit of a thought of God. Each of us is loved, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” The same cannot be said about mosquitoes.
The new Templeton Award 2020 has addressed the limits of science on three key issues: the origin of the universe, the advent of life on earth, and the nature of the evolutionary mechanism that modern genetics has uncovered. The solution it offers is conciliatory but not condescending. Dr. Collins, starting from the Augustinian consideration of time in eternity, considers that God created the universe with the necessary parameters for it to develop over long periods of time. “God thus endowed Creation with amazing potentialities,” including “the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet—and, most especially, human beings, with minds created in God’s image.” But evolution is not enough; the play would not be complete, in Dr. Collins’s opinion, and that only happened upon the enactment of the famous scene in the Garden of Eden. That is when, according to the geneticist, God gave man the great gift of the spirituality: the soul and morality—good and evil!
Returning to the initial question. Evolutionists who exclude God can easily explain why some species survive in competition with others, but they cannot explain why often, in a split-second decision, we risk our lives to save the life of another with whom we have no connection or interest, simply because he needs our help, because he has fallen in the street, or because he is about to be run over by a train. The world of evolution, without God, would be a beautiful setting but absent of happiness. A materialistic prison. Like the world of reason without faith, it would be no more than a beautiful museum of guillotines.
From Fide et Ratio and his Thomistic exhortation, the words of John Paul II resound among Christians who seek a balance between faith and reason: “faith moves reason to come out of all isolation and to bet willingly on what is beautiful, good and true. In this way, faith becomes a convinced and convincing advocate for reason.” This excludes the old postulate that scientific progress dwarfs faith. Perhaps because God does not disappear when the human eye sees better, when it looks through a telescope or a microscope. On the contrary, God is shown there with greater clarity and beauty. Dr. Kreeft explained it this way: “In an age of hope men looked up at the night sky and saw ‘the heavens’. In an age of hopelessness they call it simply ‘space’.” Emptiness has replaced fullness. Dr. Collins’s great value is his commitment, from a scientific perspective, to making these times a time of true hope.
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