Tonight, I just finished Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” where he lays out the basic facts of genetics and the human genome, denounces Creationism and rejects Intelligent Design theory, rebukes Richard Dawkins, and generally sets a tone for reasonableness between Christians and scientists.
This is a lot of disjoint topics, and while he covers a lot of territory, he doesn’t provide sufficient depth in any one area to change minds on either side of the debate of these issues. His goal is clearly to get Christians to think and synchronize their beliefs with modern science.
There is much compelling in this book. As a Christian, I want to be honest and consistent, not just with others, but with myself. I don’t want to hold on to beliefs that are not in agreement with my principles and don’t derive from what I consider to be authority.
So what determines what I believe? Logic and trust, experience and faith. At a basic level, my beliefs are the result of the information I’ve received and how I’ve processed it. While, this sounds decidedly materialist, as a Christian, the Holy Spirit is an important input. Looking back, I would have to put these in the following order:
- External Conversations (especially honest conversations with friends) – this is why you should surround yourself with the very best people, and listen to them
- Internal Conversations (Reflections) (times I’m with books, praying, writing posts like this)
In these, I certainly consider arguments of reason to be critical, but I’m sufficiently aware that I have neither the time nor ability to form all my beliefs from my logic alone. Some would say this is a lack of moral courage, “think for yourself, Tim”, but I hold to a classical view of faith, extending lots of trust to the organizations I join to teach me the right things. This doesn’t mean I turn my mind off in church, but I approach things there with trust. Even in technical lectures, I’m generally there trusting the professor, not scoffing at her equations. I’m there trying to figure out what they are saying, under the trust that the school has vetted the professor and the scientific community has vetted the textbook. Perhaps this is best summarized with a “trust, but verify” mindset.
Here we get to the heart of Dr Collins’ book. We can’t derive everything from first principles. For me, I would say only a small fraction of my beliefs are from first principles, other things just ‘seem’ to work and I trust experience. Other things I just trust other folks on. Take a statement like “computers read and process information”. I believe this. I use computers all the time. I’ve even build logic out of Boolean circuit components, I’ve done the physical chemistry of n- and p-type junctions of transistors, but at some level I just trust that x86 processors work, even if at some point long ago, I thought through how an ALU works.
We conservative Christians have a problem. We love the consistency, products and output of science, but the science of origins has taken on theology all its own. In particular, there is now a vocal group of public intellectuals claiming they are creatures of reason and that faith and trust has no place, deriving all beliefs and forming moral judgements from the scientific method and falsifiable data. Their most popular argument is an appeal to fairness: why are your beliefs superior to ancient sun-worshipers or crazy people when you have no data to bring to the table? To oppose them counters currently accepted notions of equality. (The argument goes: “Who opposes equality but bigots and elitists? And if you don’t oppose equality, than how can you say your faith is more valid then someone else? Only data are objective. Faith is not.”)
Christians want to trust the scientific community and love the Christian scientific heritage, but our faith is precious to us and we have both experienced God and His forgiveness and place trust in His specific (i.e. Bible) and general revelation (i.e. experience of the natural world). From our own inability to control our own moral state and actions, we know we need accountability and we find great comfort in Biblical and ecclesiastical answers to the big questions. I also find comfort in not needing to arbitrate all the answers myself. Both the history of the Church and the Christian community I have is there to teach me and help me navigate life.
I value all these things, but what do I believe and why? Several weeks ago, it was helpful for me to fill out an excel spreadsheet with my beliefs. I put statements like “We live in a causal world” next to “God created the world” and categorized them by my level of certainity. I’m sure there is a better list, but I put a checkbox to see if each of the following categories supported a specific belief:
- Basic Reason
- Testimony of Natural World
- Personal Experience
- Historical Evidence
- Trusted Friends
- Scientific Community
- The Church
I’m sure this is a poor list, but I wanted to get started. So for something like: “I exist” or “my wife is an amazing woman”, I would check personal experience and basic reason– I both know these to be true intuitively and I can give you lots of evidence why. For “the soul is immortal” I check off the church, Bible, and trusted friends. Wow, much to argue about here, but this was just an experiment to get me thinking.
Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I’m interested in Dr Collins’ central question: how can modern Christians accept authority from Bible, Church and the Scientific Community?
In order to make this work, Collins argues that faith (specifically Christian faith) is reasonable for a modern smart scientist, that the current consesus of the scientific community regarding origins is a “hands off” process of natural selection, and the Christan view to syncronize scripture is to accept (1) God started things, but didn’t guide them, (2) certain parts of scripture are “clearly” poetic and not indended to be taken literaly and (3) put faith in the smallest part possible in your understanding of the natural world, but at least allow for the possibilities for miracles to exist.
In short: trust your “scientific” part of your mind as the primary arbiter for your beliefs, but allow for faith as well, at least where it is reasonable. Then, place these two systems of belief in separate spheres where they can each answer their respective questions.
At first glance, this seems excellent. Can I really confine science and religion to operate in largely separate spheres, the natural and the supernatural, so that most instances of supposed conflict are actually misunderstandings or misapplications of one or the other? To Collins, the error is when ‘faith trumps science’ or when ‘science trumps faith’. His ideal is an egalitarian view: two healthy determinants of belief, both equal and valid.
Can I take control of scripture and start discounting the parts that don’t seem to make sense to me as poetry? Can I trust the scientists to tell me what to believe on origins like I trust the doctor to tell me what medicine to take? Would separating my faith in God and science be a peaceful coexistence, or would it be more like one hand on the oven and another in the freezer.
While I found his dialogue pretty convincing, his broad brush approach left a lot of issues unresolved. Accepting this book requires accepting the following conclusions I still can’t accept:
- Adam and Eve were not the first people. “Genetic evidence shows that humans descended from a group of several thousand individuals who lived about 150,000 years ago.” He presents options such as accepting they were two individuals chosen from many to represent humanity or that the names Adam and Eve were a symbol for humanity. My biggest issue with this is that Paul believed in a literal Adam and Eve (cf Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), so to accept this is to now say that Paul was might have been right on spiritual matters, but didn’t understand origins, or was a “product of his time”. This is a radical departure from traditional hermeneutics.
- Death pre-existed the fall. He claims the death that is discussed in the Bible resulting from Adam’s sin is a spiritual death. This is contrary to what I’ve been taught, but I’m willing to consider it.
- God was only involved in the smallest, initial component of creation. He implies the Creator must have been ‘clumsy’ to have to keep intervening throughout geologic time to make his creatures turn out right. Collins finds it more elegant to confine God to setting things up and then taking a hands off approach. However, this contradicts even a poetic reading of Genesis, and is much closer to a blind watchmaker than I’m comfortable with.
This is all so disappointing, because I wanted this book to define my views on this issue, but I can’t get there. Francis went through the CS Lewis program several years before I did and we have several friends in common. He is clearly in the Christian camp, but he wants the benefits of dogmatism, but tries hard to avoid dogmatism at every turn. Most disappointing, he writes in the end that he shares his faith “without the desire to convert or proselytize you” because he sees values in all faiths. What is more hollow (and logically inconsistent) than someone who doesn’t sufficiently believe his faith should apply to others? Throughout the book, he is always hedging and tries very hard to stay clear of making any claims of Christian moral superiority. God is reduced (without Collins meaning to do so) to little more than the author of natural laws. And the end result of his logic is to make the Universe appear, to the objective observer, to be unsupervised.
Despite his stature and appeal to the authority of the scientific community, he never really gets me to molecules-to-man evolution, for which Collins has provided no new arguments that I could find. While I admire his defense of the Kantian tradition: where the empirical and the spiritual happily co-exist, this book doesn’t clear up my confusion. He merely confirmed what I already knew: a lot of smart people, historical Christians, and the vast majority of academics/scientists believe that evolution was the process by which man and woman were formed. While he is in favor of a semi-literal interpretation of most of the bible, he only makes halfhearted attempts to convince the reader of his position, and, astoundingly, never explains exactly what he thinks Scripture is and how he extracts truth from it.
One key takeaway for me was the importance of working this out. As a Christian and a modern man, I need to have a thought out position on this that is logically consistent and reflects my principles and key tenants. So, if I’m not with him, am I ready to join the institute for creation research and head off to the creation museum to sort this all out for me?
As much as I found his position unsatisfying, I’m even more uncomfortable with the young earth creationists. They violate the principle of inserting certainty where it shouldn’t belong. They can’t explain the age of starlight, the consistent results of carbon/radioactive dating, ice layers or even tree rings that contradict their age of the earth. Moreover, they do stand in opposition to the scientific community. Period. Science is a community that is obsessed with truth and its members are incentivized by data-driven arguments, especially those that are novel and iconoclastic. While it is unfortunate they rule out the possibility of a God created worldview, they would at least have to admit that the evidence supports a young earth, but, alas, it does not. You can find scientific-looking articles, but the ones I’ve seen neither use real data, nor are written by folks I would call real scientists. While I deplore appeals to authority that most current scientific debate follows, the “creation research” that I can find does not withstand basic scrutiny, other than its ability to make the true point that no-one knows what happened at the beginning of time. Starting with (and staying with) the bias that any conclusions reached will not interfere with a current set of interpretations of Genesis, might be a valid framework of belief, but we should not call that process scientific discovery.
I’m also inclined to believe that Genesis is not meant to teach scientific information. I read passages such as Psa 139:13, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, as containing moral truth (e.g. God personally created us, not random forces), but I do not extract any conclusion from that passage that the creation of life involves the mechanics of knitting. I believe in the fundamental truth of the Bible, but I don’t think we, for example, should read that the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day and start revising astronomy. Yes, that was a miracle, but in the end, I have to synthesize the specific and general revelations and believe that the world we can explain is constant, consistent and causal. Creation was itself a miracle after all. Choosing my interpretation of scripture when evidence is contrary to scripture is to ignore the testimony of general revelation. The only way to hold this position is to accept that God deliberately created “clues” found in the data of the world that are inconsistent with reality. Yes, the possibility exists that the world could look old and actually be young, but is this consistent with general revelation and with how God works? If we are pushed to a place where our best argument is that the natural world could be manipulated to be different than reality, we have traded the regularity of the natural world for something completely chaotic and need to remember what Sherlock Holmes said on this:
‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’
In the end, I have to go with what I know: God is good, the world is real, and I’m not God. The synthesis of that for me is what Tim Keller calls “the messy approach” and admitting that I just don’t know what happened at the beginning. My faith tells me Adam and Eve were real and willingly sinned. The testimony of the natural world tells me the world is old. Can I rename my views on this the “humble, faithful and honest approach”. I’m open to new data, but I can’t find any comfort in another view. Since, I’m basically with Tim Keller on this, I’ll give you his quote:
The fact is, the one that most people consider the most conservative, which is the young-Earth, six-day creation, has all kinds of problems with the text, as we know. If it’s really true, then you have problems of contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. … I don’t like the theory that these are two somewhat contradictory creation stories that some editor stuck together…I think therefore you’ve got a problem with how long are the days before the sun shows up in the fourth day. You have problems really reading the Bible in a straightforward way with a young-Earth, six 24-hour day theory. You’ve got some problems with the theistic evolution, because then you have to ask yourself, “Was there no Adam and Eve? Was there no Fall?” So here’s what I like-the messy approach, which is I think there was an Adam and Eve. I think there was a real Fall. I think that happened. I also think that there also was a very long process probably, you know, that the earth probably is very old, and there was some kind of process of natural selection that God guided and used, and maybe intervened in. And that’s just the messy part. I’m not a scientist. I’m not going to go beyond that.
If you’ve made it this far, I leave you with a quote from C.S. Lewis who was so foundational to Collins’ faith. In the meantime, I’ve got work to do and a God to serve . . .
“If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection. But it does not follow that the further back you go the more brutal—in the sense of wicked or wretched—you will find man to be.”
“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.”
“I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised. Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.” — C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”
- An article about understanding the Pope’s views on this issue
- An article on death before the fall (from Collins’ organization, Biologos)
- An atheist critique of Francis Collins (wow, Sam Harris is harsh!)
- A creationist critique of The Language of God
- Another creationist’s critique of The Language of God