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Posts Tagged ‘Language of God’

The Language of God, written by Francis S. Collins, speaks to the debate between science and faith. Collins is a physician and a geneticist, noted for his leadership in the Human Genome Project of the 1990’s, and current head of the National Institution of Health, appointed by President Barack Obama. Collins contends that what we read in Scripture is not in conflict with what we find in nature, and he writes with the hope that Christians who read it would stop bickering over the issue. He seeks harmony between science and Christianity, rather than continuing the unnecessary war (6). His book pays particular attention to the theory of evolution and powerfully demonstrates its truth. Although he touches lightly on the process of reconciling this with Scripture, he leaves Christians open to search elsewhere for deeper insight into that particular undertaking.

Collins became a Christian when reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, where he was convinced of the truth of the Moral Law. The Moral Law says human beings sense that there is a right and wrong way to behave, and we especially feel it when we are wronged by others. Biological evolution only explains mutually beneficial actions, not altruistic actions. The Moral Law points to a God outside of the natural world, Whom we cannot know through the tools of science. To Collins, faith seemed more rational than disbelief.

As someone who respects the natural world and the pursuit of truth in it, Collins spends many of his early chapters reviewing what modern science tells us of the origins of the universe and of human beings. He explains how the universe seems designed to allow life to exist (the Anthropic Principle), where physical constants (such as the speed of light, the force of gravity, etc.) are set at specific values which has allowed our universe to develop the way it has. The most reasonable conclusion from these observations is that the universe is designed by someone who created it. Collins rejects the “multiverse” theory on the basis of lack of evidence.

Collins stresses that our puny efforts to examine the complexity of life will not dethrone the Almighty. We just strive to answer the question, “How does life work?” Science alone cannot answer questions like “Why is there life?” or “Why am I here?” Using radioactivity and the natural decay of chemical isotopes, we can date moon rocks and meteorites and other debris from which the planet formed 4.55 billion years ago. The first fossils of microbial life is dated at 3.8 billion years ago. Science cannot currently explain the origin of chemical life. It is a mystery. However, don’t put God in the gaps, Collins stresses. Just because we don’t have a natural explanation for it now doesn’t mean we won’t discover it later.

Once life arose, the process of biological evolution through natural selection allowed it to diversify and become more complex. Collins gives a quick history of life on Earth, including dates from the fossil record and the discovery of transition species. He points out that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is accepted by many religious people, and “no serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution.” The subsequent discovery of DNA gave birth to molecular biology and reinforces Darwin’s theory. DNA, RNA, and proteins function as the mechanism through which natural selection occurs. This doesn’t take the divine mystery out of the world, Collins points out. “For those who believe in God, there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less.” (107)

Perhaps one of the strongest assets of Collins’ book comes from his experience as a geneticist. He moves along to flesh out the evidence for biological evolution as seen in molecular biology. As head of the Human Genome Project, Collins aimed to spell out the entire human genome: 3.1 billion letters of code across 24 chromosomes. He and his team started in the early 1990’s, and they announced its completion with President Clinton on June 26, 2000. It has reinforced biologists’ embrace of evolutionary theory, that we human beings share a common ancestry with other living things. Our gene sequence, Collins points out, is similar to that of other organisms, and it differs from them to a greater and greater extent as you move further away in the “tree of life.” Silent mutations discredit special creation, as does the presence of “junk DNA,” left over from ancient ancestors. The discovery of genetic mutation in DNA gave a new understanding to the mechanism of natural selection. Mutations in DNA are the means through which organisms evolve. While some bring up the objection that we never see evidence of macroevolution, only microevolution, Collins argues that the distinction between the two is artificial. “Larger changes that result in new species are a result of smaller incremental steps” (132). The study of genomes and molecular biology “convinced virtually all working biologists that Darwin’s framework…is unquestionably correct” (141). We couldn’t correlate all the data without the theory.

If evolution is not true, we might conclude that God just put them there to confuse us, which is not in His nature. We can conclude with evidence that God did not create all creatures through individual divine acts. That being said, Collins says he still needs God to explain us. Evolution doesn’t account for the Moral Law or the universal search for God. “Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates.” (140)

In the final chapters of his book, Collins considers four possible viewpoints in response to what we see in nature: Atheism/Agnosticism, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Theistic Evolution. When it comes to atheism, Collins says that science can neither prove nor disprove God. If one concludes that the evidence for evolution removes God from the role of Creator, that person is moving beyond the bounds of science and into philosophy. Atheists must find another reason for taking that position. Evolution won’t do. Agnosticism should only be arrived at after full consideration of all of the evidence for and against the existence of God. At any rate, neither view seeks harmony with faith, but is at war.

Next, he turns to Creationism, specifically Young-Earth Creationists (YECs). Their views include a six-day creation (24 hours, consecutive days), that Earth is less than 10,000 years old, that all species were created by individual acts of divine creation, and that Adam and Eve were created from dust, not descended from other creatures. YECs affirm microevolution, but not macroevolution. The Young Earth view is roughly held by 45% of Americans and many evangelical churches. They object to evolution for many faulty scientific reasons. He says the YEC view and modern science are ultimately incompatible. Though the views of these Christians are well-meaning and sincere, they would lead to an absolute collapse of physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, and geology. Collins asks if God is truly honored by those who would ignore rigorous scientific conclusions. “Can faith in Him be built on a foundation of lies about nature” (176)?

YECs attempt to provide alternative scientific explanations. Some say God set up the universe to look old to test our faith and let us rely on His Word. Collins’ argument against this was particularly persuasive to me. If the universe is really less than 10,000 years old, then the stars which are millions of light-years away shouldn’t even appear to us yet. God would have had to create photons in-transit in order for them to arrive here on Earth while we are here to see them. This ultimately makes God a “great Deceiver,” which would lead us to throw out Scripture which says that He is the God of truth. Collins pleas for believers to hold fast to the truths of the Bible and to fiercely resist materialism of atheists, but not through a flawed foundation in science. This leads to “easy wins” for opponents of faith.

Collins points out that ultra-literal interpretations of Genesis have only arisen in the last hundred years, as a consequence of evolution. Many older church fathers (such as Augustine) seemed to think that the early chapters of Genesis had a high, semi-poetical structure and feel to them. He doesn’t go into interpretations of Genesis himself, but wisely leaves that to theologians who have expertise in the matter.

When it comes to Intelligent Design (ID), Collins says that it is an unfortunate view both theologically and scientifically. It was put forth first by Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe in the early 1990’s. They propose the following: (1) evolution promotes an atheistic worldview, (2) evolution is fundamentally flawed, not able to account for biological complexity, and (3) therefore, an Intelligent Designer, God, must have intervened against the laws of nature to provide components during evolution. Collins spends time pointing out the scientific objections to Intelligent Design. Many Christian scientists as well as secular do not accept their arguments. As scientists are actually attracted to opportunities for overturning theories, the fact that the ID arguments are not gaining any holds in the scientific community should be a clue to us that they are not valid. Many of their examples of “irreducible complexity” turn out not to be irreducibly complex after all. They confuse the unknown with the unknowable and the unsolved with the unsolvable. Theologically, ID makes God a “clumsy Creator,” intervening throughout the history of evolution. ID is a “God of the gaps” theory. It’s bad for believers, because as scientists fill in the gaps over time, Christians have less ground to stand on.

Finally, Collins comes around to his beautiful conclusion, the view that puts all the pieces together and brings harmony between science and faith. The theistic evolution position is the “dominant view of serious biologists who are also serious believers.” It holds to all of the main claims of modern science:

1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe were fine-tuned for life.
3. While the mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution through natural selection led to biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time
4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
6. Humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature, including the Moral Law and the universal search for God.

These views can be held in perfect harmony with the idea that God is transcendent and eternal, Creator of the universe and the natural laws that govern it. He chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. He chose it knowing it would give rise to creatures with intelligence and free will, into which He would breathe the spirit of life, endowing them with the Moral Law and a thirst for Him. This view is science compatible with faith, a view both “intellectually fulfilling and spiritually alive” (201). He points out that there are many different interpretations of Genesis and different views on how Adam and Eve would fit into the evolutionary history.

The Language of God is a breath of fresh air for Christians who are tired of the war between the anti-science religious community and the anti-religious scientific community. Collins represents a body of Christian scientists who strive to find truth in the Lord’s creation and are zealous about it. He cuts a nice balance, exhorting believers to embrace science and worship the Lord in it, but also encouraging scientists to seek the Lord and not draw philosophical conclusions from natural observations.

References

Collins, Francis S. (2006). The Language of God. New York: Free Press

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