Francis S. Collins led the government team of geneticists that successfully pursued the Human Genome Project. When the project was completed, President Bill Clinton commended his work, declaring: “‘Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.’ But the part of the President’s speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘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’” (p. 2).
Though the President may have overstated the case, his words receive validation in Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, c. 2006), wherein he effectively gives witness to his faith in Christ and explains how his scientific work enhances his religious belief. He argues “that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science” (p. 3).
Reared in an irreligious home, Collins had little interest in theological issues until he completed his graduate work and began working as a medical doctor. He took a loosely agnostic position—a kind of ‘willful blindness’ he now suspects—that freed him to live pretty much on his own terms. But at the age of 26, by the bedside of a devout Christian woman who gave witness to her strong faith and bluntly asked him what he believed, he began to seriously consider ultimate things. He realized that nothing could be more important than discerning whether or not God exists. So he decided to investigate the question.
A Methodist minister, in response to his inquiries, gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. “In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy” (p. 21). He was most deeply impressed by Lewis’s Moral Law argument for God’s existence, and repeatedly praises Lewis throughout this book.
More than intellectual conviction, however, Collins longed to know this God in whom he believed. That apparently involved living righteously—something he found himself unable to do. Then he began to be truly honest with himself and admitted that he was a “sinner” in need of grace. He also began to seriously consider the God-man Jesus Christ and “read the actual account of His life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ’s claims and their consequences gradually began to sink in. Here was a man who not only claimed to know God, He claimed to be God. No other figure I could find in any other faith made such an outrageous claim. He also claimed to be able to forgive sins, which seemed both exciting and utterly shocking” (p. 221).
Accepting the atoning work of Christ on the cross led to an equally important corollary: “Faithfulness to God required a kind of death of self-will, in order to be reborn as a new creation” (p. 222). So, a year after coming to the conclusion that God exists Collins came to Christ. While hiking in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, “the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ” (p. 225).
Years later, in 1989, serving as a volunteer in an African hospital, Collins was profoundly moved by some kind words from a young man suffering tuberculosis. “Nothing I had learned from science could explain that experience. Nothing about the evolutionary explanations for human behavior could account for why it seemed so right for this privileged white man to be standing at the bedside of this young African farmer, each of them receiving something exceptional. This was what C.S. Lewis calls agape. It is the love that seeks no recompense. It is an affront to materialism and naturalism. And it is the sweetest joy that one can experience” (p. 217). Importantly, in this moment Collins “also saw more clearly than ever before the author of that goodness and truth, the real True North, God himself, revealing His holy nature by the way in which He has written this desire to seek goodness in all of our hearts” (p. 218).
Thus it is as a deeply committed Christian that Collins has worked on the very cutting edge of science and also pondered “the great questions of human existence.” Regarding the origins of the universe, he finds the Big Bang theory and the Christian belief in creatio ex nihilo remarkably congruent. Indeed, as “Arno Penzias, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who co-discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation that provided strong support for the Big Bang in the first place, states, ‘The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five Books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole’” (p. 76).
Regarding life on earth, Collins espouses what he calls “theistic evolution,” crediting God for overseeing an evolutionary process that proceeds by natural selection. (Parenthetically, he highly commends the work of my PLNU colleague, Darrel Falk, who sets forth a similar position in Coming to Peace with Science). Collins acknowledges, however, the great mystery of the actual origin of life, since “at the present time we simply do not know. No current hypothesis comes close to explaining how in the space of a mere 150 million years, the prebiotic environment that existed on planet Earth gave rise to life” (p. 90).
In his own realm of expertise, genetics, Collins shows how his study of the human genome enabled him to engage in “deciphering God’s instruction book.” “For me, as a believer,” he writes, “the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance.
This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe in surveying this most significant of all biological texts” (p. 123-124). This leads him to set forth his belief in “BioLogos,” a “belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God” (p. 203). It is, however, “not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul” (p. 204). In other words: knowledge comes from testable science whereas belief is an inner, subjective inclination.
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.