The Language of God

A few weeks ago, my pastor preached on the oft-invoked “war” between science and religion, suggesting that studying the world we believe to be made by God should not be intimidating for Christians. He made reference to The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief , a book I found at the library and have been working through over the last week. Written by Francis S. Collins, head of the human genome project, it represents a courageous and stimulating attempt to reconcile the alleged conflict between science and faith. Collins asserts that there is no such conflict, and one of his main concerns is to show how counterproductive the so-called “debate” is.

The book was stimulating for me because of the things it makes its reader think about. Not being a scientist myself, I felt challenged by Collins’ discussions of Big Bang theory, genetics, and evolution. He makes a concerted attempt to keep his prose readable to laymen, so in some places he recommends more in-depth reading in this or that specialized arena of science. The scientific discussion, which for a believer like myself leads into a sense of awe at the sheer bigness of God and his great wisdom, is book-ended at start and finish by accounts of Collins’ personal coming-to-faith.

Collins spends a fair amount of time explaining how essential evolution is to the study of biology, insisting that this should not be a barrier for Christians. “No serious biologist doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life,” he writes. “In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it.” After outlining other perspectives including atheistic evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design, he explains his own position on the origin and ongoing creation of the universe: theistic evolution, which holds that God created the world at the Big Bang and built into it the mechanism of evolution by which our unique human species came into being. I won’t go into much more detail than that, but you can get a fuller picture at the BioLogos website.

I liked the book very much, but I felt it didn’t really do what its title said it was going to do: “present evidence for belief.” It seemed to be more focused on presenting evidence, not for belief, but for the lack of substantive conflict between science and faith. In making his case, Collins argues that the creation account in Genesis is primarily poetic and allegorical rather than literal.

I found The Language of God quite thought-provoking in many respects. I am not reflexively opposed to the idea that humans evolved from other species. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that neither C.S. Lewis (to whom Collins seems almost too indebted) nor G.K. Chesterton seemed to have a problem with the idea, and Collins cites a number of other respected Christian thinkers who accept evolution without seeing it as a deal-breaker for the Christian faith. Evolution does nothing to change the fact that humanity is unique, “made in the image of God.” The ultimate compliment to humanity in Scripture is that it is the form God himself takes when he redeems his creation, and evolution does not change this either. Further, Genesis and evolution also both depict humanity as a late arrival on the scene.

Though we need to be very careful and respectful in our attitude toward Scripture, I am open to seeing the opening chapters of Genesis as more poetic and allegorical than historical, as Collins suggests here. My Old Testament teacher in college felt that the creation account was mythic, an explanation of who we are and why we’re here, but it’s not intended as a science text. It doesn’t have the same rootedness in historical context that the history books of the Bible have, for one thing. For another, when we consider the whole story of the fall as described in Genesis — the eating of the apple — it becomes meaningful only when we recognize (some of) the symbolism behind the literal actions — disobedience, rejection of God’s authority, going our own way, pursuing knowledge apart from God. No one really limits themselves to an exclusively literal reading of Genesis, or we would not understand it in this way.

The Big Bang is something I didn’t know that much about, and I enjoyed learning. Collins details the ways that our universe is “precisely tuned for life,” and these seem, for a believer, like compelling indications that God designed the world with human life in mind.

But I am still processing all of these things, and I won’t say that I’m totally objective or unmoved by some of the implications. For instance, if we are recent arrivals on the scene, descended from a common ancestor, what does this do to the story of the fall? I have been taught that death entered the world with human sin. But if the timetables Collins sets forth so confidently are correct, and if an asteroid did collide with the earth and trigger climactic changes that killed off the dinosaurs and gave rise to mammals, then obviously there was pain and suffering and death and predatoriness in the world even before it was “fallen.” The prelapsarian world about which God says “It is good” in Genesis seems more bloodthirsty and dangerous than I can think about easily.

The other question I found myself wondering about was, where are we going? If, as Collins postulates, the universe is in an ongoing expansion after a giant explosion… where are we headed? Such questions aren’t answerable, and they’re not the province of science. But they occur nonetheless.

At times, I felt that Collins seemed inconsistent in his logic, though I may well have misunderstood. (There was plenty that I didn’t fully comprehend in the book’s more technical sections.) For instance, he cautions more than once against a “God of the gaps” approach in which Christians invoke divine action whenever there is something we can’t explain. This makes it embarrassing, even damaging to the faith, when scientific knowledge provides a naturalistic explanation.

Collins writes,

Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed to later destruction.

I agree with what he says here. But at the same time, Collins seems to invoke a God of the gaps when he says there is no conceivable natural explanation for the Big Bang, therefore it must be God that’s behind it.

Conversely, when there are other gaps in our ability to explain things, he is very quick to place science in them. “We now know” and “we are well on the way to understanding” are phrases that repeatedly characterize his statements about scientific knowledge, even though there have been plenty of instances where science gets things wrong and a new discovery forces a complete paradigm shift in some area of knowledge. Collins extols this “self-correcting” quality of scientific investigation. But I would have felt more comfortable if he was a bit more tentative in his claims about scientific knowledge — just as he wants believers to be more tentative in the claims they make about divine intervention in the universe. There is a humility I was listening for that seems somehow to be missing from scientific inquiry.

Collins makes a powerful case for informing ourselves and thinking through issues that may seem polarizing. What he has done in The Language of God takes a lot of courage. He has set forth his faith in a way that makes it possible for those who don’t share it to wage assaults, and from the other reviews I’ve read of this book it’s apparent that some have done so. In spelling out his views on the relationship between science and his faith, Collins has risked offending all sides of this highly charged issue. In many ways, he is dealing in subjects close to his heart. Whether you’re in agreement with him, or opposed, or simply up in the air, this book provides a framework for thinking that’s sure to challenge and inspire.