Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Language of God

A number of people recommended this book to me recently and I'm glad they did. I interrupted my reading schedule and knocked it off in a couple of sittings. It is a thorough book but not a difficult one.

Francis S Collins is a scientist of impeccable credentials. He has studied physics and biochemistry and is one of the world's leading geneticists. He is also an evangelical Christian. The book is in part his testimony of faith but mostly it is a defence of science for those who are sceptical about science and an apologetic for God for those who are sceptical about religion. He includes a brief history of the years he spent as leader of the team which produced the first map of the human genome, one of the most significant scientific achievements of the last Century.

It is a book whose emphasis I found a little surprising. For me, it is axiomatic that the universe and everything in it is evolving. It has been about 40 years now since the issue of reconciling evolution to faith was significant for me, and probably 20 years since I have had much interest in the topic at all. My guess would be that the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders (90%?) would have a worldview which included an ancient earth and gradual descent of species from a common ancestor, so the issue of evolution is relegated to small, conservative  portions of the church and doesn't get discussed much outside of that arena. My surprise was in the information Collins relayed that about 45% of Americans subscribed to views on the age of the earth and the descent of humankind which are not scientifically defensible. As Collins points out, one of the elegant characteristics of science is its self correcting nature: while it is possible for false scientific ideas to gain some widespread popularity, they cannot do it for long and evolution has been one of the mainstays of Western scientific thought for well over a century now. The book is largely about evolution, and here was I thinking that the argument was pretty much done and dusted. Apparently, not so.

Collins does a very good job of explaining evolution and its cornerstone role in science and gives a patient explanation of how his own field, genetics, enhances our view of the processes through which we have descended. His explanations of faith are based largely on the works of popular theologians such as C S Lewis. He shows no great knowledge of Biblical criticism, assuming for example that the Gospels of  Matthew and John were written by two of Jesus' 12 disciples. Where he really shines is in the sections which come from his heart: where he shows how he has managed, personally, to reconcile his utter commitment to a scientific worldview with deep personal faith in and experience of God. He is astute, though brief, in his analysis  of the intellectual bankruptcy of both radical atheism and the Intelligent Design movement. He critiques Intelligent Design, fairly IMHO, as a "God of the Gaps" theory which has planted its flag on a patch of ground which must inevitably get smaller and smaller as scientific knowledge increases. He doesn't seem to have noticed however that his own principle argument is open to the same analysis.

Francis Collins, following C S Lewis recognises the universality of a moral code as a sign of God's presence in the universe and participation in the creation of humankind. While I agree with him that attempts to explain the moral code, and particularly altruism, on the grounds of evolution through natural selection are, to date anyway, a little feeble, there is no guarantee that some explanation won't be found. I think he has not quite seen through to the depths of the position he so eloquently espouses in the rest of the book: namely that even if an evolutionary explanation for altruism is found, it doesn't diminish one whit its standing as a sign of Gods presence and of Gods nature.

This is a good book which should be a helpful read for people who are in doubt about either faith or religion. I didn't learn much from it that I didn't know already but he did leave me with some reminders of the acuity of C S Lewis and with one intriguing thought: that the universe is the act of creation. It is the process through which God is creating (note, IS) that which is to follow. So what would it have been like to have been present at the Big Bang when all that we know and understand came into being? Well actually, the Big Bang is going on all around us and we are part of it which is why, I suppose, the universe is in this headlong rush of change and development, producing ever more wonderful arrangements of matter and, in the last tiny percentage of its history, those extraordinary mysteries, life and consciousness.

I won't be distracted by this book into re entering the tedious debate on whether or not evolution is happening, but I'm glad Francis S Collins is giving to those still interested this careful and accessible way of working through the issue. There are other matters however, connected to the debate which the Christian Church sorely needs to address, and these have to do with reconciling the great truths of our faith with the ancient and ever changing universe which is assumed as fact by the overwhelming majority of people who make up our society.

2 comments:

liturgy said...

Thanks Kelvin

You and I might take for granted both the value and truth of the scientific approach and the value and truth of an academic approach to the biblical literature, but I think that is rarer than you appear to express.

I regularly encourage people to look at this book because I constantly encounter misunderstandings on both perspectives and I think that Collins deals with this intelligently and humbly.

I would posit that the thought that Christians are anti-evolution is (American-promoted perhaps) one of the most common understandings amongst younger people here.

So if, as you say, 90% of Kiwis assume evolution, those people will just look at Christianity as Iron Age superstition. I wonder if perhaps it IS time for bishops and others to loudly express what we take for granted (a TV advertising campaign? A viral YouTube video?) but which many (most?) do not realise that we do.

I must say that in my primary ministry with young people, there wouldn't be a week goes by but this is a topic of discussion.

Blessings.

Bosco

Tim Chesterton said...

Hi Bishop Kelvin, I just found your blog through 'Anglican Down Under', and was glad to see a positive review of this book. As Bosco says, here in Canada many non-Christians assume that we Christians are all evolution-deniers, so I have found it a very helpful book to use. We had an excellent book study based on this book in our parish a couple of years ago, and I was interested that it attracted a completely different crowd than we normally get - a younger and more scientifically-oriented group.