Francis Collins, prizewinning health researcher and Jesus follower

Francis Collins, head of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in the US, an evangelical Christian, has just received the Templeton Prize – which is often called the Nobel Prize for religion. As a  physician-geneticist he discovered the genes associated with a number of diseases and led the Human Genome Project. He has also authored books on science and religion including  the New York Times bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. 

The Templeton prize is worth $US1.4m and recent winners include Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher credited with making theism credible within that academic field, Jean Vanier, Desmond Tutu and the UK Jewish leader Jonathan Sacks.

“As a Christian for 43 years, I have found joyful harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, and have never encountered an irreconcilable difference”- Collins quoted on the Templeton Prize site.

The Economist says of Collins “He is one of the few people to have maintained credibility with both sides in the culture wars.” He was appointed by President Obama and has remained in post under President Trump, and is Coronavirus spokesperson Anthony Fauci’s boss.

Before heading up the Human Genome Project his earlier work was in cystic fibrosis research. A story he told Peter Wehner of The Atlantic shows how his work as a scientist and a follower of Jesus ties together.

“In November of last year, when the announcement was made that, based on rigorous clinical trials, a triple-drug therapy would provide, if not a cure, certainly a remarkable improvement in the life experience of 90 percent of people with cystic fibrosis, who might now be able to live out a pretty normal life span.

‘I did have the chance to be there in Nashville on that day, as this announcement was being made,” Collins said. “This is a community I had stayed close with for all of those 30 years, even when my lab was no longer working on cystic fibrosis. I had written a song about what we all hoped might happen someday, way back in the 1990s, a song called “Dare to Dream.” Now that dream was coming true. At that moment, with 5,000 people gathered as scientists, care providers, families, people who had cystic fibrosis, all gathered in that same room, we all sang that song together.” …

“It felt like such a moment of thankfulness that God’s grace had somehow gotten us to this point. I will not forget that.”

His journey to Christ began with experiencing the faith of patients who were dying. Ordinary people of faith including one woman who reminded him of his grandmother, who was experiencing daily cardiac pain. “And yet she came through this all with remarkable peace and was very comfortable sharing the reasons for that with me, namely her faith in Jesus. And at one point after one of those sharing moments, she looked at me in a quizzical way and said, ‘You know, doctor’—she did call me doctor, I wasn’t yet—‘You have listened to me talk about my faith, but you never say anything. What do you believe?’ Just very direct, very simple question, and it was like a thunderclap. Like a realization that I could not walk away from, but that was the most important question I’ve ever been asked.”

He also told Wehner about the next stage in his journey to faith: encountering the works of C. S Lewis. “I realized in the very first two or three pages of that book that most of my objections against faith were utterly simplistic. They were arguments from a schoolboy. Here was an Oxford intellectual giant who had traveled the same path from atheism to faith, and had a way of describing why that made sense that was utterly disarming. It was also very upsetting. It was not the answer I was looking for.”

Just like Lewis, Collins was a reluctant convert. He told PBS of the agonising journey to faith.

“I did feel compelled to find out a bit more about what it was that I had rejected. So with an intention of shooting this all down, I went to speak to a Methodist minister in Chapel Hill, which is where I was at the time. I sat in his office and made all sorts of accusations, and probably said blasphemous things about the faith that he stood for, but sincerely asked him to help me find out what it was all about. And he was very tolerant and patient and listened and suggested that, for starters, it might be good if I read a little bit more about what these faiths stood for. And perhaps the Bible would be a good place to start. I wasn’t so interested in that at that point. But he also said, “You know, your story reminds me a little bit of somebody else who has written about his experience — that Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis.”

I had no idea, really, who Lewis was. The idea that he was a scholar, though, that appealed to my intellectual pride. Maybe somebody with that kind of a title would be able to write something that I could understand and appreciate.

“So this wonderful minister gave me his own copy of Mere Christianity, Lewis’s slim tome that outlines the arguments leading to his conclusion that God is not only a possibility, but a plausibility. That the rational man would be more likely, upon studying the facts, to conclude that choosing to believe is the appropriate choice, as opposed to choosing not to believe.

“That was a concept I was really unprepared to hear. Until then, I don’t think anyone had ever suggested to me that faith was a conclusion that one could arrive at on the basis of rational thought. I, and I suspect, many other scientists who’ve never really looked at the evidence, had kind of assumed that faith was something that you arrived at, either because it was drummed into your head when you were a little kid or by some emotional experience, or some sort of cultural pressure. The idea that you would arrive at faith because it made sense, because it was rational, because it was the most appropriate choice when presented with the data, that was a new concept. And yet, reading through the pages of Lewis’s book, I came to that conclusion over the course of several very painful weeks.”

Within the Christian community Collins is known as someone who rejects the idea of a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. He adopts a “theistic evolutionary” position. He founded a group called Biologos,  endorsed by people such as Tim Keller of Redeemer Church New York and Andy Crouch former Executive Editor of Christianity Today, which argues for a theistic evolutionary approach to the Bible.

Here’s how he put his position in an Pewforum interview. “As a believer, I would be the last one to argue that we can basically dilute and water down the Bible any old way we want to, to make ourselves feel better. That’s certainly not a good approach to faith, lest one end up with something that doesn’t resemble the great truths of the faith at all. But let’s admit that down through the centuries, serious believers – long before there was any On the Origin of Species to threaten their perspective – had a great deal of difficulty understanding what some parts of the Old Testament, particularly Genesis, were really all about. The whole area of hermeneutics – the effort to try to read Scripture in a way that represents, as best one can, what the real meaning was intended to be – requires more sophistication than simply saying the most literal interpretation of every verse has to be correct.

“One can look at Genesis 1-2, for instance, and see that there is not just one but two stories of the creation of humanity, and those stories do not quite agree with each other. That alone ought to be reason enough to argue that the literal interpretation of every verse, in isolation from the rest of the Bible, can’t really be correct. Otherwise, the Bible is contradicting itself.

“I take great comfort looking back through time, particularly at the writings of Augustine, who was obsessed by trying to understand Genesis and wrote no less than five books about it. Augustine ultimately concluded that no human being really was going to be able to interpret the meaning of the creation story. Certainly Augustine would have argued that the current ultra-literal interpretations that lead to young earth creationism are not required by the text, and would have warned that such a rigid interpretation, regardless of what other evidence comes to the scene, could potentially be quite dangerous to the faith, in that it would make believers out to be narrow-minded and potentially subject to ridicule. And in a certain way, that warning has come true with the battles we’re having right now.”

Collins told the Philadephia Inquirer this week that “I’m probably spending 95% of my time on [COVID-19], and I think that’s what I’m called to do. Helping with vaccines that we all know are essential, and treatments, moving forward with diagnostics. That’s what I’ve been focused on since I got up this morning at 3:30 a.m.”