Book Review: ‘The language of God’ by Francis Collins

My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The copywriter for the book jacket was definitely drinking caffeinated coffee: this book ‘may be the most important melding of reason and revelation since C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity … [Collins] has heard every argument against faith from scientists, and he can refute them.’

Actually, the sound of big guns blazing is happily missing from this book. Francis Collins, code-breaker of the human genome, is personal, gentle, generous, thoughtful, well-informed and honest. He describes his own conversion to Christian faith from an atheist background; the beautiful intricacies of creation; the problems with atheism, agnosticism, creationism and Intelligent Design; and ends up in a quietly stated but coherent place of theistic evolution.

Far from (that copywriter again) proposing ‘a new synthesis’, Dr Collins arrives at the beliefs of most of the people I know. He does so in an elegant style, wearing lightly a thoroughness of thought, and with a keen eye for the pithy quotation.

Far from slam-dunking his foes he ends the book with an appeal that the ‘battles between the scientific and spiritual worldviews [need] to be resolved–we desperately need both voices to be at the table, and not to be shouting at each other.’

This is one of the first books I would turn to for anyone wrestling with the issues of science and faith. (My own More than Bananas isn’t bad either …)

Frustration, difficulty and pain: God’s gifts to us

icu wordcloud
This particular wordcloud came from a coma-survivors’ focus group (of which I am a member)

Here’s a quote about what it means to stick with our friends while we also try to follow Christ.

‘Frustration and pain are essential features of incarnational ministry.’

It goes on:

‘If we are to truly identify with our people, we must expect frustration and pain. If we don’t, we may be taken by surprise when we encounter it and be tempted to leave this work for an easier path or be so disillusioned that we lose the joy of ministry. I think many people are suffering unnecessary pain in ministry today because they did not fully anticipate the suffering that ministry inevitably involves. This pain has caused them to be discontented when actually they should be rejoicing in tribulation.’

‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ (John 20:21)

‘That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12:10)

(Quote from popular Sri Lankan evangelist and teacher Ajith Fernando in his his book Jesus Driven Ministry. I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Copeland for digging out this quote.)

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‘You are not thinking. You are merely being logical’

If you want to know about mystery, ask a quantum physicist

Solvay, 1927
The famous Solvay conference of 1927. Bohr is middle row, far right. Others present include Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Arthur Compton, Wernher Heisenberg, Lawrence Bragg (who won the Nobel Prize aged just 25), Paul Dirac, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, C T R Wilson and Owen Richardson (who was born just down the road from where I grew up). Each won the Nobel Prize for physics. They still dominate the undergraduate physics syllabus today. I stayed at that hotel as part of a writing prize and have seen the book signed by this astonishing assembly.

Here’s the world according to the very quotable Neils Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics.

‘Prediction is very difficult, especially concerning the future.’

‘How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.

‘The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.

‘You are not thinking. You are merely being logical.

I borrowed these quotes from here.

God. Hiding. But not all that well.

He’s too big to find anything to hide behind.

This is cool but complicated and involves mathematics.

I have been paddling in the magisterial physics textbook The Road to Reality by (Sir) Roger Penrose. He claims:

  • When mathematicians make discoveries, they generally feel they are not making up something new. They are exploring an existing thing.
  • This thing–mathematical truth–exists objectively, and it is not restricted to space or time.
  • Down at the dawn of philosophy, Plato taught this — and every subsequent philosopher (as is widely suggested) has only ever written footnotes to his work.

Plato also taught there were two other absolutes that objectively exist and are unrestricted by space and time: Good and Beauty.

Truth, the Good, and Beauty — each infinite, omnipresent, unchanging, eternal, objectively real and underpinning the Universe as we perceive it. Necessary, even. 1

God might be hiding but, yup, we can see him.

How can we know anything about God? And giving your email address to spammers.

It’s not as hard as you might think


Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field in UV
The only way we can know about God is if he tells us. We can’t leave the Universe, look at him, and come back, because we remain part of the Universe. Where we go, it goes. But God is outside the Universe.

So we won’t know anything about God without a revelation from God.

That means listening to someone who thinks they have a revelation from God.

And that is, as I said in the title, like offering our email addresses to spammers. The world is full of people who think God is speaking to them. A lot of them are kooks.

What do we do? 

As I wrote in my book More than Bananas, I think the only tool in our box is our total human response. So this must involve:

  • Reason
  • Common sense
  • Intuition
  • Emotion
  • What the community around us thinks
  • What the community who believe in revelation is like

and

  • A certain element of risk

Interesting…

(Note: More than Bananas is currently available as a free download as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to my other writing.)


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Vocation: allow some wiggle room

Just read a lovely blog post by cartoonist Jessica Abel that adds a healthy corrective to the business of not-dying-with-your music-still-inside you.

Don’t get too hung up on the idea is possibly the take-home. Or maybe, don’t make an idol out of it.

It is wonderful, and energizing, and satisfying, to launch out to do the thing you’ve always really wanted to do. But, she counsels wisely:

  • allow yourself some wiggle-room: You need not feel trapped by whatever you think you “must” be doing creatively. Maybe you want to be a musician. That can play out in dozens of ways. Some more likely to pay the bills than others.
  • Vocation doesn’t have to be epic or worldchanging: look for what you can do that’s useful, that gives you pleasure, and do more of that.

Helpful.

Darkness and light. Really?

That’s no way to talk of my friends

Argemone ochroleuca flower6The people I know who are outside of the Christian faith would not respond too well to Bible verses like this:

But you were once darkness — now you are light in the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8)

I see their point. I would rather call my neighbours and colleagues funny, courageous, kind, hospitable, warm-hearted. And so on. Rather than, you know, ‘darkness.’

Of course the Apostle Paul (for it is he) is writing at this point not to outsiders to the faith, but to insiders, and surely he is encouraging them in their self doubt, and reminding them of God’s kindness. He uses a different language when he is stirring people to follow Christ in the first place.

But it raises the question: what are we actually talking about here? Is faith a thing? Or is it just a religious rebranding of an unchanged heart?

I think it’s a bit like re-purposing a good, old, disused building or taking on a neglected allotment (an allotment in the UK is a patch of land that you can rent cheaply to grow vegetables). An old allotment actually may contain all kinds of treasures, fruit trees, brambles, an asparagus patch. But it is overgrown.

A new owner comes. The bindweed and the ground elder don’t vanish overnight.  Both before the change and afterwards, the allotment is a mix of good crop and weeds. But after the new owner comes, it has new direction, new planting, new purpose, intentional ground clearing, a new direction and a new destiny. And it’s still easily neglected, plagued with slugs, not necessarily all that fruitful.

What came before wasn’t worthless. It contained real treasure. Yet the upheaval and change is real too. Darkness and light.

 

Do try this at home

Get out of that one

Love letter/Around 2008 an atheist SF writer named John C Wright prayed this:

Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”

Three days later he had a heart attack.