Catherine H. Crouch
Not Too Simply Christian
A high school friend whom I hadn't seen since her cancer diagnosis two years earlier, a passionate writer and literary scholar, was telling me over lunch about the renewed place that spirituality had taken in her life since treatment had left her cancer-free. In the course of our conversation, she told me, "Most of the time I am so sure that there is a God who has been amazingly good to me. But sometimes, especially after talking with some of my more secular colleagues, I wonder whether all these feelings can be explained in terms of brain biology—whether I'm just fooling myself." She was eager to know how I could be thoroughly, wholeheartedly both a scientist and a Christian. As I listened to her, I realized I'd found one answer to the question I asked when I read Francis Collins' The Language of God: "This is a good book, but who is it for?"
Francis Collins, a leader in the field of medical genetics, served as the director of the recently completed Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. He explains his purpose in writing The Language of God as follows: "Many … [assume] that a rigorous scientist could not also be a serious believer in a transcendent God. This book aims to dispel that notion, by arguing 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." (Collins points out that a recent poll indicates that about 40 percent of professional biologists, physicists, and mathematicians believe in a God who actively communicates with humankind and answers prayers.)
The Language of God begins with a brief description of the author's journey "from atheism to belief" (the title of Chapter 1). Collins grew up in a family in which faith was dismissed as "not very important," moving from agnosticism to atheism during college. Subsequently, while completing the clinical part of his medical training, Collins' convictions were shaken by observing the deep religious faith of many of his patients. His concerns that religious faith might not be intellectually tenable were addressed by reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, and before long, he became a Christian.
After telling his story, Collins addresses a series of potential intellectual objections to religious faith. ("Isn't the idea of God just wish fulfillment? What about all the harm done in the name of religion? Why would a loving God allow suffering? How can a rational person believe in miracles?") He then describes current scientific knowledge about the origins of the physical universe, of life, and of humanity. Next he enumerates four possibilities for the intellectual relationship between science and faith, particularly as related to evolutionary biology: materialist atheism, in which science is considered to have shown that religious faith is wrong; Young Earth creationism, in which a literal reading of Genesis is considered to show that science is wrong, at least regarding origins; intelligent design, which contends that the complexity of life found on our planet could not have developed without the explicit direction of an intelligent agent, although evolutionary mechanisms may have contributed somewhat; and theistic evolution, which contends that scientific evidence for evolution is completely compatible with religious faith in general, as well as Christianity. Collins argues vigorously against the first three and for theistic evolution. The final chapter begins with Collins' explanation of why he found Christian faith in particular (rather than another religion) compelling, and then ends with a call for all to see religious faith and science as two complementary ways of seeking truth.
The Language of God is an excellent resource for someone like my friend, who finds religious faith attractive but is concerned that it may not be intellectually defensible. Collins' writing displays the meticulous patience with which a scientist examines evidence, and is persuasive without being belligerent or defensive. For someone seeking reassurance that religion has not been disproved by science, this book will be welcome.
Collins' work will be equally valuable for serious Christians who want to delve deeper into either the science or the epistemology of the creation–intelligent design-evolution debates. On the science front, The Language of God offers clear explanations of contemporary biology suffused with Collins' sense of wonder at the beauty and elegance of what science has discovered. In discussing atheism, Young Earth creationism, and intelligent design, Collins critiques these positions from both a scientific and theological perspective. Christians may find his discussion of the shortcomings of intelligent design particularly valuable. He also offers a solid, although elementary, discussion of how Christians who consider Scripture to be authoritative can combine the findings of biology and the scriptural account of creation into a single coherent understanding of our physical universe. As Collins explains, theistic evolution is "the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers," but few non-scientists know about it. If The Language of God makes this position more widely known, that alone will be a worthwhile accomplishment.
The primary shortcoming of The Language of God is that it is less theologically sophisticated than one might hope. Consequently, it offers a somewhat simplistic picture of how science and theology are "complementary." Collins' strategy is to begin with the evidence provided by science and human experience, and show that religious belief is reasonable in the light of this evidence. This approach is important for readers who trust science and are unsure whether to trust other forms of evidence. Yet certain Christian theological issues related to evolution are most effectively addressed when both biology and theology are considered, and here the limitations of either Collins' approach, or his theological sophistication, appear most clearly.
Most important, in arguing for theistic evolution, Collins must explain how evolution, which biologists understand to be driven by probabilistic events, is compatible with the Christian understanding of God's sovereignty. (This problem is not unique to evolution: quantum mechanics, which appears to govern all physical processes, including the biochemical reactions that are thought to drive evolution, is fundamentally probabilistic as well.) Collins takes the classical position that as God the Father is outside space and time, events which appear random and unpredictable to humans can actually be foreknown and specified by the Father. Although it is certainly possible that the Creator controls the creation in this fashion, it is not the only way to understand the sovereignty of God in the presence of chance.
Scientist-theologians such as John Polkinghorne, for example, have explained the role of chance in quantum mechanics and evolution as giving freedom to the Creation. Such freedom can be understood as a loving gift, made possible by the Creator's voluntary self-limitation, in a manner analogous to the kenosis of the eternal Son in the Incarnation. The parallels between such an understanding of chance in the natural world and the Incarnation provide a more uniquely Christian as well as—to this scientist at least— more fruitful understanding of the Creation. The critical role played by chance in the natural world is not just a colossal misunderstanding due to our finite human perspective, but actually a sign of the Father's love for the Creation!
Another limitation of Collins's book, which likely reflects his assumptions about his audience as well as the influence of Mere Christianity in his journey to faith, is his choice of evidence to examine, which is a rather narrow slice of all the evidence that might be considered. Collins essentially gives the same argument for belief that Lewis presents in Mere Christianity: the Moral Law—the human instinct that right and wrong come from outside the individual, rather than simply being defined by each individual with reference to him or herself—points to the existence of One who is the source of right and wrong. In addition, the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe indicates that there was a beginning to the creation, which "cries out for a divine explanation." Although these two ideas are sound as far as they go, they present a rather one-dimensional picture of both the evidence for and the nature of religion in general and Christianity in particular. The same can be said of Mere Christianity; although Lewis' winsome and peerlessly clear prose makes his argument sparkle, remarkably, there is almost no mention of joy, in spite of the importance of joy in Lewis' other works.
Collins' occasional personal stories reveal the depths of his experience of life in Jesus Christ and show that faith is more than agreement with a series of logical propositions. Unfortunately, these stories do not cohere well with the rest of the book, and thus do not contribute as fully as they might. His story (in the last chapter) of a summer vacation spent as a substitute for medical missionaries in Nigeria should be required reading for short-term missionaries, and has brought tears to my eyes every time I've read it—but it is only tenuously connected to the point he then goes on to make.
Had my friend asked, "Why should I be interested in Christianity?" instead of "Can science explain away all of my spiritual experiences?" I would have recommended Tom Wright's Simply Christian—but I would probably tell her, "Just read the first four chapters." From the title, one might expect Wright's book to be very similar to Mere Christianity. Indeed, Wright states at the outset, "My aim has been to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside." The first part of that objective sounds very similar to Lewis' purpose: "Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times." However, as soon as one begins to read, it is clear that Collins, far more than Wright, is Lewis' successor.
Part 1 (the first four chapters) of Simply Christian is Wright's equivalent of "examining the evidence for belief," but his choice of evidence is quite different from Collins'. Each chapter describes one of four "echoes of a voice": human beings' longing for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, which Wright argues are longings because they reflect the character of God. Out of these longings, even before Christian theology is introduced, Wright paints a rich picture of what we might expect God to be like, one that dovetails far more closely with historical Christianity than the Moral Law alone.
Why this profound difference between Collins (and Lewis) and the opening chapters of Wright's book? As a biblical theologian in the early years of the 21st century, Wright has had to wrestle with the nature of truth and knowledge far more than either Collins or Lewis. As he writes at the end of the fourth chapter:
The sort of thing we could and should mean by "truth" will vary according to what we're talking about…. To "know" the deeper kinds of truth we have been hinting at is much more like "knowing" a person…. It's a kind of knowing in which the subject and the object are intertwined, so that you could never say that it was either purely subjective or purely objective. One good word for this deeper and richer kind of knowing … is "love."
This observation allows Wright to describe the complementary nature of scientific and other forms of knowledge with much more sophistication than Collins: while science concerns itself with quantifiable and reproducible natural phenomena, Christian faith concerns itself with the story of God's relationship with his Creation, so that history and human experiences are among the most important evidence. In later chapters, Wright thus gives a great deal of attention to the nature and soundness of the historical evidence for the Christian story, and the reliability of scriptural texts, but he takes it for granted that a proper reading of Scripture and history is in harmony with science's understanding of the world. Other than his explanation of the nature of truth, the only occasion where Wright confronts scientific materialism directly is in discussing the resurrection of Jesus, and there he gives it far less attention.1
Wright's lack of concern with atheistic interpretations of contemporary science appears deliberate, and most likely reflects a sense that these have received far more attention than they deserve because of what Wright sees as a distracting and unproductive response from parts of the Christian community. Although he discusses scriptural interpretation extensively near the end of the book, the issues swirling around Genesis merit only an exasperated remark that the creation-evolution debate has "provided a singularly unhelpful backdrop to the would-be serious discussion of other parts of the Bible." He then pointedly avoids Genesis in his subsequent explanations of how to properly balance various hermeneutical approaches to Scripture.
Perhaps most important, issues of biblical interpretation come late in Wright's book, whereas Collins addresses potential objections to faith early on. Wright's approach implies that a solid understanding of the soundness and historicity of Scripture is important for those already seeking a relationship with God, but the "echoes of a voice" with which he begins are the reason people will start seeking God in the first place.
Wright's approach means that the opening chapters of Simply Christian are far more eloquent and passionate than Lewis or Collins, and, to my mind, far more suitable to give to one of my contemporaries who is asking, "Why should I take the claims of Christianity seriously?" However, as I moved into the second and third sections of Simply Christian, I found myself asking again, this time more emphatically, "This is a great book—but who exactly is it for???"
Part 2 of Simply Christian "lays out the central Christian belief about God." Although Wright provides a single-sentence overview in the introduction, Part 2 is 85 pages and six chapters long. While I found every page insightful, engaging, and enriching, I have read several of Wright's books and heard him speak several times, and I understand him better every time. I have also been a Christian for nearly twenty years. I suspect that a reader less immersed in the Christian faith and less familiar with New Testament scholarship would find Part 2 dense and difficult to follow.
Part 3, in which Wright "describe[s] what it looks like in practice to follow Jesus," seems even more shaped by the desire to "explain [the faith] to those inside," to the point that I doubt these chapters would successfully "commend it to those outside the faith." Throughout all but the final chapter, Wright repeatedly addresses disputes about discipleship within the wider church—for example, the relative merits of praying spontaneously and using a liturgy, the different names for and theological interpretations of the Lord's Supper, and whether a dramatic moment of conversion is experienced by all genuine Christians. As I read Part 2, I felt a little uneasy at the idea of giving Simply Christian to a nonbeliever, fearing that he or she would find it too dense or difficult; as I read Part 3, I felt it would be a distinct mistake to burden anyone outside the faith with so many in-house arguments.
Although I do not think Wright succeeds in making Parts 2 and 3 (except for the last chapter) suitable for outsiders—and perhaps it is simply not realistic for a single book to accomplish both of his goals—for a sufficiently well-read and motivated reader inside the faith, they are captivating and inspiring. Wright describes Christianity first and foremost as participating in a story, the story of "exile and homecoming," of "rescue and renewal," that is woven throughout the Bible, and that is enacted by Jesus himself through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. In Part 2, Wright relates this story from the perspective of his field, the historical study of the New Testament, weaving together insights from Old and New Testaments, along with history and other Jewish writings of those times. He then offers in Part 3 a wonderfully wise synthesis of historical and contemporary practices of Christian discipleship. The result is rich, complex, and engaging.
In the end, I expect that The Language of God and Simply Christian will complement each other, addressing burning questions for different people. These books are a great resource for those of us in the faith, both to offer to friends who have already heard some of Wright's "echoes" and to deepen our own understanding of the basis of our faith. Both books will draw readers into conversation and into Christian communities so that they see firsthand the richness of life in Christ that Collins and especially Wright portray. That is certainly what I'm hoping for my friend.
Catherine H. Crouch is assistant professor of physics at Swarthmore College.
1. In his discussion of the Resurrection, interestingly enough, Wright's argument for why science does not render the Resurrection unbelievable is scientifically weak. Wright points out (correctly) that miracles can be documented by history while science studies only things that are reproducible, but then rather than pointing out that science cannot rule out the possibility of rare miracles, he simply remarks that it is understandable that this is difficult to believe, but that the historical evidence of the rise of Christianity is best understood if Jesus really did rise from the dead, so one must be willing to allow for the possibility of miracles.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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