Interfaith Insight - 2020
This year’s Templeton Prize winner is the geneticist, physician, and
director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. He
is perhaps best known for his directing the human genome project that
discovered the genetic DNA code for humans. In religious circles he is
also know for his efforts to relate science and religion.
In his book, “The Language of God,” he writes, “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. … God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.” He also founded the organization BioLogos that seeks to relate our scientific understanding with religious beliefs, particularly a better understanding of the Christian understanding of creation.
Last month’s ceremony was held online at the National Academy of Science building in Washington D.C. It featured tributes from former presidents Bush and Obama, Oxford theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright, anthropologist Jane Goodall, and BioLogos President Deborah Haarsma from Grand Rapids. There was also a performance from Collins’ friend and opera singer Renée Fleming, who then joined Collins for a duet of the Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” to close the ceremony.
In 1972 the prize was created by Sir John Templeton, who was a very successful investor and philanthropist. His goal was to recognize new insights and progress about religion, especially through science. He set the award to be higher than the Nobel Prize, to recognize that progress in religion is just as important for recognition as the other awards given. Today the prize is valued at $1.4 million. I have been privileged over the years to have met and heard 16 of the previous Templeton Laurates, including Collins. I would encourage you to watch the whole virtual ceremony and learn more at: bit.ly/Templeton-Collins.
My favorite part was the talk given by Collins. In less than 30 minutes he put together his own science and faith journey as well as his concerns about the issues facing our country today. He put the issues before us so well that I have quoted generously from him here.
Building on his love and experience with music, he spoke on the topic “In Praise of Harmony.” He introduced the theme: “I first learned about that term as it applies to music … the profound way in which the combination of musical tones chosen by a composer and rendered by a gifted professional like Renée Fleming can touch your very soul. But harmony applies in other realms as well. It is to be contrasted with dissonance. In many areas of current experience, harmony seems to have lost out to dissonance and polarization.”
Collins continued by telling his personal story of studying physical chemistry and quantum mechanics, receiving his Ph.D., continuing on to complete an M.D., and then doing research in genetics and leading the human genome project. While treating one of his patients he was asked about his faith, and realized that in all of his science study he had not really dealt with the meaning of life or the issue of mortality. “I realized my atheism was dangerously thin … (and) began a journey to try to understand why intellectually sophisticated people could actually believe in God.” His journey led him to belief in God and acceptance of the life and claims of Jesus. What had been conflict between science and religion became for Collins a harmony between two truths.
His discussion of conflict and the need for harmony continued with the current global pandemic of COVID-19, which he describes as occupying his “every waking hour, seeking to accelerate the development of better diagnostic tests, therapeutics that will save the lives of those infected, and vaccines that will prevent future infections.” Collins had hoped that this dangerous enemy would draw us together, “But look at us now,” he laments. “The simple act of putting on a cloth mask is sufficient to inspire harsh disagreements amongst Americans, even though the public health value of that action to slow the spread of the disease is unquestionable. … What should have been harmony in the name of saving lives has become a conflict.”
Collins then addressed what he considers “the greatest long term threat to our planet – climate change.” Here again, he deplores the polarization about whether this threat is real and warns, “As time passes with no coordinated plan of action, we grow closer and closer to a potentially devastating outcome.”
He next tackled another serious issue for our country -- namely, the racial divide -- and asserts the “consequences of 400 years of slavery and discrimination are still with us, and demand significant change. But once again, not all agree, and the polarization of Americans is glaringly apparent.”
For Collins, these polarizing issues “create a vicious circle that infects our politics – polarized views drive politicians to adopt polarized positions, and those further polarize the people. We devolve into tribes. We stop trusting each other. We infer all sorts of bad motivations to those not of our own tribe, even as we forgive our own glaring inconsistencies.”
But Collins’ address did not leave us in despair as he offered three commitments that can help us heal.
First is a “renewed commitment to truth and reason.” He expressed his concern for the growing disregard for truth in our society including social media and unfounded conspiracy theories. Second, he urges us to “address the growing spiritual void,” as evidenced in growing drug overdose and other acts of despair leading to death. In response he calls for renewal of the ancient spiritual truths, citing especially the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Third, and for Collins most important, is the return “to our calling to love one another.”
He acknowledges that these may seem simple and even naïve, but for starters, “it would help if we chose leaders who embodied these principles. Leaders who were healers, promoters of truth, the rule of law, advocates of spiritual anchoring, and proponents of love, respect, justice, and compassion. Our democracy means we have the chance to do that.”
But he warns that we can’t just put the burden on the leaders. “It’s really up to all of us, through our individual actions, to define what kind of world we want to live in, and then seek to live that way. That means refusing to accept polarization – in fact, working actively to reach across the gaps.”
Collins concluded his speech with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
It may sound simple and naïve, but it behooves us all to take seriously these warnings from Dr. Collins as well as his recommended commitments. We must all do whatever we can to move away from disastrous polarization and seek the harmony toward which he challenges us.