Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith

Edited by Francis S. Collins

HarperOne, 2010

352 pp., $19.99

What kind of flowers does Francis S. Collins—one of the world’s leading geneticists—gather? His new anthology, modestly entitled Belief, answers this bizarre question. The etymological origin of anthology means “flower-gathering,” from the Greek anthologia (anthos “a flower” + logia “collection). For seekers, believers, and skeptics, Collins has gathered flowers of prose—classic and contemporary—that quietly display the harmony between reason and faith, in contrast to what he calls “the cacophony of extreme voices dominating the microphones, bookshelves, and airways.”

Readers should not be surprised that the former director of the National Human Genome Project and the current director of the National Institutes for Health is a preeminently reasonable man, equally repulsed by “a camp for kids in the United Kingdom that aims to indoctrinate them with atheism” as he is by “a Creation Museum in Kentucky that shows humans romping with dinosaurs.” By following the argument wherever it led, Collins became a disciple of Jesus Christ at age twenty-seven, overcoming his scientific skepticism through studied reflections on the moral law and the order of nature, particularly the Big Bang, fine-tuning, and evolution.

His anthology is personal, leading the reader to the scents and sights that have captured his fancy in the botanical garden. The case for the existence of God begins with N. T. Wright, who is commonly but mistakenly regarded as the “successor” to C. S. Lewis because HarperOne, the publisher of this anthology and Wright’s apologetic books, has touted him as such. Wright communicates cogently to the postmodern audience like Lewis did to the late modern audience, but the style and substance of their writing differs notably because of their respective vocations: the former as a New Testament scholar and the latter as a Medieval and Renaissance Literature scholar.

That quibble aside, Collins classifies the flowers according to themes: the meaning of truth, intellectual devotion to God, the problem of evil and suffering, the cry for justice, the concord between science and faith, the possibility of miracles, the experiences of longing and mysticism, love and forgiveness as pointers to God, and the irrationality of atheism.

All the “oldies but goodies” are present (Plato, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Locke, Pascal), along with the “usual suspects” (C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton) and some relative “newbies” (Os Guinness, Madeleine L’Engle, Art Lindsley, Paul Brand, Desmond Tutu). For an American, Collins has a nose for British, ergo Anglican, voices (John Stott, Keith Ward, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath). In the mix, there are five Catholics (Aquinas, Chesterton, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Hans Küng), two Reformed (Alvin Plantinga, Tim Keller), two Jews (Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl), one Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), one Quaker (David Elton Trueblood), one Baptist (Martin Luther King Jr.), and one Deist (Antony Flew). In the corner of the garden are voices from the East (Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama), lest Collins be accused of a “West and the rest” ethnocentrism.

Based on his flower gathering, we can conclude that Collins has adopted the via media sensibility of the Anglican tradition: ecumenical in his outlook and eclectic in his apologetics, although he shows a preference for classical and evidential methods. If the temptation for a scientist is to live by reason alone, we can be grateful that Collins resists, nodding to the affective and imaginative dimensions of the Christian faith. This everyman anthology offers accessible selections, “self-contained and brief enough to be read in a single sitting.” For a more philosophically and theologically sophisticated anthology, see Paul Helm’s Faith and Reason (Oxford, 1999).

Thanks to HarperOne for the review copy.

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Posted by Christopher Benson

6 Comments

  1. ntwright: BOOK REVIEW: Francis S. Collins (editor), Belief: Reasons on the …: The case for the existence of God … http://bit.ly/cvz0ou

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  2. Seems odd that he’s “equally repulsed” towards an children’s camp indoctrinating children to oppose/ignore God as he is to a museum that displays a scientific theory that he disagrees with.

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  3. DAVE: Thanks for engaging my book review. Collins believes, as I do, that “a camp for kids in the United Kingdom that aims to indoctrinate them with atheism” is an example of atheistic fundamentalism while “a Creation Museum in Kentucky that shows humans romping with dinosaurs” is an example of Christian fundamentalism. There is a middle way between these extremes that we should pursue.

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  4. Christopher, I know what you mean. I’ve talked with plenty of Christian scientists who seem to read things into Genesis that don’t seem explicit (e.g. literal days). However, it’s all too easy to be turned off by these folks and not analyze their claims that really fly in the face of the majority of the scientific culture. In general, the scientific community likes to show up each other and to refute claims – so it’s odd to me that no other groups (other than Christian scientists) are pushing other theories of the Earth’s age. That said, I like to hear what these scientists are working on, but it turns me off to hear the same scientists’ weak theology (fundamentalism). Anyway, I just wanted to give a shout out to say not to ignore ALL the work of these groups – though the basis for some of the creation research is poor (just like the basis for evolutionary biology, in my opinion), the rest of the research should be considered. Thoughts? Thanks for all your work at mereorthodoxy!

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  5. DAVE: You’ve made a fine point here: “I just wanted to give a shout out to say not to ignore ALL the work of these groups – though the basis for some of the creation research is poor (just like the basis for evolutionary biology, in my opinion), the rest of the research should be considered.” I’ve learned to observe my intellectual jurisdiction, and I don’t have enough authority or experience to make judgments about creation research. Based on the little that I’ve read on the origins of the universe and the human species, I’m sympathetic to the theistic evolution that Collins defends in his book, The Language of God.

    I appreciate your compliment about my blog posts at Mere O. I hope you’ll offer further comments. Because it’s helpful to know who my readers are at Mere O, would you be willing to share about your background and endeavors?

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    1. Sure. I’m pursing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. I began as an undergraduate never questioning the “pillar theories” of modern science – and I didn’t think believing them would upset my faith at all. And though I still don’t think holding to all of science’s accepted theories will [or should] crush a Christian, to me, some parts of evolution [even theistic evolution] do create confusion in the end (lest we remember the brilliant mind of C.H. Toy). Anyways, my default mode used to be theistic evolution, but I’ve been leaning toward more young earth theories recently. Grad school seems to have a way of pushing students to question more. But as you talked about the “middle way” before, I’m right there with you, because having the openness of the middle ground will allow for better conversation between scientists (both Christian and atheist). As far as endeavors, my aim is to glorify God either in research, industry, or academia.

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