The White House announced on July 8 that Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, would be nominated to become the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I believe this move to be a good one.
Collins is eminently qualified as a scientist. According to the web site of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Collins received a doctorate in physical chemistry from Yale University, a master’s from the University of North Carolina and a bachelor of science from the University of Virginia. Following a fellowship in human genetics at Yale, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where he remained until moving to NIH in 1993. His research has led to the identification of genetic variants associated with type 2 diabetes and the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington’s disease and Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome.
As Director of the Human Genome Project of the NIH, Collins led in the successful sequencing of the human genome and brought the project in early and under budget.
According to the Los Angeles Times’ excellent article on Collins’ nomination, the “appointment … would make Collins one of the most powerful and influential scientists in the country, if not the world, overseeing 27 institutes and an annual budget of nearly $30 billion for biological and medical research.”
Collins’ brilliance as a scientist and skill as a manager are unquestioned; he is also widely hailed for his ability to explain complex scientific ideas in words that non-scientists can understand.
Collins is also a Christian who is very comfortable with and articulate at talking about his faith.
In his book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (Free Press, 2006), he writes of his journey from agnosticism to atheism to belief in God, a belief that he arrived at after, among other things, encountering the faith of patients during his time as a medical student and reading C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” which was given to him by a neighbor who was a Methodist minister.
Since Collins is a scientist, it should come as no great surprise that he arrived at faith when to him “faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief” (p. 30). He came to a point where he took the leap of faith and became a believer in God.
As a scientist who is also a Christian, Collins has founded the BioLogos Foundation, which, according to its web site, “promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives.” I am grateful that a scientist who is also a person of faith will, assuming that his nomination is approved, be what amounts to the national director of scientific research and the national spokesperson for science.
I suppose that there are secularist scientists, by which I mean scientists who believe that science has eliminated the possibility of God and who are sometimes downright evangelistic about converting others to their worldview, who are displeased, troubled and even frightened by the nomination of Collins because they think that he might let his religious beliefs get in the way of good science.
I suppose that there are also fundamentalist biblical literalists, by which I mean people who think that the findings and teachings of science must conform to a specific and literal interpretation of the biblical creation narratives or else they are not “true,” who are displeased, troubled and even frightened by the nomination of Collins because they know that he is not going to promote their agenda.
The truth is, though, that Collins stands in exactly the right place to do an outstanding job as NIH director because he understands that both science and religion are seeking truth in their own way and that both scientific investigation and religious search are valid in their own way. To again quote the web site of the BioLogos Foundation, “We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation.” I believe that, too.
In “The Language of God,” Collins deals with several options for dealing with “the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God” (p. 158) and he rejects the option of “atheism and agnosticism (when science trumps faith)” (p. 159), the option of “creationism (when faith trumps science)” (p. 171), and the option of “intelligent design (when science needs divine help)” (p. 181), settling instead on the option of “BioLogos (science and faith in harmony)” (p. 197), which is his renaming of “theistic evolution.”
In the last chapter of “The Language of God,” Collins writes movingly of how, a year after he had made the leap of faith to belief in God, he “surrendered to Jesus Christ” (p. 225).
So there you have it – the newly nominated director of the National Institutes of Health is a person who both trusts in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and who believes that God worked through evolution to bring God’s marvelous creation into being; he is at the same time a committed Christian and a committed scientist.
To paraphrase the words of Mordecai to Queen Esther, Francis Collins may have come to our nation and to our world for just such a time as this.
Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.