Thoughts and Notes on The Language of God”

October 24, 2020

If God cre­ated the uni­verse, and the laws that gov­ern it, and if He en­dowed hu­man be­ings with in­tel­lec­tual abil­i­ties to dis­cern its work­ings, would He want us to dis­re­gard those abil­i­ties? Would He be di­min­ished or threat­ened by what we are dis­cov­er­ing about His cre­ation?

— Francis Collins, The Language of God

Faith and sci­ence. What comes to your mind when you hear these two words paired to­gether? More than likely, you think of con­flict. You might even think about con­tra­dic­tion.

That’s un­der­stand­able — his­tory is full of peo­ple ar­gu­ing that these two pil­lars of hu­man­ity are fun­da­men­tally op­posed to each other. Even now, there are many who would strongly im­ply if not out­right tell you that you must choose be­tween faith and sci­ence.

This has al­ways been some­thing at the back of my mind, but in the last few years it’s be­come a topic I could­n’t ig­nore. I found my­self in a strange place of hav­ing a strong con­vic­tion in my faith and re­la­tion­ship with Jesus while also strongly be­liev­ing in the sci­en­tific process as a way to un­der­stand the world around us.

Unfortunately, the his­tory of the church has been filled with mes­sages say­ing that the find­ings of sci­ence (the study of God’s cre­ation) are in­com­pat­i­ble with what the Bible tells us (God’s writ­ten word). But how could that be pos­si­ble if Christians be­lieve that God is both the cre­ator of the uni­verse and the au­thor of those sa­cred words?

As I sought to have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing I came across an in­cred­i­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion called BioLogos . This group seeks to find har­mony be­tween sci­ence and bib­li­cal faith. BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project and is now the di­rec­tor for the National Institute of Health. So, you know, he kind of knows his stuff. Before found­ing BioLogos, he wrote The Language of God to tell his story of how he came to know Jesus even while hold­ing strongly to his sci­en­tific back­ground and knowl­edge. He dug into some of the key rea­sons why peo­ple might be­lieve or as­sume that sci­ence and faith are in­com­pat­i­ble. He dis­cusses this idea in both mod­ern and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives, draw­ing upon writ­ings from re­spected writ­ers such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis. He also ex­plores the roles of both sci­ence and the Bible and how they can co­ex­ist with­out con­tra­dic­tion.

I started this book be­fore the COVID-19 pan­demic re­ally hit the United States, but I thought the mes­sage is quite timely. The sci­en­tific process has al­ways been about a se­ries of ex­per­i­ments in which many fail but al­ways add to the over­all un­der­stand­ing of the prob­lem. In the in­stance of this pan­demic, that process has been ac­cel­er­ated and highly pub­li­cized. This dy­namic, cou­pled with the al­ready un­for­tu­nate re­la­tion­ship be­tween sci­ence and faith, has caused many to doubt the in­tegrity or in­ten­tion of the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. I be­lieve that Christians should be known as truth-seek­ers by el­e­vat­ing and am­pli­fy­ing voices of truth, not those of fear or mis­in­for­ma­tion. This can only get bet­ter as we find har­mony be­tween sci­ence and our faith.

I wanted to share the parts of the book that re­ally stood out to me in the hopes that it would help you or any­one else nav­i­gate this land­scape. There were 77 high­lights in my Kindle and I did my best to whit­tle it down to what was most mean­ing­ful to me. I’ve also sum­ma­rized my main take­aways. I’ve put both at the end of this long-winded intro” but don’t skip over it — that’s re­ally where the good stuff lies!

If you’ve ever had ques­tions about how sci­ence and faith can co­ex­ist I highly en­cour­age you to read this book — even if you don’t con­sider your­self a re­li­gious per­son. I firmly be­lieve that there is no fun­da­men­tal in­con­sis­tency be­tween be­liev­ing in God as the cre­ator of the uni­verse and trust­ing the dis­cov­er­ies that sci­ence brings forth.

I wel­come a con­ver­sa­tion with any­one who would like to chat about it more. One of the core prob­lems of the sci­ence and faith con­tro­versy is that we’ve for­got­ten how to com­mu­ni­cate with each other about it. I want to see that change. Please reach out to me if you’d ever like to have a con­ver­sa­tion about it.

My Key Takeaways

My Top Highlights

If I find in my­self a de­sire which no ex­pe­ri­ence in this world can sat­isfy, the most prob­a­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that I was made for an­other world. (Page 38)

Miracles thus do not pose an ir­rec­on­cil­able con­flict for the be­liever who trusts in sci­ence as a means to in­ves­ti­gate the nat­ural world, and who sees that the nat­ural world is ruled by laws. If, like me, you ad­mit that there might ex­ist some­thing or some­one out­side of na­ture, then there is no log­i­cal rea­son why that force could not on rare oc­ca­sions stage an in­va­sion. On the other hand, in or­der for the world to avoid de­scend­ing into chaos, mir­a­cles must be very un­com­mon. (Page 53)

One of the most cher­ished hopes of a sci­en­tist is to make an ob­ser­va­tion that shakes up a field of re­search. Scientists have a streak of clos­eted an­ar­chism, hop­ing that some­day they will turn up some un­ex­pected fact that will force a dis­rup­tion of the frame­work of the day. That’s what Nobel Prizes are given for. In that re­gard, any as­sump­tion that a con­spir­acy could ex­ist among sci­en­tists to keep a widely cur­rent the­ory alive when it ac­tu­ally con­tains se­ri­ous flaws is com­pletely an­ti­thet­i­cal to the rest­less mind-set of the pro­fes­sion. (Page 58)

Saint Augustine, prob­a­bly one of the great­est of all re­li­gious in­tel­lects, was par­tic­u­larly aware of the risks of turn­ing bib­li­cal texts into pre­cise sci­en­tific trea­tises, and wrote, with spe­cific ref­er­ence to Genesis: In mat­ters that are so ob­scure and far be­yond our vi­sion, we find in Holy Scripture pas­sages which can be in­ter­preted in very dif­fer­ent ways with­out prej­u­dice to the faith we have re­ceived. In such cases, we should not rush in head­long and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if fur­ther progress in the search for truth justly un­der­mines this po­si­tion, we too fall with it.” (Page 83)

A word of cau­tion is needed when in­sert­ing spe­cific di­vine ac­tion by God in this or any other area where sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing is cur­rently lack­ing. From so­lar eclipses in olden times to the move­ment of the plan­ets in the Middle Ages, to the ori­gins of life to­day, this God of the gaps” ap­proach has all too of­ten done a dis­ser­vice to re­li­gion (and by im­pli­ca­tion, to God, if that’s pos­si­ble). Faith that places God in the gaps of cur­rent un­der­stand­ing about the nat­ural world may be headed for cri­sis if ad­vances in sci­ence sub­se­quently fill those gaps. (Page 93)

There are good rea­sons to be­lieve in God, in­clud­ing the ex­is­tence of math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples and or­der in cre­ation. They are pos­i­tive rea­sons, based on knowl­edge, rather than de­fault as­sump­tions based on (a tem­po­rary) lack of knowl­edge. (Page 93)

Evolution, as a mech­a­nism, can be and must be true. But that says noth­ing about the na­ture of its au­thor. For those who be­lieve in God, there are rea­sons now to be more in awe, not less. (Page 108)

Freeing God from the bur­den of spe­cial acts of cre­ation does not re­move Him as the source of the things that make hu­man­ity spe­cial, and of the uni­verse it­self. It merely shows us some­thing of how He op­er­ates. (Page 140)

In fact, for those like my­self work­ing in ge­net­ics, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine cor­re­lat­ing the vast amounts of data com­ing forth from the stud­ies of genomes with­out the foun­da­tions of Darwin’s the­ory. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, a lead­ing bi­ol­o­gist of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury (and a de­vout Eastern Orthodox Christian), has said, Nothing in bi­ol­ogy makes sense ex­cept in the light of evo­lu­tion.” (Page 141)

If God cre­ated the uni­verse, and the laws that gov­ern it, and if He en­dowed hu­man be­ings with in­tel­lec­tual abil­i­ties to dis­cern its work­ings, would He want us to dis­re­gard those abil­i­ties? Would He be di­min­ished or threat­ened by what we are dis­cov­er­ing about His cre­ation? (Page 153)

Galileo ul­ti­mately came to the con­clu­sion that his ob­ser­va­tions could make sense only if the earth re­volved around the sun. That placed him in di­rect con­flict with the Catholic Church. (Page 154) … In ret­ro­spect, mod­ern ob­servers must won­der why the church was so ut­terly threat­ened by the idea of the earth re­volv­ing around the sun. To be sure, cer­tain verses from scrip­ture seemed to sup­port the church’s po­si­tion, such as Psalm 93:1—“The world is firmly es­tab­lished; it can­not be moved”—and Psalm 104:5: He set the earth on its foun­da­tion; it can never be moved.” Also cited was Ecclesiastes 1:5: The sun rises and the sun sets, and hur­ries back to where it rises.” Today, few be­liev­ers ar­gue that the au­thors of these verses were in­tend­ing to teach sci­ence. Nonetheless, pas­sion­ate claims were made to that ef­fect, im­ply­ing that a he­lio­cen­tric sys­tem would some­how un­der­mine the Christian faith. (Page 155)

Stephen Jay Gould, who out­side of Dawkins is prob­a­bly the most widely read pub­lic spokesper­son for evo­lu­tion of the past gen­er­a­tion. Writing in an oth­er­wise lit­tle-no­ticed book re­view, Gould chas­tised the Dawkins per­spec­tive: To say it for all my col­leagues and for the umpteenth mil­lionth time: Science sim­ply can­not by its le­git­i­mate meth­ods ad­ju­di­cate the is­sue of God’s pos­si­ble su­per­in­ten­dence of na­ture. We nei­ther af­firm nor deny it; we sim­ply can’t com­ment on it as sci­en­tists. (Page 165)

Harkening back to Saint Augustine’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Genesis 1 and 2, how­ever, and re­mem­ber­ing that he had no rea­son to be ac­com­mo­dat­ing to sci­en­tific ev­i­dence about evo­lu­tion or the age of the earth, it is clear that the ul­tra­lit­eral YEC views are in fact not re­quired by a care­ful, sin­cere, and wor­ship­ful read­ing of the orig­i­nal text. In fact, this nar­row in­ter­pre­ta­tion is largely a cre­ation of the last hun­dred years, aris­ing in large con­se­quence as a re­ac­tion to Darwinian evo­lu­tion. (Page 174)

Young Earth Creationism does even more dam­age to faith, by de­mand­ing that be­lief in God re­quires as­sent to fun­da­men­tally flawed claims about the nat­ural world. Young peo­ple brought up in homes and churches that in­sist on Creationism sooner or later en­counter the over­whelm­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence in fa­vor of an an­cient uni­verse and the re­lat­ed­ness of all liv­ing things through the process of evo­lu­tion and nat­ural se­lec­tion. What a ter­ri­ble and un­nec­es­sary choice they then face! (Page 177)

God, who is not lim­ited in space or time, cre­ated the uni­verse and es­tab­lished nat­ural laws that gov­ern it. Seeking to pop­u­late this oth­er­wise ster­ile uni­verse with liv­ing crea­tures, God chose the el­e­gant mech­a­nism of evo­lu­tion to cre­ate mi­crobes, plants, and an­i­mals of all sorts. Most re­mark­ably, God in­ten­tion­ally chose the same mech­a­nism to give rise to spe­cial crea­tures who would have in­tel­li­gence, a knowl­edge of right and wrong, free will, and a de­sire to seek fel­low­ship with Him. He also knew these crea­tures would ul­ti­mately choose to dis­obey the Moral Law. (Page 200)

I do not be­lieve that the God who cre­ated all the uni­verse, and who com­munes with His peo­ple through prayer and spir­i­tual in­sight, would ex­pect us to deny the ob­vi­ous truths of the nat­ural world that sci­ence has re­vealed to us, in or­der to prove our love for Him. (Page 210)

Proverbs 19:2 warns against this kind of well-in­ten­tioned but mis­in­formed re­li­gious fer­vor: It is not good to have zeal with­out knowl­edge.” (Page 230)

Believers would do well to fol­low the ex­hor­ta­tion of Copernicus, who found in the dis­cov­ery that the earth re­volves around the sun an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate, rather than di­min­ish, the grandeur of God: To know the mighty works of God; to com­pre­hend His wis­dom and majesty and power; to ap­pre­ci­ate, in de­gree, the won­der­ful work­ing of His laws, surely all this must be a pleas­ing and ac­cept­able mode of wor­ship to the Most High, to whom ig­no­rance can­not be more grate­ful than knowl­edge.” (Page 230)

I hes­i­tate, how­ever, to ad­vo­cate very strongly for faith-based bioethics. The ob­vi­ous dan­ger is the his­tor­i­cal record that be­liev­ers can and will some­times uti­lize their faith in a way never in­tended by God, and to move from lov­ing con­cern to self-right­eous­ness, dem­a­goguery, and ex­trem­ism. (Page 271)

Thoughts? Questions? Feel free to reach out to me at matt.bax­ter@gmail.com.