I am just about finished with Francis Collins’s The Language of God, and am quite pleased. Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project and has described its work and value for a general audience. That would be a commendable exercise in itself, but he takes on a greater task of integrating faith and science. Many writers attempt that, but Collins brings a rare honesty and intellectual rigor to the discussion.
You wouldn’t think I would judge any writer as having used CS Lewis too much, but the first few chapter of this book may actually fit that category. I usually have the opposite impression, that people who purport to have thought and studied deeply on a subject have tied themselves in useless knots by neglecting to look up the deft, clear words of Lewis on the topic. Yet even I was worried at first that Dr. Collins had gone too far. Not to worry. He weaves in many writers and thinkers in his recounting of his own faith-journey and his professional career in medicine and biochemistry. Augustine assumes especial prominence in some sections.
The book speaks with admiration for the scientific work of both believers and non-believers Collins has encountered, whether personally or in reading. There is no tearing down of anything but ideas; he gives credit for goodwill and sincerity to all parties. Because he finds most popular description of the most common points of view inadequate, he coins his own term BioLogos, for his particular intersection of creation and evolution.
In pointing out the weaknesses of Young Earth Creationism on both theological and scientific grounds he is quite kind. He gives considerable credit to the thinking behind Intelligent Design, though he ultimately finds it unsatisfying and rapidly eroding in value. Collins believes quite forcefully in evolution by random selection, and explains why in direct terms. Those of you who know Christians who have married their theology to Young Earth Creationism might want to leave this book lying around where they can find it.
There are various polls which suggest that 30-45% of Americans believe in Young Earth Creationism. That would indeed be appalling, but I think these numbers mislead. People believe contradictory things all the time because they really don’t think about them much. Most people believe in the Ice Age, the distance of the stars, the age of the earth, cavemen, the erosion of the Grand Canyon and a dozen other things incompatible with YEC. But when official persons asking questions corner them, they don’t want to be caught not being on God’s “side.” They think that a secular society is taking God out of circulation altogether too much, and they want to put in their vote that think He’s in charge. When you press people, it turns out that they would rather not risk heresy, and so give what they think is the spiritually safe answer. To do otherwise would seem disloyal and faithless to them.
I sent my sons to Christian schools which taught YEC, though they were often taught at least the rudiments of evolutionary theory as well. It was a bit of a balancing act to undermine that particular teaching without undermining the school, and keeping things age-appropriate for sons four years apart added to the difficulty. But we managed, and I always thought “better that problem than its opposite.” With the two younger boys, rescued by fundamentalist Romanian Baptists from the mouth of hell, it was always harder for them to move away from biblical literalism. And frankly, they don’t think about it much and it doesn’t matter. One is going to be an auto tech, the other an accountant.
Fundamentalists like to talk about “stumbling blocks” for others, and they use this doctrine to forbid things the Bible does not forbid, like drinking, rock music, smoking, movies, and dancing. But Young Earth Creationism is a much greater stumbling block for unbelievers and new believers. Jesus railed against Pharisees making up new rules for the people to live by if they wanted to be right with God. YEC fits this exactly. As far back as Augustine and Jerome biblical scholars were puzzled by the different style of Genesis chapters 1-14, especially 1-3, and seeing deeply symbolic lessons rather than recounted history there. These views of Genesis did not come in response to pressure from the sciences that seemed to call the facts into question, for there was no such pressure from science then. The scholars came to these views on the basis of the texts alone.
YEC has gotten into bizarre territory as time as gone on. Some are trying to sell the idea that God put these bones in the ground, and these moving stars, and these eroded canyons in place that just look like they are old. They say, God can do anything, He could do that. Okay, sure, but why would He want to? What’s your idea of God that He would think deceiving humanity would be a good idea? It is stuff like this that drives our young people out of the church. It’s not that they “just want to fit in with the world.” That’s our rationalization. It’s the intellectual cowardice that loses them.
Earnest young Christian musicians and popular preachers will tell you that people reject the church because we don’t show enough love, or generosity, or godliness. They will try to inspire the flock by declaring that people would believe if we really acted like the Good Samaritan, or lived by the Beatitudes, or forgave 70 times 7. That’s partly true. That would certainly help. But while many nonbelievers may say that what bothers them is the hypocrisy or the unforgiveness, I don’t believe them. Much of that is just an excuse by nonbelievers – I say that because I have seen too many people who were recipients of generosity and forgiveness who nonetheless rejected the faith.
Certainly many have believed false history of the church and attribute many ills to us unfairly, and it would be good to correct the record. But if you want to identify the #1 long-term stumbling block for those outside the faith, or those considering leaving it, look no further than Young Earth Creationism. Equating loyalty to God with loyalty to a particular way of reading the Scriptures is placing a Pharisaic, man-made burden on the people.
Now, all those objections to my view that some of you are sure I have never heard or haven’t considered, all that really compelling data from the Institute for Creation Research – take a breath and consider that maybe I have seen it and find it not very convincing. More importantly, Dr. Collins, whose credentials are far better than mine, has seen it and has ready answers.