This is the fifth in a six part discussion between BioLogos vice-president Karl Giberson and founder Francis Collins, co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (note: Francis Collins' work on this project was completed prior to his appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health). The conversation first appeared as "Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature" in Books and Culture and took place during a conference at Azusa Pacific University in 2008.
Karl Giberson: Have you found that evangelicals are impressed enough with your credentials to listen to you? Many people in your audiences raise “Creationism 101” objections, so they aren’t going to dismiss those concerns out of hand because you “refuted” them in your talk.
Francis Collins: And I would not want them, in one hour’s lecture, to suddenly say, “Ok, you must be right, everything I’ve learned for the last eighteen years is wrong.” That would not be expected, but I give them credit for wanting to engage in the topic as opposed to immediately shutting down and saying, “Oh, it’s one of those evolution guys and I was warned about them and I’m going to stop this thing right now.” And that’s the right reaction which, I think, is more common amongst those who have really been indoctrinated with the younger creationist perspective from the pulpit at Sunday school and maybe for their home schooling curriculum who have basically been warned as part of the process, “You will encounter people who will try to tell you that evolution is true – they are from the devil. Don’t even talk to them or you may yourself find that you got caught into this and basically that you’ll lose your faith". That’s the threat – you will lose your faith, because the whole foundation of belief in God requires evolution not to be true.
KG: What a terrible trend in churches.
FC: What an awful circumstance we’ve put young people in. Many of them who are sending emails every week in crisis trying to figure out whether, if the church is lying to them about the origins, has the church lied to them about the whole thing? The God of all truth cannot be served by such a noble lie and yet the church in many ways has been caught up in that, despite their best intentions to tell the truth.
KG: How far into this literalist community of evangelicals have you been able to move? Do you speak in Southern Baptist churches ever?
FC: I have. It hasn’t gone particularly well!
KG: How did it go? What happened to you there?
FC: I’ve had people get up and walk out. And I’ve had people come to the microphone clearly very upset and incensed, and basically imply that I am under the influence of the dark forces. I got an email the other day that would make your hair stand on end. I mean, I also get some fairly unpleasant emails from the atheistic scientific community, but the nastiest ones come from believers who are just incensed that someone who claims to be a believer could say these things about the truth of the evolutionary process and that I am clearly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I’m allying with the devil. I think I’ve been excommunicated a couple of times even though I’m not Catholic!
And you know, when I read those things it doesn’t make me angry—it just makes me sad that there has been such an indoctrination about this point, certainly not the core of our faith at all, that it has caused people who are exposed to the resounding love of God’s laws to it have such a violent reaction against another perspective, to another believer. We’ve gone so far out of where God would have wanted us.
KG: So do you sort of walk around within the liberal fringe of the evangelicals?
FC: I don’t know exactly where the fringes are. Evangelicals are evolving under the forces of natural selection! I think there have been some mutations in evangelicalism, particularly in the last few years, that are turning out not to be reproductively fit. And that in fact, in terms of expanding the fold, particularly in drawing young people, we need to see some changes, some positive selection, if you will, to bring us back to the core of what evangelicals were supposed to be, which is sharing the good news of God’s love. And that has been so pushed aside by of all these other sort of other rants, whether it’s about same-sex marriage, or whether it’s about some political issue, like stem cells, or whether it’s about being opposed to evolution. And I don’t think in the long term that’s compatible with an acceptable future for the whole field of what it means to be an evangelical.
I’m delighted to see that there is an evangelical manifesto about to come out by those who have been exposed to the main stream of this enterprise—people like Rick Warren, who basically say that we’ve been on the wrong track and it’s time to move the center back to the center instead of being only here on the edge. That is allowing political influences to trump what that core of our faith is supposed to be about, allowing the sort of closing of evangelical minds that Mark Noll talked about to continue in a way that is bad for attracting anybody with intellectual interest to come and join.
We need to come back to where the center of our faith really is and I’m very fond of noting what Christ said, “The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” He put mind in the list, even though it was not in the list in Deuteronomy that he’s quoting from, and on that point, have we been loving Jesus and have we been loving the Lord our God with all our mind, or have we been afraid to do that? I think God gave us this incredible gift of intellect and curiosity and this wonderful diversity of exploration that we can make to learn how the universe works and I think he expected us to use that to worship him. And yet, in a certain way, evangelicals at the extremes have seen that as a threat, like somehow we have to protect God against those scientists who are discovering things about God’s creation that don’t fit with what we thought the answer would be. How anomalous! They don’t have enough faith. If you had complete faith in God the Creator, you’re not going to worry about what we learn about God’s creation! It’s an opportunity to expand your sense of worship. But what a crazy spot we’re in.