Today we begin the first 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: You are an unusual evangelical in that you don’t struggle with the relationship between evolution and your faith. Has this never been an issue for you?
Francis Collins: I had a problem in terms of the counterintuitive nature of evolution. Remember, I had no meaningful exposure to biology in my formal education until I was already a graduate student.
I learned biology in a high school class in a little town in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia—if it mentioned evolution, I don’t remember that at all. It was purely descriptive: “Here’s how we classify organisms; here’s how you memorize the parts of the crayfish;” and that’s what it was all about. I don’t think I really had much exposure to the whole concept other than just knowing “Oh yeah, there’s this vague concept that’s out there called evolution.”
I had an issue how counterintuitive it is. Almost everybody encounters this when they first bump into this concept. And it was, of course, difficult for Darwin at first, too, to get his mind around so we shouldn’t feel like we’re all so stupid, if it takes a little while! We are so tied up in our natural daily experiences that being able to imagine what could happen over hundreds of millions of years in very small increments is just not something that comes naturally.
KG: As someone who takes both the Bible and evolution seriously, is there any point when you said, “Well, wait a minute, it’s really tough to put things together at this point?” Did this harmony really just come naturally?
FC: You know, it really did come naturally. I was aware that there was an issue that some people had about this. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in this little town outside of Chapel Hill. And I’m sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis quite literally.
I couldn’t take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then just by definition, there could not be an irreconcilable conflict between these perspectives. It just was a matter of working out the details. It did not seem to me that there was likely to be anything irreconcilable here, just that there had been misunderstandings along the way in terms of how people had interpreted the first book in the Bible. When I read Genesis, I had to say “I don’t know what this means here”, even before I read any commentators on it. It seemed to me that this was not a part of the Bible that read as the record of an eyewitness, so it shouldn’t therefore be taken as such.
KG: You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this. The fundamentalists grow up with a lot of confidence in the Bible and then they encounter evolution so they are bringing their prior confidence in the Bible to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue to worry about. You had developed enough confidence in evolution so then when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity— we don’t think of a moving earth as a problem so we don’t even notice the biblical problems.
FC: Right, right. They haven’t noticed those issues because they weren’t pointed out for a long time. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity versus geocentricity. The fundamental nature of evolution is a comment on our biological nature and that’s a lot closer to the “image of God” concept than whether the earth floats around the sun or the other way around. So I don’t think it’s a perfect parallel, though I wish it were. I wish we could say, “We can get comfortable with evolution now just as easily as the church has gotten comfortable with heliocentricity.”