Francis Collins: A worthy recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize
Reflecting on the accomplishments and character of our founder, Francis Collins.
I remember the first time I met Francis Collins in person. It was at a 2010 BioLogos conference, soon after the organization was founded and long before I became president. I saw this incredible scientist, sitting in the front row, eagerly listening to pastors, theologians, and fellow scientists like a kid in a candy shop. I learned that he was required to take vacation days to keep the conference separate from his role as Director of the National Institutes of Health, but for him it really was a vacation, a chance to dwell in this interdisciplinary discussion that he loves. And when he got up to speak, the tone he brought to the whole event was amazing. Few individuals bring together such incredible scientific expertise, deep personal humility, genuine faith in Christ, and a desire for dialogue with those who hold other views. The conference participants held differing views on evolution and Genesis, but when Francis pulled out his guitar and led us in worship, our differences faded away. We were all Christians together, united in praise of our Savior and Creator.
Francis is a very worthy recipient of the Templeton Prize, one of the largest annual awards given to an individual in the world. Even if you aren’t familiar with the Prize, you’ve probably heard of the winners. Previous recipients include global Christian leaders like Mother Teresa, Charles Colson, and Billy Graham, and top scientists like cosmologist Martin Rees, biologist Francis Ayala, and physicist Charles Townes. The award was recently refocused on honoring individuals who are “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” Even among this incredible list of recipients, Francis stands out for bringing together both world-class scientific accomplishments and a deep orthodox Christian faith, all in a life of humility and service. As we continue to pursue the vision Francis gave when he founded BioLogos a little over a decade ago, we are delighted to add our congratulations as he receives this prestigious award.
As a physician and geneticist, Francis was the first to find the gene for cystic fibrosis. He went on to lead an international collaboration that mapped the entire human genome for the first time, for which he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. He now leads the National Institutes of Health, where he has launched major initiatives in neuroscience, precision medicine, and opioid addiction. Scientists of his caliber are often assumed to be atheists, or at least not practicing Christians. And yet as the BioLogos community has grown, we’ve been joined by numerous dedicated Christians like Francis who have made great achievements in scientific research. Just a glance at the BioLogos Board of Directors shows scientists who are public about their faith at Oxford, Cornell, University of Wisconsin, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and there are many more. At BioLogos we are eager to show how science—whether evolution, the environment, or bioethics—can and should be thoughtfully engaged by Christians.
“As a Christian for 43 years,” Francis writes, “I have found joyful harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, and have never encountered an irreconcilable difference.” Science does not require rejection of God.
Francis openly tells the story of how he moved from atheism to faith in Jesus Christ (I encourage you to read, watch, or listen) as he struggled with the meaning of life while interacting with the sick and dying in medical school. When he shared his story in The Language of God, the book provoked much curiosity and became an instant best-seller. It has now been translated into 24 languages! Scientists who know the caliber of his research were sometimes surprised (or concerned) that he was talking about God. Meanwhile Christians who loved his testimony were sometimes surprised (or concerned) that he was talking about evolution! The tremendous response prompted Francis to found BioLogos as a forum to discuss issues at this intersection and celebrate the harmony of rigorous science and biblical faith. His reputation quickly attracted a large network of faith leaders. Top pastors, authors, and theologians like Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, Richard Mouw, Justo Gonzalez, Claude Alexander, and N.T. Wright joined the BioLogos conversation and affirmed the value of engaging science as believers. This isn’t just a sidebar conversation for scientists, but a way for all people to learn about God’s creation and enrich our walk with him. Francis often points to Matthew 22:36-37, where Jesus tells his disciples the greatest commandment, to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” “That means that science is not only a stimulating intellectual exercise, not only an amazing detective story—it can also be a form of worship.” Christian faith does not require checking your brain at the door.
Beyond particular religious beliefs or scientific views, Francis is loved and respected for his character. He does more than make the intellectual case for faith—he lives it out. My favorite example is his friendship with the late Christiopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist and aggressive critic of any religious belief (watch my conversation with Francis about Hitchens). Francis met him through a public debate and went on to build an unlikely friendship. When Hitchens fell ill, Francis visited him as a physician, working to connect him with the latest cutting-edge treatments. He truly loved his “enemy.” BioLogos strives to live out Christian character every day, in the tone we use to speak about other views and in the dialogues and friendships we form across differences. Christians can disagree with others about important issues without descending into nasty rhetoric.
Francis is dedicated in his service to patients, to the church, and to the world. As the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up this spring, his work at NIH became even more intense. He is leading and inspiring a broad coalition of scientists and physicians, both within and beyond NIH, to combat this disease. Countless physicians are dedicated to service, but believing physicians and researchers like Francis Collins are serving out of obedience to Christ’s call to love our neighbors. “I grieve at the suffering and death I see all around,” he writes. “But then I remember that the God who hung on the cross is intimately familiar with suffering. I learn and re-learn that God never promised freedom from suffering—but rather to be ‘our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Psalm 46).” The science-faith intersection is more than an academic conversation, it calls us to compassion and service.
Life through the Word
Francis coined the term “BioLogos” from the Greek “bios” for life and “logos” for word. The term means “life through the Word,” echoing the creation of all things through Jesus Christ as described in the opening words of the John’s Gospel. Following Francis’ vision, BioLogos brings together the natural world and faith in Christ on a growing list of topics: science as a Christian vocation, astronomy, evolution, being human, bioethics and gene-editing, ecology and the environment, and now the pandemic. The organization Francis started is reaching more people than ever. Prior to the pandemic, about ten thousand people a year heard BioLogos speakers at conferences, churches, and universities. Over a million people a year visit the BioLogos website and our social media channels. Our podcast and soon-to-be-released high school curriculum supplement are reaching homes and classrooms around the world. And it all began with the vision of Francis Collins.
Congratulations, Francis! Your life and witness will continue to inspire countless people to discover the harmony between science and biblical faith.
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