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Featuring guest Francis Collins

Finding a New Story

Collins sat down with us at his home to talk about his own journey in finding a harmony between faith and science and he shares stories of some of the people in his life who were influential in his conversion from atheism to Christianity.


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Collins sat down with us at his home to talk about his own journey in finding a harmony between faith and science and he shares stories of some of the people in his life who were influential in his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.

Collins sat down with us at his home to talk about his own journey in finding a harmony between faith and science. He talks about the early part of his career studying medicine and leading the Human Genome Project, shares stories of some of the people in his life who were influential in his conversion from atheism to Christianity, and discusses the role that music has played in his life.

Music in this episode included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky, conductor. No changes were made. Usage: Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

This episode was hosted by Jim Stump alongside Deb Haarsma and produced by Colin Hoogerwerf.


Transcript

Collins:

Rationality can carry you all the way up to the edge of belief, but at some point you have to look into your own heart and realize there’s something profound here about our own aspirations, our own human behaviors, our own shortcomings that needs a divine solution. 

Stump:

That was Francis Collins, the founder of BioLogos and the current director of the National Institutes of Health. 

Welcome to Language of God a brand new podcast from BioLogos that will explore the harmony between science and Christian Faith. I’m Jim Stump, the Senior Editor at BioLogos, and I’m pleased to be joined in this episode by BioLogos President Deb Haarsma.

Haarsma:

It’s very good to be here Jim.

Stump:

We’ve been talking about a podcast for a while now. 

Haarsma:

Oh, we’re so excited to be entering the podcast world. People have been asking us for years for a podcast. I know how hard it is to find time to watch a video lecture, but you can listen to audio anytime whether you’re driving or running or washing the dishes. So a podcast is a great medium for some of the long form conversations we have at BioLogos to go and dialogue with people of differing views or to tell the long stories of some of the great people in our network. 

Stump:

Well how cool is it that for this first episode we got to sit down and record a conversation with Francis Collins?

Haarsma:

Oh it was so cool that afternoon recording that with him. 

Stump:

For those listening who may not know who he is, can you give him a proper introduction?

Haarsma:

Well sure. Francis Collins is one of the top scientists in the world. He led the international Human Genome Project which was the first group to sequence the entire human DNA instruction book back in 2003. Since 2009 he has been the director of the National Institutes of Health, the largest support of biomedical research in the world. And Francis Collins is also a Christian. In 2006 he published his book The Language of God in which he describes his own conversion from Atheism to Christianty. And that book became a bestseller. And the huge response to the book inspired him to found BioLogos and we hear regularly from people whose lives have been impacted who have come to faith by hearing Francis Collin’s story. I’m honored to call him a friend as well.

Stump:

Listeners can also find out more about Francis Collins at the links in our show notes or by typing his name into our search bar at biologos.org. We had so much great material from our recording with Francis that we’re splitting it into two episodes. So in this first one we hear primarily about his own scientific background and work and how he came to Christian faith. Deb you’ve heard a lot of these stories before but we also got some new things from him. Give the listeners a little taste of what to expect?

Haarsma:

Yeah. he talked about some very new science, new treatment for sickle cell anemia. And they’re drawing on genetic engineering and using that along with some discoveries that Francis made decades ago about the genetic basis for the disease. And he said this disease is within 5 years of being cured. 

And then when we talked about his path from Atheism to Christianity he described some important conversations he had that I hadn’t heard about, of him talking with other believing scientists who first helped him understand the concept of grace—that we fall far short of God’s holiness and yet God accepts us because of the death of Jesus Christ.

Stump:

It really is his scientific excellence and humble Christian character that have inspired our work at BioLogos from the beginning.

Haarsma:

Yes, it’s very true.

Stump:

And of course you can’t talk to Francis long without music coming up.

Haarsma:

Yes. We got to sing with him that afternoon in his living room. 

Stump:

Well there’s a teaser for the end of the episode. Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview

Stump:

What were some of the experiences you had as a kid growing up that at least in retrospect now seemed to point you towards science as an educational track and then even a lifelong pursuit? 

Collins:

I grew up on a farm and my parents were doing the sixties thing except it wasn’t the sixties yet, so our farm had no indoor plumbing and we didn’t go to school. My mother taught us at home. Me and my three brothers. Until the sixth grade that’s how I learned things, which was a wonderful gift because my mother was a person who had the ability to make anything sound interesting and that’s how I learned to love learning was from her. And then we moved inro town and I went to public school and encountered chemistry in a high school class and realized this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a scientist. And since it was chemistry, I guess I want to be a chemist. That took me to UVA where I majored in chemistry. That took me to Yale where I got a PhD in physical chemistry and I kind of had ignored the things that were happening in biology because they seem so messy. Well, they were. 

Haarsma:

I had that experience too. Like I thought biology was really messy and imprecise and wasn’t interested in. I regret it now because…

Collins:

I was going to say that you were in the same camp as me because you loved mathematics as I did, loved the laws of physics that were so elegant and beautiful. They are. But I realized somewhere almost halfway through my PhD that I’d missed out on something happening with life science. This was when recombinant DNA was just kind of being invented and people were all abuzz about the fact that you could move pieces of DNA around and maybe that would be a way to cure terrible diseases. This was all new to me and I realized I need to learn more about this. And the more I learned, the more excited I got. And the more I realized, it’s probably calling to me as an alternative way to map out my own professional career. 

I was already married. I had a small child. I was a little bit in debt. Despite all of that, I decided to take a very large leap into a different pathway and apply to medical school. And somewhat to my surprise, I got in. I went to the University of North Carolina to learn about medicine and that kind of science. And very early in that process, genetics emerged as the perfect way to put together this mathematical, digital part of my brain with the part that I wanted to understand life and wanted to be able to do something with science that directly benefited people. So by the time I was two or three months into medical school, I knew I wanted to be a medical geneticist. Although I wasn’t quite sure what that was. And there weren’t too many people around me who were sure either. But somehow it had to make sense. Maybe, maybe somehow in my lifetime that might turn out to be relevant to medicine. Most people thought, probably not, but worth a try. 

Stump:

Did you have any inkling then of the dir[ection], how far genetics would progress during your lifetime to see the kind of genomic medicine that’s going on today? Was that even imagined? 

Collins:

No, absolutely not. The idea that we might actually read out all of the letters of the Human DNA instruction book, the genome, in my lifetime. Nobody even dared to think about that. At that point you could get a PhD for getting one or two letters of the DNA code and thinking you had it right. We had so far to go to contemplate it actually being applicable to medicine. Most of what genetics had to offer at that point was cytogenetics where you could look at chromosomes under the microscope. We had figured out that things like down syndrome were due to an extra chromosome, but that was sort of kind of it. So you might be able then as a geneticist to study people’s family history and make a prediction about whether a particular disease was going to happen or not—Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis or sickle cell disease. But you were like the bookie in Las Vegas, you were sort of guessing the odds, you weren’t really knowing whether it was going to happen or not, and you certainly weren’t the fixer where you might do something about it and actually help somebody who had one of these genetic diseases that was way out of reach. 

Stump:

Perhaps another example of that has to do with what you say was your first published paper after Medical School on fetal hemoglobin, which, as I understand it, is some of the basis of Sickle Cell Anemia. And now there is work going on at NIH that looks as though there may a cure for sickle cell anemia?

Collins:

This is so exciting. Yeah. After I finished medical school, did an internal medicine residency and then did a fellowship in medical genetics. I had to come up with a research plan and I worked on this question of how it is that some people with sickle cell disease have very mild symptoms and others have a severe lifelong, horrible experience. It turns out the people with the mild disease keep a certain protein called fetal hemoglobin on as adults. Whereas most of us turn that off, it’s very useful during fetal life and then you shift from fetal to adult during your first year. But some people, rare people don’t, and if they happen to also have sickle cell disease, it helps them a lot. So I studied a family that had what called hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin. And I found a single DNA letter that was responsible. It was the first time somebody had found a genetic mutation that was not in the protein coding part of the gene. It was in the regulatory part. So it changed whether that gene was on or off. And now here we are, 35 years later, it has now become possible to using gene editing, take out the bone marrow of somebody who has sickle cell disease, create that very same spelling change using CRISP-Cas, which is this wonderful gene editing system, expand those cells, give them back and provide a cure for sickle cell disease. It took a long time to get here, but this is one of the most exciting things that’s happening right now. We are going to see sickle cell disease cured in the next five years. 

Haarsma:

Wow. That is amazing. And what? How cool for you to have seen that change in your lifetime? 

Collins:

I never would have dreamed it when I was working on this as a postdoc thinking, well, this will be a nice academic experience and maybe it’ll teach us something about basic biology, but then it would actually lead to a cure. Unimaginable, back then. 

Haarsma:

Have you met any of the patients or families who are impacted by this?

Collins:

I have. We have a big program at NIH right now on sickle cell disease and some of these treatments that I’m talking about are actually being tested right now today and we are seeing people, after going through a pretty tough experience with the steps that it takes to get there, basically walking away saying, I’m a new person. I haven’t had a crisis now for months. One person who was really very much in bad shape, is now becoming a champion in Jujitsu. Now that’s quite a transformation in somebody’s life pathway on the basis of these kinds of genetic therapeutic approaches and that is a dream come true. 

[musical interlude]

Stump:

Let’s rewind a little bit to a human genome project then. So you’re this researcher minding your own business working on what other kinds of problems or scientific questions?

Collins:

So, yeah, after I finally got this training, I ended up at Michigan, on the faculty, taking care of patients and teaching medical students and doing research. And the big project in my lab became cystic fibrosis, to try to find the cause of that relatively common genetic disorder, which at that point was associated with survival only to your teens. And I saw patients with cystic fibrosis and longed to understand what the cause was. And we really didn’t know anything other than it’s inherited. It’s what you call recessive in terms of the risks. So if a parent has had an affected child, the next child has one chance in four of being affected also. So this was a big mystery that needed to be solved. There was no genome project at that point and our ability to travel around the 6 billion letters of the human genome was pretty rudimentary, but I invented a way to go faster to jump from one part to the next instead of having to walk. 

And that turned out to be useful. When you knew you were in the neighborhood of the gene but you wanted to find it in less than 20 years, jumping could really help you. So my lab paired up with another wonderful investigator in Toronto, Lap-Chee Tsui. We were kind of competing at first on cystic fibrosis and then we decided, oh, come on, let’s just work together on this. This is too important. So we merged our labs and there were a lot of driving up and down the road between Toronto and Ann Arbor. And in 1989 we got the answer. We found it. And it was very subtle, just three letters of the DNA code that were deleted, in people who had cystic fibrosis. But that was it. That was a big sort of proof of principle that you really could solve these mysteries of the thousands of genetic diseases that we’re still waiting for those kinds of answers. 

So it got everybody pretty jazzed. And I’m happy to say now looking back on it—that was 30 years ago—that this year we are seeing the development, they’re now in phase three trials, of targeted drugs based on understanding the details of what that gene does and what happens when there’s that misspelling that is going to make cystic fibrosis pretty much a disease. It’s almost compatible with a normal lifespan. Unbelievable getting to that kind of outcome because this was going to be a really hard problem. And I’m sorry it took thirty years. I wish it had been two. But we seem to be getting there. So yeah. Worked on that. Worked on Huntington’s disease. Worked on another disease called neurofibromatosis. 

But it was so clear to me if you really wanted to scale this, where you didn’t just do one disease hunt at a time, but you could actually tackle hundreds of them. You had to have a database of the genome. You had to be able to have a reference DNA sequence of all those letters on your computer so you could find what you’re looking for in much quicker and more efficient ways, so that every graduate student could do what it took two major labs five years to find cystic fibrosis.

Haarsma:

Because you didn’t have the internet back then…

Collins:

No. Fax Machines. Ugh.

Haarsma:

So it’s amazing how much progress you made even with technology that you had.

Collins:

And graduate students today, when they hear about this, they just think what? You really had to do that? You couldn’t just look it up? It wasn’t a click of your mouse? It seems so anomalous. I guess it was. And probably 20 years from now, what we’re doing today will seem anomalous. That’s a course that science is on. 

But anyway, I became a big fan of the idea that we ought to invest in a big biology project, which is to read out all the letters of the human genome, get them into the public domain, and accelerate progress for all of these diseases. It still needed answers. Ironically, not everybody agreed. This was pretty controversial.

Haarsma:

Really? 

Collins:

Oh yeah. Go back and read some of the commentaries in science journals in 1988, 89. The majority of the scientific community was opposed. 

Haarsma:

Really? 

Collins:

They said, yeah, this is not gonna work. It’s gonna take money away from my grant. That was a big part of the concern. It sounded like a money sink. And most offensive at all, they said, well, this is going to be such boring work that only mediocre scientists will want to do it.

Haarsma:

You’ve got to be kidding!

Collins:

Somebody made a joke that the real way to sequence the human genome is to assign to people in prison, 30,000 base pairs and then they’d get paroled. [laughs]

Yeah. They didn’t sort of grab onto the fact that this was actually going to be an amazing opportunity for technology development and bringing in all kinds of cool ideas from engineers and robotics people and computer scientists to take what had been really a cottage industry, whereas sequencing DNA was not for the faint hearted and required all kinds of manual manipulations and lots of radioactivity to something that you could do by highly automated processes at much higher accuracy and vastly lower cost and that was really what the genome project had to develop and did. 

Haarsma:

And so how long did it take for the first genome to be sequenced? 

Collins:

Well, yeah. The original promise by Jim Watson was it was going to take 15 years and when Jim promise that we all swallowed hard because we had no idea how that was gonna work. And if you asked Jim, he would say, well, I figured if the congress was going to support this, if it was longer than 15 years, they just wouldn’t get interested. If it was less that we probably couldn’t succeed. So I just made it up. 

Stump:

A very pragmatic estimation.

Collins:

So happily since I’m the guy that got asked to lead the enterprise in 1993, we did get done, not in 15 years, we got done in 13 years. Two years ahead of schedule. And there had been a budget that had been estimated and we came in 400 millions dollars under that. That shocked everybody in Washington DC.

Stump:

Four hundred million on a budget, total budget of what? 

Collins:

3 billion. 

Stump:

Of 3 billion. 

Collins:

Yeah. So ahead of schedule under budget. Wow. How often does that happen? 

Haarsma:

And how long and how much does it cost to make, sequence a genome today?

Collins:

Oh today. Right. So we have that 3 billion number now. If I wanted to get your genome sequenced today, first of all I could do it in 24 hours and it would cost 850 dollars.

Stump:

And that’s going to keep going down?

Collins:

That’s on the way down I think it will be to the hundred dollar genome in the next five or six years.

Stump:

And there’ll be an app on your iphone to drop some saliva. 

Collins:

Yeah, and probably most of us will want to have that information as part of our medical record because it can be really valuable in helping make the right decision when you get sick, is this the right diagnosis? Is this the right drug? All those things that the genome can inform and we’re all different and a lot of that’s reflected in our genomes and having that information accessible and usable for medical decision making is going to be really powerful. 

Stump:

Any guesses as to where genomic medicine will be in another 20 or 30 years? 

Collins:

Well, we’re right now invested in a major project to try to answer that question because we do believe this ought to have considerable value for personal medical care, both in terms of prevention and in terms of treatment of illness. But we don’t have all of the data necessary to prove that, so we’re in the process of enrolling no less than 1 million Americans in a project called All Of Us. A highly diverse group across the country with lots of racial and ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and asking those million people to be our partners in answering your question, by making available their electronic health records, by answering lots of questionnaires about themselves and by having their genome sequenced and also lots of other lab measures. And then this isn’t a one time deal. This is following those folks for years and years, probably decades to see what happens. That’s the kind of data we need to say, how could you use this information to stay healthy? We’re gonna have, I think as a result of that, a transformation of medicine that you will all benefit from. It will not happen overnight. This is a 10 or 15 year process before you really begin to have the evidence to know how to implement what we call precision medicine, where it’s not one size fits all anymore, it’s like, what’s going to be right for you. 

Haarsma:

I long for the day. 

[musical interlude]

Stump:

As we get further on in life, it’s interesting and perhaps even a bit perplexing to look back on some moments, some conversations, that at the time seemed insignificant and random, but now we understand these as crucial turning points, contributing importantly to the path that we take in life. There are a couple of those for you during medical school that we’d like to hear you talk and reflect on. First is the patient who posed a question that caused you to really think hard about faith. Can you tell us that story?

Collins:

Oh, I can see her in my mind’s eye right now. I went to medical school as an atheist and avoided discussions about faith and avoided medical school colleagues who were believers who wanted to talk to me about their faith. It was like, oh don’t sit with that person at lunch. Because it all made me very uncomfortable and I had no grounding in religion other than having been sent to church to learn music, which I learned, but I didn’t learn the rest of it at all. I thought it was a lot of hocus pocus. But as a third year medical student, you find yourself sitting at the bedside of people who are facing serious illness and in many instances illnesses that the medical care system had really no answers for. And so I got quite affected by that and watched these good North Carolina people facing the end of their lives and wondered what I would do. 

A particular patient that I was assigned to was a grandmotherly, lovely woman from rural North Carolina, had terrible advanced cardiac disease and daily episodes of crushing chest pain, which none of our medicines were helping much. And at the end of one of those pains where she was finally coming out of it and she was talking about how her faith saw her through and she knew her life was not going to last much longer, but Jesus was there with her. I listened somewhat awkwardly and she stopped and she said, you know doctor, I’ve told you about my faith and you never say anything. What do you believe, Doctor? Nobody had ever asked me that, in such an open, honest, wonderfully caring way. And I stammered something like, well, I don’t think I really know, where upon her eyes widened, like really? And I got out of the room as fast as I could. And that really tormented me for the next few days. 

Like, I’m supposed to be a scientist. I’m supposed to care about answering important questions. She just asked me a really important question that I realized I have absolutely nothing to go on in terms of how to answer it. I would identify myself as an atheist but it was because that was the answer I wanted, not because it was something that I’d actually explored. Maybe it’s time to explore it. 

I guess I was also aware at that point that there were people around me, some of my professors who I greatly admired, who were wonderfully compassionate role models, but also consummate scientists and some of them, it was clear, were believers. and I wondered how that could be. And I assumed, well they must’ve had that stuff drummed into their head when they were kids and they could never quite get over it. But it sort of seemed like maybe I need to find out because these don’t seem like people who would have bought into some superstitious nonsense for their entire life without having some sense that there was truth there. So maybe time to explore. I thought I would undertake a search in order to strengthen my own atheism because I was pretty sure that’s what I would find. That’s not what I found. 

Stump:

The second one of these episodes, I’d like to hear a little bit more because I’ve only heard a little bit of this, is you then walking down the street to a Methodist minister’s house, who introduces you to C.S. Lewis. How does this happen? You know, this guy? It’s just sort of, I’m looking for the first church for somebody that might get me some answers?

Collins:

So at this point I lived on Old Hillsboro Road in Carboro, North Carolina and down the street was the Carboro United Methodist Church. And the pastor lived in house a couple doors away from that. My wife had visited his church once and said she thought this seemed like an approachable guy. She was a lot more interested in faith than I was. And so in an effort to try to find out why believers actually believe I went and knocked on his door and I sat with him for an hour. 

Stump:

What was the, what was the first question? So he comes to the door. How does this start? What’s this conversation like? 

Collins:

I said, “Hey Sam.” This is Sam Mcmillan who runs a retreat center in western North Carolina right now for pastors that are in life-crisis. “Hey Sam, I’m the guy who lives up the street here and I’m an intern in medicine and I’m interested in learning something about why believers believe, because I’ve observed that people seem to actually take this stuff seriously. I don’t have any background in that sort of thing. Maybe you could explain to me, how could a rational person actually sign up to some of these ideas about God without completely checking their brain at the door?” It was just about that blunt. 

Haarsma:

That’s wonderful. Makes me think like, what would I do if somebody was asking me that? What titles would I reach for?

Collins:

I wish I had the whole conversation written down in a transcript because I don’t remember a lot of the rest of what we talked about, but I do remember him reassuring me that there were lots of people who had asked this sort of question and who had found there were in fact answers and that belief in God could not only be something kind of Nice and something that maybe you could have an emotional attachment to but could actually be intellectually very satisfying. Really? And at some point then he said, “well, let me challenge you to read a book that I have here on my shelf. It’s not a very long book, but it’s written by somebody who asked the same questions you did and found a path forward and you could decide whether it fits you or not.” And he took this little book down and of course this was Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. 

And of course, C.S. Lewis had traveled the same pathway from atheism to belief, voicing many of the same objections that had bugged me, which as I began to read his book, realized had answers and at my own position on this was really that of a child not of somebody who thought the issues through at all. And in that very first chapter, all of my objections began to fall to pieces. That first chapter about the moral law. So he probably did the single most important thing to get my attention, was making that connection. I had trouble reading that book, I’ll tell you, I’d read a few pages—it’s disarmingly accessible, it seems so straight forward, but then you realize, oh my gosh, you just blew up my philosophy of life by that sentence you wrote there. I’ve got to think about that. It probably took me several weeks to get through to the end of the book. At which point I realized I had a serious problem maintaining my previous perspective, but I was a long way from buying into it. This was going to take a journey. 

Stump:

So I have a high enough view of providence to think that there may have been another path to get you to where you are now if that hadn’t happened, but wow, what an important conversation. Pastor Sam and his response in that moment has a huge impact on the direction that your life is going. 

Collins:

Yes, he did. And so I began to visit his church and listen to his views from the pulpit about what God is all about and this idea that God is not a harsh judge that’s out to catch you, but that God is about love. Sam’s favorite verse, John 10:10, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” The words of Jesus. Really? Really? Wow. That’s not the way I’d heard Christianity described. And Sam helped me through all those things. As did a few of my professors who I did finally go and say, “hey, I hear you believe in God and I’m trying to figure out what I think. Tell me how you got there.” A particular professor of medicine talked to me about his own recognition of the concept of grace. And that was really a moment of realization, both about what grace is and how badly all of us, including me, are in need of it. Because I was at this point of beginning to realize that there might be a God and God is—if there—the author of what we think of as good and evil. And that God is therefore representative of what is wonderful and holy. And I’m not. Just as God is beginning to emerge as a possibility, my own shortcomings and my incredible distance from what God probably wants me to be is emerging, as a really discouraging kind of part of all this. And then Hank Lasane, my medicine professor, teaches me about grace. 

And that may be was the moment where the Christian view of who God is began to make special sense. Because I was wrestling all through this time with, well, what about all those other world religions? And I should probably avoid becoming a Christian because it’s the obvious answer for somebody who’s growing up in the United States of America, so let me try to be something else. And I saw those world religions having an awful lot of similarities, but also this profound difference—the person of Jesus Christ and the meaning of the resurrection, which grace all kind of connected with, helping me see, yes, I am so far short of what I should be. And if God is holy, how could God possibly accept me? Oh, because of Jesus, because of that death on the cross that makes up for everything that I’m doing that’s wrong and all the things I should be doing that I’m not. That’s grace. That doesn’t allow me to give myself permission to continue in all those awful things, but I know I’m going to mess up and here is grace as a solution. That was pretty profound. 

Haarsma:

That’s amazing. I had heard more about the intellectual side of your journey, you know, reading Mere Christianity, but that conviction of how we need God’s grace and how amazing that is, that the Lord of the universe, holy, as he is willing to forgive us. 

Collins:

I can’t imagine getting to this point without having gone through that stage that you… Rationality can carry you all the way up to the edge of belief, but at some point you have to look into your own heart and realize there’s something profound here about our own aspirations, our own human behaviors, our own shortcomings that needs a divine solution. And that steps you into a different kind of discussion which is more theological than intellectual. Although they can be both. 

[musical interlude]

Haarsma:

There’s a story in your book about you volunteering as a doctor in West Africa. Can you tell us about that?

Collins:

As a Christian doctor wanting to find out how I could reach out in other ways, I did volunteer to serve in a missionary hospital in Nigeria a couple of times. Took my daughter with me, who at the time was a college student and then a medical student. It was a great father daughter experience. But the first time I went it was overwhelming. I was expecting to take care of a hospital full of very sick patients, many of them having diseases I’d only read about, I’d never actually seen. And every afternoon in the clinic seeing dozens and dozens of very sick patients and trying to understand what I could do for them. And I was pretty discouraged after the first week of being there, like I’m just not making much of a difference here. I thought, here I am, the western trained physician. I’m going to show up in this little missionary hospital and suddenly everything will be fine and people will be celebrating my arrival and all of my colleagues back in Michigan are going to say, “wow, you did that!” And instead it felt like it was just a drop in a huge ocean of public health disasters all around me. 

But I had the experience of being reminded why my conclusion was not actually the right one by taking care of a young farmer who showed up in the clinic with massive swelling of his legs that had come on, oh, just over a couple of weeks. And nobody knew why. And ultimately figuring out that he had tuberculosis and that he had developed what’s called a pericardial effusion of tuberculous fluid around his heart. So his heart couldn’t expand anymore. It was basically trapped in this bucket of water and the only way to save him was to put a needle into that very sensitive place and draw the fluid, which I had never done. And I wasn’t even absolutely sure my diagnosis is right because there’s no equipment to prove that. Fortunately all went well. Diagnosis was right and after taking off a large volume of this fluid, he began to look a whole lot better almost immediately. And I felt briefly exhilarated like, okay, that was pretty dramatic. And then I went back to that same place of, yeah, but he’s got TB and we’re going to give him drugs, but he probably won’t be able to afford them for the nine months he needs to take them. And so this hasn’t accomplished very much. 

The next day I saw him on rounds, sitting on his bed reading his Bible, and he, as I came up to the bed, thanked me and then said, “i get the feeling that you’re new here.” Which was not what I wanted to hear. [laughs] I thought I looked very experienced. And I admitted, yes, I was there for my first week as a doc from the United States. And then he said something even more profound. He said, “well, I have the feeling that not only you’re new here, you’ve been wondering why you came here.” Now I was really shaken up. Was it that obvious? And he said, “I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me.”

And even as I tell that story now, it gives me chills and makes my eyes water because it was such a profound moment of realization that my ideas about being the great white doctor coming to save the nation was so completely off the mark and that all we ever really do as human beings, when we’re trying to reach out to people, is done one person at a time. And for that moment, this Nigerian farmer who could not be more different from me in culture and experience than I was, taught me a lesson, a really important lesson, about what it means to beat part of God’s plan and that’s God’s plan. I shall not forget that.

[musical interlude]

Stump:

So philosophers have this nasty habit of trying to make things more complicated and obfuscate rather than clearing things up.

Collins:

They do don’t they. Are you about to do that? 

Haarsma:

He’s warned us, so. 

Stump:

We sometimes like to talk about a difference between the logic of discovery versus the logic of justification, in the sense that there are lots of different stories of how, in this case, in how people have come to faith, as opposed to the reasons that they give now for justifying or this rationality of their faith. So for instance, I know personally somebody who became a Christian because they were handed in evangelistic tract on a street corner. They put it in their pocketm later that night sitting by himself, he pulled it out and had a profound spiritual experience. I know another guy who became a Christian by attending a prophecy conference about end times. And he’d be the first one to tell you now that that’s probably not the best justification, but it was his story of how he came to faith. 

Collins:

It opened the door.

Stump:

In your own life, do you see any difference between the process, the things that happened, those triggers for you, of becoming a Christian versus now when you’re asked, why are you a Christian? What is that rational side behind being a person of faith? 

Collins:

There’s a strong overlap with how I came to faith, but there’s so much has been added to it since then, as a believer over these now 40 years, that strengthens my confidence in where I landed. Being clear of course that all of us, if we’re honest, have doubts about where we’ve landed. I do too. But certainly, I mean, look at the science evidence. I had not heard about this incredibly compelling story about the fine tuning of the universe until after I became a Christian. When I heard about it, I almost fell off the chair because it was such a bright light of evidence for the idea that the universe has a purpose and that there’s an amazing mathematician, physicist behind the whole thing to set all of the values of those constants to make anything interesting possible and the chances of that happening just by good luck or infinitesimal. 

That’s a pretty compelling case to add to what I now think of is sort of this foundation. I don’t think I had really thought until after I became a Christian about this really fundamental question about why science works. Why does the nature of things follow beautiful mathematical equations that I was so in love with when I was an atheist graduate student studying quantum mechanics? Why should that work? There’s no obvious reason why Maxwell’s equation should describe electromagnetism so simply and I will say beautifully. And again that points to an intelligence behind all of this that’s breathtaking in its sweep and certainly doesn’t fit with the strictest form of hard edged atheism which denies the possibility of any such intelligence. So you add to it as you go along, but I still hang a lot on that foundation of what got me to open my eyes and to look at this. 

[musical interlude}

Stump:

What’s been the place of music in your life? 

Collins:

Music has always been a critical part of experience for me in part because it’s a great way to unwind. Maybe more importantly because it feels like a way to get in touch with the more spiritual parts of myself when I spend a lot of my time very much focused on evidence and facts and graphs and experiments and music pulls you into a different place. 

I’m having fun right now in a project with the Kennedy Center and we can see when you put somebody in an MRI scanner and have a musical experience where they’re listening to something profound. For me, that would be the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Funeral march [Third Symphony playing]

I always get this remarkable whole body experience of a chill when that happens. If I was in a scanner, you would see dopamine going crazy at that point in my ventral striatum. Does that mean that chill was less meaningful? No. It sure doesn’t. But it will help us in medical ways, and it will in non-medical ways, shed light on the essence of a lot of who we are, including spiritual experiences and emotional experiences and how intellectual rationality works. I hope we’re ready for that. I think we should be. I think it’ll be fascinating and I’m not at all concerned that this will result in some downgrading of the awesome nature of the human brain. I think it will be upgraded.  

Music also is a wonderful way to bring people together, whether it’s a worshiping together at a BioLogos meeting in New York or whether it’s a music party that Diane and I will have, and Deb has been to one of these, right here in our house where 50 or 60 people just get together to sing for three or four hours and it just draws something out of people, out of all of us, that seems really significant, really meaningful, enriches your whole sense of joy. [Francis playing guitar and singing] So it’s a special opportunity. And it’s fun. It’s also an opportunity to just, especially if you can jam with people and you’re not quite sure where the song is going and who’s going to take a lick here and who’s going to jump in there. You can really stretch yourself. 

Stump:

How did music come about in your life, growing up? 

Collins:

Music was in my life from the moment I was born. My father was a folk song collector for a long time in North Carolina. If you go to the library of Congress, you’ll see a lot of the collection of Fletcher Collins. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a television so what you did after dinner was play music. So I learned to play keyboards when I was four or five years old and guitar a little bit after that. My Dad played either the fiddle, if it was a fiddle music, or he played the violin—it happened to be the same instrument—if it was chamber music. He could do both. It was just so much an enriching part of my growing up experience that I never walked away from it. I never want to. 

Stump:

You’ve graciously sat here and answered everything we’ve thrown at you. 

Haarsma:

Oh, thank you for that

Collins:

And it was all really appropriate and wonderful. 

[conversation fades out and faces into Francis, Deb, and Jim playing and singing Great is Thy Faithfulness]

Credits

BioLogos

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf, with additional production assistance by Truth Works Media. Beethoven’s Funeral March was recorded by Boston Symphony Orchestra. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website BioLogos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks!


Featured guest

BioLogos - Francis Collins

Francis Collins

Francis Collins is one of the world's leading scientists and geneticists, and the founder of BioLogos, where he is now a Senior Fellow. In his early scientific career, he discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. Then he led an international collaboration that first mapped the entire human genome. For that work he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. In 2008 he was appointed to his current role as Director of the National Institutes of Health, where he has been overseeing the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2006, Collins wrote the best-selling book The Language of God. It tells the story of his journey from atheism to Christian belief, showing that science actually enhances faith. The tremendous response to the book prompted Collins to found BioLogos. He envisioned it as a forum to discuss issues at the intersection of faith and science and to celebrate the harmony found there. His reputation quickly attracted a large network of faith leaders, including Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, and NT Wright. These and others joined the BioLogos conversation and affirmed the value of engaging science as believers. BioLogos is now an organization that reaches millions around the world. In celebration of his world-class scientific accomplishments and deep Christian faith, Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2020. It honors 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.” He joined a prestigious group of previous winners, including Mother Teresa, Francis Ayala, Charles Townes, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham.

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