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N.T. Wright & Francis Collins | A Christian Response to Coronavirus

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, what should be the Christian response? Bible scholar N.T. Wright and BioLogos founder Francis Collins, ponder this question and more. 


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statue with communion cup and mask

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, what should be the Christian response? Bible scholar N.T. Wright and BioLogos founder Francis Collins, ponder this question and more. 

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.
  • Originally aired on July 16, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, what should be the Christian response? Bible scholar N.T. Wright and BioLogos founder Francis Collins, two influential Christian figures and long-time friends, ponder this question and more. 

This conversation was originally broadcast live on July 12, 2020.

Additional Resources


Transcript

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. We’re still talking coronavirus. Some people had predicted this would all be a distant memory by now. I think it’s safe to say that none of them were actual scientists, working with the data and understanding the gravity of the situation. There are exceptions of course, but scientists are generally pretty cautious and not given to sensationalism. All the more reason to take their advice seriously. And we’ve been thrilled to be able to go straight to the top of the biomedical research community and talk several times already with Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health. Before he had that job, he did a little thing which surely ranks among the greatest scientific achievements in the history of our species: he led the human genome project, which unraveled and mapped out our DNA. In between these posts, he wrote the best-selling book, The Language of God, after which this podcast is named, and he founded BioLogos. And most recently, he has been named this year’s Templeton Prize winner, succeeding people like Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham.

In conversation with him today is another long-time friend of BioLogos—biblical scholar Tom Wright. The section of N.T. Wright books on my bookshelf is among the longest by any single author. He writes careful and penetrating scholarly work—for instance I’ve written on the BioLogos website about slogging through his 800 page tome for Lent a few years ago, The Resurrection of the Son of God. But he also engages a more general readership and has deeply influenced and corrected the way many of us understand the Gospel story, through books like Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope. And there are at least 80 other books he’s authored. So it’s no surprise that he was among the first to have a book published reflecting theologically on the Coronavirus, called God and the Pandemic.

Tom Wright and Francis Collins are both extraordinarily busy right now with the increased demand for their expertise during this pandemic. But when we asked if they might squeeze in one more appearance to talk about the science and faith of COVID-19 with each other, they both readily agreed. This interview originally aired live and viewers had a chance to submit their own questions, so you’ll hear some of those sprinkled throughout. You can find a link to the video in the show notes. And, we had a surprise musical duet from Francis and Tom which you’ll hear at the end of this show, so stay tuned for that. 

Now, let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Tom, Francis, welcome and thanks so much for sharing your time with us. I hope you’re each holding up okay.

Collins:

Yeah, doing okay. Hello, Jim. Hello, Tom.

Wright:

Yes. Hello and good to be with you one more time.

Stump: 

Well, you two have known each other for a while. Tom, can you tell us the story of how you first became acquainted?

Wright:

Well, I was in a previous job where I was extremely busy dashing in and out and one day my secretary said to me, “I’ve got somebody called Francis Collins on the phone for you.” And I thought, well, it can’t be the Francis Collins, so do I know a Francis Collins? And she said, “well, it’s a call from America.” So I thought, goodness, maybe it is the Francis Collins. And it was and I was astonished and delighted to discover that the Francis Collins had read some of my books, had actually found them helpful and wanted me to come on board with this BioLogos project that was just getting underway. I was flattered then and I am flattered still because I say right from the top, I am not a scientist. I did one year of physics and chemistry at school and dropped them as soon as I could, because I wanted to do the classics, as you can see from my bookshelves behind me. But I’ve been brought on board and it’s been fascinating. It’s been a real journey for me. And I’m very grateful to Francis for graciously bringing me in on the side as it were of what he was doing.

Stump:

What did you talk about on that call Francis?

Collins: 

Well, this was at the point where the Language of God had been published, and there was a great outpouring of responses coming into my email inbox that I couldn’t possibly figure out how to handle. I’m an amateur theologian at best. I’m a pretty good scientist but a lot of these questions were coming at me in ways that I needed help to try to figure out how best to respond in a way that would be faithful to Scripture and credible as far as science and also didn’t come down too harshly and on a particular answer if we are really quite sure in some instances what the answer should be. So I needed distinguished experts of all sorts, and what better expert in New Testament theology than N.T. Wright, I couldn’t imagine. And I was amazed he took the call. And not only took the call, but then subsequently he agreed to come and take part in these early meetings we had as part of BioLogos, in New York. And I learned so much every time I had a conversation with him or he took the podium to speak about something at this interface of science and faith. And then I discovered we had some other areas of shared interest like folk songs from the 60s, where we were able to find a shared repertory that maybe bored everybody else, but we had a wonderful time recreating all the Bob Dylan you can imagine and playing guitars together and figuring out how to make that sort of human connection as well. So yeah, we kind of bonded and I met Maggie, his wonderful wife. And it’s been a wonderful friendship ever since.

Wright:

Bless you. Thank you.

Stump:

So what stands out to each of you from some of those early BioLogos meetings that were gatherings of scientists and theologians, many of whom were a little nervous to be there even?

Wright:  

It’s fascinating to me looking from the other side of the Atlantic, because we don’t in Britain have quite the same standoff between science and faith that has been part of the American, I was gonna say, the American DNA, I better be careful how I say that in Francis’s presence. But the American way of life. Just so many people assume science and faith are totally irreconcilable. Of course, there are some people in Britain who still try and push that line. I mean, Richard Dawkins and his ilk. But actually most people, I think, in informed public life, see that as a kind of a rant and realize that there are many, many great scientists who are also believers and many believers who are also great scientists and they don’t seem to be fooling themselves. There seems to be something which they can hold on to together. And so for me looking both across the Atlantic and across the divide between theology and science, I see just all kinds of things. I always have loved the natural world and all that therein is and particularly, as Francis says, music and so on. And so I don’t just stay in a theological bubble, I want to relate that to everything else. And to find how that works with contemporary science has been really, really exciting. And some of those early BioLogos meetings forced me to articulate things about the New Testament and origins and so on, which I’ve not really had to think through in that way before and particularly to articulate the differences between American approaches to things and basically the rest of the world. And I hope that’s been useful, and it’s certainly been exciting for me.

Collins: 

It has most certainly been useful. And you’re right that in those early days of the BioLogos meeting, there was a lot more tension about, gosh, is it safe to be here? We had these deliberations about maybe we should have a statement that comes out of the first meeting or two. And some people are like, “Oh, I don’t think I could sign that because people would know I was here.” Because it was such a sense that science was a threat. And the idea that science is actually just another way of worshipping, of understanding God’s creation by using our brains and the tools that God has given us in science, that is an uneasy feeling. And it plays out even now, I’m sorry to say, as we’re about to talk about Coronavirus, I think we’re still in a place in the US where the church is not entirely comfortable with the scientific perspective on what’s happening.

Wright:

I see that looking across the Atlantic. And it’s both fascinating and worrying that…I was at a meeting in New York about 20 years ago where I was talking about climate change and I said something quite casually about the scientific evidence. And somebody said to me afterwards, you realize you just lost half your audience there. And I said, well, why? And they said, well, if you quote scientists, it’s assumed that you are a Darwinian and therefore you don’t really believe in God. I’ve had people email me and write me letters and say, what are you doing hanging out with that BioLogos crowd, shows you don’t really believe in God because you obviously believe in Darwin. And the idea that science equals Darwin and Darwin equals unbelief, this is just trivial. And we need to be able to get way beyond that. And part of the irony of this is that as I look at North American society, in general, I see quite a lot of social Darwinism still rampant, of the might-is-right doctrine, the survival of the fittest, in terms of how society works. And I think well hang on, if you’re so opposed to Darwin, how come you’re into all that, and so on and so on. But of course, today, Darwin is seen in Britain, certainly, as simply one among many Victorian pioneers, who needs to be put in his context, needs to be understood in his philosophical and cultural context, at a time when the middle classes were delighted to think of evolution because it meant, oh, we can actually develop and become more prosperous, and so on. So there’s all sorts of things going on there, which are quite different in America. And we never in Britain had a Scopes trial, for instance, that which was a defining moment. And I think this, Francis, says you’re still reaping the whirlwind from that in terms of people saying no scientific evidence, clearly not to do with faith. And so we of faith, have to ignore it and go somewhere else, which is just, right now, crazy as I think Francis and I would agree.

Collins:

I would agree, although I think I am somewhat encouraged and, Tom, I have to mention your role with BioLogos is having been such an encouragement to so many of us. People like yourself, like Tim Keller, other really serious deep Christian thinkers, recognizing that the science faith conflict need not be a conflict and was actually harmful to the faith, causing a loss of credibility for those who are promoting Christianity because they seem to be asking people to check their brains at the door and who would want to do that? And I would say over the last 15 years as this effort has been going on, and BioLogos now in place for more than 10, I get the feeling that there is more of a realization that these worldviews, of Christian spiritual respect for scripture and also an appreciation that science can teach you truth about nature, that those are complementary, they’re reinforcing, they’re harmonious. And a person would want to be able to wrap their arms around both without having their heads explode. And maybe we’re making some progress. We got a long way to go. But maybe some progress.

Wright:

I would like to hope so. And, you know, partly because, precisely because of your work, which has been so stellar. Anyway, that’s where we are.

Stump:  

Well, let’s get to this topic at hand here. Francis, we last talked in the middle of May, then lamenting the fact that we had just reached 100,000 COVID infections in the US. Now we’re over 3 million in the US and 12 million worldwide and COVID deaths are currently over 130,000 in the US and half a million worldwide. Give us an update, if you would from your vantage point on this pandemic.

Collins:

Sure, well, let’s talk about this beast. This is my 3D model of the Coronavirus that is causing us all such terrible grief. Doesn’t look like much, but if it gets inside one of your cells, it’s very good at replicating itself and making gazillions of copies and spreading to your cells and then also allowing you to spew it out when you cough or sneeze or even speak, so that others who are in your vicinity, getting one of those droplets into their airway, then become infected. This particular virus is particularly diabolical because of its ability to spread so rapidly and so easily including from people who have no symptoms. We don’t really have a precedent for that. We remember SARS and the world got pretty freaked out about that 20 years ago. But in order to spread SARS, you had to be pretty sick already. It wasn’t like a mystery. With this disease, probably 40, 50 percent of the new cases are caused by spread from somebody who had no symptoms. Some of those people were never going to get symptoms, some of them are just still in the incubation phase. So that is made this from a public health perspective, a particularly horrendous situation to try to deal with. It is, by the way, why we are now insisting that people should be wearing masks. And people assume that’s to protect yourself but actually the cloth masks that I wear when I go out, they’re not protecting me particularly well. They’re protecting other people from me, in case I am one of those who’s now gotten the virus and don’t know it yet, and I could be spreading it. And that’s the case we keep trying to make with variable success. And it seems to be getting worse, particularly with young people, that this is part of your responsibility. If you really care about your neighbors, your family, your grandmother, you shouldn’t be the one who is walking around spreading this virus unknowingly. And you could be and that’s where the mask really helps. 

We of course had in the US a terrible, terrible time in March and April or cases we’re going up hospitals in New York, New Jersey were loaded up. ICU’s were overwhelmed. People got very serious and a lot of places in the US than did the full shutdown, including where I am here in Washington. I’m speaking to you from my home office and I’ve barely been out of this space now for 14 weeks, because it is the right thing to do, if you can manage, to work from home. And I’ve figured out pretty much how to do that, although it’s not my preference, it can be pretty functional. But then, you know, we got over that worst of that peak, and people were flattening the curve, as we say, by appropriate public health measures. And then places started to open up and didn’t really follow the CDC guidelines about how to do this in a careful phased way. And the public, I think, took advantage of what seemed to be a little uncertainty in exactly what was  requested and kind of went to the lowest common denominator in a lot of places especially. That led to young people going to bars and going to the beach. And now look where we are in the US. We’re in a terrible state right now. We never really went down to the end of the first wave. We stayed at this sort of low level, not that low, of maybe 15,000, 20,000 new cases a day. And now we’re on this steep upward slope, where for the last couple of days, it’s over 60,000 cases a day. 130,000 plus people having lost their lives. And now for the first time in the last four days or so you’re starting to see the death rate go up again. We had sort of been somewhat reassured that deaths hadn’t started to come back, it was just the cases and maybe those were all young people who are going to be fine, but it doesn’t work that way. If it’s in the community, which we know it is, in Miami, in Houston, in Phoenix, it’s going to find its way. This virus likes to get around and it doesn’t care that we’re all tired of wearing masks and keeping ourselves at home. So we’re in a really tough spot, we are better at managing the sickest patients. But we still don’t have a cure. And we still don’t have a vaccine, although we are working really hard on that. And I could say more about that if you’d like. 

Stump:

Yeah, so talk a little bit about the state of the research on this. I read an article in nature this week on the things scientists desperately want to learn about this virus, things like why do people respond so differently? Has the virus developed any worrying mutations? What’s the nature of immunity? How long does it last? How well will the vaccine work? Or any of these at the top of your list of things you’d really like to know about this now?

Collins:

They are, as well as a whole bunch of others. It’s hard to say that you have a top of this list, you just have a really big list and you want answers to everything at once. This virus does mutate slowly. So far, I don’t think there’s a reason to be alarmed that it is going to become something even worse or that we’ll come up with a vaccine and then it won’t work anymore because the virus has changed its code. It changes but rather slowly so of the things to worry about, not so much in that space. Clearly, people differ in terms of their susceptibility. And some of that turns out to be blood type, which is a surprise that nobody expected and I don’t understand the mechanisms there at all. But I think right now, the big question is, how do we develop treatments that are going to help people who are really sick and prove that they work? Hydroxychloroquine was not the answer. What would be the answer? Well, we have two drugs now, Remdesivir and Dexamethasone, that have been shown in randomized controlled rigorous trials to benefit people who are hospitalized and quite ill with this. We don’t have anything yet that’s going to be effective for the people who are just a little bit sick, to get them quickly better. But we’re working on that. 

I think the big concern most people have right now is where’s that vaccine? Remember that in every previous epidemic of this sort, building a vaccine from scratch has taken generally 5, 6, 7 years. And we’re trying to do that In months. And it is breathtaking to see the way that everybody has pulled together to make this happen. I organized a public private partnership with industry because they have a lot of skills and academia does and government does. We all got to get together here and not be missing connections, and that partnership in the space of just a few weeks, now we are on the brink of starting what’s called a phase 3 trial of the first vaccine getting out of the gate, which will start enrolling patients later this month. And I will tell you what I’m doing this weekend, is trying to be sure that as we start that trial going we make sure that it’s available for people from the most hard hit communities to take part in. If this is a trial that just enrolls a lot of 25 year old white people, that is not going to tell us what we need to know about safety and efficacy because this has hit so hard to communities that are impoverished, ao hard on African Americans and Latinos on Native Americans. That’s where the greatest tragedies are happening. And we certainly need to know if we have a vaccine, that it’ll work in those places as well. So getting this trial underway has got to be done right, not just in the shortest, fastest cheapest way. 

Stump:  

One of our listeners is asking, once we have a vaccine, realistically, how long is it going to take to vaccinate the people who need it most? Or how many people do need it most? What that process gonna look like?

Collins: 

Good question. Certainly, you would want the vaccine to go first to the highest risk people. So we would want to have, if we have a limited amount of vaccines, when we first know that it’s working, to give that to the people with chronic illnesses, the elderly, to individuals who for other reasons, are at high risk because of the inability to maybe protect themselves against exposure. Healthcare providers. We actually are starting a high level group right now that’s going to try to put into place in an ethical way, what would those priorities look like. But let me be clear, we are doing something we’ve never done before in this space as well. We have at least four and maybe as many as seven different vaccines that are being developed. For all of those, the US government is actually paying to manufacture tens of millions of doses even before we know if the vaccine works. Because you want to be able, if you get a good answer—oh, this one works—to immediately have lots of doses to begin offering to the highest risk people. If you hadn’t planned for that, then you’ve got another long gap while people are susceptible and getting sick and dying. So even though that’s costing several billion dollars, we’re going to make sure that we are ready for that. And our goal is to have 100 million doses by the end of 2020. And that is that’s a stretch goal. That’s our real stretch goal. That is a white knuckle goal, but this is the moment to do everything possible to get to that space without compromising safety, we will not allow a vaccine that’s not proven to be safe and effective to be put out there just because you want to say you did something. That is not going to happen.

Stump:  

Let me ask a couple of questions that are a little skeptical of sometimes the science, and Tom maybe you can jump in here to responses from the Christian community even. But Francis, every time we’ve talked, I’ve asked some version of this question but if my social media feed is representative, there are a lot of people who still feel like this isn’t that big a deal, right? When there had been only 10,000 COVID deaths, they were saying, well it’s less concerning than deaths by pneumonia each year. While we’re way past that now. So maybe now they’re saying at least it’s better than deaths by cancer each year. Well, there’s something wrong with this logic isn’t there?

Collins:  

Every death is a tragedy. If you have a family member who’s sick with this Coronavirus or someone who has died and that didn’t need to happen, because this is an infection that maybe somehow we could have understood how to do something. That’s a tragedy, you can’t dismiss that as being well, not as bad as some other tragedy. This is a public health emergency. The last thing we need is minimization of its consequences. Having said that, I realize that some of the consequences that are being proposed by public health people like me, also have serious implications for economics for people whose families are now in real trouble because of lost jobs. I understand that. Tony Fauci who’s been such a wonderful spokesperson for the truth of this is fond of saying, it’s really unfortunate that we seem to have the public health experts over here, and the economists over here, and the economists are saying, “open things up because we need our economy to go people are suffering from lack of resources,” and the public health people are going, “no, it’s not safe.” Actually, we all believe we want to get the economy opened up. We want to get the whole business of business back to normal public health is our tool to get there, to get there safely. That ought to be the way to think about it.

Wright:  

Yeah, we’ve we’ve seen the same debates going on in Britain, and for the first month or two of the pandemic, every early evening, before the main early evening news on the BBC, there was a briefing by either the prime minister or one of his senior ministers, flanked by leading government scientists on either side, and then the journalists would come in on Zoom or whatever and would ask them questions. So we’ve been going through the same debates. And we’ve had really exactly the same problems. And so just recently, when they’ve opened up pubs and restaurants and so on, has been a huge sigh of relief. “Oh, we can go out for a meal again.” Maggie and I went out for dinner on, whenever it was, Friday night. First time we’ve been out for a meal together for four months, and it was wonderful. But while we were there we were kind of worried. The restaurant had these glass screens but the waitress who served us wasn’t wearing a mask, she perhaps should have been. Somebody stood up and talked to us across the screen without a mask. And so we’re all a bit jumpy. But I think the sort of sigh of relief of even a semblance of normality is so seductive. And I hear what Francis says, that this could get worse. We maybe should be more careful still. But it’s a very difficult thing. So we’re having exactly the same sorts of debates, but we are not having the politicized debates that I think are going on in America and I hear tales of people from both the major parties in America, who think that it’s a conspiracy this way or a conspiracy that way. We don’t have that in Britain. We don’t really believe in conspiracies, we just believe in muddles. And we British are very good at models. And I’m afraid that’s really where we are right now.

Collins:  

I’d take a muddle right now, that would be better than a conspiracy.

Stump:4  

Talk a little bit about reopening of churches maybe. We have a listener who’s from Orlando, Florida, which is currently a hotspot, asking that they have a church that has a 1700 seat auditorium, but it’s limited to 350 people. Masks are required when entering and leaving, but not during the service. Music is loud and people are encouraged to sing out while not wearing masks. We’re in our 60s and we’d like to support our church by attending but are hesitant due to no masks during worship. Are we being too cautious? He asks.

Wright:  

The word that I’m getting from church leaders in Britain is that deep cleaning a church building is very difficult. And if somebody walks in, who doesn’t know they’ve got the virus, as Francis was saying, they can easily spread droplets just by breathing, let alone by talking, let alone by singing. And then if those droplets are resting on seats, or benches or whatever, or on hymn books or prayer books, and then somebody has to go round immediately afterwards and clean the whole thing, every square inch. And that takes a lot of work. And if you’re going to do that two or three times on a Sunday, because you’ve got different congregations coming in, that takes even more work. And I just think this is where we are right now. We’ve been having church services by Zoom and similar stuff and I find that quite depressing. Having a church service in my living room with a screen just isn’t the same as being with my brothers and sisters, worshiping and praying together in a church building. But we have to cut our coat according to our cloth. And if our cloth says at the moment, we can’t have 700 people in the building because we can only have 300, or we can’t, in the small churches we have, we can’t have 100 people in church, we can only have 40 or something, then so be it. Much rather that, than have yet more sad funerals, which people can’t attend in great numbers, of people who shouldn’t have died. And that’s the thing we have to remind ourselves, as Francis was saying. Every time we say, oh, come on, it will be alright, we want to say, actually, I don’t want to be standing at your funeral in six weeks’ time saying we thought it would be all right. We had a lovely moment a week or two ago. We’re allowed to visit grandchildren, at last. We have a four year old grandson Leo, bless him, who his grandmother, my lovely wife, Maggie was about to hug him and he’s sort of backed off because he’d learnt the rules. And so Maggie backed off. And he said, “there you are nana, you did the right thing.” And to be told by a four year old that you did the right thing was a very precious moment.

Collins:  

Oh, I need that four year old to come and speak to some of the Americans. It would be really wonderful to have the message delivered so honorably? I totally get this. I mean, I understand how much people long for the gathering together that we’re all feeling called to do as Christians, to come together and pray and worship. But I think we also are given gifts that God has made possible, understanding things like this virus and how it gets spread. And if we’re really serious about protecting our neighbors and our family members, can we ignore that? I have seen some fairly disturbing examples of people who really find that, you know, the devil can’t get into my church, so I’m safe while I’m there, or Jesus is my vaccine, so I don’t need to worry right now. I don’t think that’s quite what our message from the bible would be.

Wright:  

No that’s just just irresponsibility. And in my little book, which you mentioned, I quote a line from Martin Luther and actually there’s a whole book of Luther’s letters of spiritual counsel, which I remember reading ages ago and I pulled it off the shelf again when this whole thing started up. Because in the 16th century, and most centuries to be honest, there have been big epidemics, not quite pandemics in the same way, though some of them are pretty much up there. But regularly pastors like Martin Luther in the 16th century would have to say, what do we do? The whole town is taken over by this plague. As a Christian minister, what should I do, how should we be worshiping? And Luther had his feet on the ground. He wasn’t going to take that attitude of Jesus is my vaccine, he said no,if there’s a possibility I’m going to infect somebody, then I will only go near them if it’s urgent, pastorally, that I be with them, and minister to them. Otherwise I will stay away, I will take medicine myself, I will administer it to others if called upon to do so. And he says this lovely line, he says,”If God wants to take me He knows where to find me.” In other words, I’m not going to go around scared and fearful. If it’s my time, then it’s my time. However, I’m going to be responsible and act wisely. And that responsibility is actually deep in the Christian tradition. That’s the point that I’m making. The care for the sick is deep in the Christian tradition and the responsibility to act wisely, while a plague or pandemic is going on, is also deep in the Christian tradition. We have such short memories as modern day Christians. We forget our forebears in the faith have actually faced all this before. And though we have much better medical knowledge than they did, we actually know about germs and how they spread and so on, I don’t know that we necessarily have any better, richer spiritualities than some of them did. And we can learn from that.

Stump:  

We’ll get to your book here in just a second. Let me ask a couple of more audience questions about this topic. One is about the schools, Francis. Should schools be opened up in your professional opinion, isn’t the cleaning concern for church the same if not worse, for schools?

Collins: 

Another really complicated issue because as long as the schools are closed and kids are at home, their parents are generally not able to do what they normally would be doing in terms of going to work. So if we’re trying to get our economy going again, this is a really serious issue. And some will argue that kids don’t actually get infected as easily and maybe don’t spread it as easily, but they certainly are part of the spread that goes on. There’s also an argument that can be made that it is harmful for children to be away from the socialization that happens in schools. And we have to consider that also in sort of putting together the benefits and the risks. All that being said, I think it really falls to the local environment to decide how that benefit risk calculation plays out. If you’re in Casper, Wyoming that hasn’t had any cases for a few weeks, opening up the schools, in a very careful way with appropriate public health measures and doing regular testing of the community so that you’ll know if it starts to appear, might be a reasonable thing to do. I would not want to have kids starting school right now in Houston, Texas, however, where we have an enormous outbreak going on. And the teachers in such a school would I think, quite rightfully, consider that their lives were being offered up on the basis of oh, we just have to open schools right now, without considering what the consequences might be. So in all things, and when you try to say it’s this or it’s that and there’s nothing in between, usually that’s not the right answer and consider the nuances, the local circumstance.

Stump: 

So another listener is asking, Francis, and I think this is where the rubber meets the road, how long are you preparing to social distance and wear masks? Are you holding out for a vaccine regardless of timeline?

Collins:

If that’s what it takes, I will hold out. I am determined not to set a bad example so you will not see me outside my house without a mask on. And for the most time, you won’t see me outside my house at all. I’ll be right here, running a $42 billion a year government research operation because that’s what my calling is right now. And yes, social distancing, I am absolutely rigorous about that, the six feet or the two meters, as they say, in Europe, because that’s what the evidence suggests. And it may well be that we will all need to pay attention to those kinds of restrictions, again, depending on our community, until that vaccine is in hand, which I hope and pray will be by the end of this calendar year.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, let’s turn to your new book, Tom, which I have here in my hand God in the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath. You say in the preface that it’s written not to offer solutions to the questions raised by the pandemic that we were just discussing there, as much as to resist the knee jerk reactions that come so readily to mind. Can you give us a sampling of those all too common knee jerk reactions we Christians have the big dramatic events like a pandemic? 

Wright:

Yeah, it was very interesting. I got involved…I wasn’t going to get involved in this. When it started up, I was very busy with other stuff, so I thought I just don’t need to do this. And then somebody on Time Magazine said, would I write an 800 word article about it. And of course, I was drawn in, lured in by the writers itch to do something. And so I wrote a very short piece, basically saying that Christianity doesn’t give you an instant answer as to why this is happening, whatever. And actually, it’s not meant to. And that immediately got quite hostile reactions from people saying various things, saying, for instance, this is a sign that the Lord is about to return or the rapture is going to happen or something like that. Or saying, perhaps more worrying still, this is a call to repent, because if you go to the Prophet Amos, bad things happen, there it is, because Israel or Judah or Eden or Moab or whoever it is, sinned, and so God is judging them and so we have to repent. And I noticed almost at once that the people who said that were thinking that the Coronavirus was calling America or the world to repent of dot dot dot. And that it turned out to be the sins that those same people have been worried about a long time anyway. Which made me think, so the Coronavirus is just giving you a megaphone to say a bit more loudly what you wanted to say anyway. And that seemed to be kind of inauthentic, as though we were just piggybacking on this wretched thing. 

And then there were others who were saying in a more moderate way, ah but this gives us a wonderful occasion to preach the gospel because suddenly all our contemporaries are not thinking about where they’re going to get the next cappuccino or whatever. They’re thinking about life and death. This is the moment to tell them about Jesus. Well, again, I wanted to say every moment is a moment to tell people about Jesus. And if you waited for a pandemic to come along, to nudge you into doing so, well shame on you. And what’s more, if people outside the family of faith think that we’re using this as a kind of cheap opportunity to get at them, that may well be counterproductive. And certainly in my country, I think it would be. If I buttonholed non-Christian friends or neighbors and said, aren’t you thinking about life and death? Isn’t it time we got you reading the Gospels or whatever? I think they might say, come on, you’re just you’re just using this shamelessly. So, in the light of that, what I wanted to do is to say, this is at least an opportunity for us to remind ourselves how to read the Bible. The Old Testament is a wonderful complex book, but the lines of its complexities all run together to Jesus. And when we read the Gospels, we find Jesus saying very interesting things like, “it wasn’t this man who sinned or that man or his parents who sinned that he was born blind. It was so that the works of God might be manifest in him.” In other words, don’t ask why this happened, ask what God is now going to do. And there it was, obviously, specifically a work of healing. But then the same thing in Acts 11 when there’s a famine, the Christians in Antioch say, oh, this is a sign the Lord is coming back or, oh, my goodness, it must be because we’d sinned or the government has sinned or something. They said, who’s going to be at risk, what can we do to help and who should we send? And that seems to me wonderfully practical feet-on-the-ground stuff. Here’s a great crisis, the Christian response is not to come up with a great theoretical reason why this is happening and resputing about somebody must have sinned. It’s to say, this world is a strange place, as Paul says, it’s groaning in labor pains at the moment, and our task is to do what Francis is doing, to be there, being professionals skilled at seeing where the people are most at risk and seeing what on earth we can do to help. And so from the Bible itself, I come up with very different answers to the ones I was hearing three months ago.

Collins:

Well, and you were saying in your book, and I thought it was very well said that maybe the right question that Christians should be asking is not why did this happen but rather, what can I do? 

Wright:

What can I do, yeah, exactly. And hence the medical thing or if it’s a case of people who aren’t medically trained are there neighbors on the street who need my help? Are there people for whom I could help with a grocery order, or the very practical things? But obviously then, particularly also the question of, should I be wearing a mask? And the answer from what Francis is saying is definitely yes.

Collins:

Yes, the answer is not a hard answer. Tom, let me ask, because I think you make the case very well about the inappropriateness of our Coronavirus megaphone that people adopt for their own purposes, when actually it’s just their own pet theme that they want to try to promote by whatever means. But what do you think about the general sense that this consequence of a global pandemic, which hasn’t happened at this level in 100 years, does have some implications on the human psyche? David Brooks, who’s in my book club, wrote a piece called The Moral Meaning of the Plague in the New York Times a few months ago, pointing out how we are, in the US anyway, a morally inarticulate culture. And this causes us to begin to think about fundamental, moral questions that we might have ignored for a while. Do you see any of that? Is there a silver lining in there? Not that you’re going to beat people over the head with that, but they’re having their own internal wrestling with questions that otherwise might have been ignored?

Wright:

Yes. That’s a very interesting question. I don’t see much of that at the moment in Britain. I mean, the newspapers that I read and the programs on radio and TV that I watch or listen to, I’m not getting that sense of a great deep moral stirring, as it were. It may be going on, but I haven’t seen it. And I mean, I only see what I only see. But I think there are all sorts of questions being asked about other larger aspects of our life. And somebody said to me at the beginning, isn’t it obvious why God is allowing this? It’s because we’re all now so enjoying having streets without cars and skies without airplanes, and the seas are much cleaner, and quite literally, that surely this is God’s way of saying, you should be treating the planet differently. To which my response is, so you’re saying God is allowing half a million people to die in order to teach us what we actually should have learned whether it’s from Greta Thornburg or Al Gore or somebody all along? I mean, I’m being a bit casual there, but you hear what I’m saying. And it seems to be life is a bit more complicated than that. And the kind of optimistic view that somehow we will go back from this to being a kinder, more caring society—I wish I believe that was true, but I don’t actually see great indications that that’s going to be so. I think it’ll get back to people who’ve got power and muscle saying, after this, I need to be getting out there making money and if anyone’s in my way, get out. And I fear that that will… we’re in danger. There could be a tipping point either way.

Stump:

You mentioned the groaning of creation a bit earlier, Tom, and I wonder if you might each speak to that a little bit. You have an interesting passage in the book where you say, Tom, alongside this Israel and God story there runs the deeper story of the good creation and the dark power that from the start has tried to destroy God’s handiwork. And you say, I don’t claim to understand that dark power. But I do want to push both of you a little bit. Can we say something about this as Christians as we’re trying to create a coherent and kind of comprehensive worldview where things like a Coronavirus happen sometimes? QWhat do we make of that?

Wright:

Yeah. I…Francis is probably waiting for me to say something, oh, dear. One of the things that I think I am learning, and I am still learning, is that whereas when I was much younger, I used to see Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 as a kind of, that’s it, God’s made it, it’s perfect, oh dear we spoiled it. Whereas now I want to say, I think Genesis 1 and 2, very specifically, is the beginning of a project. It’s the launching of something that God the Creator wants to do and he wants humans to be front and center in helping him do it, taking the project forward to whole new stages and so on. The trouble is that because of the fall, whatever that means, in Genesis 3, the humans are out of sync. And so they’re doing things which make the world out of sync. But already there are puzzles, there are questions. There is the chaos water out of which creation comes. Why is there a slimy snake in the garden deceiving Eve in the first place in Genesis 3? These are big and dark questions. And I think the Bible doesn’t give us nice, easy packaged answers, for the very simple reason that if there was a nice, easy packaged answer, it would mean that there was a logical and rational and God given place for evil within God’s good creation. And I think that’s simply not the case. And I know some theologians have done it like that, but I just don’t see that. And I think when we see all those lines coming together with Jesus, Jesus himself talks about his own death in terms of now is the ruler of this world going to be cast out. Because with Jesus’ death, something happens as a result of which the real power of the forces of darkness is defeated. In a sense, the only thing we know about the forces of darkness is that they are anti-creation. They are designed to do what this virus is doing, to spoil and destroy and kill, and that Jesus has defeated them on the cross, and that his resurrection is the beginning of the launch of the new creation, heaven and earth coming together. And that is all really all we know about the dark powers is that they’re trying to stop that, and that they are still trying to stop it now. But new creation has begun and by the Spirit is continuing. So that’s the framework in which I would put that discussion. And I’d love to know what Francis thinks about a theological analysis of why there are such things as these wretched viruses in the first place.

Collins:

Well, in a certain way, this is a special case of the problem of evil. And the problem of evil as far as I can tell as a Christian, is really only solved by standing at the foot of the cross. And at least in that circumstance, we can look and say that if we are concerned about suffering, we know that we serve a God who understands suffering from personal experience and a level that I could never possibly imagine. And that as we are weeping tears of grief for what we are losing in a circumstance like this, that we know that Jesus wept, as well. And you mentioned that in the book, Tom, that the death of Lazarus even though he then raised Lazarus, first he wept. There’s a song I used to sing when I was a music minister in a little church in Michigan, called Tears Are A Language. And it does seem that way, as we share in grief. God weeps along with us. And and so we should not in some way imagine that God is aloof about all of this. The tragedy that’s happening all around us right now causes God also to grieve with us. And I do think this is a time of grief. You know, people talk about I’m angry about this or I’m depressed about this or really anxious and fearful about this. I think the primary response for a lot of people is just grief. Grief. And the response to that, as you have said, Tom is lamentation, to lament this. And that is a long Christian tradition, read the Psalms, and it is a place that we should not be surprised to go. 

I mean, I could go on a long time about how we humans may have brought this particular Coronavirus upon us, by the fact that this is a virus that was in bats, and maybe it was then in pangolins. And by our human determination to start eating the flesh of ever more exotic animals, we put ourselves at risk for this kind of transmission of a virus into a human host. I don’t know that I feel very satisfied by that. I will say this is also part of the long tradition of what’s been going on biologically on this planet, which was part of God’s plan. And perhaps it’s what John Polkinghorn used to refer to as physical evil, the same thing as an earthquake that happens and does harm to individuals it is part of the way in which our planet, in order to produce this incredible abundance of life, also has these other physical properties that you can’t just wish away. You can’t anymore say, well, you don’t need tectonic plates, then you can say two and two doesn’t really have to be four. It just is what it is. And we probably shouldn’t then ascribe that to some lack of love of the Creator God. 

Stump:

Can you say a word then maybe about the place of viruses in God’s good creation, that this is an exception to what normally happens?

Collins:

Let’s say that God’s creation includes all kinds of wonderful biological entities, viruses amongst them and they can in fact, in some instances, be very good. You know, here we are talking about a vaccine against this particular terrible Coronavirus. How do you think a couple of those vaccines are being built? They’re by taking a different virus, removing its pathogenic components, an adenovirus, stitching a little bit of the coronavirus into it so that it will make an appropriate antigen and using that to save lives. So if we didn’t have that virus, we wouldn’t have the delivery truck that we need right now. So nothing is all good or all evil in biology. It’s a mix.

Wright:

That’s fascinating. And the idea of even being able to think round that sort of thing just blows me away as a non-scientist, and I’m grateful to God for people like Francis who can do it. I think the thing that I was fascinated, Francis, by what you just said, was this idea of the problem of what we’ve called evil not being about a distant God who may have got it right or got it wrong. You know, Woody Allen’s famous line, “yes, I do believe in God, but he seems to be a bit of an underachiever,” which is basically treating God as the CEO who sits upstairs pressing buttons or pulling levers. And sometimes he seems to have forgotten to pull the right one or whatever. And the trouble is that through the 18th and 19th century and into our own time, 20th and 21st century, many Western Christians, really many very devout Western Christians, have tried to do that business of how is God running the world, on the one hand, and then have tried to talk about Jesus as something quite separate, as though here’s God running the world, and it’s a good world and so God does this and that the other and oh, by the way, we are sinners, so we need to be saved, so God sent Jesus to save us from our sin. And the New Testament refuses to make that split. And the New Testament says, if you want to know how God runs the world, read the Gospels. Read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Because Jesus is saying, this is what the kingdom of God looks like. And the phrase, the kingdom of God translates out more or less as how God is now taking charge of the world. This is what it looks like. It looks like Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend. It looks like Jesus feasting with sinners. It looks like Jesus celebrating a last meal with his friends and going off to the cross. That’s how God runs the world. And that’s a very different thing from the celestial CEO. In other words, God runs the world by coming in person to the place where the world is in pain, and taking that pain upon himself. And that’s the other thing that you said, Francis, which I thought was really so important, goes back to Romans 8 again, where Paul talks about the creation groaning in travail. And then the same thing happens. As God comes in the person of Jesus to take the pain of the world on himself, so God comes in the person of the Spirit to lament within the lament of the church, within the lament of the world. And that sense of God by the spirit being present as we lament, that’s extraordinary. You need what is traditionally called a Trinitarian theology to make that work as it were. But my goodness, when you do, this is a very, very different picture of God, of God in the world. And it means we are caught up in the middle of it and the fact that we are puzzled and muddled and don’t know what’s going on, it’s exactly what Paul says. He says, we don’t know how to pray as we all but the Spirit grows in articulately within. Even the spirit doesn’t have words to say the lament that has to be said. And as you think of those statistics, what did you say half a million deaths worldwide? Well, if the spirit is indwelling, all of creation, as in a sense the spirit is, the spirit is groaning and grieving, and we should be—not content because grieving is never content—but we should realize that’s our vocation to be there too.

Collins:

That’s wonderful. But Tom say one word about Romans 8:28, because reading your book, you make a point there. And that is such a familiar and reassuring verse to so many people, but you make the point that there’s more to it than people generally realize this would be a good moment, I think, for that point to be made.

Wright:

You know I had a funny feeling you were gonna ask me this, so I just happened to have the text of Romans 8 to hand. It’s because it’s a famous first. And I learned the King James version of that first when I was a kid, which says that all things work together for good to those who love God. Which gives you the sense of Oh, well, the world’s going on, and it’s all paying out for my benefit. And that’s not what Paul says. Paul says that we know that, with those who love God, God works all things together for good. Now, the “with those who love God,” and that’s what the Greek verb synogy, that’s what it means. It means God works with those who love Him. And “for those who love Him,” looks back to the previous verse, which is all about the spirit groaning within us and God the Father knowing what is the mind of the Spirit within us. And so it’s not about sitting back and saying well all things work together for good. It’s about Christians who are indwelt by the Spirit who find the love of God welling up within them, that lament itself being used by God as part of the means by which his own purposes for the renewal of the whole creation are going forward. That’s a very different read on Romans 8 from how many have done it, but there’s good scholarship behind it. And in the book, I cite two or three scholars who’ve taken that line and the more I read it now, the more I think they’re right. The trouble is when you know a passage so well, it’s very hard to read it differently, until somebody you respect juggles your elbow and says, hang on, just look and see what the Greek is actually saying. 

Collins:

Ah…and it’s back to what can I do?

Wright:

It’s back to what can I do? Which starts with lament. And everything else grows out of that lament.

Stump:

If you would then, Tom, though, we’re we’re getting very close to the end of our time here, but I’d like you to talk to us a little bit about the end of your book there, where you compare what we do now with the Church’s mission in her early days, which you say began with tears and locked doors and doubt, not so different from today. Right? So as Jesus was sent to Israel, so we’re sent to the world to get on with the job, visiting prisoners, care for the wounded, welcome strangers, and so on. Bring that up to up to speed for our day today. And perhaps each of you might just say one more word on how this relates to our calling as human beings to be image bearers, and perhaps even how we understand Christ’s charge to care for the least of these in a pandemic like this one.

Wright:

You’ve just asked me a question which could give a whole lecture as answer but you were basically doing a walkthrough of John Chapter 20. John Chapter 20, Jesus is meeting Mary Magdalene. She sees him through her tears. Then he appears in the locked upper room. They’re in lockdown because they’re afraid, just like many of us are in lockdown because they’re afraid. And then he appears to Thomas. And Thomas, bless him, my namesake, he can’t believe until he can actually touch as well as see. And so that business of tears and lockdown and doubt, that’s straight out of John 20. And in the middle of that is that line where Jesus says, “as the Father sent me, so I send you.” And you ask yourself, where would Jesus be in the pandemic? And the answer is out there on the frontline caring for the sick or standing alongside and praying with the medics who are doing the hard work and bearing as much of the weight of it upon himself as was appropriate and as he could. And it seems to me, that’s what we’re called to do. And that’s thank God, what many of our brothers and sisters are doing right now.

Collins:

And it is necessary to do that, for the least of those, the ones who are in most trouble, the ones who have the least resources. And here is a wonderful opportunity and a mission for the church, as it always has been, to take this difficult circumstance, remembering all the plagues down through the centuries where Christians have been out front in following that same task. Not in a fashion that ignores the importance of protecting against being a vector yourself of the illness, as Martin Luther his quote that you went through, warns against, but actually in a way that does reach out to those who are most in need, and doesn’t put others at risk. So all Christians, I think, can embrace that, regardless of your political persuasion. This seems like a very straightforward opportunity, responsibility that we should all embrace and run towards that particular opportunity and not be fearful of it, even as we take care of all the important public health measures that we know we’re called to do, to keep innocent people from acquiring a terrible illness.

Stump:

Well, we’ve hinted a few times to the big musical number we have planned here at the end of the episode, perhaps you can give it a bit of an introduction? Tom, I think this idea started with you didn’t it?

Wright:

It was a complete accident. And actually it’s Maggie’s fault. We’ve mentioned Maggie once or twice already this evening. But we were at a conference in Rome, and she was out shopping and it was snowing. It was in February and she got a cab back to the hotel we were staying and the cab driver was serenading her all the way back with Paul McCartney songs, and particularly Yesterday, and so she came into the hotel room wafted in on a cloud singing Yesterday. And we had a good laugh about it. I then went across to the conference meeting. Sadly, the paper was in Italian and my Italian isn’t very good. And the translation of my headphones wasn’t very helpful. And I started…and I was about to go to the BioLogos meeting in New York and so I suddenly thought, you know the word Genesis, it has the same ring as Yesterday. So I started writing, “Genesis, earth and heaven in a cosmic kiss.” And then I thought, do I dare send this to the great Francis Collins and suggest that we sing it together? By that evening I had the first draft of the song and I sent it on the email thinking, is Francis gonna be offended? And by return there came, “Hey, this is great song. But the second verse needs to be this.” And so that’s how we’re going to sing it, I sing the first verse, he sings the second. That was pretty much it wasn’t it, Francis, I think?

Collins: 

That was exactly it. It was a wonderful delight to get that message and to appreciate your creativity and that’s not the only song but it’s the only one you’re going to hear today. A joint effort of Wright and Collins.

Stump:

So obviously we’re not attempting to do this live. Each of you sent in your parts and we put them together. So let’s give it a listen here and then we’ll get a little reaction from each of you. 

[song plays:

Genesis, Earth and heaven in a cosmic kiss
Evolution must have been like this
Oh I believe in Genesis.

DNA, shaping creatures from the dust and clay
Double helix in the Milky Way
Oh Genesis meant DNA.

How he made it all
fourteen billion years ago?
Wisdom, grace and love
For he spoke, and it was so …

Genesis, Eve and Adam in a world of bliss
In the Paradise we all now miss
Oh I believe in Genesis.

In a trice, didn’t listen to divine advice
Einstein wondered whether God played dice
We’re trapped within a world of vice.

Why they had to fall
I don’t know; it doesn’t say;
They did something wrong
And we long for God’s new day …

Genesis, Royal priesthood in a holy bliss
New Jerusalem will be like this
Oh I believe in Genesis.]

Stump:

Very nice, very nice. Are you two ready to quit your day jobs and start recording albums and such songs?

Collins:

Only if we can be in the same place at the same time and get this darn virus over with.

Stump: 

Well ever since you guys sent in your songs there that melody has been going through my head non stop, and particularly the line of “they did something wrong and now we long for God’s new day.” And perhaps in that vein, we might end our time together here with the Lord’s prayer and the plea for God’s kingdom to come. 

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Collins:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wright:

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Collins:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Wright:

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen

Stump: 

Amen. 

Collins:

Amen.

Stump:

Francis, Tom, thank you so much and Blessings to you both. 

Wright:

Thank you.

Collins:

Thanks, Jim. Blessings to you, too.

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. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff 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 guests

NT Wright

N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was formerly a Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews. He also studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford.Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God.
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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