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Tim Keller & Francis Collins | Where is God in a Pandemic?

Tim Keller joins Francis Collins in a conversation that includes updates on the latest COVID-19 research and much more.


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Tim Keller joins Francis Collins in a conversation that includes updates on the latest COVID-19 research and much 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.

Leading evangelical thinker Tim Keller joins Francis Collins, who heads our country’s biomedical research, in a conversation that includes updates on the latest COVID-19 research, a discussion on the value of human life and what it means to care for the most vulnerable among us, where God is during a pandemic, and much more.

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Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. This is a podcast about science and faith, and there are no two people who represent these better than Francis Collins and Tim Keller. Collins is one of the top scientists in the world, having led the Human Genome Project and now directing the National Institutes of Health; and Keller is one of the most respected pastors and authors of his generation. 

Most people who know something about BioLogos know that we were founded by Francis Collins. But fewer people are aware that Tim Keller had an important hand in our success. In the early days of BioLogos, there was a huge amount of suspicion from more conservative Christians about whether the science of evolution could be reconciled with the essentials of Christian faith. Keller has not hidden the fact that he himself has concerns about that. But he thought the conversation was important. So he hosted a series of private meetings in Manhattan where such conversations could take place between prominent faith leaders and scientists. Out of those meetings there was some trust that developed, without which BioLogos would not have been able to gain a hearing. And there was also a lasting friendship that developed between Tim and Francis. 

In these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, both of them are busier than ever, and we were so thankful they gave of their time to talk to each other and to us about specific challenges the church and the world are facing right now. This was originally recorded as a livestream event on May 18, 2020. A link to the video of that is available in the show notes.

Just two days after that event, there was a very exciting announcement that Francis has been named the 2020 Templeton Prize Laureate — an award given each year to honor someone who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. The prize has previously been given to Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham, among others. We have links in the show notes to information about that, as well as to other things both Collins and Keller have written for the BioLogos website. At the end of the conversation, we’re joined by BioLogos president Deb Haarsma who offers a prayer for both Collins and Keller. 

I think this episode gives some fascinating insights into this moment in history from two people who are uniquely positioned to guide us through it.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview

Stump:

Thank you Tim and Francis. I know being quarantined at home does not mean there are fewer demands on your time. So thank you very much for this time that you’ve given all of us tonight. If we could, let’s just start briefly so the audience can hear that there’s a broader context to this conversation and that you’re not just a couple of random people we paired together. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with each other, maybe when you became aware of each other’s work, when you met, how you’ve kept that relationship going? Francis, start us off, if you would.

Collins:

Sure. Well, I knew of Tim as a pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, which was rather famous for the way it had brought together people from all sorts of different perspectives, including lots of young urban professionals. And I actually dropped in on his church one Sunday morning when I was in New York and was totally inspired by what I saw and what I heard and the deeply thoughtful way in which he approached scripture. And so I approached him probably a few months later. I was in New York for, I think it was the Q conference that was happening, and it was a Saturday I think, and I thought, you know, I’ll just take a chance here and see if Reverend Keller might actually be around, expecting there would be this huge hedge that would be protecting him from the rabble like me. But instead, he was quite available and quite happy to talk. And I guess I probably went straight to my concern about how science and faith didn’t seem to be getting along very well and this seemed like a bad thing for the Christian Church as well as for the scientific community and wondered what he thought about that. And I think he almost immediately bonded about this being a problem that really is vexing the future of the church and maybe we together had a pretty interesting conversation about what we might do about it. Which then ultimately led to a friendship and to involvement by Tim and BioLogos, which has tried, for its very essence to do exactly that—bring scientists and people of faith together and figure out how we can learn from each other and even worship together.

Stump:

What do you remember of those days, Tim? Was Francis really the rabble that he says he may have been?

Keller:

No, not at all. I’m sorry to start off our hour by saying that he’s just wrong. I read his book, Language of God, I quote the book in Reason for God, which I wrote in 2007—Language of God came out in 2006—so my memory is that when Francis Collins wanted to see me, I felt honored. So there goes that whole rabble theory. Gone. And so that must have been after both those books were out, Francis. I’m pretty sure. And then the first two or three times that we had conferences, consultations, that basically turned into BioLogos, I was a co-leader of those right here in New York City. And we’ve kept our relationship up since then.

Stump:

How have you kept up your relationship? I can’t imagine you see each other every day. But?

Keller:

Well, sometimes we actually have emailed back and forth on issues of human origins where we don’t agree.

Collins:

There are some. 

Keller:

It’s also true. That it is possible, by the way, to be friends and disagree. I’m also kind of an outlier member of a reading group that Francis is in with other people who are in DC. And occasionally I drop in on that. So that we’ve kept it up somehow. It’s not been easy.

Collins: 

Yeah. And I’ve even occasionally dropped in on your church in New York, if I knew you were preaching, which I guess you do less of these days, but boy, it’s been wonderful to have a chance to learn from you.

Stump:

Well, let’s move to the topic at hand at hand. This pandemic has radically changed all of our lives. Would each of you share just a bit of how it’s affecting you personally? Tim, you live and work in New York City, the epicenter of this outbreak. What’s that done to your normal rhythms of life at work?

Keller:

Well, I’m no different than anyone else. It’s been completely disruptive of normal rhythms. Two things I could say about how it’s affected me personally. One is, first of all, my wife and I stayed here. And that’s the first thing and that’s worth talking about. Martin Luther, many years ago obviously, wrote a fascinating piece on whether…it’s Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague. That’s the name of it. And it’s on the internet, easy to find. And what’s remarkable about it, it’s very biblical and very brave and yet, that his answer is, it depends. May a Christian flee? It depends. He says it is absolutely okay, considering the value God puts on human life, to do what it takes to preserve your own life. On the other hand, if you’ve got a duty of any kind in a place where it’s dangerous, Christians should not flee because they should be not afraid to die. We’re not quite there. On the other hand, I’ve been a leader in the church, I’m not the pastor of any one church now, I work for Redeemer City to City, which helps churches get started in big cities around the world. But nevertheless, I’ve been a leader in the church for 30 years, and it did feel like I should stay. So I’m following Martin Luther. So we stayed, though it’s a dangerous place to be. And nevertheless, we stayed. 

Number two, we’ve grieved a lot. First of all, there’s a lot of physical devastation here because I work with Redeemer City to City, we’re involved with churches across the city and so many churches, especially in less well resourced neighborhoods, we could say, have really been devastated. There’s one church that we reconnected with that there’s 13 people that have died in it. Then there’s the economic devastation. There’s social devastation. An awful lot of the kids in the schools, where they were already behind in the poor areas, those are the folks that are not keeping up with online, you know, instruction, etc. And so the kids that were far behind or are getting further behind so there’s… It’s grievous. And one last thing to say is, when you go week after week after week without any good news, you’re either reading about the virus or you’re reading about something that’s not the virus, it’s usually bad news, it drains you spiritually. And I can feel it, especially here, where people were rightly concerned about infection because we were in the middle of such a hotspot. So it’s been difficult, even though, you know, God has kept both me and my wife free from the virus and our immediate family most of which lives here have also not been touched. Nevertheless, it’s been… We stay, we’ve grieved.

Stump:

How about you, Francis, working in Washington DC and balancing scientific work with public perception and even politics, I’m sure has made a whole other dimension to all of this for you.

Collins: 

Yeah, you could say that. Well, I’m speaking to you tonight from my home office, which is where I have essentially been for the last eight weeks. I have only maybe four times left the house to go to any official duty thing. I’ve been running NIH from this desk right here. All those books behind me are my library on science and faith. And I occasionally have to pull those down to get myself some encouragement. But it is an incredibly intense time because you feel this incredible sense of urgency about marshaling every possible scientific capability, bringing all the bright brains of the planet together and trying to figure out how can we quickly move forward identifying treatments for people who are sick with COVID-19, speeding up the development of those vaccines that everybody’s waiting for, coming up with new ways to do testing that are easier for people to have access to. All of that is right smack in the middle of NIH’s wheelhouse. That’s what we do. We’re the largest supporter of medical research in the world and we’re all hands on deck. But it’s weird doing this through Zoom meetings and conference calls and piles of email beyond anything I could have imagined. And yet trying to keep the momentum going, trying to encourage the morale of my staff who are scattered all over the place, many of them working from home, many of them worried about themselves, their families. And we in our own staff at NIH have had close to 200 people who’ve been infected. Fortunately, most of them done well. But this is very real all around us. It’s not just a scientific adventure. It’s life and death. And I’ve done a lot of scientific adventures, but nothing that quite has this sense of acute urgency. 

Stump:

We last talked about six weeks ago, Francis, in this format, at which time there had been about 10,000 deaths in the US. Now we’re up to almost ten times that many. Is that what you expected of all of this? Or have we flattened the curve or what do we expect from here?

Collins:

Well, it would have been worse if we had not had Americans do what Americans have been doing, which is to accept those recommendations about staying at home and practicing social distancing and washing their hands and wearing masks now wherever you go outside, not to protect yourself, but to protect other people from you in case you happen to be carrying the virus, and simply by the act of speaking, you may be spreading it around. I’m really impressed with our nation, where people have taken this upon themselves for the most part without having an autocratic government tell them that you have to but doing it because it is the right thing to do. It would have been, I’m sure, much worse had those steps not been taken. But it is still intensely tragic. Those numbers, after a while you’re sort of numbed by them. I look at them every morning because we have a team that meets at 7:30 to see where we are. And every time there’s another 1500, 2000 deaths in America. And it’s heartbreaking to imagine that each one of those represents a terrible tragedy of a lost soul that this virus has claimed. And you sort of feel like we’ve got to do everything we can to try to bend that curve back down. New York has done a pretty amazing job of getting over the top of their curve and coming back down, although they have a long way to go. But a lot of the rest of the country has not actually achieved that yet. And I worry that people are just getting exhausted with this whole business of physical distancing and wanting relief and wanting to be out in the sunshine because it’s starting to be really nice weather. And we still have a terrible risk of another wave of this if we don’t do this in a very careful, sensible way.

Stump:

Tim, talk about the church’s response a little bit to all of this, the good, the bad, and the ugly, perhaps. What have you seen that makes you proud of the body of Christ? What are some things that perhaps we could be doing better?

Keller:

Well, I would say you left something out good, bad, ugly. I would say there’s also the non. That is to say I’m not sure on the whole the church has responded yet. There’s been an extremely small percentage of churches that have, you know, defied government directives, and they are because of the publicity they get, there seems to be far more than there really are. And that’s the bad or the ugly. However…after 9/11 in New York City, where really this was the place where we had the devastation of 9/11, everybody came together immediately. As a matter of fact, all the churches were jammed. People who never went to church came, and what you were able to do is you’re able to speak words of comfort to the whole community in those churches. We were able to immediately get out there to start to help the unemployed, immediately get out there to give aid to people who had been traumatized. We were able to immediately respond and actually the quarantine means that we actually can’t do what churches do. 

So in some ways, I would say there’s going to be two periods. There’s going to be the interim period when the lockdowns, the restrictions start to ease up. I call that an interim period where there’s still gonna be restrictions, but there’ll be coming off in stages. And then after that, which is the immediate aftermath, even when the restrictions are gone, let’s say the vaccines out there, there’s going to be all sorts of—well we’re not sure what they’re going to be yet—cultural, social and economic effects that are going to last for a while. And in that situation, basically, and this is an overstatement perhaps but this is how you get people to listen. All churches are going to have to get replanted. See we don’t even know who’s there. When we reconvene, who will be there? I’m a church planter. I planted Redeemer and City to City, the organization I work with, helps new churches get started across the city and it takes a lot of ingenuity. It takes tremendous focus on people outside the church. You can’t ignore them. You have to say what is the needs of our neighborhood? Secondly, it takes a tremendous amount of concentration on what are the needs of people inside the church, you can’t just run programs, you know, and get up there and preach your sermon and draw your paycheck. You’ve got to meet needs inside, meet needs outside, and you’ve also got to be innovative. You’ve got to be thinking about the new situation and how do I maximize opportunities that come from this new situation? How do I minimize the disadvantages? That’s how you plant a church. And unfortunately, I think all churches are going to have to get replanted. And we’re all going to have to say, how do we meet needs inside, outside, and how do we respond to these changes? And that will be a test. So I would say so far 95% of churches have not yet responded. And in the next two periods after this, there will be…it will really be a test. There’s a great chance for witness to the presence of the kingdom and to the reality of Jesus in this time, but it’s also I would say, we haven’t actually met the test yet.

Collins:

Tim, it must be really tough on pastors though right now who are trying to figure out how to find their role in the midst of such an unexpected crisis and where they can’t even bring people together, they can’t go to funerals and preside and try to provide comfort to the grieving. It must be just unbelievable. You had a piece that somebody pointed me to, a video to pastors, which was intended for them, but I think it spoke to me too, as an encouragement about the things that one might do in this circumstance. And I think you started it off by saying, it’s like when you’re on an airplane and you haven’t quite taken off yet and they’re going through the drill, and they say something about if the oxygen mask falls from the ceiling, put on yours first, before you help the person next to you. Those pastors must be in need of oxygen, because what they’re going through right now must be pretty incredibly intense and exhausting.

Keller:

Yeah, thanks, Francis. Number one, you might remember from that, I got a phone call three days after 9/11, I got a phone call from a pastor from Oklahoma City, who had said that after the bombing in 1995, and all the crisis there, the churches and all the ministers went into tremendous overdrive. And about a year later, they all realized—they started going into depression, marriages started to break up—that they had actually burned out. And they didn’t realize the degree to which they’ve been drained. And so what I was trying to say there is…by the way that oxygen mask illustration, my wife who’s probably watching right now, it was her idea to say you’re not going to help anybody else in the plane unless you got your oxygen mask on. And if you burn yourself out, and you die a slow death of despair underneath, while you’re smiling because of course, adrenaline, the great wonder drug, lasts for a while. And then after a while, you just collapse. So you do have to put on your oxygen mask.

Collins: 

Good advice for everybody who’s listening here tonight, whether you’re a pastor, or you’re a parent, or you’re a teacher struggling with not having your students there and trying to make the doggone internet do its purpose for your classes… Put on your oxygen mask people. You’ve got to take care of yourself as well.

Stump:

Let’s talk a little bit about vaccines. 

Collins:

Oh why not!

Stump:

And Francis, I saw an article that you published today with the chief officer at Johnson and Johnson about the need for federal agencies to collaborate with private industry and pharmaceutical companies to develop this as quickly as possible. I’ll ask you if you’ll talk a little bit about that effort. And then, Tim, if you’d chime in at some point here and maybe help us in understanding the church’s reaction to vaccines. That’s certainly painting with too broad of a brush. But maybe we’ll get into talking about some conspiracies…

Collins:

Oh good. [laughs]

Stump:

And how we who call ourselves Christians are particularly prone to this with regard to vaccines, but let’s hear some of the science here first, Francis.

Collins: 

Well, I could go on for hours but you probably don’t want me to, so let me try to put this into a fairly concise narrative. If you want to see this coronavirus pandemic really come to a satisfactory close, a vaccine is by far the best hope we have. But it’s also extremely challenging to make it happen. We’ve never built a vaccine, in all of history, in less than about three or four years. And here we are trying to do it in 12 to 18 months, as Tony Fauci has often said. And maybe even trying to push the envelope a bit on that timetable. So there is an enormous amount of scientific effort going into this with a variety of very novel approaches that have never really been done before for vaccines that are looking pretty good. One that was just reported on this morning, a vaccine that was developed so fast that it was in its first human trials 63 days after the first report of this virus from China. Usually that’s like many months, 63 days, not bad. And the results of that phase one trial, where you’re just checking this out in volunteers to see if it’s safe and whether it produces a good immune response, looks really good. Well, that doesn’t mean we’re there yet. That means you need now to expand that to give this to thousands of people in an area where the virus is currently circulating, to see, did it protect them? If you don’t know that you don’t know whether it’s going to work. So that’s where we’re now moving quickly to try to scale that up to that large scale study. And that’s just one vaccine, there are four or five that are coming along pretty quickly, that all have a different kind of scientific basis, which is good, because probably not all of these are going to work. I just want one of them to work. 

The other thing we have to do is prepare for the fact that one of them might work and then you’re going to have to scale this up. You’re going to have this huge manufacturing problem, where you need to make hundreds of millions of doses. If you wait until you have the results of the full scale trial, and then start your manufacturing, you just lost several months where people are dying from this disease. So what we’re doing now, thank you taxpayers, is basically to support the scale-up of the manufacturing even before we know what’s going to work. So a lot of that may go to waste, but some of it we are hoping will turn out to be right. I can’t tell you exactly what this timetable will look like. But I will say, particularly through this mechanism we are now invested in and working very closely with no less than 18 companies that are working on this, we are moving faster than humanity has ever seen before. And we’re determined not to worry about who gets the credit, or who makes any money, but just basically let’s get it done and get it out there and try to save people who otherwise are going to be a terrible risk.

Stump:

Lots of our listeners are asking these questions about vaccines and conspiracies right now. And this is what I’m asking you, Tim, to channel for us a little bit, if you can, the American psyche and all of this, as Rob is asking, “We’re hearing lots of conspiracy theories, particularly from Christian quarters.” Any thoughts from either of you actually, how do we respond to people like that? And maybe Tim, I’ll give you a little plug here because I’ve been going through your new book that just came out here recently, Uncommon Ground with John Inazu, where you talk about how do we get along with people who think differently than us? You’re not writing about conspiracy theorists in there, but perhaps there’s some wisdom for all of us to take and how we respond to the people on our social media feeds.

Keller: 

Well, let me start by first of all asking, Francis, I’m sorry, I’m going to scroll back. Francis, would you say the players are by and large showing a willingness to put profits and credit aside? You said that’s what we have to do. We have to not care about who gets credit, not care about who’s making a lot of money. But would you say that the usual suspects are actually doing a good job there?

Collins:

I think they are. I think they recognize this as a crisis that demands that. I even heard a leader of a pharmaceutical company saying to another rival, “You know, if your drug actually looks like it’s better than mine, why don’t we use my clinical trial network to expand your drug’s testing, so we’ll really know as soon as possible.” I would not have heard that in any other setting. This is different.

Keller:  

No. What’s what’s good about that, by the way—and I know, I’m not following our moderator here, immediately—but what’s great about that is that is, well, there’s a lot of talk today about the fact that this crisis has not united us. And it is true to some degree politically. After 9/11 I saw a much more uniting going on than I do this time. And there is a lot of political polarization and it is a problem. Nevertheless, there is some coming together and it might be in the medical pharmaceutical… If it happens there, then we really can be very, very grateful. That’s all, so. 

Collins:

Well that’s a nice thought.

Keller: 

Yeah, to get back to your question now. You’re struggling to get both Francis Collins and Tim Keller to both say something intelligent about vaccines. [laughs] I don’t know a thing about vaccines! So, but what you’re really asking is, there seems to be something of a real suspicion, well on the part of many, many people, about scientific expertise in this country. And it seems to be particularly acute amongst Christians and evangelical Christians. And I think that’s fair. But let me just say two things. If you were asking how do you reach out to people who are different than you? Well, by both critiquing and affirming, I mean, always. If you just simply say, “You’re totally wrong,” or “You’re totally right,” you’re not actually reaching out. Now, here’s where I want to—and I wouldn’t mind Francis responding to especially this first one—is Christians have got some reason to be wary, not so much of scientists, but of people who come, trying to make a case for something and invoking science. When actually they’re making moral decisions, or philosophical, they’re making philosophical arguments and they’re cloaking it in science. So for example, there really are a fair number of scientists who will take their cultural capital they have a scientist, because science has a lot of cultural capital, because of all the accomplishments, and they’ll say science, not too many, but there will be scientists who will say, “science proves that there’s no God, that there’s no soul, that there’s nothing beyond this and science tells us these things.” And Francis knows that we could, I’m not gonna mention, we could name, there’s a lot of them right now, that are making a lot of money and books saying science tells us these things. And so Christians look at that and we say, “uh, well what about Francis Collins, I’m sorry, science does not tell you these things and for you to be…” That’s maybe what you might want to call scientism, which is a philosophy that says there is no knowledge other than what can be empirically proven. And there is no, there’s no reality outside of the natural and material. And so when you know that that’s happened, and you there’s a history to that at that. At that point, you know, you can see why Christians will start to get wary of people coming in saying, “we’ve got this, this agenda and it’s totally scientific.” Actually, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has a great little line, where he says, “science can tell you what you can do and what you can’t do and how to do it efficiently but science can never tell you whether or not you ought to do it.” That’s always going to be a moral decision. And that’s a matter of faith. And therefore, you really shouldn’t be throwing this on the scientists. The scientists give you the facts. They do give you the facts. But then decisions that we made on the basis of more than just that. And so I can understand that wariness. On the other hand, Christians should know better and here’s where I would push back badly on folks. Herbert Butterfield some years ago, wrote a classic book called the, let me see, I wrote it down here, The Origins of Modern Science

Stump:

The Origins of Modern Science

Keller:  

Yeah. Right. And he basically makes his case there that says, you know, Buddhism and Hinduism, didn’t believe the physical world was real. Other ancient pagan views saw the creation always, you can look at their myths, the creation was always a result of some kind of major battle of some kind. You know, nature is basically chaotic. It’s power poles fighting against each other. Along comes Christianity and says, there’s one God, a personal God, who creates the world as an artist, a rational God as it were. And it’s in that soil that science can grow. Because the idea is, oh, there’s nature and there’s a uniformity to nature and there’s an orderliness to nature. And the reality is that Christianity, it was in the Christian West, where the whole idea of modern science grew up because of the view of God. Then you can just go to the Bible and you see, I won’t, I’ve taken too long on this question anyway. You know, Jesus knows the difference between sick people and demonic people, demon possessed people. Jesus does not see all problems as just a matter of demons. He knows that they’re between a physical problem and a spiritual problem. First Timothy, Paul says to Timothy, “take some wine for your stomach,” which is, you know, medicinal. You’ve got a place in Isaiah 38 where God says, “I’m going to heal you Hezekiah but I want you to put some figs on the boil, and I’ll use medicine in order to do it.” God just didn’t wave his hand and say, okay, you know, I don’t need medicine. I mean, the Bible is just filled with all kinds of reasons to trust science, not scientism, but science. So we ought to push back on the people that are just showing a lack of humility, before a discipline that actually grew up out of Christian soil. But on the other hand, I also want to be sympathetic to the way the use of science to abuse Christians has been… It has been used. Sorry, that was kind of long, but.

Collins:

Oh, but it was right on point, Tim. I actually agree with virtually all of that. In fact, one of the motivations for the formation of BioLogos, which is sponsoring this discussion this evening, was to try to counter the sense that the only real voices one could hear about science and faith were on the one hand, the ones you just mentioned who are arguing that science has disproved the need for God and we should just all get over it. And on the other hand, very hard edge fundamentalist views that said, you can’t trust science because it disagrees with my interpretation of this verse or that verse. And most people, I don’t think, really feel very comfortable in those extreme poles, but there wasn’t a lot they could go to in this topic about science and faith. And that is partly why I wrote that book and partly now why BioLogos has come in to sort of occupy, in a wonderful way, that space and make a possibility of civil, loving discourse amongst people trying to sort this out. 

And it has, I guess, spilled over in the vaccine situation. And it breaks my heart to see why this has become such a nasty situation so often, between people oftentimes quite educated, who have bought into particular conspiracy theories about how vaccines are intended to just make money for pharmaceutical companies and we all know that they’re actually harmful. And the kinds of information that’s spread out there, particularly in social media, that any careful analysis would show is absolutely untrue, but it gets a fire started and it’s very hard to put it out. And it will be very interesting to see, let’s assume we do have a vaccine for COVID-19, maybe as soon as the end of this year, will there be people, even though they have seen others around them suffer and die, who will say, “I’m not going to have that vaccine, it’s probably some kind of conspiracy.” I hope and pray that’s not the case. Because this is not one of those things where people have not had their own experience of seeing what the virus can do. Surely you’d want to take advantage of something that could protect you and your loved ones. 

Stump:

This pushes us into perhaps some deeper theological waters here. 

Collins:  

Oh good, now Tim’s going to talk more now, I think. 

Keller:

Pressure’s on me.

Stump:

Both of you are affirming that in times like these, we should be praying for God to help us and we should also be doing our best to develop vaccines and to figure out appropriate treatments. I think our brains are not wired very easily for “both and” situations like this. For audiences that seemed to think prayer or science. It seems like we have to go one way or the other. How does this work on a practical level? Tim, maybe what’s God doing? We billed this event tonight as Where is God in a Pandemic? Is God sitting waiting for us to ask him to help him to do something to help the scientists figure this out? Or how do we understand God’s action and God’s work in times like this in relationship to our prayers and to our efforts?

Keller:  

Yeah, and by the way, I want you to know that Francis knows a lot more about theology than I know about medicine. So it’s not quite a flip flop here. Well if you ask the question, where is God in the midst of all this, I mean, you have to start very theologically. And that is Christianity presents the only God that actually comes into this world and makes himself vulnerable, mortal, killable, as it were. He experiences weakness and hunger. He experiences physical weakness, injustice, torture and death. And he does this voluntarily, in order to love us, in order to save us. And because it’s Jesus when he rises from the dead and he goes to heaven. You could say, somebody might say, well, sure, he was in the midst of all of our human suffering, but no longer. Except that when he meets Paul, St. Paul, on the road to Damascus, where Paul gets converted, it’s in Acts chapter nine, he says to Paul, “Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me?” Now, he’d been killing Christians. But he says, “Why are you persecuting me?” And Paul says, you know, he’s looking at this glorious divine figure saying, “how in the world have I been hurting you?” And obviously, it means that he is present in this world, particularly among his people, in such a way that he is so connected to us that he actually is still in the midst of the suffering. He still is. And therefore when you ask where is God, if you talk about the Christian God in the midst of the pandemic, he’s right here. 

Okay, I know what people say. Well why did he allow it to happen? In John chapter 11…I preached on this the Sunday after 9/11, I always go to John 11. Jesus shows up, Lazarus has died, Mary and Martha immediately start asking, basically asking questions, I mean why did you let this happen? First of all, Jesus does not give an explanation. Now we know what it is because of our…2000 years later, we’ve got the perspective, we know why Lazarus died. But at that point, Jesus does not give an explanation. What he actually does is he prays, he weeps, he helps, and he does so sacrificially because the thing… If you read the passage, the moment he raises Lazarus from the dead, the religious leaders decide that’s the final straw, we have to kill him. So Jesus knows he can’t get, he really cannot get Lazarus out of the grave without putting himself in. So he doesn’t give an explanation. He’s just there in the midst. And he prays and he weeps and he helps and he does it sacrificially. And that’s where we got to where we have to be. Now, here’s the thing, when you see Jesus doing that, without giving an explanation, we don’t know why God’s allowing the pandemic right now. We just know it’s not because he doesn’t love us. And he’s got reasons for why he hasn’t stopped suffering yet. We do know, Romans 8 tells us, someday he’s going to stop all sickness and death, everything. We just don’t know why he hasn’t done it yet. But we do know whatever those reasons are, and he must have good reasons, It’s not because he doesn’t love us. And we should just be following what Jesus said. We shouldn’t be trying to explain why when people ask, “why is God allowing this to happen?” no Christian ought to give a good answer. No Christian ought to say, well because of XYZ. They should pray, help, weep, sacrifice and be right near where everybody else is weeping and suffering.

Collins:

I think that’s beautifully said. I think the other thing is we have to recognize that this is not the most exceptional moment in all of history, even though it may be in our own lifetime. Sometimes I hear a little bit of that reflection that nothing like this bad has ever happened before. Well, goodness, back through human history we’ve had many plagues. Christians have often been at their best in those plagues, by basically doing things that people around them would not do to try to help those who are suffering. And I hope we’re doing that again, in a way that people recognize, although also we need to keep ourselves safe. So yeah, and read the book of Job for heaven’s sake and see whether you think there’s a guarantee that God’s not going to, at times, allow trouble to happen. It happens to us but he promises to be there for us. 

I have next to my desk a few scriptures that I have, in the course of this pandemic, pulled out and printed up just so that they were close by when I was having one of those moments. And maybe my favorite of all of them is Psalm 46, which most of you will recognize: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.” That does not say there will be no trouble. It says, “God is an ever present help in trouble.” I am really awfully relieved to know that God is here with us in this trouble, each one of us, in ways that can provide comfort and maybe even help us to learn something that we didn’t know before about what humanity is all about and what our calling is, at a time of trouble like this.

Keller:

Mentioning Job is really helpful, because both Job and Jesus are the two places in the Bible where you see someone who’s an innocent sufferer. Now technically Job being a regular human being isn’t perfectly innocent. Nevertheless, Job didn’t deserve, he didn’t do anything to deserve that suffering. And Jesus when he went to the cross didn’t do anything to deserve his suffering. But because both Job and Jesus were faithful to God without knowing why, but they didn’t turn on God they stayed faithful. Again, Job was shaky. It’s really remarkable to see how shaky he was, but in the end, he holds on. And in both cases, when you experience innocent suffering, and in spite of your questions, you still stay faithful to God, and do what you should do, it defeats Satan. In both cases, Satan is defeated because Satan basically says, “oh human beings, they just, they don’t serve you, God, except for themselves. So unless everything is going well in their lives, they’re not going to serve you.” Satan says about Job, “does Job serve God for nothing?” Take away things and so what happens in the end if you are suffering even though it’s innocent and you’re faithful to God, you’re defeating Satan. And you’re learning, and you’re also letting the suffering drive you like a nail further into God’s love. And on the other end, you’ll help people and you will actually find that you’re closer to him even though you don’t know the reason why just like Job did not know the reason why. He was never told. So I think Job and Jesus, two innocent sufferers defeating Satan just by being faithful in the darkness is a….they’re very important models for us.

Collins:

I hadn’t thought of that. 

Stump:

One more aspect of this I’d like to get you both to comment on is that the suffering seems not to be proportionally spread around in our communities, right? Francis on your NIH Director’s Blog last week, you wrote and interviewed about the disproportionate deaths of minority populations. And I haven’t seen that there’s anything particularly biological to this right? Or is it just a reflection of our societal structures and our systems? And Tim, then I wonder if you might join in about the church and you mentioned Martin Luther’s speech or his letter earlier about how the church may react during these times. Is there anything that the church can do in this particular societal situation we see, where the least of these are suffering more than their fair share in a time like this?

Collins:

Well, I can certainly say in terms of the bright light that this has shown on the dark situation of health disparities in this country is deeply troubling. We know health disparities are there. People have catalogued them. We know that certain illnesses are more common in people who have less in the way of resources, a lower socioeconomic status and so on. But COVID-19 has been ruthless in the way in which it has attacked those very individuals. In Georgia, where 30% of the population is African American, 80% of the people in the hospital with COVID-19 are African American. And it goes along with the health disparities that diabetes and hypertension are more common in those folks. And we haven’t figured out what to do about that. It goes along with the fact that many of those people are not able to go home and stay at home safely, like I am now. Because they’ve got to get out there and make a living, put food on the table. And so they are not being given the chance to protect themselves. And the consequences are devastating. And I don’t think any of us who care about justice and equity and loving your neighbor can look at this situation and not be deeply troubled. And if this is a wake up call for our country and the way in which health abilities and equities are very unfairly distributed, well good for that. Maybe we need to remember this when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. And right now we need to do everything we can to reach out to those communities especially, even more so than those who have more resources.

Keller:

Francis just went down the list of…there’s multiple reasons why the less economically resourced communities, for tons of reasons, are being harder hit. They live in smaller spaces. They live closer together. They don’t live just in their apartments. They live around their apartments. They can’t work from home. They also have more underlying bad health issues anyway because of their…for various reasons. So he’s gone through the list. You were asking about the church and that’s a big question. Here’s the reason why. Generally, you’ll see that the upper middle class churches, where maybe the majority of the people can work from home, keep their jobs, versus the more blue collar and poor churches where most of the people are out of work, and where there’s a lot more illness and devastation and unemployment in their immediate neighborhood. One of the problems is that the churches in those hard hit neighborhoods will not have the resources to reach out to their neighborhood at all, because like the majority of their own people are unemployed. The church might close up. They can’t pay the light bills. Meanwhile, the churches that are in more, you know, posh and affluent neighborhoods are not going to have near as many needs in their neighborhood. And therefore there needs to be some kind of partnership between churches with more means, Christians with more means, and the churches in those hard hit neighborhoods, if they’re gonna be able to respond. After 9/11, we knew that something like, I forget now the numbers it was so long ago, something like 17,000 small businesses south of 14th Street, instantly, literally went up in smoke. And there were hundreds of thousands of folks, many of whom were immigrants, who lost their jobs. And Redeemer was able to go into a major mode of helping people who had lost their jobs. Of course we didn’t have the quarantine, we didn’t have the distancing, social distancing, any of that stuff. Nevertheless, it was partly because people actually sent money to Redeemer from across the country, just saying, we’re very concerned about New York, please help. Basically the situation was New York was much more hard hit the rest of the country was not that affected. People knew about Redeemer, sent us the money and we were able to really do it quite a bit. Something like that is going to have to happen, I think, with the more affluent churches with the churches that are in the harder hit communities if they’re really going to respond to this.

Stump:

Are there mechanisms that you see that are starting to be put in place that might help to facilitate that? 

Keller:

I hear of them. I better not mention any because I’m not sure I’m, well… No, I know there’s a… The game’s afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say. There definitely are people working on it.

Stump:

One more question you might both respond to about the image of God. The image of God is one of the most central doctrines of creation and I wonder how does this bear on our conversation here, both on the value of the least of these who are particularly vulnerable to the disease, but then also with respect to our duties and roles toward our fellow humans and the rest of creation, the image of God in us and how that might be imaged to the rest of the rest of the people.

Keller:

Francis, go ahead, you first. 

Collins:  

Well, you could take that in a bunch of directions, couldn’t you? I guess I’m thinking as you raise the question about this debate about is it okay to take some risks about this pandemic by allowing people to be released from where they have been sequestered and quarantined, even if it means there may be more cases happening as a result. But after all, most of those are perhaps the older people or those with chronic illness, or perhaps somebody in a nursing home or somebody who’s homeless, and maybe that’s a trade off that we should basically except because we need to get our economy going again, Christians should be very careful of that one I think. Yes, the image of God applies to all of us. C.S. Lewis said if you could see any one of those individuals for what they really are as a spiritual creature, you would fall on your knees, even those that we consider the least of them. We of all people ought to be full of compassion and concern for every human being. And to consider that any of those might actually be something a sacrifice would be worth taking. That ought to give us a great deal of trouble. Now, I know I sound like one of those public health people who’s not paying enough attention to the economic damage and I don’t mean to say that’s not been horrendous in terms of what it’s done to people’s lives and even caused health issues and even life threatening issues. That’s true too. But let’s be really thoughtful about what we stand for, which is the value of every human life, no matter who it is.

Keller:

Oh, yeah, listen, I’m just going to build on what Francis said. You know, I think the image of God does stop us from moving into what you might call a hard utilitarianism. Now utilitarianism is a school of ethics, you know, John Stuart Mill, that said, the greatest good for the greatest number. And therefore, if it means sacrificing a smaller number for the good of the whole, that’s fine. Christians can’t go there completely. I mean, when I say… It seems obvious that if everybody’s in the image of God, then everybody’s in the image of God, including the majority, not just the threatened minority. But nevertheless, it gets you…it does mean that a single life is really very valuable and you really can’t say, you can’t do that hard utilitarianism. 

A quick example. I know, we probably don’t have time. In 1884—this really happened—1884, a British ship called the Mignonette, British, I forget what kind of ship it was, it sunk. There were four survivors and they were in a lifeboat together and they knew that they were not going to be able to survive, probably because they had no food and they were out of the currents, out of the trade winds, unless they were able to, you know, stick it out longer. So three of them killed and ate the fourth guy. Because the fourth guy was an orphan, had no relatives, no parents, no children. He was like 17 or 18 years old. All the others had wives, children, everything. And they sat down in a very utilitarian way, by the way, and said, you know, we’re all going to die, unless he dies, and he doesn’t have any… You know, basically it was a total utilitarianism. They killed them and ate him. And when they got back, by the way, they went to court and believe it or not the court exonerated them. Because at the time the utilitarian approach to justice was in the ascendancy. I think Christians would say sorry, that was not by his consent, he’s a man in the image of God, has the right not to be killed and eaten. And that’s hard utilitarianism. I still know that there’s a such thing as calculus. Everybody knows, for example, if you shut down all the interstate highways in the country, there’d probably be fewer deaths. And therefore there is some kind of calculus that goes on. It’s at a very high level. But not at the level…I don’t want to do that utilitarianism right now with the virus. So that’s what the image of God does. It does create a bit of a roadblock for people who want to be utilitarian and I would say we can’t go all the way there.

Stump:

And can you speak at all to the aspect of image of God of people who are in the position to make decisions? What does that mean that we bear the image of God for how we ought to treat people, not just that they themselves are in the image of God, but the duties that are upon us, in times like these.

Collins:

Well, we are called to be moral creatures, whether we acknowledge that or not, it is a universal sense that all of humanity has. And we recognize there are such things that are good and things that are evil. And it’s a pretty interesting signpost to a creator God who cares about us, by the way. And it is very much on our shoulders to decide how to respond. As we are in the image of God, there’s a lot of weight attached to those decisions. And I know for myself, I fail regularly with those decisions, which then brings me back to why it is a wonderful and amazing and a great comfort that I have Jesus as the Savior, who paid the price for all those times where I don’t live up to the image of God. That makes it possible for me still to be a follower and a believer and to be in relationship with Almighty God, which is an amazing thing to say.

Keller:

I don’t have anything to add to that. That’s great.

Stump:

Let’s just close here. We’re going to bring Deb back in. Several of our audience members are even asking how they might pray for the two of you. I think both of you have enormous followings and enormous respect from people that understand the pressures that you’re under. And could you each, maybe just share a couple of specific ways that we could hold you up in prayer and Deb’s gonna pray for us then at the end?

Collins:

Tim, go ahead.

Keller:

Well, my part I think, because I’m not the pastor of a church and because I do so many things when it comes to both writing, speaking, mentoring, training, teaching, I’m going to have to replant myself. That is to say I have a lot of leeway as to what I do and I got to have the wisdom to know, in my last years here, because I’m older, what’s the best use of my time? And therefore it’s going to take some wisdom to say what are the new realities and what’s the best way for me to be of service? And actually, I feel quite a burden on that. I don’t feel like I can just chug along do everything I’ve always done. So I would say wisdom to know how to best use my gifts and spend my time in the years I have left.

Collins:

Wisdom was where I was going too. At a time where there’s so many decisions that have to be made about what’s the right strategy to find answers to this terrible pandemic and I know I’m making mistakes all the time by picking the wrong answer. But I am very fond of that verse from James chapter one, verse 5, “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all without reproach, generously, and it will be given.” I am glad that’s the case. Because my wisdom is very insufficient for the challenges we have right now.

Haarsma:

Well, thank you both for all that you’ve shared with us tonight, and for all of these wise words. And we do want to close here by praying for you, and by praying for all of us in this pandemic. So for every one of you join me in a moment of prayer.  

Oh Lord, you are the creator. Your love is as big as the universe and you show that amazing love in Jesus Christ. You are the God who became human, who weeps with us and suffers alongside us even to the point of death. Help us to trust that amazing love and stay faithful in the darkness as Job did. Show your love this week to Tim and to Francis. Thank you for their dedication. Keep them safe and healthy. Give them your strength to persevere. And especially give your wisdom as you promised in James, you promised to give wisdom and my ask. Give them wisdom for the urgent challenges of today and the hard decisions for the years to come. Bless each of them as they continue to use their gifts so sacrificially. And Lord we pray you’ll show your immense love to our world. For the sick, bring your healing mercy. Strengthen the health care workers. Guide the researchers. Guide the industry leaders to bring an effective vaccine soon. Into places of sorrow and worry and fear, bring your comfort and presence. Bring your church to show love and compassion. In places of confusion, misinformation and outright lies, bring your truth. Help us to be discerning in how we listen and speak your truth in love. And into places of injustice, where there are not enough resources, where people are suffering more because they’re not able to isolate, bring your church in powerful new ways Lord. May your church be the place that unifies across race and income and geography to care for one another. Show us how to fight for every life, for every community, for every person who bears your image. We continue to pray with Psalm 46, “Oh God, you are our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear. Though the earth give way we will not fear and though the mountains fall into the sea, we will not fear because the Lord Almighty is with us.” Jesus Christ weeps alongside us. In your strong name Jesus, we pray. Amen.

Collins:

Amen, thank you Deb.

Keller:

Thank you.

Collins:

Thanks for a wonderful discussion and a conversation, Tim. 

Keller:

Thanks Francis. 

Collins:

Always good to  have a chance to do this. Let’s do it again soon.

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. Thanks for listening.


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Featured guests

Tim Keller

Tim Keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a best-selling author of books like The Reason for God and Jesus the King. Now he is the Chairman and co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which trains pastors for ministry in global cities.
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.