Recently, Alan and I had the great privilege of hearing Dr. Francis Collins, who was nominated to become the sixteenth director of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) during the tenure of Barak Obama in 2009 and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate . . . a post he continues to hold even today during Trump’s presidency (which says quite a bit about his character 🙂 ). Also, the fact that the NIH, with its $39 billion annual budget, is the world’s largest health research/applied science program, speaks highly of the trust placed in him! Dr. Collins is one of the world’s most renowned scientists and has received prestigious recognitions such as election to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, being the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science, and being appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Benedict XVI. Dr. Collins came to Grand Rapids, not in his capacity as Director of the NIH, but to a private event hosted by the President’s Circle of Biologos, an organization he helped birth and guide, which is dedicated to the marriage of faith and science. The International Headquarters of Biologos is here in Grand Rapids, and David and Carol Van Andel (whose parents founded the Van Andel Institute for biomedical research in Grand Rapids) are avid supporters and sponsors. Dr. Collins’s presentation was fascinating! He started out by sharing his personal career journey from a small farm in the Shanendoah Valley of Virginia (where he was home schooled by non-religious parents) to Yale University for a PhD in chemistry . . . to medical school for an MD degree . . . to research at the University of Michigan as “The Gene Hunter,” and eventually to overseeing the Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, which was the group that successfully carried out the Human Genome Project (mapping human genes). Interwoven with his career progress was the account of his spiritual progress, from believing in nothing, to being challenged by an elderly patient (who seemed radiantly at peace about death), to grappling with the big question: “Can a scientist also believe in God?” After two years of research and wrestling,* Dr. Collins decided that the evidences pointing to the existence of a Creator God were more compelling than the arguments against. As a geneticist, who can miss the beyond brilliant design of DNA? And, what about the stunning improbability of life occurring spontaneously . . . something like 10 to the 500 billionth power?! Did you know there are some 86 billion neurons in the brain? It’s the most complex mechanism in the universe. How could that all happen by chance? And, what about the Big Bang? Doesn’t that argue eloquently for the veracity of the Genesis account—that in the beginning God spoke the universe into existence by the breath of his mouth? Talk about a BIG BANG!! In addition to sharing his professional and faith journeys, Dr. Collins gave some fascinating insights into the promises and problems of genetic engineering. For example, through gene modification and therapies, they can now save the lives of infants who are born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (a type of ALS that attacks and kills infants in the first months of life). Research is ongoing for a way to save people with Huntington’s Disease. There are genes that can act as “police” to track down and destroy certain types of cancer cells. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? The potential for health benefits is incredible. One of the ways in which any of us could get involved is in participating in a study of genes through http://www.joinallofus.org. They are looking for a million people who are willing to have their genes mapped. As of now, they have 130,000 volunteers. Want to help? Of course, as with all advances, there are moral dilemmas. For instance, they can now develop a human heart in a pig embryo. This type of genetic modification produces a cross between a human and an animal, known as a chimeras. It could save a lot of human lives, but is it ethical? You can only imagine the implications, including the making of science fiction horror stories. Thankfully, Dr. Collins didn’t leave us on that discouraging note. Rather, he called on Christian thinkers, scientists and theologians, to come to the table and help discern the godly path through all the vast possibilities to produce the truest and best results for physical and spiritual health globally. And then, for his final note, he picked up his guitar, called Dr. Deborah Haarma (president of Biologos) to assist him at the piano, and led us all in worship, as we sang to our great God, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Truly, God is faithful, and He alone can lead us into the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake! Our call is simply to follow where he leads.By the way, Dr. Collins has also written a New York Times’ Best Seller on genetics called The Language of God. If you’re grappling with how to marry science and faith in your life, you might really profit from reading his book.
“The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” (Job 33:4)
*One of the books Dr. Collins read was Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, which was also instrumental in my mother’s conversion. It’s an excellent book if you’re wrestling with the plausibility of God’s existence.