Last week I wrapped up a nine-week online elective course on “Intersections of Theology and Science.” This was probably the fifth or sixth time I have taught the course. One of the three main books I assign is The Language of God by Francis Collins. The book originally came out in 2007 and is a wonderful account of Collins’s journey from atheism to a robust evangelical faith. It is as fine a testament for the possibility of reconciling faith and science as you could find.
Collins’s book has been a part of my course syllabus for years but this was probably the first time when his name rang so many bells for the students. The reason is obvious: Collins has been on TV a lot in the course of the pandemic in his role as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Only Dr. Anthony Fauci has been on TV more but unlike Fauci—whose religious faith I know nothing about—Collins has also regularly addressed fellow Christians on matters related to COVID and, across 2021, particularly on matters related to the available vaccines.
To his sorrow and chagrin, Collins has noted that evangelical Christians have been among the most resistant blocks of people who have expressed either vaccine hesitancy or outright rejection of the very notion of receiving a vaccine. In some ways, however, this is consistent with how a lot of Christians have viewed science in the last century.
One of the topics we cover in my elective course is the history of the church’s interaction with science. There seems to be a pop notion out there that this has always been a relationship of pure conflict. If you bring up this subject with most anyone, it won’t take more than 2 minutes of conversation before someone mentions Galileo as the premier exemplar of how the church has always rejected science.
That’s not true, of course. Science in the Western world emerged largely from the bosom of the church. It was theologically and biblically astute people who concluded that a Creator God of order created a universe that is also orderly (despite being also fallen). What’s more, this Creator God endowed humanity with the divine Image in part so that we could have the rational faculties to investigate God’s orderly world in an orderly fashion. When we use those God-given gifts correctly—and we do not always do so of course—we will discover truth.
Yes, scientists can and do make mistakes. But trial and error is their stock in trade method. Scientists are in the business of proving themselves wrong but if after many attempts they cannot do so in a given area, then although their findings may retain the name of a “theory,” it is a theory that appears to point to the truth. (Technically gravity is still a theory too but it’s pretty solid, which is why few people are casual when walking along the edge of a precipice on a mountain cliff).
But despite the church’s role in giving birth to empirical science, recent times have driven a wedge between the two, mostly due to questions surrounding things like the age of the universe and the theory of evolution. Now the Bible is regularly pitted against “science” and one of the results of this is an abiding suspicion regarding science. This has now spilled over into the COVID pandemic, both in terms of how seriously some Christians have taken the reality of the virus just generally but also most certainly when it comes to the science behind vaccines.
In a recent interview, Francis Collins said:
I just saw a poll that said 49% of Republican men don’t intend to take a COVID vaccine. That cannot be on the basis of data because the data is incredibly compelling, so it must be on the basis of politics, various media, things on social media. And it tells you that our nation has lost its way here in terms of the ability to tell the difference between facts and opinions.
Collins went on to say that we simply have to recover “the fact that there is such a thing as objective truth.”
Regarding the faith community in particular, Collins noted,
I have not encountered, in . . . 40-plus years, a circumstance where I see a conflict between the truth that I learn about spiritual things from my faith and the truth that I learn about nature from science. It’s just really important if you’re trying to answer a question that you figure out what kind of question is this, and which is the approach that’s going to give me truth as a result? Science is great at answering those questions about how things work. Sometimes, not so great at saying, why? Faith, sometimes, can step into that space. Admittedly, in our country, especially, because the voices that people have primarily heard have come from the extremes of this spectrum of science and faith, there is a general assumption like, oh boy, these folks just can’t get along. But I don’t think a lot of people feel that way.
I have been heartened that some key evangelical leaders in recent months have encouraged Christians to see these vaccines as a gift. No, not a gift from science but a gift from the God who created us in such a way as to be able to do science. There are very few people alive today over the age of 50 who, were it not for the gift of modern medicine, would have died incredibly young of all manners of sickness and disease. The average life expectancy for a man in America in 1900 was 46. Women fared only a little better at 48 years. Even in the 1930s the reason Social Security was set up to start at age 65 was because no one was expected to live too many years beyond that anyway.
Science is imperfect. As my colleague Deborah Haarsma has pointed out, we fallen human beings can make errors of interpretation all over the place. The church has at times misinterpreted Scripture and the scientific community has sometimes misinterpreted the data on the physical world. But we keep trying.
It is a gift of God that we can read Holy Scripture and hear God speaking to us. But it is also a gift of God to have scientists devoted to the truth who come up with medicines and vaccines that save lives. It’s time that the church worked harder to give God the glory for both of these gifts.