In 2017, Alvin Plantinga, a Christian Reformed philosopher, received the Templeton Prize for his arguments that belief in God can be defended with legitimacy in today’s scientific world. We celebrated this event widely in our circles.
This year the Templeton Prize was awarded to Dr. Francis Collins, the current head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States. Dr. Collins was appointed by President Obama and continues to serve under Trump. As a scientist, he played a primary role in unraveling human DNA, and he is a devoted Christian who wrote the book The Language of God. Before serving as the head of the NIH, Collins and his wife founded BioLogos, a Christian advocacy group that attempts to reconcile evolution with the idea of God, currently led by Dr. Deborah Haarsma, a former faculty member at Calvin University.
In past columns, I have compared Dr. Collins to the Old Testament prophet Daniel. Daniel was a faithful follower of God and served the leaders of Babylon. In the fifth chapter of the book Daniel, there is a remarkable incident where God writes on the wall three words that his scientists (wisemen) cannot interpret, so Daniel is called on to explain them to the king. He does so, warning the king about his behaviour, but sadly the king does not listen, and the chapter ends at verse 30: “That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean King, was killed.”
In his acceptance speech (available on the Templeton website), Dr. Collins looks at the writing on the wall in our age. He gives three words of warning, focused on the theme of harmony, that we would be wise to listen to and work to remedy.
First is the global pandemic of COVID-19, a concern that occupies almost all of Dr. Collins’s waking time as director of the NIH. Dr. Collins mentions the controversy about using masks; he says it is clear they slow the spread of the disease and should be adopted by all. He also mentions how hard scientists are working on a vaccine, even while a large percentage of people say they will not take it. “What should have been a common harmony in the name of saving lives,” he says, “has become a conflict.”
Second, Collins mentions the long-term threat of climate change. Scientists agree that we are changing our climate with, among other things, increased levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and its resulting heating of the planet. He points to the lack of acceptance of this scientific consensus and the devastating consequences of not acting now. The polarization around climate is painful for scientists to watch, as it stalls a sustained and much-needed response.
The third issue Collins mentions is the deep foundation of systemic racism found in American (and I will add Canadian) society. The unacceptable killing of George Floyd in the U.S., and of Dudley George in Ipperwash 25 years ago, highlights long-standing and structural issues that have not received the priority they deserve. Our police forces are called on to deal with situations that require alternate approaches. And the lack of safe drinking water in many Canadian Indigenous communities is a national disgrace.
To deal with these issues, Dr. Collins suggests three solutions: a renewed commitment to truth and reason, a vow to address the growing spiritual void that makes us rootless, and finally, a call to love one another. As Christians, these should not be surprising. All three can moor our responses to the issues that divide us, be part of our daily walk, and inform all our actions. If we do not listen to this prophetic warning, we, our society and our children will suffer. Let us not be like Belshazzar, who did not listen and died, but be instead like the king of Nineveh, who listened to Jonah’s warning. He and his people repented of their injustice, and God did not visit destruction on them. What can we do to build truth and love in our land?