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Review : Francis S. Collins’ belief, readings on the reason for faith

Francis S. Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and one of the world’s leading geneticists, chose these 32 selections on various aspects of faith. The book is divided into eleven sections from Classic Arguments for Faith and Reason to the Problem of Evil to The Harmony of Science and Faith to The Irrationality of Atheism (with some other sections thrown in for good measure).

Those familiar with the genre will find the familiar selections from Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, G.K. Chesterton and Alvin Plantinga. What is new are pieces from N.T.Wright, Os Guinness, John Stott, David Elton Trueblood, Keith Ward, Tim Keller, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath and Anthony Flew. And to keep it interesting are works from outside the traditional camp: Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl, Mahatma Gandhi, and The Dalai Lama. Notably absent are some classic apologetic works from authors such as William Paley (Natural Theology) and some of the modern philosophers like William Lane Craig, Cornelius Van Til, and Peter Kreeft. Nonetheless, much good material lies between the covers of this book.

Rather than slavishly recount much of the book (you can read it yourself) I’d like to highlight the parts that gave me an “aha” moment at my first reading. So here we go with comments on three selections:

A selection from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica contained his thoughts on the Simplicity of God. Contrary to Richard Dawkins, who insists that God must be at least more complex than his creation, Aquinas argues that God is, in essence, quite a simple Being. Hear him:

“God is, therefore, wholly Simple, for in Him there is no composition nor quantitative parts, neither is His Nature distinct from His Subject. He is wholly Simple likewise because what is composite comes after its component parts, and depends upon them; whereas God is the First Being. Moreover, a thing composite has a cause for its unity; but God has no cause, being Himself the First Efficient Cause. Also, in everything which is composite there is potentiality and actuality, which have no place in God. Finally, everything which is composite is a whole separate from its parts, whether like or unlike, which can in no way be said of God, Who His own Form, or rather His own Being, and, therefore, is wholly Simple.”

Next, an essay by British novelist Dorothy L. Sayers voices an interesting take on matters that have usually belonged to the experts of New Testatment textual criticism. I will quote her at length since it is well worth the echo:

“Bible critics in particular appear to be persons of very leisurely mental growth. Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John.

Into the details of that dispute I do not propose to go. I only want to point out that the arguments used are such as no critic would ever dream of applying to a modern book of memoirs written by one real person about another. The defects imputed to St. John would be virtues in Mr. Jones, and the value and authenticity of Mr. Jone’s contribution to literature wouldbe proved by the same arguments that are used to undermine the authenticity of St. John.

Suppose, for example, Mr. Bernard Shaw were now to publish a volume of reminescences about Mr. William Archer: would anybody object that the account must be received with suspicion because most of Archer’s other contempraries were dead, or because the style of G.B.S. was very unlike that of a Times obituary notice, or because the book contained a great many intimate conversations not recorded in previous memoirs, and left out a number of facts that could easily be ascertained by reference to the Dictionary of National Biography? Of if Mr. Shaw (being a less vigorous octogenarian than he happily is) had dictated part of his material to a respectable clergyman, who had himself added a special note to say that Shaw was the real author and that readers might rely on the accuracy of the memoirs since, after all, Shaw as a close friend of Archer and ought to know-should we feel that these two worthy men were thereby revealed as self-confessed liars, and dismiss their joint work as valueless fabrication? Probably not, but then Mr. Shaw is a real person, and lives, not in the Bible, but in Westminster. The time has not come to doubt him. He is already a legend, but not yet a myth; two thousand years hence, perhaps–”

It is rather unfortunate that the “Higher Criticism” was first undertaken at a time when all textual criticism tended to be destructive-when the body of Homer was being torn into fragments, the Arthurian romance reduced to its Celtic elements, and the “authority” of manuscripts established by a mechanical system of verbal agreements…When it came to the Bible, the spirit of destruction was the more gleefully iconoclastic because of the conservative extravagances of the “verbal inspiration” theory. But the root of the trouble is to be found, I suspect (as usual), in the collapse of dogma. Christ, even for Christians, is not quite “really” real – not altogether human-and the taint of unreality has spread to His disciples and friends and to His biographers: they are not “real” writers, but just “Bible” writers. John and Matthew and Luke and Mark, some or all of them, disagree about the occasion on which a parable was told or an epigram uttered. One or all must be a liar or untrustworthy, because Christ (not being quite real) must have made every remark once and once only. He could not, of course, like a real teacher, have used the same illustration twice, or found it necessary to hammer the same point home twenty times over, as one does when addressing audiences of real people and not of “Bible characters.”

Dorothy Sayers’ has the kind of common sense realism about the New Testament that needs to find a friend in the textual critical community. One can only hope.

Lastly, we will take a peek at the entry from the Dalai Lama, who we find “has spent many years reflecting on the remarkable advances of science.” He views science as “essentially a mode of inquiry that gives us fantastically detailed knowledge of the empirical world…” While respecting the value that science brings us, he also understands that “many aspects of human existence, including values, creativity, and spirituality, as well as deeper metaphysical questions, lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry.”

Like many Christian thinkers, he sees an implicit misapplication of science called “scientific materialism” which he holds to be “an assumption that the scientific view of the world should be the basis for all knowledge and all that is knowable.” Underlying this assumption is a presupposition that all of reality can be reduced to matter and energy and nothing else. He decries this reductionism and says that it is actually not a scientific conclusion, but rather an unjustified metaphysical conclusion. As he himself says it, “The view that all aspects of reality can be reduced to matter and its various particles is, to my mind, as much a metaphysical position as the view that an organizing intelligence created and controls reality.”

What bothers the Dalai Lama about this “radical scientific materialsm” is “the narrowness of vision that results and the potential for nihilism that might ensue.” It matters to our common humanity “whether we see ourselves as random biological creatures or special beings…” If we limit ourselves to a materialist position it provides no basis for ethics. He writes that “From a Buddhist perspective, a full human understanding must not only offer a coherent account of reality… but also a clear awareness of how we should act.”

He concludes by saying “Today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, science and spirituality have the potential to be closer than ever, and to embark upon a collaborative endeavor that has far-reaching potential to help humanity meet the challenges before us. We are all in this together. May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible. This is my heartfelt plea.”

And with him, all Christians can agree and work toward this end.

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