By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
On 20 May of this year, it was announced that the annual Templeton Prize was awarded to geneticist and physician Francis Collins. The statement that announced the news cited Collin’s ability to demonstrate that “religious faith can motivate and inspire rigorous scientific research” and his advocacy “for the integration of faith and reason”.
Dr Collins is most well-known for heading the Genome Project at the turn of the century. Since 2009, he has directed the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The general public became acquainted with Dr Francis Collins through The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, published in 2006. The book chronicles his own journey from atheism to agnostism to Christian Faith. In October 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Surprise at being a Templeton Prize recipient
In an interview with Vatican News, Dr Collins expressed his surprise at having been named the Templeton Prize recipient for 2020.
“I never would have thought of myself anywhere near this category”, he said. He never considered himself as an “expert in theology”. Being in the company of past recipients such as “Mother Theresa, Billy Graham and Archbishop Desmond Tutu”, he said, is “an incredible honor”.
Straddling two worlds
As the Templeton Prize statement itself acknowledges, Dr Francis Collins’s work has been recognized by two worlds: the scientific world and the religious world. These worlds are often kept apart from each other. Yet Dr Collins believes these two worlds can instead be in dialogue with each other because God wrote the book that each one uses.
“I think God gave us two books. The book of God's words the Bible which I've read every day and the book of God's works, which is creation”. As a scientist, Dr Collins said that through science he can “appreciate the grandeur of God's creation” which he says is a form of worship.
One such place where this dialogue takes place is at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Dr Collins says that among his peers are “some of the most visionary scientists in the world”. While not all are believers, he characters the atmosphere among them as one in which they can “learn from each other and perhaps perceive a little bit more than we did before the amazing creation that we've been given by God himself”.
Affinity with Pope Francis’s ecological vision
Dr Collins says that he “totally resonates” with Pope Francis’s ecological vision in Laudato si’ rooted in the Gospel of creation. While we “cannot prove God’s existence through science,” he said, “there are certainly aspects of what we learn by studying nature that seem to call out for an explanation”.
There science points to the fact that there is a “Creator who has incredible intelligence, who's a pretty good physicist and a mathematician, but who also has left all kinds of signposts that the Creator is interested in us and getting to know us”.
Problem of suffering
Dr Collins expressed an urgency in finding a vaccine for Covid-19, in the statement he released on the announcement that he was this year’s Templeton Prize recipient. He wrote that “almost my every waking moment is consumed by the effort to find treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19”. He also wrote that the suffering caused by the virus brought some doubts to the fore regarding how a loving God can permit all this suffering.
“The question of why a loving God allows suffering has got to be the toughest one” that believers and non-believers face. His own faith tells him that God understands our difficulty. “Jesus Christ suffered in ways that I could not possibly imagine in his death on the cross. And so I don't have to explain to God why suffering is a terrible thing”.
As a physician who has dealt with suffering all of his professional life, Dr Collins says that he looks to Jesus who spent a lot of time healing people. “I think we were called to do the same. And so if God has given us tools through science to find ways to address medical problems including now Covid-19, I think we’re called to do everything we can to bring that forward, to alleviate suffering and to prevent deaths”.
This is his primary task right now as he works from home: “trying to find ways for those vaccines and those treatments and those diagnostics to get developed faster than anybody could have imagined and I'm not regretting every minute that I have to spend on this. Lives hang in the balance.”
Is there a God?
To anyone on the same search for God that he had chronicled in his book The Language of God, Dr Collins has this message:
“Is there any question more important for us to address as we are given this brief blink-of-an-eye to live on this planet than this one? Is there a God and does that God care about me? I avoided that question for my first quarter century. It made me uncomfortable. I didn't have anything really to lean on to know where I might find answers and I thought maybe there just weren't going to be any…so better spend my time on something else. Then my eyes got opened to the fact that there are serious ways to explore that and they lead you into interesting insights about yourself and about God. It’s ultimately the most important exploration I've ever done. I've searched the human genome. I've had the chance to work on cancer and sickle cell disease and heart disease and a whole variety of other conditions. But the most important significant exploration I ever did was trying to find out for me – is there a God it does He care about me? And the answer is yes. And I would encourage anybody … who hasn't taken the time to do so the start down that path. Maybe start with the Book of John in the Bible. If you need a more contemporary view of exactly how people who believe in science and can also see faith is important check out the Biologos website or maybe, modestly, have a look at my book The Language of God to see how I traveled that path and see if it makes to you.”
About the Templeton Prize
The Templeton Prize is awarded annually in recognition of those scientists resonate with “Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it”.
Some recent Templeton Prize recipients include King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2018, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in 2016, Tomáš Halík in 2014, Desmond Tutu in 2013, the Dalai Lama in 2012, Billy Graham in 1982 and Mother Teresa in 1973. Dr Collins will be receive the Prize later in the year in a virtual ceremony.