Grounded in the conviction that the question of God’s existence remains for us humans the most central and profound of questions, Francis S. Collins—a foremost geneticist and author of the bestselling The Language of God—has compiled a rich array of readings in his new book. Belief shows how the question has been posed and with what results, from as early as fifth-century B.C. to the present.
If nothing else, this history of asking suggests an abiding fascination with the question and an inability to answer it definitively. Given this, can we say that we are caught in some sort of compulsive Sisyphean endeavor; or will there come a time when the task will be completed to our satisfaction, one way or the other?
Collins and the authors of the readings included in this volume might reasonably take exception to framing this history and its outcome this way. Contributors range from Plato and Anselm on faith and reason; C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton on miracles and mysticism; Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel on faith and suffering; Martin Luther King Jr. on faith and justice; John Polkinghorne on faith and science; Dietrich Bonheoffer on forgiveness as a pointer to God; G. K. Chesterton and Anthony Flew on the irrationality of atheism, to Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama on Eastern spirituality.
After all, once you accept Anselm’s premise—namely, the ability of the human mind to consider the notion of something as “that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought,” including the human mind—you might reasonably understand that something as God. When Elie Wiesel agrees that “to watch over a man in pain” is for the person of faith to contemplate God, has he not made some sense out of suffering that might otherwise be impossible? When Martin Luther King Jr. can declare God to be “tough minded enough to transcend the world but tenderhearted enough to live in it,” can we not be sure of a personal God in our universe “whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man”?
And if Dietrich Bonheoffer can insist that “men should defeat their enemies by loving them,” does that not, in itself, point to a God of justice “who makes the sun rise on the evil and the good”? When the Dalai Lama concludes his essay maintaining that today science and spirituality “have the potential to embark upon a collaborative endeavor that has far-reaching potential to help humanity meet the challenges before us,” does he not assume at its core the spiritual aspirations of science itself? And if Anthony Flew can insist that “science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God,” does he not also say that God is unthinkable without nature? When Dorothy Sayers writes, “Who then will choose to be the chosen of God, and will to hear Me that I may hear you?” doesn’t she voice the divine aspiration in all of us?
In each case, the answer is yes. For each author, the reason is belief. By any measure, this is strong testimony to the centrality of belief in each one’s life, transcending whatever historical, cultural, philosophical or theological differences might exist among them. If belief, thanks to them, is seen to lie at the center of our pursuit of ultimate meaning, whether in science, literature or politics, surely it is safe to say, as in effect Collins does, that we ignore belief at the risk of our very humanity. For this reason, Collins is to be applauded for marshalling such a persuasive force in our defense against a reductionist scientism, political cynicism and economic Darwinism that, in the absence of belief, might otherwise overwhelm us.
The stakes are that high. As Collins points out in his introduction, viewing the nobler features of humanity in terms of atheism and materialism is philosophically impoverishing and threatens our instincts for benevolence and justice. In contrast, merely acknowledging the spiritual aspirations of our humanity opens up a world of new possibilities. What this world might look like to “seekers, believers, and skeptics from all walks of life” is conveyed in the intelligence, balance and joy of this collection of essays.
One of the remarkable things about belief, something implicit on every page in this book, is its universal presence. Whether confronting injustice, suffering, evil, mystery, even truth, we turn to belief. Why? And what are we doing when we say, for example, “I believe in God”; when we say, “I believe you”; or when we say, “I believe this to be so”? There is an extensive literature on the nature of belief itself that might have been drawn upon to state explicitly what remains unspoken here—namely, that belief, irrespective of the object of one’s belief, is something constitutionally rational for human beings, without which our everyday lives would be impossible. Saying that explicitly somewhere in this book would have gone a long way to realizing one of Collins’s hopes, which is to eliminate the reductionist-inspired separation of reason from belief.
If we do not recognize that thinking requires belief in our ability to think, since thinking cannot be used to validate itself, we run the risk of systemic agnosticism. G. K. Chesterton saw this when he recognized that human reason itself is a matter of faith and famously declared in his Suicide of Thought, “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”