When I first read Francis Collins’ The Language of God in 2007, it was from the viewpoint of appreciation that the head of the Human Genome Project was a fellow-Christian, defending the compatibility of science and faith. That was before I had any dealings with BioLogos the organisation. But now I thought it might be useful to return for a more critical look at the book, one 14-page chapter of which is, essentially, a manifesto for BioLogos as a concept. What does Collins mean by it, and to what extent does the present BioLogos reflect that?
Let me say at once that one can’t limit an organisation to, or define it by, its initial vision, as one expects it to develop and adapt, especially when, as in the case of BioLogos, the founder soon left and others are responsible for its direction. But the exercise may nevertheless be of some use in assessing the validity of the core idea, and whether that has begun to change at all.
The first thing to note is that Collins originally intended BioLogos not as the name of an organisation, but as the descriptor of a position – he considered himself a proponent of “BioLogos” as opposed to Creationism, Intelligent Design or Atheism. The second interesting point is that he did not put BioLogos forward as a new position, but as an old position rebranded. “BioLogos” is intended as a direct synonym for “theistic evolution”.
Why the change? In Collins’ words:
…it has a terrible name. Most nontheologians are not quite sure what a theist is, much less how that term could be converted to an adjective and used to modify Darwin’s theory.
That, he goes on, suggests that ones belief in God is secondary to evolution. So, his “modest proposal” is “Bios through Logos”, bios meaning life and logos being the Greek for word.
Is it a good term? Looked at critically, I’m not sure it is, particularly, which probably explains why I’ve never heard anyone use it as an alternative to “theistic evolution”, and the term is now exclusively reserved for the foundation and its website. So what’s wrong with it?
In the first place, “Life through the Word” only hints at God obliquely, and those unsure of the meaining of “theistic” are not likely to do better on a Greek word. Additionally the term itself would cover equally well any variety of Creationism, and Intelligent Design as well, all of which believe that life comes through the Logos. It doesn’t suggest an evolutionary process at all.
More specifically, earlier on (p200) Collins lists six components typical of TE positions, the first two of which (existence ex nihilo and cosmic fine-tuning) aren’t directly related to the emergence of life. Having said that, “theistic evolution” should, sematically speaking, have nothing to do with these two either, nor with the Origin of Life.
But it is the “Logos” part that is really problematic. Collins’ explanation of the term runs thus:
To many believers, the Word is synonymous with God, as powerfully and poetically expressed in those opening words of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. “BioLogos” expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God.”
Well, I couldn’t disagree with that last belief, and neither, I suppose would any theistic evolutionist. But actually “Logos” is not synonymous with God, but with the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. “BioLogos”, then, actually suggests that the Son is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of Christ, which is theologically true but incomplete – Christian teaching is actually that the Father is the source of life, and that he created it through and for the Son, by the Spirit. So “BioLogos” is actually inadequate as a Trinitarian term. And yet it is specificially Christian, for only Christians link “Logos” in any way with the Godhead.
That too limits “BioLogos” compared to “theistic evolution”, for Collins himself, though a Christian, writes his book with a “those of all faiths and none” thrust. On p199 he says, of theistic evolution:
It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians…
It’s quite clear that the first three of those groups would not be happy to associate with BioLogos as a position rather than theistic evolution. Collins also ranks Anthony Flew amongst believers (which is confusing as Flew was both a non-Christian and supported Intelligent Design arguments on the origin of life). Did Flew believe life came through the Logos?
It’s of interest that Collins chose his Greek words because all the English ones carry so much baggage as to be “off-limits”. “Creation” suggests “Creationism”, “Intelligent” and “Designer” hint at ID, “Fundamental” at “Fundamentalism”. Note that he would be happy with these words in themselves, were it not for their sociological connotations. So he believes the Creator to be the Intelligent Designer (of Fundamental nature?). Also note that these scruples have been dropped in Darrel Falk’s preferred term, “Evolutionary Creation“, which on Collins’ reasoning we should take to be a simple synonym of both “theistic evolution” and “BioLogos”. A rose by any other name …
Further on in his chapter, Collins gives us some insights into his detailed understanding of BioLogos that have a direct bearing on some of the controversies generated by what has appeared on the site. On p205 he addressed the problems believers might have with the random elements of evolution:
The solution is readily to hand, once one ceases to apply human limitations to God. If God is outside nature, then he is outside space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans, right to the moment of your reading this book – and beyond.
Now this is a bit non-specific – did God plan, or merely foresee all these things at the moment of creation, down to the detail of my reading Collins’ book? Whichever is the case, Collins here has no truck with Open Theism, which denies that God foresees the future or can plan its detail. That makes his activity as a speaker at an Open Theism and Science conference just a year after the book was published a little hard to understand.
But his meaning here is clarified as he continues:
In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus God copuld be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective…this would appear a random and undirected process.
This can only be a straight answer to the randomness question so often raised at BioLogos: random is not random to God, but (in some unspecified way) directed by God. But that also deals with the nebulous “freedom of nature” theme so often seen on BioLogos: according to Collins, “from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.”
From these quotations, one can infer that Collins is a physical determinist with regard to natural law, but suggests ongoing divine creative (determining!) activity in the operation of random (from the human viewpoint) events. These two specify the biological outcomes, and no mention is made of autonomy in non-human nature. His theism, in this book at least, is not “Open”. If that’s so one wonders why Darrell Falk and others at BioLogos make such a meal out of avoiding committing themselves on these issues? If they did I’d have no quarrel with them.
Perhaps BioLogos has, indeed, departed from the original view of it spelled out by Collins in The Language of God. If so, it will be interesting to see where it goes next.