The weightiest prize in the world bestowed on those who brilliantly navigate the relationship between their faith and action for the good of all humanity is the Templeton Prize. Past recipients include Billy Graham and Mother Teresa.
This year’s recipient will be one of the world’s most accomplished scientists, Dr. Francis Collins. His friendship is a treasure.
Who is Francis Collins and why is his work so critical to the health of the nation? Allow me to share some personal observations and experiences that I believe give insight into who this great American is and what motivates him.
Taking the exit off Washington DC’s Capital Beltway and into Bethesda, Maryland, home of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the East Coast’s equivalent of taking the high road to California’s Silicon Valley, or in the 20th century, the road to the Bell Labs of New Jersey. The sheer IQ levels of those three geographical spots — combined with the alchemy of innovation, creativity, and pure science that takes place there on a daily basis — is almost tangible in the air and palpable to the senses.
Most of us find such places mostly incomprehensible because the goals are so cutting-edge and lofty, and sometimes even otherworldly.
And so it was, during my years working in The White House for President George W. Bush, that I had gotten to know the aforementioned Francis Collins, the director of the NIH.
I had been tasked, as part of my duties in the Office of Public Liaison, to be in touch with the folks at the President’s Council on Bioethics — to connect the critically-important work the Council was doing with stakeholders, groups, and individuals who were not formally in government but who had a great interest in how public policy was being both shaped and decided.
After sitting-in on my first session with the Council, merely to listen and take notes, I realized how deficient my own understanding was even in the most rudimentary dialogue for the heady issues being discussed — and most importantly, President Bush’s unwavering pro-life commitments and the manner in which some of those decisions were being reached.
For instance, I remember the first time I heard someone mention to me ‘stem cell research.’ I had read this phrase, and heard it used what seemed like a million times; but I had virtually no basic understanding of what a stem cell is, or its importance or relevance to what would become one of President Bush’s most important speeches, and perhaps the most pro-life speech by any president ever delivered on prime-time TV.
A member of the Council had become a close acquaintance, and he generously gave me liberty to call upon him when I needed to better understand some of the basic medical and scientific terms. During one our telephone conversations, he casually said to me, “Well, the best person on that issue anywhere in the world is Francis Collins.”
Coincidentally, just a few days before that conversation, I had finishing reading a fascinating analysis of the mapping of the human genome – one of the most important scientific achievements in American history, and headed by … Francis Collins! My Council friend said to me, “You ought to be in touch with him. He’s unlike just about anyone else you will ever meet who is also that smart.”
I will never forget that recommendation or its phrasing, and so took my friend’s wise counsel and simply called Collins on the telephone – fully expecting that someone that famous and busy would probably not be getting back in touch with me any time soon, or ever.
But no sooner had I put the phone down, after leaving a message with his colleague, that I received a call back — a call unlike any I had ever received before or since. Francis used his first name in introducing himself to me, and asked simply “How may I help?” I don’t mind saying I was a bit taken aback: one of the most famous scientists in the world on the line, and speaking with a humility and authenticity in the most humane tone and terms possible.
Ours was actually a substantive conversation; all my questions were answered; it was obvious that among his many other gifts was the ability to explain major and complex issues in an elementary manner without sacrificing the nuances or dilemmas; he seemed at first blush to be comfortable with abstraction and complication; and then, he simply closed our call by saying, “You have an invitation to come to NIH when it’s convenient; I can show you what I mean better than I can explain it, and I look forward to meeting you.”
Two weeks later, I drove into NIH and met Collins for the first time. He was as good as his word. He took me to a series of labs that opened up a world of understanding to me, and far more importantly, a wonderful friendship was seeded that day. I have been the beneficiary of his kindnesses and generosity on many occasions, and none more so than his elemental gift for friendship and goodwill even on significant issues where we may not always see eye to eye. In those differences, he is equally comfortable, which is both refreshing and rare.
The most important thing to say is the last thing to say: Francis Collins is not only a serious evangelical Christian but also not shy about speaking of how his faith navigates him through the worlds of science, medicine, public policy, and the hairpin curves of often-toxic Washington DC. He wears his learning lightly; he doesn’t know a stranger; and his goodness and largeness of soul flows from the heart of Christ.
His manner is both self-deprecating and serious, yet there is always a turn of wit or mirth, and his organic generosity of Spirit is leavened by an ongoing commitment to what he sees as the full harmony of a fulsome faith and categorical commitment to reason
His The Language of God is perhaps the most important book on science and faith written in the last half-century by a scientist of his stature, and his ability to befriend those fully in sync with his faith, and those hostile or indifferent to it, gives him quality and bearing that reminds the average person of what C.S. Lewis must have been like: magnanimous, graceful, joyful, and of ballast.
Francis once wrote that C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is the book that had the most important impact on him: “As an atheist evolving to agnosticism, and seeking answers to whether or not belief in God is potentially rational, my life was turned upside down … by reading [that book].”
He is C.S. Lewis’ worthy peer, and wise.
Photo from the NIH