Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Francis Collins and prayer


Francis Collins is the director of the NIH, and an amazingly accomplished physician and geneticist. He is also remarkable for being one of the most "out" of Christian believers in the higher echelons of science.

We talked about Collins before, in the context of the shameful protests that some scientists made about his nomination to lead NIH. I refer you to that post for a detailed discussion of my views on this.

I also recommend to you a excellent recent New Yorker profile that also addresses some of the recent stem cell debate.

A propos of JCF mentioning praying for Christopher Hitchens, a prominent "new atheist" voice, I wanted to point out this recent piece Collins wrote for the WaPo, Praying for my friend Christopher Hitchens
It was with dismay that I learned in June that Christopher had been diagnosed with cancer. And this was a very serious situation - esophageal cancer that has already spread to regional lymph nodes has a poor prognosis, and pursuing all avenues of intervention, even if experimental, would be highly advisable. ...

So as I have done in other situations where a friend was in trouble, I reached out to Christopher and his wife Carol Blue to offer assistance. They welcomed that possibility, and we've met several times since then....

Some observers have expressed surprise that the atheist intellectual and the Christian physician-scientist could become friends. After all, in the current political climate in Washington, anyone who doesn't agree with you is supposed to be your enemy. But I would like to think that Christopher's sharp intellect has challenged my own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17)....

Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He knows that I am praying for him. But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention - as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience. Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 - "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." And I then give thanks for the chance to share in a deepening friendship.
I think that is a wise and caring letter.

It's also worth remembering that unlike yours truly, Collins is both MD and PhD. He has practiced medicine. My experience is that physicians are much more likely to be people of faith, and not ashamed of it, than the pure scientists. Perhaps it is because of the ultimately humbling nature of putting our paltry knowledge against real flesh-and-blood, pain, and death. It is very easy in science to be glib about "curing cancer" and the hard, bright light of relentlessly intellectual pursuit. We aren't called upon to utter death sentences to real people. There's actually a striking cultural gap between physician and scientist. Collins is one of the rare birds who bridges that (he's an outstanding basic scientist), but the reminder that he is a physician by training helps me understand part of where that faith may come from. I've never met him, but I really like him as head of NIH.

5 comments:

Counterlight said...

Excellent post. Thanks.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Wonderful story, IT. Collins is an example of living the Gospel to all of us who call ourselves Christian.

JCF said...

Have I told you lately, IT, that I love you? :-)

[Hoping to meet soon w/ my friend Cath, struggling w/ her Stage 4 Lung Cancer. My friend Skittles (MP regular) just told me today, that a lovely woman at my former (Skittles' current) parish, Mary Jane, just succumbed to late-diagnosed Liver Cancer. Cancer sucketh beyond the telling of it... :-(]

IT said...

Thank you all for the kind words.

Yes, JCF, cancer truly is awful.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

An excellent post!