At the Beyond Belief 2006 conference, there was more than one allusion to the conversion of Francis Collins by a frozen waterfall. I’ve read about this many places. Here is a sympathetic interview about it. Here, here, here, here and here are some tough criticisms.
One thing about the critics of Francis Collins is how they all attack this moment by the waterfall. “Why should there be any meaning in this?” they ask. “Why should this be a Christian moment?” Sam Harris asks why the three parts to the waterfall, which Collins associated with the trinity, shouldn’t remind someone of Romulus, Remus and the wolf who saved them. Others mention Greek gods or Zoroaster. Harris says that such symbolism can point to anything.
No, it can’t. It can only point to what’s already inside someone’s head. It’s not the waterfall that points to God. It’s the waterfall combined with what was in Francis Collins’ head that made it point to Christ for him. To talk about the experience otherwise is just being silly. That may sound like the beginning of an atheistic interpretation of conversion experiences. I’ve heard atheists say often enough that I’m only Christian because of my culture. It's only just cultural if there is no God. But I think the important point, and maybe everyone already knows this, is that no experience stands alone. It’s not the frozen waterfall that converted Francis Collins. It’s what was going on within him. And what was going on within him was coming to Christ, not to any other god, not to an atheist worldview. Critics write as if an experience only matters if it converts them on their reading about it. Well, that’s not how it works, is it?
I’ve written before how I see crosses in any tiling of square tiles. I’ve studied this enough to know that I prefer a cross that’s 5 tiles high and 3 tiles wide. In a pinch I can get some pleasure from seeing a cross that’s more cut off than that, if the tiling doesn’t allow the full 5 X 3 image. Taller crosses don’t do as much for me. If I decide to see crosses that are two tiles thick instead of one, it’s not as good. A simple 5 X 3 cross is my cross. It’s not necessary that anyone else can see it. I can see it. Give me enough blank tiles, and I can see many, many crosses.
Did God put them there? Did he convince an architect or workman to put a tiling somewhere just for me? That seems doubtful, but maybe. If God goes through time tweaking things here and there, maybe He planned ahead for me at some point. It’s not necessary, though. I can see crosses in cabinets, other things. I can hear God in love songs. There’s always something to remind me of my one true love, invisible to those who don’t feel that way about God. I doubt that I’d see God in a frozen waterfall – too tall and too cold for me. It’s a matter of personal preference.
Sometimes I think about how that preference came to be. It’s like how I react to pretty women. I’m not sure what age I was before I always, always knew very quickly who the most attractive woman in a room was. Of course there are subcategories for that, ones that I suppose I learned after learning the basic elements of attractiveness. Who’s smiling the right amount? Who’s talking the right amount? Who’s the most approachable for me? Somehow my brain never has been interested in men the same way. Men don’t make me smile the way women do.
It’s easy to see that started with biology, even if science still doesn’t know exactly how. Yet not all of those refinements came from biology. Some came from my culture. Some came from my individual experience. I may have some precise preferences that no one else shares exactly. Some basic preference is biological, such as men in general preferring a woman who’s waist is 2/3 the size of her hips. Others will do, of course.
I suppose I follow my culture in steering away from heavier women. The individual preferences seem most important to enjoying just being in the presence of someone I like, someone who reminds me of someone else I once liked, things like that. I know an element of this is simply trial after trial to refine who I think the perfect woman is and how close to perfect is still attractive enough, not through anything intellectual, but purely by how women make me feel. Then intellect is very useful to keep me from doing anything stupid about those feelings.
Why should the faith I marry be any different? It doesn’t start with the same biology, but it may indeed start with some biology. As I mentioned yesterday, one can read about our needs for power, knowledge, love, and goodness, as well as how we tend to look for hidden things and see the God-shaped void that religion always has filled. Raise someone in a cave and won’t he or she find gods in nature? It’s hard to know, but it’s plausible.
So what’s the best way to fill this void? Some say it’s by being purely intellectual. Right. I’ve read the works of such people. Their premises are those of someone who doesn’t get out in the world enough. Their ideas are selective, often even arbitrarily selective. It’s just as much baloney as it would be for someone to say that what pleases him or her in other people is all determined intellectually. Then such people criticize Francis Collins for an emotional moment.
A cross is a transitional object by which I am in the presence of God, the God I know, the God I first heard 18 years ago tomorrow in a road-to-Damascus experience, but with whom I had some relationship before, maybe all of my life, maybe even before. I am quite sure that no one who went through that experience I had would be unmoved by it. I am not sure it would be possible for anyone actually to reject it, minimize it yes, but not deny it entirely. That’s not true for people who merely hear about it. For them it’s easy to reject. It’s idiocy. It’s insanity. Those two can pretty much cover everything as far as denying reality, not some external reality, but the inner reality that makes us say and do everything we say and do, not the excuses we give for that, but the true processes within us that psychology and neuroscience would love to understand, but are still far away from doing that. Some are sure there’s no God in that. I’m sure there is, if anyone would care to loosen up on their definition of who and what God is.
A conversion experience is a crescendo, but it is not an entire symphony. It’s not even the climax of a relationship with God. It’s a first kiss that opens someone’s eyes, someone who didn’t see the kiss coming. There are so many sexual references to religion, to a wedding between God and humanity. I don’t know if that’s because we are such sexual creatures or because there is this element of joining between God and humanity, maybe both. Maybe it’s the same neurons that reach for God as reach for a parent, a spouse, or a child, out of love, either way or mutually. How often do we make mistakes for any of those categories?
Francis Collins didn’t lose his knowledge of the chemistry of water while looking at a frozen waterfall. He didn’t lose whatever geology he knew relevant to rivers and waterfalls. They weren’t nearly as relevant as that here was this vertical object, reaching from somewhere near heaven to the ground. It made him surrender to something that had been growing inside him. To mock that is to mock many things that make us human, among them how we have relationships with people and things, whether we want to or not. To say that it’s best to be rational about such things is to postulate a purely rational human being who doesn’t exist.
So what is God really? I am content to be unsure. Those who say science has proven there is no God overstate their case. Those who say the scientific revolution is meaningless as far as showing the traditional view of God to be wrong underestimate science. Wordy people of many types forever get lost in their words. But there are experiences that can get the attention of the most wordy people. What they do with those is up to them.