The Quiet Service of Love

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When Dr. Francis Collins was nominated in 2009 to head the National Institutes of Health, the USA’s largest scientific organization, not everyone was happy.
One scientist asserted that Collins suffers from dementia.  Another announced, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.”  Cambridge professor Richard Dawkins scoffed to Bill Maher on his HBO talk show: “He’s not a bright guy.”
This was interesting, since Collins’ achievements don’t seem to evoke what one might associate with demented, clueless clowns.
He has earned both a PhD and an MD – no small feat.  He also directed the Human Genome Project, the epic scientific mission that successfully mapped all three billion letters of the human genetic code. 
The problem, declared his critics, was his philosophical bankruptcy.  To be specific, Francis Collins believes in God.
In time, Collins won confirmation to the NIH post, as well as the respect of almost all his critics.
That happened, to a large degree, because Collins makes a practice of listening to his intellectual sparring partners.  He shares coffee with them.  He learns about their families and their interests.  He never disrespects them in public forums. 
Collins empathizes with his detractors’ doubts and questions.  That’s because he has a living memory of his own atheism.  As a young doctor, making rounds, he was startled by the resilient faith of many of his patients. 
When Collins came alongside an older, impoverished woman who was hospitalized with a serious illness, he was amazed at her heartfelt trust.  “What do you believe, doctor?” she asked.  He was caught off guard.  “I’m not sure,” he replied.  He decided it was time to find out.  At the end of a serious personal quest, he surrendered to the infinite-personal God revealed by Jesus. 
That conviction has transformed his relationships.  In short, Francis Collins has learned that love has the power to turn enemies into allies.
He went out of his way to cultivate a friendship with the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great.
When Hitchens was diagnosed with a fearsome variety of esophageal cancer, some Christians rejoiced.  One spiteful believer wrote, “He got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy… THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.”
Collins chose to walk a different path.
He called Hitchens and said, “As NIH director I approve many government-funded research grants, and I know about some rather cutting-edge approaches based on cancer genomics.”  Could he drop by Hitchens’ house and talk about treatment options? 
The arch-skeptic welcomed Collins into his home and into his life. 
His battle with cancer lasted 18 months.  He died with his atheism intact.
But before his death, Hitchens wrote a column in Vanity Fair in which he described Collins as “one of the greatest living Americans” and “our most selfless Christian physician.”
He went on: “This great humanitarian is also a devotee of the work of C.S. Lewis, and in his book The Language of God has set out the case for making science compatible with faith… I know Francis, too, from various public and private debates over religion.  He has been kind enough to visit me in his own time and to discuss all sorts of novel treatments, only recently even imaginable, that might apply to my case.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp a month before the end of World War 2, felt strongly about how people of faith should engage those who write them off:
“The quiet service of love is the best spiritual care.”
That’s because love has the power to build bridges. 
Even over the widest of gaps.