The Other Science “Guy”: Conversations with Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., on Science and Faith

Br. Guy as depicted in U.S. Catholic, illustration by Tim Foley

Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Ph.D., curator of the Vatican Observatory meteorite collection and new president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, 2014 recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal, and commonly referred to in the media as “the Pope’s Astronomer,” was on the University of Notre Dame campus last week for a program for high school science teachers sponsored by PROCLAIM! and the Institute for Church Life. Br. Guy also held a Q&A session and book signing for his latest book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, which the larger Notre Dame community was allowed to attend and which, if you follow me on Twitter, you may have caught me live-tweeting from. In addition to reading Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? and attending his Q&A, I had the pleasure of meeting Br. Guy for coffee and a chat. Since Br. Guy had covered my most pressing questions in his books and his Q&A,[1] our conversation over coffee mostly revolved around popular misconceptions of the relationship between science and religion and the spiritual implications of a balanced approach to science and faith.

As a voracious learner (or know-it-all, if you prefer) and teacher, one of my biggest pet peeves is the spread of misinformation. While someone spouting an inaccurate fact in conversation is just mildly annoying, the dissemination of inaccuracies and misinterpretations through television shows, news stories, blogs, and even the pulpit can produce long-term damage. In the case of the relationship between science and religion, the popular misconception of the Church and science at odds is so pervasive that not only are many Catholics surprised that the Vatican operates a scientific observatory, or that priests and men and women religious can be scientists (indeed, the Big Bang was theorized by a Belgian priest in the 1930’s), but far too many American Catholics believe that the Church discourages belief in the theory of evolution. While some of this may be due to confusion over Church teaching or to the influence of conservative Protestant groups who support Creationism, this is likely in large part due to media portrayals of religion, which, more often than not, lump Catholics and Protestant churches and liberal and conservative Christians together on matters of science and religion. The news media’s amazement at Pope Francis’ acceptance of climatologists’ warnings about climate change is the most recent example of the poor portrayal of Catholicism’s approach to science: “Pope Francis Aligns Himself with Mainstream Science on Climate,” read one New York Times article. Pope Francis’ encyclical and the science behind climate change aside, the message behind that headline and countless others is clear: It is revolutionary for the Catholic Church to side with the scientific community.

The reboot of Cosmos on the Fox network last year is another example. Like many fans of the original show, I was incredibly excited for the reboot of Cosmos hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson and terribly disappointed to find that much of the premiere episode revolved around the supposed evils of religion. Certainly, the various Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, are not immune to criticism for past wrongs, including the trial of Galileo and the persecution of heretics. However, the misrepresentation of the story of Giordano Bruno—a philosopher and former Dominican who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600—starts the entire series off on the wrong foot, suggesting that religion seeks to limit scientific progress, and implying that religion and science are irreconcilable. But, as science-loving people of faith such as myself and faithful scientists such as Br. Guy demonstrate, science and religion not only are not irreconcilable, they frequently compliment each other in the common human pursuit of truth and knowledge. As Br. Guy explained in his Q&A, the Catholic Church doesn’t limit his scientific work any more than his scientific work limits his faith. In fact, he notes that his faith life actually gives him the reasons to do science. His love of God and God’s creation compels him to study the wonders of the universe; his study of the universe stirs him to wonder at the majesty of God. For him, “doing science is an act of worship,” a way to come to know and to praise and to give thanks to God. However, religious scientists must be cautious not to let their science or their theology get sloppy. Br. Guy warns against the theologically problematic practice of inserting God into science, such as Isaac Newton famously did (he suggested that it was God who kept the planets in their orbits when mathematics at his time could not explain it) and not unlike what many Creation Scientists attempt to do today. If Christian scientists were to, like Newton, cite God when their calculations cannot account for something, or suggest that God is behind such mysterious events as the Big Bang, that would not only run contrary to science, it would run contrary to the Christian faith. A faith that seeks a scientific proof for God is not true faith; conversely, science that attributes what is currently unknown to a god will slowly disprove the existence of that god with each advancement. As Br. Guy rightly points out, God is not a variable to be inserted into scientific formulae like mass or volume: “A god who is but one force among the many forces of the universe is not the God of the Bible; it is a pagan god.” Nor can God be our blanket answer for unanswerable questions, for “God is not a ‘god of the gaps,’ to be found in what is currently unknown.” For if we include God in our scientific theories, we not only limit God, we will disprove God’s existence when we disprove the theories.

As Br. Guy so deftly explains in his books and talks, science and faith are not at odds; they simply speak different languages and seek to understand different things. Science seeks to study and explain the workings of the universe, whereas the Bible is a story of relationship between humanity and God, and Christianity is the stories about, practices regarding, and instructions for living out and deepening that relationship. The abuse of science and religion, moreover, is more to blame for the false narrative of science-and-religion-in-conflict than either science or religion in and of themselves. While many people are accustomed to seeing and using it as such, Br. Guy notes, science is not simply a big book of facts: the point of science is that it is constantly changing. Likewise, religion is not just a big book of rules: the beauty of religion is that it is constantly being lived out. To believe in a static, unchanging form of either science or religion is to go against what they are in their essence: science a constantly evolving field of knowledge, religion a lived and living faith. We cannot fear being challenged in science or in faith by something that goes against what we hold to be true, because it is then that our shared body of scientific knowledge grows, and it is then that our faith deepens. We must treat each challenge to our scientific worldview as an opportunity for discovery, and greet each challenge to our religious worldview as an opportunity to know God more deeply and in new ways. “If I find a thing that makes me understand my faith in a new way, I cheer,” says Br. Guy. “And if I find something that makes me understand my scientific work in a new way, I cheer!”

The Eagle Nebula, also known as The Pillars of Creation, as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope
The Eagle Nebula, also known as The Pillars of Creation, as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope

But sometimes the truths of science, while not disproving our faith, can lead to some discomfort. “Knowing how insignificant we are in the context of the vast universe, do you ever think that you are insignificant?” one attendee asked at Br. Guy’s Q&A. Certainly, I can personally see where the question is coming from. When I was a kid, obsessed with the constellations and dreaming of becoming an astronaut, my dad would take my brothers and I out to the fields in rural Minnesota, away from the lights from neighboring towns and farms, to look at the stars. And I remember looking up into the dark night sky and for just a moment knowing, deep in my soul and in my very bones, just how incredibly vast the universe was and just how tiny I was. And it filled me with a terror so stark that I would run back into the safety of the car to hide from the enormity of the universe. My visceral terror, mixed with wonder, was my earliest religious experience, my first encounter with the numinous (if you’re familiar with Rudolf Otto), and looking up at the night sky and reacting with awe or fear or curiosity is one of the most primal and common human religious experiences. Br. Guy told me a story about how, after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, people contacted observatories to ask how the earthquake had made the night sky look so strange. Of course, the earthquake occurred at 4:30 in the morning, scaring people out of their homes, knocking out power far and wide, and making them look up at the newly-revealed night sky (suddenly unobscured by light pollution) for the first time, and it seemed to them not wondrous, but strange and frightening. Generally, humans don’t like to be reminded of their earthly insignificance, let alone their cosmic insignificance. But in the Christian context, comforted by the biblical canon which speaks of a God who knows us intimately and loves us unconditionally, the knowledge of our insignificance ceases to be a source of fear and becomes a source of wonder. For, as Br. Guy puts it, “knowing how insignificant we are, and knowing how much God still loves us, this shows us just how infinite and gratuitous God’s love really is.”

It will take immeasurable effort on the part of religious educators, priests and religious, scientists, popular media, and such figures as Pope Francis and Br. Guy to convince the public in general and Catholics in particular that the Church is not opposed to science. But this is an effort of utmost importance as we try to witness to the world about the “reasonableness of faith in God,” as well as to call the world (and ourselves) to conversion regarding our treatment of the Earth by using scientific evidence and the biblical tradition in conjunction. Additionally, it is increasingly clear to me that the spiritual insights that come from faithful reflection upon scientific inquiry (as exemplified in the work and writings of Br. Guy) can speak to curious scientists and secular seekers, as well as to a new generation of scientifically-minded Catholics alike, in a way that has been lost following the divorce of scientific and religious inquiry in modern education systems. For us to simply sit back and “leave the science to the scientists” (as one American Catholic presidential candidate would have it) would be for us to declare that the Catholic Church is uninterested in the most pressing moral and political issues of the day and for us to confirm secular scientists’ worst misconceptions about religion. If we are going to claim that science and faith are not irreconcilable and that they can, in fact, be understood harmoniously, then we must strive to form that harmonious approach in our believers. We must deliberately seek to develop scientific inquiry in our programs of religious education and formation and we must consciously and regularly reach out in dialogue and partnership with scientists to cultivate collegiality and understanding.  The Church needs to consider the possibility of a new sort of evangelization: to form scientific believers and to bring the Gospel to those whose primary belief system is scientific.  And, in his efforts to cross the cultural boundaries of science and religion like a good Jesuit missionary, it may be that Br. Guy is our best example of how to undertake this scientific evangelization.

For a short history of the Vatican Observatory and of the Church’s approach to science (as well as to witness Br. Guy’s engaging presentation style), see this video from Catholic News Service.

For an in-depth reflection on Br. Guy’s personal integration of his scientific work and his faith life, I highly recommend the first chapter of Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, as well as his 2010 book, God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion.

For Br. Guy’s thoughts on science fiction and faith, see his article in the March 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (print edition only).

[1] Will I ever get to meet an extraterrestrial? Br. Guy thinks that it is not only incredibly unlikely that humanity will come into contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life, but that they would be so far away from us and so unimaginably different from us that meaningful interaction would be nearly impossible. Would he baptize an extraterrestrial? Like Pope Francis said in a homily last year, Br. Guy has said that, in the incredibly unlikely scenario of a possible baptism, he would baptize an extraterrestrial being, but only at her request, of course.

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