Embracing Mystery: Spiritual Connections in Faith and Astronomy

An image of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system from NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around

Given yesterday’s NASA announcement of seven exoplanets around the star TRAPPIST-1 (whether it’s named after the beer or the monastic order is currently unclear), I thought it would be timely to publish some personal reflections on similarities between astronomy and faith in relation to mystery.

The wonder of not knowing

As a child I loved television shows that explored the unknown and mysterious side of our world: reruns of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Leonard Nimoy hosting In Search Of captivated me. I was enthralled by any media explaining astronomy and any books or films about space travel. I was also deeply interested in religion and wanted desperately to study theology like my parents’ friends who were priests. I wanted to explore both places beyond our world and the deeper reality of God in our world. Essentially, I wanted to be an astronaut theologian, an increasingly terrible career aspiration as NASA winds down manned space exploration and our universities scale back their humanities funding. Now, having completed my PhD in Theology and achieving that strange childhood dream, I found the opportunity to realize, at least in a small part, my other one: astronomy. In January 2017 I participated in the Faith and Astronomy Workshop hosted by the Vatican Observatory Foundation[1] in Tucson, AZ. There, I and other participants listened to lectures geared towards amateur astronomers, learned about the latest and greatest news in astronomical technology—from asteroid probes to cutting-edge telescopes to dark matter telescopes in space—as we also discussed pastoral issues, enjoyed meals, and celebrated Mass together.

The topic of science and religion in dialogue is a growing area of academic and practical work. Further, as this workshop made clear, it’s increasingly a topic that needs to be discussed in Catholic school classrooms and in our parishes. As I learned from this workshop, though, astronomy is a great place to begin these discussions for a number of reasons. Astronomy is not only one of the easiest amateur scientific pastimes, but it also deals with big questions, such as material origins, the order of the universe, and, speaking colloquially, matters of the heavens. But, as I realized when I was looking up at the milky way at our retreat center outside of Tucson, there’s a distinct sense of the numinous when you gaze up at the universe in the night sky: a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as Rudolf Otto famously said. A fearful and fascinating mystery. There’s a sense that we are very, very small, and in the presence of a reality much larger and utterly unknown to us. It’s a terrifying, exhilarating prospect. And the numinous is also the very heart of much of human religious experience, at least according to Otto. There is a lot for astronomy and religion to talk about.

So how can we as Christians, especially those of us who are Catholic, understand the relationship between science and faith?

Science is not, as many have pointed out, a Big Book of True Facts.[2] It is not the source of truth. It is merely a measured, reliable means to explore reality and make predictions. Likewise, religious faith is not a Big Book of True Beliefs. Yes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a helpful document, but it is not the heart of Roman Catholic faith. It is merely a reference book for a living religion—like a dictionary for a living language. Religious faith is, instead, relationship—communal and personal relationship, in the present and throughout history—with God. Catholic faith is relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, expressed in the Bible, encountered in the Church and the sacraments, handed on through centuries of teaching, practice, ritual, and memory, and lived in the lives of baptized Catholics today. Any claims of conflict between science and religion based upon the misunderstanding of the two as big books of competing truth claims fails to understand either endeavor. Science is not an encyclopedia of knowledge; it’s a means of exploring and measuring our universe. Religious faith is not a list of beliefs and rules; it’s a lived relationship with God and others. The opposite of religious faith, then, as Anne Lamott and Paul Tillich have pointed out, is not doubt. Doubt and not knowing are part of life. The opposite of faith is certainty.[3] Christian faith embraces, rather than casts out, the not knowing. It is the ongoing process of living with the Mystery of God.

How to not do science and religion

Of course there is the position that science and religion are necessarily opposed. It is a falsehood perpetuated by certain scientists, media sources, and even religious groups who misunderstand either science or religion. Yes, there are examples of religious people who are opposed to some scientific theories: Creationism, for example. No, they do not represent the majority of religious believers, Christian or otherwise.

But I have also encountered another alarming perspective on science and religion taken up by many, including faithful Catholics. They seem to accept the same fallacy that many anti-religion atheists believe: that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. They believe that the best way to “prove” something to be true is to use scientific empirical evidence. And yet, many of these people are also deeply skeptical of secular culture and secular science. They might see most scientists as inherently opposed to religious faith, but that, in instances of religious scientists, science can be used by people of faith for the cause of the faith. Science, in this perspective, is not a method of inquiry, but a weapon to be used against an enemy. And in incorporating science into matters of faith, they run the very real risk of using bad science to attempt to “prove” things that are inconsequential to faith. This theo-science, then, ends up not building up strong religious faith, but haphazardly patching holes in a shaky faith foundation. For example, one person might express a hope for the scientific investigation of the Eucharist to “prove” the miracle of transubstantiation. Another person will describe the details of “scientific” examinations of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma or the Shroud of Turin and point to them as empirical evidence for the miraculous. A third might seek out scientific proofs for the existence of God using the latest theories in physics. Each of these examples demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and science lived out by the religious scientists of the Vatican Observatory and proclaimed by the Catholic Church. Science is not a means to prove the matters of faith for nonbelievers; it does not provide evidence that builds a case for a miracle;[4] it cannot be used to explain the working of Mystery in our world: that which is beyond the means of human comprehension. This theo-scientific approach is detrimental to faith. And, of course, the inverse is a problem as well: we cannot use religion to fill the gaps that science cannot answer. We cannot simply answer “God” when our scientific investigations lead to unanswerable questions. This is called the “God of the gaps” approach: any gaps in our scientific theories can be explained by the work of God. But science is in the business of exploring questions further, of re-investigating matters that were once settled, or overthrowing what we previously “knew” to be true. Consequently, a “God of the gaps” would constantly at risk of being proven untrue. Such a god is not God at all.

But coming to see science as not a source of truth, or religious faith as something other than divinely-approved certainty is unsettling, even deeply troubling for people. How can we make sense of our world if science doesn’t just give us all the answers? How can we have faith in God if God’s existence and work in the world can’t be proven?

We frequently fall into the trap of treating science or religion as the sources of certainty because we desperately want there to be ultimate certainty in our lives. We are terrified at the prospect of not knowing. Mystery, in our common understanding, is something meant to be solved. But real science and honest faith are not fortresses of ultimate, certain knowledge. Rather, they accept and thrive on and swim in the not knowing. In a sense, they seek to explore, rather than seek to undo, Mystery. And when we misuse faith or science as beacons of certainty, clinging to their theories and external elements as the totality of truth, when what we truly seek is a truth beyond human comprehension, we fall into scientific or religious fundamentalism—the dangerous mindset where our beliefs become our gods.

Meeting mystery in the cosmos

Science, too, must wrestle with the reality of not knowing. Sometimes their theories undergo revolutionary revision, to the point that they have to completely rethink even the scale of what they know and don’t know. In the 1990s astronomers thought that they had a pretty good grasp of the makeup and workings of the universe. New discoveries were being made, yes, but they assumed that they understood most of how the universe worked. As the Hubble Space Telescope expanded our ability to see further out into space (and further back into time) in the late 1990s, however, astronomers came to realize just how wrong that assumption was.

Today, astronomers will tell you that something like 95% of the mass of the universe can’t be accounted for according our current understanding of matter. Matter, the very “stuff” of our existence, the world and universe as we see it—bodies and buildings and bright stars in the sky—and as astronomers have observed—supernovas and black holes and cosmic dust clouds—makes up, at rough estimate, less than five percent of the mass of the universe. The other 95% of the universe’s mass is almost completely unknown. They think that roughly 27% is dark matter: matter that does not act like matter as we know it (is neither light nor responds to light) and that is virtually undetectable for that reason. The other 68% is believed to be dark energy: a theoretical form of energy that, according to one explanation, is best described as the stuff of space. You know the vacuum of space? The unfathomable emptiness of what lies beyond our fragile planet? Empty space, according to this theory, is not nothing, but has properties–an energy—that could account for this dark energy.[5] The best and brightest minds, working together with the most state-of-the-art instruments, have practically no idea what 95% of the universe is. And how do these minds react to this enormous unknown? They are ecstatic. Their whole understanding of the universe has come up against a tremendous and fascinating new mystery.

The Eagle Nebula, also known as The Pillars of Creation, as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2015/01/image/c/

For astronomers, the unknown is not just something to get excited about in a sort of “our work will never be exhausted” kind of way; it’s the very reason they became scientists in the first place. Astronomy, like the rest of the sciences, isn’t an exercise in reaching full certainty about anything in the sky. Instead, it’s an endeavor of coming to know some things about something very far away, and theorizing the rest. The thing about theories is that they are always meant to be tested. And so astronomy, like the other sciences, is an exercise in proposing answers to that which we can’t really ever know for certain. Analogously, the journey of faith isn’t about coming fully understanding God or how God works in the universe. It’s the endeavor of living in deepening relationship with God, coming to know aspects of God, yes, but never knowing God fully in this life. In a sense, there’s a similarity in science and faith: both are invested in coming to know the unknown—mystery—more fully, but accepting that full knowledge and full understanding may well be beyond us.

Constructive bridges between science and religion

So how can we to bring religion and science into conversation? One way is to simply keep having conversations about religion and science; to keep scientists and theologians, believers and non-believers, talking. Another way is through the lives of people themselves. We must encourage people of a religious faith tradition to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We must also support scientists who wish to practice their faith or explore matters of belief. And we need to hold up historical and contemporary examples of scientists who are also religious believers, such as Fr. Georges Lemaître, Br. Guy Consolmagno, Dr. Michelle Francl (and those are just the Roman Catholics!). Religion and science are misused and combined—in a God-of-the-gaps fallacy or a the pitfalls of theo-science—at the peril of both. Instead, the best way for these two disciplines to interact is in dialogue between scientists and theologians, by openly discussing matters of science in our parishes and religious education programs, and in the very lives of people who live and work and think in both fields.

[1] To learn more about the Vatican Observatory Foundation, check out their Foundation website here and their blog, The Catholic Astronomer, here.

[2] Br. Guy Consolmagno, head of the Vatican Observatory, explores what science and religion are and are not (specifically, books of facts), in his book Would You Baptize and Extraterrestrial and his lecture series for Now You Know Media, Meaning: Exploring the Big Questions of the Cosmos with a Vatican Scientist.

[3] I got this from Br. Guy, quoting Anne Lamott, quoting Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith.

[4] In the case of scientific investigations into miracles (during the canonization process, for example), scientific methods are used to rule out mundane explanations, i.e.: medical intervention, false reports, and outright scams.

[5] For more on the unknowns of the universe, see this helpful explanation of dark matter and dark energy from NASA: https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy