Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno SJ and Paul Mueller SJ

imageAs a reviewer for Vulpes Libris, I sometimes write reviews in dialogue form if the book at hand is just too complex or interesting for a linear treatment to do it justice. As Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? is written in dialogue, what could be more fitting? So let me introduce Good Kirsty (who isn’t so much good as conscientious: she takes care of the academic-ish side of things) and Bad Kirsty (who isn’t really bad, just outspoken and unashamedly subjective).

Good Kirsty: OK, then. Let’s get started.

Bad Kirsty: You first.

GK: Fair enough. Well, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? is something not in the usual line of books about science and religion. For one thing, it features not one, but two members of the Vatican Observatory: Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, planetary scientist and head of the Vatican Observatory Foundation (interview here); and Fr Paul Mueller SJ, philosopher of science and Superior of the Observatory’s Jesuit community. For another, it’s written as a series of dialogues set over six days in a variety of imagined locations (five are real and one, a very famous one, is fictional). Each dialogue addresses a question, from the validity of Genesis through the nature of the Star of Bethlehem to the matter of alien baptism. And perhaps the best thing about it is that it combines good science communication with very decent theology outreach.

BK: Only ‘very decent’, eh?

GK: It’s a compliment, honest. Neither man is a theologian, although both have more training than the average bear (being Jesuits). They’re not writing new theology or even getting into the really exciting stuff.

BK: By which you mean complicated and abstruse?

GK: No, I mean exciting. Things like the nature of the Trinity or transubstantiation, although they do have a fantastic conversation about the use of the term ‘transubstantiation’ on Day 3 (What Really Happened to Galileo?). But on the whole, what they’re doing is using their shared basis in science as a springboard for the big and necessary questions: life, death, truth, God, meaning.

BK: Oh, right. Just the basic stuff, then.

GK: They do it very well. I also learned a great deal about physics.

BK: I learned something, too. I learned that the number of cheesy puns increases in proportion to the number of Jesuits in the room. Speaking of which, this here is a blog about Jesuit vocation and identity. What has a book about science and religion to do with that?

GK: Everything. Think about it. These men, just by virtue of being who they are, incarnate two things a lot of people don’t believe can cohabit at all, let alone in one body: scientific rigour and religious belief. That’s why they get all those emails about alien life and Vatican conspiracies. That’s also why they’re a natural focal point for other people’s curiosity about how science and scripture fit together. But, more to the point (and Br Guy is especially eloquent about this) their involvement in science doesn’t just sit alongside their religious vocation, or even slot together with it. Scientific analysis and religious experience are lenses that show them different perspectives on the same picture. The idea of throwing out one in order to privilege the other is ridiculous to them. That’s a purely external expectation, and one they address here because it’s both so common in their interactions with the general public, and so alien to the way they experience the world.

BK: And yet this isn’t a Jesuit book, in the sense that The Fifth Week is a Jesuit book.

GK: Not explicitly. But lots of Jesuits crop up in conversation just by virtue of the subject matter: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for example, and Georges Lemaître, who proposed the Big Bang theory. So it is fairly Jesuit-rich.

BK: You make it sound like a pair of socks. Black clerical socks, naturally.*

GK: So obviously this book’s of interest to those who want to understand how people of faith can also do science. And it’s interesting to those who are curious about how scientists might also be people of faith. But it’s also very interesting as a dialogue between two academics, with quite different specialisms, who share not just an interest in science and a common religious outlook but something else, something particular: a Jesuit identity.

BK: And the cover picture is really cool.

GK: On which note, that’s us away. See you again, perhaps, at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

BK: Moooooooo.

Random House 2014. Hardback, 216 pp., ISBN: 9780804136952. I read the Kindle edition, ASIN: B00JNQMM30

* Father Ted reference.

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