Book reviews

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.

Well, would you?

imageEvents (moving-related events, and infinitely frustrating they are, too) have conspired to foul up my reading and writing schedule for Project SJ. So today’s post is half-placeholder, half-reflection on the book I’m currently reading with an eye to review: Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno SJ and Paul Mueller SJ of the Vatican Observatory. (That’s Guy at the bottom right of the homepage, showing a meteorite to the Pope. You can read his interview for Project SJ here.)

Since becoming Christian, I’ve ended up reading a great deal more about science. I’m not a scientist by inclination (although I did marry one). But one of the unanticipated side-effects of being not just a Christian, but someone who writes about religion, is that I encounter people who want me to explain my relationship to science. Do I still believe in it? How do I reconcile science and faith? The immediate answer is that I have no need to reconcile two things that, for me, have never clashed. My relationship to science, like my politics and my feminism, is something I began to discern long before I really thought about my theology. Discovering my faith was like switching on a light in a furnished room. It illuminated everything. It clarified many things, and it showed me what was lacking and what needed work. But, in material terms, it didn’t change what was there.*

The problem (and it’s quite a nice problem, in that it drives me to read more) is that this sort of answer doesn’t always satisfy those who persist in asking the question. For those who see Biblical literalism as the defining characteristic of Christianity, the gulf between religion and the physical sciences is vast, and it is concrete. From this sort of starting point, the existence of someone like Guy Consolmagno (a Jesuit astronomer) or Paul Mueller (a Jesuit philosopher with a focus on religion and science) represents a puzzle, a contradiction, sometimes even an affront. It’s not surprising they get so many emails.

Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? treats half a dozen of the most common questions the authors receive from members of the public. Each chapter takes the form of a dialogue set in a different space, real or imagined. The idea is evidently to bring the reader into the conversation; to anticipate and answer his or her particular concerns. It’s about discussion, not didacticism. But does it work?

I’ll tell you what I think next week, once I’ve finished it. But the signs are good.

If you have something to say about WYBAE, or the topic in hand, please leave a comment below.

*If I’ve unconsciously nicked this image from somewhere, I apologise.

The Public Jesuit: In Good Company, by James Martin SJ

imageSo I invited a few close friends from Penn to my favourite restaurant in Manhattan, called Le Brasserie, to spring the news on them. They were miffed at all the secrecy that I had intentionally let accompany the dinner. We sat down and I watched them squirm in anticipation. Finally, my friend Jim said, “Okay, Martin, what’s going on?”

I said flatly, “I’m going to become a priest.” All three of them said nothing for a good five seconds.

At that point the waiter arrived and asked us if we needed more time.

“Yes,” said Andy, “we need a lot more time.” (p. 100)

When James Martin—then in corporate finance at General Electric—announced that he was going to leave the business world and become a Jesuit, those around him were understandably surprised. But nobody was so shocked, so fundamentally shaken by this decision as James Martin himself.

In Good Company was written just a few years after Martin entered the Society of Jesus in 1988, and first published in 2000, happily unrevised. I say happily, because the narrative still bears the marks of the extraordinary process that brought a bright young executive and “lukewarm Catholic” to give up all he owned and join the priesthood. The James Martin of today is an outstanding communicator. His 2006 spiritual memoir, My Life with the Saints, is a masterful piece of theological outreach: funny, polished and poised. But this isn’t a story that needs poise or polish. What it needs is precisely what it has: the quick, rather feverish pace; the spiky humour; the lingering note of wonder and of bafflement. It needs to be raw.

The interest of this book goes far beyond the procedures of Jesuit formation, or even the strange and cloistered world of corporate finance (I found the latter much more alien). What drives it is the desire at its heart: a surprising desire, often described but never explained. That the mechanism of Martin’s conversion—because it is a conversion if it is anything—remains partly concealed is no bad thing. It serves to reinforce the fact that a vocation story can only ever be an attempt to impose order on something essentially disorderly; to give form to the subjective, the transcendent, the felt.

If one thing can be taken from this complex and sometimes messy narrative, it is that to go from G.E. to the Jesuits is not only a matter of exchanging one habit, or set of habits, for another. It’s something far more concrete: a radical shift in the self that can only be accommodated by an equally radical change in context.

I read the 10th anniversary edition, Sheed & Ward 2010. Paperback, 216 pp. ISBN: 978-1580512367

The Incomplete Pope Francis: My Door is Always Open

imageGod manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallises them. God is in history, in the processes under way. We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run [long-term] historical processes. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting. (Ch III: “Seeking and Finding God in All Things”, p. 96)

In last week’s post, I mentioned something that struck me while reading My Door is Always Open, the conversation between Pope Francis and Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica. Namely, this line from page 24:

The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.

This line appealed to me immediately. Partly because I have a tendency to scrupulosity, and find this Ignatian open-mindedness both challenging and deeply therapeutic, so the reminder of it is always welcome. (For a sympathetic but detached perspective on scrupulosity, listen to Fr Thomas Santa on This American Life here.) But mostly because, of all the things I’ve read by and about Francis since his election, this is the single phrase that has cast most light on the way he works. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not simply a conservative or a radical. He is not a hardline essentialist, nor is he a Po-Mo (Pope-Mo?) relativist. He is a Jesuit, and a Jesuit by his own standards. He is an open-ended thinker.

And this is a conversation primarily about thinking; about approaches rather than actions. Readers looking for a manifesto of reform, or a promise of preservation, will leave disappointed. The primary value of this interview is the opportunity to see inside what Spadaro calls “the Bergoglian vision of the world”: on one hand, the transcendental certainty of redemption, the utter conviction of faith; on the other, the innate limitations of human perception, the impossibility of knowing.

Reading it properly requires several passes, although Spadaro’s commentary goes a long way towards entrenching the cardinal points, and without editorialising too much. The conversation is wide-ranging and touches on a number of topics, including collegiality, the role of women, sexuality and Church doctrine, the history of the Jesuit order and the Pope’s taste in literature. By the time I picked it up, many of the more topical statements had already been singled out for extensive discussion in the media, and had lost their impact. This was no bad thing. It allowed me a much clearer view of the whole, and released me from my usual habit of scrabbling through the Papal interview for signs that Francis and I agree: another kind of scrupulosity.

Bloomsbury, paperback,  224 pp. ISBN: 9781472909763

Reading The Fifth Week


The Society of Jesus is also unlike any other religious order. The men whose lives we have seen in this book are organically united not only by the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives, but by the specifically different thrust given to the Society by Ignatius Loyola and by the dynamism he capsulized in the Exercises, the Constitutions, and the rules. 

To specify further is as difficult as it is for a man to give specific reasons why he loves and chooses one woman rather than another. — from Chapter Five, Life in the Society Today, p. 155

My reasons for embarking on Project SJ—essentially, for going around asking Jesuits to explain themselves—are more or less three.

Firstly, because I like Ignatian spirituality. I attend a Jesuit church; I have a spiritual director; I have Jesuit friends and confessors and beta readers. The Society of Jesus is part of my religious and intellectual landscape. I want to understand it better.

Secondly, because Jesuit stories incorporate a lot of the things that preoccupy me as a writer: vocation, identity, masculinity, military and quasi-military structures, narrative self-representation, mysticism.

And thirdly, because deep down, in the face of all the evidence, there’s part of me that still can’t quite take in the whole concept of religious vocation as a positive choice: as a taking-on and not merely a giving-up. I am not proud of this, and yet there it is, lurking. It’s partly down to culture, partly experience—I was thirty before I met a Catholic priest. (But there’s a useful side to this inbuilt distance: it makes me more likely to ask awkward questions.)

It follows that, although I read The Fifth Week some time after I first decided to undertake these interviews, it still surprised me. What was surprising about it was not the pithy, uncompromising stories of sainthood and suffering at the beginning, or the rigorous old-school Jesuit formation described at the end, but the bit in the middle: the wry candid voice of William O’Malley, telling his personal vocation story.

To say that O’Malley is a man of his time would be insulting, and not just because he’s still around. It would reduce a strong, distinctive character to the echo of an imagined past. The experience he describes is, to a fair extent, moulded by circumstances and conventions that no longer apply, within the Society of Jesus and beyond. But that’s all detail. The meat of this story is in the emotional narrative; the turbulent and sometimes violent reshaping of a soul. There’s anger in there, and confusion, and determination, and love.

To me, standing outside the frame of reference, the most astonishing part was the love. Such is the strength of feeling in this narrative that even the baffled and cynical part of my brain could only shut up and listen. There can be no question that, for O’Malley at least, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are not a joyless rejection, but a joyful embrace. This is not news: my interviewees thus far have all told me the same, although in different words. It makes perfect sense that men who become and remain Jesuit would frame their commitment in positive terms. And yet it bears repeating.

It is hard to sum up the value of The Fifth Week in just one post, and I may have to return to it. But I will add, for now, that it is perhaps the most striking illustration I have yet encountered of the extraordinary balance of individualism and collectivism at the heart of the Jesuit identity. (Or so it appears to me. Once again, I am learning.) I think it fair to say that there is nobody like William O’Malley, and yet he is part of something quite distinct, something that stretches all the way back to Ignatius. It isn’t a corporate identity, or a set of values, or an ethos: it’s something at once more concrete and harder to define, and it is fascinating.

Loyola Press, paperback, 218 pp. ISBN: 0829409289. First published 1976.