paul mueller

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 LemaƮtre, 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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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.