vatican observatory


A few announcements:

Br Guy Consolmagno is the new director of the Vatican Observatory. Congratulations, Br Guy! Here’s a recent radio interview where he speaks about science and faith.

Fr Dominic Robinson and Fr Trieu Nguyen of Farm Street Church, together with parishioners Marie Wilson and Sandra McNally, are walking on the Ignatian Camino this week to raise funds for the anti-trafficking Bakhita House Project. You can follow their adventures here.

Finally, next week I’m starting my second BA in Theology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Project SJ is a slow-brewing sort of thing, so it might not make much of a perceptible difference in the posting rhythm! But it does mean I can conduct fewer interviews over the next couple of years, especially as I’ll have paid and academic work to do in vacations. I think it’s a very good step for the project’s long-term future, though, and look forward to seeing how things develop.

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.

Brother Guy Consolmagno: planetary scientist, Vatican Observatory

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

How did you experience that first call to religious life?

Every couple has their “how we met” story, and every religious has his or her vocation story. I have told mine so many times that I remember less the actual events, and more the version of the last time I told the story. So to make it fresh, and maybe find some truth in it that has been hidden from me, I am going to try to approach it from a different point of view.

First, some basics. I am a classic baby-boomer kid, born in 1952 in America of an Irish-American mother and Italian-American father, the youngest of three children. That’s a pretty common background for cradle Catholics of my generation. We were active Catholics, but not overly pious; we certainly did not live in a Catholic ghetto.

What’s less common is that my parents were both college educated, and my Italian grandfather (who came to the US at age seven in 1899) was a lawyer with a degree from Boston University. All my siblings have multiple university degrees; my sister is a retired schoolteacher, and even my hippy brother, who has lived mostly on air for all his life (he’s a blues musician) has a master’s in creative writing. We’re a bookish family. We’re also all great friends who enjoy each others’ company.

What was I going to be when I grew up? A writer; a pilot; an astronomer; a journalist; a chemist; a sailor; a lawyer; a soldier; a priest. The usual, in other words. A favorite toy was my father’s old typewriter, the one he took with him to World War II (and which I took with me to college). I wrote a biography of my brother when I was six, and he was nine; I typed out a regular family newspaper.

I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, back when Detroit was at its peak. I was the smartest boy in my class, no mean feat given the competition; in the achievement tests we took at age 14, seven of us boys scored in the 99th percentile. There was one girl who got better grades than me; she became my high school sweetheart. (We’re still good friends.)

I first heard of the Jesuits, and their high school, when I was about ten, as part of a presentation on how our school taught science, at a teachers’ meeting being held at the local Jesuit high school. I was told that it was the best school in the city; I knew then that I would go there. In fact my brother started there three years before me, but he’d flunked out by the time I arrived. (“He knows many, many things, but none of them are on the syllabus.”)

I loved it. The first year was tough—it was not so much the shock of no longer being the smartest kid in the class, but the temptation to relax and use that as an excuse not to work hard. The Jesuits wouldn’t let me get away with that, however. They shamed me, cajoled me, and flattered me into academic excellence. By the time I was finished, at age seventeen, I had as good a background in the arts and humanities as most university undergraduates.

The Jesuit spirituality supplemented my mother’s Irish piety with a strong intellectual backbone. It was nothing new or unusual to me; the sisters who had taught me religion—and science—in my Catholic grade school were no slouches, either. But it was completely congruent with both my intellectual family background and the tenor of the times.

I graduated high school in 1970. I loved the Jesuits and their sense of what life in general was all about. I decided to attend a Jesuit university in Boston, Boston College, to stay close to them and maybe be available if I should decide to follow a religious vocation.

After my great high school experience, Boston College was a great disappointment. It was not intellectually challenging and, worse, it was part of the same narrow Catholic world that I was ready to go out beyond. Rather than repeat the story I have told too often of how I did not become a Jesuit then, let me merely state that what had attracted me to be a Jesuit was mostly the desire to get away from an unhappy situation; and I realized even then that it wasn’t a good enough reason. Instead, I transferred to MIT and studied planetary sciences.

Fast forward nearly twenty years. By 1988, I had my doctorate, several dozen scientific publications, a reputation for good (and bad) in my field, two years’ experience in Africa in the Peace Corps, and a job at a small university in Pennsylvania. I had also just turned in the manuscript of my first book, Turn Left at Orion. I had finally admitted to myself that my five-year attempt to make a relationship work with a woman I knew in Boston was beyond hope; and, to be honest, it was a relief to accept that and move on. But though I was as happy as I could ever have imagined myself… something was still incomplete in my life. I thought of my Turn Left co-author, Dan, married and delighted with two small children. And I realised that, wonderful as that was for him, it wasn’t for me.

Can I identify one moment when the sense of vocation came to me? I remember several, and I am not sure that any one of them was definitive. On the shore of Windermere in January, after I’d delivered my manuscript. At the apartment of a soon-to-be-married friend from my Peace Corps days. But I have also found reference to the possibility in a letter I wrote to my parents from Africa, two years earlier. So… no, there was no specific moment.

Was it something I was sure of from the beginning? Not at all… I worried about it for nearly two years, not even counting the two years of novitiate before taking first vows. I talked about it with everyone I knew… including women I had dated. I was stunned at the unanimous opinion of everyone in favour of me entering religious life. Including from friends who were atheists. Including women I had dated.

I came up with lots of rational reasons for and against. In retrospect, neither set turned out to be valid. It has not been what I expected. I never expected it to feel so right.

Was it always a question of becoming Jesuit? Or did you ever consider entering another order, becoming a diocesan priest (when the priesthood was still in your sights)… (more…)