Krista's Journal: Participating in the Mystery of the Universe

April 1, 2010

"Misremember" is a word I often use about the history of science and religion in the West. We've forgotten or misremembered that the great classic scientists did not understand science and religion as opposed. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton may have had their struggles with religious authorities. And they did not believe that their scientific exploration would prove or disprove the existence of God. But they believed quite fervently that their explorations and discoveries in the natural world would deepen human understanding of the nature of God, of the mind of the maker.

In George Coyne and Guy Consolmagno, I found two modern-day exemplars of this tradition. They have clear boundaries between their science and their faith. Father George even goes so far as to say that to "need" God vis-a-vis his science would be a diminishment of God and of human intelligence. They both insist, in a few different ways, that they don't see God at the end of their telescopes. Their belief in God, and their sense of the love of God, are borne out in other kinds of experience.

Yet Guy Consolmagno has also written these words: "(A)s I see the pattern of Creation unfolding, over and over…complexity from the simplest of rules, beauty from the surprising interplay of basic forces…I begin to get a closer appreciation of the personality of the Creator." And when I ask him to describe that "personality," he answers, without missing a beat, that "whoever is responsible for this universe has a great sense of humor."

His own vocation might be seen as an illustration of divine humor, or at least one of history's "jokes," as Coyne puts it. The Vatican Observatory is located in the papal summer residence in Castel Gondolfo, Italy — once the home of Urban VIII, the pope who took Galileo to task. Today the papal summer palace has telescopes on its roof and houses one of the oldest astronomical research centers in the world.

Part of the joy of this conversation is the evident fun Coyne and Consolmagno find in this and in so much else, but most of all in the work they do. They take delight in each other, too, and it is a pleasure to hear them react to each other's ideas. And they hold good humor in a creative, faithful tension with their equally intimate knowledge of the difficulties of human life and the shadow side of the natural world they study.

Guy Consolmagno considered abandoning his scientific career at one point because he could not justify studying the stars when people were dying of hunger. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Kenya where he was assigned to teach astronomy at the University of Nairobi. There, every time he cranked up a car-battery-powered telescope, entire villages would turn out in thrall to what he could show them about the night sky. He came to believe that the urge to look up at the stars and wonder where we come from and how we fit in is as essential to our humanity as our need for food. He joined the Jesuit order in his late 30s.

The 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, charged his men to "find God in all things" — in a laboratory as passionately as in a monastic cell. We didn't originally plan this as an Easter show, but it seems fitting that, as our schedule unfolded, it landed in Easter week. And yet it it is a cosmic view of the Easter story that these astronomers evoke — one nourished by their apprehension of billions of years of the birth, death, and renewal of stars that made life on Earth possible. Inspired by this cosmic drama, they are also content with faith itself as something more dynamic than fixed, a process rather than a destination that is spacious and always evolving. George Coyne puts it this way: "Doing science to me is a search for God. And I'll never have the final answers because the universe participates in the mystery of God."

Recommended Reading

Image of Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist
Author: Guy Consolmagno, Brother Guy Consolmagno
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Companies (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 229 pages

Brother Astronomer is an engaging introduction to the life and mind of this Jesuit astronomer — part memoir, part introduction to the history of science, part reflection on theology and astronomy. It includes fascinating stories about his time in Kenya and Antartica, as well an utterly captivating chapter that retells the story of Galileo in the context of what was happening in church, science, and society in Galileo's time.

Voices on the Radio

is director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

is curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.

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