Science is an act of worship

Aaron Lambert

Bill Nye the Science Guy and the recent Marches for Science would do well to learn a thing or two from Vatican observatory director Brother Guy Consolmagno, who argues that science is so much more than simply studying the natural world; it’s an act of worship.

Students at Regis Jesuit High School were treated to a special visit by the Jesuit brother April 20 for an all-school assembly in which he spoke of the crucial juncture of life the students are in. Following the assembly, he hosted two Q&A sessions for students interested in the convergence and compatibility between science and faith. An evening presentation open to the public was also held in which Brother Consolmagno addressed the question, “Does Science Need Faith?”

Speaking of his own path to becoming a world-renowned astronomer and a Jesuit, Brother Consolmagno encouraged the students to embrace this time of their lives and use it to find those things that bring them joy – and a bright future.

“This is the time when you become self-aware. This is the time when you have the chance to daydream,” he said. “Human beings do more than just put food on the table because we are more than just well-fed cows. We are creatures who dream. Now’s the time to bring God’s joy into your life.”

Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, visited Regis Jesuit High School April 20 and gave a presentation about the relationship between faith and science. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

Brother Consolmagno found that joy when he decided he wanted to be a scientist. He majored in earth and planetary science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became fascinated with meteorites.

“You can hold outer space in your hands, and I was hooked,” he said.

His vocation as a Jesuit brother never conflicted with his profession as a scientist. In fact, he tends to look at science as an act of worship.

“Science needs faith, it needs joy, or it wouldn’t happen,” Brother Consolmagno told the audience at his evening presentation. He related his work as a scientist to playing a game with God, much like a parent plays with a child as an expression of love.

“Spending time, sharing the joy, the little bit of discovery we get in a simple game that a kid can play – that’s how I feel when I’m in the laboratory,” he said. “I’m playing a game with God. God has set up the puzzle, it’s up to me to solve it. And when I get a little progress, I can hear God saying, ‘Yeah, isn’t that cool? Now let me show you the next step.’ That’s why doing science is an act of worship.”

Imaginary odds

The debate between science and religion persists, even to this day, but the two don’t have to be at odds, Brother Consolmagno said. In fact, the Catholic Church has historically played an important role in advancing scientific studies. After all, it was in the medieval universities, which were started to train priests and clergy, where the study of science began.

“We owe our system, not only of educating people, but also of letting other people know that you’ve been educated, [to] the Church,” he explained.

People are often surprised to discover that the Vatican has an observatory, let alone a team of scientists doing important scientific work, Brother Consolmagno said. The attitude that religion and science are at odds can do more damage than good, he said.

“How many great scientists have we lost by insisting there’s a war between the two? It’s out of my faith that I believe science can work, and it’s out of my faith that I can justify doing science,” he argued.

Two pursuits, one truth

Brother Consolmagno is far from the only religious with this attitude toward science. Father Tomasz Strzebonski, parochial vicar at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Edwards, has a degree in theoretical physics – a product of his knack for breaking things and putting them back together as a child in Poland. He also grew up in a devoutly Catholic family, and faith was an important part of his life.

“I always had two worlds, but I never saw them as separate. I always saw them mingled together and I think that’s my perspective of how I see the relationship between faith and science,” Father Strzebonski said.

Science is propelled by questions, Father Strzebonski explained, and the main contention between faith and science lies in the other side’s unwillingness to ask questions.

“How many great scientists have we lost by insisting there’s a war between the two? It’s out of my faith that I believe science can work, and it’s out of my faith that I can justify doing science.”

“That fear of asking questions is what is creating the difficulty between the two, especially when it comes to [Christian] fundamentalists,” he explained. “It took a lot of time for the Church to realize that asking questions is not that bad.”

In questioning things – whether they be scientific theories or matters of dogma in the Church – people come to a greater understanding of how things work.

“With science, you’re not really changing the way the universe works, you’re gaining more of an understanding of it,” Father Strzebonski said. “It’s the same thing with the Church. We’re not changing things – faith is there, God is there – we’re just gaining more of an understanding of it. An understanding of God though faith, and an understanding of the universe through science.”

In a way, Father Strzebonski explained, both faith and science are chasing after the same end: truth.

“Both are seeking the truth. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. When we are deepening our faith, we are getting closer to the truth,” he said. “The scientist, [too], is looking for the truth [about the universe].”

When it comes to questions of faith and science, Father Strzebonski said there should be no fear in not knowing the answers, but also to acknowledge that there are still many questions to which answers should be pursued.

“It’s very important to say there are questions that are not being answered in both faith and science,” he said. “It’s not a shameful thing not to know the answers, but I think it’s a shameful thing not to look for the answers.”

This story has been amended to correctly reference Brother Guy as a Jesuit brother.

COMING UP: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.