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: Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327