Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory

by Guy Consolmagno SJ, Paul Mueller


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Witty and thoughtprovoking, two Vatican astronomers shed provocative light on some of the strange places where religion and science meet.

“Imagine if a Martian showed up, all big ears and big nose like a child’s drawing, and he asked to be baptized. How would you react?” 
                                                                        – Pope Francis, May, 2014
Pope Francis posed that question – without insisting on an answer! – to provoke deeper reflection about inclusiveness and diversity in the Church. But it's not the first time that question has been asked.

Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father Paul Mueller hear questions like that all the time. They’re scientists at the Vatican Observatory, the official astronomical research institute of the Catholic Church. In Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? they explore a variety of questions at the crossroads of faith and reason: How do you reconcile the The Big Bang with Genesis? Was the Star of Bethlehem just a pious religious story or an actual description of astronomical events? What really went down between Galileo and the Catholic Church – and why do the effects of that confrontation still reverberate to this day? Will the Universe come to an end? And… could you really baptize an extraterrestrial?

With disarming humor, Brother Guy and Father Paul explore these questions and more over the course of six days of dialogue. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial will make you laugh, make you think, and make you reflect more deeply on science, faith, and the nature of the universe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804136952
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 504,431
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

BROTHER GUY CONSOLMAGNO, SJ was born in Detroit, Michigan, earned undergraduate and masters' degrees in Earth and Planetary Sciences from MIT (in 1974 and 1975), and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona in 1978. He worked as a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer at Harvard University's Department of Astronomy, and MIT's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; served in the US Peace Corps, teaching physics at the University of Nairobi; and was a physics professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, before entering the Jesuits as a brother in 1989. At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies.

FATHER PAUL R. MUELLER, SJ is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended a Jesuit high school and earned a degree in physics at Boston University before entering the Society of Jesus in 1982. As part of his Jesuit training, he earned masters degrees in both philosophy and theology, along the way developing an interest in religion-science issues. After being ordained a priest in 1993, he attended the University of Chicago, where he completed a third masters degree (in physics) and a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science through the interdisciplinary program in Conceptual Historical Studies of Science.

Read an Excerpt

Day 1: Biblical Genesis or Scientific Big Bang?

Setting: The Art Institute of Chicago

Gallery of the Early Twentieth Century

Paul: Today we’re going to talk about the beginning of all things, Creation itself. So it’s fitting that we’re in Chicago, since each of us had a kind of personal beginning here in the Windy City. You did philosophy studies at Loyola University shortly after you became a Jesuit. And I earned my doctorate in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Chicago.

Guy: When I read the opening verses of Genesis, where “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” I always picture myself standing by the shore of a stormy Lake Huron; that’s where I’m from. But, ah, Lake Michigan and the Windy City . . . It’s tough for this Detroiter to admit it, but I love Chicago. And this area, the Museum Campus down by the lakeshore, is like heaven to me. So many favorite places of mine: the Adler Planetarium; the Shedd Aquarium . . .

But if we’re going to talk about the beginning of the universe, why are we at the Art Institute? Shouldn’t we be at the planetarium, where we could watch a show that illustrates the Big Bang on its giant dome? Or maybe we should be at the Field Museum of Natural History, with its wonderful collection of dinosaur fossils and meteorites.

Paul: Think of all those people who are always asking us, as Vatican astronomers, about science and religion and the beginning of the universe . . .

Guy: The ones who want us to choose between Genesis and the Big Bang?

Paul: Yes. Most of them aren’t scientists, so I don’t think that addressing their questions in a scientific place--a planetarium, for instance--would be all that helpful.

So often we divide our lives up into separate camps, separate buildings, if you will: aquarium versus planetarium, work versus play, science versus religion, and so forth. Sometimes it’s hard to move from one to the other. I want us to start out today in a place where science and religion can overlap. Here at the Art Institute, you can’t help but see that there’s more than one way to represent reality--more than one style of painting, you might say.

So humor me for a moment. Let’s look at some of my favorite works of art.

Guy: Hmm . . . isn’t that Grant Wood’s American Gothic? The weather-beaten couple standing in front of a white clapboard house, the man holding a pitchfork staring directly out of the canvas, the woman giving him a dirty look . . .

Paul: The painting may be all too familiar, but I like it. Though it’s as realistic as a photograph, it still seems to tell you something about these two people that a photo wouldn’t be able to capture.

Now, head down this hall to the European section, and compare American Gothic with this painting . . .

Guy: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. I guess that’s an old man seated with a guitar, but he’s depicted in an almost abstract way. The guitar is painted realistically enough, but the old man is shown in weird lines and angles and a funky blue color scheme. That’s a whole different take on the human form.

Paul: It looks more “modern” than American Gothic, though it was painted about thirty years earlier.

Both paintings depict old people with the tools of their trades. Both were painted at roughly the same time, in the early twentieth century. Both communicate something deep and true about humanity, intellectually and emotionally, in ways that a book or a homily couldn’t.

But neither painting tries to show everything about its subject matter. Each painting selects and emphasizes only certain things and leaves out other stuff that’d be irrelevant or that’d get in the way. And you know what? Science does something very similar. Science involves selective observation--science involves paying special attention to certain things while ignoring others.

Guy: Like a painting I remember seeing once, of a couple of people sitting in a city diner: a guy with a hawk nose and a woman in red sitting next to him, as seen through the diner window from across the street late at night. You could never take a photograph like that; there’d be parked cars and telephone wires in the way. But every time I see that painting, I get hungry for some fried eggs and coffee.

Paul: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. That one is also here at the Art Institute, over in Special Exhibitions.

Guy: I always thought of you as a physicist-turned-philosopher. I didn’t know you were such an art nerd.

Paul: I’m no art expert, believe me. But get this: back when I was in college (too many years ago), I once spent ninety minutes standing in front of a painting at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. It was an assignment I had to do for a course in art history. The painting was Titian’s Rape of Europa: Jupiter, in the form of a white bull, is carrying Princess Europa away across the sea, where he will have his way with her. As I stood there taking notes, other museum visitors started asking me questions about the painting, as though I were some kind of expert! At first I laughed it off. But after a while I started talking with people about the painting, telling them what I had noticed about it and what I thought of it. And they told me what they thought. It led to some spirited discussions and disagreements as to what the painting means, as to whether or not it is beautiful, and why.

So it’s not only art experts who can recognize and talk meaningfully about what’s beautiful. It’s not only scientists who can recognize what’s true. And it’s not only ethicists who can recognize what’s good. Of course, experts can help and guide us. But things that are really beautiful or true or good can be recognized and appreciated by regular folks--if we are willing to open our eyes and take some time.

Guy: So, Mr. Art Expert, where do we go next?

Late Nineteenth Century: Impressionism

PAUL: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte--1884; it’s one of my favorites. Georges Seurat painted a scene with elegant French families in a Parisian park on an island in the Seine River, circa 1884. He used a technique called pointillism: instead of strokes of paint, he built up the image by adding colors dot by dot . . . anticipating digital-imaging techniques by over a hundred years.

Guy: I hate to admit this . . . but when I see this painting, the first thing I think of is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Paul: Oh, yeah, the movie with Matthew Broderick! This painting is the centerpiece of a pivotal scene in the movie. A trio of high school kids play hooky, and they have various improbable adventures around Chicago on a nice spring day. When they come here to the Art Institute, one of them, an angst-ridden teenager named Cameron, stares for a long time at A Sunday on La Grande Jatte--1884. As he gazes more and more deeply into the painting, with a stricken look on his face, the Parisian scene disappears from view: it falls apart into a chaotic, random collection of colored dots. It’s at that moment that Cameron realizes that his own life seems to be falling apart into meaningless bits and pieces.

I have a certain sympathy for Cameron; I had my own share of teenage angst! But what I see when I look at Seurat’s painting isn’t chaos. I don’t see the world falling apart. What I see is the world being analyzed down to its smallest, most basic parts.

When I look at A Sunday on La Grande Jatte--1884, I keep flipping back and forth between seeing the whole scene, which is lots of people enjoying a beautiful day in the park, and seeing the little dots from which that scene is made up. But to me that doesn’t mean the world is falling apart--it means that there is more than one way to see the world. One way is to see the big picture, the everyday world of common experience. Another way is to see the world as analyzed by science: a world of tiny atoms, of particles and waves, of fields of force--a world that can be described mathematically.

That’s one way to get at relating science and faith: think of it as flipping back and forth between two different ways of seeing one and the same world. We can see the world through the eyes of science or through the eyes of faith.

When you see the world through the eyes of faith, you are often very much concerned with everyday experiences of what is right and good and beautiful. You are concerned with how your life hangs together and makes sense--or doesn’t!

But when you see the world through the eyes of science, your concerns are different. You want to know how the world works and what it’s made of, right down to its smallest pieces. The world as analyzed by science can seem disconnected from the world of everyday experience, just as the dots in Seurat’s painting can seem disconnected from the larger image.

The trick is to get comfortable with the idea of flipping back and forth between two different ways of seeing. And the trick, also, is not to panic if one way of seeing omits something that the other includes, or emphasizes something that the other neglects.

Guy: So you can see this painting as a collection of dots, or you can see it as an image of people in a park. Both descriptions are true. If one of them is true, it doesn’t make the other one false.

Paul: Just like you, Guy, I had to study some philosophy, as part of my Jesuit training. It drove me crazy. I was a science guy, and I just couldn’t figure out what it was that the philosophers were worried about. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand their answers. I couldn’t even understand their questions!

Finally, after a year and a half of frustration, I had a kind of breakthrough. One day I was puzzling over Aristotle and his theory that each thing should be understood as being a composite of “matter” and “form.” Now, I thought I knew what “matter” was, from my study of physics: it’s what stuff is made of. But I couldn’t figure out why, in addition to matter, you would need something else called “form.”

Then suddenly it hit me, like a ton of bricks . . . I was making an assumption: that knowing what something is means breaking it down to its smallest parts (atoms, quarks, whatever) and figuring out the physical laws governing how they interact. But Aristotle doesn’t make that assumption. For him, breaking a thing down to its smallest parts is only one part of what it means to know it. For Aristotle, to really know something, you have to see not just its parts but also the whole.

Guy: So not just the dots, but also the picture that the dots make?

Paul: Even more than that. For Aristotle, really understanding a thing means knowing what it’s made of, what kind of thing it is, who made it, and why they made it--what’s its value or meaning. For Aristotle, questions like that come up as part of doing science.

But in modern science, the questions are much narrower. Questions about the value or meaning or purpose of things don’t come up in modern science--they are set aside. As a result, modern science has become much more focused and efficient: we can analyze and describe all sorts of things we see in nature in terms of objective, mathematical laws. But the fact that questions about value or meaning or purpose don’t come up in modern science doesn’t mean that those questions aren’t important.

That’s the kicker--that’s what hit me, back when I was first studying Aristotle. As a human being, I may want to know who made a thing and why. I may want to know about the value and meaning of a thing, even if science considers such questions irrelevant.

Modern science is incredibly successful at doing what it does, from understanding how to control diseases to calculating what happens around a black hole. This can lead us to make the lazy assumption that the scientific way of seeing the world is the best way, or even the only legitimate way. That’s the assumption I had fallen into while studying physics in college. But if you think that seeing the world through the eyes of science will show us everything that really matters, then you might as well think that you see everything that matters about A Sunday on La Grande Jatte--1884 if you look at it dot-by-dot.

Guy: OK, I can see that. “Flipping back and forth” is a useful image to keep in mind whenever we get asked, “If you believe that God speaks to us through Scripture, then why don’t you accept the story of Creation given to us in the Bible?” Maybe the people who ask us that aren’t getting that there’s more than one way to look at the picture. And so they end up wanting to treat the Bible like an astronomy textbook.

And the fact is, there’s more than one way of looking at the picture even within the Bible itself. The Bible contains several different Creation stories. It just isn’t possible for all of them to be literally true--they disagree with one another! So there has to be something else going on here. Since they can’t all be true in the same way, that means you need to be able to develop some way to flip back and forth between different descriptions even within the Bible itself.

Paul: But let’s be careful here. We don’t want to fall into the easy trap of saying, “Everything is relative; everything is true.”

Earlier I was telling you about standing in front of a painting, arguing with passersby about what it meant and whether it was beautiful, and why or why not. It makes sense to have that kind of argument about the beauty of a painting, even a classic like The Rape of Europa. But it wouldn’t make sense to have a similar argument about the truth of a classic law of science, like the law of pendulum motion.

Guy: Obviously, denying the truth of the law of the pendulum just makes you look silly. But are you saying that everyone, expert or not, has a right to accept or deny that a piece of art is beautiful?

Paul: When it comes to things like pendulums, pulleys, and electric motors, the science is settled--not because some pointy-headed scientific expert tells us so, but because these things are tools that we rely upon and use every day and take for granted. But when it comes to questions of meaning and beauty, it’s different. Those aren’t questions that get “settled”; those are things that each generation has to appropriate for itself, building on what came before.

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Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomer's In-box at the Vatican Observatory 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Borowed this book from the library, and enjoyed it imensely. The subject matter could have been dry, but the wit and intelligence of the priest and the brother made it come alive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago