The American Astronomical Society (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences announced this month that Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno has won the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication about planetary science to the general public. Brother Consolmagno is an astronomer and meteorite expert at the Vatican Observatory. He also serves as their Coordinator for Public Relations. The AAS commended Brother Consolmagno for occupying a “unique position” among astronomers as a “credible spokesperson for scientific honesty within the context of religious belief.”
Did you get that? A Jesuit Brother from the Vatican Observatory won the Carl Sagan Medal. A lot of people would say, “Wow, he’s living proof that science and faith do not conflict.” He is, of course, but look closer. Brother Consolmagno won the award for his scientific achievements and for his ability to communicate. He is a role model for effective evangelization in this modern scientific age.
His approach is to show how he personally lives and works as a scientist who has faith, and his book Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist describes his experience working with other faithful scientists. Scientists, by nature, are not discouraged by incomplete answers, but are driven to search for better answers even if they may never have the complete answer. Scientists are not afraid of mystery. For the faithful, science is actually a form of worship, a way to know the Creator better.
In God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion, Brother Consolmagno develops a point that bears highlighting here. “Techies,” as he calls the technically-minded, want things to make sense. Even if people are not trained scientists, I think this mindset applies to anyone who has grown up in a technological culture and views questions through a technological lens. A young person, for instance, may not be so much interested in the medieval proofs of God as he is interested in knowing how faith will work in his life. There is a difference, Brother Consolmagno says, between the medieval proofs of God and how technically-minded think of proof. Proof, for them, needs evidence. Faith needs to be proposed in a more nuts and bolts, how-to-live-it kind of way.
Furthermore—an often forgotten point—every logical proof starts with axioms. That is, “belief comes before the explanations.” A faithful scientist views science axiomatically as the handiwork of God. He wrote, “In essence, it is not God that you find at the end of your logic; rather, your God is the unshakable axiom that you used when you started your chain of logic.” Thus to a techie, a proof of God’s existence may not prove anything, or it may sound circular. A techie isn’t looking for proof really; he’s looking for confidence. And he (or she) needs to be given space to figure out how faith is going to work. Techies don’t like proselytizing.
This approach to communication is one to emulate. This prestigious Carl Sagan Medal is, well, it is proof that such an approach works. Thank you Brother Guy Consolmagno for your example and leadership.
References and Further Reading:
- Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them, Cambridge University Press; 4 edition (November 14, 2011). With over 100,000 copies sold since first publication, this is one of the most popular astronomy books of all time.
- Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, McGraw-Hill Companies (February 12, 2001). Brother Consolmagno tells the story of his life as a Papal astronomer, from his adventures hunting meteorites in the Antarctic to the quiet contemplation of his daily bread.
- God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion, Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (October 19, 2007). Brother Consolmagno tells the stories of those who identify with the scientific mindset—so-called “techies”—while practicing religion. A full fledged techie himself, he relates some classic philosophical reflections, his interviews with dozens of fellow techies, and his own personal take on his Catholic beliefs to provide, like a set of “worked out sample problems,” the hard data on the challenges and joys of embracing a life of faith as a techie. References to quotes above are specifically on pages 2, 11 and 30.
- To watch him in action, watch his TED talk (this is awesome): “From MIT to Specola Vaticana: Guy Consolmagno at TEDxViadellaConciliazione.”
Image credit: Brother Consolmagno kindly gave me permission to use this photo.
Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.
When I left my career at DuPont to be a stay-at-home mom, I figured I was done as far as careers go. It’s a decision one makes with a great deal of finality. You don’t re-enter the work force after you leave it like that.
I had no hesitation though, not then, and not now. I have never regretted that decision. I’ve had over a decade at home raising seven children, and yes, there have been many phases in those years when I struggled and felt incompetent, when I wished things had been easier. But in that tempering, with God’s grace and the love and support of my husband, I’ve become the mother I wanted to become, the woman I wanted to become. It’s all been a gift.
You can read an essay I wrote about it in Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families edited by Patti Armstrong and Theresa Thomas (Scepter Publishers Inc., 2013), see p. 57.
I never imagined that eleven years later, I would be a professor at a Catholic college teaching the science I love so much, all from home where I can still raise and educate my children. Check it out! Go ahead, click it.
I think this story is only going to get better. I long ago became disenchanted with the notion that teenagers need to be sent off to colleges alone while parents cough up tens of thousands of dollars every semester or go into debt. I can’t be the only parent who is thinking that “home-college” (i.e. online undergraduate enrollment) at a faithful and affordable institution is looking more and more like a great idea for my children’s future if they want to go to college.
You know how people say that in marriage sometimes one partner pulls the weight more than the other partner, but it is okay because someday things will switch around? You are there for each other in whatever way the other one needs, when the other one needs it.
Well, let me tell you a story.
Ten years ago I was a new mommy. I had a daughter who was fifteen and a son who was nine, and then I had a baby daughter who was fourteen months and a newborn daughter. Some of you know these people as Regan, Max, Abigail, and Grace. I had not been a very good mom to Regan and Max. Abigail and Grace were sort of like a new chance to get things right. So, I had it in my mind that I should be a model mom at the grocery store. For some reason, my motherhood depended on it.
We shopped at Sam’s Club. I took Abigail and Grace with me only five days after Grace was born. I had waited for months for this day, a perfect mom in her non-pregnant clothes wearing her newborn in the black leather way cool Baby Bjorn, pushing a cart holding her sweet toddler strapped in the seat, in a matching sister outfit, her little curls coiffed. The black leather baby carrier matched my black leather designer diaper bag and black leather shoes. And I would be filling the cart with the perfect foods for a perfect family, selected by a perfect mom who had it all together like a glossy cover binds a magazine.
Did I mention I had some anxiety issues?
We looked good strolling through the parking lot; the parting electric doors hailed our arrival with a becoming swoosh to my long hair. We’d arrived! Before I got to the first isle though, Abigail squirmed out of her seat and climbed into the back of the cart. “No problem, I’ll go slow.” By the time I’d traversed the first isle, she was out of the cart and out of control. The visual stimulation energized her. I tried to catch her without losing Grace and without making a scene. “It’s alright y’all. I’ve got this. I’ve got this.” But Abigail was scurrying along the floor, removing boxes from the shelves and hurling them. The more I tried to calm her, the more rambunctious she got. Then Grace started crying because it was time to nurse again. Nursing! I hadn’t considered that. Then Abigail wanted to nurse too, so she started pulling at my shirt and trying to shove Grace out of the way. Then they were both crying. With one hand clasped around Abigail’s ankle to restrain her and keep her hands as far away from my shirt as possible, I tried to find my mobile phone with the other, Grace dangling from my torso. I remember feeling as if the colorful packages of food were swirling around me because I was drowning. Five minutes into it, I knew I could not complete the shopping mission. I couldn’t even get myself back to the truck. When my husband answered the phone, he heard this above it all, “COME GET ME.”
He did. Like the hero he is, he rushed to the grocery store and scooped us out of that awful place. Then he said, “You know Sweetheart, I’ll do the grocery shopping from now on. You stay home with the babies.” And then he did.
Ten years, two more daughters, and one more son later . . . you can perhaps appreciate the significance when I said this past weekend, “Honey, I think I’m ready to go back to the grocery store.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it now.”
The kids are older. The girls are interested in cooking. The youngest, JJ, is three and a half. Life is real now.
However, the list Abigail made this morning . . .
Mini Pepperoni Pizza
Rice Krispy Treats
. . . is already stirring up bad memories.
But . . . these days, matching left and right shoes are even optional.
Mostly, I will find a way to repay my husband.
UPDATE: We did it! Two hours, a stumped toe, JJ climbing on top of the buggy, a few routine sister fights, a dropped jar of olives, and a mild headache, our kitchen is stocked. I nixed everything on the list except the brownie mix because we are making Daddy some brownies tonight! As you can see, some things never change.
Did you ever think about how human beings and trees differ? Trees are what they are. Any element, molecule, compound, computer chip, rocket ship, or plant exists according to a certain orderliness of matter. But the human being exists as a being in a radically different manner from inanimate matter or other living things. Even the noblest creatures are what they are independent of their own reason or will. No one can convince a dog, for instance, that he ought to act like a real dog (I’ve tried). Not so with humans.
The difference is our power of virtue.
Consider physical power. The power of a machine refers to the physical ability to do work. Hence, the maximum potential output from an engine is measured as mechanical horsepower, a comparison to the work that horses can do. When the machine achieves its maximum potential, we say the machine has reached the fullest expression of its capacity.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined virtue for human beings similarly as an ultimum potentiae. The German philosopher, Josef Pieper, interpreted this to mean “the utmost best a person can be.” Unlike elements, machines, plants, or animals, human virtue implies a lifelong perfection of the spiritual powers of intellect and will. Humans have rational souls, which instill us with the power to act rationally, to make choices, to love, to seek God.
Children, therefore, need to be taught to practice virtue so they can realize their fullest potential, worth, and goodness. To do this, they need love. Virtue begins with the highest love, caritas. Aquinas called this love the “mother and the root of all the virtues.” From their earliest age, children need to be told that God loves them, so they can discover true hope. They need to be told they ought to love God and reach beyond themselves for Him. Children need to be told they ought to find the goodness in the existence of God, nature, others, and themselves. In realizing such meaning and purpose, children need to be taught they ought to listen for the voice of God in faith.
Then children need to be taught they ought to be prudent, to have an openness to reality and to accept honestly the unveiling of truth through reason. Children need to be taught they ought to be just, to respect and love others, and give others their due. Children need to be taught they ought to be brave, and they ought to realize the good in the world, willing in fortitude to accept injury for the sake of truth and justice. Children need to be taught they ought to practice self-discipline so as to protect themselves from self-destruction. Children need to hear, “You ought to act like a human.”
Because they will if they are raised up in love.
In this modern materialistic age, most children never hear such things. Many children are treated as mere commodities, trophies, or inconveniences—but that doesn’t make them any less human. It only chains them from becoming who they were meant to be.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, Questions 55 and 62.
- Josef Pieper, An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), Essays “The Ultimate,” “Ought To” and “Seven Statements,” p. 3-8.
Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.
After the introduction of the Big Bang theory by Alexander Friedmann (1922) and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître (1927), it was reported three decades later that still two-thirds of American astronomers thought the universe had no beginning, similar to the ancient pantheistic Greek belief in an eternal cosmos.
Today the Big Bang theory is accepted. In studying that beginning, scientists have learned how symmetry unified the gravitational and electromagnetic forces in the exponential expansion of the primordial cosmos. That symmetry, once broken, seems to give way to deeper symmetries so finely-tuned that scientists even muse the universe shouldn’t exist. The ongoing search for physical laws, however, led to the prevailing theory of “supersymmetry” and a search for ever-smaller, inter-related particles.
In the first roughly one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the universe’s birth, scientists are discovering a fine line between chaos and stability. Physicist and atheist Sean Carroll remarked that the mass of the latest discovered particle, the Higgs boson, turns out to be “right on the edge” in terms of the universe’s stability. Tia Ghose of Live Science described it, “A little bit lighter, and the Higgs field would be much more easily perturbed; a little heavier, and the current Higgs field would be incredibly stable.”
While it is inappropriate to extract theological meaning from incomplete scientific theories, it is insightful to note consistencies with Christian thought.
Obviously, the idea that the universe had a beginning is consistent with the first words of Genesis, and so is the idea of order and symmetry. St. John referred to Christ as the “Father’s only-begotten Son full of grace and truth,” using the Greek word monogenes to express “only begotten.” In ancient Greece monogenes referred to the eternally emanating cosmos. In Latin it translates as unigenitus, or universum. To Plato, the monogenes was the Unknown God, the universe itself. When John called Christ by the same words, it marked a radically different view of God and of the cosmos. The Unknown God was named the Christian God, a Trinitarian and Incarnational God. Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, became man. Christ, as God, created the universe. Christ, the Word, the Logos, is Rationality Itself.
Catholic physicist Peter Hodgson once wrote something similar to Carroll’s comment about the fine line between stability and chaos, but it was in reference to God and the overall order of the universe. “There is here a delicate balance between the rationality and the freedom of God.” To believe God set the world in motion and left it to run, leads to determinism. A God of unpredictable volition, gives us chaos. Both beliefs are inimical to the growth of science, and Christianity accepts neither.
In the context of Christianity, physical symmetry and fine-tuning give insight into the language of God who freely chose to create an ordered universe, but who interacts in human history and holds everything in existence by His will. That scientists, both atheist and Christian, search for such insight is evidence they trust such stability and symmetry exists. Is it any wonder that science was born in a Christian culture?
References and Further Reading:
- The survey of leading American physicists and astronomers is found in “How Cosmology Became a Science,” by Stephen Brush (Scientific American, Volume 267, Issue 2, August 1992); and this survey was referenced by Stephen Barr in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, p. 43) and by Christopher Baglow in Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (Mobile: Midwest Theological Forum, 2011, p. 145).
- I recommend Live Science for following the latest scientific news, and specifically Staff Writer Tia Ghose who interviewed me last December about the belief in the Virgin Birth. Tia is reliably objective in her reporting.
- For a discussion of St. John’s use of the word monogenes, see the essay “Christ and the History of Science,” in A Late Awakening and Other Essays by Fr. Stanley Jaki, priest and physicist (Port Huron: Real View Books, 2006, pp. 55-56). I also discuss this in my book, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki (Habitation of Chimham Publishing, 2014, pp. 160-164).
- To read more about theology and modern physics, I highly recommend Theology and Modern Physics by Peter Hodgson (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005), particularly Chapter 11 “Chaos and Symmetry” and Chapter 2 “The Judeo-Christian Contribution to the Development of Modern Science.” The quote in the above essay was taken from the section of Chapter 2 titled, “The Origin of Science.”