The Vatican Church’s Astronomers

Can science and religion meet; embracing each other like a soulmate, unveiling depths within each other?

For years, we are used to seeing debates, instead of duet, between science and religion, both in the popular media and public conversation, to the point that we believe the two don’t co-exist. A religious person fears scientific truth beyond humans’ senses. And a scientist is “too smart for school.” Yet Big Bang was proposed by a Jesuit. And algebra was written out by a Muslim scientist.

Today, we divide them like two conflicting poles, often times putting more efforts into pushing them apart than pulling them together, unwilling to find the resonance between the two.

The Vatican’s long-standing interest in astronomy was propelled by the need to correctly date Easter on their calendar. But the observatory itself wasn’t established until the 18th century when there was a growing belief that scientists must be secular. As a way to counter that (and the mindset to interpret Bible literally), the church opened the observatory and The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

Underneath their universe-gazing dome is mundane scientific learnings that are the opposite of the contentious edgy discoveries and innovations. “We didn’t find cutting-edge technologies, but our findings are the foundations for the next discoveries,” said Guy Consolmagno, the Director of Vatican Observatory. Thanks to funding that comes mostly from the church itself, their scientific research does not need to align with any business or political interests.

Having lived as both priests and scientists, the Vatican astronomers wholly believe that the duet between the two, of reasons and of faith, is what pulling these two opposites into enriching and ennobling dialogues. The humility of faith, which is the engine for any religious people, also lies at the heart of any scientific inquiries because science, too, does not begin with logic, but with intuition.

You have to take that leap. And that’s the same way in pursuing a scientific theory. That when you have a great idea you don’t know if after two years you’re going to realize, “Boy, did I make a mistake. I just wasted two years chasing down the wrong path.” Though it’s never totally a waste. Certainly you could guess wrong, you could guess right. And we all do. So it’s this marvelous interplay between our intuition and then our logic, and that’s why it’s such a human experience. It’s something you could never program a computer to do.

But at the heart of all these, of seeking Truth through the understanding of science and religion, is a piece of bread. On searching a more meaningful career path, Guy Consolmagno went to Kenya to teach astronomy. Once, he took out his telescope and showed them the rings of Saturns and the craters on the moon that was soon responded with explosive joys from the students.

Then I remembered this thing the Jesuits had taught me, “You don’t live by bread alone.” Right? You have to have something else feeding you. If you’re a human being, you have to have a reason why you’re eating the bread. You have to have a meaning for your life and part of it is to develop the sense of awe, the sense of wonder, the sense of joy at looking at the sky.

Sadly, the entertainment media, the likes of Bill Maher (who really is more of a TV personality than an actual atheist), has enjoyed results (that is, making money) from putting science and religion into mindless and endless debate. Krista Tippett, too, lamented in her book Einstein’s God:

The science-religion “debate” is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating.

What’s meaningful is often found in the intersection between two seemingly opposite poles, when the two come at an agreement, creating a new kind of language and understanding. Perhaps performing science without humility and a sense of responsibility, too, is an abjection to human’s spirits (such as this, where science is more stylish than ennobling). And performing religion without proper grounding to our visceral reality is a blind faith. Why the science-religion debate still exists, often in a way that diminishes the two, is beyond me. Perhaps, partly is our impulsive response to defend our belief and partly, a generational thing where the trivial; the entertainment, overrules substance.


P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

Blog_GuyConsol_NadiaShiraCohen
Brother Guy Consolmagno. Photo by Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times
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