Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? - Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Paul Mueller, SJ

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is structured around a half dozen particular questions we've been asked time and again—questions that are interesting in themselves but that tend also to presuppose a conflict of some sort between religion and science.
This intent leads to rich, interesting dialogues. I use the word dialogues intentionally because the book is structured as a conversation between the two authors who are astronomers for the Vatican. Each is a highly accredited scientist and a Jesuit. The broad topics they discuss:
  • Biblical Genesis or the Big Bang?
    (how science and religion can have different but complementary ways of viewing the same subject)
  • What Happened to Poor Pluto?
    (how scientific theories and ideas change over time)
  • What Really Happened to Galileo?
    (how religion can or should respond when science changes)
  • What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
    (how can God be active in a universe governed by scientific laws)
  • What's Going to Happen When the World Ends?
    (How can humans be important to God in a universe that will come to an end)
  • Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
    (what could the message of Christ mean in an endless universe with countless planets and possibly countless other intelligent races)
The list above doesn't properly convey the riches contained within. Each chapter careens from science to faith to history and then back again. It is really like following an actual conversation where you can never tell exactly what sorts of ideas will flow from the give-and-take.

Also, each chapter asks you to image a different setting which helps to illustrate the points they are making. One is in the Chicago Art Institute, another at Antarctica, yet another at the Restaurant at the End of the World. If that last one makes you think of Douglas Adams books you are correct. These fellows have active senses of humor and a love of science fiction to boot.

As an example, the Star of Bethlehem chapter was set in the Papal Summer Palace with the Vatican Observatory telescopes. It went something like this:
  • Scientific possibilities for unusual events in the sky around the time Jesus was born, including conjunctions of planets
  • Possible interpretations of scripture (Matthew) about the event including how standards in interpretation have shifted over the ages
  • Who were the Magi, why did they come from the East and what part could astrology play
  • Ancient cosmology of the spheres
  • Comets
  • God's actions in human history and the true nature of a miracle
  • Old versus new ways of thinking about the physical world
  • What is a mystery: scientific versus religious mysteries
  • How do men of science and faith see this event as opportunities for encounters with the divine
Every chapter was like a roller coaster ride of new ideas, melding of concepts, and considerations of different opinions ... exactly like following a lively conversation with a couple of friends.

The authors are really good at talking about both science and faith in ways that are eminently reasonable and understandable. I was wary of the dialogue format but wound up enjoying it a lot because they could use it to show a variety of points of view, including the points where they disagreed with each other. I think this would be an excellent book to share with all sorts of folks, whether Catholic or not.

This seems like the perfect book for someone who is interested in both faith and science. And if you are interested in one and wary of the other, I think it could be very fruitful if for no other reason than to understand how the other side thinks. If you keep an open mind, you may be surprised at how well faith and science go together. Like a couple of folded hands, in fact.

Very highly recommended.

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