What a week! Yes, the Wonder Conference put together by Word on Fire might have only been two days, but I decided to take a little personal time and craft a personal retreat. Now, Dallas and the surrounding suburbs are not the greatest place for astronomy, but, in the spirit of wonder, I did take a couple days of reflection at a wildlife refuge.
As I’ve been exploring Pope Francis’ call to Contemplate God’s Creation, I’ve found great moments of prayer, peace, and wonder in nature reserves/preserves. My prayer location of choice was the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA). During my prayer walk, I ran into some old feathered friends. It was delightful to see seasonal birds like Osprey, Great Blue Herons, and Cormorants that visit Wisconsin in the summer.
After some prayer in the preserve, I checked into the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center. Needless to say, simply entering this Convention Center evoked a sense of wonder. It felt a little awkward having a faith conference in a place so lavish. At the same time, I smiled when I knew if my mother was with me she would simply say, “Ah, enjoy it! You deserve it!” Another thought was, “Well, its a bit more modest than St. Peter’s Basilica.”
When checking into the Conference, the feel of the facility was similar to college faith rallies I would attend in my university ministry days. This experience reminded me why going to conferences gives you something YouTube videos alone can’t give – A sense of community.
What is community? At the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus posts a simple question to his soon-to-be disciples: What are you looking for? (John 1:38) The disciples’ answer wasn’t to ask him the meaning of life, clarification on confusing cultural questions of the day, or wanting to know the exact number of stars in the night sky. The answer was far more basic – Where is your home?
Some scholars assert the disciples answered Jesus the way they did because the day was ending before the beginning of the Sabbath. As Children of Israel, they would need shelter. This may be true, but I always read this question in a spiritual manner. We are a communal species that are naturally wired to seek community. It is logical when moving from natural community to faith community that the core of the Christian life is to seek communion with God, each other and invite God into that communion.
Along with the brilliant reflections I heard at Wonder, I also encountered community. I met a young couple who were using the conference as a “date night” with their children at the grandparents so they could be a part of the conference. We talked about faith, prayer, and pilgrimages in great detail. I met a very faithful charismatic Christian who, as a non-Catholic, was curious what Catholicism thought about extemporaneous prayer. There were many others I could speak of, but for the sake of brevity I will simply affirm that I was so inspired by the goodness of the people who came to Wonder.
If you notice, when our community first met, we didn’t ask each other about our thoughts on gravitational waves, evolution, and artificial intelligence. We wanted to know where we lived and how God lives in us. The scientific questions we came to explore weren’t what defined our community. Instead, we naturally desired to make a home with each other to explore these questions.
The closest I came to a “where do you live” conversation that incorporated science was when I met a laboratory scientist who works on cancer therapies. I could tell she was a little shocked when I thanked her for any part she may have played in the treatment of my mother’s breast cancer. My hope is that what she took away from that moment wasn’t “that was an odd conversation,” but perhaps a first insight that the science she does participates in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.
Something I love about faith and science conferences is that what you think they will be and what they become are very different. The irony of this is that the more I go to these conferences (and present at them) the core themes are essentially the same, but the dynamics of the communal aspect impacts how that information is received and not received.
In the weeks to come, I will provide more detailed reflections on the presentations I attended. For now, I simply want to emphasize a subtle theme that emerged from time to time at Wonder that fits nicely with this reflection on community: keep scientific questions in their proper place.
Science isn’t a being or a quasi-deity that stands in opposition to God. Rather, science is a powerful language, something we do as humans, and something that can improve our common home and the human condition. This is science at its best. However, we also need to remember that, due to our fallen human nature, this gift can also be misused to hurt, wound, and destroy because it is not a “thing,” but something people do. Let us bring our best discernment to how we do science so we can build up our sense of community and not do harm to our communion with God and neighbor.
What will I reflect on next post? What does artificial intelligence, nature, and a Dominican and Franciscan reflecting on a carving knife have in common? No, it isn’t a bad religious joke! Check in next time and find out!