Faith and Astronomy are a waste of time! Though I obviously disagree with this sentiment, there are some who claim that faith and astronomy are not terribly significant since both lack the ability to make concrete, functional advancements to society. The critiques of faith and astronomy can be summarized with the notion that both may be great at exploring things like wonder and awe, but what do they really contribute to society on a practical level? When these arguments are made, it is a painful reminder that we have become quite utilitarian in our worldview, valuing things more if they have a functional or usable purpose, while devaluing things that are more meaning driven, exploring realities that are not easily measured in earthly terms. This mentality not only influences faith and astronomy, but has come to impact many parts of the human experience.
For example, when my Grandmother, Edna Riley, developed medical issues that forced her to give up her driver’s license at the age of 97, she experienced two, deep emotional struggles. The first struggle was losing the freedom to travel. The second struggle was deeper, expressed in the heart breaking words, “Jamie, there’s no use for me anymore… I’m useless.” Deep frustration grew in my heart listening to my Grandmother’s words. This is the woman who essentially raised me for the first two years of my life when my mother experienced serious medical issues after my birth. This is the woman who, as a convert to Catholicism, taught me that it was never bad to ask questions about my faith, even if it took me down challenging roads. This is the woman who began teaching in a one room school house in the year 1925 and constantly received reverential visits from past students who simply wanted to thank her after she retired. And this is the woman who, when I would invite college friends over to visit our farm, would end up being a teacher again as we would sit around her lift chair like children, listening to mesmerizing stories about life during the Great Depression. Useless, just because she was 97? Far, far from it!
This and other experiences I have had with expressions of a utilitarian worldview remind me of the thought of Pope Francis, constantly warning us not to become a “throw away society.” This warning is often cast as part of the ecological vision of Laudato Si’, calling all of us to avoid wastefulness, protecting the gift of creation God has given to us to ensure access to natural resources for generations to come. However, I also find this notion of not being a throw away culture intimately tied to his concern for the elderly and the youth. When people asked Pope Francis at the beginning of his papacy, “What are the greatest challenges facing the Church today,” his response was joblessness of the youth and the loneliness of the elderly. Many scoffed at this, wondering why he didn’t say something about terrorism, war, or abortion. Over time, Pope Francis has addressed these and other pressing issues of the Church. However, I fear that the narrow lens often used to analyze Pope Francis has lead many to forget that avoiding the temptation of being a “throw away culture” is tied to all of the pressing social issues mentioned earlier and more. In short, avoiding a throw away culture not only speaks to ecology, but also reaches the vast expanse of our understanding of human dignity, reflected in the following ethical and moral questions.
Are we throwing away our world, our people, our young, our old, refusing to see God’s presence in our neighbor, refusing to see God’s handiwork in creation, and gutting all sense of beauty and wonder from them for the sake of usefulness and utility? Do we view life as simply mechanistic, waiting for the “machine” to break down? Do we view the elderly as indispensable sources of wisdom and history for our society or are they simply a financial drain on our health care system that could be better served elsewhere? Do we view an unplanned pregnancy as a gift from God, despite the circumstances of the conception, that is deserving of love and dignity or is it a “curse” that limits freedom, contributing to the overpopulation of the world, likely to live in poverty, and therefore “optional” at best to the world?
There are many other questions we could explore, but the core sentiment of the ethical questions raised are the same: Do we view the world with dignity or utility?
Now, how does this inform us when looking at the role of faith and astronomy in society? First of all, we need to avoid the trap of implying that there is no usefulness in faith and astronomy. We actually can find profound examples of how both faith and astronomy have contributed to the usefulness of society. Despite the objections that astronomy is a waste of money, time, and resources we could apply elsewhere, we need to remember what astronomy has already given to our world. First of all, though some may argue that the space race had more to do with Cold War politics, wasn’t it the dreams and wondering of scientists and people of good will that not only put humanity on the Moon, but in the process opened the door to a whole new way of viewing our world and our place in the universe? Don’t we remember that the satellites that make our creature comforts like GPS, cell phones, and DishTV possible would have never existed if we didn’t strive to reach for the stars, creating new technologies in the process that have been seamlessly integrated into our daily life? And isn’t it true that if we were to literally “pull the plug” on astronomy that we may be denying ourselves the next generation of technologies and understanding that could improve human dignity in the world we live in? In summary, what astronomy teaches us is that taking the time to “waste some time” to dream and wonder has lead to things that have contributed to society in a practical way. However, astronomy does something else in the process that goes beyond creating new widgets: It feeds the soul by exploring some of the most basic questions of life – Who am I, Why am I here, and How did all of this get here?
Apollo 11 Lunar Landing
In regard to faith, we can see a similar interaction between wonderment and function. When I was in seminary, I was introduced to the ideas of time we call Kairos and Chronos. I have reflected on these in the past, but Chronos is the day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute understanding of the passing of time. Kairos, on the other hand, is a sense of time that focuses upon profound moments in which we enter into a unique relationship with time, being made present again to the events of Salvation History. The centerpiece of this underling of Kairos occurs in the Liturgy, making Mass the ultimate “waste of time” both in the practical sense, but also the theological sense, teaching us that there are times in life that all we need to do is be in God’s Presence with no tangible goals of productivity in mind. Nevertheless, we also need to ask, “What has been the fruit of this entering into the timelessness of God’s Presence?” Can we not see in this wonderment of the love of God the creation of some of the most powerful moments of human history like the Christian roots of the Civil Rights Movement, which found its strongest expression in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech? Do we not hear the echo of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” reminding us of the slave trade, a slave ship Captain who viewed Africans as mere utility to be bought and sold, and how the Captain of this slave ship came to turn away from his sins by contemplated the love and forgiveness Jesus had not only for him, but for the slaves that were on his ship? These are only two of many “Biblical nights of wonder” that could be mentioned, but both lead us to the same theme: In order to act rightly in the world, we need to wonder in God’s presence about our world.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have A Dream”
In short, faith can take the core questions we identified in astronomy, “Who and I, Why am I here, and How did everything get here,” and expose them the to the wondrous love of Jesus Christ, not only contemplating questions like “Who am I in relation to God,” but also explore the question, “How am I to treat others and myself because of my love of God and God’s love of me?” These reflections remind me of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her persistence of having her Sisters start each day before the Blessed Sacrament. This daily holy hour was to remind her Sisters that just as they gaze upon the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, so, too, were they to see in the poor and marginalized of this world “living tabernacles” containing the presence of Christ that are to be loved, reverenced, and nurtured, not because of any utilitarian gain that they possess, but simply because they are child of God.
To conclude, I wish to emphasize that we must avoid another trap when exploring the “usefulness” of faith and astronomy: The trap of reducing faith to ethics and astronomy to applied science, meant simply to make more technological toys. Faith and astronomy, in their pure sense, initially ask non-utilitarian questions that point the mind and heart skyward, wondering “What is out there?” As this exploration unfolds, we find a tension between wonder and function, purpose and purposefulness, dignity and utility. In this tension, let us remember that we share in this struggle, wanting to contribute something tangible to our world, but also desire to find an inner dignity that is detached from any accomplishments. This dignity is rooted in simply being a child of God, made in God’s image and likeness. Put another way, astronomy inspires us to look “up” while faith inspires us to take that heavenward gaze and look “in” at ourselves.
From the day my Grandmother shared her heartfelt struggle with me, I prayed that she would stop feeling useless and realize that she was an indispensable source of love and knowledge for our family, her students, and our parish. I know, in the mystery of God’s love, that my prayer was answered, perhaps not as “perfectly” as I desired, but in the way that was best for Edna. Nevertheless, let us avoid reducing our world and people to usefulness. Let us help people find dignity simply for being loved into existence by God. And, in the realms of faith and astronomy, let us remember that we need to wonder about our world and our God to assist us to make a better world for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, country of origin, or state of life.