Since I began writing for The Catholic Astronomer, I have had to address many misconceptions about my relationship with the Vatican Observatory. Many times, people presume that I am a Vatican scientist – No I am not. Others presume that I am a professional scientist turned priest – Nope. Some presume that I have an advanced degree in cosmology or hold a university position – Wrong again. What I am is a diocesan priest, pastor, chaplain of a college ministry who visits the Dunn County Jail weekly for communion calls and has a grade school in which the mascot is a “Joey.” Nothing like a baby kangaroo to accentuate the cute factor of a Catholic School.
Given my rather “typical” priesthood, people often ask me: Why are you so interested in faith and science if this isn’t a central part of your priestly ministry? The light hearted answer I often give is that I have always cared about things that nobody else cares about. The truer answer is more direct and simple: The sciences inspire me to be a better priest.
One of the reasons I love science is that it feeds my desire to explore and embark on adventures. When I read pieces from NASA about the Cassini Mission to Saturn, see JunoCam images of Jupiter, marveled at the images from the New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto, watched as the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a probe on a comet with the Rosetta Mission, and visited fascinating places like the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab on the campus of the University of Arizona, I am constantly inspired to explore my faith in a deeper way as science explores the mysteries of the natural world in new and deeper ways.
Something I think science, astronomy in particular, captures that religion is quickly losing is the idea of limitless exploration, motivated by a profound sense of awe and wonder. Three years back, while at the Faith and Astronomy Workshop (FAW) in Tucson, Arizona, I asked OSIRIS-REx scientist Carl Hergenroth this question: If there were no limits placed upon the exploration of space, where would you go? His answer was quick and direct: The deepest known parts of the universe. His clear, confident response resonated deeply within me, inspiring me to have the same confidence to delve into my understanding of the natural world and also delve into the depths of who I am in God’s eyes.
Something I think theology can learn from science is the inspirational ethos that can be created when faith is not merely approached as an intellectual discipline to be understood, but as an adventure to be lived and explored with deep passion. When theology delves so deep into the language of professional academia that it no longer speaks to or inspires the lay person in the pew, theology can become a dead letter with little practical application. Granted, some of the most advanced science would be dizzying to even the most articulate in their given field, but the scientist has found a way to make these realities accessible to the public – even when they are poorly understood.
Yes, we need high intellects in the Church to further the academic exploration of theology. However, we also need voices in the pastoral field who can take the complexity of the scholar and present it to the people of faith in a way that inspires them to embrace an adventure of faith, hope, and love. Unfortunately, I often see a deficiency in this approach to theology. All too often, I encounter a bland faith of practicality in which adventure is lost and is replaced with paying bills, developing programs, and keeping tabs on the number of parishioners in the pews. My fear is that faith is become so pragmatic that even the idea of pilgrimage, a sacred journey, is being dropped in favor of pressing play on the DVD player to watch the latest series on Catechetical instruction. Put another way, I fear that we are living in the midst of “Livingroom Catholicism.”
Now, someone might rightfully object that I am over glamorizing the sciences, needing to emphasize that the daily routine of most scientists involves staring at a computer screen for hours on end with little sense of adventure and exploration. True, but the point I wish to make is that science is never afraid to explore a new frontier, ask a harder question than was asked before, and insist on a precise answer to life’s deepest questions. Do we have the same disposition of heart when we approach our faith life or are we more comfortable with the simple, lukewarm attitude of, “Just be nice, and that’s enough.” This mentality doesn’t square of with Jesus’ call for us to be either hot or cold. Nor does it square with science when, even after a new discovery is made, established truths are tested over and over again to see if there is something new to be learned or if the original premise was true in the first place.
This revisiting of known truth reminds me of the heart of Ignatian Prayer, inviting the prayer to pour over the same Scripture passage time and time again to deepen their understanding of the text. When was the last time you decided to pray with one passage for an entire week to try and deepen your understanding of the Bible? How often have we read one passage from the Bible and simply presumed that the first reading was enough and there was nothing more to learn? Again, I think science can go a long way to help us deepen our faith, enriching it through a desire to delve deeper and deeper into the mystery of our created world.
Does your faith allow for the possibility of adventure? Do you see a potential bridge between faith and science in the willingness to explore new ideas and possibilities in a limitless manner? Has our faith become way to pragmatic for its own good? Pray with these questions this week so, together, we can breath new life into our faith life through the inspiration of the adventurous heart of scientific exploration.