This past weekend, the readings the Catholic Church used for Mass had a clear apocalyptic overtone. For those of you who are not familiar with apocalyptic literature, it is a series of texts that oftentimes speak of the end of the world. At the same time, we cannot reduce these passages to mere doom and gloom. True apocalyptic literature always points to something from the past, something that is going on in the present, and something that is pointing to the future.
Many who interpret the Book of Revelation fixate on future events, trying to guess when the end of the world will come. Christ, himself, in this weekend's Gospel, dissuades this approach. Rather, we need to stop and first ask, "How would the people of Jesus' time have experienced these texts?" The problem is, living over 2,000 years after these texts were penned, we don't have the common experience of Jesus' time to see the clear connections to what was being addressed in the first century. This is why trying to understand the cultural context of this literature is so key.
There is much, much more that could be said of apocalyptic literature, but one thing that is universal, regardless what interpretive lens you adapt, apocalyptic literature does tend to have the effect of scaring the "H-E-Double Hockey Sticks" out of us. (For those unfamiliar with this "americanism," it's a way of speaking of where we hope none of us end up after dearth for all eternity without.... you know.... using a certain word.)
In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
"At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
"But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever. Daniel 12:1-3
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:24-32)
When we read these passages, it is typical for us to fixate on the darkness of life: Wars, murder, the death of innocence, and cultural polarities. There is merit to gaze into this darkness, but not simply to make sure we occasionally ruin our day. Rather, we gaze into apocalyptic imagery and the sadness of our world to find light and hope.
Years ago, NASA and ESA scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope into what appeared to be a dark, empty part of the night sky. Some even questioned if this exercise was a waste of time, fearing that nothing would be seen other than more dark skies. What was captured was one of the most stunning images ever seen by Hubble. Thousands of unseen galaxies popped out of the darkness like Christmas tree lights. Applying this to our spiritual lives, it's an odd paradox that, sometimes, to allow the light of faith into our hearts, we must first peer deeply into the darkness of our lives, even when it seems there is no light to be found.
This past Wednesday, I shared with my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish's bible study how St. Bede, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, saw these apocalyptic images not as a dark night getting darker with the Sun and Moon losing their light. Rather, he flipped the common interpretation and said that the reason the firmament losses its luminosity was because when the light of Christ enters our world, no other light is perceptible.
For the stars in the day of judgment shall appear obscure, not by any lessening of their own light, but because of the brightness of the true light, that is, of the most high Judge (Jesus Christ) coming upon them; although there is nothing to prevent its being taken to mean, that the sun and moon with all the other heavenly bodies then for a time are really to lose their light, just as we are told was the case with the sun at the time of our Lord’s Passion. But after the day of judgment, when there shall be a new sky and a new earth, then shall happen what Isaiah says: “Moreover, the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold.” (Cantena Aurea - St. Thomas quoting St. Bede - Chapter 13 of Mark)
As the season of Advent approaches, I shared with them that the image of Sun, Moon, and Stars not shining due to the joy of Christ breaking into our broken world is a perfect backdrop for the season of waiting. Also, in the spirit of seeing these images as poetic metaphor, we are to allow the light of Christ to shine through our thoughts, words, and actions, becoming, in the imagery of the prophet Daniel, like the stars of the firmament. As I have shared with you before, we encounter in these texts the true meaning of stars and celestial objects in the Bible: Symbolic of angels and people, of you, of me, and our common call to allow Christ's light to shine through us, waiting in joyful anticipation for the one true light that will chase away all of our darkness.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the "darkened skies" you see in the world today? What are the areas of personal darkness you struggle with and desire the love of God to heal? As we prepare for the beginning of Advent in two weeks, beg the Lord to break into our world with his light of hope. Let us joyfully anticipate the coming of Christ into our hearts to dispel the darkness of sin and illuminate us with the light of forgiveness. And may we allow the light of Christ to shine through us, avoiding the tendency to see apocalyptic literature through the lenses of gloom, darkness, and fear, choosing, instead, the true interpretive lenses of faith, hope, and love.
What is your opinion of global warming? Though this question usually leads to a plethora of dueling political, theological, scientific, and personal ideologies about climate change, most people do believe we should be good stewards of creation. The point of division is what care for creation should look like and how should it be done? The more I write, pray, and reflect on the question of care for creation, I think that one of the struggles of getting on the same page with the environment is the use of a language of extremes to accentuate subtlety of change.
For example, smoking is not allowed in any public building in the state of Wisconsin. When this policy was enacted, there was much debate about the relationship between personal freedom and public health. Years later, while on vacation, I was surprised to learn that smoking is not banned in public buildings in the state of Oregon. When a good friend of mine joined me for a few days in Portland, we observed how each of our hotel rooms clearly carried the remnants of past patrons who smoked, giving us a deep appreciation for Wisconsin's smoking ban. However, we also observed that this "small change" of Wisconsin's smoking ban was far more impactful than we realized. It wasn't until we reentered a "contaminated environment" that we could appreciate a clean environment.
Part of me wonders if this experience of Wisconsin and Oregon is part of the reason why developing ethos to support care for creation is so difficult. When what is experienced by many are "subtle changes" to climate, the full impact of what is happening in creation can often go unnoticed. When attempts to create ethos gravitates toward language of "radical change," I wonder if there is something almost intuitive that questions this language since it seems to be so out of step with daily experience (at least in the state of Wisconsin where fellow blogger Christopher Graney rightly points out the local numbers can be interpreted in a way that questions whether or not global warming is happening in the Badger State).
Could it be that much of the apathy found when trying to promote care for creation is lack of attention to the subtleties of the environment, in contrast to the more culturally fashionable language of radical, diametrically opposed realities dueling with each other? Put another way, can we develop ethos to care for creation by emphasizing the small changes that end up having a major impact on the future of our common home and humanity?
In the weeks to come, I will be exploring these questions in a creative way. Since moving back to Eau Claire, I have had the joy of reconnecting with some of my former students I was teacher and/or chaplain for at Regis Middle and High School. Michaela Pittenger, a middle school student when I left Regis, is now working on a degree in photography (gosh, I'm feeling older than I should). Michaela has a love for artistic photography, is one of my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish, and has a deep passion for ecology and sustainability.
I asked Michaela if she would be open to explore a project with me by taking some of the key principles I have explored in my writing on care for creation and have her bring her artistry as a photographer to those principles to create visual stories based on those principles. She eagerly agreed to this project and tomorrow we will be meeting to see the first stories Michaela has put together based on my writing. I can't wait to see her work!
Basic examples of some of Michaela's Photography
I will be sharing these visual stories of care for creation with you in an attempt to help develop ethos for care for creation not only through words calling for significant change in our daily lives, but images that can draw our mind and heart into the particulars and "smallness" of care for creation. What excites both Micheala and I is that this project wont just be meant to create beautiful pictures, which I'm sure they will be, but to help us be attentive to creation through visual storytelling. Both of us are excited to share these stories with you.
Images inspire inquiry, inquiry builds knowledge, knowledge leads to truth, and truth leads to appreciation and action. This is the trajectory I pray can be developed in these visual stories. Will they accomplish this lofty goal? Time will tell. Nevertheless, my hope it that the efforts Michaela and I put forward in this project will inspire the readers of The Catholic Astronomer to not only embrace care for creation on a personal level, but will inspire you to actively promote this ethic of Catholic Social Teaching in the world you live.
Spiritual Exercise: Is there a story in creation you would like Michaela and I to explore? Leave your suggestions and, together, let us strive to enact positive changes in creation, inspired by attentiveness to the subtle beauty of creation's story.
As a Catholic Priest, there is much in our world that can trouble the soul. Whether it be very public troubles like church scandals or more personal troubles like a parishioner dying of cancer, the twofold ability to both enter into these troubles with Christ's love, but also remove my heart from them has been essential. To state this more plainly, detachment of heart, upholding the dignity of others, and finding an ability to laugh if things start to get a little too heavy!
Unfortunately, there are times when laughter is not only impossible, but would be inappropriate. This past week in the United States, we have dealt with such times whether it be the mailing of bombs to current and past elected officials or the antisemitic assassination of eleven of God's children at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. There is much that can be and should be said to address these tragedies. Unfortunately, in the spirit of the story of Bartimaeus from this last weekends Gospel, though the eyes of many may have physical clarity, the eyes of faith that is to constantly see human dignity in all people made in God's image and likeness is giving way to overtures for power.
I could spill a great deal of ink (or pixels) on these situations, but for the sake of The Catholic Astronomer, I wanted to cast this in light of the power of stability and civility. Whether it be the parishioner in the pew, the friend who calls, or the city leaders I meet, the anger and outrage that come with acts of violence, co-mingled with power structures that minimize the true commentary on these tragedies for the sake of personal gain, regardless of one's political persuasion, creates a blinding emotionalism that prevents our spiritual eyes from seeing clearly how God is present in these tragedies.
Amid this blindness, there needs to be an apolitical starting point in which we stand together as expressions of God's love first, respecting the dignity we are to have for one another, and then, with clarity of mind and sobriety of heart, approach these tragedies from a standpoint of the common good versus maximizing the personal gain for an individual or social ideology.
This cultural emotionalism is not limited to these acts of terrorism and hate, but have become a calling card for much of what I see in the combative tone of the "faith versus science" drama. Amid a manufactured culture of supposed intellectual dualism, the supposed war between faith and science has done much harm to the spiritual stability and civility of those who have fallen into this rabbit hole. What ultimately takes hold isn't a core sense of sound principles to be explored in a mutually respectful investigation into the truth, but a fundamental distrust between people of faith and science, creating an unstable and uncivil starting point for a dysfunctional relationship.
When I think of dysfunctional relationships in my ministry, I initially gravitate toward marriages that are struggling. Regardless of what the struggle may be, the ministerial approach I often take is to find something, anything the couple can trust each other about. When I find that morsel of hope, I then try to find other areas that pertain to the difficulties that are at the heart of the problems of their marriage. All of this is done within the bonds of charity toward one another, charity that isn't always soft, but respectful, transparent, and truly desiring what is best for the other and their marriage.
Whether it be the broken cultures of a country, a couple that has fallen out of love, or the clashes between faith and science, I often times wonder if the first move we need to make is to seek that morsel of hope, finding the one or two things, as simple as they may be, in which we can find trust? Whatever that morsel may be and regardless of how simple it may appear, my prayer today is that trust and dignity can be restored so we can see a return to stability and civility in our world. Let us distance our hearts from the toxic emotionalism that feeds the desire to disregard human dignity. Let us sober our minds and hearts to the fact that every person, regardless of race, gender, country of origin, or state of life is deserving of love, dignity, and respect. And may we embrace this dignity in how we treat one another, personally and communally, on a daily basis.
Spiritual Exercise: What is the morsel of trust that you and I can find together? How can you and I form trust with one another? How can you and I respect each other's dignity? How can you and I voice our outrage for the tragedies of our time in a way that doesn't perpetuate a culture of darkness and distrust, but a culture of faith, hope, and love? Pray with that this week. Pray for our world. Pray for nothing but peace.
Never underestimate the power of perspective!
One of the highlights of my week at St. Olaf Parish is our Wednesday Bible study. While our youth attend faith formation, I offer a Bible study to their parents on the readings for the Sunday ahead. The purpose of this study is twofold. Primarily, I want to give my parishioners the opportunity to reflect on God's word in preparation for the Eucharist. The secondary reason is to get feedback for my homily, ensuring that I speak to the concerns of my flock.
Last Wednesday, we read Mark's telling of James and John asking Jesus for seats of power. The language of, "Lord, let us sit, one on your left and the other on your right," rings with the tone of ancient kings. It indicates that Jesus' disciples didn't quite grasp the full meaning of what in meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. When Jesus responds with the question, "Are you willing to drink the cup I am willing to drink," Jesus is using a turn of phrase from the ancient world that basically implies, "Are you willing to do God's will?" Jesus' affirmation that they will drink of the same cup as he foreshadows both that James and John will do God's will, but will also share in the same suffering Christ will endure.
The interesting twist of this Gospel is that Jesus does imply that there will be people who will sit at his left and right. Who will those people be? One of my parishioners, drawing upon the crucifixion narrative of John, said, "It would be John and Mary." I affirmed that this is a good guess, but we needed to remember that Mary and John are not present at the cross (at least not mentioned) in Mark's account of the crucifixion.
Mark is stating that the ones to sit at his left and right are the two thieves. In the Gospel of Luke, one of those thieves received a great gift after he begged the Lord, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," with Jesus responding, "This day you will be with me in paradise." The true power of the Gospel from this past Sunday is that it is not those who seek worldly power that take the positions of honor next to Jesus, but, rather, it is the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, and those, to quote Pope Francis, who represent the margins of society.
The power of perspective. Two different Gospels. Two different insights into who it may be that sits at Jesus' left and right.
One of the connections between faith and science I've reflected on with you in the past is how the different Gospels can be seen as "filters" to view Jesus' life from a certain perspective. Each Gospel, through its distinct authorship and specific audience, gives us insight into how the followers of Jesus understood his life, death, and resurrection. I find it analogous to how scientists use different types of filters to focus on certain sets of data, revealing a piece of what is true about what is being observed, but also affirming that the filter doesn't tell the whole story.
In a fun, lighthearted way, I was reminded of the power of perspective through filters by subjecting one of my latest paintings to a series of color filters. These filters are not scientific in their design, but artistic. Still, I found it interesting how each filter highlighted different aspects of my painting. None of them were the original, but the power of perspective each filter gave allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for the work. In an odd way, I appreciated my canvas more after altering its image with filters, even though it wasn't quite the same as the original painting.
Since some have shared with me that my paintings remind them of the cloud bands on Jupiter, I decided to take some recent Juno images and wash them through the same filters. Is there scientific data to be found in these filters? Probably not. As with my paintings, these filters are meant for more artistic purposes and even if there was scientific knowledge to be gained, my eyes are not trained to see what that knowledge might be. Nevertheless, these filters do speak to me of how beautiful and wondrous Jupiter can be... from a very, very safe distance!
One of the phrases that is used to describe filtered images is to call them "false images." Yes, the filtered image can look quite different from the original. Yet, when it comes to the science of using filters for the purpose of gathering data, it isn't the the data is "false," but the false image brings forward different essential data that isn't self-evident in the original image. It is the odd irony of science that sometimes you need to have a "false image" to gain true knowledge of what you are studying. The best example of this was a false image from the Pluto flyby that had a rather psychedelic appearance. Everyone knew that this wasn't what Pluto looked like. However, it was an essential image for scientists to understand different surface feature on this fascinating dwarf planet.
In a similar way, someone can point out inconsistencies between the four Gospels, like Mary and John being at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John, but not being present in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some may even want to disregard Scripture due to these "glaring" inaccuracies. However, to approach Scripture in such a way would reduce the Bible to something like a newspaper, only interested in the who, what, when, were, and hows of a story with slight commentary on these facts. (I'm very tempted to explore numerous times when news stories of me didn't get the who, what, when, were, and hows right, making an interpretation of the facts skewed, but we'll save that for another post.)
Christians committed to Scripture know that this is not how one reads the Bible. Since the earliest days of interpreting the Bible, there was a clear understanding that there are multiple genre's of literature in the Bible, requiring different interpretive approaches or "filters" to pull out the true meaning of the Bible. When we draw all this information or "data" together from these varied filters, we get a truer vision of who Jesus is and what it means to be Christian. To only dwell on one book of the Bible or one interpretive lens of Scripture makes it monochrome, rejecting the beautiful richness of God's inspired Word. The Bible is a spiritual kaleidoscope of vibrant contrast, radiant like the most colorful canvases imaginable.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the interpretive lenses or "filters" you use to approach life? Through what filter do you view faith? Through what filter do you view science? Are they filters that set one at odds against the other? Do you use them in a way to help you understand two different approaches to the world we live that can give you a more accurate view of the world? Pray with these questions today, and may all of us, regardless of the "filters" we use to approach life, be inspired by the truth that emerges from the varied ways we approach our world. May we have the courage to explore new perspectives so we can experience the true vibrancy of both the world we live and the God who brought this world into existence.
An interesting topic to discuss with priests is their feelings about marriage preparation. Some priests feel that marriage preparation should take the shape of priestly formation, requiring multiple years of preparation for the Sacrament. Others, such as myself, take the approach that engaged couples that seek the Sacrament are doing the best they can in the situation they are in. Therefore, in the spirit of Pope Francis, the best approach is to accompany them, acknowledge that the situation a couple is in may not be ideal, but invite them to slowly move toward the ideal with God's grace and the support of a community of faith.
Both approaches have merit. It would be wonderful if a married couple would approach the Sacrament with multiple years of formation. I even know some brother priests who have adapted this mentality in their ministry. The couples they have for marriage are very well formed theologically and embrace their faith deeply. The only problem is that these same priests are also the ones who are known for only celebrating one or two weddings a year, if that. This begs the question: If a more rigorous marriage preparation leads to hardly anyone seeking the Sacrament, is the approach really doing what it desires to accomplish?
I have been blessed with anywhere from 10-15 weddings a year. My approach is more, People have a right to marriage and if they approach me to request the Sacrament I error on the side of grace. One reason I embrace this mentality is that it is important for us, as priests, to remember that a couple has a right to marriage, but we, as priests, don't have a right to ordination. Yes, there are impediments to marriage that would make it impossible for the Sacrament to be given. However, these issues are rare and the human person was made for marriage, inspiring me to take more of an accompaniment mentality toward marriage preparation. The downside of this approach is that I can be legitimately criticized for being too soft on couples at times, having to look hard at how many of the couples I walk with toward marriage actually practice their faith after the big day. Amid the many inflammatory attitudes about marriage in our modern culture, I think it safe to say that the questions about marriage are far more numerous than the answers. Put another way, life is messy - therefore, why wouldn't marriage be messy?
Whether you are a priest that thinks that marriage should take on a formation model like seminary or that we should accompany our couples into a fuller understanding marriage, both mentalities would agree that without receptivity to what the Sacrament is, marriage preparation is difficult, if not impossible! This past weekend, I celebrating my first wedding at my new assignment of Saint Olaf Parish. Robert and Leah are a wonderful couple to work with, both receptive to the love they have for one another, the love of God in their lives, and the openness to continue their journey after their wedding day to embrace a loving and fruitful marriage. In short, I wish every marriage I had was as wonderful, beautiful, and open to God's grace as Leah and Robert's - Not only from the standpoint of the celebration it was, but the people they are becoming.
Now, some of you may be asking, "This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with faith and science?" Just as a couple needs a heart of receptivity to accept the grace God desires to give them, so, too, does a dialogue on faith and science need receptivity. Anytime two people enter into an argument, there is often a hardened heart that cares little about receptivity and more about establishing that "I am right and they are wrong." I have seen situations where the heart becomes so hard that the two having an argument will actually flip positions unconsciously, simply because they can't admit that the other person might have a point. It goes without saying, I have seen similar behavior in so-called debates between faith and science - on both sides of the issue.
This aspect of receptivity I am finding more and more a central theme of my ministry as I grow into my priesthood. You can have the best educational resources, the best teachers, the best practices for communicating the faith, but if there isn't a heart of receptivity, the best of everything can be discarded in a moment under the mantra of, "I don't care."
This leads to something that I am finding more and more when approaching the supposed tension between faith and science: The real problem isn't so much intellectual, but relational. It often surprises me when I have people I know and respect say things like, "Fr. James, why would you have friends that aren't Catholic or even Christian?" The short answer is that Jesus was just fine hanging out with just about anyone so why shouldn't I do the same? The more complicated answer is actually a question: Do we allow a cultural bigotry drive a wedge not only between faith and science, but between many factions of the human family?
In the United States, I fear that bigotry has become a social structure. Yes, we need to have honest and forthright discussion on core social issues that, at times, can lead to disagreement and tension. However, the culture of demonization and hate that has developed in the United States is eroding our ability to objectively embrace the old axiom - Love the sinner, hate the sin. Our culture, it seems, is embracing a new axiom - Love everyone until they disagree with you, then do everything you can to destroy their reputation and paint them as a horrible human being.
Therefore, I would put forward that the biggest obstacle to a sincere dialogue on faith and science boils down to reestablishing trust between people of different faiths, disciplines of science, and do so in a way that is rooted in mutual receptivity. Receptivity implies respect, humility, patience, and attentiveness to the thoughts and concerns of another, similar to the hearts of the couple whose marriage I witnessed this past weekend. What we often find now are examples of distrust, bunker-ism (meaning that we only spend time with those who are likeminded and attack anyone who disagrees with us), dismissing other's thoughts and opinions before they are even known, and objectifying others as being nothing more than a collective mentality (those people that believe strange things we should ignore) versus loving expressions of God's creative act that enrich the tapestry of creation and are deserving of love and dignity.
Spiritual Exercise: Take some time and analyze where bigotry might exist in your heart. It isn't the most comfortable of exercises, but if we truly want to bring peace between people of faith and science and the broader culture in which we live, we need to recapture the heart of receptivity that doesn't fear the other for being different, but embraces them as a brother or sister in Christ. Pray with that today, ask God to root out all bigotry in our lives, and may we discover a peaceable, open heart to the Lord and one another, receptive to God's mercy and grace.
Father, how can something so beautiful be so devastating? This question was posed to me by one of my parishioners after Mass. The beauty she spoke of was a stunning NASA image of hurricane Florence. I must admit, I agree with my parishioner that it seems paradoxical that something so beautiful and mesmerizing can also be the source of great devastation and death.
Though this paradox is self-evident, it is also important not to overly moralize this tension. For example, hurricanes are necessary to help relocate tropical air. In some ways, hurricanes are like environmental regulators, helping our common home keep balance. Therefore, if we are seeing stronger and stronger hurricanes, it also means something is out of balance. Perhaps our focus should be less about the power of these storms and explore the question, "Why are these storms getting so strong?"
Serenity and Storm, something we not only experience when gazing upon and/or experiencing hurricanes, but is something we can see throughout our universe. There are few night sky objects I find more beautiful than time laps photos of the Orion Nebula. As Winter approaches, the Northern Hemisphere will be blessed with pristine views of this nebula, ornamenting the sheath of Orion's sword. Whether it be the stunning pinks of self-illuminating gas or the fact that this nebula is a place of star birth, serenity is a fitting word to describe this nebula.
When considering the sobering history of this nebula, created by an exploding star, Storm is one of the more docile terms we can use to describe the Orion Nebula. Yet, these violent star deaths are necessary to create the heavier elements needed for life to exist.Therefore, similar to hurricanes, our tendency to moralize natural phenomena needs to be kept in check since, sometimes, the commingling of beauty and tragedy are necessary for life to evolve. Serenity and Storm, two attributes of a hurricane here on Earth and a star nursery in space.
Recently, I've been rediscovering my love of art. A good friend of mine, Jeni Geisert, sent me some YouTube videos on an art technique called "Dirty Pour." It would take far to long to explain, but the goal of the style is to create bubble like cells on a canvas. As is the case in art, I took from the videos what I liked, discarded what I didn't, and had some fun this past weekend making contemporary art.
As I was working on this canvas, I was sharing the progress on social media. Though I admit that I have a bit of a "love/hate" relationship with social media, I find that parishioners and friends greatly appreciate it when I share things with them that are outside of my ministry such as art, sports, music, and astronomy. It helps humanize priests in a healthy way.
As I was giving daily updates on my painting, Michelle Thaller responded that the flow of paint on the canvas reminded her of Juno images of Jupiter. I wholeheartedly agree with Michelle that there is a deep artistry one can see when looking at Jupiter. The Juno mission has given us a new and deeper appreciation both for the science of the Jovial Giant, and its beauty of clouds, storms, and aurora.
Serenity and Storm are good words to apply to Jupiter. Whether it be the radiation it gives off, the violent storms that are responsible for the iconic "Red Spot," or the gravitational impact on its nearest moon Io, ripping it apart and dooming it to an existence of continually turning itself inside-out through sulfur volcanos, Storm is a fitting term. Still, when one looks at the cloud bands that line up with a natural artistry that is similar to the best of non-representational art and when we learn that the same gravitational forces that torture Io also help "sweep" things like comets away from the inner planets (sometimes), and helps stabilize our orbit, we can see that Serenity and possibly Guardian are good terms to use to describe Jupiter.
After Michelle's observation about my canvas, my thoughts switched from playing with a new art form to prayer. As I poured, pulled, tilted, and stretched the paint on the canvas, I was reminded of the Serenity and Storm of my life and my priesthood. I was reminded of the parents of a two-year-old child who died in his sleep, wanting me to be with them as this child that brought them such serenity and hope was now entangled in the deep storm of his parents' worst nightmares. I was reminded of the serenity that has come from my 15 years of priesthood through the celebration of the Sacraments, connecting with good people of faith, and experiencing unforeseen blessings like writing for The Catholic Astronomer. I also think of difficult times, like funerals for cancer victims, people who chose to take their own lives, and the personal struggles that can come from ministry, pointing to ministerial storms. Needless to say, this painting has become a very fruitful time of prayer and reflection on life, faith, the natural world, and that which binds it all together: Beauty.
Spiritual Exercise: What is the Serenity and Storm of your life? Do you cast them in dualistic, moralized terms or do you see in both serenity and storm something essential to our world and the human experience? Pray with this today so that we may embrace our lives regardless of the joys and difficulties we experience. May all of us see God's presence in both the Serenity and Storm of the day ahead!
I'm happy to share with the readers of The Catholic Astronomer that I will be presiding at Evening Vespers for Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology on November 15th to kick off a new initiative in faith and science. Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, the school that educates the seminarians from my home Diocese of La Crosse who attend Saint Francis Seminary, has been awarded a major grant from The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to make education in science a part of the formation program for future priests.
The President and Rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology, Father Thomas Knoebel, stated that the purpose of this grant will be to help people come closer to God through understanding God's creation.
“This grant affirms Sacred Heart’s position in the Catholic Church as a leading seminary whose graduates serve in dioceses and religious orders throughout the United States, and is thus well-positioned to achieve its project goals.”
“Our primary job is to equip our graduates to help bring people of faith into closer relationships with God. This must take place in a context that accounts for the rich human understanding of His complex world.” (These quotes were taken from the news release from Sacred Heart School of Theology, announcing this grant on July 25, 2018.)
Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, affirmed the importance of bringing science into seminaries since parishioners, regardless of denomination, often seek out their Priest or Pastor for answers on questions of faith and science. "Many people look to their religious leaders for guidance on issues relating to science and technology, even though clergy members may get little exposure to science in their training." (Sacred Heart School of Theology Press Release, July 25, 2018.)
Jennifer's observation speaks true to my experience as a Catholic Priest. The lay faithful often seek their priest out with questions about creation, the age of the universe, evolution, the Big Bang, and a whole host of other questions. The presumption of the parishioner is that we, as priests, are experts on these topics since we have had advanced theological training. As I have reflected with you in the past, though my theological education was quite good, opportunities to understand this theology in light of modern science was rare. In light of this, I not only agree with Dr. Wiseman's statement of how people seek out their faith leaders for clarity on these subjects, but I see these programs as essential to ensure clergy can give the right answers, avoiding the embarrassment of harming people's faith with poorly formed responses to questions of faith and science.
As I have been in dialogue with Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology for this event, I have settled on a presentation theme of, "Attentiveness to Creation, Attentiveness to Christ." The heart of this presentation will reflect on how understanding creation can help us understand God, but also understanding God can given us insight into how we should approach creation. The presentation will touch on cosmology, ecology, sacramental theology, doctrine of God, and Christology.
If I were to present to you or an organization that would benefit from a presentation on faith and science, what would you want me to reflect on? Leave your thoughts and please keep me in your prayers as I prepare to be part of this joyful occasion for Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, and the AAAS.
Here's a video on awe and wonder from the AAAS
A promotional video for Saint Francis Seminary
Father, science made my child an atheist. Now what do I do? One of the challenges and blessings I have received as a priest is to be on both sides of this statement. As the Chaplain of a Catholic Middle and High School, I sat with many a parent through tear stained conversations on how they fear for their child who claims they no longer believe in God. From both my secondary education and university ministry experience, I have spoken with many youth and young adults who have claimed to be atheists, seeking me out to either explore the possibility that God may exist or to validate their new-found beliefs by attempting to provoke a combative argument with a Catholic Priest. This rich tapestry of ministerial experience combined with my love of reflecting on matters of faith and science has helped me develop some best practices on how to address the question: "How does one approach a Christian youth who has fallen away from the Church and claims to be atheist because of science?"
Principle One: Don't Mistake Confusion Or Curiosity For Atheism.
When someone shares with me that they have "lost their faith" and become atheist due to science, the first question I will ask is, "So you have 100% certainty that God does not exist and can demonstrate that to me from science?" The answer I receive to this question is telling of what kind of atheism I'm dealing with, if any type at all. Of the varied responses I receive, the answer is usually some variation of, "Well, no, I can't disprove God and maybe there is a God, but I know it can't be the Christian God."
This answer often leads to a healthy conversation that reveals that the youth really isn't an atheist, but has created many perceptions about God and the Church, most of them wrong, they simply can't accept. Whether it be evolution, the big bang, creationist understandings of Scripture, social issues that involve the Church, and/or a whole host of other issues, I find a simple clarification of what the Church actually believes creates a moment of surprise that the things they don't believe about God are the same things I, a Catholic Priest, don't believe about God. Sometimes this common "disbelief" of who God can't be can open a healthy conversation about who God actually is.
Another answer I sometimes get is, "Father, show me where God is in the universe through the modern sciences and then I will believe God exists!" This statement usually stems from a materialist presumption, thinking that non-material realities cannot exist. Therefore, God must be able to be analyzed according to some type of scientific tool. Since science does not deal with questions of God and non-material realities, to ask me to prove God's existence by using science is a self-contradicting request: How can God be found through science when the very nature of science explicitly states that it isn't equipped to explore questions of God and metaphysical realities? It's a crude analogy, but to try and prove God in such a manner would be equivalent to trying to find the color red in a picture using a filter that removes all possible shades of red - You're looking for a reality that the filter used intentionally excludes. Unfortunately, this type of challenge to prove God through science usually leads to some form of, "We'll just agree to disagree."
Lastly, sometimes youth are just a curious lot and want to question their beliefs. From my experience, it often seems that the sophomore year of high school was the time when most students would begin asking hard questions about their faith. Some of my fellow priest chaplains have called the sophomore year the "loss of soul year." Fueled in part by the normal changes all people go through at this time of life, questioning is not only a typical trait of this age group, but is normal and healthy.
In addition to questioning their faith, young people also experience other transitions in their faith life. I would often hear students say the way they once prayed doesn't seem to work anymore in their sophomore year of high school. They also tend to question more intensely the things their parents taught them at this stage of development. The mid teens is also the time when youth desire more independence. To summarize these traits in an accurate term that isn't always the most complementary, they become sophomoric!
So, what is the antidote of the "loss of soul year" of high school? Simple: They eventually become juniors! Sometimes in life, you just need to walk with your child, bite your lip, and realize you had a sophomore year in high school too! Your rebellion just looked a little different than your child's!
Principle Two: Don't Overreact, But Listen Attentively To Their Concerns.
One of the biggest mistakes any of us can make in ministry or parenting is to overreact. In my first year of being a high school teacher, I had a student who was incredibly engaged with my religion class. They would seek me out after class with a list of questions, express interest in becoming a priest, and seemed to be very active in his faith. Then, one day, he just shut down and wouldn't speak to me or participate in class. I wondered if I said something that offending him. I shared this story with a parent of another student in my class who had an exceptional faith life, asking her what I was doing wrong as a Chaplain? She simply laughed and said, Father, one thing you need to learn about kids is that they can turn on a dime and 90% of the time it has nothing to do with you.
Those words transformed my approach to being a chaplain/teacher, realizing that being patient and not overreacting to a student's bad day was essential to be a good teacher and a good priest. My knee-jerk responses would often lead to misunderstanding and confusion. Further, a knee-jerk overreaction to a child can create a trust barrier in which the inability for the adult to stay levelheaded in the face of their questions naturally makes the child pull away. In other words, never forgot who the child/student is and who the parent/teacher/pastor is when having discussions about faith and science that can irritate sensitivities.
Principle Three: Don't Underestimate The Power Of Church Scandals On A Youth's Faith.
From the perspective of my ministry to young people, I have come to learn a lot about the spiritual temperament of Millennials (the last of which graduated from college last year) and Generation Z (very similar to Millennials, but tend to not take as many life risks as do Millennials). For both generations, there is a built in distrust of social superstructures, especially those that are viewed as sources of moral authority. Given the generational skepticism these groups have, the introduction of abuse scandals, financial corruption, or examples of incompetence in the Church is quickly met with a response of distancing themselves from the superstructure.
The moral compass of Millennials and Gen Z is often rooted in relationships, such as friends, family, teachers, and their local priest/pastor. The Church can be a part of their moral compass, but it is more from the disposition of "I know and trust my Priest, so I trust what he says about God," but will simultaneously maintain a suspicious attitude about religion as a whole. Therefore, we are entering an era of the Church in which we need to get the relationship right in order to get religion right.
Principle Four: The Ultimate Goal Is To Make The Discussion About Faith And Science.
A thread that I hope is self-evident through the previous principles is that most of the obstacles to having a healthy conversation about faith and science have very little to do with the perceived tension between the two. Instead, epic fights between faith and science are often a smoke screen for deeper hurts, wounds, and distrust that people have toward the Church that have little to do with Darwin and Stephen Hawking.
In fact, I find the more emotional someone is with me when voicing their views of faith and science, the more likely the true issue has nothing to do with faith and science. Perhaps it was a priest that was dismissive of them in their youth and, in that hurt, they turned away from God. Perhaps they found their parent's faith to be overbearing and yearned to be free from the weight of feeling forced into a religion they have legitimate questions about. These type of wounds can create a mentality of, "I can't trust the Church because of this experience, therefore, I will question everything the Church stands for (or I think stands for)!" I can't even begin to imagine the deep wounds that have been brought to light with the priest abuse scandal. What impact does clergy sexual abuse or sexual abuse by anyone in the Church have upon a victim's faith? When I pray about these scandals, I am often deeply moved with the thought, "How deep must their faith be to continue to walk through the door of the Church in light of what they have suffered!"
Amid this sea of hurt and distrust, I often find that the first step is not talk about whether or not the Higgs Boson particle should be named the "God particle," but focus on the healing the person really needs. These wounds can run deep, so deep that reentering the Church may not be possible for them, at least at this point of their life. Yet, it is this reality that makes me appreciate more deeply Pope Francis' call for spiritual accompaniment, walking with one another in the Lord. After fifteen years of priesthood, I have come to learn that dealing with questions of faith and science is quite easy - Presuming that is what the question is actually about. Walking with people through the pain of, "This is how I feel hurt and abandoned by God and the Church," is a completely different journey, requiring different "best practices" I will be working on for the rest of my priesthood.
Do you struggle with questions of faith and science or is your heart at peace with this relationship? Are there deep hurts and wounds that you wrestle with, making trust in God and those who minister in God's name rather difficult? Do you know someone who is in desperate need of spiritual accompaniment, yearning for someone to walk with them to not only understand the relationship between faith and science, but find healing from God through someone who will share their faith with them? Pray with these questions. Let us walk with each other in faith. And let us pray that someday the biggest problem the Church will face will simply be honest questions of faith and science instead of the sea of wounds and hurts that often times fuel distrust in the Church. A Church, we pray, experiences healing, reform, and renewal through the grace of God.
In 1990, I was Junior at Amherst High School. I remember the buzz about a new telescope, a space telescope, that promised the deepest, clearest view of the universe. The telescope's name was the Hubble Telescope and was touted as the 90's equivalent of Apollo 11 in terms of historical relevance. Such bravado created high expectations about what the Hubble would see and discover!
Though Hubble was ready to launch before 1990, the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger not only pushed Hubble's timeline back, but called into question (for some) the future of space exploration.
I was twelve years old when Challenger exploded. One of my teaches, Mrs. Marilyn Baker, was a college friend of Sharon Christa McAuliffe. As a sixth grade student at Amherst Elementary, I remember the feelings of confusion over what had happened and concern seeing one of my favorite teachers weep as this tragedy unfolded. The school had rolled out a large television in the hallway to watch the launch and celebrate Mrs. Baker's friend, the first teacher in space! Nobody expected our public celebration would turn into an impromptu vigil for Christa.
I vaguely recall talking with my parents about the day's events when I got home from school. Of the thoughts I remember of that day, I remember wondering, "Perhaps God doesn't want us to explore space?" Thankfully, time revealed this thought to be nothing more than an understandable, adolescent reflexive fear, trying to make sense of the emotions I felt on that horrible day.
Though I can dismiss my childhood fears as a normal pattern of grief, I seem to recall that the Challenger tragedy did create societal worries about launching Hubble. Thankfully, the answers to Challenger's disaster led to clear solutions, resurrecting the space program. Hubble was finally launched, with high expectations, promises of a historic shift in astronomy, answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, and when it was in space and took it's first image... it didn't work properly. In a moment that seemed to be right out of Star Wars when Han Solo tried to engage the hyper-drive, the first image from Hubble was... well... pretty bad!
The presumption of the Hubble was that once we would get outside of our atmosphere, we would have incredible images of space that were not only beautiful, but would unlock the mysteries of our universe. In the spirit of the theme of this series of reflections, it was presumed that astronomy from "down here" was limited and astronomy from "up there" would be nearly unlimited, giving us ultimate answers to ultimate questions. Thankfully, the Hubble's optics issues were resolved and it more than delivered on its expectation of giving us stunning, never before seen views of the universe. Yet, these stunning images created a new problem: All these questions we thought we were going to resolve simply led to new, better, and deeper questions.
As I reflect on this part of astronomy's history, I am reminded of a question I once ask Br. Guy, wondering if all of these advancements pointed to a "Golden Age" of astronomy? His answer was simple and profound, "As long as the human person is willing to look up and ask 'What's out there,' we'll always be in a 'Golden Age' of astronomy!"
A faith connection I see with the Hubble Space Telescope is that in order to get a better understand of our universe, we needed to get "outside of ourselves" to see things more clearly. Since the Earth's atmosphere, the Sun, and other factors impede our ability to gaze upon the universe in a deeper way, getting outside of these limitations is key. Isn't this need for an "outside/in" view true of the human person as well and is core to our spiritual and emotional growth? In order to really understand what it means to be human we need to get outside of ourselves, put ourselves in a place that is unknown to us, and view our lives from a different perspective? When we get this new perspective, it leads to new, better questions about who we are and who God made us to be. Just as astronomy finds itself in a Golden Age when we ask, What is out there, can we also see a Golden Age of faith as long as we continue to ask the question, What is 'In here?' When we get outside of ourselves to reflect from a new perspective, the irony is that it ultimately helps us understand the depths of who we are more clearly and in a deeper, more interesting way.
Since the human person has not ceased to ask the question, What's out there, astronomy has continued to advance. The next big thing in space telescopes to continue the search for what is out there will be the anticipated 2021 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. I think it inappropriate to say the James Webb Space Telescope will make Hubble obsolete. If it does, I'd be happy to request NASA for training in the event it ever ends up on a NASA surplus auction with a chance for me to purchase it! (Sometime tells me there would be a long list of interested buyers that would bid me out rather quickly.) Still, with a life expectancy for Hubble that presumes a retirement sometime between 2030 and 2040, the James Webb Space Telescope truly is the next big thing!
One of James Webb's goals is to try and answer the new questions that have risen due to Hubble's research. Will the James Webb Space Telescope finally help us understand "everything about everything?" My gut, as a non-scientist, is to think that James Webb will do what Hubble did: Give us better, deeper questions, pointing us to a more fascinating understanding of the universe!
Of the many advancements James Webb has that allow it to see deeper into space than the Hubble, two advancements are basic enough for the astronomy novice to understand: The size of the primary mirror and it's distance from the Sun. This mirror size is simple enough to explain. The James Webb Telescope's mirror is bigger than the Hubble's mirror. Telescopes are like "light buckets" and the bigger the "bucket" the more light you can collect. Since James Webb will be looking at incredibly faint objects, the bigger the light bucket the better!
The distance might be a little more confusing for people to understand. The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit the Sun at a distance that is beyond the moon's furthest distance from the Sun. Why is this so? Doesn't that make it impossible to repair if something goes wrong on the telescope as did the Hubble? What's the reward for this risk and why is it being done?
The reason for this distance is rather simple: Heat and light. Since the James Webb is looking at some of the faintest objects in the night sky, heat and light can create big problems in imaging these objects. Therefore, the telescope needs to be far away from the Sun, Earth, and Moon, not allowing their light and heat to impede James Webb's ability to image our universe. For example, I have been toying with the idea of making a small, hobby observatory. If there is one, clear suggestion I see with every home spun observatory, the primary concern is always the same: Make the observatory out of a material that doesn't trap heat that will later be released at night. Just as rising heat can distort the images of my backyard telescope, so, too, does unwanted sunlight distort the faint objects that James Webb will be looking for. I find it interesting how some of the astronomy basics on Earth still have strong foundation with astronomy done in space.
The payoff for this attention given to heat and light will be that the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look deeper than any other telescope in use. Therefore, the continuation of the environment of this Golden Age of astronomy will continue to scratch the cultural itch with the question, What is out there?
Spiritual Exercise: Do you find that the more you get "outside of yourself" the better you understand what is within you? Do you find this inner exploration leads to ultimate answers to ultimate questions or do you develop new, better questions about who you are in God's eyes? Pray with these questions this week and, as we continue to ask, What is out there, may this childlike wonderment continue to forward a true Golden Age of faith and science by exploring both the questions of What is down here? and What do I discover in my innermost being?
Happy Monday everyone!
What is astronomy? I've been playing with this question as I prayerfully prepare for FAW2019. (Reminder, if you want to attend this year's Faith and Astronomy Workshop, click here or on the advertisement to register!)
The professional astronomers who write for The Catholic Astronomer could provide you with a much better definition of astronomy than I. If I asked one of my non-scientist parishioners to answer this question, the response would probably begin with, "Astrology is the... (fill in blank)." After a frustrating moment of clarifying that my love of astronomy is understanding things like why stars explode and has nothing to do with reading palms, the follow-up answer would be some variation of, "Astronomy is that thing you do when you take your telescope outside and look 'up there' from 'down here.'"
At one level, this definition is well and good for the non-scientist, but my pursuit of astronomy has taught me that this definition contains a geocentric bias. If astronomy is only done "down here" on Earth, are we not implying that the only perspective of the universe that matters is from our common home? Though we know the Earth is not the center of the universe, are we not implicitly contributing to a false vision of creation?
Now, in fairness, the vast majority of our ability to do astronomy forces us to look up from down here. Therefore, the "geocentric bias" I reference may be a bit overstated since it's the only perspective we really have at this point. Nevertheless, we have come to see that being able to view the Earth from "up there to down here" has transformed how we see ourselves and our common home. Whether it be the iconic images of the Pale Blue Dot or the Apollo 8 picture of Earth-rise from the Moon, simply changing from where we do astronomy can give us new insight into creation and our place in creation.
When looking at the contributions astronomy has provided for us in 2018, two areas of research have been of greatest interest to me that are "from up there to down here" approaches to astronomy.
- The imaging and forecasting of wildfires in Canada and the West Coast of the United States.
- The monitoring of sea ice levels at the North and South Poles.
Living in the state of Wisconsin, we have been dealing all summer with the wildfires from the West Coast of the United States and western Canada. Whether it be tracking the drift of Carbon Monoxide, studying the impact of wildfires on ecosystems from space, or a global look at the spread of dust and smoke, one can clearly see not only that the Earth is on fire, but also the range of impact these events have on our common home. One only needs to look at the satellite images of these fires to understand the importance of astronomy done from a different perspective.
Though a wild range of interpretation can be found online about the status of global sea ice, the best science of the day points to a gradual decline. What will the long-range impact of this decline be upon our common home? What will happen to global temperatures as sea ice decreases? Since the answers to these questions can often be summarizes in the sentiment, "We're not exactly sure, but we do have some well founded ideas," many use this latitude to platitude political and religious opinions that have very little to do with actual science and more to do with pushing agendas. For others, this gap in what we observe and the interpretation of what this observation means for our future becomes the template for research that is both exciting and concerning.
The excitement comes from the very nature of science to poke and prod at the unanswered questions that arise from human curiosity.
Concern emerges when we realize that some frightening possibilities emerge for our future based on the data.
Though it is true science doesn't have all the answers of where our climate future is going, to use that in a post-modern interpretive frame of "every interpretation of the data is just as legitimate as another regardless of how wildly speculative the interpretation is" simply doesn't hold water. Put another way, a connection I see between faith and science is that the more we grow in legitimate knowledge of our climate, the more we realize how little we know about our climate, just as how growing in knowledge of God points to how ignorant we are in our understand of God.
Nevertheless, the humility we experience in science and theology doesn't mean we know nothing about God and creation. Quite the contrary. It is precisely the knowledge we grow in that makes us more conscience how careful we must be not to participate in inflammatory rhetoric espousing a false certitude of who is God and how creation works.
Next week I'll continue my reflection on "astronomy from out there" versus "astronomy from down here." In the meantime, I would like to get your feedback.
Question: What are the scientific discoveries that have moved you this past year? How have these discoveries shaped how you see the world you live in and how you live in that world? Pray with these questions. Together, may we find through the legitimate exploration of faith and science a deeper understanding of God and the world, even if that understanding teaches us more about what we don't know than what we do know.
Perhaps Catholicism's love of tradition has rubbed off on my family. Maybe it's because we're packrats who refuse to throw much of anything away that attaches us to a past memory. Whatever the reason, my family has a history of patiently wading through hundreds of old family photographs, trying to preserve every memory of our lives by carefully archiving them in three ring bound scrapbooks.
Some of the pictures in these family archives bring about great joy, like family trips to Illinois to visit our favorite cousins. Other images evoke deep emotion, like the sense of adventure I feel every time I look at the picture of my grandmother trying to imitate Emilia Earhart, leaning against my childhood pastor's airplane. Scrapbooks provide us with a clear, visual history of our lives. Yet, they also inspire our future as we prayerfully reflect on who we are by gazing upon images of who we have been.
Yesterday, Br. Guy posted a quick announcement that registration has opened for FAW2019! The Faith and Astronomy Workshop is a wonderful and unique opportunity for those who love their faith and love astronomy to explore these two passions as a part of a community of non-scientist clergy, laypeople, educators, and catechists. Since I have had the privilege of being involved with FAW from the beginning, it feels rewarding that we have enough history to do some FAW scrapbooking of our own, similar to how my family carefully catalogues our past!
The origins of FAW were simple. When I was ordained a priest back in 2003, I felt an inadequacy in my formation on issues of faith and science. Since I loved astronomy and knew of the Vatican Observatory, I contacted Fr. Coyne, then Director of the Observatory, to see if the VO offered any programs for the non-scientist? The answer was a polite no, emphasizing how the VO works primarily in post-doctoral astrophysics, but my idea was good and invited me to check back at a later date to see if anything new had arisen.
Ten years later, I finally got around to writing the follow-up e-mail. Fr. Coyne had retired, so I wrote Br. Guy, asking the same question. His first response brought a smile to my face, "Don't wait ten years between e-mails!" His next response was humbling and invigorating, "We still don't have any programs, but let's make something!" And that something was the Faith and Astronomy Worship (FAW)!
For the first FAW, I was a participant and an annoyingly curious one at that! Br. Guy had told me to hold off on telling people why I was at FAW until my homily at the closing Mass. It was rather awkward when the participants that year would ask me, "So, how did you hear about FAW?" I often pondered how I could tactfully, but honestly answer, "I didn't... I was there from the beginning!" Below is a write-up I did for our Diocesan newspaper on the first Faith and Astronomy Workshop, FAW2015.
In 2016, my role reversed at FAW. I went form being a participant at the Faith and Astronomy Workshop to being a presenter. After being invited by Br. Guy to write for The Catholic Astronomer, he asked if I would be willing to present at FAW2016 on how I integrate faith and astronomy into my parish work. As usual, I was so excited that I tried to put to much into my presentation, focused on the wrong things, and came away feeling like - that... didn't go as well as I hoped. Still, the one point that many of the participants appreciated was when I shared with them, "This is not a program in which you will be spoon-fed tidy answers to questions on faith and science. Rather, you will be thrown into the world of professional astronomy and be asked to apply the faith you bring to these questions. In other words, YOU are the bride between faith and science as we share our thoughts and experiences with each other as a group!"
I think this little nugget of wisdom is important to keep in mind if you are considering going to FAW2019. If you are looking for a week of apologetics, thinking you will learn all the best answers to questions that atheists can throw at a Christian about faith and science, this probably isn't the workshop for you.
Instead, if you embrace the Church's tradition of embracing science and the mission of the Vatican Observatory that doing good science is part of being a good Catholic, then FAW2019 could very well be your workshop!
As conversations, prayer, and friendships develop over the week, your eyes will be opened anew to deeper and deeper questions about faith and science. To put it another way, you will probably come to realize that what you bring to FAW2019 as the pressing issues that interest you might give way to a whole new view of the relationship between faith and science you never knew existed!
To learn more about the Faith and Astronomy Workshop from 2016, I would encourage you to read some of the pieces done by Dennis Sadowski. Dennis joined us for FAW2016 and wrote some wonderful pieces on the workshop. Here are some links to his articles:
- Heavenly Mysteries: Questions of faith, science intersect at astronomy workshop.
- Connecting with cutting edge astronomy.
- Priests find comfort that in studying the universe, they come closer to God.
- This piece is not by Dennis, but a wonderful reflection by FAW Alumni Fr. Sauppe
FAW2017 was an interesting event for me. I came to the workshop rather tired. My Diocese was asking more from me in my ministerial work, making my energy reserves rather low for FAW that year. Still, it was a wonderful week of meeting new people, with new backgrounds, and were looking for different things than did the last FAW group. That's one thing I find fascinating and hard to describe to people about FAW: Every event has been very different because the group dynamics were very different.
The easiest way I can try to explain this dynamic is from my experience as a high school teacher. Every year, each class I had was very, very different. I learned that the best of teachers can pick up on these differences and provide new experiences for their students while communicating the same information year after year. As I learned how to apply these tricks of the trade, I grew in my knowledge and understanding, being attentive to how my students needed to be approached in the process of learning. Why do I mention this in regard to FAW? Part of my excitement of coming back to FAW2019 as a presenter is the unknown of a new group dynamic that will be asking similar, but different questions. As we journey together, not only will I share my journey with them, but they will share their journey with me, inviting me to grow in my understanding of faith and science. In many ways, I go as both presenter and participant!
I could go on, but I'll spare you the lengthy slideshow. I hate long, boring jaunts through someone else's vacation just as much as the next person! Nevertheless, I hope this virtual tour through some of the highlights in my FAW scrapbook was helpful to give you a sense of what a faith and astronomy workshop is about!
In closing, I simply wish to invite you to prayerfully consider joining us in Tucson for FAW2019. It is a unique experience and a rare opportunity to journey alongside professional scientists from the Vatican Observatory and lay people who are friends to the Vatican Observatory Foundation. It will be a wonderful opportunity to explore your questions with the other participants as you search for your own bridges between faith and science. From this standpoint, part of the goal of FAW2019 is for you to see that the faith you bring is an essential part of this journey. And, as we pray together, we ask God to reveal to us, under the beauty of the starry nights of Arizona, a new appreciation of our common home and our place in this vast universe.
To get a taste of what a FAW presentation is like, I would invite you to watch the video below of Dr. Brenda Frye and Br. Guy. Dr. Frye has presented at FAW in the past on the subjects of dark matter and dark energy. They have always been some of my favorite presentations at each FAW! Enjoy and I hope to see you in Tucson!!
Over the past three weeks, I have been invited to speak at two separate science fiction conventions. As I take these requests to prayer, I have been mulling over potential topics. Now, to be clear, I am not someone whose major passion is science fiction. I like science fiction movies, I've read a few books, but I am by no means an expert on the genre. Let's just say, I know what I like and I know what I don't like.
Of the movies that I have seen, I find an interesting and troubling theme that emerges on the future ahead: Dark, mechanical, animalistic, nihilistic, and godless. Dare I say, some of the motion picture "think tanks" that have reflected on our future have tended toward a de-evolution of the human condition versus an evolution into something far more meaningful and beautiful.
Case in point, I was trying to find a good, objective list of the best science fiction movies of all time. Whether it's objective or not, I tend to visit the website, Rotten Tomatoes, since it seems the movies they give high ratings to are usually the movies I end up enjoying the most. When I learned that the top rated science fiction movie was Mad Max: Fury Road, I felt that my hypothesis on the presumption of a dark future might have some merit.
Before I share some of my thoughts on the movie, I find it interesting that the top rated science fiction movie didn't have a script. As odd as it might sound, the only attempt at something resembling a script was the stitching together of many story boards to fuel the intense, raw adrenaline feel of the action scenes, which make up the vast majority of the film. (For an interesting analysis of how Mad Max: Fury Road was written, click here for a writer's analysis of the movie - WARNING: This does contain clips with a good deal of violence in them.)*
As I dug around online, I found that the writing of Mad Max: Fury Road was done more like a graphic novel instead of your classic movie script. This led to my first thought - Is our future moving to more of a visual understanding of reality instead of a written understanding of reality? This resonates with me as I am starting to get into graphic novels that are more than just a bound collection of comic books. One of my favorite graphic novels is titles Here. It's a graphic novel that presents a visual history of the room of a house going back before the room existed, everything that happened in the room after the house was built, and things that happened after the house burned down. It's a fascinating work! (Click here for a review of the book, "Here.")
Though there are many positives I can think of with the rise of visual based story telling, there is also something that concerns me: Mistaking emotionalism for well thought out logic. A movie like Mad Max: Fury Road definitely points to a growing cultural mindset of emotionalism and adrenaline addiction. As I have written and spoken more on matters of faith and science, I can see that there is more of an emotional response to my ideas than rational responses. There is much that can be said of this cultural shift, but I fear that we are becoming a culture of "They who yell loudest are correct." Perhaps it's because I grew up in the rural midwest where there is an implicit introversion to how people approach life, but I was raised more with the mentality, "Those who yell loudest should be trusted the least!" It's an unwritten rural ethic that implies that the best approaches to life are those that are patient, reflected upon, and not done rashly. Are the prophetic voices of science fiction seeing an end to rational discourse and a measured approach to life?
In terms of the movie itself, I will reflect upon two themes that emerge: The disintegration of human dignity and the destruction of our environment. The Mad Max genre is set in a Post-Nuclear War world. Therefore, the "think tank" of the world view is, "What would happen to society after a nuclear war - presuming that some people survive?" As shocking as this might sound, I think that the creators of Mad Max are correct to presume it would lead to cultural chaos and a survivalist mentality. Now, are the particulars of the movie such as turning people into living "blood bags" going to come true? I'd like to think that was more for dramatic flare. However, do the dangers of a culture of barbarism and literal wars over natural resources have merit? Unfortunately, those themes are not futuristic and have already occurred in the world we live. Whether it be disputes over the fertile crescent in the Holy Land or the ongoing chaos between North and South Sudan, we can see concrete foundations for this frightening worldview.
So what does a reflection on Mad Max: Fury Road have to do with a faith and astronomy blog? When I think of how I approach astronomy, it's definitely more of a "visual novel" approach. What I mean is that my first approach is to understand heavenly bodies from my experience of the visual and then develop a story around that experience. As I have grown in my love of astronomy, I have gotten into more of the rational, mechanical, and mathematical aspects of astronomy.
Notice, I did not use the word "scientific" in the previous sentence. I once was someone who thought that science was devoid of an approach to beauty. As I have deepened my understanding of faith and science, I have come to appreciate how beauty does impact a scientist. At the same time, the fact that I can look at the Orion Nebula and be taken by its stunning, eerie, and wispy beauty that reminds me of nonrepresentational art and appreciate the study of chemical composition, star formation, and temperature levels that allow this emission nebula to illuminate itself point to two very different kinds of understanding. I find that it is when both approaches are appreciated, embraced, and respected, we can get a clearer, richer, and more meaningful understanding of the universe we live in. Put another way, we need both the rational and the emotional to be healthy people, healthy scientists, healthy Christians, and a healthy society. To live in a world of pure emotionalism or a world of pure rationalism opens up the door for some very unhealthy developments in our personal lives and society.
Lastly, when I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I was reminded of a statement made by a brother priest while watching a Shakespearian tragedy: This story needs a Savior! As a priest, one would rightly presume that I bristle at the idea of a Godless, nihilistic future. It further saddens me when many of the insertions of faith I do see in science fiction movies these days gravitate toward the controlling, abusive, and oppressive views of religion. In defense of those who are pessimistic about the role of faith in our world, I can understand how people not only think of faith as oppressive, but also undesirable amid devastating revelations of crimes against children by clergy that are abhorrent, disgusting, sinful, and criminal.
I, too, feel sickened when I hear of reports of child sex abuse in the Church. My experience of faith was positive, freeing, life giving, and the priests in my childhood were good men who were my heroes, inspiring me to embrace the priesthood. Different priests showed me how faith was both rational and emotive, thinking and feeling, heady, but still had a heart. They were not perfect men, but their bad days never approached the sickening tales that have been presented to us in the media. And it is the example of these wonderful priests from my youth that I try to emulate in my ministry, though imperfectly, to try and instill hope that not only will faith be a part of our future, but instrumental in allowing for a renaissance of authentic faith, hope, and love, rooted in the love Jesus Christ.
There is much more I could write, but I want to hear from you. Am I on the right path or am I off base? Leave your thoughts below. Who knows, you might spark a great idea that will turn up at a science fiction convention the future! Or, even better, you might continue the long tradition in Christian thought of a sacred conversation about God and the world we live in that helps renew us personally and communally. It is a necessary conversation that can contribute toward a future of optimism, beauty, and peace, versus a world of darkness, despair, and hopelessness.
- *Disclaimer: the creator of the video cited has a commercial at the end to support his channel. My use of his video is in no way an endorsement of his work or an encouragement to subscribe to his page. I simply use his video because it provides great insight into how Mad Max: Fury Road was written.)