This past weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at the Northwoods Starfest. Starfest is an annual gathering of astronomy enthusiasts at Hobbs Observatory, located just outside of the town of Fall Creek, Wisconsin. The participants pitch tents for the weekend, bring their telescopes, and enjoy time together sharing their love of astronomy.
I was invited by Mike Brown, an active member of the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS) and friend, to speak on the subject of the Vatican Observatory. Specifically, Mike wanted me discuss the history of the Observatory and the science that is done at the observatory.
Since I am not a Vatican scientist, I utilized many of the wonderful resources that are found on the Vatican Observatory Foundation's YouTube page and the Vatican Observatory's Annual Reports. The end result was a broad overview of how the observatory came into existence and how the research priorities are based upon the personal expertise of the scientists recruited by the Jesuits. All of this is placed under the simple rubric every Pope gives to a new member of the Vatican Observatory: Do good science!
After the presentation was done, I had a wonderful time meeting the participants of Starfest, looking through their telescopes, and getting to know who they are. As I often find when I do these type of presentations, the follow-up is less about how much I know about the science of space and more about a simple implied question that is never directly asked: Can I trust you and do you trust me?
The first barrier to cross in these conversations is getting beyond that fact that I am a Catholic Priest. What I mean is that many people will make a point of clarifying their religious background if they have one. Whether it is the Pentecostal with a Catholic wife, the United Church of Christ Pastor, the atheist son of a Baptist Pastor, or the Mennonite family that was cautiously curious about looking through a telescope, I felt that every conversation I had came back to the same, common theme of trust.
What I find most rewarding when speaking at these events is that once trust is established, doors begin to open to authentic relationship toward a common love of faith and science. It's not that trust is a skeleton key for deep theological reflection or profound scientific investigation, but it reminds me of the basic truth that theology and science are done by human beings in a trusting, open community. Yes, I can take the Bible from my shelf, pray with it, and have insights into scripture that are meaningful. However, when I share these insights with my parish in the context of a homily at Mass, the Bible truly becomes a living, oral tradition of Divine Revelation. In regard to science, I remember Br. Guy telling me, "If it wasn't published, it didn't happen." A scientist can spend time on their own researching different phenomena of the natural world. However, it is in the sharing of this research when science truly takes hold in the context of a community. The common bond of communities of both faith and science is trust that each are honestly and sincerely pursuing truth.
These thoughts came to me as I was giving thanks to God for my conversation with Pete Peloquin, the radio astronomer at Hobbs Observatory. As we began our conversation with a common foundation of Catholicism, Pete explained \what he does with radio astronomy. Pete took great care explaining a new collaboration with another local radio telescope to develop a small array that will allow him to research pulsars. Given the trust we developed with one another, I asked him if he could use the help of a radio telescope novice in this research. Pete pointed me to some good "radio telescope 101" resources with the common goal of helping me learn not only what radio astronomy is, but to do astronomy with him in a meaningful way. Needless to say, I'm very excited!
Trust as the bridge between faith and science. It seems so simple, but when we think about it, isn't that the missing link to almost all aspects of what it means to be human? If trust is not established, nothing can be achieved. Trust is a key foundation to human advancement and development, rooted in a peaceful disposition that affirms we can accomplish more together than apart. To fall into distrust is to breed rivalry in the human heart. It is this distrust and rivalry that leads to violence, war, and many forms of dehumanization. Therefore, trust is not only essential to do good theology and good science, but is necessary to live life well.
Spiritual Exercise: Whether you read this blog as a person of faith, a person of science, or someone who embraces both, how do you feel about trust in your pursuits? Do you embrace the fact that the sincere investigation of truth in faith and science can point us to the same starting point? Have things happened to break trust, making you suspicious of theological or scientific pursuits because of past hurts and wounds? Pray with these questions this week so, together, we can build trust that leads to theological and scientific insight. Who knows: It might just help us become better humans in every aspect of our lives - not just in the debates between faith and science.