Conversations about Science and Faith

by Karen Bellenir

People often wonder about what modern science means to religious people. In their recent book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? ... and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory, Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father Paul Mueller discuss six topics that seem to generate a lot of curiosity. In the book's introduction, Mueller explains "This book is about what it's like when science encounters faith on friendly, mutually respectful terms."

Each of the book's chapters is presented as a conversation between Mueller and Consolmagno, and each discussion takes place in a specific location (some actual and some imaginary). The first chapter addresses the question of creation. It asks, "Biblical Genesis or Scientific Big Bang?" Using the Art Institute of Chicago as their setting, the two authors discuss the distinctive scientific and religious explanations of beginnings. As they wander among the museum's galleries, they talk about diverse styles of painting and examine some famous pieces from different points of view. They establish art as a metaphor in the ongoing quest to understand and interpret both science and Scripture, and they describe various ways of evaluating data while honoring its context.

The next chapter, "What Happened to Poor Pluto?" examines how expanding knowledge leads to changes in how things are discussed, even when the underlying reality remains constant. "What Really Happened to Galileo?" provides historical background regarding the dispute between the famous scientist and the Roman Catholic officials of his day. "What Was the Star of Bethlehem?" presents astronomical guesses and theological conjectures about this famous celestial event. "What's Going to Happen When the World Ends?" places the two conversation partners at a dining table in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (a fictional spot described by Douglas Adams in his The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy). There, they take on questions related to life, death, and finding meaning in the context of scientific progress, technological advances, and religious faith.

The last chapter finally asks the titular question: "Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?" Consolmagno's profound and witty answer (I won't spoil it for you) opens the door to a serious discussion about the ways religious and secular people relate to others when cultures collide. Along the way the two authors talk about communication challenges, interracial tensions, and what it means to be human. Mueller suggests that instead of speculating about baptism, more pertinent queries would ask, "Am I willing to share a meal with ET?" "If I saw ET sick or wounded by the side of the road, would I stop and tend to her needs?" And, "Am I willing to suffer or die for ET?"

Throughout their conversations, Mueller and Consolmagno point out that religion and science both involve a search for truth, and they express faith in an ultimate unity of truth even though knowledge in both realms is currently imperfect. They ask readers, "Do you think that both science and faith should be taken seriously, but you struggle with how to hold science and faith together, with integrity?" If so, they suggest, "Then this book is for you."

Pier Press has added Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? ... and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory, by Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Paul Mueller, SJ, to our bookstore because we agree that both science and faith should be taken seriously and that conversations about important questions can help deepen mutual respect and understanding.