The American Astronomical Society (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences announced this month that Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno has won the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication about planetary science to the general public. Brother Consolmagno is an astronomer and meteorite expert at the Vatican Observatory. He also serves as their Coordinator for Public Relations. The AAS commended Brother Consolmagno for occupying a “unique position” among astronomers as a “credible spokesperson for scientific honesty within the context of religious belief.”
Did you get that? A Jesuit Brother from the Vatican Observatory won the Carl Sagan Medal. A lot of people would say, “Wow, he’s living proof that science and faith do not conflict.” He is, of course, but look closer. Brother Consolmagno won the award for his scientific achievements and for his ability to communicate. He is a role model for effective evangelization in this modern scientific age.
His approach is to show how he personally lives and works as a scientist who has faith, and his book Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist describes his experience working with other faithful scientists. Scientists, by nature, are not discouraged by incomplete answers, but are driven to search for better answers even if they may never have the complete answer. Scientists are not afraid of mystery. For the faithful, science is actually a form of worship, a way to know the Creator better.
In God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion, Brother Consolmagno develops a point that bears highlighting here. “Techies,” as he calls the technically-minded, want things to make sense. Even if people are not trained scientists, I think this mindset applies to anyone who has grown up in a technological culture and views questions through a technological lens. A young person, for instance, may not be so much interested in the medieval proofs of God as he is interested in knowing how faith will work in his life. There is a difference, Brother Consolmagno says, between the medieval proofs of God and how technically-minded think of proof. Proof, for them, needs evidence. Faith needs to be proposed in a more nuts and bolts, how-to-live-it kind of way.
Furthermore—an often forgotten point—every logical proof starts with axioms. That is, “belief comes before the explanations.” A faithful scientist views science axiomatically as the handiwork of God. He wrote, “In essence, it is not God that you find at the end of your logic; rather, your God is the unshakable axiom that you used when you started your chain of logic.” Thus to a techie, a proof of God’s existence may not prove anything, or it may sound circular. A techie isn’t looking for proof really; he’s looking for confidence. And he (or she) needs to be given space to figure out how faith is going to work. Techies don’t like proselytizing.
This approach to communication is one to emulate. This prestigious Carl Sagan Medal is, well, it is proof that such an approach works. Thank you Brother Guy Consolmagno for your example and leadership.
References and Further Reading:
- Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them, Cambridge University Press; 4 edition (November 14, 2011). With over 100,000 copies sold since first publication, this is one of the most popular astronomy books of all time.
- Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, McGraw-Hill Companies (February 12, 2001). Brother Consolmagno tells the story of his life as a Papal astronomer, from his adventures hunting meteorites in the Antarctic to the quiet contemplation of his daily bread.
- God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion, Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (October 19, 2007). Brother Consolmagno tells the stories of those who identify with the scientific mindset—so-called “techies”—while practicing religion. A full fledged techie himself, he relates some classic philosophical reflections, his interviews with dozens of fellow techies, and his own personal take on his Catholic beliefs to provide, like a set of “worked out sample problems,” the hard data on the challenges and joys of embracing a life of faith as a techie. References to quotes above are specifically on pages 2, 11 and 30.
- To watch him in action, watch his TED talk (this is awesome): “From MIT to Specola Vaticana: Guy Consolmagno at TEDxViadellaConciliazione.”
Image credit: Brother Consolmagno kindly gave me permission to use this photo.
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