Vatican star man speaks of God, black holes and hope

1 Br Guy speaks b

Vatican Observatory director Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ, made a big splash all
over New Zealand recently and NZ Catholic had a chance to catch up with him.
Part I of our interview with him shows how faith and science combined in a man who wears both a collar and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ring (which, he said, people have tried to kiss so many times).

NZC: Why are you saying God is too small?

Br Guy: The phrase really comes from a comment Chris Corbally, who is a Jesuit astronomer who works in our group. We had an interview where I was posing to him questions that I get all the time.

One of the things that happens when you look at the universe as an astronomer is you start dealing with astronomical distances; the immensity of the universe, the immensity of the distances between the stars, and then the immensity of the numbers of stars and numbers of galaxies of stars. For a lot of people, this gets very frightening because we live our lives here on planet earth where this building we are in seems pretty big and, yet, this building is nothing compared to the city, which is nothing compared to the country, which is nothing compared to the planet etc., etc. They are afraid that they’ll get lost, that God won’t find them. How do you deal with that?

The irony, of course, is that it’s not modern astronomy that tells us this because you find this is Psalm 8 where the psalmist says “Lord, you made the heavens and the stars and what is man that you care for us? And yet, you seem to have made us just little less than a god”. The psalmist merely states the fact with amazement.

Chris Corbally had a better way of phrasing it, I thought. He said, “if you are afraid that God can’t find you then your God is too small”. A God who is big enough to make the universe is a God who is big enough to be able to hold each of us in his full attention.

That is what the word infinite means. And so the reaction to the immensity of the universe should be, rather than saying “the universe is so big and I am too small, God can’t find me”, is to say “the universe is too big and I’m too small — the fact that God finds me tells me how big God really is”. If you don’t feel that, if you can’t believe that, then your God is too small.

Astronomy is a place where I get to spend time with God, with creation and, by that extension, with the Creator. And it’s spending time that not only fulfils us intellectually (Ah, now I understand), but it fulfils the emotional love: the joy that I feel when I look at the universe, the joy that I feel when I’ve understood finally a little corner of science. For me that joy is the evidence of God’s presence because God is the source of joy. God is love. If I’m loving the universe then I’m finding God in that universe.

NZC: Recently, we had scientists release a photo of a black hole. When you see discoveries like that, what is your reaction?

Br Guy: As a scientist, when I see these discoveries, what I think of immediately is: who are the people who did that? More often than not, because it’s a small world, somebody on that team is somebody I know, somebody I was in class with [or] somebody I met at a meeting. I’m delighted for them, because I know when you make a wonderful discovery, when you make a breakthrough, that’s when you feel closer to God. That’s where you feel that you’ve pulled back the curtain a little bit. It’s not that I’m finding God by looking through a curtain, but I’m seeing them having
the joy of seeing a glimpse of God.

The black hole image, the head of the science team, is Heino Falcke. Heino and I were students in 1993 at the Vatican Summer School. So, I know Heino and I know his family. He showed up during summer school. His wife and baby daughter came up to visit in Rome. Well, the baby daughter is now nearly 30 years old. When I happened to be in Brussels, he invited me for
a meeting and he invited me to the press conference when they revealed the picture. So, there is this personal connection to the discovery. I associate every discovery not to an equation or a factoid, but to the person. And there is this sense of happiness for them.

Every discovery is a small stone that goes to building the cathedral. And you really only appreciate what the discovery really means after you’ve gotten used to it, after you’ve lived with it for so many years. The significance of it may be some place that we don’t recognise yet. And so, I don’t put too much weight on any interpretation of the discovery. Because I know, it’s a seedling. I know it’s going to be a tree someday and it’s exciting. But I know it’s only a seedling and not a tree yet.

NZC: Scientists say the sun is going to be a giant red ball in about five billion years. Can a Christian believe this will happen and believe in the second coming and a new heaven and earth?

Br Guy: Absolutely! The way you believe this is to recognise that earth is not just our planet. The very word “world” has different meanings. Sometimes, we translate it as “world”, when, in fact, the Greek word was cosmos. When people were writing the Scriptures, the planet seemed to be the whole universe. That’s all they knew.

We don’t know what the second coming is going to be. We don’t know how the universe is going to end. A scientist can describe pretty well the Big Bang (theory) and what happened to the Big Bang because we have data. We can look with our telescope to the past. The farther away it is, the longer it’s taken the light to get to us. We have elements in our hands, in our labs, that were formed in the past.

We have no data from the future. The best we can do is say, well, if this goes on . . . but of course, this never goes on quite the way we expect it. One of the ways we can expect the sun turns into a red giant is that we do see right now other stars that have done that. So, that seems to be pretty confident. But in the far distant universe, when all the matter of the universe that we can know of is consumed in stars, that is so far beyond our comprehension in space, in time, in what it’s going to be like that the best we can do is wave our hands and not be sure we know.

One thing we can’t do (and one thing why this is really a good question): the temptation is to say the life to come, the second coming is all spiritual. It’s all on a plane other than that physical universe. That we don’t have to worry what happens to the physical universe, because heaven is something different. Heaven is something different and yet, I think, it is a key part of the Christian faith to say that the physical created universe is important. That it has significance.

John Polkinghorne, who is a physicist and an Anglican priest, had a wonderful phrase about ourselves and our lives as physical creatures in this universe. He says we are not apprentice angels. Which is to say, we are not spirits trapped in these stupid bodies that we are just waiting to get rid of. No! These bodies are who we are.

God created us as material mortal beings and then not only promised us eternal life, but gave us an example of it in Jesus. So, as a scientist, I always have to say, regardless of whether my theory can explain it, if it happened, it can happen. People argue, can meteorites come from Mars? Well, we got the meteorites and they came from Mars, so I guess they can. Can people rise from the dead? Well, Jesus did. It did happen. So, it can happen. How does it happen? Beats the heck out of me. And yet, the importance of the physical universe is important to us now. It’s the root of the worries about ecology, the worries about taking care of the planet, the worries of taking care of each other. It’s not sufficient to see a dying child and say, I’ll baptise him and let God take care of him. No. That physical child has an importance and a dignity in life given to it by God. Death is a tragedy and has meaning. There was a philosopher who once compared the death of Socrates to the death of Jesus. Socrates said, “well, I’ve got a soul and it’s immortal, so I can drink the poison. See you all later”. Jesus, faced with death, was not so philosophical, but recognised that death and suffering is real and has meaning. As we human beings face suffering and death, it’s interesting to note that we have a God who has been there.

So, how does this tie-in with the end of the universe? I don’t know. I don’t have a glib answer. But, in thinking about the question, it causes me to go back and try to understand what the meaning of the universe is. There’s a phrase in Scripture that helps me. Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away. How is it possible for “word” to continue?

“Word” is a concept, it’s an idea. It’s something that exists in the physical world and yet, is not itself material. Just as love itself is real even though you cannot slice it, dice it and package it. At the end of the day, Jesus comes to us: the Risen Lord, in a physical body, doing things that no physical body that we know can do like showing up in locked rooms and yet also having a nice fish dinner. What a wonderful mystery!

NZC: There was a recent flat-earthers conference here in New Zealand. Why do you think there is a resurgence of people believing the earth is flat?

Br Guy: Oh my goodness, you just have to look at the stars! It [constellation] is upside down. How do you explain that if the earth is flat? Why do they want this? What drives people to believe ridiculous things?

There is no new sin. It’s a sin of pride. No one wants to be told what to believe. What they are really interested in is not the shape of the earth, but their status. They want to be seen as being smarter than everyone else. The irony is the truly smart people that I’ve met don’t feel they have to prove anything.

The popularity of an idea is important. If I do a mathematical sum and I come up with seven, and everybody in class who does the sum comes up with 70, I’m going to guess I’m probably wrong. It takes humility to be able to say, alright, I’ll look for my mistake. Every now and then, it turns out that everybody else made the mistake and I didn’t, but that happens so rarely that your first assumption is not going to be that that’s what’s going on.

At the end of the day, we can’t prove everything is right. I can’t go around proving that world is round. I can’t go proving that vaccines work. I have to put trust in authority. I have to put trust into people whom I can trust.

There is something very appealing to our broken human nature to want to say I’m smarter than everybody else. Everybody may think it’s this way, but I’m going to believe it’s the other. It makes no difference in your life at all. Most people who believe the earth is flat, it [their belief] doesn’t change the way they live. So, if it doesn’t change the way they live or what they do, what difference does it make? Why do they care about it so much? They care about it not because they are worried about what the shape of the earth is, but that you’ll think they are smarter than you.

I think this is an important thing for people of faith to recognise that, when we describe why we are people of faith, it can never be because this makes me a better person than you. This makes me cleverer than you. This makes me closer to God than you. Because then, you are falling into the same trap as the flat-earthers. There’s a word for this. It’s called Gnosticism. And the ancient Romans had a whole philosophy that “I’m in the know”. I’ve got this secret knowledge. There are various traits of knowledge going back into Gnosticism. People try to keep it secret.

This flat-earthers society convention, was it free to get into or did you have to pay? (Entrance fees from $50 for a student to $999 for six persons). More often than not, they want to charge you money to get the secret knowledge. They don’t want everybody else to have it because if everybody agreed with them, it won’t be fun anymore. If everybody agreed with me, then how can I show them that, by believing in this, I’m smarter than everyone?

And that’s a danger also for people of faith — to be complacent and smug. When, in fact, if there really is a God and God really has an interest in who I am and what I am doing, then smugness is the exact opposite of the way I should feel. What I should feel is, that classic phrase, fear of the Lord, not smugness in the Lord. Fear in the sense of awe. Fear in the sense of, I’m faced with something that is outside of my comfort zone, as the cliché goes.

A belief in God should make you uncomfortable, even as it gives you hope for comfort. One of my nonbeliever friends said, oh, I guess, believing in God gives you comfort. And a friend of mine who was a Catholic said, “Comfort? Hell!” If you believe in a God and you believe in the possibility of a hell, then, that’s not comfortable at all, because it means that the things we do really matter.

So, our beliefs shouldn’t make us smug, shouldn’t make us comfortable, they shouldn’t make us think we are better that everyone else. And yet they hold up hope that there is comfort and that there is knowledge and that it’s available to everybody. You don’t have to be smart to be saved. You don’t have to be clever. You don’t have to be hardworking. You don’t have to be better than everybody else. [That] puts a whole different spin on it.

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Rowena Orejana

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