Q&A with Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
and Father Paul Mueller, SJ
Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
…and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory
How did you come up with the concept for this book?
Guy: We really only came to understand, ourselves, what this book was all about by actually writing it.
Paul: Guy and I found ourselves talking a lot, over the last few years, about the peculiar frustration we’d been feeling with the kinds of questions that we get asked here at the Vatican Observatory – questions that people send by e-mail, or ask us when we give public talks. For Guy, that frustration was a long-term thing, since he’s been at the Observatory for 18 years. For me it was a new thing, since I arrived at the Observatory just four years ago, in 2010.
Guy: Some of the questions we kept being asked seemed to be a little “off”. At first, I was tempted to just dismiss them. (Baptizing aliens? Oh, come on…)
Paul: Don’t get us wrong — we’re delighted that people are interested in the Observatory and its work, and we think it’s great that people want to ask us important questions about science and faith. But more often than not, the questions that we get seem to presuppose that there’s some sort of opposition between science and faith. The questions are often posed in such a way that we can’t give an answer without “taking sides” between science and faith. But Guy and I have no interest in “taking sides” — from our perspective, there is no opposition or inconsistency between science and faith.
And so our dilemma was this: If we gave answers to the questions, we’d end up seeming to take sides. And if we didn’t give answers to the questions, we’d be ignoring earnest inquiries from well-intentioned people. We didn’t want to do either of those things. But what to do instead?
Guy: The fact that people kept asking such questions made me realize that there must be something serious and real behind them… if only I could put my finger on what that was. Maybe those questions had hidden assumptions that weren’t quite right. But how could we tease out those assumptions?
Paul: Gradually we realized that the way for us to respond was to start out with the questions that people were asking us. But instead of trying to give answers, we should first try to sharpen and deepen those questions. If we could bring to light some of the assumptions and presuppositions hidden behind the question, then maybe we’d be able to re-pose the questions in a better way. Maybe we’d be able to come up with similar-but-different questions which wouldn’t so much demand an answer as invite people to ponder and to go deeper.
What made you decide to write it as a dialogue?
Paul: Writing the book in dialogue form, as a conversation, left us free to consider questions from various angles, in an informal way.
Guy: At first we tried to smooth it all out into one narrative, but that just drained the life out of what we were saying. Finally, we realized we were speaking in two different voices, we were each telling stories based on our own personal histories.
Paul: And the dialogue format meant that Guy and I would not have to agree with each other all the time!
That format also helped free me up from writing too much like a philosopher; in dialogue with Guy, I’m able to write more like a regular person, I think.
Guy: In fact, we finally realized that dialogue itself was what the book was all about. The thing all writers are told is to “show, not tell.” By writing in dialogue form, we could show how science and religion live together, by showing how the two of us live with our own science and religion.
What is one of the strangest questions you’ve been asked during your careers at the Vatican Observatory —one that didn’t make it onto the pages of this book?
Paul: Once when I was getting a haircut here in Italy, the barber asked me whether the Pope talks with aliens at the Observatory! But you know, lots of strange questions come up in barbershops.
Guy: Someone wanted to know if I was really in touch with aliens. When I told him I was not, he replied, “Ha! I knew you wouldn’t tell me the truth!”
What’s sad are all the people like him who don’t ask questions but who are sure they already know the answers. Unfortunately, the more certain they are, the more likely it’s nonsense. Over the years, some people have e-mailed me offering long, detailed proofs that everything we know about religion is wrong, or everything we know about science is wrong. Others have sent me detailed descriptions of their own interactions with aliens. I really feel for those people; they are in need of the sort of help that no one can give them over the internet.
By contrast, I’ve come to realize that no question is really strange, when it’s being asked in a spirit of inquiry which is truly open. If people really want to know something, and they’re open to being surprised, then their curiosity is always legitimate. A number of questions that people have asked us – and the answers we gave them – have wound up in this book.
Each of the six conversations in the book is portrayed as taking place in a different physical setting…five real and one fictional. How did you decide on these settings?
Guy: That was Paul’s idea, actually. I was skeptical, until I saw how well it worked. In fact, it worked so well that we had to add caveats through the book to remind people that it’s a portrayal, a conceit, a fiction; we didn’t actually travel to Antarctica or the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!
Paul: Once we decided to make use of specific settings, the various locations just popped up for us spontaneously. For talking about Pluto, there’s no place on earth more appropriate than Antarctica – especially since Guy has spent time there. For talking about the end of the Universe, it was obvious to me that we had to be dining at the fictional Restaurant at the End of the Universe, from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a book which, in its own cynical way, does a wonderful job of uncovering some of the presuppositions and assumptions hidden behind questions that people like to ask.
What was your initial reaction when Pope Francis discussed the possibility of baptizing Martians in a homily in May of 2014?
Guy: I had to laugh. I knew what he was driving at, of course; but I also knew how some people would immediately take it in the wrong direction, as if he were saying we should actually be baptizing Martians. Sure enough, pretty soon there were all sorts of rumors on the internet that a Papal announcement about aliens was imminent!
Paul: Of course that was not the Pope’s intention. His main topic was the controversy in early Christianity, as to whether people had to become Jews first before they could be baptized as Christians. The early Christians ultimately came to realize that the message of Christ is universal – it is open to all people, not just to the Jews. So the point that Pope Francis was making was mainly about the universality of the Christian message, not about Martians. He was using the question about baptizing Martians to illustrate how difficult and strange the question of the universality of the Christian faith was for the early Church.
Guy: And by the way, despite its title, our book is not mainly about extraterrestrials, either. It is mainly about us humans, and how we view ourselves in this universe.
What is the coolest part of your job?
Paul: I get to live and work with a bunch of working scientists. My field is history and philosophy of science. But living here at the Vatican Observatory, on a daily basis I get pulled up short by being challenged to see and hear how things look from perspective of working scientists. That’s a good corrective for me in my own work and research. It helps keep me focused on questions that matter in the real world of science, instead of on questions that matter only to philosophers. I like that!
Another cool thing is that the scientists with whom I live and work are all people of faith – people for whom faith and science coexist without conflict and without difficulty. I like that, too!
Guy: For me… it’s that I get to handle meteorites on a daily basis. I get to hold in my hand, rocks that have been around since the beginning of the solar system, four and a half billion years ago; rocks that have been in outer space!
Where is the best place to get a cappuccino in the Vatican?
Paul: The most congenial place for a cappuccino is the coffee room of the Vatican Observatory!
Guy: We have our own full-up industrial strength cappuccino machine here at the Observatory. All astronomy runs on coffee; especially in Italy.
Paul: Every morning at 10AM all the Jesuits and lay staff members of the Observatory come together for 15 minutes of caffeinated conversation. During my first year at the Observatory, the 10AM coffee time was a struggle for me — my Italian was not yet to the point that I could take part in the conversation. But now I look forward to coffee time every day.
Guy: The Observatory is actually located an hour outside of Rome, in the papal summer gardens at Castel Gandolfo. So we don’t actually get cappuccino in the Vatican itself. That said, I do like the coffee shop in the Vatican museums; it’s right near the Pinacoteca, which is the most underrated part of the Vatican Museums and which has some wonderful old paintings of astronomical objects from the 1700s.