NZ Catholic caught up with Pope Francis’ chief stargazer, Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ, the day he flew back to the Vatican from New Zealand on September 13.
Br Guy, the director of the Vatican Observatory, took part in a panel discussion hosted by the Awana Rural Women Group on Great Barrier Island on September 10. The topic was “Is there life out there?”
The answer was an unequivocal “maybe”.
So NZ Catholic asked Br Guy to further illuminate. (This is the first of two Q&A articles featuring Br Guy.)
NZC: Where is Jesus in all of this? I can understand God the Creator in relation to outer space and the universe, but Jesus who came to earth 2000 years ago . . .?
Br Guy: That is a profound question. I’ll tell you a story. When I entered the Jesuits 25 years ago, as part of our novitiate, we reflected a lot on questions like that. The assistant novice master had us in a group and started by asking, “As in the Gospel, who do you say that I am?” It was one of those key moments when the disciples had to decide who is this person that they’re following. And I answered just as you did, “I’m a scientist. I feel a great relationship to God the Father, God the Creator. This is my vision of God. This is who I see when I pray.” And he looked at me funny, and he said, “you do realise you are entering something called the Society of Jesus, not the Society of God the Father”. And that really made me stop and think. It truly was the first step in my becoming a member of the Society of Jesus, not just of God.
So, being a good Jesuit, I will say I have three answers. I can think of one, but by the time I finish talking, I’ll probably come up with three.
The first and the most obvious to me is: In Jesus, God has given the created universe not just his seal of approval [but] his statement that this universe is so good, creation is so good, that I (God), myself, will become a part of it. St Athanasius, back in the year 400’s, wrote a book about the Incarnation that said, “by the Incarnation, the entire universe has been cleansed and quickened”. Cleansed is cleared of dirt. Quickened is the term you use for becoming pregnant. The universe suddenly bears God and most specifically, the Virgin Mary. She is essentially representing the entire universe.
Now, you pull that back to a universe that has a hundred billion planets, around a hundred billion stars and a hundred billion galaxies and you ask, “What is the role of Jesus in that?” There’s actually a very easy, profound and unshakeable answer to that. And the answer is, I don’t know. And I would love to find out. And we will only know if and when the time ever comes when we are able to compare notes with an alien species of an alien world. And I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime.
But the very fact that we ask the question means that we have to be prepared to recognise in Jesus some thing bigger than what you saw originally; the itinerant preacher in a small town in a small village far away and long ago. That is the very recognition the apostles had to come to when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
There’s an English poet, Alice Meynell, who wrote a poem in 1918, Christ in the Universe. And I think it is a brilliant summary of the joy that some day, in some infinite time in the future, maybe even in heaven, we can compare notes and show to the rest of the universe what the Second Person was like when he was here on earth. And that represents probably the most common answer that people expect, which is: There’s one second person but the Incarnation occurs . . . maybe the Word of God who is from the beginning is spoken in different languages, in different places, in different times. There’s even a hint of that in the story of the Good Shepherd where in John’s Gospel version, Jesus ends by saying “I have other sheep” [that do not belong to this fold. John 10:16]. Most scholars assume he is talking about the Gentiles. That’s probably right. But merely listening to that phrase reminds us that we are not the only ones that God is in a relationship with.
The miracle is that because he is God as well as human, he is big enough to be entirely in love with me and at the same time, entirely in love with you and at the same time, entirely in love with a twelve armed green creature in Alpha Centauri. Because God is infinite. God’s love can do what no human love can do.
We don’t know the answer. And it’s also possible we are the only ones, the only intelligent species that ever was or ever will be. I don’t think it’s likely but I can’t say no. And either way, it’s a sobering thought. Either way, it makes you recognise the immensity of God, the significance of the Incarnation. The fact that God did choose to come here. The theologians have a marvellous phrase. They call it, “the scandal of particularity”. God does not love humanity, he loves individuals. God did not come as a sort of vague, amorphous, I [God] am here and everywhere. No, he is in a specific time, in a specific place, in a specific person. This is the way God operates.
The other grand thing about the Incarnation that you learn when you look at other religions, there are many religions that talk about God coming to earth and many stories in the Greeks and the Hindus, but none of them are like the Christians’. The real Jesus is completely different from the myths of the other religions. In particular, [one of the differences is] that God came as a humble infant, not a glorious hero and unmistakable avatar in a cloud of thunder. He could have done that. He didn’t. Because he takes our condition seriously. And he really is fully human.
It’s something that I thought about a lot and I could talk about this for hours because it’s a great question. But I think it fits in brilliantly with the reason we do science and the reason we love creation: because God himself so loved creation that he sent his Son to be part of this.
NZC: Is it being arrogant to view it like this or is it humbling that God loves us so much, out of all others?
Br Guy: It is both. It is humbling and arrogant.
NZC: Say we find life in another galaxy, on another planet, how would that affect our faith?
Br Guy: In a funny way, I think most of us who have thought about it have already adapted our understanding of our faith to accommodate that possibility. They’ve done a survey on most religious believers whether they are evangelicals, Christians or Buddhists [as well as surveying] atheists. The question was, “would finding any extra-terrestrial intelligence confirm or deny your faith?” And everybody said, it would confirm it. It would make us recognise that we were right all along. Even the atheists said, “it would prove I was right all along”. And they usually would say, “oh well, that would prove that everybody else is wrong”, which is very funny.
The fact that we haven’t found life hasn’t made anybody change his mind. So, in a funny way, in terms of turning faith on and off, it won’t change that. But what it can do is allow us to see our faith maybe in a different angle, maybe in an extra richness so that everything we’ve understood until now remains true, but you’ll understand more about it and the understanding becomes richer.
NZC: Is it understanding, though, or just a bias towards what you already believe in and making it fit your paradigm?
Br Guy: It’s a bit of both. I’ll go to the analogy of a married couple. When you’re single, you’re a complete person. You know who you are. You have a view of the world. You are comfortable with yourself. And then you fall in love with this other person who has got a different viewpoint. And because you are in love with that person, you also see the world through that person’s eyes. And that makes the world all the richer. It could be two good friends who could disagree with everything except what is important to argue about.
Living in Rome, there is 2500 years of history, but it really is just a tiny blip in the universe. Sometimes, I get homesick. But if you know the stars, you know you are still home. If we encounter a new thing or a new race, it doesn’t invalidate what we believe in.
NZC: If an alien life is discovered, do they have to be redeemed or is our redemption applicable to them?
Br Guy: The redemption of Jesus is universal. That is a fundamental statement. The best example we can use is what happens when Christians first encountered non-Christians whether it was in the bogs of Ireland or in the new world. Redemption already applied to them, but the fullness of a relationship with God comes to us through the sacraments, through the knowledge of actually what this God is like through the great things that the Church can give us. Will that be the same with an alien race? I . . . Don’t . . . Know. But, if you tell me that we should not talk to them about religion, you are not treating them seriously because religion is one of the important things about us. And if you think we are not going to talk about religion, you don’t know what it means to be intelligent. Inevitably, it will happen. Will we find that they’ve already experienced the Second Person in their own way? That will be fascinating to find out. But if they have intellect and if they have free will, if they are free to make decisions, then sure as shooting, they’ll probably going to need some form of redemption. Whether it has already arrived there or not, I don’t know. But it’s not like they are condemned until we show up.
NZC: Some people might think that God could be an alien being. What would you say to them?
Br Guy: . . . God is not a being. God is not a creature. God is supernatural. And this is a really important thing to always go back and remember because it’s so easy to think of a God like a Zeus, a big fellow with magic powers who lives up there. But that’s not our God. That’s exactly the God that I don’t believe in. The only God that can give meaning to a universe is a God who is not part of the universe but [is] already there at the beginning to create it and who exists outside of space and time and who exists in our space and time only because that God consciously decided to have an Incarnation. So, there’s a temptation of a lot of people, both of fundamentalists of religion and the fundamentalists of science, to use God as one more force alongside of gravity and electricity to explain the things we can’t explain. Why did that happen? Because God did it as if God was a piece of gravity. God is not a piece of gravity. That’s not why we celebrate Mass. (There’s a joke there if you know your physics.) That means that even the astronomy we learn that the universe started 13.7 billion years ago — the Big Bang theory still exists, the theory that was invented by a Catholic priest, by the way, Georges Lemaitre — but that’s not the creation of the universe. The Church fathers knew this. The great scholars of 2000 years ago. Creation is not something that happened once a long time ago.
It’s something that occurs at every instant. God continues to will the continued existence of the universe because God is outside of time. And so even if some new theory comes along to replace the Big Bang and suggests that the universe didn’t have a beginning, so to speak, that doesn’t invalidate creation. Because creation is not under the timeline. Creation is something that allows the timeline to exist.