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Cosmos and the Dialog between Science and Religion

The new series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is based on the 13-part series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was broadcast in 1980 and hosted by Carl Sagan. The new series airs Sunday nights on Fox, and is rebroadcast Mondays on the National Geographic Channel. I encourage you to watch it and join our Monday Cosmos Café discussions at Adler! The first episode set the stage for the journey, with a brief tour through our vast Universe in space and time. Of course it is a daunting job to do full justice to both the science and the human history of science, and it is perhaps not surprising that the episode takes a one-sided view in its depiction of the interaction between religion and science, particularly in the sequence depicting Bruno’s tragic clash with the Inquisition. 

Etching of the Moon from Giovanni Riccioli's Almagestum Novum: Fr. Giovanni Riccioli SJ and Fr. Francesco Grimaldi SJ were Jesuit scientists who composed an accurate lunar map that is the basis for all modern maps of the Moon. Grimaldi was responsible for the practice of naming lunar regions after astronomers and physicists. Two dozen lunar craters are named for clergy, mostly Jesuits. Adler Collection, QB16 .R53 1651 v.1.

Etching of the Moon from Giovanni Riccioli's Almagestum Novum: Fr. Giovanni Riccioli SJ and Fr. Francesco Grimaldi SJ were Jesuit scientists who composed an accurate lunar map that is the basis for all modern maps of the Moon. Grimaldi was responsible for the practice of naming lunar regions after astronomers and physicists. Two dozen lunar craters are named for clergy, mostly Jesuits. Adler Collection, QB16 .R53 1651 v.1.

Christian theologians actually speculated about the possible existence of multiple worlds with intelligent life for many centuries before Bruno (and weren’t burned at the stake for these views). Of course, such speculations were not “science” as we understand this term today, but since the birth of modern science, many members of the clergy have made significant contributions to science and science education. Indeed, many see science as faith enriching, rather than faith eroding. The motto of the Vatican Observatory, “Deum Creatorum, Venite Adoremus,” reflects the fact that the Jesuit Astronomers who belong to this institution see the study of the Cosmos as an act of worship. (In case your Latin is a bit rusty, the phrase translates as “Come let us adore God the Creator”)

In February, the Adler Planetarium hosted an event with clergy to help us celebrate “Clergy Contributions to Science.” Visitors were able to view posters of Fr. Angelo Secchi, who introduced spectroscopy to astronomy and proposed the first system of classifying stars by their spectra; Fr. Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed the so-called Big Bang theory of the origin of our Universe; Rev. Robert Evans, who holds the world record for discovering supernovae in other galaxies; women in the Society of Ordained Scientists - the list goes on. Clergy participants presented exciting efforts to help their parishioners form bridges between their scientific and religious understandings of the Cosmos. Two retired ministers spoke of their program “Telescopes to Tanzania," which uses astronomy to promote inquiry-based science education. You can hear about an exciting program teaching religion and science across the seminary curriculum at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago by downloading Adler podcast episode 155, and read about the Adler’s event on the Medill Reports website.

By the way, none of the clergy I’ve mentioned feel that an evolving Universe, vast in both time and space, threatens their faith. Quite the opposite – they welcome a rich, profound, and above all, respectful, dialog (not “debate”) on the ways in which science might expand and enrich the way we think about, and speak of, God. After all, science is for everyone!

Written by Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase, astronomer at the Adler Planetarium.

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