Finding God in the cosmos: an interview with a Vatican astronomer
David Brown, S.J., is a Vatican astronomer specializing in stellar evolution and a native of New Orleans who joined the Society of Jesus in 1991 after earning his B.S. in physics at Texas A&M University. Ordained a priest in 2002, Father Brown completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Oxford in England in 2008.
Father Brown joined the Vatican Observatory in November 2008, working as a research astronomer and serving as caretaker of the telescopes in Castel Gandolfo. He is a member since 2009 of the American Astronomical Society and since 2012 of the International Astronomical Union. On Oct. 2, I interviewed him at Rockhurst High School during a lecture stop in Kansas City. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
How do you reconcile being a Jesuit priest and a scientist, two things which strike some people as contradictory?
They actually aren’t. The church has a great tradition of being a patron of the sciences and arts. The sciences were just a natural part of what the church did. If you look at the medieval universities the church founded in Europe, astronomy and mathematics were a natural part of the curriculum.
‘I’ve always been fascinated with the unknown frontier: outer space, astronauts, black holes, planets and stars,’ Father Brown said.
Then you look at the Vatican Observatory, founded in its earliest incarnation for a very practical reason by Pope Gregory XIII and staffed by astronomers and mathematicians who were already clerics, like Jesuit Father Christopher Clavius, the greatest mathematician of his day. So the church has been doing science for a large part of its history. In that sense, being a priest and scientist is not anything exceptional. It strikes people as exceptional today because of the perceived gap between the worlds of science and of religion. But any cursory glance at the church and its role in culture tells a very different story. For me, it’s a very natural thing to be a priest and scientist.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I’ve always been fascinated with the unknown frontier, including outer space. When I was young, I read books about outer space, astronauts, black holes, planets and stars, space travel. I was the right age when “Star Wars” came out, again pointing to the stars and their mystery, piquing my curiosity and sense of adventure. Also, I loved math and how math was capable of describing phenomena in the universe. The order of the universe fascinated and profoundly affected me.
What inspired you to become a Jesuit priest?
The charism is so beautiful. To use the familiar Jesuit line, I think “finding God in all things” summarizes very well the society’s capacity to enter, via its ministries, into many different environments in this world, from traditional pastoral outlets all the way to working with migrants and refugees, and then at the same time in the universities and the academic apostolates, including even astronomers as part of its tradition. That God can be found in all things means that this creation bears the fingerprint of its creator and thus constitutes a way that we can know and find God.
You have said repeatedly your work as a scientist affirms your faith in God. Can you explain that?
It affirms my faith in God in the sense that, when I look up into the sky or down at whatever data I have, I’m filled with a profound sense of awe for what God has made: its beauty, its mystery, its order.
Who is God to you?
God first is origin and source of all things, the creator. At the same time, God is not just creator and Lord God Almighty, but also friend, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The same God who made the heavens and the earth, and all that lies therein in such a vast cosmos where people might feel very small, at the same time comes to us in a very personal way in the Incarnation through Jesus Christ. Through his words, we can see him and know him, even touch him—as John would say, “what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands”—sacramentally and in so many different ways.
What would you say to people who argue you can’t prove God’s existence?
We have to realize science is a method able to probe and study one slice of the reality of our universe through very precise methods, but by no means does that precise methodology presume to be the definitive word on everything. Obviously, it’s a very powerful way of knowing the truth, and a beautiful way. But the methods of science don’t lend themselves to prove, definitely in the sense of mathematical proof, the existence of God in the way we can demonstrate things from an empirical point of view, though what science explains very much for me already reveals a profound beauty suggestive of God. Who God is in his totality remains beyond those things.
‘God did not hesitate to use the things of this world to make himself known.’
That said, our faith is historically based on the witness of the apostles, so we don’t need things proved scientifically on every count to be able to believe, because our faith is based on the testimony of those who have come before us, of what they saw and encountered.
How do you reconcile the scientific errors of the Bible with its status for believers as God’s revealed truth?
The Bible is not written as a science book, the way we understand science books now, in the sense of giving precise language and methods and up-to-date results. The Bible is the inspired word of God, but written by human beings who had limitations of what they knew of the world when they were writing. They didn’t have open to them the mysteries of the universe in their totality. What God revealed to them wasn’t so much science as God’s plan of salvation more than anything else.
How does being a Jesuit priest inform the way you do science?
From the faith perspective, we can rejoice in the beauty of what science tells us about the universe. Also, being a Jesuit priest gives an added dimension to that, to see how easily the faith perspective is able to blend into the scientific perspective. Even more so, it gives a sacramental way of looking at this universe. If you look at the Incarnation, if God became flesh and blood among us, then God did not hesitate to use the things of this world to make himself known. So to be able to know him through physical things is a beautiful sacramental way of looking at creation that complements one’s scientific output.
How does the way you do science inform your Jesuit priesthood?
One beautiful way of looking at it is the great liturgy of the cosmos, how everything works and moves according to what has been ordained by God. It very much informs my priesthood in the sense that being a priest itself is a participation in the grand cosmic liturgy that revolves around God and worships God.
Why is it wrong to think we must choose to prioritize either scientific or religious truths, rather than holding both together in tension?
It’s wrong to prioritize either because, in the end, all truth comes from God whether it’s physical or spiritual. In the end, if both really are the truth, both must exist in harmony. Of course, getting to the harmony might involve a certain amount of purification, and so you see the tension at times. To paraphrase Pope John Paul II’s line in “Fides et Ratio,” the truth cannot contradict the truth if it is the truth. He also says religion can help guide science to see greater perspective and science can help purify religion from superstition.
Why does the Vatican care about science enough to employ Jesuit scientists to study the cosmos through telescopes in Italy and Tucson, Arizona?
The reason why the church cares about these things is the same reason there’s a Rockhurst High School, a Boston College, a Vatican Observatory. The Observatory is one example in a long church tradition. It’s the pursuit of the truth of God that changes us, but more than just knowing things, it’s about allowing the truth of God to transform us. To know what it means to be a just person, a moral person, has tremendous implications for our approach to justice, economics, the environment.
Astronomy is also one of those sciences that has always lent itself to prompting philosophical and theological questions, existential questions with tremendous bearing on human beings. In more modern times, the church also continues to sponsor the Vatican Observatory in order to show that it supports and encourages the sciences, that there is no conflict.
What scientific projects are you currently working on at the Vatican Observatory?
One project has to do with hot subdwarf stars, thought to evolve from stars in a binary system. The other has to do with pulsating stars, stars whose luminosities change periodically. The question is why do those things do that, and that can tell us about the internal structure of stars. Which is very difficult to do, because when we look at a star like the sun, we see the outside and not the inside.
Like medieval Catholics building a cathedral over many generations, you do this work in the hope that it will benefit posterity?
Yes, the medieval cathedrals were intricate buildings that often took 200 years to build, and likewise the progress of science is measured day to day in small increments. Of course, you have big revolutions whereby science takes a big leap, but the ordinary progress is very quiet like the construction of a cathedral. After a lot of time, you see how much has actually been built.
What do you hope people will take away from your work?
Just something of the beauty of God’s creation and God himself, that we live in a beautiful cosmos.