When Worlds Collide: Watching ‘Cosmos’ with my daughter
At the vernal equinox, the day when the earth’s equator passes the center of the sun, signaling the official end of our first long and brutal northern Michigan winter, our kitten, Bonny Kate, gave birth to a litter of six. We had noticed she was getting a little round in the belly. So were we, after many long weeks indoors. But we didn’t realize she was actually pregnant—to the glee of my 8-year-old daughter and every other child on our block—until I took her to the vet about a week before she delivered.
I had thought she was too young to get pregnant. Forgive me; I watched a lot of MTV growing up instead of playing outside, and we weren’t allowed indoor pets. As a naturalist, I’m very late to the party. But Bonny had never been in heat. It was the dead of winter. We were buried under 196 inches of snow. She rarely went outside for more than a couple of minutes.
My husband and I were briefly ashamed to be those irresponsible pet owners who hadn’t spayed their cat, but then we embraced the teachable moment. Our kids, ages 8 and 3, would witness the miracle of new life firsthand. Our daughter would get to raise a litter of kittens at an age when such an experience is equivalent to catching a leprechaun. When she woke up on the first day of spring to find six tiny kittens happily nursing in her closet, and the whole family gathered there to admire the perfect design of God’s creation, we felt like pretty awesome parents.
But then, later, she came home from second grade, flung her backpack on the dining room table and said, with disturbing nonchalance, “Did you know that the story of Adam and Eve is made up and we are really descended from apes?” I stood there gaping for a moment and sputtered something like, “Well, maybe it’s not literally true, but it’s the great creation story of our religion, like Odin was to the Norse, and it’s how ancient people made sense of the mystery of creation, and anyway, who said we’re descended from apes? We might have a common ancestor, but we’re not descended from apes.” To which she responded, “Right. Can I have a pickle?”
I am not a creationist or a biblical literalist. I accept evolution, but I believe truth shines through stories, including the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. I figured we would have a talk about evolution at some point in the distant future, but honestly, I found it all a little dull and hoped I could just leave it to her science teachers. I had not expected those teachers to be as dismissive of religion as I had been of the scientific facts. I thought we would all just play in our own yards and respectfully ignore each other. I followed my daughter out of the kitchen in a mild panic. Had she dismissed Christianity as just another tall tale, and lumped Jesus in with Balder and Frodo?
I’ve shared many different creation myths with my children, always stressing that we believe in one God who made us in his image and likeness. But by leaving science out of the story, I’d missed my chance to present its relationship to religion as I think it should be: a healthy, Catholic both/and instead of an antagonistic, legalistic either/or.
“You know Jesus is not just another fairy tale, right? That he’s a real person, and the greatest part about the Christian story is that it’s true?” I said.
“Mmhmm,” she said, crunching her pickle, already skipping on to the next thing.
Enjoying the Show
Just a couple of weeks before this revelation in the kitchen, “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” the reboot of the classic Carl Sagan show, debuted on Fox. I had watched the first episode with the skepticism of a religion snob, rolling my eyes at the distorted depiction of Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science at the hands of a stereotypically barbaric and ignorant church, feeling disappointed but at the same time satisfied that everything I thought about science-types was true—they’re killjoy atheists out to discredit religion and strip the world of mystery. They want to replace Truth with facts and have the final word on all life’s most important questions.
But we kept watching, because my daughter, innocent of the culture wars, was enthralled. While I was feeling all jittery, psychic alarms ringing at every perceived attack on the religious worldview, she sat by my side, wide-eyed and silent. When it was over she turned to me and said, “Can we watch it again?”
She loved seeing how scientists build on each other’s knowledge, and how work begun by one person living hundreds of years ago might be taken up and carried on by someone else today. Like many 8-year-olds, she is a natural inventor, and she loved the idea that sometimes innovation requires not just intelligence but huge leaps of imagination and faith. Most of all, she loved Sir Isaac Newton, depicted in one of the show’s animated segments as a distracted student and hot-tempered redhead (like her), who is befriended by a kind, reasonable chap (Sir Edmond Halley) who encourages him, defends his honor against a mean bully (Sir Robert Hooke) and helps him make history by publishing the Principia Mathematica.
The irritating potshots “Cosmos” takes at the religious worldview—and there were several—didn’t register with her at all; she still takes the existence of God as a given. In her mind, there is not yet a firm distinction between science and religion. In fact, her religious sense is at least partly what makes “Cosmos” so appealing and accessible to her. Ultimately the show is telling the same kinds of stories we have been telling at home and at church—stories about the hunger for truth, and how the importance of building on established tradition, believing in what we can’t see and being in relationship with each other are all essential to progress toward that truth.
The show’s host, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, has described its mission as “to present science with all of its glory and the majesty and the mystery and the wonder—the things we all take for granted as children.” Glory, majesty, mystery, wonder—this is the vocabulary of religion. Replace the word “science” with “God” in that sentence and you have my mission as a Catholic parent. Tyson also said that children are naturally interested in science if they are not discouraged from exploration. In my experience, the same is true about their natural inclination toward religion.
“Cosmos” is too quick to dismiss religion as a miscalculation, as superstition held over from our pre-enlightened days or even as an evolutionary mistake that we should seek to correct. But I am equally guilty of assuming that science has nothing to offer my religious imagination. Do we really have nothing to say to each other? Tyson himself has referred approvingly to a time when “science and religion kind of coexisted under the same roof.” In my daughter’s mind, that time is now. I’d been worried about what would happen when science and religion met, unaware that they were already happily cohabiting in her imagination. I want that relationship to grow deeper and richer, not to wither.
Humans are hard-wired to come together to search for truth, whether in a lab or a lecture hall, in church, in great books, in the Bible or in front of the TV watching “Cosmos.” There is scientific evidence to support the theory that this searching—together—has been essential to human survival. “When you look at the depth of our evolutionary history, and the fact that we were made to relate, that is where anthropology and theology come together,” says Barbara J. King, anthropologist and author of Evolving God. “Not only is it a survival technique to come together as a social group, but especially to come together around the mysteries of life—that is very much part of us and helped us survive.”
In an interview about science education, Tyson claimed that a lack of curiosity is the biggest roadblock to progress and argued that we are stifling our children’s exploration by imposing too many boundaries.
“Kids should be allowed to break stuff more often,” he said. “That’s a consequence of exploration. Exploration is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be discovering anything.”
The encouragement of our children’s natural curiosity about the truth of human existence is just as important to the development of their faith, and so is coming together to seek it. No matter which camp you’re in, science or religion, ignoring one another is not part of the plan.
In Praise of New Life
The kittens are six weeks old now and pursuing their own natural curiosity all over my house, ignoring any boundaries I try to enforce. My daughter named her two favorites Newton and Halley, and I have heard her pretending they’re arguing with each other about the law of gravity, which Newton the kitten discovered after getting stuck in a tree.
I know some would see our failure to spay Bonny as unwise and even reckless, but when I think about the kittens, I think of Tyson saying we should let kids break stuff. Sometimes the biggest and best discoveries are the results of mistakes and happy accidents, of remaining open to possibility and letting an experiment run its course. I have no idea how this event will shape my daughter’s imagination, her intellect and her understanding of how God works in the world, but I think it’s safe to say it will.
I had worried about the chaos this living experiment would bring. It was only with reluctance that I allowed nature into our house in the first place. One cat was one too many for me. But aside from the strange places Bonny has chosen to nest, including my underwear drawer and the box springs of our beds, I have been surprised by how little they have inconvenienced me, how much I have learned and the pure pleasure I’ve taken in watching them grow. Little Bonny has proven herself a fine mother, calmly delivering each kit, biting off and eating their amniotic sacs and roughly massaging them to life, moving them to more secluded spaces when she felt threatened by visitors. Over the weeks we have watched her young open their eyes and find their feet. When their hearing developed they began to look for us when we called them. Now they know when we’re coming down the basement stairs and bound around the corner to greet us.
Meanwhile our home has become the social center of the boarding school where my husband works, which seems to have woken at last from a long hibernation. We are new here, and we’ve often felt lonely and unsure. But now our doorbell rings several times a day, and people of all ages—students and their parents, teachers and their children—want to know, “Is this the house with the kittens?” We invite them in and show them to the basement. On sunny days we gather in the yard to cuddle the kittens and watch them play, enjoying the warmer temperatures and a sense of nature unfolding around us, drawing us into communion.