Review: God's Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion
By Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Jossey-Bass. 256p $24.95
Published in America, March 10, 2008
By Mark E. Rondeau
A TECHIE'S WORLD OF FAITH
As both an astronomer and a Jesuit, Guy Consolmagno is well situated and qualified to comment on places where faith and science interact. He does not explain the title of his latest book, God’s Mechanics, anywhere in the text, but clearly implies that scientists and engineers study, figure out and manipulate God’s creation. He refers to these scientists and engineers as “techies.”
Consolmagno has impeccable techie credentials himself. He has worked for the Vatican Observatory since 1993. His research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids and the evolution of small solar system bodies. He also curates the Vatican’s meteorite collection.
In his experience, techies are pragmatic, logical and see the world in terms of processes to be understood and jobs to be done. They want to know how things work. They are also rules-oriented and can be susceptible to rigid literalism.
Having set himself a very ambitious task—to reach some conclusions about how a huge group of sophisticated people make sense of religion—Consolmagno takes three different approaches. In the first section, he looks at the problem-solving approaches of techies and applies them to questions surrounding God’s existence; in the second section he recounts and summarizes his interviews with scientists and engineers about religion; in the third part he explains how he himself makes sense of religion.
The author starts by exploring how techies would evaluate three questions basic to human life: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” “What do I want, and why do I want it?” and “How do I make sense of my life?” In this section, Consolmagno relies heavily on traditional theology and arguments for the existence of God. Though his stated intention is not to write apologetics, much in this section—and in the final section—comes across as such. (He even admits later in the book to having drawn heavily on C. S. Lewis.)
Still, Consolmagno writes with humor and insight. Citing several examples, he warns against drawing religious or philosophical conclusions from the best science of one’s day. In essence, science can help explain the “how” questions but not the ultimate “why” questions.
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Hindu astronomy does not prove Hindu cosmology. Kepler’s laws do not prove Kepler’s theology. Scientific observations can appear to be consistent with a certain world view, and some world views can even lead to correct scientific descriptions and laws, but the laws don’t prove the beliefs. Science can’t make that judgment either way.
Not satisfied with theory and conjecture, the author spent six weeks in 2005 interviewing scientists and engineers in northern California. He warns the reader up front that he is neither a professional interviewer nor ethnographer. The results were not exactly what he had expected. Not only did the techies turn out to be much more complex than he thought; they also fooled him by not always thinking the way he does: “The truth is that techies—like most humans—fail badly at being successfully pigeonholed. We’re just too varied.”
Consolmagno does find a trend, in that those who practice a religion seem to be more interested in community and lifestyle issues than in faith and truth. Yet he has a hunch that those he interviewed do indeed care about the “God stuff” but may well lack the philosophical and linguistic tools to describe their religious experiences.
“There would be something wrong if I didn’t have a more elaborated understanding of religion, of the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys,’ than most of my fellow techies are able to achieve,” he writes. This leads him to examine, in the final part of the book, his own experience of religion as a scientist and Jesuit brother.
Though Consolmagno does not say so, his subjects’ inability to be articulate on this subject seems to support the view that most Americans, even those with advanced academic degrees, have a grade-school understanding of religion.
In the book’s final section, Consol-magno covers a regular universe of territory, from reflections on what truth usually looks like, to “essential Christianity,” to examinations of the truth claims of the Apostles’ Creed. It is a whirlwind tour, but along the way he hits the mark more often than he misses.
The author’s take on the doctrine of original sin, for instance, is intriguing. He accepts it as a fact: people often behave in evil ways. But the history of the human race is longer and much more complicated than the Genesis account suggests.
So, as a 21st-century techie, how does Consolmagno deal with such challenges to the traditional doctrine of original sin? He happily throws up his hands and says he doesn’t know—but in fact, he is rather delighted. “Because when this kind of paradox comes up in my own scientific life, which happens all the time, I have learned to recognize such a challenge as a great opportunity to learn something important and new.”
The best part of God’s Mechanics is Consolmagno’s description of a spiritual transformation he underwent as an up-and-coming 27-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1980. He was attending a Back Bay church one Sunday, surrounded by old, poor and homeless people. He realized he did not know them, did not want to know them and did not want to be seen with them. Then he questioned his motives for coming to church: to be with God. And he realized God would be found in precisely such company. Before long he left his research position to serve with the Peace Corps in Kenya.
Despite such moments, however, this book is less than a great read—Consolmagno takes on too much and goes in too many directions: part Christian apologetics, part anecdotal sociological study and part spiritual autobiography. Though well-written and at times fascinating, it is not focused enough for his stated purpose.
I enjoyed God’s Mechanics, although the promise of the book’s subtitle is really answered only in regard to the author himself.
Mark E. Rondeau is the local news and religion editor for the Bennington Banner in Bennington, Vt.