Look to the Heavens: A Conversation with Father Kurzynski

We spoke to Father James Kurzynski, author, priest and hobby astronomer, about the mysteries of faith and the universe.

- Posted on Mar 5, 2019

Father James Kurzynski, priest and hobby astronomer

Why does looking at the night sky inspire in us such wonder and awe? That’s a question Father James Kurzynski has been fascinated with his whole life. A hobby astronomer and priest in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Father Kurzynski was instrumental in the creation of the Vatican Observatory’s first “Faith and Astronomy Workshop,” designed for parish educators interested in learning more about astronomy and the science behind our universe. Father Kurzynski is also the author of the book God’s Canvas: An Exploration of Faith & Science. He recently talked to Mysterious Ways to shed some light on the mysteries of faith and the universe…

How did your interest in astronomy and faith begin?

It started as a kid. I grew up in rural Wisconsin on our family farm. I was really blessed to be born in a very dark part of the state with clear skies where I could see the stars. I was a daydreamer who loved to lie in the backyard and marvel at the beauty of the night sky. I would look at the heavens and be amazed with God’s love for me. The deep connection we share with creation and with God was very self-evident to me as a child when I saw the stars at night. It sparked a lot of questions for me, so I began to grow up on faith and science.

I went on to minor in astronomy in college. When I entered seminary, I wanted to explore some of the classic questions of faith and science, but my seminary didn’t have any classes on that. That’s when I reached out to the Vatican Observatory, and ended up working with them to help create the “Faith and Astronomy Workshop.”

There are many stunning sights in this world that elicit awe and wonder, and make us think of our faith and of God, but it seems that the night sky holds a particularly powerful experience for many. Why do you think that is?

When you look at a night sky and see what seem to be just pinpricks of light in exception to the moon, the honest question you always ask is: What else is out there?

When you begin to look into that, you start to understand the immense distances between our earth and everything else. You start talking about things like billions of light years and the size of our solar system. So it can be a very normal tendency to see ourselves as incredibly small. For some, this leads to a crisis of faith, because unfortunately, a modern presumption is that we need to be significant in proportion to creation to be important in God’s eyes. But Scripture doesn’t support this idea. In fact, it supports the opposite idea. Scripture says that it is in smallness that we find our meaning. It is when we are small that God can lift us up.

The philosopher G.K. Cheserton wrote a sketch in his book Tremendous Trifles that illustrates this well. In it, two friends are each granted a wish. One wishes to become a giant, while one wishes to be made very small. The giant is underwhelmed by the world, which seems tiny from his perspective, and unimpressive. The small man, on the other hand, remains in a constant state of awe and wonder.

What can we make of the tumultuous relationship between science—like astronomy—and religion?

Actually, the original history was that astronomy and faith were very closely connected. It wasn’t until recent day that the fight dimension has taken hold. When you look at the nature of science and faith, they’re not at odds with each other. Science examines the physical world and remains neutral about God and faith. Science doesn’t have the ability to explain everything. The proper relationship between science and faith is as dialogue partners.

It’s one thing to ask, as science does, “How are we here?” But it’s another to ask, “Why do I exist? Why do I feel the need to search for purpose? Why does my life seem to be meaningful?” The calling that we have to ask these questions, to improve ourselves, points us to something beyond ourselves. It shows us that something is calling to us as we’re calling to it.

Are there places in the Bible, or early in Judeo-Christian history, where we can see this close connection?

There’s a clear tradition in scripture of the heavenly bodies being symbolic for people. When we look at the stars we think of God’s promise to Abraham, “Look at the sky and count the stars…that's how numerous your descendants will be.” Here, the stars represent people. Or we think of the dreaming of Joseph and how these eleven stars and the sun and moon bowed down before him. The eleven stars, the sun, and the moon in Joseph's story are his brothers and his mother and father.

There is a distinction between this and astrology, whereby people look to the stars to purportedly predict the future. Sometimes people will question me on this and ask, “What about the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men?” At that time, the wise men weren't part of what we would now consider a Judeo-Christian approach to an understanding of the heavens. They were following to the best of their ability what truth was. They were practicing to the best of their abilities their faith. And at the time of Jesus’ birth, everything, even the natural world, was pointing people to his arrival regardless of what faith or tradition he would have represented.

Why do we think of the sky as the location of heaven?

We can definitely see a logical history of connecting the night sky with the heavens. In our modern context, we don’t hold that. There’s been an evolution in our understanding of heaven. We don’t want to limit heaven to that physical space alone. That would be like limiting God to a physical being in the universe.

Looking at the night sky, though, inspires us to dream of heaven as something far greater than what we perceive. It helps us realize that as magnificent and wondrous as our universe is, God is as mystical and unknown.

How does admiring and exploring our universe point us to God?

The way we know that we have a God who wants us to know him is that we live in a universe that wants to be known. Therefore, the universe has a Creator who also wants to be known. The universe doesn’t have to be comprehensible. It could be made in a way that we couldn’t understand. But it’s so understandable, even in the unknown, that we know that with time and patience, we’ll discover how the universe exists and why it is here.

And so, the universe itself becomes a very strong argument that there has to be something else. It points to something beyond us. This should give us hope and consolation.

Do you think there are other forms of intelligent life in the universe?

To say that we are the only life forms in the universe puts a limit on God’s creative act. I can’t limit him and say that he only created us. There are possibly other created beings out there that could be different from us, and we as people of faith should not be afraid of that.

Can God play the same role in other galaxies?

Yes. Because we are human, our tendency is to reduce God to human traits. We are limited beings and limited in what we can perceive. Our problem is that we also limit God in thinking that he has to have the same limitations that we have as humans. Instead we have to realize that God is not made, but simply is. He exists in such a way that he can be present at everything in the universe simultaneously, and everything—even the smallest particles, planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, and dust—are part of God and essential to God.

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