Stargazing with a Georgetown Jesuit

A Jesuit priest and historian of medieval Germany talks about astronomy, nature, music, service—and faith.

Source: The American Interest

In our recent letter to readers on COVID-19, we wrote that we hoped TAI could offer an oasis in these troubled times, with culture writing that “is not so much diversion as nourishment.” In that spirit, TAI will be interviewing members of its community (and beyond) who we believe embody well-rounded lives of service and achievement.

This week, Father David J. Collins—a Jesuit priest and history professor at Georgetown University—speaks with TAI about his lifelong exploration of faith, science, and history. Coming soon: an interview with Robert Shafer, the Grammy-winning conductor, composer, and artistic director of the City Choir of Washington.

Jeffrey Gedmin for TAI: You have a passion for astronomy. How did this come about?

David Collins: It started academically. I was finishing up a project in Medieval History and moving to a new one, studying the intersection of magic and science. A lot of those writings had to do with the influence of celestial objects on human society and the world—everything from the tides and the harvesting of crops to human personality.

The more I read, the more I was struck by how familiar these authors were with the movement of stars, the moon, and the sun, and their effects on the cycle of life. I wanted to learn the practical side of that. Meanwhile, I was reading these materials with students, who had the same lack of familiarity. All this inspired my own curiosity to learn the basics of stargazing and astronomy.

My grandfather, who was a small-time farmer, had actually made a telescope in the 1950s, so I tried to track it down. Long story short, I found nothing left of it except for a scratched-up mirror, which I took into a workshop up the street from Georgetown University. It was like walking into an old-time barbershop. There were a bunch of guys sitting around, working on these long tables, grinding their telescope mirrors. They said, “Well, why don’t you take that piece of Pyrex and rework it?” Six months later, I came back to campus with this telescope I had built, incorporating the refurbished mirror that my grandfather had ground 50 years earlier.

This then became the spark for an interesting social experiment on campus. I was living in a first-year dormitory, and every once in a while, I’d just wheel the telescope out into the patio and point it at something. You could see the rings of Saturn, or the stripes on Jupiter, the craters and the ridges of the moon. Soon enough, I had lines around the block! If I could just get students to get a glimpse into the eyepiece, they would immediately stop; suddenly they were no longer in a rush. And then the campus police officer would walk by and look in, or the cleaning staff when they were done with their shift. Suddenly there’s this shared amazement: Here’s a college freshman, a Jesuit priest, the campus police officer, and the clean-up crew, who might have never noticed each other, all suddenly sharing in the awe.

TAI: Do you think we undervalue that kind of awe in our day and age?

DC: I’m very fortunate to live on a campus, where there’s a lot of curiosity. What works against that on a daily basis is a kind of urgency that spills over into hecticness, and both a desire and a compulsion to be busy.

When I’m working with upper-level undergraduates on a research paper, one of the things they really need coaching on is actually spending time with their thoughts. They’ve been doing all kinds of interesting research with primary materials and secondary literature, and then it comes down to writing. I tell them, “You need to walk around the block three or four times.” Getting good insight is not about frantically collecting as much information as possible and throwing it down on a piece of paper, it’s letting thoughts gestate.

TAI: When and how did you decide to become a Catholic priest, and a Jesuit in particular?

DC: To start, I grew up in a Catholic family, went to Catholic schools, and had a positive exposure to religion. Then in high school I was a little more skeptical and less interested in religion. But college became an opportunity to think my way through these basic questions: “What kind of person did I really want to be? What will be the foundation on which I build my adult life?” What I remember most from college were those two a.m. conversations in the dormitory, re-asking all the big questions.

It dawned on me gradually that there is a God who is in relationship with the human race, and that it’s a relationship that is both individual and in community. I don’t want to make it sound so neat and tidy, but a conviction emerged that my Catholic faith was very important to me. And during my senior year that set of convictions, and my thoughts about committing my life to something meaningful, all pointed in the direction of Catholic priesthood. When you try to talk yourself out of it and it’s not going away, that’s the best indication that you have to try.

Why the Jesuits in particular? Some of it was a very romanticized notion of what Jesuits are—the extremely wise priests who can go anywhere and do anything. I had gone to a Jesuit high school, where I had known and greatly admired Jesuits. Then in college it suddenly clicked: “Well, maybe the reasons that I admired them had something to do with the commitments that they’ve made with their life. Maybe those same commitments could ground my search for meaning and desire to serve others.”

As a senior in college, then, I applied to the Society of Jesus. I was convinced throughout the process that they would find out how unsuitable I was. But in the end, they decided to accept me into the order after I graduated from college, and here I am today, 35 years later.

TAI: You are a man of faith and a scholar of science. How do you think about the relationship between those two things—and how do you teach students who assume they are in tension?

DC: If you look at how people have thought about God and the natural world throughout Western history, one has actually tended to help the other more often than not. The idea of incompatibility comes from giving an exaggerated importance to particular examples of conflict, rather than general tendencies. I try to complicate the terms, because words like “religion” and “science” have changed meaning tremendously. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, you’ve got a necessary relationship between those two objects of thought, in the notion of a creator and creation. Very quickly, the idea emerges that to know the natural world well is to know something about the one who made it. This positive insight is a much bigger driver of the relationship, than, say, the 20th-century American problem of creationism, which is just one sad chapter in the grand scheme of things.

My students read Augustine and are struck by his encouragements to study the natural world, his insistence that knowing secular fields deeply can enrich one’s life of faith. There’s a wonderful passage where he talks about people whom we would today call literalists in interpreting the Old Testament, and he says, in effect “Could we keep them away from unbelievers? Because these people who know so little about the real workings of the natural world are an embarrassment to us believers.”

TAI: You’re a trained historian. Of all of the things to teach and study, why history?

DC: When I teach my European History survey, I give my little fervorino on this very question. I take potshots at some of the conventional bromides, like “He who does not know history is doomed to repeat it.” I point out there are people who know just enough history to do a lot of damage with it.

For me the main lesson of history is that things do not need to be the way that they are. It’s a way to understand the present, too. It means that as you look around at human society, and you say, “What we have is pretty good,” then you need to be attentive about protecting it, and fostering it, and helping it to grow. It’s all contingent, and you need to be attentive to what the variables are, because they will not necessarily exist forever. The flip side, maybe more hopeful, is that what you don’t like about our society is every bit as contingent—though of course there are limits to the human capacity to change things.

I’m talking to an audience of 18 to 22 year olds who have very strong feelings about what’s right or wrong in human society. As we slog our way through history, that is an enduring lesson: What we have in life, we need to foster and protect, and what we don’t have, we can hope we change.

TAI: You are also an avid hiker and like to explore nature, often in solitude. Why this?

DC: When I was growing up, I was very fortunate to be a Boy Scout, and my mom’s side of the family were farmers, who had a good sense of being connected to the earth. When I entered the Society, though, the training was intensely urban. In 12 years of training, six are spent in universities, and then six are spent working in cities—teaching in Philadelphia, in my case, and doing charitable work with the homeless and in hospitals.

My appreciation for the natural world was reawakened when I was doing my dissertation in Germany. I’d spend these long hours in the library, staring at the computer screen or dusty old tomes, and I fell in with a group of fellow doctoral students. On Friday afternoons, when the bell rang, we’d hop on a train and an hour later we’d be riding south into the mountains to spend a day or the weekend. Even as someone who is happy in the archives, that variety was good for my health.

I like hiking alone, too, especially during the school year. There’s a lot of busy-ness through the day: teaching, office hours, committee meetings, evening functions…all very important, but not conducive to deep thought and reflection. A day in the George Washington National Forest offers the quiet (no cell coverage, deo gratias), a few hours hiking up a mountain, a nap on the top, a couple hours down again. That’s where I do my best thinking.

I try to coach students to appreciate the same quiet, say, as they are preparing research papers. I tell them to walk around the block a few times, to let ideas settle, to get away from the usual distractions. Then their best ideas will start taking form. That is what hiking does for me. Whether you’re deep in a forest and hearing noises, or silences, that you don’t normally hear, or you’re on a summit and you get a great vista of the bends of the Shenandoah—it’s beautiful.

TAI: Speaking of sounds, what music do you listen to?

DC: I like all kinds of music, and I like stumbling on things. I recently stumbled across a Handel oratorio that I had never heard before. It’s Jephtha, based on an Old Testament story that’s rather horrifying, about a father who makes a promise to God that leads him to sacrifice his daughter. The music and the libretto capture the paradox, the tragedy, and the horrific aspect of the story so well, as well as the beautiful character of the daughter. I listened to that all Lent.

At the same time, I’m newly fascinated by bluegrass music. I’d never really paid attention to it before, but there’s something buoyantly energetic and optimistic about bluegrass that I like a whole lot. It draws from so much American cultural diversity and speaks to so many aspects of the American experience.

TAI: Lastly, what are you reading these days, in quarantine? Any recommendations?

DC: I’ve actually been managing to write a whole lot, because I’ve never had my evenings so free. I’m doing a lot of my academic writing rather than taking advantage of this as a time to read literature. Looking around my floor now, I see The Routledge History of Medieval Magic, and a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Wouter Hanegraff’s Esotericism and the Academy. Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe. There are books all over my room, but really I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody! These are the books that are helping me write the book that I’ll recommend next time we chat!

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

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