The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Book – An undeniably alien communication is received on Earth. While governments bicker and argue about what to do next, the Jesuits quietly fund their own miniature space program, designed to send one small group of scientists and missionaries to the signal’s source, to see what they can find. It goes…about as well as first contacts with Jesuit missionaries traditionally goes: fine, until it isn’t, and then it’s horrible.

This is the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, priest and scientist, heretic and – perhaps – saint, who went to another world to meet the people there and suffered terribly for his mistakes. The story is told largely in flashback, as Sandoz is interviewed by the Vatican to determine exactly what went wrong with the mission and who is to blame. So even though large portions of the book are really very happy and cheerful, there’s an ominous cloud hanging over the whole as we wait to find out just what went so terribly wrong. It’s also a story about good intentions: how much having them can and can’t make a difference, and how we apportion blame for things we wish had never happened.

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno & Paul Mueller

Book – Lots of people have this idea that science and faith are inherently opposed, but the authors of this book – both astronomers with the Vatican Observatory, one a Jesuit priest and the other a Jesuit brother – are good evidence that doesn’t have to be the case. In six casual, chatty chapters, they discuss everything from the beginning of the universe to the end of it; the nature of Pluto, the Star of Bethlehem, and Galileo’s persecution; and, yes, if they (or rather, if Father Paul) would baptize an extraterrestrial.

The authors are Jesuits, so this is definitely a Catholic perspective on both the universe and on the Bible, but I think it’s illuminating for anyone. They argue that both of those vast and profound entities require you to choose how you’re going to go about understanding them, and that if you choose wrong, you’re just going to be more confused than you started – and they offer examples both from the history of science and from the history of theology.

My favorite chapter, though, was the chapter on Pluto. It turns out that both authors were part of the process of re-defining the elements of our solar system that removed Pluto from the list of planets, and they explain the complicated tangle of human categories, actual celestial bodies, and plain old human emotion that made that process so difficult and controversial.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.