A Man of Science and Faith

Fr. Skehan delights in his twin callings as priest and geologist

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

He's a geologist who studies half-billion-year-old rocks to decipher the story of the Earth, and a Jesuit priest who leads prayer retreats aimed at discerning the will of God.


Rev. James Skehan, SJ: "What's most fascinating to me is, the more that is discovered by scientists trying to unravel the secrets of nature, the greater number of secrets there are to be discovered." (Photo by Justin Knight)
Prof. Emeritus James Skehan, SJ (Geology), director emeritus of Boston College's Weston Observatory, is a man of science and of faith. He sees no conflict between the two callings: Indeed, he says, one complements the other.

"If you look at a beautiful sunset, or how mountains are formed, or observe how continents move," he has said, "you can view it either as science or as God speaking to you, or both. I do both. What I do as a scientist is no different from what I do listening to the cosmic word of God."

Two newly released books by Fr. Skehan illustrate the scope of the Jesuit geologist's interests.

One, the 400-page illustrated Roadside Geology of Massachusetts, will be sold at state and national parks and give the average traveler a guide to the geological history and makeup of the Bay State, from Beacon Hill to the Berkshires.

The other, Praying with Teilhard de Chardin, contains meditations on the life and thought of French Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Teilhard's theory, which blended science with Catholic theology in proposing that man is evolving toward a final spiritual unity, was controversial in its day, but would come to be influential at the reformist Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Fr. Skehan said he plans to use the Teilhard book on a pair of five-day prayer retreats he will lead in August at Campion Center in Weston and in Maine.
His devotions to science and religion have gone hand in hand since his days as youngster in northern Maine, when his interest in minerals was sparked by the stones he kept plowing up in his family's potato fields. That curiosity in the rock ribs of New England would take him around the world as a geologist after he joined the Jesuit order.

During his four years as a young Jesuit at the Shadowbrook Novitiate in Lenox, he daily admired a breathtaking view of the Stockbridge Bowl, a scenic valley ringed by the Berkshire and Taconic hills that he describes as "one of the most beautiful places in the whole world."

It's among the locations featured in his new book on Massachusetts' geology. Others include the Chelmsford granite quarries that produced all the curbstones on the Boston College campus, the coastal shelf off Marblehead where fishermen dredge up mastodon teeth, and the seam, between Springfield and Worcester, where eastern and western Massachusetts squeezed together in a continental collision 400 million years ago.

Readers will learn of the eons-long process whereby the Bay State came to be in the shape and location it is today. ("Five-hundred-fifty-million years ago, eastern Massachusetts was at the South Pole and frozen solid, and we have the rocks to prove it," observed Fr. Skehan.) They will read of the receding glaciers of the Ice Age 14,000 years ago that formed Beacon and Bunker hills, Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

Fr. Skehan's research into the multi-million year history of the Earth has led him to be an outspoken critic of so-called "creation science," by which some Christian fundamentalists, citing The Bible, have sought to discredit evolutionary theory.

When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to make the teaching of evolutionary theory optional in the state's public-school science curriculum, in a move considered a victory for creationists, Fr. Skehan penned a strong letter prominently featured in the October edition of the American Geological Institute's newsletter, Geotimes. The letter was headlined: "Creation Science: Bad Science, Bad Religion!"

"I support teaching religion as religion, and science as science. Creationism as science is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms," Fr. Skehan wrote. "Science can only explain what happened after the Big Bang because the objects with which science deals (the universe) came into being during or after creation. In trying to salvage a flawed theology, creation science masquerades as science while striving to destroy authentic science."

Last spring, Fr. Skehan updated a 1986 essay debunking creation science, "Modern Science and the Book of Genesis," for publication by the National Science Teachers Association in a booklet on "The Creation Controversy and The Science Classroom."

"The Genesis narrative uses symbolic language," he said in a recent interview at his Weston Observatory office. "The purpose of Genesis is not to be a science textbook."

For example, if the Old Testament's account of creation were to be literally believed, he said, then the Earth would be somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, while the universe itself would be the same age as the Earth. Scientific estimates of the Earth's age range from 5-6 billion years, while dating the universe to a "Big Bang" between 10 and 12 billion years ago, he said.

Science, which deals with the seen, is separate and distinct from religion, which deals with the unseen, Fr. Skehan said. "Science can't say anything about God," he said. "Science can only say things about what exists - rocks, the Earth, the universe. Science could only take place after Creation. Prior to Creation there was only God - that's a religious statement.

"When I speak about the Earth as a scientist, I engage in scientific discourse," he said. "When I speak on religion and devotional things, I speak as a human being. Human beings can be scientists, but can also be religious persons.

"What's most fascinating to me is, the more that is discovered by scientists trying to unravel the secrets of nature, the greater number of secrets there are to be discovered," Fr. Skehan said. "It is a never-ending process of discovery to understand the secrets of the universe.

"What really is so marvelous for me is that the geology is a bonus for me in connection with my theology and spirituality, and my theology and spirituality are bonuses in connection with geology. There's no conflict [between faith and science]. It's nice to have both - in fact, it makes everything so exhilarating. What could be more marvelous?"

 

Return to February 1 menu

Return to Chronicle home page