Catholicism in space

Book Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

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“Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it.”
“But the sparrow still falls.”

The fascinating premise of Mary Doria Russell’s book attracted me, that once an extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered a few decades from now, the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits) is the first to send a contact mission. It struck me as an original approach to a first contact story and makes sense. While governments and private corporations jockeyed for advantage and tried to get out of their own way, the Jesuits quietly did what they have done for centuries. They set out to bring the knowledge of God to the aliens, or to find out whether such knowledge is universal among all God’s children.
Beginning at the Arecibo telescope with a gawky SETI astronomer, the revelation that we’re not alone travels quickly among a circle of friends with extraordinary talents and connections. THE SPARROW is a character-driven story that draws the reader into the lives of people embarking on an historical expedition. I’m not Roman Catholic, but I appreciated the insight into the life of a Jesuit priest. Service, celibacy, and honor are explored alongside secular issues. This is not a ‘Christian’ book, per se, but more an exploration of how intelligent people approach the concept of why an omniscient and omnipotent God allows terrible things to happen, whether he simply watches atrocities or orchestrates them for some purpose hidden from us.
This is a wonderfully-written thinker’s book that encourages the reader to examine the logic of whether God exists, what evil looks like, whether one society’s morality is more valid than another’s, how faith and science can overlap and complement one another, and too many other concepts to list in this review.
Russell has an impressive background in anthropology, and it shows in this compulsively readable, thoroughly approachable speculation on how interaction with an alien culture impacts humanity in general, and one man’s faith in particular.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the book begins with a disaster having taken place. Details of the events are shrouded in mystery, but one thing is clear: it’s not going to end well. I spent most of the book enjoying the intelligence and humor of the dialog and character interaction, falling in love with Russell’s characters, and living in a kind of dread for the hard ending I knew was coming.
The main character says at some point in the story, “God is in the why.” This is reflected in the way the author chooses to structure the novel. We know the ending from the beginning of the book, but the book isn’t about what happens, it’s about why, and the effects of the ‘why’ on one physically, emotionally, and spiritually ravaged man.
The profound sadness of this book lingers, along with grand ideas that I can keep and turn over in my mind like exotic artifacts. My conclusion: at the point where science can no longer answer there are mysteries we have to accept–assumptions that must be made–in order to go on living and working and loving. For some, I think, this is what is required to bridge the gaps in our knowledge that otherwise would lead to despair. Another word for this is faith.