Dr. Adam Hincks, S.J., holds the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures at the University of St. Michael’s College. Dr. Hincks, who specializes in physical cosmology, completed a B.Sc. in physics and astrophysics from U of T in 2004. In 2009 he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University and then entered the Jesuit novitiate in Montréal. After pronouncing vows in 2011, he pursued philosophical studies at Toronto’s Regis College and later did a Bachelor of Sacred Theology at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Returning to Toronto, he worked on a Master of Theology and Licentiate in Sacred Theology at Regis College from 2018–20. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2019.

What Parish Are You At, Father?

Colourful galaxy photograph

“What parish do you live at, Father?” It’s a question I’ve been asked a couple of times since I was ordained last year. The answer—“I’m not based at a parish”—can be unexpected for those who are only used to seeing priests at Sunday mass. The fact of the matter is that most ordained Jesuits are not parish priests, nor have we ever been since our founding in the sixteenth century. The same can be said for those in many other religious institutes, such as the Basilian Fathers who are so important to St. Michael’s College. This doesn’t mean that none of us have parishes—for instance, here in Toronto, Our Lady of Lourdes is served by Jesuit priests and St. Basil’s by Basilians. Nor does it mean that we don’t help out at parishes in various ways. But it isn’t our sole defining ministry.

In my own case, my principal assignment, which I just began in July, is as a professor here at the University of Toronto. To be honest, when I became a Jesuit in 2009 fresh off of a doctorate in physics, I never dreamt that I would come back to the St. George campus, where I had been an undergraduate, as a professor! I figured after the many years of Jesuit formation I would could end up in an academic setting, perhaps at one of the scores of universities we run around the world, but it was only a vague idea.

The position I have begun here is new and unique. Supported by the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures, I have an appointment both in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and here at St. Michael’s College. The majority of my research is purely scientific, in the area of physical cosmology, or the study of the Universe as a whole. I work on telescopes that observe the very early universe and that map out the cosmos on its largest scales. But with my training in philosophy and theology, I also have an interdisciplinary interest in how science relates to faith and vice versa. And so a good part of my teaching will be precisely in this area—such as SMC371, “Faith and Physics”, which I shall teach in the winter term of 2021.

Still, one might return to the spirit of the question I began with and frame it a bit differently: why should a priest be engaged in research and teaching at a public university? There is the somewhat facile answer that there have been clerics on faculties ever since the first universities of the West arose in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Church has always valued education and the pursuit of knowledge, and thus her clergy and religious as well as her laity have always contributed to these great endeavours. But looking at the question from within the tradition of my own religious order, I am reminded of the notion of “finding God in all things”, a formula often used to capture a key aspect of the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, our principal founder.

“Finding God in all things” is not a vague aphorism or a flaky aspiration, but is rooted in the deeply Biblical conviction that as Creator, God is intimately present to his creatures, or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “God is in all things, and innermostly.” This does not mean that if you use a powerful enough microscope (or telescope!) you will suddenly find scientific “evidence” for God. But it does mean that studying creation—whether through the lenses of the humanities, the social sciences or the natural sciences—can be a springboard to contemplating its Creator. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8, NABRE). And ultimately, it is “contemplation of divine things” that is one of the principal tasks of those of us in religious life.

So I consider myself blessed to have this opportunity for contemplation, even if the busyness of the job means that I can’t always advert to it! I am looking forward to collaborating with all my colleagues at this university—fellow faculty, other researchers and students—as we lift our minds to consider true and lovely things “worthy of praise.” Not everyone contemplates science from within a religious worldview, and of course there are some who think such a stance is ludicrous. But I’m excited that St. Michael’s College has opened the space to explore it further, and I’m excited to see where it leads. I trust it will make me a better scientist, a better Christian—and a better priest.

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Jean-Olivier Richard is Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Christianity and Culture Program. A historian of science by training, his research and teaching interests include the relationship natural philosophy with Christianity with science in the early modern era, Jesuit history, environmental history, and the history of alchemy, astrology, and magic.

Night Sky and Quietude

Image depicts a view of the night sky full of stars

On June 17, I decided to set up a tent in the backyard of my partner’s parents, thereby adding a room to what was beginning to feel like a crowded house. My girlfriend and I brought mattresses, pillows, sleeping bags, and munchies. I also decided to install my Meade ETX 90, a reflecting telescope I had purchased a couple years ago and neglected to use since. I figured that on a clear night in Ottawa’s suburbs, it would find better use than in dazzling Toronto.

Around 3 a.m., we woke up to a starry sky, with Vega and Arcturus above our heads and a handful of planets lined up within the narrow band of the Zodiac. In the south, majestic Jupiter lorded at its zenith in conjunction with Saturn. Red Mars was lagging further to the East, next to Neptune, invisible. The waning crescent Moon, with Venus by its side, had yet to rise. Over the next two hours, we turned the telescope to each of these celestial bodies, trying different lenses and observing with childlike excitement. My girlfriend saw, for the first time, Jupiter’s four largest satellites—the same Galileo discovered with his spyglass in 1610—as well as hints of the giant’s darker belts. Even more delightful, to both of us, were Saturn’s rings, which we could see distinctly, like a pair of bright handles. Then, just before dawn, the ancient Moon’s familiar wink was made unfamiliar. Next to its shadowed face, Venus was showing its crescent. At that point, our excitement had ceded place to a kind of contemplative wonder, mixed with serenity and sunlight. With our naked eyes, we had observed and experienced what astronomers of old described as the wheeling of the celestial spheres around Polaris, the axis of the world. It was a wakeful night well spent.

Over the next couple of days, my mind was busy pondering Plato’s Timaeus, a speculative account of the creation the universe I teach in some of my Christianity and science courses. Therein Plato argues that the cosmos was made by the Demiurge, a divine, benevolent craftsman who ordered his materials mathematically and beautifully, in the likeness of eternal, unchanging forms. The Demiurge not only created the gods (including the planets) but also individual souls (each one tied to a guardian star), whose bodies He let the lesser deities shape from imperfect matter. Plato teaches that our souls, trapped as they are in their fleshy shells, tend to be confused and disorderly, having lost sight, from the moment of their birth, of the divine harmonies from whence they come. For Plato, contemplation of the wheeling stars—and by extension, the study of mathematical proportions—is the best way to quell our inner disturbances and to restore our quietude. Failing to do so is to risk losing clarity of mind, to condemn the soul to reincarnate in critters less suited for philosophy than human beings: birds, brutes, or—God forbid—fish!

For sure, contemplating the heavens was not a source of excitement for Plato in the way it can be to city dwellers today, but it was just as salutary. Plato’s great insight was that education is transformative: we become what we study, and we must therefore be mindful of our intellectual diet. In trying times, when we feel trapped in our heads and in our houses, it pays to look up, and emulate the stars.

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