Wonder Conference 2023 Review
By Alex Webber
March 7, 2023
Reading time: 9 minutes.
In January of this year, my wife and I attended the Word on Fire Wonder Conference at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Texas. It was edifying and wonderful to see so many people attend a conference on celebrating the Catholic intellectual tradition, and learn about how the faithful have explored the universe God created for us. It was surreal to see many of the theologians and scientists I read in books and watch on YouTube. Based on many conversations with others in attendance, this sentiment was shared by all.
After the initial thrill of seeing these Catholic celebrities, I began to consider what we were all doing there. Numerous times throughout the introductions and keynote speeches, the presenters mentioned that Bishop Barron had dreamed for years of bringing together educators and practitioners of reason and science. The purpose of this conference was then to build connections between these two vocations in order to better equip both in dispensing with the myth that faith and reason are in conflict. Once the two groups were in the same place, the scientists and philosophers could discuss their adventures in exploring the wonder of the universe and educators could describe how they lead their students to understanding those journeys. Finally, through the series of lectures and keynote speeches, experts at the intersection of Catholicism and reason would give numerous examples of how Catholic and other Christian intellectuals, past and present, both found no conflict between their faith and their vocation, and discovered that this faith galvanized their efforts and made sense of their discoveries.
Based on the advertisements and speakers, these were the organizers’ intentions. However, as the conference went on, I began to feel like these objectives weren’t manifest. While I people-watched and spoke to fellow attendees, I noticed interesting patterns. First, the attendees were remarkably diverse in age and sex; men and women, boys and girls of all ages. Based on the price of the conference ($600 - $800, depending on when you purchased your ticket), I expected there to be more of a mature, professional crowd. I was pleasantly and encouragingly surprised. However, the diversity stopped there. I hate to bring this topic up, because it’s always uncomfortable and awkward and immediately draws its own battle lines, but the conference was overwhelmingly majority white. This held true across attendees, Word on Fire staff, and speakers. I do not believe in diversity of the sake of diversity, but in the context of the conference, it was surprising; the Catholic faith is the universal church, stretching across the globe to all peoples and nations. I find it hard to believe that there weren’t any Catholic scientists from South America or Africa residing in America who wouldn’t be great candidates for speakers, or to hire at Word on Fire. As for the attendees, those are obviously self-selected. So why didn’t any people of color feel like attending? What is unappealing about either the content of Word on Fire, or the conference in particular? To be clear, I see the same phenomenon at the Society of Catholic Scientists conferences. This issue is too big, complicated, and difficult to adequately address in this essay, but it was something both my wife and I found hard to ignore.
I asked about thirty other attendees (out of over 1,000), what they hoped to see and obtain from the conference, as well as what background they came from. We were surprised to find that almost all the people we spoke to were neither scientists nor educators. True, many said they wanted to learn more about the connection between faith and science, but every one of them said “we want to see and meet Bishop Barron.” I resonate with this sentiment; Bishop Barron is an incredibly influential and foundational part of my life as a Catholic. I sincerely do not want to sound like an elitist gatekeeper; I think anyone and everyone can learn about the sciences, appreciate the beauty of the cosmos, contribute to understanding the world, and feel the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. However, I just got the impression most people wanted to meet Bishop Barron and the subject matter was a nice, indirect bonus. I do not blame them, and I think meeting your spiritual heroes is a wonderful thing; I am merely considering these responses in the context of a conference whose primary purpose was to connect scientists and educators, equip folks to evangelize, and celebrate academic tradition. It’s hard not to compare this conference with other conferences I’ve attended. For one, the cost is much higher, so I would expect to see a commensurate increase in its quality or opportunities to engage in discussions or workshops (on a related note, I genuinely wonder what is so darn special about the Good News Conference such that it costs over $1,000 to attend). At this conference, the attendees received some talks, , an admittedly beautiful advertisement for the next volume of the Word on Fire Bible, a display area at which attendees could purchase many of Word on Fire’s books, room & board, and ostensibly the opportunity to meet and connect with the speakers, Word on Fire fellows, and potential collaborators.
The talks themselves certainly left something to be desired - most didn’t have slides or graphics, and, more importantly, contained no actionable information on evangelizing through faith and science. Most were “here’s some neat information” and could have easily been on YouTube or the Word on Fire Institute and had the same effect (some were very similar to talks that are already on Youtube). Additionally, there was no time allotted to the talks for questions, erasing an in-person advantage of conference talks. The mid-dinner presentation on the making of the Word on Fire Bible (complete with purchase/donation envelopes on every dinner chair) was interesting, but I was left wondering why they dedicated an hour of attendee time on this subject in particular? What does this have to do with faith and science?
As for the connections with others, unfortunately, they didn’t really materialize. There were long lines to chat with the speakers, leaving about a minute or two per attendee to either ask a question or give praise. As for the Word on Fire fellows, they mostly congregated amongst themselves. I personally spoke to several, but the interactions were fleeting, and we weren’t able to discuss anything of substance before they had to leave (it’s entirely possible that my conversation topics bored them into fleeing). Connecting with my fellow conference-goers was similarly difficult. Our name badges contained no identifying information other than our names; no institutions, interests, backgrounds, professions, etc., so who we spoke to was largely a function of who we ended up standing next to during drinks, or sitting next to at meals. While every one of these talks and presentations were interesting, and every person I met lead to a wonderful, engaging conversation, the question of “why?” pervades. Why have this conference in the first place? If the stated reason was to bring scientists and educators in the same room, I see little evidence that the conference was populated by scientists and educators, and even if it were, there were few mechanisms for connecting them in a productive way. What about the conference needed to be in-person? Why have this conference at such a luxurious resort (the Gaylord Texan)? What about faith and science dictates secular opulence? I am sure that the grand venue added to the cost, but did it add to the mission of connection and understanding faith and science? Was it a great use of the funds from the John Templeton Foundation? Are we here just to say, “wow science is great!”, and “wow, what a pretty venue!”?
As a final topic, I want to address a point I hinted at earlier: the cult of personality of Bishop Barron. People were there to see Bishop Barron - even some members of the Society of Catholic Scientists’ express interest in attending the conference was, “I just wanted to meet Bishop Barron”. At one point in the conference, the authors of books set up tables for autographs and brief meetings. One happened to be Bishop Barron. My wife and I encountered this event about ten minutes after it started, and the line for Bishop Barron’s table already extended out the doors and was at least over a hundred people long. This line maintained its length for almost the entire hour set aside for the signings, and some folks were left in line when Bishop Barron’s brother ferried him to his next event. Bishop Barron graciously offered an additional book signing the next day which attracted a similarly long line. Why bring this up? At a conference dedicated to understanding and exploring the harmony of faith and science, the main attraction is a single man. It felt a lot like a Star Trek convention where folks just want to meet Bill Shatner (Captain Kirk). I do want to acknowledge and affirm the importance of meeting our pastoral figures; meeting the pope fundamentally changes peoples’ lives, and we have to look no further than St. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland before the fall of the Soviet Union to understand why. However, pilgrimage should be for pilgrimage’s sake. When it begins to take away from or disrupt other missions, it becomes an issue. The long lines, lack of structure for discussions, and the overt salesmanship of Word on Fire books and Bibles left a strong impression of Comic-Con, not a galvanizing adventure into the beauty and thrill of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
I don’t think the solution is to not have Bishop Barron attend. Rather, his presence actually offers opportunities for deeper engagement. I think the organizers of the conference should take into consideration the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual pull Bishop Barron provides for the conference, and better harness it. If people are going to attend in order to see and interact with Bishop Barron, there needs to be better scaffolding and funneling into more productive events. There should be dedicated and interactive workshops and discussions that draw people deeper into the topics and into communion with each other. The talks themselves should have more opportunity to engage as a crowd with the speakers, and there should be small-group, focused breakout sessions afterwards. Yes, this requires more man-power, but if Word on Fire chooses a less ritzy venue (perhaps more academic and spiritual), hopefully the costs will balance out. Finally, the conference duration was essentially two half-days. For the price, I would have expected more. Such a short period of time leaves little time for deep, moving interactions.
Word On Fire has unprecedented reach within the Catholic world, and deservedly so. The quality and substance of their online content is unmatched and has moved many, including myself, into communion with the Lord, and through Him, our brothers and sisters. However, I think they took their online model of engagement and applied it to an offline conference, which does not translate. Given this criticism, however, I do want to say that I think the next conference will be better; the passion in each employee at the conference was apparent and infectious. I am looking forward to what the future of Word on Fire conferences bring.