Sunday, January 6, 2013

Supersmart Magi

Solemnity of the Epiphany
6 January 2013
St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

At any university like KU, the interplay between faith and reason is essential.  A university should be called a trade school if it is anything less than a community of learners where the search for truth is not fragmented, but is shared.  It makes little sense for a university to house both a religion and physics department, without getting the conversation right between the two.

Especially important is the elimination of any imaginary dichotomy between faith and reason, between science and metaphysics.  Western universities were founded historically by the Catholic Church's search for ultimate truth, and a unified truth.  There was no divorce between faith and reason, and every Catholic university had a physics department, as they do today.  There are too many today who think the Church's difficulties with Galileo prove that the Church exists to keep science down, and yet nothing could miss the bigger picture more.  Name me a Catholic school or university that doesn't teach science.  What is more, long after Galileo's case was reconciled, Catholic thinkers continued, as they do today, to make some of the greatest advances in science.  The founder of modern genetics, which led the way to modern Darwinism, and the original proponent of the Big Bang theory, which some posit now will eliminate the need for God, were both devout Catholic priests. The Catholic Church, especially her last two pontiffs, write some of the deepest and most fruitful reflections on the interplay between faith and reason.  Anyone who thinks the Catholic Church is the enemy of science has their head in the sand.

On Epiphany specifically, it is important that we do not allow a certain scientism or disdain for religion to denigrate the example of the magi.  We should reject outright a storyline that shows the magi to be fools, those willing to trade-in the sure knowledge of astronomy for the old myths of those too naive to be scientific.  No, the magi were the smartest persons of their time, for they understood something that we still need to get right today, that the science of the universe derives its efficacy from a theological worldview.  Specifically, science only makes sense if two things are true - if the world is not divine and if it is intelligible.  Yet it is theology, a reflection on God's revelation of himself, that delivers these two truths.  Specifically, theology the highest of sciences saves science from being a circular and futile exercise of matter and energy seeking to encounter matter and energy. No, it is because of its grounding in theology and metaphysics that science can and does make real and important distinctions between what is real and necessary and eternal, and what is not.

The magi were smart for another reason.  They were especially astute because they realized that the most precious knowledge one can obtain is knowledge that enhances what it means to be a human person.  Knowledge of stars is great, and amazing, and inspiring, but insights into persons are better, because we, the ones obtaining the knowledge, are persons, not stars.  The magi knew this.   The mere possibility that the force controlling the heavens could have a human face was enough to make them run in haste.  That the most powerful force in the universe was also powerful enough to allow himself to enter into the vulnerabilities and contingencies of time, space, and the human condition, was a revelation worthy of their finest gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Far from being an embarrassing vestige, the magi represent the wisdom of mankind welcoming the light of any truth, scientific AND theological, physical and metaphysical, that enhances an understanding of human personhood, human dignity, and human destiny.  For these are the most important truths of all, the truth of who we really are.

It is not embarrassing for science and religion to both confess together that in making progress toward these understandings of human personhood, dignity and destiny, there is still more we don't know that what we know.  They mystery of God and of his universe are still mysterious to us in every sense, and to do anything but stand in humble awe of these mysteries is foolish.   Both disciplines, theology and science, have plenty of work left in front of them, without any unnecessary and artificially inflated antagonism.  The Church can and should continue to support and welcome the advances of science, that shine light into reality and truth.  Yet the Church should focus even more on producing saints, who are the fruit of true religion.  Saints are those stars of humanity, who even without scientifically certain knowledge of who they are and where they came from and what they should do, still are able to most perfectly emanate the light of personal transcendent love that has been revealed as the ground of all reality.  Long before theology and science complete their work, many of us will have to live the light of faith that teaches us the truth of what we must do to fulfill our destiny: namely, that there is no greater love than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends.  

On Epiphany Christians are especially encouraged to shine the light of Christ into dark places, into the land of the Gentiles.  The world needs the light of Christ, and is meant to walk in its light, but can only do so if and where that light is shone by the lives of real Christians.  On Epiphany, we are to contemplate that the world would be much darker indeed if only reason is allowed to purify faith, but faith is prevented from purifying reason.  The light of Christ can bring clarity in areas where our reason has obfuscated the truth.  Specifically in our western world, the light of the Christ child can teach the world how to see itself again through the eyes of its most precious resource, its children.  The light of Christ child can make a difference in our schizophrenic morality regarding abortion.  The light of Christ child can show where cultures with millions of smartphones might not be smart enough to not contracept themselves out of existence.  The light of Christ can show us that it might not be a smart thing to be more organic in our selection of food that in what makes us most human, our sexuality.  By eschewing natural chastity and natural family planning for artificial contraception that makes the body malfunction, we are running away from what makes us most human - authentic, natural, vulnerable, sacrificial and fruitful love.  Instead of following the light of the Christ child, we make ourselves less personal, and less human, by forgetting where we came from, and trading the true view of the world from the eyes of children to the powerful and selfish will of adults.  In these areas, the light of faith can and should purify our reason, and can keep us from running away from who we really are as human persons.

Anyone who thinks the world needs the light of Christ any less today than we did 2000 years ago is a fool indeed.  The magi, far from being mythological vestiges from the past, represent a fresh hope for not forgetting the wisdom of the past, and being ready to welcome the scientific and theological wisdom of the future.  Most of all, they give voice to the Church's proclamation each epiphany - that wise men still seek Him!  Amen.

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