How to Love and Live Christmas in a Scientific Age

A little while ago we had the pleasure of re-watching the series ‘Brideshead Revisited’ with Jeremy Irons as Charles Rider. This time, a lovely quote from him jumped out at me from the screen, and I thought I’d share with with you. Talking about a person whom he didn’t like, Charles Rider commented ‘He had the relish that men of science sometimes have for limiting themselves to the inessentials.’

Now this is a ‘turn around’ don’t you think? Scientists are always telling us that religion is inessential, while Evelyn Waugh obviously thinks that ‘the operation of divine grace’, as he describes his ‘Brideshead Revisited’, is part of what is ‘essential’.

At Christmas time the question of what is ‘essential’ comes to the fore for a lot of people. Science deals with reality in so far as it can have numbers attached to it. That is all. There is a lot of reality that does not lend itself to such treatment, because it is not regular. It is subject to human free will, and the fact that some of reality is a genuine mystery. And here is where other methods of approach and description, other than the application of numbers, need to be employed.

So first of all, both scientists and people of a religious persuasion need to be a bit humble. That is, the major sin of scientists is that they think that all of reality can be accounted for by their ‘world view’: that everything is ‘nature’ and behaves in a way that is explainable by mathematics of one kind or another. This is sheer pride.

People who are religious exhibit the same kind of pride when they refuse to acknowledge that for some cases, faith and prayer and belief in God are not all that need to be said about the world. ‘Creationism’ is one such folly. When properly understood the creation stories are designed to introduce us to the genuine mystery of God as Creator and human relationships with this God. They are not designed to give us information about the age of the earth, or how it was made.

The same is true about medicine. Much of what goes on about health is amenable to science. A surgeon knows how to cut. But there is much more about health that is social. It has to do with the idea of ‘Shalom’ (peace and right ordering) that we in the Church call ‘Salvation’. Any one who simply thinks that they need a surgeon, or simply thinks that they do not need praying for are both wrong!

So the first sin of both religious people, and scientists is pride. They think that  the whole of reality can be encompassed by their world view. When Charles Rider says ‘He had the relish that men of science sometimes have for limiting themselves to the inessentials.’ He is, I think, referring to the scientists who deny the ‘reality’ of the parts of ‘reality’ that are not amenable to their investigations.

The second question, then, is a bit deeper though. It is ‘ Is there such a thing as a genuine mystery?’ This is not a matter of proof either way, but a matter of faith. Clearly, scientists or some of them, do not think so, but they cannot demonstrate it by their own methods. For me, I do believe that there is genuine mystery. I remember a famous Australian historian, Manning Clarke, who was a sort of ‘fellow traveller’ with Christianity (his brother was a priest). He called himself an agnostic, and as he was dying, said about his historical work, and life in general, that he was aware of ‘the mystery at the heart of things.’ Scientists too are driven to investigate the universe sometimes because of the awe they feel in the face of nature.

Which brings me to the question about the proper response to genuine mystery. This ‘awe’ that scientists feel leads them to investigation of that which they find ‘aweful’. It is not that I am against investigation, but another approach is a humbler, and more complete approach to genuine mystery. I think, that the correct approach to a genuine mystery is  is participation in it. That is, mysteries reveal themselves, not by investigation, with us ‘outside it’ so to speak, but that mysteries reveal themselves to us by participation in them.

So do these genuine mysteries have a shape or form then they reveal themselves to humans who do participate in them? The different answers to this question give rise  to different religions, and they are not all the same.

At Christmas, Christians participate in the mystery of our relationship with God, in that we affirm that the reality of God takes shape for human beings in the person of Jesus. As the Carol says ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.’ (God with us).

This claim, formulated after the events of Good Friday and Easter, is away of pushing back the shape of God’s presence among us in Jesus (sharply focused at Easter) to the point of his birth.

So for Christians, the shape of the mystery of God’s reality is Jesus. Our job is to participate in this mystery. Our job is to let this mystery penetrate our lives, and to inform how we live.

A bit of explanation of these stories of Christmas is helpful I think in giving us permission to participate in them and to enjoy them. In human affairs, there are two processes that can be traced (among others of course). One is ‘Mystery made into story’, the other is ‘History made into mystery.’ Australians are familiar with the latter process, because of what has happened to us about ANZAC day. An historical defeat at Galippoli, has been turned into the ‘mystery’ of human self sacrifice, mate-ship, and proving ones self through trial. This is history ‘mythologised’. The events of Jesus birth as we have them told to us are a case of the opposite. We don’t know anything much about it. Neither John’s Gospel (which we read on Christmas morning) or Mark’s Gospel thought it necessary to tell us anything about Jesus’ birth in order to tell us everything that they thought was essential. But Luke and Matthew convey the same reality as do John and Mark through the stories of Jesus’ Birth. This is ‘mystery made story.’  What we have left to us is simply the text. We can’t ‘get behind’ the text to say ‘What really happened’. We can’t participate directly in the mystery of God, because that has no ‘shape’ or is not capable of giving us any meaning. But the text  of Scripture, as story gives us both. We get a way of participating in the mystery of God (which we also do by retelling this story in the actions of Eucharist)  and a way of giving shape to the mystery of God through the person of Jesus.

Knowing this, means that I can stop worrying about ‘what really happened’ and let the stories flow over me, shape me, and inform me about how God is with human beings. That is all we can get of genu8ine mystery, and all we actually need in order to participate in it. Happy Christmas. Christ is Born!

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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