The lesson of the magi

by Father Michael Hickin

“The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” by Francis S. Collins. 2006.

How do you look at the world? Through what lens?

Isn’t it rather through a whole stack of lenses that we come to form a worldview?

In these days near Epiphany, it is wise to recall that, “A multitude of the wise is the safety of the world,” (Ws 6:24). The magi are a beautiful example, during Jesus’ first coming “in the lowliness of human flesh” (Preface of Advent), of our 21st century scientists.

Francis Collins is a fine example of a modern magi. I was reading his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief during the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe. For the feast, we heard the passage “all peoples, nations, and languages serve him” (Dan 7:14).

Of the many languages on Earth, one has risen to unite the human race. If there’s anyone else in the universe to talk to, this tongue may serve us best. It is the language of mathematics. This alone is reason enough for the Church to honor the physical sciences.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes some significant statements about a healthy respect for science. For a richer elaboration, see the work of the Pontifical Academy of Science, whose roots stretch back to 1603, or visit the website of the Vatican Observatory, where F. Collins is a recommended author.

Along with family, nationality, education, temperament, etc., the Church appreciates science as one of those lenses through which we evaluate the world. For Catholics, the essential lens would certainly be Jesus Christ and the whole spiritual life.

How do the scientific and spiritual worldviews they stack up? Can we ever afford to separate them? What kind of synthesis is at work within you?

Not easy questions to answer. That’s why it’s helpful to read someone else who is trying to do just that.

Francis Collins, an internationally respected scientist who is a believer, has headed up the National Institute of Health since 2009. Collins grew up in a home that esteemed learning but not religion. He was atheist for many years. As a physician, he began listening to his patients. They professed the power of faith at work in the midst of terrible suffering. He was smart enough not to write this off. Along the way, the writings of C.S. Lewis opened his mind further to the reasonableness of Christianity.

The Language of God is Collins’ synthesis: a lifetime of fidelity to the scientific method and a reverence for God’s fidelity to humanity’s search for the truth. For him, science does not explain away God’s Beauty, but highlights it.

Ever since the invention of the telescope in the 16th century, the worldview of Christians has journeyed through a long series of tremors. The Church has learned that indifference to science is not an option. The mental picture we have today of Earth is so phenomenally different from that of our ancestors. We can pretend that this vastly altered landscape of the big picture doesn’t really affect our faith, but that would be perilous, as Pope Francis warns us throughout his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato sì, where he strongly supports the dialogue between religion and science.

The scientific method is compelling because math doesn’t lie. Science is math backed up by a shared experience of nature. “If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science” (Richard Feynman). Faith, on the other hand, is a personal relationship of love and trust with one who has spoken to us from beyond the stars; yet this one is also deeply committed to nature, since it’s his gift to us.

While faith and science are distinct, these two ways of knowing appear to share a fuzzy border. From the faith perspective, Catholicism embraces a long tradition of honoring the rational approach, the engagement of thought in the truth-seeking function of the mind. From the scientific perspective, knowledge is not restricted to proven data. When proofs are superseded by others, the scientist’s relationship with truth doesn’t crumble; he believes in a knowable Whole whose consistency is not yet accounted for by purely scientific methods.

Just like any human encounter, Catholicism must meet science with eager ears and a broad smile, a willingness to learn, and an ardent desire to share, when the moment is right, one’s own personal relationship with the “Word” made “flesh.”

More than a dozen years ago, an elderly woman greeted me after Mass with the words, “Father, they’ll care how much you know when they know how much you care.” Zinger! Folding that little saying into my Christian walk is the work of a lifetime.

How apropos. Our scientists might care to learn a little about this “Word” when they find believers open to learning a little more about this “flesh.”

Collins’ description of a worldview that harmonizes faith and science invites readers into questioning how balanced their own view of the world is. What follower of Christ does not wish to be part of that broad and inquisitive multitude that is “the safety of the world?” The lesson of the magi is as relevant today as ever.

Fr. Michael Hickin is the pastor of St. Mark’s Church in Bottineau and St. Andrew’s Church in Westhope.