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Christmas Miracles: matters of faith, not fact

God has covered his tracks pretty well. After all, if science could explain the star of Bethlehem, it wouldn't be a miracle.

Published: Thursday, December 5, 1996


Page: 19A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

This month planetariums around the world will be running a classic show--some variation on a theme about the Christmas Star.

Charlotte's Discovery Place will present "Season of Light", a canned program available to planetariums from a national vendor.

These shows present a number of scientific possibilities to explain the appearance of the star that served as a beacon over Bethlehem. Close alignments of bright planets, a bright comet, or a supernova are called to the task of celestial lighthouse.

I think this is wrong.

While it is entertaining to present scientific arguments using a bright, natural object to mark the birth of Christ, it seems at once both pointless and dangerous to kluge the sky to fit a miracle.

Explaining Miracles

Let me clarify this statement, since it has been the role of science to explain apparent miracles. It might be more precise to say that we scientists have tried ro understand mysteries, and give explanations for commonly seen phenomena.

With Technological advances, we have been able to go beyond the directly visible, extending our vision with telescopes, microscopes and computers. More mysteries to solve!

However, it is dangerous to pursue the exploration of miracles because it suggests that we must always choose either scientific or religious knowledge, as if either alone were sufficient to satisfy our curiosities and longings.

I am certainly not arguing that we abandon the progress of modernism--the scientific and technological gains we have made since the Enlightenment represent outstanding success for our species.

Indeed, I am wary of the advance of what has been dubbed postmodernism. While this new era is still hard to define, some aspects are well documented and a bit frightful.

Disappointed with the fruits of technology, some people have developed a lack of respect for our accumulated wisdom, a distrust in our government, and a disdain for intellect. Rational and scientific thought are being abandoned in favor of pop-culture substitutes.

Witness the evidence: stupidity placed on a pedestal ("Forrest Gump", the "xxx for Dummies" books), the paranoid militia, "psychic" and astrological hotlines, UFO "abductions", to name a few examples.

Feeding the frenzy

The media feed this frenzy with offerings such as Independence Day", with its tired theme of government coverups (do you think that anything like that could still be hidden?).

TV's "The X-Files" sets up confrontations between rational and intuitive partners of an FBI team investigating tabloid-level stories, with Scully's scientific theories readily disposed by Mulder's musings.

So then, why am I not pleased that we are applying science to such phenomena as the Christmas Star? Because it continues the myth that we must somehow choose between logical thought and spiritual satisfaction. Either/or, not both.

This sustains a dichotomy that is needless, preventing many from trying a scientific exploration of their universe, lest it might shake their faith.

This is not to mention that God does not need to use physics to create miracles. If these were easily explainable, they would not be miracle.

God would not be so trivial. Christians must accept the story of the Star--we do not need a list of candidate objects from astrophysicists. The same with the virgin birth--we don't need a biologist to provide a handy solution.

Jews need to believe that the lamp burned for eight days--they do not need, nor should they want, a possible explanation from a chemist. Nor do we need a geologist to part the Red Sea for Moses or an archaeologist to actually find the Ark.

Miracles are taken on faith, science on evidence. God has covered his tracks pretty well: He will insist on discovery via faith rather than facts. And we scientists should not be spending our time looking for such facts.

Of course, organized religion needs to offer a similar recognition of the boundaries with science. When it fails to do so, it produces a mongrel philosophy like "scientific creationism", a collection of distortions of scientific evidence crowbarred into fundamentalism.

Merging Concepts

Somehow each of us must splice together scientific understanding and religious faith for a personal philosophy that satisfies us.

This is not easy--even the pope is still working on merging in concepts of evolution and extraterrestrial life. We certainly should not reject either outright, nor force one to absorb the other--it just doesn't work.

So enjoy the "Season of Light" at Discovery Place, but come back when the show is all science. And, in the meanwhile, keep the faith.

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