Epiphany in Our Modern Times
Reflections on Progress, Science and Religion
Epiphany, January 6th, marks the last day of Christmas, known to some as the day their true love gave to them 12 drummers drumming, but originally known as the day the wise men arrived to find Jesus after following a star. Christmas trees are likely down, and work has likely resumed full steam following the New Year, but perhaps Epiphany is still worth celebrating, or at least worth contemplating.
I must admit that much of my knowledge of the Bible comes from art history class in high school, and whatever has seeped in from popular culture. In recent years, however, I’ve been curious to know more. I received my Episcopal Grandfather, W. “Chave” McCracken’s sermons from the 60’s through the 80’s out of storage, and in them I find both inspired truths and frustrating contradictions. I’ve run into two sermons on the Epiphany with reflections on the relationship between science and religion, one prepared in 1968, the other in 1980. There’s some good stuff in them– too good not to share.
What do we know about the wise men? The Bible says they were wise and that they came from the East, but aside from that we know little about them. Likely, Chave says, they were Babylonian Astronomers, the leading thinkers of their day. They had charted the movement of stars, and with accuracy could predict the cycles of eclipses. Regardless of how we feel about the historical accuracy of the story it’s worth noting that during Jesus' time, those who were asking questions about the movement of the stars and seeking scientific truth were the same people seeking spiritual answers about how to move in the world. The ancient world was not so unlike our world today and the leading problems of the day were war and hunger. Chave writes of the time that “the wisest and best men it produced dreamed of a future time when the nations would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and make hunger a thing of the past. The wise men of the Bible followed the star of this hope to Jesus.”
The convergence of scientific thought and spiritual thought once had a more healthy marriage, Chave argued, and the divorce of the sacred and science is a dangerous reality of our modern world. In ‘68, Chave wrote of the modern separation of science and religion, and placed much of the blame on the Christian Church: “Religion has said to the astronomer, ‘You must not criticize what the Bible says about the shape of the universe’; to the biologist, ‘You must not question the historical accuracy of creation by teaching evolution; and to the historian, ‘You must not question the historical accuracy of the inspired record of the Bible.’” These thinkers, he writes, “have a right to expect of religion that it accept the proposition that all truth is one.” The sermon gives astronomy and mathematics as examples of universal truths. We’re all looking at the same stars, and 2+2= 4 everywhere in the world. “Scientific truth belongs to the world,” he preached “and not just the scientists of any one country.” This should also be expected of religion he argued, and there is a danger in believing to have a universal truth localized in the form of religion. (My grandfather will later contradict this.) The idea that a country or religion is “on God’s side” and “our own moral mistakes are therefore less serious than the moral mistakes of other people” can have grave implications.
In 1980, given the changes witnessed within just 13 years, the second Epiphany sermon puts science in the spotlight, questioning the blind following of science in the form of technological and political advancement. In my grandfather’s lifetime, our culture moved quickly from using the resources at hand, (literally our hands), through human and animal power, and harnessing the power of the wind and water, to steam, to oil, to electricity and finally atomic power. “You cannot blame people for being impressed by this change, and enormously excited by it.” He wrote, but warned:
“Material progress” is not an adequate substitute for the things of the spirit. It is all very well to have machines do your work, but if you don’t know what to do with yourself in your spare time, the improvement is not an unmixed blessing. It is all very well to have radio and television with which you can send news and information and entertainment from one end of the globe to the other in a split second, but the gain is not very great if most of the material that comes out of your radio and your television set is third rate material, tasteless and frequently trash. It is undoubtedly a step forward to be able to send an airplane or a rocket anywhere in the world in a matter of a few hours, or even a few minutes, but the gain is not all one way if the planes and rockets are carrying atomic bombs to be dropped on great cities. As for the promise of a solution for the ancient problem of hunger- how much gain is it to be able to produce food in abundance where there is always resistance to distributing it to the people who are starving. … You cannot measure progress merely in terms of the human capacity to produce food in abundance, or our possession of a machinery of diplomacy capable of avoiding war. There is only one way in which you can measure human progress and that is in terms of the increase of justice and love. Progress takes place in the world when people are treated with more fairness than they were treated in generations gone by.”
Reading his words, I can't help but wonder what Chave would say if he saw the state of the world today as it becomes increasingly clear that our over-consumption is a detriment to the balance of the health of our planet. In the name of "progress", we are depleting the resources of the world, and the effects of climate change and pollution are hitting marginalized people first, displacing entire communities, and disrupting food systems. The free exchange of information and use of social media can be used to start revolutions, but it can also be used to share fake news, and “third-rate, tasteless trash”. The quality of what we take in through the media can at times be of high-quality journalistic integrity, but how long do we sit with it before taking in some other upsetting news? And how often do we act on it?
Chave went on to conclude, “The principle of equal justice for men and women without regard to race or creed or color, is fundamentally a religious principle” and that following the star to Jesus is the answer. One without an organized religion may have trouble with this statement– for equal justice must be embraced by all religions as a universal truth, but logic and instinct can lead us to this too. When we define sacred as worthy of respect, and view the world around us as a sacred place, the people and plants around us as worthy of our respect, does it matter what we call the Creator; God, Mother Earth, Mystery, organized matter? Or does it matter how we move on the world, careful not to trample the delicate, sowing love wherever we go, and remembering that we all look upon the same stars?
I pared down an essay I wrote a couple years ago on an old blog. If you'd like to see the original piece, visit here: