Even though the numbers are decreasing, most Americans (56%, to be exact) will celebrate Christmas this year in a church congregation. And right in the midst of those worship services, they’ll hear that (1) a virgin gave birth to a baby (2) in a feeding trough (or manger) and that this birth (3) receives an angelic announcement and (4) a visitation by “wise men” or magi who have traveled hundreds of miles, guided by a heavenly light (more on this last part in a moment).
If hearing about this four-part Christmas story hasn’t just become routine, it should register to us as some fairly unusual stuff. Or maybe it strikes me that way because Christmas arrives just after I’ve finished teaching my college course on science and religion. And perhaps that’s why I pose these questions:
In an increasingly technological and scientific world, is the Christmas story unbelievable? Put another way, is there a science of Christmas future?
Apparently, these four elements of the Christmas story are becoming less believable. Only 57% of Americans take all four as historical events. And among those who answer “none” to the question, “What is your religious affiliation?”—which is now one in four in our country—the number drops to 11%. This is a growing trend with the increasing percentage of “nones” in our country who are 18-30 years old (about 35%), many of whom have left the church because “churches come across as antagonistic to science.”
I’m convinced that congregations are going to have to engage science and its insights. And what does that mean?
For one thing, the skeptic might comment (including the skeptic in me) that this decline of religious belief generally, and acceptance of the Christmas story particularly, are simply the results of the ongoing onslaught of science and its rationality. We are less credulous because that’s what science teaches us to be.
But that analysis strikes me as too simple. The reality is more nuanced. Let’s take that star of Bethlehem. Let’s see what it means “to bring science to church.” In a recent book, biblical scholar Colin Nicholl, works meticulously through the astronomical evidence and presents a compelling case that this heavenly star was a great comet. (I’ve reviewed this book here... unfortunately behind a paywall). He comments that those magi were “scholars engaged in astronomy and astrology. They made regular observations of stars, planets, comets, and other phenomena.” So it’s not a surprise that he finds the science around a comet’s directing the magi’s path compelling. Nicholl’s conclusion?
“Suddenly, we realize that this is history. This is something that actually occurred. And the Magi on this journey were real people, overwhelmed by what they witnessed.” Colin Nicholl, author The Great Cosmic Christ
We may not all come to the same conclusion, but it is impressive that here a scholar is taking both the Christian scripture and astronomical science seriously. And that’s the kind of work, in my view, the church needs to be about.
And there’s a history to this. If we learn anything from the great scientists in the church, like Nicolaus Copernicus, James Clerk Maxwell, and Francis Collins (to name just three), science is a Christian calling. It even arises because of an orderly cosmos which makes the most sense when we believe there is an orderly Creator.
“The Universe has been wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator.” Copernicus
And there’s no reason that this Creator who created nature can’t, at notable moments, use means beyond the natural world to achieve certain aims. Like the coming the Redeemer of the world. That doesn’t strain credulity, even within a scientific worldview.
I might describe this in another way: The Christmas story, which is a component of a larger narrative, isn’t really just a four-part set of miracles. As C. S. Lewis put it,
“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is, beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature with Him.” Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis
This is an audacious claim. But, as the Cambridge University particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne has commented in his reflections on Christmas,
“A scientist (particularly one who has worked with quantum physics) knows that sometimes the sheer weight of the evidence will force one to conclusions that, in terms of prior experience, seem totally strange and paradoxical.” John Polkinghorne, physicist-theologian
So let me ask again: What is the science of Christmas’s future? If we follow the demographics, there will be more room in the pews. More substantially, if I were to predict a future based on my own research and others’, the conversation between science and religion is critical. I’ve convinced that the reason this Christmas story is losing credibility is that the church has not demonstrated that it takes science seriously. (Indeed it is something I’ve argued in various places.) That doesn’t mean, however, that it has to answer every scientific question—and that everyone will be satisfied even when it tries.
I am willing to repeat what I wrote three years ago: For the short term, most Americans will go to church at Christmastime. The future of Christmas may depend on if they will be able to take their science with them.