Magi's visit models a scientific approach worth emulating

Sometimes the Christmas cards don't go out 'til February; other years the Valentine's Day cards never reach the mailbox. In that sense, you may think I am late to the story of the Magi. I, on the other hand, think I am early for next year.

Most people think the magi were early scientists, astronomers and seers, better known as diviners, fortune tellers, maybe even magicians. Herod obviously trusted their way of knowing enough to hire them as consultants, but then they trusted themselves enough not to give Herod their report. They are more like scientists than anyone else in their world.

We could compare their kind of intuitive science to what Stuart Firestein, chair of the biological sciences department at Columbia University in New York, says in his book The Pursuit of Ignorance.

Firestein happens to be an expert in -- get ready -- the vertebrate olfactory receptor neuron; in other words, how animals smell. He woke up one day and realized that he was teaching neuroscience to students at Columbia, and they thought he knew something about it. It scared him. He became worried that he was taking graduate students into science -- when they are filled with questions about lots of things -- and turning them into people who knew a whole lot about very little.

The magi knew a whole lot, and Herod wanted to know what they knew. They decided not to tell him.

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Firestein describes science as looking for a black cat in a dark room, where there is no cat. He says that the pursuit of knowledge is about the expansion of our questions, and he contrasts the worldviews of the puzzle and the ripple.

In the puzzle, we imagine that if we just find all the pieces and put them together in the right way that we will know what we need to know and do what we need to do. The world is not a puzzle, though, he says, because there is no manufacturer. Plus, most of us don't trust the manufacturer even if there is one. We were created to be genuine scientists, which is to say be genuinely suspicious of all we are told and all we see.  

With the magi, we learn when to trust the Herods and when not to. You could say that the entire purpose of a liberal arts education is to tell you what to trust and what not to trust. You go mutual while remaining independent.

Mutality is more like a ripple than anything else. It is a method of divination, one in which you agree to go with the rippling flow and to not always be the same. Mutuality is the willingness to be changed by another -- you agree to let me change you, I agree to let you change me -- and to not stay the same once that person has come into your life. 

Mutuality can achieve what Firestein appears to want in his scientists -- expansive sets of questions. Knowledge, he says, is question propagation. In the lower ignorance, we have few questions; we're trying not to get bumped around by others rippling. In the higher ignorance, we are trying to move toward more questions.

The Magi knew the star astronomically as special, and they sensed that the child might be so as well. Thus they kept his whereabouts a question for Herod. The Magi were so impressed with the baby and the questions the entrance of such a child into the world might be that they stopped and stared and brought gifts. They became mutual with a matter they were sent to simply observe. 

They also sensed the threat of Herod and returned home another way. Good science, good theology, good astronomy is helped by our willingness to return home another way, to think a thought that is always rippling larger and never closing in on itself.

How will mutuality help us face and enjoy the New Year, already so full of violence that it frightens us?

We will become mutual with those who do not tolerate a cartoon about their faith, as well as those killed for their sense of humor. That means understanding why they exploded as well as rippling our way, daily, toward fewer explosions. 

For me, that means understanding the power of the Jesus way.

Maybe the magi didn't know it then, but we know now that Jesus is the one who refuses to have an enemy. Jesus meant something very different when he was born into the world. Eyes for eyes and tits for tats were over. I ripple to protect that truth, and to keep it from being killed by any version of Herod.

Some have called this year the "Year of the Plug," where we will become ever so much more connected globally to each other. Call it the World Wide Web if you want, I call it hyper-connection, like the kind the Magi experienced with Jesus.

If we learn to discover the divine, we will be less afraid.

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