The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

How do you conduct a disputation?

Disagreements are often… disagreeable. Some people seem to like conflict too much and others avoid it at all costs. Jesus was a master of handling those that tried to trap him in speech (e.g. the question on paying the tribute to Caesar, Matthew 22:15-21). I thought today we might look at some tips on handling disputations ourselves.

I want to take St Thomas Aquinas as a model to examine. He studied/taught at the University of Paris in the 13th Century, where “disputation” was a technical term for a form of debate. He used this as the structure for his main writing, the Summa Theologiae (a summary of theology). A disputation would begin by stating a question (e.g. “Whether baptism is a sacrament”). Objections would be raised, and then responses given—a statement of authority, the author’s own reply, and then responses to the individual objections.

This structure makes reading his work a little different from something written in prose, but is very helpful for working through a problem. It pursues truth while maintaining charity and fairness to the opponent. Many of these points may strike us as common sense, but it’s good to review them from time to time! Let’s break down his steps and see what can be gained from them:

  1. A disputation remains focused on a single question. A common problem in arguments is to continue to raise more and more points and not allow the other side to respond. This stops being a search for truth and instead becomes an attempt to bury the opponent in words. Stay on topic!
  2. Second, by examining objections, it takes the time to understand the other person. Listing the objections is not supposed to be an exercise in distorting them! Aquinas would seek to put himself in the shoes of his objectors and be fair to their argument. Again, this is an extremely common mistake that ruins discussions. We need to understand what others are saying and not turn their statement into a “straw man” (the term for misrepresenting the opponent to weaken their argument). Aquinas studied pagan, Jewish, and Muslim authors as part of his philosophical/theological investigations as well. He wanted to seek truth and to think clearly about the places of disagreement. Otherwise, the step of listing objections will not bear any fruit.
  3. Third, Aquinas would quote a text that he held as an authority (usually Scripture or another saint). Citing an authority isn’t always convincing (e.g. your interlocutor may not accept the same authorities), but it does remind us of the importance of doing our research. Sometimes the better answer is to pause the discussion and say, “I do not know” or “I’ll look that up” rather than to just make something up that sounds good!
  4. Fourth, Aquinas would give his own answer to the question in a simple, logical fashion. He didn’t rely upon emotional pressure or insulting attacks. This might be another time where we defer to a later time so that we have a chance to get our thoughts in order before offering an immediate response.
  5. Finally, he went back and responded to the specific concerns of his interlocutor. Like before, there is a temptation here to lose track of the actual point of the conversation. We might give an answer to an imaginary objection rather than the concerns of the person we are actually speaking with. Even if we do respond to them, it may be the case that they still aren’t convinced of our point. We need to have patience and not feel like every conversation is a matter of life or death. We can’t forget to leave time for thought, reflection, and future discussions. Our goal isn’t just to “win” a disagreement but to be faithful to truth and charity, and to leave the rest to God.

I know that I myself don’t always put this into practice perfectly, but studying Aquinas certainly helped! I highly encourage anyone who wants to think clearly (and dispute charitably) to spend some time studying his work. God bless!