Christians often mistake the cultural moment, and miss opportunities, I think.
I always grit my teeth when I hear people talk about how today’s young people are convinced that science is the only way to come to truth, and so they won’t accept faith claims that aren’t scientifically verifiable. That’s simply not true.
In fact there are two popular trends in the air at the moment: Science is one. Astrology is another. Trust in science is very high, though it took a hit after the pandemic. But astrology, which is decidedly very unscientific, is hugely popular right now. One magazine says Astrology’s a billion dollar industry; others say tens of billions.
It’s important to fully realize just how dangerous both these trends are: One dabbles in the supernatural indiscriminately, and the other denies the soul. But despite their dangers, I think the existence of these two trends reveal an opening for faith.
First: The rise of astrology shows dangerous gullibility, but also a new willingness to trust.
As a culture we have been in the centuries-long grip of the thought-tradition that comes to us from the “masters of suspicion”— a nickname St. John Paul II applied to Marx, Freud and Nietzche. These were thinkers who looked at the world and doubted what they saw: Our perceptions couldn’t be trusted because they were warped by a power superstructure, or irrational psychological urges, or by a religious delusion.
This deep suspicion meant that faith was out. We wanted to see things spelled out, proven — scientifically. But astrology goes back to an ancient era where the universe was somehow communicating information to me that could help me. It is misplaced trust, to be sure — but it is a step away from suspicion.
If there is a new willingness to trust, God is ready. As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical Lumen Fidei, God has gone a long way to overcome our suspicion. He wrote, “Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely”(No. 16).
Second: At the same time, confidence in science shows a tendency toward self-correction.
If the trend toward astrology shows trust replacing suspicion, then science help replace gullibility with precision.
As St. John Paul II put it, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
Those who subject the world to scientific study are taking steps toward God, whether they admit it or not. “The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are,” as the Catechism puts it.
Third: By combining the best of both, faith can give both devotees what they are looking for.
Faith is not a belief in something ethereal and vague, like astrology, but something firm and tangible, like science. But faith doesn’t limit itself to what we can measure and test, like science does; rather it is open to what is invisible but powerful, as astrology is.
A culture that is flailing around, looking at stars and molecules to find meaning, can find the place where they are united, in the person of Jesus Christ — with our help.
“Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships,” Pope Francis wrote in Lumen Fidei. “Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny.” (No. 17)
Fourth: The Magi can help guide the journey.
Thankfully, we have the perfect patrons, saints who live at the intersection of astrology and science: The Magi.
They were more like philosophers than diviners, but their investigations of the heavens lead them to Christ.
“Why did the Magi set off from afar to go to Bethlehem?” asked Pope Benedict XVI. “The answer has to do with the mystery of the ‘star’ which they saw ‘in the east’ and which they recognized as the star of the ‘King of the Jews,’ that is to say, the sign of the birth of the Messiah.”
He added: “Their journey was inspired by a powerful hope, strengthened and guided by the star, which led them toward the King of the Jews, toward the Kingship of God himself.”
Today’s seekers can follow the same journey.