Was there really a star of Bethlehem? Yes

A Christmas piece, originally published by The Idler.

It’s the time of year when newspapers ask whether there really was a star of Bethlehem. “We have seen his star in the East”, the wise men report in the Bible. So is the event historically accurate? The wise men were astrologers, which makes the incident a double target for the debunkers of today.

Indeed, some quickly consign the story to the rubbish bin of legend. Astronomy tells us that stars do not suddenly appear in the cosmos, they say, but are fixed and unchanging compared to shifts human individuals can detect. Case closed.

Others go the opposite way. They muster fideistic convictions and insist the star was a miracle. What happened to the wise men is comparable to the incident in the book of Joshua, when the sun stood still in the middle of the sky and did not go down for a whole day. God did it because God can.

Then, there are those who search for recorded celestial events that might explain away the story. Perhaps the sight refers to Venus rising as the morning star just before sunrise, which might have had significance for astrologers. Or maybe it was a supernova or comet or atmospheric apparition.

This year, I’m opting for a different possibility. I’ve been reading poets and philosophers, such as William Blake and Plato, who have proposed that there are kinds of realities that are neither purely subjective nor wholly objective. They occur. They are real. But they sit somewhere in between the felt actuality of inner life and the manifest corporeality that can be examined and measured via the methods of science. They are not sheer fantasy but are what is sometimes called the imaginal, objects in a third realm that mediate the immaterial to the material. Further, this realm matters because the imaginal is also truth-bearing, as the poet Malcolm Guite puts it in his work on another advocate of this tertium quid, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Plenty of candidates can be drawn from the arts. “Don’t be such a Scrooge!” someone will yell at Christmas – referencing the fictional character of Charles Dickens who now has an existence of his own. Or there’s Shakespeare. He provides dozens of examples of brilliant imaginal insights. One of the best is from The Tempest, a plot wholly created by the Bard. It includes Prospero famously musing that, “We are such stuff, As dreams are made on”. Notice that “we”. It wonderfully includes Prospero, the character, and ourselves, the readers. It invites us to hover in a virtual space. If Prospero is a dream, then can his observation be true? If we are a dream, then what is our stuff? The truth content springs from the implicit domain conjured between the players and the audience. It’s all the more real for that.

Acknowledging this third sphere has practical outcomes too, particularly for parents at Christmas. They will face the question of a growing child: is Santa real? The reality of the imaginal allows you to answer with a definitive, unashamed, truthful, yes. As the psychotherapist, Donald Winnicott, put it, Santa Claus has become a part of western children’s imaginative play, which is in turn part of their development, creativity and a rich engagement with the world. “Some of the child’s belief and generosity can be handed out to Father Christmas,” he suggested, when advising parents not to debunk Santa. The feelings of goodness associated with the great gift giver are real. Moreover, they belong to the child and you risk destroying them with a brusque denial. All these qualities are made more real by the story of the man who is so generous that he delivers toys on one night right across the globe.

A different domain of the real imaginal includes phenomena such as rainbows and mirror images; holograms and laws of nature. Take the rainbow. You see it. I see it. The camera records it. But move to the end of the rainbow and not only will there be no crock of gold, there won’t be an end either. The rainbow is definitely real but it’s also, in one sense, not there.

Or consider laws of nature. Scientists find them. Students are taught them. They can be deployed to fabricate technologies. And yet, if you set out in a spaceship to find the scroll upon which the laws of nature are written, or the star field in which they are etched into cosmic dust, you’d set out on a hiding to nothing. They’re found through that amazing investigative tool: contemplation.

The anthropologist of religions, Jeffrey Kripal, has made the case for understanding supernatural experiences similarly. Accounts of events from near death experiences to UFO abductions appear to arise from the imaginations of the experiencers but in such a way that they become more than private dreams. They are often shared by more than one person. They can be so powerful that they permanently transform a life. They can make a tangible impact upon the physical world too, to the extent that evidence can be gathered to demonstrate that something is going on. (Ignore the professional skeptics, Kripal adds: usually, they’ve disregarded the evidence on ideological grounds.)

Such incidents happen, he suggests, for a reason. They invite us to move away from a materialist worldview, where what counts is what can be probed and kicked, and to engage again with a depth of reality that was obvious and natural to our ancestors. It’s as if we are being called back.

So what of the star of Bethlehem and other details that accrued around the birth of Jesus: the shepherds, the dreams, the virgin, the angels? They are realities, yes. But they are realities whose weight in the world does not depend upon them having mass, but on having meaning. And meaning is quite as powerful a causative force as the phenomenon described by Newton’s second law of motion.

Perhaps wise men did see a star in a collective experience that guided them. That seems plausible to me. Perhaps some shepherds did see the angelic host praising God. If William Blake could detect seraphim in the blackened trees of Peckham Rye, then why not?

At this time of year, spirits and spooks, shadows and stories hang in the air like the fantastic electric angels currently soaring over Regent Street. So maybe it’s a good time to reconsider the extended possibilities of imaginal reality. Indulge in the playful tale. Ponder the nature of an ice rainbow. Enjoy the fearfulness of a Christmas ghost. Reach out to the intangible truths found in between us.

Perhaps even the baby of Bethlehem will speak afresh in an unexpected way. After all, when he grew up, he promised his followers sight of something astonishing. “Very truly,” the honest man declared: “You will see the heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man.”

(Image: Harper’s Magazine, Christmas 1898.)

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