Drew Rick-Miller/Science for the Church - Advent Devotional: God’s Real Presence
Note: We offer another devotional in part three of our 2021 series of science-informed Christmas reflections.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Equed (pronounced Ek-wed) was a part of the Rick-Miller family for a few years. He had regular playdates with our daughter—some short and others spanning days. He joined us for most meals. He even came with us on a family vacation or two.
Despite all the time he spent with us, I never heard Equed speak or saw him eat a single bite of food. He was an easy traveler—no luggage to tote or extra expenses. One of my favorite things about Equed was that he never left a mess of toys, laundry, or dishes.
You may have figured this out by now, but Equed was my daughter’s imaginary friend.
Truth be told, I don’t like the label imaginary as it relates to Equed. It suggests that Equed was pretend and not real in any important sense. Of course, he was not real in the way my daughter’s school or church friends were real. But she never indicated at the time that Equed was pretend. What I remember most is that Equed was both loved and a constant companion.
Science Friday produced a video series detailing what scientists have learned about imaginary companions. These videos are rich with information about how normal they are—as many as two-thirds of children have some form of imaginary friend—and the tremendous diversity among them. Some research suggests they are connected to beneficial traits like sociality and creativity. Interestingly, most kids readily acknowledge that their imaginary companion is pretend.
Did you or your child have an imaginary companion? What was it like? How was your experience similar or different from the ones researchers describe?
The modern scientific worldview suggests that the only real things are material objects that we can see, touch, hear, or measure. Even the invisible mysteries of science—dark matter or those elusive, not-yet-detected subatomic strings—are real in the sense that they exert a force or exist in our mathematical machinations.
If we had plugged my daughter into an fMRI scanner, I’m certain there would have been traces of neuronal activity that corresponded with Equed’s real presence during a playdate or meal. I imagine it would have looked something like any other brain scan of her playing with friends after church or eating lunch at the school cafeteria.
In fact, her experience of Equed was not unlike how many of us experience God. (Of course, I understand that this is a limited analogy and the God who created, sustains, and redeemed the world is nothing like Equed, but stick with me.) We experience God’s real presence not like gravity or when our immune system is fighting off illness. Few of us see God in the mathematics that so well describe much of the natural world. Yet, God is real; for some of us, God is every bit as real as any living companion.
This is why I don’t like the label “imaginary.” There are very real things—love, beauty, and so-called supernatural entities like God—that are not tangible or detectable by scientific methods, but should not be dismissed as pretend either. The fruits of our imagination, our experience, and even our emotions can point in profound ways to deep truths about reality.
Pause & Reflect
When has God felt real to you? In what sense was God real? How was that experience any more or less real than your experience of a living companion?
The Gospel of John begins by proclaiming that “The Word became flesh.” The same Logos that was at the very beginning, that was with God and that was God, did not leave these questions of imaginary and real unanswered. We were not left alone to navigate the disagreements between those gifted in recognizing the workings of the Spirit and others inclined toward materialism. God knew there are doubting Thomases among us who need to see, touch, and even be touched.
This is the miracle of incarnation: the Word becoming flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.
What seemed like an imaginary Logos became real in a fully material sense. Fully God was fully human. Witnesses saw Jesus interact with his friends and they shared meals with him. They heard him teach and felt his healing touch. They saw him perform tasks both mundane and miraculous. If we had had fMRI scanners or DNA testing, we could have measured the human reality of Jesus while he walked this earth.
This is the gift promised to us each Christmas morning: God became materially real. Shepherds and magi came to witness this miracle and to testify to God’s real presence in the form of a babe lying in a manger.
Today, my daughter would acknowledge that Equed was indeed pretend. He never became flesh and lived among us. That can only be said of the one true God who, in the form of a human child, entered material reality in order to redeem it. Thanks be to God!
...How do the imaginary companions of children connect to the wonder and excitement our kids bring to the season of Christmas?
...Does the modern scientific worldview—the idea that only material entities that can be realized or recognized by the methods of science are real—ever lead you to doubt God’s existence?
...In what ways does the birth of Jesus—the Word becoming flesh—make the reality of God any more or less believable?
...Do you think if we had brain scans or genetic tests of Jesus we would not only find him fully human, but also see the glory of his divine nature?
...At what moments in the Gospel narratives—from the first Christmas until the cross—do you find Jesus to be most recognizable as fully human, fully divine, or simultaneously both?
May the God who became human bless you and everyone who is dear to you in this season of Advent!
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.