Why humanists, humanitarians, and the rest of us need to care about Christmas:
The Christmas story is a harmless myth, and probably a pointless one too – what message could we possibly draw from a magical baby supposedly born in a Palestinian barn two millennia ago? Being associated with organised religion and all the ickyness and awkward questions that go with that monolith surely does this humble story no favours either. Better by far to quietly sideline that child and seek a personalised instantiation of the Christmas message in Santa Claus instead; a figure known for being unambiguously jolly, unambiguously fictional, and unlikely to cause unease, division, or controversy. So runs, I think, the dominant line of kiwi thought at this time of year.
Of course, St Nick would spin like a Christmas top in his grave if he found out that his brand had been reformed and adopted by, amongst others, a multinational purveyor of coloured sugar water and used thenceforth to promote consumerist materialism to the naïve and secularised masses of the modern West (and beyond); but that is another story. We in Godzone are not in the habit of letting historical facts get in the way of pervasive and liberating cultural narratives, so we shall move on.
[Thanks to a few Facebook friends for posting this image!]
What really needs saying is that hovering in the background of our collective consciousness, floating on the strains of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, is a story with consequences. This may make some of you uncomfortable, but I offer it to you as something that is worth your attention nonetheless. The nativity tale is in its essence either true or false, and I believe that this has ramifications for our view of human dignity, purpose, and what really matters in life. Around our family dinner tables, in parliament, lecture theatres, at board meetings, in factories and at lab benches we need to be asking questions about these issues of ultimate importance – and Christmas, a celebration founded on a story of transcendent love and wisdom becoming a human being, is as good a time as any for this. We have in this country a culture of superficiality, where the things that are the most important are deemed too private and personal to discuss, leaving the public square open primarily to shallow, ungrounded, and short-term concepts of individual and societal flourishing, but we can and must do better.
If the standard materialistic account of our origins and existence is correct; if all world religions are false and spiritual things are at most a matter for personal dabbling for those-so-inclined rather than a question of reality, then life has no purpose other than what each bipedal ape chooses to invent for itself. Talk of “human dignity”, worth, rights, and compassion are perhaps just quaint hangovers from a Judaeo-Christian past; they may well be taken for granted and even clung to passionately, but how could such things place moral demands on us? A drastic reconsideration of the ‘good life’ and what we ought to do is immediately called for, and whether anything important will remain is exceedingly unclear.
But if one baby was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and then born in a manger in about 5 B.C. as part of a much larger cosmic plan with redemption and reconciliation at its centre, then every thing changes. Every thing can now no longer be conceived of as either a brute fact or a product of accident combined with (mysterious, but taken for granted!) natural law but must instead be seen as a creation, and the object of ongoing sustaining action from the Creator. Every person is now a creature of high worth, of inestimable value. This baby provides a basis for thinking that there is more to life, makes sense of our condition as human beings, justifies a new and radical way of being human, and provides the way for relationship with the transcendent and personal God who loves to the point of death. This is an epic story.
Further reading (books available for loan if you want):
”Justice – Rights and Wrongs”. Nicholas Wolterstorff. (2007). Cambridge University Press.
“The Case for Christmas”. Lee Strobel. (2005). Zondervan.
”Where the Conflict Really Lies – Science, Religion, and Naturalism”. Alvin Plantinga. (2011). Oxford University Press.
Is life without God absurd? William Lane Craig, response to question
“The weight of glory.” CS Lewis, a talk delivered in war time