Randomness, Patterns, & Bottles, Oh My!

message-in-a-bottle-633134It is often commented that the religious impulse is a manifestation of the human desire to find meaning in all experience, even that experience that is fundamentally meaningless. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, will claim that our distant ancestors faced so much danger from predators (and perhaps also from each other) that highly cautious, borderline paranoid behavior was selected for over the generations. Imagine, for example, that a prehistoric hominid heard a rustling in the bushes. Maybe it’s a hungry lion, or maybe it’s just an aggravated squirrel. Evolution might favor the person who assumes the worst and runs, since, even if they’re wrong, this will only result in a few wasted calories. Meanwhile, the person who sits easy and assumes no danger will pay a much higher price if they are mistaken.

The modern reasoning goes that this cognitive bias towards assuming that noises in the night must be caused by some powerful agent eventually led to human religiosity–we began to see agency in the movement of stars, in the timing of volcanic eruptions, and in the forming of storms. This explanation for religion, of course, forms a powerful basis for critiquing and rejecting spiritual and religious practice. After all, if human religion is nothing more than the fanciful products of over-active imaginations (or paranoia), then perhaps it is something better left behind in the dustbin of history.

But is this account of human religion convincing? Does it account for the variety of spiritual systems and the full range of religious philosophies developed by, and spiritual practices of, religious humans? This is a question of great breadth and depth that touches on a range of disciplines–psychology, sociology, history, and evolutionary biology, to name only a few–but I want to offer a response from a Christian theological perspective here.

First, I want to argue that this account gets at least some things right. I think it offers a (partial but nonetheless) powerful explanation for some religious tendencies and practices. Second, though, I want to argue that its true value can only be recognized once one recognizes its limitations, and I want to suggest that this account misses at least as much as it captures.

What is perhaps most interesting from a Christian theological perspective is that this modern account of human religion actually accords with traditional Jewish and Christian accounts of polytheistic faiths, especially those of the “pagan” peoples around them. Jews and Christians alike frequently mocked and derided what they saw as superstition among other Middle-Eastern and European peoples. Augustine, for example, spends a decent chunk of his Confessions making fun of astrology; the Biblical prophets often took an opportunity to laugh at people foolish enough to worship images carved in stone and wood. In both cases, Jewish and Christian thought seems to recognize that humans have a desire to control the future and their surroundings, and they also attempt to anthropomorphize matter around them in an attempt to bargain with the forces determining their lives.

In that sense, then, although evolutionary psychology may be a recent development, the basic critique of religion outlined above is not only not new, but it’s not even necessarily anti-religious across the board. It can be deployed by some religions against others, depending on their exact features. This brings us to the second point I’d like to make: this “explanation” of religion gives us a better understanding of some traditions than it does of others. To see why, consider this short example:

Imagine you are walking along a beach on a desert island. You’ve been living there for years and never found any trace of another human being. But today, as you walk along the tide-line, you see something shining in the water, bobbing up and down. As you approach, you realize it’s a bottle, and, as you pick it up, you see a small note folded up inside. A message in a bottle! You had heard of such things back before being stranded on this island, but you never expected to find one yourself. Excited, you pull the cork, reach inside, and pull the letter out. It is thin and fragile, clearly it’s been floating in the oceans for decades. As you unfold the note, you find not an endearing message in cursive, but a block of printed letters with no spaces. Try as you might, you can’t find any words spelled throughout the text. The letters appear to be completely random.

Now, if you really struggled and tried, and developed some complex scheme, you might be able to convince yourself that, actually, this is some kind of code. Over time, you might be able to develop a cipher which would allow you to “decode” the block of letters. Of course, since you could craft this cipher at your leisure, you could make it as complex and arbitrary as necessary to make the text say whatever you liked. If you wanted an encouraging message, you could “discover” than in the text. If you wanted to a romantic message, you could make that happen as well.

Now, here is where the evolutionary psychological critique outlined above would kick in and explain your behavior: we humans are wired to see messages and agency everywhere, even when there isn’t one, and so the “messages” you discovered were, in fact, constructions of your own mind. And, in this case, they’d be right.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Even if you admitted to yourself, after many years of trying to believe that there really was a message there for you, that the block of letters was random and arbitrary, the bottle and its contents would not lose their curiousness. Stepping back from the meaning of the note, you might begin to ask different questions. Even if the note itself is just a random series of letters, how did it get into the bottle? And why was the bottle dropped into the ocean? The shape of the ink on the page might be random and meaningless, but it’s hard to believe that it got into the bottle, with cork on top, and then into the ocean through purely random events. The best explanation is that someone intentionally put a meaningless note into a bottle, and intentionally put that bottle into the ocean.

Why would they do such a thing? In asking this question, the same impulse that you had when you were trying to decode the note is at play, and yet here it is not so easily dismissed. In fact, this new question might weigh even more heavily on you than the previous one. Why would someone go through the trouble of getting this note into a bottle if the note itself meant nothing? Does the bottle mean something? Did the process of putting the bottle into the ocean mean something?

In these two different kind of questions–the meaning of the note, on the one hand, and the meaning of the note’s presence in the bottle, on the other–we see models for two different kinds of religious and spiritual thinking. One kind of common human religiosity sees the gods as beings in the world who have control over specific phenomena–a god of the sea, a goddess of the crops, etc. For this kind of religion, the shape of entrails as they fall from a goat, or the size of a flock of birds overhead, means something. And it is this kind of religiosity that is susceptible to the evolutionary psychological explanation–trying to see  a human-like agency in phenomena that are probably arbitrary, or caused by sequences of events that are nothing like human thought.

But in asking about the message-in-the-bottle’s existence in general, a different kind of religiosity is on display. Here, it is not the shape of the goat’s entrails or the size  of a flock of birds that necessarily says something–it’s the fact that goats and birds and the whole cosmos exists at all that says something. This question–“why is there something instead of nothing?”–superficially resembles the questions behind polytheism and divination–“why do volcanoes erupt? why did my family not have more children?”–but in essence it is a radically different question. It is not an attempt to explain particular aspects of the world with superstition. It is not, that is, an attempt to do pre-scientific pseudo-science. Instead, it is an attempt to secure the foundations of knowing and being in general. It seeks to understand how it could be that science is even possible, that being is even extant.

Religion in this form–and I include here at the very least the great Abrahamic and Indic traditions, though I am sure other currents of human thought, both religious and philosophical, also fall into this category–is not so easily explained away. Any mature thinker who carefully considers the strange facticity of the immediacy of existence will find themselves gazing at that bottle and wondering questions that lie beyond the mind’s grasp. Another way of saying all of this is that some religious traditions and practices are focused on content, and others on form. Religious practices that try to explain particulars–volcanoes, the seasons, the dark spots on the moon–are the former. Meanwhile, religious thought that asks about the genesis of the cosmos, of the meaning of time and space themselves, of the possibility of causality and meaning in any sense fall into the latter. (It bears mentioning that while I think dividing religious traditions between these two broad trends is useful, there is clearly also overlap: some “pagan” communities eventually developed sophisticated and robust philosophical systems, and many members of Abrahamic and Indic religions–Christianity very much included–often fell back into self-serving superstition.)

The main point I hope can be taken away from this is that words like “religion” and “god” are not homogeneous, single-reference signifiers. It is a foolish errand to try and explain the genesis of religion through one very neat causality, because what you are trying to explain is incredibly complex. Likewise, the distinction between a “god” and “God” cannot be over-stated. Seeking to understand why sometimes the waves are calm and other times violent is simply not the same as wondering what and why being is. The former is, at its core, a scientific question, and we moderns (and postmoderns?) are right to leave behind superstitious answers. The latter, however, is a question seeking the foundations of any possible thought, science included, and is a philosophical question as relevant today as it ever was.

So, I say: religion is dead; long live religion! Let us leave behind not only superstition but also false confidence in simplistic explanations. Let us stop, sit, and consider ourselves clearly. What sits in the mirror is, after all, a defiant mystery.

Asking “God?”

question“God” is not an answer, but a question.

To wonder about God, to think about God, to pray, to worship, is to ask the question: where is this coming from? “This” being all that we experience: whatever we think, whatever we sense, whatever we imagine, whatever is extended in space and time before us. Now, this question may not occur to everyone. Many people seem to assume that what-is is; it just is. It’s there. But under careful reflection, this credulity starts to look rather strange.

Our lives, the whole ebb and flow of existence, of experience, of living, is marked by contingency. Contingency, in this broad cosmological sense, simply means that whatever-is did not have to be. Whatever is happening, we know something else could be happening. It’s important to note that this is true even if one is a strict determinist. Even if you believe that every event that has happened since the Big Bang has been caused without any possible variation by the preceding set of events, that whole collection of events (that is, the universe) is still utterly contingent: first, because the rules that govern those events seem to be contingent themselves. The fundamental forces of physics, for example, do not seem to be necessary. As far as I know, no physicist argues that these forces or rules are absolute or necessary in the strict and final sense. And when these forces or laws are expressed mathematically, there are a range of constants and operators which we know could be otherwise, at least in theory. The fundamental forces of physics are actual but not necessary. They are, thus, contingent.

But contingency runs even deeper. It’s not just that what-is could be other than it is, it also seems that what-is could simply not be at all. This is often expressed in the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s important to understand that when philosophers and theologians pronounced “nothing” here, they are not talking about empty space and time, but rather no-space and no-time, no-actuality and no-possibility, even no-necessity. Nothing means no-thing, nothing at all. Often, when people talk about nothing, they mean not-this-thing. But not-this-thing is not nothing, it’s just something else. Empty space and empty time–an endless black expanse with no matter or energy for eternity–would still be something. Extension of space and time is not no-thing, it is something, even if it’s a something that appears as almost nothing to human thought.

So why is there something rather than nothing? The idea of “God” is not the answer to this question! When we use “God” as an easy answer to such profound and unanswerable questions, we both disrespect the intelligence of atheists and belittle the power and mystery of God. God is not an answer, God is not an idea, God is not a topic of discussion. The idea of God is simply the mental response of taking the question seriously. “God” is the horizon of all being and knowing.

To say that one has faith in God must mean that one simply says that the contingent universe, the actual but not necessary flow of whatever simply is at each moment, and indeed the very ground of that existence–extended space and time–that all of this, all of this, proceeds from something other than itself. God, then, conceptually, is the Whence of existence. I use this archaic English word “whence” here because I think it captures something that is harder to communicate in contemporary English.

Centuries ago, in addition to the question word “where”, we also had two other location words in English: whence and whither (not to be confused with “wither”!). To ask “whence” was to ask “from where”, and to ask “whither” was to ask “to where”. So, if I asked “whence cometh thou?” I would be asking “Where did you come from?” And if I asked “whither goest thou?” I was asking “Where are you going to?” Where told someone my current location; whence and whither told them where I had come from and where I was going.

To say that God is the Whence of existence is to say that God is that from which existence flows. Once we have seen that existence is utterly contingent–that it is actual but in no way necessary–asking after this Whence makes sense. But if we see existence as both actual and necessary, if we think that what-is just is and needs no further comment, then we won’t ask after this Whence. This is what it means to say that “God” is a question. When we say “God” we are asking ourselves and each other, “whence comes all that is?”

It is crucial to see one important consequence of understanding “God” in this way. If it’s true that all that exists flows from God, then it is not true to say that God exists. Now, this is not to say that we would agree with what people mean when they say “God doesn’t exist”. Rather, it is to say that the category of existence is simply not able to capture the reality of God. In other words, to believe in God is to believe that existence–the events of extended space and time, and even the rules that govern this extension–does not include everything that is real. “Real” here covers the fullness of all that is in the broadest and deepest possible sense, where “existence” refers only to reality as it appears to humans, that limited degree of reality that we can sense and cognize (for more on this, see Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal).

This is why it is truer to say that “God” is a question and not an answer. Prayer and worship are not confident acts of certainty, but the opening of humanity to the mystery at their very center, an attempt to gaze back at the very fount of existence, to ask the great Whence. For Christians, to admit that “God” is a question should not challenge our faith, it should deepen it! For Jesus made this point himself when he instructed us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7-12). Once we have understood that our actuality depends on something other than itself to be, we have taken the first step towards God.

The Flat Self and the Deep Other

Julian-of-Norwich-&-hazelnut-798183Early in our lives, our sensory and mental life is all we can imagine; it fills not only our immediacy but also the boundaries of what we think possible. However things appear, whatever thoughts come to us, that’s reality, as far as we can know or imagine. It doesn’t seem like there could be anything else. As we get older, things start to change a bit. We have new experiences, new ideas, new conceptual relations. We begin to realize that there is more to reality than what appears to our consciousness at any given moment. We come to realize that other people’s experiences could be different–perhaps radically different–from our own, and yet also reflect reality just as truly as our own.

Once we begin to admit and accept that not all is as it seems, that there is more than meets the eye, and indeed more than meets our conceptual models, a funny thing happens to us. Our sensory experience, our mental life, which before seemed so full and so rich, starts to flatten. We recognize that what occurs to us is superficial. It’s almost as if our world goes low-definition; we thought we had three or indeed four dimensions available to us, but we begin to see that our world, the world as it appears to us, is more like two-dimensional. Something is missing. Maybe a lot is missing! We begin to fill a bit hemmed-in by the horizons of our immediate consciousness.

This can be deeply unsettling, because our grip on certainty loosens here, and we have to give up control. Especially for people raised primarily as English-speakers, this can be even more troubling, for the culture of English-language philosophy is primarily a culture of empiricism: a confidence that, if we analyze our sensory experience closely enough, we can uncover all truth. To begin to see that this may not be quite true is to relinquish not only a view of the world that is important to us, but a view of ourselves too. The real world is somewhat veiled to us; not all mysteries will yield to our probing.

Yet this realization is, ultimately, liberating. To relinquish this world of our creating is to relinquish a small, sad, dead world. So long as the world is only what we see and think it to be, so long as we are the measure of reality, we know that we can never go beyond ourselves, we cannot transcend our limitations; we know we are trapped. To realize that the world we know is flat and superficial, ironically, allows us to see the world’s true value. Its flatness points to a depth somewhere else; the world we make doesn’t speak the whole truth, but it is spoken by a deeper truth. If there is more to reality than what we see and think, that more is real and is worth turning towards, even if its beyond our sensing and thinking. To see the world as flat is actually to begin to appreciate its real depth.

To see our world–and ourselves–in this way, however, is not easy. It means relinquishing not only that control and certainty, but also easy and convenient answers. It means accepting that life is, at its very core, infinitely mysterious, that we are given to ourselves from a place beyond our understanding. So it is not only that our world is stranger than we imagined, but we are stranger to ourselves than we imagined or want to accept. It’s not always a totally pleasant realization. But in the face of this troubling mystery lies our truth and the only possibility of real freedom.

Most of all, this realization, of the otherness of reality from our immediate experience, is the true foundation for faith in God.

Questions for Christmas and Epiphany

shepherds&angelsDuring Advent, I found myself seeking new directions in my devotional practice. I found that I was less attentive during private times of prayer. After thinking on this for a while, I decided to begin using questions as a part of my prayer life. At a time when I wasn’t sure how to pray, I figured spiritual honesty was the best approach. So, during Christmastide, I reflected on three questions as a part of my devotional and prayer practice: what does Jesus’s Incarnation really mean? How is Jesus incarnate with us today? How can we live that incarnation? I say that I reflected on these questions, rather than “asked” them. I wasn’t seeking a straightforward answer–from myself or God. I wanted to really meditate on these questions, to enter the depth and mystery of Christian life.

Now it is the season of Epiphany, when we in the western Church reflect on the visitation of the magi (or “wise men”) who had been called to a new land to meet a new human who would inaugurate a new kind of life. So, I find myself reflecting on new questions: what New Thing is God doing with the birth of Jesus? How can we have eyes to see and ears to hear, so that we can understand this new thing? How can be be prepared for a New Thing to happen today?

What I have found interesting–and surprising–is that my Epiphany questions seems to almost provide answers to my Christmas ones. What does Jesus’s incarnation mean? It means that God is doing something truly, radically new in the world. How is Jesus incarnate with us today? By opening us to the possibility of more new and radically unexpected possibilities.

Jesus is so familiar to us Christians–and, indeed, even to many non-Christians–that we forget how strange, how uncomfortable, how truly and ridiculously new he was and is. We often domesticate him, make him an easy ally and friend, a crutch for our own personal or political beliefs. We lean on Jesus when it’s convenient, but ignore his inconvenient teachings, his challenges to popular ideas, his call to radical discipleship.

To say that Jesus is a New Thing that God is doing in the world is to accept and admit that, in Jesus, God is changing things. God is not only changing other things, other people, God is changing us. And that’s not easy to hear. We want God to be an insurance policy for who we are now, we want eternal life to be us staying who we are now, forever. But that isn’t what Jesus is offering. That isn’t who Jesus is.

Salvation means being changed. It means being made new. This is, I think, the hard teaching Jesus offers us in the third chapter of John, where we hear that we must be born “again” (or “from above”). Jesus is bringing a new life so radically new that it’s like being born again. We have to die to our past selves so that we can live as new selves, true selves, the selves that God always meant for us to be. This is the promise of God’s love, but it’s not easy. It’s not convenient. This view of Christianity doesn’t allow us to maintain the status quo and feel self-righteous. It forces us to be honest with ourselves, to ask how we have to change to be True.

So let us have eyes to see and ears to hear the New Thing God is doing in Jesus Christ. And let us be gripped by this New Thing, let us be changed, let us become who we truly are.

Mary Junior: An (Advent) Sermon for Dec. 24, 2017

The readings for this sermon can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I focus on the Gospel reading and mention the OT reading as well.

maryAnnunciationGabrielWe’re just a few hours away from Christmas. Yet our Gospel reading for today does not place us hours before Jesus’s birth, but instead hours before his conception. We are stepping nine months back in time. If Christmas is the New Beginning for the world, then today, we hear about the beginning of the Beginning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary with a strange–and ridiculous–message. She will give birth to a special child, despite the fact that she is a virgin. Now, Mary is a sharp young woman, and so she explains to this over-excited angel that this just isn’t how the world works, this isn’t how babies normally come into the world. What the angel is suggesting is impossible.

Then Gabriel responds to Mary: it may well be impossible for humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible for God. This is no normal situation, and her child will be no normal human being. Something truly new is about to happen. So Mary is left with a choice: having heard that impossibility is no barrier to God’s action, what will she do? I think this is the crux of our story today. It all comes down to this: how will Mary respond now? Well, she simply says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She signs on to God’s crazy, impossible, ridiculous mission.

Now, some people have speculated that perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman Gabriel approached that night. Maybe God had spoken to a dozen, two dozen women before her, but each had said “No!” to God’s crazy plan. Perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman visited that night, perhaps she was just the first woman to say “Yes!” to God, to agree to this ridiculous mission. Of course, such stories are not a part of our canon of Scripture. But I think they make something very important clear: Mary had to choose to take on this mission. God was calling her to an important work, but wasn’t going to force it on her. She had a decision to make.

This reminds me of some other stories from the Gospels. Over the coming weeks and months, as you listen to the Gospel proclaimed here in Church, or as you read the Gospels at home, I invite you to pay particular attention to the stories of Jesus healing people. Almost every time, after he has healed someone, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Jesus doesn’t say that he, Jesus, made them well, or that the Holy Spirit made them well. Their faith made them well. Even with the physical presence of God Incarnate standing before them, they could only be healed if they turned and chose to receive God’s gift of healing.

This means that we humans have an incredible power in in our choices. But of course, that power also means we have great responsibility: we have to have the faith and courage to hear God’s call, turn, and accept God’s mission for us. And that’s what we hear in our story about Mary today. Here was a woman with the faith and courage to accept God’s crazy and ridiculous mission. If the faith of those individuals allowed them to be healed by Jesus’s presence, then we can truly say that the whole world, the whole universe, is healed because of Mary’s faith. Through her faith, the Incarnate Word was able to enter the world. By her faith, we are made well.

Now, in our Old Testament story today, we hear about a very different divine-human encounter. King David has just united the twelve tribes of Israel, and he makes a public announcement that he will build a temple for God. The king is ashamed that while he sits in his palace, and his people are building home for themselves, God has no house. But through the prophet Nathan, God speaks to David, and tells him that he’s got it all wrong, he doesn’t understand: God has no more need for a house than God has need for food or water. In truth, wherever there are faithful people, God truly lives. Moving forward many centuries, Mary’s story is the culmination of Nathan’s prophecy. In her, God truly dwelt as the Incarnate Word.

Through the decision of one humble–but faithful and courageous–woman, God was able to act; through her faith and action, God came to heal and save the world. We Christians today have a lot to learn from Mary’s example. Like her, we should choose to become vessels of God’s love in the world. Like her, we should sign on to God’s crazy, ridiculous, impossible mission: a mission where, somehow, love defeats hate, and life defeats death.

So my hope and prayer for us, in these last few hours of Advent, with Christmas on the horizon, is that each one of us will choose to be little Mary Juniors, that we will choose to take on this mission, and bear the image of Incarnate Word in this world.


The Reason(ing) for the Season

nativityIs Christmas a real Christian holiday? It may seem like an odd question, but it’s one that gets a lot of attention in some quarters. It’s become something of an online tradition, really: this time of year, a few articles and videos will surface that claim to expose a Christmas conspiracy. The piece will argue that, although Christians claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, in fact, that’s not the case at all. They then go on to make a number of claims in a quasi-conspiratorial tone. These articles and videos tend to repeat the same claims with the same mixture of out-of-context historical data and slippery argumentation to suggest that, somehow, Christmas is not really a Christian holiday at all. I think this conclusion is demonstrably false and even silly, and I’d like to explain why.

First, let’s establish the core claims at the heart of many of these videos and articles:

  1. We don’t actually know when Jesus was born, therefore December 25 isn’t really Jesus’s birthday.
  2. Other religious groups–e.g. those who worshiped Mithra–celebrated December 25 as a major feast. Christians chose this day in order to compete with such celebrations.
  3. Some Christians (e.g. Puritans) actively suppressed the celebration of Christmas, in part because it was often celebrated with lots of alcohol. This suggests that, for many, Christmas was more about partying and gifts than about religion.
  4. Many Christmas traditions–including the use of pine trees–have nothing to do with Jesus and come from pre-Christian European customs.

Now, each of the above claims has a solid historical fact behind it, and so, taken just as historical facts, there’s little to argue with. The problem is that people will take these well-established points and try to fashion a further argument from them: namely, that Christmas “isn’t really a Christian holiday at all.” This is the sticking point. People move from solid claims to a mangled conclusion through fallacious reasoning. I’d like to address each claim in turn and show that, although the historical kernel in each is solid, none suggest in any way that Christmas is somehow an illegitimate holiday or some kind of elaborate ecclesiastic conspiracy.

First claim: we don’t actually know Jesus’s birthday

Claim one begins with an undeniable truth: although the vast majority of historians and text-scholars interested in the subject agree that Jesus of Nazareth existed, we have no idea when he was born. So, December 25 could be Jesus’s birthday, but it seems no more likely than any other date. But to argue that this means that December 25 can’t be properly celebrated as Jesus’s birthday, or that this date could not become fixed as the day on which Jesus’s birthday ought to be celebrated, is fallacious.

To see why, consider this example: many Somali refugees share the same birthday on their government-issued documents: January 1. This puzzled me when I first noticed it, but after asking around, I learned that this date was assigned to these particular refugees because no one–not even the individuals themselves–knew when they were born. (Exactly why is a little unclear to me. It may be the case that Somali culture simply doesn’t stress celebrating birthdays, or it may be because so many Somalis were orphaned at a young age during the civil war(s) in that country, or some combination of these and other reasons.) January 1 was assigned as their date of birth for government documents simply for bureaucratic expediency.

Now, say that I wanted to throw a birthday party for three different Somali refugees, each of which had January 1 listed as their official date of birth. I could just throw one giant part on the first of the year, but this seems like a bad idea for a number of reasons: first, each man would not feel that he was being celebrated himself, he would have to share the day. Second, none of the men might feel that this date held any significance for them; indeed, throwing a party on this date might simply remind them of sad realities about their past. Third and perhaps most significantly, most Americans will have celebrated New Year’s Eve the night prior, and probably won’t be interested in attending a birthday party the next day.

What should I do? Here’s one solution: soccer is popular in Somalia. Let’s say that each man has a different favorite player: one loves Cristiano Ronaldo, another prefers Lionel Messi, the third is more old-school and thinks that no one has topped Pele. Perhaps we could have each man celebrate his birthday on the birthday of his favorite player: February 5, June 24, and October 23, respectively. That seems like a solution that will spread the birthdays out, let each man feel that the day has some real significance for him, and hopefully avoid conflicts with other major celebrations.

Of course, the likelihood that any of these men were actually born on their newly-adopted birth-dates is exceedingly low. But I doubt that anyone would arrive at the party and then loudly explain that today isn’t really Abdihahim’s birthday, because we don’t actually know when he was born. In fact, such a person would not only be rude, but also misguided: a birthday is not a celebration of a day, it’s a celebration of a person. The date of their birth is just a convenient day to set aside for this celebration.

Christmas, too, is the celebration not of a date, not of the particular angle at which the sun sits in the sky, but is rather a celebration of a person–in this case, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we Christians regard as the Messiah. Not knowing the date of his birth in no way prevents us from celebrating his birth and his life. December 25 is at least as good a day to choose as any other.

Second Claim: December 25 was a common pagan holiday

That December 25–or other days just before or after it–was a common day for a variety of religious celebrations in the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago is uncontroversial. The date may have been celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, and it seemed it was definitely set aside for the celebration of Sol Invictus. Some of these differing holidays may also have been conflated and combined by some syncretistic groups (Constantine himself worshiped both Jesus and Sol Invictus; he may also have conflated Jesus with Apollo). Furthermore, it seems likely that the Church chose December 25 precisely to compete, as it were, with these varying mystery religions and local cults. Again, this is all more-or-less well established historically. No argument here.

The question is: what significance does any of this have for contemporary Christians who celebrate Christmas on December 25? Some people seem to think that Christmas is not a legitimate Christian holiday because its date was chosen in the way that it was. But it is not at all clear why this would be the case. Again, since we don’t know Jesus’s actual birthday, December 25 is just as suitable as any other day. If Christians decided that this day made especially good sense as a day to celebrate Jesus’s birthday because it would allow them to party on the day when their pagan neighbors (and frequently, their pagan friends) partied, then, so what? It’s not at all clear what harm has been done here. Again, none of this has been hidden by the Church. Sometimes people will post memes about Mithra and Jesus as if they are disclosing some deeply hidden secret. One gets the sense that such people have read The DaVinci Code and confused its fiction for history.

The Christian church has a long-standing policy regarding human cultural practices: there are some–like, say, human sacrifice–that the Church definitely opposes, and so, if the faith is spreading to a community that practices human sacrifice, that practice must be opposed and ended. There are other cultural practices–like caring for the sick–that the Church actively agrees with, and so, if the faith were spread to a community that already valued caring for the sick, then the Church would probably simply amplify this existing practice. Meanwhile, there are a host of practices that the Church neither supports nor rejects. The attitude to such practices is to simply strip them of any offending element (say, the worship of a pagan deity), and then allow them to carry on otherwise as they did before. This point will come up again below when addressing the fourth claim, but let’s make it clear here: there is a lot of human culture that is simply neutral, as far as the Church is concerned. Having a party on December 25 is just such a cultural practice. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a thing people can do.

Now, one option for the Church would have been to simply insist that Christians who wanted to party on December 25 do so without engaging in any pagan religious practices. What the Church did instead was to start its own version of the December 25 party, and link it to Jesus’s birthday: a classic two birds and one stone scenario. Celebrating Jesus’s birthday was already something many Christians would have wanted to do; why not celebrate it on a day when people already party, and thereby strip away any religious elements that would have been problematic for church members?

This history to the celebration of Christmas doesn’t showcase some kind of conspiracy on the part of the early Church. Instead, we just see how pragmatic early Christians were. Any day could have been used to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, but December 25 made sense for the reasons listed above (and probably many others, such as its proximity to the winter solstice, and themes of the renewal of life in the darkest and coldest time of the year). Admitting all of this, though, does no harm to the contemporary practice of Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Having admitted this pragmatic genesis to the holiday, we Christians can certainly carry on celebrating it regardless. When Christians gather on Christmas Eve, we really are celebrating Jesus’s birth, despite the fact that December 25 probably isn’t his real birthday and despite the fact that December 25 was probably chosen for all kinds of pragmatic cultural reasons.

Third Claim: Christmas is about drinking and presents!

The third claim one will often hear as a critique of Christmas as a religious holiday is that many Christians–especially the Puritans–actively tried to suppress Christmas because it was often a day of drinking, idleness, raucous games and general laziness and fun. But those who take this historical fact and spin it into an argument against the legitimacy of Christmas are making at least two massive logical errors. First, they are conflating the practices of one very particular (and rather small) Christian group with the practices of Christianity as a whole. Yes, some Christians thought Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated (for a more contemporary example, see the Jehovah’s Witnesses) but most Christians have celebrated this holiday it since its inception. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, Lutherans–these groups have recognized the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord as an important holiday for centuries. Yet, many people in the US, at least, seem to think that because Puritans were against Christmas, all Christians were, at one time, opposed to it. But this is simply false.

Secondly, those who argue that because there was drinking and partying and laziness and games on Christmas, it wasn’t really a religious holiday are basically engaged in a continuation of the error outlined above: Puritans were definitely against drinking and laziness and fun, but most other Christians love those things. Jesus himself drank with prostitutes. In fact, those who seem to think that Christians should be scandalized by Christmas’s history as a day to drink and party only expose their own ignorance: feast days are, and always have been, days set aside especially for partying and drinking alcohol. As one of the principle feast days on the Christian calendar, of course Christians would have been drinking and having fun on Christmas. That’s the point!

Fourth Claim: Christmas traditions are really just pagan practices

The fourth and final claim made by those arguing that Christmas isn’t really a Christian holiday is that so many of the practices associated with Christmas–like decorating a pine tree–are linked with pre-Christian practices that have nothing to do with Jesus. Now, again, the core claim here is perfectly right: there’s nothing particularly Christian about pine trees or tinsel or long socks or mistletoe. But there’s also nothing un-Christian about them either. As I mentioned above, in the section on the second claim, the Church has had a long and very public policy of accepting cultural practices that are good or “neutral”. Decorating pine trees and hanging stockings and kissing under mistletoe are all, in and of themselves, perfectly fine things to do. So, as Germanic people converted to the Church, many of them retained such practices as a part of their Christmas celebration, because they were things that they did beforehand. And Church leaders….said that was just fine. So long as such practices were de-coupled from any worship of a pagan deity or other practice that the Church would have been opposed to, such cultural acts were seen as inoffensive and fine.

Again, this wasn’t some grand conspiracy to crush paganism or fool people. It was rather a completely pragmatic approach to dealing with diverse human cultures. Christianity itself has no fixed language, clothing, cultural practices, aesthetic preferences, etc. It is meant to be a universal faith that can integrate into the full diversity of human cultures. Of course, as mentioned above, at times Christian teachings will conflict with certain practices, and in that case, the Church has (or should have!) insisted that new Christians cease such practices. But the vast majority of human culture is neutral from a Christian theological viewpoint. How we dress, the shape of our houses, what kind of art or music we like–this is all up for individuals and communities to decide as they please.

So: Christmas trees are neither obligatory nor forbidden for Christians (and, of course, it’s worth pointing out that Christian communities not heavily influenced by Germanic culture celebrate Christmas without decorating pine trees. That so many in the English-speaking world seem to assume that all Christians engage in this cultural practice at Christmastime speaks to a broader and un-reflected upon ethnocentrism, even among people who likely think of themselves as worldly and tolerant…) Cultural practices associated with winter that have become attached to the celebration of Christmas among some Christian groups are just that: cultural practices. They are fine, but they are not essential to the celebration of Christmas as the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Now, all of that said, considering that so many of these practices are basically Christo-neutral certainly does mean that non-Christians can decorate trees and kiss under mistletoe. There’s nothing Christian or un-Christian about doing those things, and if people want to re-constitute the cult of Mithra or decorate a tree in celebration of the solstice, that wouldn’t bother me as a Christian one bit. Have at it! It is only once people start to argue that Christmas is somehow not a legitimate Christian holiday–simply because the celebration of Christmas has been fused with such cultural practices–that I have a problem. Such reasoning is fallacious and, to be honest, lazy.

Of course, there is a whole ‘nother article to be written on this subject pointed in the other direction: we Christians ought to be less worried about decorations and presents and festive music and more concerned to really discern what it means to celebrate Jesus’s birth. But considering the length of this post already, that point will have to wait for a future post. I hope that I have shown that many of the arguments made against Christmas as a Christian holiday are faulty ones. Though built on solid historical claims, such arguments use poor reasoning to arrive at false conclusions. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and an important one at that.

The Task for Advent: Awakening the Already-Awake

flight_egyptThroughout my 20’s, my spiritual life was a process of asking, searching, and wondering. Around the age of 21, I realized that I was not convinced by the idea of Jesus’s divinity, and so I began to seek a spiritual community where that doctrine was not espoused, or at least not essential. I ended up worshiping with a Friends’ meeting for more than two years. But I ultimately felt that there was something still missing, and so I ended up searching farther afield–I began reading about Buddhism and Islam and attempting to practice some form of meditation, as well as integrating elements of Islamic prayer into my prayer life.

Ultimately, by the age of 27, I found myself returning to Trinitarian Christianity. After having actually studied the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity more closely, I came to realize that my earlier repudiation of them had been based largely on my own ignorance. I joined the Episcopal Church at the age of 28, and my spiritual and religious identity has been stable since then.

After spending the better part of a decade searching, seeking, and asking, this stability was welcome–I felt that I was finally able to really dig into the tradition I was committed to, instead of constantly gliding over the surface of various communities. Yet, over the last year or two, I have felt a sort of dis-ease in my spiritual life. Although I think there are many causes to this–the process of discerning ordination, the grind of academic life, raising a young daughter–lately I have come to recognize a new dimension to it. I think that I have begun to miss the sense of seeking and questing in my spiritual life. Throughout my 20’s, spiritual truth was this elusive quarry I was chasing, and though at the time I only wanted to end my search, now I find myself missing that chase.

Or–not missing that chase per se, but missing the sense of wonder and discovery that came with it, To accept that, somehow, in Jesus, God is revealed and present is, in one sense, to end the journey of seeking and discovering. To rest in the peace and power of Jesus Christ is to accept that no further search is going to reveal a greater or deeper truth. Of course, I might still research other faiths, both out of curiosity as well as respect towards the diverse systems of human spiritual and religious thought. But the sense of yearning, even of desperation, that drove me before, is no longer there.

This is, of course, a good thing, and yet it has also led to a stultifying of my spiritual life to some extent. Not feeling that desperate yearning, prayer and meditation now have less emotional and existential draw. Because I now have a spiritual and religious life that is intellectually satisfying and more or less complete, I don’t have the same energy behind my spiritual practice.

But reflecting on these thoughts and feelings has only revealed to me how foolish I am; even at thirty-five years of age, I am still so ignorant. Just as I showed my ignorance at 21 in rejecting doctrines I didn’t even understand, these last few years I have shown my ignorance in thinking I know and understand far more than I do. It’s one thing to say that in Jesus, God reveals Godself to me. It’s another thing to really know what this means. I can say that God is revealed and even present in Christ, but I then have to immediately add a qualifier–this revealed presence is utterly mysterious. If I utter the name of Jesus, or reflect on the Incarnation, or receive His body and blood in the Eucharist, I do not suddenly have some total conceptual clarity about what it means to call Jesus divine. I can–and do–say these things, think these things, and do these things, all without really uncovering the mystery of what it all means.

In truth, then, my sense of spiritual stability was really rather temporary. My identity as a Christian is not changing, and yet what it means to be Christian remains really beyond my comprehension. I stopped journeying, asking, seeking, and questioning, not because I had actually reached some final point of truth, but because I was both tired of the search, I think, and also because I put too much stock in my own intellectual abilities. I thought that the deepest mysteries of being, of life, of existence, were just puzzles to be solved, instead of realities beyond the horizons of human consciousness. I stopped the journey, but I was not at the destination.

So one of my tasks, I think, during this Advent, is to really accept my ignorance, to recognize the depth of the mystery of Jesus’s divinity, and to thereby rekindle my spiritual curiosity, and to reengergize my prayer, meditation, and devotional practices. Christ calls us to remain awake, aware, and vigilant. This is a call meant, I think, most of all for those of us who think we already are awake, aware, and vigilant.