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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Answering Christmas’ Discontents

While 2 billion people—one third of the Earth’s population—celebrate the Birth of all births at this time of year, Christmas—or at least the conventional manner of celebrating it—remains an object of derision, even of contempt, for some. 

For all of their differences, its discontents—unbelievers, non-believers, and Christian “purists” alike—unite  in mocking it for the pagan symbols that have come to be associated with it.

Given that their self-assuredness is as invincible as is their condescension, the discontents would have us think that Christians are unaware of the pagan sources of many of their Christmas-oriented traditions.  Not only is this not the case; Christians are the people who originally appropriated what the pagan world had to offer in order to enrich their celebrations of Christmas.  

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And there isn’t anything in the least objectionable about this—at least not from a Christian perspective.       

Christmas marks the birth of Christ, i.e. the event whereby God assumed flesh: the Incarnation.  God, you see, transcends the world, yes, but He is also immanent in it.

Christianity, in other words, precludes those species of purism that insist that there is some allegedly “original” Christianity that can be separated out, neat and tidy, from the paganism new and old that have corrupted it.  There is no such thing.  God’s Word is as dynamic, as lively, as creation itself. Indeed, creation is as much God’s word as is the Bible, reason, and tradition.  

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In becoming “all things to all people,” as he described himself, St. Paul’s belief in this truth was second to none.  Those Christians who conscripted aspects of the pagan world into the service of developing both their theology as well as their worldview is exactly what the greatest of Apostles, Paul, did when bringing the Gospel to the gentile world.

Christian purists should consider that charging the contemporary celebration of Christmas with lacking in authenticity for its pagan influences is like charging as inauthentic any version of the Bible that isn’t written in Hebrew or Greek.  Atheists and nonbelievers should consider that this allegation is akin to the charge that modern science is inauthentic or hypocritical because of its origins in Christianity.

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And make no mistakes about it, science has emerged and flourished in the West precisely because of the religion of the West.  More specifically, Christianity relies upon metaphysical assumptions that are, or have always been, absent from much of the world. 

First, for Christians, the world does not, as the ancient Greeks supposed, emanate from a deity. And, unlike what Easterners of various sorts assumed, the world is neither an illusion nor identical with an abstract, impersonal “Absolute” or Tao. 

Rather, the universe is a creation, an entirely, fundamentally distinct thing from the Supremely Personal, all benevolent, omniscient Being that made it.  Because of its divine origins, it is purposeful, meaningful, and good. The universe, then, is an object that both can and should be studied. Thus, Sir Isaac Newton, one of the founders of modern science, spoke for legions of some of history’s most renowned scientists—Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, to name but a few—when he famously remarked that in doing science, the scientist was doing nothing more or less than “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

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So too is what we call “morality” indebted to Christianity.  If Christmas is a fake because popular celebrations of it have their roots in a pre-Christian world, then morality as Westerners conceive it is as well a fake because of its roots in Christianity.

There are two notions central to Western morality—“secular” morality—that are distinctly Christian. It’s their combination that is uniquely Christian. The first is that all human beings, regardless of their individuating characteristics—“race, color, creed,” etc.—possess an inviolable dignity, a worth beyond all price for having been created by an all perfect, all loving God.  The second is that each of us has an obligation to act toward each person as we would act in the presence of God Himself, for in the presence of each person, we are in the presence of God.   

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And to fulfill this obligation the God-Man—Christ—gave us the example of His own Person.  To treat others as if we were serving God is to care, genuinely care, for them, and to do so at once tirelessly and joyfully. 

That Christ’s disciples fail to fulfill their calling, that they’ve sinned, they are the first to admit.  As their Lord taught them through His own self-sacrificial life, humility is a cardinal Christian virtue.  Still, given the foregoing considerations, to say nothing of the fact that the overwhelming majority—the overwhelming majority—of the planet’s charitable organizations are Christian-based, no one with two eyes to see who isn’t a boldfaced liar could so much as think to deny that Christianity has been as powerful an engine for good as any to which the world has ever given rise.  

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In the interest of keeping this engine humming along, decent people everywhere should, with one voice, shout “Merry Christmas!” this Christmas season.

    

 

 

     

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