Ethics & Religion

This matter of Christmas and hope

On 19 December, the ABC online ran an essay by Stan Grant under the title ‘With Christianity receding and many abandoning hope, today’s Christmases are not like those of my childhood’. The Australian had run a piece the previous day by well-known conservative Catholic journalist and author Greg Sheridan under the title ‘Surprise Israel discovery bolsters Christian claims of truth’. Of the two, Grant’s was by far the more intellectually thoughtful and credible. Yet both call for a response from a rational secularist point of view.

Sheridan asserts that recent Biblical scholarship has shown that the New Testament is a historically accurate account of real events and concludes triumphally, “…here is the good news. The New Testament is true. God is alive after all. Meaning and transcendence reign. Enchantment is back.” How anyone can profess to believe what he does is astounding. It goes to show that human credulity knows no bounds and is in constant need of patient correction.

The idea that the authors who wrote the Gospels had some idea what they were talking about in describing the Judaea of their time becomes, in Sheridan’s telling, the virgin birth and divine incarnation, validation of miracles, resurrection from the dead and official founding by Jesus himself of what would become the Catholic Church with all its arcane dogmas. That is, to say the very least, drawing a long bow.

Illustrative of Sheridan’s tendentious style of argument is his dismissal of a rhetorical question by Richard Dawkins regarding the plausibility of the God of the Bible having created the cosmos as we actually now know it: “Dawkins argued…that because the universe is 14 billion years old there can be no God, because God wouldn’t waste 14 billion years constructing a whole universe just for humanity to enjoy one planet in one tiny corner. To which one thinks: how would Dawkins know what God might do? God’s generosity and grandeur might be beyond Dawkins. To the Christian, it seems characteristic of God that he would spend 14 billion years preparing a beautiful garden just for us.”

Generosity and grandeur? The whole idea surely invites derision. David Hume’s dialogues concerning natural religion ought to be required reading at this point. If, he pointed out, one entertained the idea of a designer of the cosmos, just for the sake of argument, that would by no necessity point to an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent deity. It could point to some senescent and incompetent one, or some juvenile and unpractised one, or to some collective that never got its act together. Sheridan comes across as willfully and provocatively simple minded.

Stan Grant makes similarly sweeping claims and ‘sanctifies’ words like ‘faith’ and ‘prayer’, as if these things naturally and unequivocally warrant awe and respect, or nostalgia for an imagined religious past. He writes of a childhood in which Christmas, among converted Aboriginal Australians, was a festival of generosity and hope, then comments that, in a turbulent world, he still relies on ‘faith and prayer’ to get himself through the day. He writes of how important he thinks it is to “…ponder the state of our world during the holy celebration of the birth of Jesus.” He argues, like Sheridan, that the past few centuries have shown that Enlightenment liberalism and rationalism, without Christian faith, produce nihilism and despair and are to blame for the current malaise they see around them.

Stan Grant makes similarly sweeping claims and ‘sanctifies’ words like ‘faith’ and ‘prayer’, as if these things naturally and unequivocally warrant awe and respect, or nostalgia for an imagined religious past.

These arguments are reminiscent of those that B. A. Santamaria used to make decades ago. I grew up in a Catholic family in which his Newsweekly columns and Point of View TV program were part of the way of life. Santamaria would make such claims as that things in the late 20th century looked bleak “compared with the bright promise of Christianity a thousand years ago”. Or that the ‘nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche’ was responsible for consumerism, the sexual revolution and the drugs, sex and rock and roll culture of the decadent young. Even as a young man, I concluded that he had no idea what he was talking about.

There are three very basic things that need to be borne in mind when Christians start carrying on like this about the “holy celebration of the birth of Jesus”. The first is that Christianity never did offer hope in this world. It offered a vision of impending apocalypse and life after death for the few and declared damnation in eternal hellfire for the rest of us. The second is that it is flagrantly false to assert that before the decline of Christian belief in the West things were better for people in general. Tell that to those burned at the stake, to those who perished of epidemics with nothing but prayers and holy water to sustain them in their agonies, to those who perished in endless wars or in poverty and starvation, informed that the medieval order was ‘the will of God’.

The third is this: by every measurable, tangible index the world as a whole and Western civilisation in particular are better off now than they were during the long era of Christian cultural predominance. The data can readily enough be checked. Does that mean life is a cakewalk and endlessly fulfilling for everyone? Of course not. Does it mean there aren’t major challenges confronting us? Of course not. Does it mean the mass of half-educated people who are susceptible to all kinds of conspiracy theories and confusions are proof that Enlightenment rationalism is a dead end? Of course not.

The findings of the physical sciences since the scientific revolution have, at an accelerating rate in the past few generations, laid out before us an understanding of the age and nature of the cosmos, the origins and nature of the Earth, the emergence and evolution of life, the evolution and boot-strapping of our species, and the archaeologies of human civilisations around the globe. This understanding is available to us if we take the time to acquaint ourselves with it, using the astonishing information technologies of the 21st century. Such findings are totally without precedent and leave completely behind the fables and guesses on which the old religions were based. 

The notion being peddled by Sheridan and Grant that Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ was born two thousand years ago to save the world from the ‘sin of Adam’ and open the gates to Heaven, closed since the Fall of our ‘first parents’, has no foundation whatsoever in reality.

How is it that we can still be having this debate in 2021? It’s nonsense. Let’s, by all means, understand the phenomenon of religion and its complex role in human cultural evolution over many millennia. Let’s by all means understand what underlying needs still have people like Sheridan and Grant feel nostalgia for the religious rituals of their childhood. But if what is really at stake is the condition of the Earth, the future of humanity, the creation of meaning and dignity in everyday life, the poetry of existence (as Sheridan makes so bold as to claim), then let’s not waste time fossicking around in the so-called ‘holy land’ for bits and pieces of material evidence that might reassure us that Jesus was, after all, a miracle worker who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Let’s take the old feast of Christmas, which was itself superimposed by the Christians on the far more ancient classical feasts of the Brumalia and Saturnalia and acknowledge that what lies beneath both is the (Northern Hemisphere) winter solstice. The winter solstice is not a supernatural phenomenon. It is not a matter of dogma or superstition or revelation. It is, however, as it has always been; a crucial turning point in the seasons of the year – the shortest day and the longest night – which has been celebrated by human cultures around the world since the Neolithic as an anticipation of the return of the sun and the eventual coming of spring.

Never mind arguing whether some arbitrary deity or other ‘created’ the Earth (in six days or over billions of years). Let’s concentrate on taking better care of it, since it is the only world we have and our species has run rampant on it – Christianity or no Christianity – for the past ten to fifteen thousand years, in a whirlwind of innovation that has rendered us the dominant species on the planet, but which is in considerable danger of wrecking its own terrestrial habitat. Christianity did not halt or curb this wild ride, nor will it do so. Nor will a ‘Second Coming’ provide relief. It’s here and now, in this century and by secular means that we must find the will and creativity to ‘complete’ the process of Enlightenment. By many indicia, we are doing remarkably. By others we are failing dismally – precisely because insufficient reason is being applied to our dilemmas.

If this response to the special pleadings of Sheridan and Grant seems a little polemical, forgive me, readers. It’s just that the same tired old pieties keep getting recycled at this time of year and one wearies of having to go over them again and again.

Let me conclude, however, on a gentle note. Christmas is still widely seen by amiable and non-dogmatic Christian believers as a time of fellowship, goodwill and gift-giving. Let it be so. Let it be known, also, that those sentiments go with the winter solstice and can be found in the ceremonies of many cultures since time immemorial. They, rather than the ‘birth of the Saviour’, should be our common focus when the ancient Yuletide comes around.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.

Paul Monk discusses the meaning of Christmas in an upcoming episode for Henry Grossek’s Viewpoints podcast.

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About Paul Monk

Dr Paul Monk is a public intellectual and prolific writer, columnist and poet. He has extensive knowledge of the history of Western civilisation and a deep understanding of the role of religion in it. He is the author of 13 books, including 'Credo and Twelve Poems' and the forthcoming collection of his poetry 'The Three Graces: Companionship Discretion Passion'.

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