Yule Blog 2010: The Meaning of Christmas
Published on: December 29, 2010
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  • WigWag

    “Religion like Christmas itself is not about Santa, or the toys in the sleigh, but about the mystery of love that burns so brightly in this darkest time of the year.” (Walter Russell Mead

    Peter Berger has a somewhat different view on this which he has presented in his current blog post at the American Interest. Berger’s post is entitled, “In Defense of a Commercialized Christmas” and he makes the point that in many ways Christmas is about friendliness and secular good cheer and he makes the suggestion that this is something to celebrate not criticize. All of this, he says is rooted in commerce, which he believes is not necessarily a bad thing.

    His post is well worth reading (all his posts are).

    It can be found at,


  • Mark Killefer

    Thank you for your posts, Professor. I am enjoying them very much. Regarding your point about the human need for meaning and God as the source for that need, I’d like to share this thought:

    In my study of Christian theology I have found that, presupposing that God exists and cares about making himself known to his creation, his efforts to do so fall into two primary categories: general revelation and special revelation.

    Within the first category God reveals himself, in a general way, by two means. The first is that God wove into the fabric of the universe general evidences of himself: his power, his vastness, his creativity, his intelligence, his timelessness, etc. The second is that he wove into the fabric of human beings (I don’t believe this is true of any other species) the ability to detect these evidences, a deep desire to pursue and explore them, and the willingness to enlarge ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually to do so.

    It is because of these two aspects of God’s general revelation that most of mankind’s religious activity (if not all activity) exists. On this level, few people (even atheists) find religion offensive or even contentious – precisely because it is vague and undefined.

    It is the second category – special revelation – that stirs the puddin’, so to speak. It is the belief that, in addition to general revelation, God reveals specific information about himself, to one or more specific persons, at a specific time and place, in a specific manner, to serve a specific purpose. Once a thing becomes specific, it by nature become exclusive; it requires a decision on the part of the recipient, a decision that has consequences either way.

    This, I believe, is what offends atheists about organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. Belief that finds its basis only in general revelation is soft and malleable, like devotion to Mother Nature. It is all-inclusive and non-judgmental, requiring very little growth or sacrifice. Belief in God as revealed in the Bible and through Jesus, however, demands a response (we cannot “stand mute”). He is the God who will not get out of the way for us. We must embrace him on his terms, or flee.

    That’s why I have always rejected the characterization of atheists as those who believe in the non-existence of God. It is more accurate to say they oppose the existence of a specific God.

  • David Bouvier

    Definitely one of the more thoughtful posts from a religious perspective I have come across – thankyou.

    Logical bootstapping of god from paradox has never been convincing for anyone not desparately seeking conviction. And mathmaticians have learnt to handle infinity with extreme care. These are all rhetorical arguments.

    I suspect you are right that religion persists because it satisfies our feelings of importance and meaning. We can agree on this, but please address the consequence:

    There is no ethical or epistemological value to religion. Its adherents if lucky have the liberty to persue their Mohammed- Jesus- or Bhudda- fan clubs if they wish. But the noise they make sounds to me a lot like that of football fans chanting “Chelsea Rules” or whatever.

    Our local second hand bookshop is run by the head of the local football team’s fan club. His life (and the tatoos on his body) bears witness to his faith far more than most Christians’. There is no difference in
    commitment or feeling. His team truly adds meaning to his life.

    Yet we would have no truck at all with anyone telling me that I had to play sport on Sundays, everyone must wear football shirts at all times, that other sports must be suppressed, or that people who change team affiliation must be killed.

    Yet the religious always seem to demand to be given privileges for their clubs and beliefs. Why should they be granted any special status whatsoever?

  • pacificus

    David Bouvier,
    you sound like the kind of guy with whom I would like to spend an evening over a brew–or a scotch–what’s your preference? I appreciate the serious response to serious topics being discussed here. Your post calls for a response also however; allow me to respond in like manner to you.

    Your claim–surely written in haste–that there is no ethical or epistemological value to religion needs examination. I agree that except for the one true religion, Christianity, there is no epistemological value in “religion”. False teaching has actually less value than no teaching; it is postively harmful. Ethically however, all the great religions have value in restraining the untoward impulses that all of humanity shares in. Not that religious belief prevents lying, cheating, stealing etc, any more than philosophical ethics prevents these vices among skeptics and atheists. Yet the social value of the ethical teachings and implications of religion–particularly Christianity–are of great value in suustaining the rudiments of civil society. Oath keeping, fair dealing, desire for justice, and love of others form the condition of the possibilty of the rule of law and ordered liberty, which are themsleves the rudiments of the civil society we in the West have as our patrimony.
    This is why in the US the building housing our Supreme Court is festooned with Judeo-Christian images and scriptures, showing recognition of the religious basis for law.

    Your analogy of loyalty to sports teams as vessels of meaning equal in kind to religious “teams” is at once apt and pathetically, in the kindest sense of that word, mistaken. Obviously the sociological aspect of religious belief almost by definition must lead to boosterism on the part of adherents, and that for many reasons. The need to bolster one’s own faith, for example is one, something you allude to in your comments. The desire to belong to a group, and the good feelings of solidarity surrounding the keeping of faith with that group is another commonality. BUT…to equate the value of the meaning sought and obtained through devotion to a sports team with that obtained through devotion to the man who claims to be God incarnate, given for the sins of the world, is to skip over in a most unseemly way, for a man of your intelligence and insight, the metaphycical gulf separating ultimate meaning and the search for it, from the sort of desperate futility of someone looking for a satsifying dinner in a garbage dump.

    Why should the claims of the religous–I would argue only for the claims of the Bible here–why should these claims be accorded special status beyond any other “club” of believers or fans? Because of the import of the claims. “The proof of the truth of the revelation is its content.” What might the metaphysical content of fanatical belief in a football team consist in? The gravity of the claims themselves, prior even to the consideration of their truth or falsity, makes the truth claims of revealed religion not different in degree, as you suggest, but different in kind from the inferior attempts to construe meaning and value that alternatives to faith present.

    No one ever reasoned himself or anyone else into belief, but reason can certainly remove barriers to belief, as easily as it erects them. For which will you use your considerable gift of reason David?

  • Because, David, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” As Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” As he says elsewhere, “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” And if he was not in fact raised “we are to be pitied more than all men.” Peter and others claimed to be “eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

    Now sir, you may accept or reject this. Think whoever wrote this stuff in the Bible was delusional, think we who believe it are pathetic sheep, but if this is true everything else isn’t. And it sure ain’t football.

  • Gmason

    While the original instinct to search for God may well come from the instinct to search for meaning, it is not that only which makes a mature, committed, Christian. When one starts to truly study the Bible, one finds two truths that reinforce the faith that began the search, and through living it out, turn it to a stone bedrock to “build your house” upon.
    The first is the historical truth of the Bible. How many times have sceptics railed – there is no such place as this or that in the Bible – only to find through further archeological evidence that the Bible was right all along? Or when we look at the writings about Isreal, how she would be scattered and then be a “nation born in a day” as she was in 1948. Or when we look at Ishmael were told how “he will be a wild man; his hand [will be] against every man, and every man’s hand against him.”
    Secondly, more personally, we see that the moral laws that the Lord laid out have every bit as much immutability as the laws of physics. Love thy neighbor as thyself, brings peace, inasmuch as we are able to achieve it. Treachery, dishonesty, murder, and theft belong to those who are miserable and low.
    It’s like jumping off a building – you will land, and hard. Break the moral laws and you will hurt yourself and others.
    I’ve come to realize that the Lord made these rules not so that he could rule with an iron fist – but so that he could keep us from hurting ourselves and others. His instructions are more like saying “this is the way to be happy.”
    I’ve seen these laws worked out repeatedly through my own life and the lives of others.
    These truths are realities that we live with every day. God is truth and not just a search for meaning.

  • Michael

    Professor Mead, I have, for decades enjoyed your writing. Your essay contains an obvious entailment: if the meaningful, moral, fulfilling and substantial life is attainable in atheism, then an imaginary magical buddy adds nothing good.

    Pacificus and Mike D’V: Just stop. You are human adults in possession of most of your faculties, it should mortify you that you participate in such an obvious swindle, for power and wealth, either as victims or as perpetrators.

    But let me ask you several questions about what your “One True Religion” ™ is.

    Do you believe that Yaweh created the Universe less than 10,000 years ago in 7 days in a particular order:
    1) light/day/night, 2) firmament/sky,
    3) land/earth/sea/plants/grass/fruit trees, 4) lights in the firmament/Sun/Moon/stars, 5) birds/fish, 6) land animals/man,
    7) day of rest? I mean 40% of your fellow Americans, according to the latest Gallup poll on the matter, are that dirt-stupid.

    Do you believe that the Noachian Deluge of 40 days and nights of rain flooding the entire Earth to the highest mountaintops and annihilating every terrestrial animal not on Noah’s Ark about 5,500 years ago because Yahweh was unhappy with how humans were living happened? About 55% of your fellow Americans are so disconnected from any serious understanding of who and what they are that they do.

    Do you think Jesus was born of a virgin, fed 5,000 and then 4,000 by replicating a few fish and loaves of bread, that he cured blindness, muteness, epilepsy, and leprosy by exorcising out the demons that cause those maladies, and that Jesus rose from the dead? About 80% of Americans are so bad at Bayesian inference that some writing in a book moves them to certain belief about near-impossible events.

    Just stop.

  • AWLinNC

    The notion that King Herod slaughtered infant boys was a myth designed to align the Jesus story with the Mosaic story. The conceit of the gospels is to insist on the “kingly” heritage of Jesus as being descended from King David’s house. There is no historical evidence of such a slaughter, and there certainly would be from this literate age if such an outrage had actually happened.

    Whether one believes in the divinity of Jesus is a matter of private faith. There are no proofs that adequately justify faith (“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”). One of the reasons for the success of Christianity is that the early leaders co-opted the central celebration feasts of existing religions. Christmas is the syncretistic layering of Christian symbolism onto the winter solstice feast. Is it any less valid to worship the Solstice than to worship the Christ? I would agree with Mr. Mead to the extent that belief in a higher power is a consequence of language, of consciousness and the need for meaning, for an explanation of how we came to be here and what our lives mean.

    In the modern age, we must judge the validity of religious belief by Enlightenment standards. To the extent that religion promotes tolerance, mutual understanding, non-violence, fairness and justice, then we can accept such beliefs as tolerable in our midst. Unfortunately, there are believers in all religions who promote intolerance, violence, and prejudice. We must reject these sentiments regardless of what religion or theology promotes them.

    Merry Xmas and Happy Holidays to All!

  • Frank Dobbs

    Let’s not sugarcoat it.

    God makes his presence known not only in meaning and conscience, but in beauty and love also. The natural order of man and nature. Granted. The ancient philosophers and most modern non-theists can relate to that.

    But the nativity story has strange elements: illiterate shepherds, wizards, a bloodthirsty tyrant with insane spiritual pretensions who commits infanticide, an unwed pregnancy. God does not want us to think that he thinks as we think. The incarnation is not presented to us tied up all neat with a pretty intellectual bow. It’s at a different level of reality, with God revealing to us, at once, both his incomprehensibility, and his burning desire to be comprehended and united to us.

    It is not only nonbelievers who are scandalized by this story. Christians are too, and have been laboring to ‘civilize’ it for 2,000 years. As we have the transfiguration, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

    To be a Christian is to swallow what we do not understand, to internalize it, and to follow the light thus engendered wherever it illuminates our path.

    No doubt anyone who does not believe in God is a fool, but fools can be right where wise men do not understand.

  • Michael, I will stop when you pry that Bible from my cold, dead hands. You only think certain events “near-impossible” because you a priori assume that can’t happen, because you assume God doesn’t exist. I’ll let Scripture speak for itself: “The fool says in his heart there is no God.”

  • Wendy

    One thing is for certain: You cannot have a meaningful life if, as a matter of policy, you allow into your cognitive processes such clear-cut lies as “historical Jesus.” It is a sign of self-contempt that one feels the need to disregard the overwhelming evidence and evade the use of the term “myth” when referring to Christ as one would to other mythical figures in order to pander to dangerous others. I am quite sure that Hercules, Perseus, and other god-men are not treated as real in discussions of their “meaning.” Wherefore the hypocrisy?

  • SC Jordan

    Of course, we can’t rule out the idea that God did manifest Himself.

    Ever since Plato at least, if not earlier, we have been trying to abstract God out of the physical realm or alternatively, we’ve wanted to “immanentize the eschaton.” Naturalists want to ascribe Godlike powers to nature while pantheists want to see God in nature.

    Why do we have to presume that we know what really happened? Wouldn’t the truly scientific approach be to suspend disbelief as well as belief? Didn’t electricity, gravity and magnetism exist for millennia before we got around to figuring them out? Maybe God did reveal himself through the words of the prophets in the Old Testament and validate these prophecies in the Incarnation. Which posture is closed minded and which one is open-minded? The one that denies all possibility of transcendence or the one that accepts that there may be more to existence?

    Even if Jesus were not the Son of God, who could ask for a finer choice to be God? Who would not want our God to be a God of love? a God of life? Who would not want our God to be a teacher, a healer, a redeemer?

    Would God have somehow been more credible if he had been born a prince and ruled as a God King like pharaoh? Most of the Roman Emperors were deified, that did not make them so. How much more powerful to be born so poor that his crib was a manger, his profession a carpenter, and yet he was able to endure and transcend everything.

    I think the folks who trash Jesus should open up their minds and give him a second look. At the least, they should respect him.

  • Michael

    SC Jordan… So many questions, and nary an answer.

    “Why do we have to presume that we know what really happened?”

    “We” don’t presume, we look for evidence, form models, and evaluate them against further evidence. Because the truth matters. Because “what happened” is one of the Big Questions that informs What Is and Why and What Will Be.

    Leaving yourself in a forced and dishonest state of ignorant adolescent wonder should have gotten old many decades ago. The evidence for a Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago, for an Earth coalescing about 4.54 billion years ago, for an evolution of life over 2 billion years or so, for a Homo Sapiens Sapiens mutating out of previous Homo species about 200,000 years ago, and the evidence that the Earth revolves around the Sun are all decisive. No rational person, looking at the evidence, can honestly conclude the Bible’s way.

    The evidence, furthermore, positively DISCONFIRMS the Genesis Creation Tale, the Noachian Deluge, Virgin Births, Demonic Possession as the cause of blindness and epilepsy and muteness and leprosy and Resurrections. And a host of other lies in the Old and New Testaments. And so you don’t play Christian Victim in your head: every other organized and disorganized religion I have heard of has their own nutwagon of dirt-stupid nonsense they cart around.

    “Wouldn’t the truly scientific approach be to suspend disbelief as well as belief?”

    No. The burden of proof is on those who would assert or belief in the existence of an entity or entities. You agree once you think it through. You disbelieve in Benny the tiny blue gremlin sitting behind you right now with a Skull-Away Raygun pointed at you which Benny will fire over the next week unless you start hopping up and down and yelling “I DON’T THINK THINGS THROUGH!” really loudly. You believe that Benny does not exist because you aren’t hopping and yelling. You don’t “suspend disbelief” any more than I do because I have forced an intentional stance and you are a disbeliever in Benny.

    Science is not about ignoring or hiding or disappearing evidence.

    “Didn’t electricity, gravity and magnetism exist for millennia before we got around to figuring them out?”

    Yes and no. But before that, your question has the annoying spookiness attendant to intimating a meaningful argument when there isn’t one around. So how about it, you have an actual argument here or you just wanna be spooky-guy?

    Reality is what is, nothing more or less. Whether the correct models which explain the data contain “gravity,” “electromagnetism,” “strong force” or “weak force” or not determines, for model-dependent realism, whether those things ever existed in reality, much less whether they existed prior to the models which posit them.

    How does that help you to sell the grift? Why should we give 10% of our income, pass laws to kill homosexuals, and treat the village-idiot-priest as a wise man again?

    “Which posture is closed minded and which one is open-minded?”

    Yeah. You misunderstand what “open-minded” means: it isn’t “empty-headed.” Here, this will fill you in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T69TOuqaqXI .

    And… SC Jordan… are you open-minded about the existence of Thor, Zeus, Huizilopochotli, Sekhmet, Samantabhadra, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Giant Porcelain Teacup Orbitting Neptune Filled With the Blood Of Jesus?

    And… don’t front. THIS is how “open-minded” your religion is.

    Deuteronomy 13: 6-11
    6If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
    7Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
    8Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
    9But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
    10And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
    11And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you.

    Look, stop selling crazy. This soft-sell, lugubrious, weaselly “give my insanity a try!” approach is what the worst do. If you have an argument, make it. Otherwise…

  • Al

    You’re a Good Man, Walter Russel Mead!
    I thank you for all your insights, I enjoy them very much.
    Merry Christmas!

  • SC Jordan

    Wow, Michael. Glad I could help you work through some of your anger management issues.

    I was actually thinking of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions when I wrote my last note. The idea that people buy into a paradigm until the evidence becomes overwhelming that the paradigm doesn’t have the desired explanatory power. Kuhn talks about Newtonian physics giving way to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but not before a lot of theorizing by convicted Newtonians went into trying to reconcile why light was observed to bend around certain large gravity objects.

    I don’t know why debates about biology and evolution have to be so fraught. Its a field of science where I believe we’ve just skimmed the surface of what we are going to learn in the future. Anyone who wants to say we know it all at this point in history is like the patent official a century ago who wanted to close up shop because all of the useful inventions had been made.

    Some genius may come along like Einstein and turn Darwin on his head. Or not. But I think it is also intellectually dishonest to discount alternative explanations for various phenomena in order to make them conform to some pre-determined theory.

    Anyone who knows with absolute certainty what happened millennia ago is either a god, a fool or an idiot. The rest of us just do the best we can with what we currently understand.

    Peace, good will toward all.

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