“It is madness not to believe in God; it is the greater madness to believe in Him only in part.”
There is a well-known story about the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor’s argument with the ex-Catholic writer Mary McCarthy – prompted by McCarthy’s belief that the Eucharist was merely a potent symbol, not the Body and Blood of Christ. Hearing McCarthy express this opinion in a late-night literary discussion, O’Connor spoke up for the Church’s central sacrament: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
O’Connor was a deep thinker – a fan of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica from a young age – and her terse words contain a deep truth: Christian doctrines do not admit of humanistic compromises. We are in the business of wholesale regeneration, and a person who truly understands the facts must ultimately say “Yes” or “No” to Christ (and, likewise, to the Catholic Church and its bold claims). Difficult though this may be, the Faith must be accepted or rejected on its own terms, not twisted to fit one’s preferences.
This understanding of Christian faith – as something that cannot really be affirmed as “good” unless it is also true – is a link between my former life as an atheist, and my adult life as a convert. None of my immediately family members is a practicing religious adherent; and I once determined, when I was still a teenage non-believer of provocative temperament, that we should stop the charade of celebrating Christmas as though it had any real meaning to us. Jesus of Nazareth, I told my parents then, was not categorically different from any other Jewish person who had lived and died; for us to make a pretense of celebrating him was absurd.
A young man who makes such remarks may be, unconsciously, daring God to act. My first-ever experience as an active, worshiping Christian congregant came a few Christmasses later.
My own history, as a dramatically-converted person, informs my approach to any kind of controversy over the remaining cultural vestiges of Christian belief and practice – such as now regularly arise near the end of the year, under the banner of a supposed “War on Christmas” (alongside the responses of those who, understandably, see this notion as absurd). While I would never make myself the ally or tool of radical secularists – whose understanding of conscience is dangerously flawed, for starters – the fact is that I welcome the death of “cultural Christianity,” especially its secularized pseudo-Christmas.
The Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard taught that a Gospel that cannot offend us, cannot save us either. Broadly speaking, I suspect there is no better way to inoculate ourselves against authentic Christianity – the flesh-eating, blood-drinking, divinity-bestowing faith of the saints, prophets, and martyrs – than to make it an innocuous, inoffensive part of routine public life.
And this is the main reason why I do not want to be told “Merry Christmas” by store clerks; why I do not think a nativity-scene outside an American city-hall is especially apropos; why I do not want to hear carols – whether they are “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night” – on a muzak-system, and do not want to see vaguely “Christmassy” symbols on a corporate coffee-cup . . . et cetera.
The believer I am, and the atheist I was, share the essentially same Flannery-esque sentiment: If Jesus is not literally alive – as both true man, and the Second Person of the Godhead – and Christmas is just a warm, comfy cultural leftover – then to hell with it!
I have run into disagreements with other Christians, over this position on the matter of “cultural-Christianity.” This occurred in 2009, for instance, when a controversy erupted over a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which had then ruled to prohibit the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools. (The ruling was later reversed.)
Like many Catholics, I found the interim ruling unfortunate; but in a way I was more disturbed at the defense mounted by the schools: it was claimed that the crucifix, in this public context, was not actually a religious symbol, but merely signified the historical religious origins of Italy’s national values. I found this citation in the press, for instance, to be somewhat absurd from the standpoint of faith:
“Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said the cross was part of Italian tradition. ‘No one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity,’ the Education Minister said.‘The presence of the crucifix in classrooms is not a sign of belief in Catholicism, rather it is a symbol of our tradition.’”
Separate and apart from the question of the court’s reasoning, it seemed to me that a desacralized crucifix was probably worse than none at all. I said as much in an online disagreement with my friend, and former college professor, Peter Gilbert – who supported the state schools (from his perspective as an Eastern Orthodox Christian), and seemed to think I was pitting ideal goods inappropriately against real ones.
In a certain sense, I argued, “the secularists are right: the Cross is offensive … it is a sign of contradiction … And the conservatives are terribly wrong: The Cross is not inoffensive and easily welcoming; it is not our banner of heritage and culture.” A Cross that can never offend, also cannot save; a Christ who can be reduced to a historic symbol of cultural values, is not the Risen Christ.
Taking a phrase from Kierkegaard, about the relative insignificance of historic “Christendom” as compared to Jesus himself, I continued: “If a Crucifix or an Icon is going to signify only the ‘two-thousand years,’ rather than being a window or door to eternity, then perhaps the [removal of religious images] is something God thinks we need, as a [permitted] remedy to our museum-izing and banner-izing of the Faith.”
In the same discussion, I also invoked our secularized Christmas celebrations – which often seem to me to militate against evangelization, more than to support any vestige of faith. How, for instance, could a serious practicing Jew be expected to recognize the birth of the Messiah, in the farce that the Gentiles have often made of it in our public life? Can we expect intellectually-serious atheists to see the Incarnation of their own true Meaning, or Buddhists to recognize the appearance of Enlightenment Himself, in a mess of schmaltz? Are the “baptized pagans” among us particularly edified by department-store displays, or by the fact that there is still a “Christmas Break” and not merely a “Winter” one?
The Catholic Church exists to evangelize, not to build or support “Christendom”; and every remaining trace of historic Christendom can be justly subjected to the criterion of its effectiveness, or lack thereof, in transmitting the Gospel. Stores and schools can do as they please – playing to populism, political-correctness, or both. But members of the Mystical Body have more important matters to deal with, and should waste no energy attempting to re-animate the corpse of a pop-cultural “Christmas.” Even its more religiously-geared manifestations are often questionable in their sentimentality. Let cultural-Christianity die, and Faith live.
Oddly enough, all of this is actually somewhat painful for me to say, because on a certain level I am surprisingly attached to the forms of our conventional cultural-Christmas. I think poinsettia plants are beautiful, and that Christmas trees – though often garish – can be also. A few of the season’s hymns are evocative for me, though most are not. I have fond memories of celebrating Christmas with my paternal grandparents, who were committed Quakers. (During one such visit, around age ten, I told my grandmother I did not believe in God. “You will when you’re smarter,” she replied; and she was right.)
The notion of the cold, darkening world taking on a vaguely-pleasant glow – and of strangers wishing happiness to strangers, in the midst of it – has an obvious appeal. It is not entirely divorced from the truth of the Gospel, if one accepts that there may be an unconscious undercurrent of “anonymous Christianity” wherever there is a sincere search for the truth, goodness, and meaning that come to fulfillment in Jesus. Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge that this is a depressingly pale substitute when taken on its own terms – certainly nothing to fight for as if it were any last bastion of “Christian culture.”
I am not saying that Catholics and other Christians should shun their neighbors’ more secularized Christmas observances – a choice that would be inappropriate and uncharitable. Nor am I saying, necessarily, that those who cannot profess the Nicene Creed can never share – for inscrutable reasons of their own – in some facet of the Church’s joy. That is a matter more for their conscience than mine.
But I have experienced, firsthand, the anti-evangelistic effects of a soft-pedaled, lukewarm version of Christian culture. Despite my family’s non-adherence, I was educated for eight years in an Episcopalian school: years of Christmas singalongs, pageants, etc. Generally speaking, it left me with the impression that Christianity was not very serious business. Only a concerted study of the Bible and theological texts – alongside the “anti-Gospels” of Nietzsche and Machiavelli – would convince me otherwise, as a college student. I am sure that certain deep impressions, of some true religious significance, were left even by this exposure to a shallow form of cultural-Christianity: there was at least one point in time, back then, when it all seemed deeply meaningful and even strikingly plausible. This, too, is significant. But I also know its conscious effect was largely akin to a vaccination: a low-dose exposure producing several years’ worth of immunity.
I am willing to take this principle further, into other realms where a vague half-religiousness seems to obscure the truths of Faith. For instance, I find myself – ironically – in practical agreement with those who would like the words “under God” or “In God We Trust” to be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and the US currency: not because I want a secularized public square (far from it, in fact); but because I find the invocation of God in American “civic religion” to be banal at best, and more often deeply hypocritical. The political salutation “God bless America” is perhaps the best example of how we reduce God to a convenient, consoling afterthought, the talismanic guarantor of stock-market gains and military victory. A polite, corporate “Merry Christmas” is not so different from this. I would be happy to see both disappear, on basically the same grounds.
But I do not expect this to happen. The world will continue to put-up-the-lights, hang-the-wreaths – for reasons-unclear – and I will not complain. And still, the dilemma of Christmas is put before the world: If we do not believe it, it is better to be honest with ourselves.
And if it is true – then everything must change.