In fact, it would be easier to make the case that Catholic intellectuals sometimes spend too much time being intellectuals, too much time with scholarly explorations of the Faith, and not enough with the child-like imagery on their Christmas cards everything from the manger, shepherds and magi to the angels heard on high. Seriously.
I make no claim to having deciphered the key to history. I do not know how the human race is going to play out the designs of Providence, and whether we are in the early chapters of that drama or already in the finale. But one thing is clear. When the Nativity occurred, mankind needed it, desperately. The world was in disarray. The intellectuals had failed, miserably. Their unaided reason had not discovered truth. The Word had to become Flesh for that. Jesus saved us from the dreary legacy of the intellectuals.
The intellectuals of His time, the best and the brightest of the Greek and Roman world, had cooked a bitter stew. The Cynics, one of the favored schools of thought, were proclaiming that there was no such thing as truth, that what we call truth is merely the opinion of the powerful. Get yours, forget the saps.
The Stoics sighed in agreement, but implored us to live as if they did not. They told us to make the best of it, to struggle on, pretend that there is honor and purpose in life. Fake it: there will be a certain nobility in your sad-eyed world-weariness. Do the right thing, even if you do not know why.
And the Epicureans? They shrugged off the question as not worth the effort. What is truth? Who cares? They recommended a life of sensual pleasure. In civilized amounts, of course. Too much wine, women and song will make it harder to enjoy more wine, women and song. That's what it is all about.
Meanwhile, in the northern forests, Druids were bowing before trees. And Vikings were pledging their lives to the gods of plunder. Their deep thinkers wrote sagas glorifying the quest. Those stupid Arnold Schwarzenegger movies about “Conan, the Barbarian” were not right about much. But they did capture the ugliness of a raw worship of power and cruelty, like that of the Vikings. Some of the “gangsta” rappers and modern street gangs get it right, too, when they deride compassion and gentleness as being “soft.”
At about the same time, Aztec high priests were calling for human sacrifice, and Carthage's for infant deaths to honor Moloch. Their wise men and elders wrote the protocols.
Ask the modern progressives what kind of world they want. They will tell you it is a world where men and women treat each other as brothers and sisters, where we have compassion for the downtrodden, where we care for our children and the elderly; where there is love, love, love. Well, the Greeks and Romans and Druids were not on their way to that kind of world. Not even close.
Edmund Burke used the term “unbought grace” to scold the Englightenment philosophes who thought that mankind was capable of liberty and self-rule, but who never took into account the source of the inner disciplines that prevent freedom from degenerating into something like what is happening these days in the Sudan. That source was the Christian Faith that lived on in the minds and hearts of the people of Europe, in spite of the Enlightenment philosophes.
We could use that same term “unbought grace” to describe the intellectuals in our day and age, who have forgotten where mankind acquired the notions of caring and compassion they treat as some natural evolutionary stage of human development. We did not learn these pieties spontaneously, or from the intellectuals. They were introduced revealed to a world of Vikings and Cynics, hopelessly lost in its pursuit of truth. Introduced through the Incarnation, when the Word the Way, the Truth, and the Life became Flesh and dwelled amongst us.
It is that simple. The world had to be saved through a Savior. The intellectuals of antiquity had made a mess of it. They gave us Moloch and Thor. The intellectuals of our time have given us partial-birth abortions and off-Broadway odes to AIDS victims.
Those of us who know the pure and simple pleasures of the Christmas season, when our families and the Christian community seem to ascend to the fullness of their being, experience at that moment joys rooted in Christian revelation. It is a moment clearly distinct from the coarse pleasures promoted by the Hollywood vulgarians, who implore us to live as if nothing out of the ordinary happened on that morning in Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago. We know better.
We know that life has meaning. The existentialists tell us life is absurd, an unpleasant interruption in blissful non-existence, to quote Jean-Paul Sartre. Not for us. On the Cross, Jesus promised the Good Thief that he would be with Him that day in a place the Lord called Paradise. He promised that we can be there with Him too, with our parents and grandparents and loved ones. (And maybe even with the great dogs in our lives, if C.S. Lewis was right. I hope he is.)
We can realize that promise by loving the Father and keeping the Commandments of the Savior born in Bethlehem. Read your Christmas cards. They've got it right. Gloria in Excelsis Deo. All is calm, all is bright. Let nothing you dismay. Tidings of comfort and joy. Christ the Savior is born.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)