Another Way to See the Truth of Christmas
Many people think that Christianity is silly, or worse. All this talk about God becoming human and that sort of thing; and didn’t the ancients have myths about dying and rising Gods? This accusation of silliness does not apply only to Christianity, however. The whole God-thing, which includes Judaism and Islam as well, is problematic to many contemporaries.
Half a century ago, C. P. Snow, a Briton who was both a physicist and a novelist, lamented that the world of science was separating from the world of the arts. Snow’s Rede Lecture of 1959, in which he analyzed the problem, was widely discussed on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. It took on a life of its own; some people agreed wholeheartedly, others thought he invented a problem that did not exist. I tend to accept Snow’s thesis. Here’s why.
In our time science, whether pure or applied, has become the chief and, for many people, the only magnifying glass through which to view the world. This viewpoint is called “scientism,” a narrowing of focus to aspects of life that can be defined or understood through the scientific lens. The idea is that the only real things are those that can be explained through scientific verification. In other words, only science produces truth. Many books on atheism use scientism as their viewpoint; a recent example is The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg.
If you approach faith-traditions from scientism, you will judge these traditions silly or worse because they don’t fit your concept of how truth is derived. Such a restricted approach, however, fails to grasp that, from earliest times religion, art, drama and dance were united to communicate truth by their own means. These means are chiefly myth and ritual. I use the term “myth” to define stories that communicate truth, but not necessarily through literalism or historic facts. Myths are not false; they are alternative ways to state truth for alternative purposes. Rituals act out these sacred myths. Their purpose is to inspire and support wonder and awe at the complexities of this magnificent universe and at our human experience. No necessary conflict between science and the arts and religion exists, if only we glimpse that these are different ways to ascertain or affirm truth.
Who would do away with drama, with dance, with poetry or novels, as means to interpret our world? Are we not much poorer if we limit our sights to the scientific worldview? I await new scientific insights and technological advances as much as anyone, but I am unwilling to limit my insights to science. I want art and music, drama and poetry. These also satisfy my thirst for truth.
So we come to Christmas, the Festival of the Nativity of our Lord. Sure, there are mythic figures involved and legendary overtones to the story. Questions about the God who entered flesh remain after the story is told and the rituals are over. Not all is revealed. Not all is ever revealed. As the medieval Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena put it, “God, who cannot be apprehended in Himself (the pronoun ought not be taken literally), can be seen in some way in creation and in the Christ.” A corner has been lifted on the mystery of humanity and divinity. And this, too, is the truth.
Christmas has to do with you and me, with our capacity for love and compassion and generosity embodied by the Christ-child. The faith is not about pie in the sky, to use the old cliché; it is about the long, slow, tedious path to becoming fully ourselves that is, at the same time, our long, slow, tedious return to God. As in Yeats’ poem, are we not all that “rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born?”
published 16 Dec 2011