Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Christmas Christian Anymore?

Christmas is an odd time for our culture. We’re told the non-offensive “Happy Holidays” is preferable over “Merry Christmas”, although a person can usually still get away with the later (workplaces, businesses, the media, and corporations, however, usually cannot). We are reminded that we must not ignore other holidays which happen to fall near Christmas on the calendar. With Hanukkah the point might have some traction but thereafter the drop-off is steep: in 2004 only 1.6% of Americans planned to celebrate Kwanzaa (fact shamelessly scalped from Wikipedia, where I also happened to notice that the creator of the holiday is quoted as saying, “Jesus was psychotic.” But I digress…) More than a few Christians have decried a perceived assault: Christmas imagery is continually being watered down, replacing icons traditionally associated with the Christian faith with nondescript snowmen, wreaths, and Santa.

Many evangelicals haven’t quite mastered the art of navigating the somewhat strange cultural landscape that is the holiday season. At least I haven’t. Platitudes like “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “let’s put the Christ back in Christmas” seem largely awkward and ineffective, even if one is in agreement with the sentiment behind them. Even less effective was the exchange I had with some presumably well-meaning Christian stranger who in the grocery store asked me if I was going to celebrate a “Christ-centered Christmas”. I’d like to think I was, actually, but it seemed an inappropriately brazen question for a total stranger to pose, as I’m sure my dumbfounded and sheepish reply evidenced. I can’t imagine a non-Christian being positively affected by such an encounter (but perhaps that’s a lack of imagination on my part). Yes, the Christmas season is a time ripe for conversations about the Christian faith and we do well to pursue these doors when they open, but we also must recognize the reality that much of our society is on the road to being post-Christian.

In reflecting on the many influences contributing to this state of affairs, a significant factor emerged to me: the West’s commitment to religious pluralism. Put very crudely, religious pluralism goes beyond the obvious description that in our society many varied religious perspectives are represented to the troubling prescription that most if not all religions are equally valid and will ultimately lead people to “God”, happiness, fulfillment, etc. There are many problems with this sort of religious pluralism: that there are many streams does not entail that all streams lead to the same sea or that all streams are fundamentally the same (to push the metaphor a bit, drinking from some streams can bring about severe illness or even death!). Another problem is that religion is not a sustainable category: there is no set of criteria that can render, say, Christianity, Buddhism and Druidism into one distinct type without ultimately collapsing the category into worldview, which would also include the likes of secularism and naturalism (and most want to categorically exclude these from the discussion). What is generally considered “religion” defies a satisfactory definition. For example, although they are categorized as religion, in reality many forms of Buddhism are much nearer to atheism than to the children of Abraham (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). I’m convinced the collapse is unavoidable, the category is untenable, and we should stop talking about “religion” and start talking about worldviews.

But an even bigger problem with religious pluralism looms: truth. The various truth claims represented by different religious perspectives are so substantially and fundamentally divergent and incompatible that no pluralistic synthesis can be forged without great violence to the content of those faiths; violence that the faith’s adherents would find unacceptable. To make all religions end in the same place one has to distort Christianity so much it is no longer Christian, distort Hinduism so it is no longer Hindu, etc. As Jim Hick demonstrates well, doing this is actually not a genuine synthesis but rather is the construction of a different religious perspective, not one that subsumes the others, despite claims to that effect. While this unwittingly distinct perspective might receive a warm welcome in the secular West suffering from a post-colonial hangover, it is in danger of failing the basic test of coherence.

The incoherence is in one sense quite apparent. Christianity claims it true that Jesus is the incarnate son of God, the second member of the trinity taking on flesh. Islam claims it true that Jesus was a prophet but was not in any sense divine and that God is strictly one rather than one in essence and three in person. Logically speaking, both of these can’t be true: both could be false, but it is just nonsense to say that both even could possibly be true. They are too much opposite to be compatible. Or another example: it is either the case that ultimate reality is fundamentally personal (theism) or reality is fundamentally impersonal (atheism, many Buddhisms). Despite what proponents of religious pluralism would have us believe, it can’t be both. It might be difficult to do when our neighbors are Mormon, Hindu and atheist, but we must graciously maintain that the truth claims of our worldviews can’t all be right. The best way to respect our neighbors and their worldviews is to treat their beliefs as a truth claim and engage in charitable dialogue. Ironically, the stance of tolerance preached by religious pluralism is often empty: one must agree with the pluralist or one is intolerant. Intolerance will not be tolerated!

Not all religious pluralisms are created equal, however, and some have realized that affirming as true the incompatible truth claims of various religions is nonsense. For these pluralists the move around the incoherence problem I have briefly outlined is not to embrace contradiction but to redefine what “true” means. If there is no truth, or at least truth is beyond our reach, then to speak of something as true is merely to speak of it as useful or practical. Here, Christianity is “true” for the Christian because it brings her a sense of purpose, helps her get through the day, and helps her be moral. An Eastern belief in karma is “true” if it helps a person function in an unfair world and be a good citizen. For this more sophisticated pluralism the actual content of religious belief is insignificant in comparison to what is considered to be “right” action associated with it. Since we can’t ever know what is true and since truth might be nothing more than illusion, anything goes, as long as your faith helps you do good things.

Major problems abound: first, who gets to determine what “good”, “moral”, etc. mean, and why? In this picture, might makes right—one cannot say Hitler’s definitions of “good”, “moral”, “truth”, etc. are in fact wrong; the most that can be expressed is one’s personal preference against these. Good thing he was defeated, for if truth is relative, then if he had prevailed he would have the right to determine what right is. This is an inept understanding of truth. Second, the view gives us no reason to accept it over any other view—if the view is the “right” one, we should all stop talking about it and go do something else. The view has no capital to argue for it.

Much more could be said here, but I want to bring this back to Jesus. Quite frankly, religious pluralism seems completely incompatible with the gospel. In John 14:6 Jesus says that he is the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through him. In Acts 4:12 Peter says that there is salvation in no one else other than Jesus, and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Contra the pluralist’s emphasis on virtuous deeds over against the content of religious doctrine, the apostles preached the gospel to virtuous, moral, even God fearing Jews and gentiles, calling them for repentance and conversion. Why would Peter need to preach the gospel to a virtuous man like Cornelius and why would he convert and become baptized (Acts 10:34-43)? If “right living” and “good deeds” are the essence of religion, Cornelius had no need for Jesus or the Christian faith.

The Christian worldview states that “religious” truth—and indeed God himself—is accessible and knowable through divine revelation, the pinnacle of which is the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian, following the testimony of Scripture, must insist that the content of doctrine be primary; biblically, once one believes what is right and true, the right actions naturally follow. Pluralism is correct to put an emphasis on the fruit of belief but makes the invalid move of replacing belief with the fruit altogether.

To the pluralist, I say this: don’t patronize me by telling me Jesus is not unique, that the road of following Jesus is one of many that will ultimately lead to the same place. Come out and reject Jesus and his teachings—we’ll dialogue about these competing worldviews—but don’t mangle the truth claims of the Christian faith to fit it into an empty pluralism that placates your politically correct sensibilities.

Back to the original question: how do we navigate the cultural complexities of celebrating Christmas? I don’t have great answers yet but can at least suggest we ought not to be overly concerned about things like schools putting on “Holiday Plays” rather than “Christmas Pageants” or Santas and Reindeer instead of a nativity scene. In fact, it might be time to let go of Christmas as a significantly distinct Christian holiday. For most in our society it has become little more than a celebration of family, gifts, and winter. So be it. This seems a losing battle that might not be worth fighting on this front, anyway.

For those of us who do celebrate the Christian origins of Christmas, we do well to reflect on the wonder of the incarnation. For while humanity gropes about for ultimate purpose, for the truth, and for life, God took on human flesh to give to us the way, the truth, and the life.