Religion, Christmas, and Reason


Honoring the Return of the Sun

The winter solstice has come and gone. Even as we venture into the chill of winter, we can take comfort in knowing that today’s light will last a little longer than yesterday’s. Cultures around the world celebrate this return of the sun.

In Iran, for instance, there is Yalda, a night when the people stay awake until morning to protect themselves against evil forces that are particularly strong at this time. They eat pomegranates and watermelon, and they read the poems of Hafiz. At dawn, they welcome the return of Ahura Mazda, the lord of wisdom. In the best of worlds, Yalda is a time of warmth, closeness, laughter, and happiness.

Peruvians celebrate their winter solstice festival, Inti Raymi, in June, though the focus is still on honoring the return of their sun god, Inti. While in the past animals were sacrificed, now the slaughter is metaphorical, but there are still rituals, dances, painted faces, lots of food, and fun.

From Which We Take Christmas

Yesterday, some recovery church volunteers celebrated Yule in a local prison. Two Wiccan leaders provided a pagan ritual and presided over a meal of cakes and ham. Those who are not incarcerated, who have the freedom to fully participate in Yule activities, may go out caroling, burn a log in the fireplace, decorate a fir tree, and exchange presents. Pagan revelers honored evergreens and holly because they represent the infinite nature of the deities.

Clearly, our Christmas revelry mirrors this pagan one. We light candles, decorate trees, sing Christmas carols, and give gifts. Peace is an important element of both holidays, but Christmas focuses perhaps more on generosity, kindness, and love than Yule does. Although many of us celebrate Christmas with no thought of baby Jesus or eternal salvation, the Christian values inherent in Advent – hope, peace, love, and joy – infuse this holiday season. Yes, the growing commercialism can be distressing, but stories, songs, and movies encourage us to give gifts of love, provide service to the needy, welcome the stranger, and build bonds with friends and family. Reason and science do not teach us this. Instead, it is religion and the stories we create that are informed by those religious values that do.

The Myths We Follow

This does not mean that science and reason have no place in our thinking or our decisions. While the scientific method is wholly different from the religious way of knowing, with the former’s emphasis on analysis, experiment, and theoretical models, they each provide something important to our lives. We do not live “by bread alone,” as it says in Luke 4:4, and if we are uncomfortable with the evangelist’s next line, that we live “by every word of God,” perhaps we can understand it to mean that religious or spiritual wisdom can provide sustenance for our spirits, helps us cope with tragedy, guide our decisions, and nurture our relationships.

“Science explains and religion gives meaning,” said the art historian and museum director, Neil MacGregor. [1] Thus Maya Angelou, in an interview with bell hooks and Melvin Mcloed, declared that she was trying to live a life based, not on the values of science, but on those of Christianity. Instead of claiming that she “is” Christian, because to her that means she has somehow arrived at that perfect state, she says she’s “trying to be a Christian.” [2] Ultimately what this means for her is that she has to admit to herself that everyone she sees and knows, including “the brute, the bigot, the batterer,” is God’s child and worthy of love. She’s not saying she has to feel it herself, but rather that she has to accept this divine worldview as the ultimate truth.

The Heart of Christmas

This radical notion is at the heart of Christmas. Not that there’s nothing but love and acceptance in the Bible. Hardly. Pharisees are ridiculed; Jews are denounced. There are reasons why the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures have been used to justify slavery, genocide, wife-battering, child abuse, and the stoning of witches. If we start with the assumption that every part of the Bible contains a message of justice, love, and freedom, which is how I approach my reading of scripture, then we must dig into the original culture and language of the people who wrote and listened to these passages. Sometimes even then we might resort to a bit of creative exegesis. For biblical myths to be relevant to us today, they must evolve as we learn more, just as do our scientific understandings.

Yet the intensity of true biblical questioning and scholarship requires a commitment beyond what most people are interested in. Even among scholars, there is disagreement. So it should come as no surprise that not everyone agrees with Universalist like me, or with Angelou, that love is the most important thing. Even fewer will believe as I do that, if a heavenly afterlife exists, then even the worst dictator will go there when he dies. What drives Universalism, and I think Angelou’s view of the world, is the belief that love can change anything and everything.

Never Give Up

An example of this belief and hope is something Angelou says about Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice who, according to Jill Abramson and others, lied under oath during his confirmation hearings when asked about his interactions with Anita Hill. [3] Angelou says we should never give up on people, not even Thomas. She suggests that instead of shunning the man, we should “surround him with so much stuff that he’s almost a pupae in chrysalis.” If we could have showered him with enough goodness and tolerance and love, “he might have emerged a butterfly.” She acknowledges this isn’t a guarantee. Maybe he’d come out a dragon, instead. But, she maintains, we should make the effort. [4]

This openness even to the enemy, to the cruel and the evil, is the challenge of Christianity. To seek change and justice through love rather than violence or even reason and moral argument is incredibly difficult. Not only do we resist loving our enemies, but we get confused about what it means to love.

Yes, love includes patience, kindness, humility, compassion, and acceptance. That’s hard enough. What love also requires of us, though, is that – without lapsing into anger or violence – we must be able to say “no” and set boundaries that protect and affirm the rights of those who have no power to protect themselves and that offers the perpetrator the opportunity to make a better choice.

Empathy or Compassion?

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology, suggests that we eschew empathy, by which he means the capacity to feel what others are feeling, when creating laws or deciding what is best for humanity as a whole. Instead, in a YouTube video, he suggests we should appeal to what he calls “rational compassion,” in which we balance our caring with reasoned moral principles. He makes a good case, noting that empathy can encourage us to support the people who are most like us, thus leading to unfair practices and oppressive laws.

Denise Cummins and Robert Cummins, one a psychologist and the other a philosopher, point out that principles have not always led to just laws. Indeed, we have used our reason and rational thought to justify even heinous actions such as slavery, bear baiting, and genocide. [5] Even if our reasoning is distorted, who can convince us of that when we are caught up believing our own thoughts?

That’s why, the Cumminses maintain that “it is beyond reason by itself to determine whether one set of internally consistent principles is morally superior to another.” [6] Instead, they write, we need empathy. Using empathy, we enter into the life of another and imagine how it would feel to experience the particular pain that person has lived through. Only then can we understand what laws or policies will best serve that person and those like them.

A Mix of Empathy and Reason

Nothing we humans do is perfect. No moral code ever addresses every situation; no emotional resonance always leads us to the best answer. Over and over, we cut corners, make mistakes, act too abruptly or with too much fervor. We mistake religious values for facts and forget that science itself has no value system. Bloom is right to caution us from depending solely on empathy. The Cumminses are also right to encourage us to remember the dangers of acting out of rationality alone.

So what do we do?

Perhaps what Bloom doesn’t take into account, and what Angelou is modeling as she imagines how we might have helped Clarence Thomas turn into a butterfly, is that rational compassion must start with empathy. Unless we enter into another’s story, feel her suffering, we will not care about her. In that case, there is no compassion to temper our rationality.

The Power of Story

That’s why religions depend on myth. It’s why poetry and movies move us. It’s why chaplains encourage people to share their stories. Not only does listening help us better understand the depths of the other, but the telling helps the speaker learn something about herself. To understand who we are as human beings, to figure out how to live and how to love, to heal and become, we need stories.

Not all stories are created equal; either are all value systems. We must use our reason to judge between the myth of creationism, for instance, and the story of the Big Bang. One flies in the face of all we know about the universe. The other, though imperfect, is the best model we have so far to represent a reality we may never fully understand. On the other hand, compassion helps us judge the value of scientific inventions or of judgments we have handed down.

Like Angelou, I believe in the power of love to turn us into butterflies. I don’t know that love would make a dragon of us, but I realize love doesn’t change everyone, nor does it solve everything. At least not if we think of love as perfect acceptance and tolerance.

When we shower someone with the love that forgives everything, the love that says, “I will never forsake you,” we are doing something powerful. Yet when we can offer a person total and unconditional love, when we can declare that he is perfect just the way he is, while at the same time tell him that what he is doing is wrong, thereby inviting him to change, if we can hold both of these ideas solidly at the same time, we will have done something divine.

Loving the Best We Can

We humans don’t do this very well. Even if we want to offer complete acceptance, we judge. We distance ourselves, we feel disgust and fear and embarrassment in the face of people who live in failure and despair. That’s why gods are helpful. A god can hold two impossible things in her mind at the same time with no effort at all. She can chastise and encourage change while at the same time loving us so completely, we don’t mind her critique.

In my work as a chaplain, I have felt that kind of love move through me. Sometimes after I finish praying, people say they felt God touch them, or they still feel God within them, or maybe it’s the shimmering light of an angel.

That’s not me generating the love. It’s not my energy moving through them. Our brains are powerful enough, we can creating such a shimmer by ourselves. On the other hand, maybe there really is some sort of divine presence out there.

Regardless of what that sensation really is, the one in me or the one in them, I have seen it change lives. For the better.

Loving during the Holiday

If we are fortunate during the holidays, we will give gifts, smile, sing carols with friends, share food. If not, Christmas will be a dour reminder that we are lonely, bitter, and afraid. Those of us with dysfunctional families may find we’re better off celebrating by ourselves.

Yet whether we are included in parties or lost in the depths of our isolation, there is love. Human love is big; divine love is bigger. When we open ourselves to it, we can feel the tingling glow that touches our broken places and makes them whole. There’s nothing scientific here. No experiment can recreate the effect of a prayer or the longing of a god for her child. Such a thing comes when it wills and disappears when it wants to.

Yet if we reach out in love, if we entertain the possibility of something true and right and good that lives and breathes through everything, we might experience a happiness beyond anything we knew before. Speaking of the challenge of loving the unlovable, Angelou says, “when I can get over on that, it brings me joy.”

This same joy lies within the religious foundation of Christmas. According to the myth, Jesus came to Earth to bring us a new kind of love, a love that forgives everything, accepts everyone, and invites us to do our best to reflect that love onto others. This is not something we figure out once and do forever after. As Angelou says, we can’t “be” Christians – or Buddhists, or Muslims, or Jews, or Humanists. We strive to become. Our work is never finished. This makes life worth living. Challenges always lie ahead. When we can “get over on that,” we can know joy.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Kholi, Diya, “Sicence Explains and Religion Gives Meaning to the World: Neil MacGregor,” LiveMint, November 25, 2018,https://www.livemint.com/Companies/fRzSi2L89cfzwEZgW9HjYL/Science-explains-and-religion-gives-meaning-to-the-world-Ne.html, accessed 12/22/18.
  2. McLoed, Melvin, “‘There’s No Place to God But Up’ – bell hooks and Maya Angelou in Conversation,” Lion’s Roar, January 1, 1998, https://www.lionsroar.com/theres-no-place-to-go-but-up/, accessed 11/10/18.
  3. Abramson, Jill, “Do You Believe Her Now?,” New York Magazine, Intelligencer, February 19, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/02/the-case-for-impeaching-clarence-thomas.html, accessed 12/22/18.
  4. McLoed.
  5. Cummins, Denise and Robert Cummins, “Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong about Empathy and Morality,” Psychology Today, October 20, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/good-thinking/201310/why-paul-bloom-is-wrong-about-empathy-and-morality, accessed 12/22/18.
  6. Ibid.

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.