Let’s get a little personal.
Let’s get a little personal.
I’m Christian by birth, but somewhere between Catholic school and reading the Bible at around 13 turned me into an atheist. I was more obnoxious of an atheist as a kid than I am now. I have since learned to be respectful of people, people’s beliefs and moral systems, and spirituality. I still have a fairly scientific outlook on things (I agree with Bertrand Russell’s essay on ‘Why I am not a Christian’) and feel that the point generalizes. And yet I have learned that it is important to be humble about these things. What’s more, I am happy to admit that there is a vast realm of things that we don’t understand, and that leaves plenty of room for subjective things, for spirituality, for religious and moral impulses.
In that context, neither of the poles of the debate that happens every Christmas in western society is very appealing to me. At the one pole you turn on the television and see business analysts saying that the shopping season has been ‘lacklustre at best’, despite the feeling that all this shopping is somehow obscene in light of the war, death, scarcity, and destruction of the ecological basis of life that is going on. At the other pole there are the signs in front of the churches you drive by admonishing you that ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’.
A friend of mine was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories a couple of years back on Christmas. In Bethlehem. We were both on a radio program together, a Christmas special. He started his interview saying: “I’m standing here at the birthplace of the person who some would call the messiah but who I prefer to think of as a Jewish anti-poverty activist.” I’ve always liked that. There’s something very powerful in being able to use your own moral judgement, to take a religious or moral – or for that matter an intellectual – teaching, and decide whether and how to use it. But it requires an irreverent attitude and, if you’ll indulge me, a faith in your own moral sense. But moral sense, like critical faculties generally, are like muscles – they get better the more you use them. And no one can do your exercise for you.
I live in this society and for the most part I don’t pretend that I don’t, and even if my political views aren’t shared or expressed with the ubiquity of ads for the latest gadget or admonishments as to the reason for the season, I do – even understanding the environmental impacts and opportunity costs – engage in gift exchanges with friends and loved ones. That tradition has nothing to do with Jesus at all, of course – it’s a european pagan tradition, part of a festival to lighten spirits in the darkest part of winter. The church made a clever political move putting Christmas at the same time – knowing the people would celebrate anyway, they were able to co-opt the festival for their own purposes. I suppose that corporations have done the same: they know people are going to celebrate Christmas for religious reasons, and they exploit it to try to sell more stuff. And yet I like the idea of giving gifts for no particular reason. The only tragedy is that the real costs are paid by others, and/or deferred to the future.
Have a merry Christmas. Back to more coherent thoughts tomorrow – though you should expect another ramble at the year’s end.