Sunday, December 25, 2011

Believing the Christmas Story (From the Archives)

What follows is a repost of a seasonally appropriate essay from last year. Parts of it resonate with a different kind of significance this year, in the wake of my father's recent passing.

What does it mean to believe in the Christmas story? In terms of substance and significance, what does it mean?

I’m not asking about facts. I’m not asking for a recitation of one or more of the Christmas narratives with the concluding remark, “To believe in the Christmas story is to believe that these events really took place.” If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything about biblical literalists, it’s that their religion is, far too often, so shallow. Their faith becomes about affirming that this or that happened, that this or that factual claim is true. There is no effort to really dwell on what it means to live as if this is true, to let one’s attitudes and choices, one’s patterns of engaging with the world, be informed and transformed by a narrative vision. When I ask what it means to believe in the Christmas story, that’s what I’m asking for.

I ask for it in the midst of my own finitude. I live with a constant awareness of my limitations, limits which I feel in so many different ways. My wife is a triathlete. She’s run marathons, swum unfathomable (to me) distances. Recently, my 7-year-old son has taken up running—and I’ve found myself called upon to keep up with him in the fun run or the 5K at an area event while my wife runs a longer distance. And so I’ve been trying to run, to build my stamina. I’ve been feeling and pushing the limits of my aging body.

One can extend one’s limits, but they remain. I might find myself huffing less intensely after a mile on the treadmill. I might stretch the distance I can cover without a walk break, until I can run around Boomer Lake in Stillwater twice without a rest. But the limits will remain. And starting to run in my forties means that I do so with a clear awareness that whatever limits I stretch will soon close back in on me, as countless little signs of age have their inevitable cumulative effect.

My father was recently diagnosed with cancer. He will be having surgery in a little over a week. This fall, a fellow violinist and retired music professor in my congregation passed away, and I sat at his funeral listening to the testimonies of his violin students and remembering Bernie, my own wonderful violin teacher, who’d passed away decades ago. This summer my wife’s grandfather died, and so I found myself thinking about the deaths of my grandparents—one dying in indignity and anguish, the other with unexpected swiftness. A few months back, Dame Joan Sutherland—La Stupenda—breathed her last. Only recordings of her exquisite breath control remain (many of them in my music collection). All of us confront this ultimate limit, the outer boundary of our mortal life. The generations take turns pushing at it.

Our consciousness moves inexorably forward through time. Even if Einstein is right and we live in a “block universe,” one in which time is just another dimension of reality—even if my experience of “now” is a kind of illusion of consciousness, and that past (and future) are every bit as real, every bit as much there, as the present—even so, it remains the case that my experience of time is sequential, that I am caught in a current I cannot turn against or step out of.

That current not only points me towards the limit we call death, but constrains me at every moment—constrains me in every moment. I’m visiting my parents, who live in the same house I grew up in. Earlier this week I drove past the home of my childhood friend Doug. I’ve reconnected with him recently on Facebook, so I know he was in Buffalo this summer, emptying out his childhood home. I saw the “Sold” sign out in front of Doug’s house, and I saw the bronze eagle that his family had installed over the garage decades ago. I wondered how long that ornament would last once the new tenants moved in.

And I remembered playing in Doug’s basement. I remembered his mother coming downstairs with toast slathered with raspberry jam. I remembered the taste of it, the crunch of toasted Wonder Bread and the burst of sweetness. And for one anguished moment I want to visit then. I wanted more than just the memory, the ghost that haunts the present. I wanted to be that child playing with that friend, tasting the flavors of that moment. And it seemed a terrible injustice that one can travel to old familiar places but not to old familiar times.

The other experiences of limitation are more personal, having to do with my incapacities, my inability to find the right words or gestures to help or comfort those I love. Presented with their needs, I come face to face with my faults. Too often, because I don’t know the right thing to do, I do nothing when something is urgently required.

My “pleasure” reading these days is Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy novel, Against All Things Ending. If anything—like all his novels—it’s a narrative meditation on finitude, on the flaws and limits that not only constrain us but define us. His characters’ flaws are always extravagant, their brokenness almost unendurable. And he casts these broken people into a mythic universe which reflects and magnifies that brokenness as well as their beauty, an environment whose threatened virtues demand their self transcendence.

In this novel, Thomas Covenant—who in earlier novels sacrificed his humanity to become an integral part of the mythic Arch of Time—is thrown back into mortal life due to the extremity and reckless urgency of his former lover’s (Linden’s) efforts. Towards the end of the novel he finds himself wrestling with what it means to be a finite mortal creature again, and he has these thoughts:
Now he was human again: he could no longer see past his limitations. Like every creature that died when its time was done, he could only live in his circumscribed present.

This was the truth of being mortal, this imprisonment in the strictures of sequence. It felt like a kind of tomb.

In his earlier state, he had recognized that this prison was also the only utile form of freedom. Another contradiction: strictures enabled as much as they denied. The Elohim (mythic beings of pure “Earthpower”) were ineffectual precisely because they had so few constraints. Linden was capable of so much because her inadequacies walled her on all sides.

Now, however, he had to take that perception on faith.

In the Christmas story, Christians affirm something like what Covenant strives, in the midst of his limited perception, to hold onto on faith: the idea that limits can encompass redemptive possibilities.

One of the most extraordinary images to come from the Hubble Space Telescope emerged when the telescope was pointed towards an area of seemingly empty space. What would the telescope reveal? The answer was galaxies. Galaxies upon galaxies. Multitudes of galaxies filling that tiny sliver of darkness. The vastness of the universe, the immensity of creation, came to light in a stunning way.

To believe in the Christmas story is, first, to believe that behind that immensity is an infinite creator whose vastness dwarfs His creation. The creation itself is one that we cannot even begin to fathom, and which demands our stunned silence—but that stunning immensity is only a symbol of the magnitude of what lies behind.

Second, to believe in the Christmas story is to believe that this infinite creator descended into His creation to take on the boundaries of matter and time and vulnerable flesh. All that immensity, all that unfathomable vastness, became paradoxically defined by mortal limitations: the strictures of sequence, the inevitability of death, helplessness, susceptibility to despair.

Our anguished consciousness of our limits, our fallibility and fragility, finds no purer symbol than the wailing infant, the baby whose only power is to scream out its need. And in the Christmas story, that symbol of frail finitude is juxtaposed against the heavens: the blazing star over Bethlehem, the heavenly host that comes with terrifying splendor to the shepherds—or, in the language of our own age, the vastness of the universe, galaxies upon galaxies that fill up one sliver of darkness in the sky.

But part of the message is that what the child represents is something far greater that the teeming enormity of the physical universe, despite the strictures of sequence, despite mortality and frail flesh. The eternal Logos, the Word that from the beginning was with God, one with God, fully present in a child stripped of any trappings of grandeur. A stall. Hay. Outcast shepherds. Peasant parents. It isn’t the emperor who is exalted, who can claim the mantle of the infinite. The infinite presses itself into mortal strictures at that point where its meaning cannot be warped by artificial hierarchies, the imagined constructs we fashion to tame the vastness of what lies beyond us.

We exalt a man in a big room, on a big chair, wearing glittering clothes—and if such a man is the definition of greatness, then greatness is a miniscule thing. It won’t dwarf us. Such a parochial vision of greatness can help us not to think of the galaxies upon galaxies filling up one tiny corner of the heavens. If God came to Earth in such a man, we’d make God as small as an emperor.

But in the Christmas story we are asked, not to tame our vision of God, but to expand our vision of frail humanity. In the Christmas story, we are invited not to hide from the immeasurable vastness of the universe and its creator, but to confront it in the knowledge that we will not be lost or crushed or driven to despair by its enormity. Rather than taming God, rather than putting God in a manageable box, the Christmas story buttresses us in all our frailty so that we needn’t hide from what transcends us. It does so not by making us equal to God; not by erasing our limits. It does so by making the infinite God one with us, by bringing God down into those limits. To believe in that, to believe in the Christmas story, is to be capable of enduring and accepting our limits, our finitude, the strictures of physical existence and the one-way flow of time—capable of accepting them even when we honestly see them for what they are.

And this capacity in turn enables us to do what inevitably exposes every frailty and imperfection in a blazing light. It enables us to look to the infinite, to open ourselves to it, to face the mysterium tremendum with the joy of relationship rather than in despair over our own inadequacy.

And to believe in the Christmas story is to set aside the fear of inadequacy and all the ugly things that go with it: the jealousies of others’ accomplishments; the envy of others’ talents; the shame of being merely human; the other-directed judgments and condemnations that are really about misdirection, about getting those around us to look somewhere else so that they don’t see our own glaring sins; the self-directed loathing and despair that comes when we cannot hide from our own sense of insufficiency; and all the superficiality, the consumerism, the empty entertainments that we throw ourselves into in the hope of distracting ourselves, of keeping ourselves from noticing our staggering limitations.

To believe in the Christmas story is to look at all this friable life, in ourselves and others—this life constrained by mortality and sequence, impotence and ignorance, sin and fallibility—and to treasure the precious reality that dwells within those limits, rather than the vast nothing which lies beyond them.


  1. I have no comment, other than to say... Beautiful.

  2. Hi Eric,

    This is off-topic but a philosopher friend recommended Robert Bellah's latest book "Religion in Human Evolution". Any opinion on this?

    And happy New Year to all!

  3. JP--Haven't read it, but I'll put it on my list. Happy New Year to you, too!

  4. Dear Eric,

    I read extensively in the genre of theology/religion, always hoping to stumble across authors whose views align with my own -- but I usually come away disappointed. I was unfamiliar with your work until I recently stumbled across 'Is God a Delusion?' in our public library. By page 6 I was practically jumping up and down with excitement, thinking, "Holy S**t! How have I not heard of this guy before!" Of course I had to immediately quit reading and Google your name to learn more about you and what else you have written.

    That's how I found this beautiful, truthful, thought-provoking post: I can't wait to pass the link on to my adult children. I feel like I have found a kindred spirit! Progressive theism (I hate to say 'Christianity' because I am no longer sure to whether I feel comfortable calling myself a 'Christian' despite my belief in the gospels and the life of Jesus) is vastly under-represented in the popular religious mass market.

    I also cannot wait to read 'Triumph of Love': I have never understood the argument (which I have often heard voiced) that allowing gays to marry denigrates, somehow, the concept of marriage. I do not at all see the connection. Far more degrading to the concept of marriage, in my opinion, is the fact that two strangers can legally get married in Vegas even if they've only known one another a few hours! (And even if they are under-the-influence while saying/taking their vows!)
    Just saying . . . .!

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your writing.


    Diane Stranz
    Arlington, Texas

    1. Diane,

      I just saw this comment. Thanks so much for it. It's always reassuring to hear when my thoughts and words connect with others--a reminder of why I struggle to find words for what I'm thinking and feeling.