Merry Meaningless Christmas!
The story of Christmas is little more than one enormous fiction. So I was grimly informed by an essay from a while back that I chanced upon today. Emmanuel, “God with us,” the “humble king” and all that—just pleasant illusions that we entertain ourselves with each year on our naively hopeful and recklessly irresponsible way to the mall to anesthetize our miserable selves with shopping and candy.
We like our pleasant winter scenes and candy canes and elves and cheery Christmas carols because they make us feel nice, after all, and, in a similar way, we like our fantasies about baby Jesus coming to earth. It makes us feel good to believe that God likes us and bothered to come and hang around in our skin once upon a time. And we like feeling good, so we’ll take whatever we can get! Santa, Jesus, Rudolph, Frosty—it matters not. The more the merrier! It’s all just one giant exercise in self-deception to help us avoid the many pains and contradictions of our meaningless lives in a world where God has not come and will not be coming, where hope is little more than a necessary fiction, a marketable notion for a Hallmark card.
Of course, this was and is a fairly familiar genre of writing. Sure, it was full of bracing language and a few strategic profanities to make it sound uniquely edgy or fearless or rebellious or whatever, but the nihilism it professed was hardly new, nor was the charge that the story of Christmas (or any other element of the Christian story, or indeed any story of meta-meaning) is one big exercise in wish projection undertaken by fearful little creatures who just can’t bear to face reality as it really is and must, therefore, distract and deceive themselves with make-believe stories about another world. This is a well-traveled road populated by Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and countless other lesser minds along the way.
What struck me about the piece wasn’t the content so much as the apparent assumption that this brave perspective was a response to something new. As if it were somehow revelatory that the world as it is doesn’t always provide unambiguous evidence for the existence of God or of God’s coming. As if pain and injustice and human cruelty and oppression existing alongside claims about a sovereign and good God were recent discoveries. As if hope was more obvious at every other point in history besides our angst-ridden, obsessively individualistic postmodern cultural moment. As if a God-man birthed from the womb of a peasant teenage girl in a tiny little Palestinian town was once an entirely plausible explanation for the hope of the world, but we just can’t accept such silly ideas anymore. As if we were the first people in history to wonder why God seems so slow in his coming.
There are many things that could be (and have been) said about such assumptions, but the first thing that comes to my mind is, Wow, that is some hubris…
Well, fine, I suppose we will continue to hear these predictable refrains about how hope in God (at Christmas, or any other time) is for people who just can’t quite summon the courage to face the meaninglessness of life, about how faith is for people who prefer to stick their heads in the sand and pretend our predicament is better than it really is, about how the faithful blissfully blunder through life expecting God to float down from the clouds and slap a big old Band-Aid on his world and make everything better, etc. These sorts of claims are old, indeed, and they are not going away. Besides, who am I to deprive the purveyors of such critiques the obvious delight and sense of superiority they derive from dispensing them?
But it’s at least worth considering whether we are quite as unique or important or courageous and clearheaded in our brave postmodern (mostly imagined) nihilism as we think we are. It’s at least worth considering that our struggles and insecurities, our fears and anxieties have appeared on the stage of history a time or two before our arrival on the scene. And it’s at least worth considering—hey, why not?–that faith and hope in a world made new and a God who came and will yet come might just itself be something like an act of courage in a world that seems, on so many days and in so many ways, to be going straight to hell.
It’s too easy to say that Christmas is a meaningless fiction. It’s too easy to gain pleasure and comfort (and meaning?) from the stupid, childish faith of those who just don’t possess the brains and/or courage to accept reality as it “really” is. It’s too easy to mock those whose hope has not yet died. A harder, less frequently traveled road would be to wrestle—really wrestle—with the apparently irreducible and ineliminable human propensities toward hope, meaning, justice, peace, and goodness in a world in which these have never been our obvious end, and to consider what (if anything) this might mean. It’s not as much fun as imagining that you alone have the courage and the intelligence to see things correctly, sure, but, hey, life is full of little disappointments.
At the very least, those who are so convinced that Christmas (and everything else) is meaningless should not be so concerned that a few of us ignorant religious types persist in our illusions, nor should they be so eager to relieve us of them. After all, consistency would seem to demand that the fantasies of faith contain no more or less meaning than the efforts of those who would gleefully expose them as such.