The Myths of Christmas: Advice to my Fellow Clergy
The Toronto Globe and Mail published a column [6 September 2012] by a psychologist, Dr. Joti Samra, in which she responds to a mother who had asked for advice because her 12-year old son still believes in Santa Claus and, while it is endearing and embarrassing simultaneously, she was reluctant to break his spirit by telling him the truth.
Dr. Samra urged the mother to tell her son Santa was not real, noting that one of the amazing things about children is the innocence and enthusiasm of their beliefs and their awe at the wonders of the world, but that the duty of the parent is to help prepare them for the real world. She observed that the way to approach the issue is to gently explain that the Santa myths have historical roots in the 4th Century bishop St. Nicolas who was admired and recognized because he gave gifts secretly to those who were less fortunate and were in need, and then to help her son move beyond the Santa story to appreciate the value of unconditional gift-giving and the true spirit of Christmas which lives in us all when we give to others.
As is common for newspaper articles, readers commented on the story and I was fascinated by the range of comments, which can be categorized into several distinct groups: (a) Mom is the naïve one here because no 12-year old that is not living under a rock could possibly believe in Santa; her son is merely pretending because he has concluded there is some advantage in getting gifts from a pretend Santa. (b) It is wonderful that there are kids who are so innocent of the hard realities of the world that we should let them continue to believe without destroying their innocence so long as it is possible for them because there is no point in discomforting them before they are ready for the truth. (c) As kids mature they give up their belief in Santa Claus as the jolly elderly elf who travels all over the world with his sleigh driven by flying reindeer and his sack of gifts for good children everywhere, so why as adults do they hold to the even more unbelievable story of a god who manages the events of the world and picks winners and losers, invisible guardian angels who fly, the son of the god born to a virgin, and a god who came back from the dead and now sits on a heavenly throne and will come back one day to judge the living and the dead.
As I contemplated these responses from the standpoint of a humanist who chooses the life and teachings of Jesus as a model for ethical values but who does not buy into the mythical structure of traditional Christianity, I had some reflections from my early experience that might be helpful to parish clergy.
A very long time ago when I was a student at a theological seminary in Rochester, New York, many students struggled with issues of faith and belief, which was one of the purposes of theological seminary (at least among the responsible seminaries!), and some seminarians who found they no longer believed the traditional theology found it was easier to pretend to believe than it was to give up their vocation and disappoint their friends and family. Many of them chose to affiliate with liturgical denominations such as the Episcopalians/Anglicans, where they could say “the church believes” rather than “I believe.”
Early in my career, when I was chairman of the department of religion of an educational institution in New England I had a friend who was chaplain of a Catholic educational institution nearby that was run by a religious order and attached to a grotto of Mary that sold souvenirs and religious trinkets. From conversations with him I knew that he did not believe that these trinkets had any actual spiritual value, so I asked him how he dealt with the fact that his religious order continued to sell these trinkets and encourage believing in their efficacy. His response surprised me. The people who come to the grotto are a very simple people, he said, like children, with very simple beliefs. They don’t ask any questions and they are comfortable in their belief so why should we disturb them in their innocence and naivete?
Ah, the endearing innocence of children. How comforting it is that our children are secure in their childhood beliefs in incredible stories and myths even as we know that the hard realities will intrude on them soon enough as they mature and outgrow them, some sooner, some later, but as that 1st Century Saint Paul (not Saint Nicolas!) reminds us—all of us must eventually become adults intellectually and spiritually and put behind us our childish beliefs. That is all a part of the business of growing up spiritually.
And what is more incredible (“too improbable to be believed”) than the myth of a virgin giving birth to the son of a god who turns out to be the god himself, expecting this god to help you win the next ball game or the next election or the war your nation fights against your neighbor. What is more unbelievable than the claim that a collection of religious texts written two millennia ago was actually written by a god, or that a man wearing imperial robes and carrying a golden shepherd’s staff can act on behalf of a god as his emissary, or that the course of an illness or history will be changed because you asked for it. The gullibility and the arrogance of such claims are monstrous. They make the naivete of children seem so much more preferable, because at least the children outgrow their childish views.
Why don’t the same persons who are able to outgrow their childish views of Christmas not similarly outgrow their childish views about religion?
To my fellow clergy, who are reluctant to break the spirits of members of their congregation, you should need no reminder that the naïve beliefs of adults in your congregations are not endearing. By using ambiguous language to avoid the issues you are prolonging their growth to maturity and interfering with the mandate of Saint Paul to put aside childish views and grow up into a mature faith that does not depend on mythology. Borrowing from Dr. Samra, we suggest to our fellow clergy that the way to approach the issue is to gently explain that the Christian myths have historical roots in the 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth who was admired and recognized as a great teacher of love and compassion toward those who were less fortunate and were in need, and then to help their congregations move beyond the Christian mythology to appreciate the value of unconditional love and affirmation of others which is the true spirit of Christianity, which for the truth Christian should live in them.
What we wish for this Christmas is not that its myths be taken seriously, but rather that the spirit of generosity and kindness that underlies the spirit of Christmas become a reality in and for all of us, that the hungry are fed with bread and meat and not with empty promises, that the prisoners are visited with a spirit of reform of the human heart and not with promises of heavenly salvation, that the sick be visited with comfort and health care for all and a commitment to fight against the many illnesses that plague us, that the homeless find shelter accompanied by rehabilitation and job training and forbearance of foreclosures and evictions, and that the politicians sit down with each other and stop acting like children and get on with the business of compromise necessary to move us forward.
For all we wish joy, happiness and peace in the New Year – but we will not hold our breath waiting for it to happen.