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A Reflection on Christmas: Blast from the Past

Four years ago I made a very personal post about my feelings about Christmas, the day after.  It was one of my personal favorite posts of all time.  I repeat it again here, this time the day before.

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In the opening chapter of my book God’s Problem, I talked about going to church on Christmas Eve in 2006 with my wife Sarah and brother-in-law Simon, in Saffron-Walden, a market town in England where Simon lives, not far from Cambridge.  It was a somber but moving Christmas Eve service, and yet one that had the opposite of the intended effect on me.  It made me realize just how estranged I was from the Christian faith, from the notion that with Christ God entered into the world and took its sufferings upon himself.   I just didn’t see it, and it made me terrifically sad, resentful, and even angry.  There is so much pain and misery all around us, and yet the heavens – in my judgment – seem to be silent.

This is not what led me to write God’s Problem.  I had been planning to write it already for some time.  But the service encapsulated my feelings that eventually came to expression in that book.  I realized the other night that I have not stepped into a church since then, that Christmas Eve midnight service, six years ago.

But I went again this year – same market town, same company, same church, same service.  It had a very different effect on me this time.   I think I’m less angry now.  Less mystified by the lack of a divine response to the horrible pain and suffering going on in the world – crazy gunman in Newtown MA; hurricane Sandy; wars in the Middle East; horrible tragedy of Syria; disaster in Congo; not to mention the daily ravages of starvation, epidemics, droughts, floods, and on and on and on, world without end.   But why *should* there be a divine response?  There appears to be no divine responder.   Not much to get angry about any more.

At the same time, I seem to be less antagonistic to the faith that I once held and cherished so dearly.   I realized three nights ago at the service that even though I still don’t believe it, simply DO NOT believe it, there are things about the Christian faith that I value very highly.  And I wish very much that I could still be a Christian, even if that means simply holding on to the Christian myth (I would never think that it’s some kind of historical, empirical, or even metaphysical reality) as the myth that I want to embrace.  And the reason is this.

On the way to the church, walking through the dark streets of Saffron Walden, we passed a pub open late.  The young people were lined up en mass to get in.  Christmas Eve is a night to get completely blitzed, loaded, drunk out of your gourd for many people (not just 19-year-olds) in England.   By comparison, the church in town, for this major service, had a good size crowd, but it was nowhere near full.   And I started thinking about the values represented by these two groups of people, and about which set of values I personally feel aligned with.

Let me be clear: I am not against a good bit of drinking and lots of good cheer.  Just the contrary.   But what if my life consisted in doing that all the time?   And what are the values and the guiding life-principles of people who do so?  Or of those who do not do so, but live completely secular lives?  What exactly do people value outside communities of faith?  Some of us outside these communities, of course, value fairly traditional social values.  At least I do.  Good family relations; good friends; little pleasures in life; doing good for others.

But that’s not what society as a whole values and I might as well face it.  Most people in our society principally value themselves.   Egotism and self-centeredness rule the day.   Most people (frankly) don’t give a damn about the pressing problems of our world.   Most are far more interested in how much money they can make, and spend, and how many great things they can buy.  They might give a buck to a panhandler on the street corner and feel good about themselves, or twenty bucks at Christmas to a charity; but basically they, most of us, want to earn all they can to use it for themselves.  (I’m *not* complaining about people who give 20 dollars and that’s all they can afford to give; I sit in wonder and admiration at *them*).   When I look at my own community of Durham NC, I see a fairly typical community where a very few people give a LOT for the sake of others (probably the majority, of these, however, are people of faith), but where there is an ungodly amount of money that is hoarded or spent on personal pleasure without a care in the world that less than a mile away people are sleeping on the streets in the cold without having anything to eat all day.

And what about the church?  Well, the church is a mess too, mainly because there are people in it and people, as a rule, are a mess.   But what I told Sarah after the service was that I wished I could believe, because the values that are espoused by the church are the ones I hold.  Not by the mega-churches.  Not by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Not by the Vatican.  Good god no.  But by the humble, local, church, which teaches people (whether they do it or not) that they ought to love their neighbors as themselves, that they ought to do unto others as they would have them to themselves, that they should clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, visit the lonely, and so on.  That they should give of themselves for the sake of others, and not simply live for the fleeting pleasures of this life.

Of course, I myself think this live is all there is.  I don’t think there is a reward for good behavior or generosity.   I don’t believe in a supreme being who created the world and will redeem it and who has given us the chance to spend eternity in heaven.  I think when we die, that is the end of the story.   But the values espoused in the form of Christianity that I am most comfortable with – good, liberal, humble, caring Christianity – are really the values that I myself treasure and that, frankly, I do not see expressed very often in the secular society in which I spend my life.

Why aren’t their non-religious social institutions on every street corner (with or without steeples) that embrace these values?  Why do religious people give so much more of their possessions (they do!) and of themselves than secular people (I know, I know: for many it’s because they’re hoping to early favor with God; but others are, quite frankly, simply generous and self-giving).   Why do religious people so much more frequently commit themselves to the good of others than secular people do (again, I know, I know, there are real jerks among the believers – arguably the majority –  and most Christians, at the end of the day, are not better people than the rest of us, and there really are amazing people among the secularists – think Doctors Without Borders for starters).   But why are so many people so obsessed with the fleeting pleasures of the flesh and the superficial enjoyments that the media crams down our throats?  Why aren’t their humanist and secularist societies that band together in fellowship with commitments to love others and do good to those in need and to live for the greater things in live,  societies as highly visible as the church (at least as the church used to be)?  It is one of my perennial puzzles and concerns.

I think the question(s) came so deeply and disturbingly this Christmas Eve because when I was a Christian, acknowledging that the myth of the incarnation was a myth, I accepted the myth as saying something very profound.   In that myth, the ultimate reality (call it God) did not come into the world in a blaze of power worthy of a Roman emperor or with an astonishing abundance of wealth worthy of, well, a Roman emperor.  He came as an impoverished child to an unwed mother in the midst of a world of pain and suffering; and this child grew in poverty and urged his followers to give of themselves for the sake of others, insisting that it was the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hungry, the sick, the demon-possessed, the sinners, the outcasts who were the concern of that ultimate reality.  That made a lot of sense to me.  It still does.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 26, 2016

    Another positive that comes from Christianity is the belief and hope that a person can change from an unproductive or damaging lifestyle and relationship and be restored to a more productive life.
    The theology of being born again or start again is very hopeful and positive.

  2. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 27, 2016

    If, technically, God became human at the moment of Mary’s conception of Jesus, why is the Annunciation not at least as big of a holy day as Christmas?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2016

      Maybe the ancient Christians agree with the Pro-Choice view, that a person does not “become human” until born?

  3. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  December 27, 2016

    Bart, if we accept as fact that Jesus had no interest in starting a new religion and consider only his teachings and how they differed from those of Jews of his time, how would you characterize those differences? I know I am biased but, to me, Jesus’ teachings were only extensions and interpretations of Jewish teachings, not teachings that broke away from the Judaisms of his time. Do you think that the main reason most people refer to his teachings as Christian teachings rather than Jewish teachings (and call them “Christian morality” rather than “Jewish morality”) is simply because most people became Christian, not Jewish, and his teachings became attached to the Christian story?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2016

      I don’t think Jesus’ teachings were particularly unique, except insofar as he appears to have thought that following what he said was a requisite for entering the kingdom. But what he said was paralleled in the teachings of others (e.g. his apocalyptic message; his ethics; etc.)

      • Avatar
        clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 29, 2016

        I agree that the historical Jesus’s teachings did not stray much from Judaism, especially his strict monotheism, acceptance of the Mosaic law, and his ethics in general. However, he thought he was the messiah and that the kingdom of God was imminent. Belief in a messiah and a coming kingdom of God was current among the Jews of Jesus’s day. However, only a few Jews believed Jesus was the messiah and the kingdom did not come when he said it would. If Christianity hadn’t ever got off the ground, I wonder if Jews could have accepted Jesus as say, another (great) prophet but not the messiah.

        Nevertheless, for a current day person who wants to be a follower of the “historical” Jesus, I’m inclined to think there must be a form of Judaism that would be a better choice than any form of Christianity (or, for that matter, better than any form of Islam).

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 28, 2016

      Jesus and those who followed him made those ideas more personal, more accessible, more universal. As you say, he did not intend to create a new religion, but he was at odds with those who controlled the religion he was born into, who interpreted those ideas in a rather rigid and exclusivist manner. Even the Samaritans, monotheists of the same basic ancestry as Jews of that time, were reviled as heathens–and Jesus seems to have been compelled to talk to them (which few if any other rabbis would have done at the time), listen to them, conclude they too had souls worth saving.

      What mattered to Jesus was faith. With it, anything was possible. Without it, adhering to certain codes of behavior meant nothing. Faith can only be proven by good works and loving those around you–whether they are like you or not. It is different, and of course others working within other older religious frameworks, had similar insights. Buddhism began as part of Hinduism, for example. That doesn’t mean it contributed nothing new. It also doesn’t mean Hinduism became irrelevant or stopped evolving, after Buddhism split off from it. Much of modern Judaism would have seemed very strange to the Jews of Jesus’s time, and Jesus would have a very hard time understanding modern Christians. Nothing stands still.

      Jesus was and is the most influential person who ever lived. More than half the current world population reveres him (including Muslims). Many who do not believe the supernatural stories about him have been influenced by him as well. That didn’t happen just ‘because’.

      • Avatar
        mjkhan  December 29, 2016

        Godspell,I fyou have time read the book”100 most influential men of the history”by Michael Hart.In this book he writes Prophet Muhammad on the top.Yes Muslims revere him but the reverence of Muslim is not limited to lip service as of christian.Muslims follow him.If you say you love your mother yet do the opposite you are just fooling her.
        Jesus was circumcised and Muslims are,Jesus said Shalomalaiekum and Muslims say it today.Jesus didn’t eat port and muslims don’t .Jesus taught strict monotheism and Muslims are today.Jesus prayed with his forehead on the ground and Muslims do.Muslims believe he was born without male intervention and yet many modern christians have a problem with it.

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 31, 2016

          I’ve read a lot of things in books I don’t agree with, but he’s got a right to his opinion. Honestly, a book that begins with the words “100 most” is not something I’m likely to waste my time on. 🙂

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 29, 2016

        I think faith in God was assumed. That’s why the greatest commandment was not to have faith in God but to love God. I don’t think that the faith Jesus commended was faith that anything was possible but that, through their love of God, loving one another, they would fair well and enter the Kingdom at the end of days. I think he did not intend to make Judaism more universal. And, in my view, the more universal effect, in Christianity, of loving one’s neighbor without having to adhere to the “Law,” was cancelled out by having to adhere to belief in Christ. And in the end, there is clearly at least a strain in New Testament Christianity that is less universal: if you don’t believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, you will be condemned, while, in Judaism, for the most part, one is not condemned simply because one is not Jewish.

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 1, 2017

          Martin Luther didn’t originally intend to create a rival religion to Catholicism. Lincoln never originally intended to free the slaves and make them equal citizens.

          It’s not where you intended to go in the beginning that matters. It’s where you end up when the journey is done. Jesus was a Jew, and he never at any time intended to create a new religion–he did, however, believe that God was coming to transform the world, and in that transformed world, it’s unlikely he thought traditional Judaism would be relevant in the way it had before. In the end, what mattered to him was faith–from anyone. Jew or gentile. There are too many stories that talk about this for me to conclude otherwise. If you were interested in what he had to say, he was interested in you. He talked to everybody who would listen. He was interested in people most Jews considered apostates, sinners, outsiders. His journey began as an attempt to reform Judaism to prepare for the coming of the Lord. But it didn’t end that way.

  4. Avatar
    Jana  December 28, 2016

    I watched Sir David Attenborough’s 1975 anthropological videos The Tribal Eye last night and wondered why is the Jewish interpretation of Divinity and properties more valid, more real than the Haida Indigenous ot the Dogon Africans? I am questioning. I have no clarity yet … and have not read God’s Problem … When Jesus became God, what kind of God would that have been? I’m puzzled. And Happy New Year!!! btw: The traditional Maya are quasi polygamous pagans .. they have utilitarian attitude toward their Old Gods .. if One wasn’t working hard enough for you, you chose another. Makes sense to me 🙂

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  December 29, 2016

      I was raised in Judaism but have never been convinced that monotheism is necessarily an improvement. Although polytheistic paganism in Europe had its problems, it was, in ways, at least more tolerant of other religions. People argue the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (things are too complex and have too much design for there not to be a God), almost always think that proves the existence of the biblical God when, in fact, the logic of the argument can’t get you there. The argument can just as well conclude that there is a number of gods and not all necessarily perfect or benevolent. Concerning the biblical God of the Hebrew Bible, Jack Miles wrote a terrific (Pulitzer Prize) book called “God: A Biography.” He traces the development of the character of God in very revealing ways.

  5. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 30, 2016

    I’d like to know more about what scholars believe were Jesus’ actual deeds and sayings. I’ve read about it in some of your books and on the blog, but I’d like to find something that isn’t pieced out. Do you know of a book or a lecture available that focuses specifically on the authentic deeds and sayings of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      Large numbers of books written on this! My fullest statement is Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Among leading scholars whose works you might want to try: E. P. Sanders; Geza Vermes; John Meier; Dale Allison; Pauls Fredriksen; A. J. Levine. There are lots of others. Lectures: I have a Historical Jesus course (24 lectures) with the Great Courses you might find interesting.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  January 1, 2017

        I ordered a few books based on your suggestions. When I searched for Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet on Amazon, I noticed that one of the sellers on there has it listed for $1,872.21. lol! I bought the book directly from Amazon, but I was curious to know why someone would list the book for that price, so I emailed the seller. Too soon for a response just yet.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 30, 2016

    Clearly, one of your best posts. Merry Christmas! I have always said that your personal posts are your best ones. I would love to see you write an autobiography fusing together your personal and intellectual journeys The personal would enrich the intellectual..

  7. Avatar
    Rogers  January 3, 2017

    To me the answer is simple – the religious people have an ingrained world view of existence (all existence – not just the physical here and now) as transcendent and ultimatley with meaning, even if the meaning is not comprehensible from current perspective (for the gnostics that is where the connective tissue of the inner self in connection to all else that is fills that gap via gnosis experiences, etc. – traditional religionist instead talk of faith).

    Where there is no world view holding to existence (again, its entirety) as transcendent then meaning is far more difficult to sustain or tenuous to hold onto for the human psyche. And so secularism, in terms of the value propositions espoused that are intended to imbue meaning, end up being rather thread bare or vacuus when held up in comparison to the various religious traditions.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 5, 2017

      Unless (and this does happen), secularists create a religion by another name. You can see various groups of atheists reflexively trying to do this now, and already running into schisms between the more and less tolerant among them. Bart’s repeated encounters with those who would (without any evidence) deny the physical existence of Jesus–more or less entirely on ‘faith’–is one example. Whether a coherent group can form around the denial of God is an open question, but they are trying. The problem is that you need positive beliefs to place alongside the negative ones. And atheists don’t really agree on much of anything other than religion is bad.

      Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, the idea of Comte–it can be done, but you need something more than “There is no God.” And the results, thus far, have not been encouraging.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 6, 2017

        Please don’t confuse anti-theists with non-theists. Non-theists have no stale in denial of God or of Jesus’ historicity. That there are mythicists who are faith-based atheists or Jesus-deniers and who are bound by their “denial of God” and their belief that “religion is bad” has little to do with non-theists who simply lack belief in God or gods and in Christological claims. Confusing the two types of non-theists (those simply “non” and those who are deniers) is as baseless as pointing to the Crusades and Inquisition and concluding they illustrate the problems religious faith causes. Not all religious people would go out and kill non-believers and not all atheists deny the existence of God. Many are atheists simply lack belief because they have never been persuaded or convinced by religious people or their scriptures or religious experiences that their religion is true or that the biblical God or any god exists. They don’t need a religious faith to get by. They get by as well or as poorly as anyone else. They enjoy their family, their community, political and social involvement or not, like others. They are generally tolerant and, unlike the mythicists, have little reason for schisms to develop among them.

  8. Avatar
    Menoclone  February 1, 2017

    “That made a lot of sense to me. It still does.” Your closing quote, Prof. Ehrman. You let me in when I knocked on the door. I am still humbled by your humanity. I am still in debt to you for the use of your wisdom. I shall endevor to repay you. I am extremely thankful for sharing this life with you, for you give of yourself abundantly to remove the blinders from our eyes. Thank you, yet thanking you is not enough. If there is ever ANYTHING I may do in return, please ask.

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