The season of giving has come upon us! I have to admit, even though I am not a Christian, I absolutely love the Christmas season. I know there are a lot of things wrong with Christianity, just as there are with every religion. The harm, the evil, done in the name of Christ is enough to make my skin crawl. But at the same time, there is a lot of good, and I see no reason to deny it. At its very best, Christianity is all about giving: God giving his son, his son giving himself, his followers giving themselves to one another, and even to strangers in need — giving of themselves and their worldly goods for the sake of others. This is the part of Christianity – which I consider to be true Christianity at its heart – that I completely resonate with and cherish, even though I no longer consider myself to be among the faithful…..
The Christmas season is a giving season. I completely detest the crass materialism. But the real message of giving doesn’t have to be about Black Fridays (and now Black Thanksgivings….), piles of useless *stuff*, greedy hoarding. It can be about thoughtful gifts to people we love – especially family – to show that we care for them, we think about them, we want what’s best for them, we are wanting to bond with them.
In my undergraduate class yesterday – the last class of the semester – we had a very interesting talk about why I believe (or disbelieve) what I do; it ended up being a discussion of why we should value the things that we do, why we as humans should be interested in helping others in need, why we should behave morally and lovingly, fighting oppression, working for justice, giving to those who are in dire circumstances, suffering from hunger and homelessness or meaninglessness and despair. A lot of my students – maybe most of them – had trouble understanding why I would bother to try to be a good person or to help others in need if there was no God ordering me to do so. In their view, if there is no objective standard by which to judge our actions – no God giving us directions concerning right and wrong – then it must be a free-for-all and we should/could simply live out our selfish lives anyway we want — the rest of the world be damned.
When I was a Christian, that’s more or less what I thought as well. In fact, that was one of the main reasons I was afraid to *stop* being a Christian, because I thought that once I did, I would lose my moral compass and have nothing to guide my actions, and it would lead to a profligate, hedonistic, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic life. I was completely wrong. In class yesterday I tried – not every well, I’m afraid – to explain to my students that there is no need for some kind of “objective” standard or reality out there to provide us guidance for how to live. We’re humans, and we’re wired as humans, and it’s part of being human to feel love an sympathy for those in need. If I had been a bit quicker (I wasn’t prepared for the direction of this final conversation on our final day) I would have talked at some length about evolutionary psychology and about why it is that we – many / most? of us – are wired this way. But in my view, we are.
We as humans very much want to live happy, productive, fulfilling, and useful lives. And we do – we simply do – feel pangs of conscience and even wrenching pain when we know that others are suffering and yet we do nothing about it. It’s not hard to figure out on evolutionary terms why were are this way. If we weren’t, we never would have survived as a species. But even if we take a step back and think about our evolved sense of wanting to be happy and wanting others to be happy as well, it is easy to see that this sense is a very good thing indeed. This is one evolutionary impulse we should give in to.
So, it is the season that celebrates this very fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. I hope all of you can be in a giving mood this season, whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a pagan, an agnostic, an atheist, or, well, just a human. There are, obviously, lots and lots of ways to give – not just getting everything on everyone’s Christmas list. If you do feel so inclined, please do give to a charity of your choice. It’s a great thing to do and if you’re like me, you’ll feel very good about it and about yourself doing so. Of special relevance to this blog, if you make a donation here, every penny will go to help those in need, to charities that fight hunger and homelessness. I would personally appreciate it very much indeed, and will in response send many happy thoughts your direction, my gift to you…..