Some 2,000 years after the birth of the Lord, what does the Savior see when he regards the world from deep within it (“The Kingdom of God is within you”)?
STATE OF THE FAITHFUL
The population of Europe, once the cradle of the faith, is shrinking; of those who remain, an ever-growing percentage are now Muslim, and in France perhaps more Muslims than Christians actually attend services on a weekly basis.
Yet Africa is exploding with Christian faith, witness, and dynamism, and in Asia too Christian devotion is rapidly spreading.
Altogether, the number of Christians in the world now amounts to one third or better of the human race, over two billion persons. And Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world.
As always, there is much suffering in the world: cancer, tuberculosis, hunger, war, pestilence, mental illness, betrayal, loneliness, despair. Some individuals bear this suffering sweetly, giving thanks to God and accepting from His hands life’s hardships along with its gifts.
There are many, many such saints, unrecognized by the world around them, whose lives nonetheless cast a luminous radiance detectable by the radar of the soul. These are the centers of redemptive energies, which flow outwards like ripples until they round the earth and return, the invisible circlets of charity, as Dostoevsky once called them. These are those in whom the Christ dwells–the suffering servants. They are everywhere.
You probably know some in your own family, or among your acquaintances: There really is much suffering in the world, and it spares no income level, or class, or section. Yet there are still many truly holy persons.
STATE OF THE NON-BELIEVERS
I am writing all this as an unabashed Christian, but you do not have to be Christian to see some truth in it, however different the traditions of your own thought and speech.
Recently, British scientist Richard Dawkins was described as “an atheist, and a strenuous and militant and proud one.” (One does not hear often of humble atheists, but they do appear.) “He thinks religious belief is a dangerous virus, and that it is a crime to infect the mind of a child with it.” He calls religions “dangerous collective delusions” and “sinks of falsehood.” He especially regrets the public influence of religion: “He is made apoplectic by the pontifications of religious ‘leaders’ on such questions as whether human clones would be fully human.” For Dawkins, in short, “Religion is superstition, like astrology, alternative medicine, and the rest.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, about ten percent (or a little less) of the world population is atheist or agnostic. So however upscale the views of Professor Dawkins, he has his propagating work cut out for him. Most nonreligious, secularist people, it appears, actually believe in God; they just don’t like organized religions.
Even Richard Dawkins would be hard-pressed to deny that among his friends and family members there is considerable acquaintance with suffering, and that some bear this burden more nobly and uncomplainingly than others. Further, some are preternaturally kind and others irascible; and some are rather a blessing to those around them, and others a bit of a cross to bear. Scientists are not immune to the ordinary sufferings of human life. They, too, need to dispose their will and character, so as to show who and what they are in dealing with suffering. Science is a noble profession; it is not by itself a way of life. It is predominantly a habit of the mind, much less of the will.
STATE OF THE INTELLECT
Moreover, there is this to say about the religions of the Lord celebrated on Christmas–the feast of lights, the feast of candles, the feast of the stars, the feast of blazing Christmas lights even in the city streets. Both Judaism and Christianity are religions that give honor and praise to a Creator who knew what he was doing and chose to do it (a God of reason and love). Afterwards, He saw that His was a good piece of work, and spoke of His love for it. In a word, Judaism and Christianity hold before us a God of the intellect, one of whose proper names is Truth–in the sense of “intelligent infuser of the truth into all things.”
Moreover, the Creator made humans in his image–endowed them with intelligence and will, so that they might in freedom come to know and to choose their own destiny, and being provident for it, imitate (from afar) His own Providence. He commissioned them to join in completing the incomplete creation with Him. He offered them his friendship, and therefore, not willing to have the friendship of slaves but of free women and men, he made them free. As Thomas Jefferson, a man not altogether unlike Dawkins in temper, wrote, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”
It would therefore have ill become these particular world-shaping religions, in honoring the Creator who infused His creation with it, to have turned against intellect. On the contrary, Judaism famously nourished learning, disputation, and reasoning among its highest aspirations, and Christianity became from the first the patron of schools, academies, studios for artists, libraries, and universities. Among these early universities are two rather well known to Dawkins: Oxford and Cambridge, whose fame was celebrated even six centuries ago.
A nice irony is this: Whereas Christianity (and Judaism) can give atheists a dignified place within their own theory of religious liberty, it seems quite difficult for atheists such as Dawkins to assign religious people any place in their own theory other than the loony bin. For Jews and Christians, freedom is so dear to the Creator that He allows free human beings to turn away from him, to reject the granting even of His existence, and to scorn Him and His works. In their refusal of His friendship, He vindicates His love of liberty. Thus, atheists too give witness to His glory.
By contrast, Dawkins in his apoplexy can find no place for believing Jews and Christians except delusion. He thinks of atheism as a place of honor and of religion as a disease; teaching of the latter, a crime; teaching of the former, a way of light, knowledge, and truth.
STATE OF INSPIRATION
There is a further irony. Time and again in history, reason has proved to be inadequate to its own defense. Most people most of the time live by passion, sentiment, custom, emotion–many such guides influence them–but few live purely by reason. Even famous philosophers of very high scientific standards have insisted that they did not choose their wives or guide their loves by scientific reason. Reason is but a thin sliver to build a civilization upon.
And the situation is far worse than that. The scientist qua scientist typically writes that the universe was formed by chance. At this starting point, then, there is a fundamental irrationality at the heart of science. There is a superstructure of towering reasonings, but based upon an absurdity–in the strict sense, an utter absence of discernible reason, a surd at the root of the matter. The thorough cultivation of science alone as a philosophy of life, therefore, normally ends as Nietzsche sadly announced, that, in our civilization, it already had: in nihilism.
By contrast, the two great religions of our civilization (the civilization whose years are enumerated both before and after one axial point, the birth of Christ) give every motive in the world for honoring reason, and for nourishing science. The very cathedrals of Europe–whose vast dark interiors were laid out so as to measure across their slate floors the length and movement of the sun’s directed, filtered beams–were simultaneously reaching skywards in the name both of God’s creative intellect and also of daring human intellect. The universities were built in the same design.
Faith, as Jews and Christians understand it, honors reason, nourishes it, embeds it in a context of nobility and purity, such that all are commanded to respect its autonomy within its own realm. When practitioners of these religions do not so honor science, as often they have not, their rejection can be proven wrong on these two religions’ very own philosophical grounds. As practitioners of reason have committed sins against faith, so have practitioners of faith, against reason. If there were no inherent nobility in each, no sin against either would count for so much.
The God of Christmas instructs us in zeal for the Light; that is, the unquenchable drive to know. This drive is the very root of the religious impulse, for through it, we question everything. We come to an indirect awareness of the infinite, and of the Light that would suffuse us with the intelligibility within all things, if only our minds were large enough to grasp it. In this way we come to be humbled, to approach in fear and wonder and awe, and with fierce desire. The consummation of unconditioned inquiry in unrestricted Light–we know darkly and indirectly, by reflection on our own striving–is what we were made for.
STATE OF FREEDOM
To see the newborn infant in the crèche, born of a woman and visibly human, vulnerable, and humble, while contemplating in the unseen aspect of His being that He is also the Lord, the Creator of all things, is to glimpse an analogy for our own long-sought identity. Too well we know our own humanness. What we need reminding of is the side of us made for union with a Friend, who has called us by name, if so we choose.
It is, truly, a choice–not a certainty: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not… He was in the world: and the world was made by him: and the world knew him not.”
In Christmas, then, lies our decision to answer to the Creator, and thus our inalienable right to make that decision, all by ourselves. Neither mother nor father nor brother nor sister can fulfill this duty for us. It is nontransferable.
As James Madison writes in his Remonstrance, “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe… If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.”
One more reason why the crèche, the reminder both of that first Christmas night and of the origin of a modern sense of human dignity, deserves to be exhibited in front of every public building in America. The crèche is not only a religious symbol; it is not merely a secular symbol: It is a symbol of our uplifted nature, and of the rights that accrue to it.
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.