Extrange

What Father Christmas Can Teach Us About Christianity

Thu, 25 Aug 2011 | wilfred

When children are too old to believe the literal meaning of the story of Father Christmas, we tell them the truth

I like the idea of Father Christmas. He's an inspirational guy. He gives gifts to complete strangers for no reason other than that they are children. I've heard that he only gives presents to good children, but I don't know any bad children whose families celebrate Christmas and who do not get gifts, so he seems to be a very forgiving guy too, which only makes him more inspirational.

Jesus is an amazingly inspirational guy. He taught forgiveness and love in a time of fomenting revolution where retribution was not just considered a good idea, it was ancient religious law. Jesus applied his ideas about forgiveness and love to people outside his own family, cultural and religious groups. I want to teach my children forgiveness, love, and generosity. I want them to feel the connectedness of all people, and understand how we are all in this together.

When children are too old to believe the literal meaning of the story of Father Christmas, we tell them the truth; that Father Christmas was a Greek bishop called Nikolaos who lived in what is now Turkey (not the North Pole), and would secretly give gifts to the poor. He died a long time ago (343 AD), and he never had flying reindeer, elves, or a white-fur-lined red coat. But the legend spread across borders and cultures and time. What we should take away from the story are the principles of generosity, and making the festive season a special time of love and reconciliation, and a sense of brotherhood of all humans. We can also notice how inspirational stories worth spreading collect layers over time which capture the imagination, and this helps them to spread.

There is a lot to take from the story of Jesus; principles that we ought to apply to our lives. But there are a few dangerous methods that have been used to pass the good message across borders, cultures and time. Those methods have caused horrific disasters many times, some in the name of Christianity, and some just because of the way that Jews, Christians and Muslims think about themselves and their environment, and, as a result, how they deal with their environment and other people.

So, like a parent explaining the how Father Christmas is actually Nikolaos of Myra, I want to compare the literal story of the Bible with what Christians believe, and with what I think happened.

The Hebrew and Christian Bibles' stories start at what has been estimated at about ten thousand years ago, when God created the heavens and the earth. The Book of Genesis is based strongly on Babylonian cosmology, and was originally considered to be literally true. What is now probably the majority of Christians accept it metaphorically these days, and believe that the universe began billions of years ago. They believe that the universe was conceived in its entirety by God before He created it. They also believe that the universe was created specifically in order for humans to exist because humans are God's children, and He loves them, so the last few thousand years of human existence is the ultimate goal of the past 13.5 billion years of the development of the universe.

I think the story of the Christian Bible starts a lot more recently than 13 500 000 000 years ago, or even 10 000 years ago, although it builds on prior thought and experience. In the late Bronze Age (around 1300 BC), a few Near-Eastern religions could be described as monolateralist; in which a single deity had ascended above the status of all other gods in their pantheon. Examples include Marduk, originally the patron deity of the city of Babylon; and Aten, the light of the disk of the sun, combining aspects of the Egyptian gods Ra and Horus, and superseding them. By the early Iron Age, Ahura Mazda was being worshipped as the only god in Iran.

In the 14th century BC, Yahweh was worshipped as one among many gods in southern Canaan. In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, during the exile of the Judahites in Babylon, Yahweh was elevated to the only god.

The Hebrew Bible includes mythology that pre-dates the monotheistic worship of Yahweh, like the story of the Flood, which is derived from the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the Noah character is named Utnapishtim, and this story is in turn based on the Epic of Atrahasis, named after its hero, Atra-Hasis.

The Hebrew Bible also includes legendary figures that are probably literary characters, including Abraham, and possibly even Moses.

The following is taken from https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Abraham (read on 2011-08-21) regarding Abraham:

It is generally recognised by scholars that there is nothing in the Genesis stories that can be related to the history of Canaan of the early 2nd millennium: none of the kings mentioned is known, Abimelech could not be a Philistine (they did not arrive till centuries later), Ur could not become known as "Ur of the Chaldeans" until the early 1st millennium, and Laban could not have been an Aramean, as the Arameans did not become an identifiable political entity until the 12th century.1 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Notre Dame, notes that the past four or five decades have seen a growing consensus that the Genesis narrative of Abraham originated from literary circles of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE as a mirror of the situation facing the Jewish community under the Babylonian and early Persian empires.2 Blenkinsopp describes two conclusions about Abraham that are widely held in biblical scholarship: the first is that, except in the triad "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," he is not clearly and unambiguously attested in the Bible earlier than the Babylonian exile (he does not, for example, appear in prophetic texts earlier than that time); the second is that he became, in the Persian period, a model for those who would return from Babylon to Judah.3 Beyond this the Abraham story (and those of Isaac and Jacob/Israel) served a theological purpose following the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the Davidic kingship: despite the loss of these things, Yahweh's dealings with the ancestors provided a historical foundation on which hope for the future could be built.4 There is basic agreement that his connection with Haran, Shechem and Bethel is secondary and originated when he became identified as the father of Jacob and ancestor of the northern tribes; his association with Mamre and Hebron, on the other hand (in the south, in the territory of Jerusalem and Judah), suggest that this region was the original home of his cult.5

Regarding Moses, this is from https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/The_Exodus (read on 2011-08-21):

While the story in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is the best- known account of the Exodus, there are over a hundred and fifty references scattered through the Bible, and the only significant body of work that does not mention it is the Wisdom literature.6 The earliest mentions are in the prophets Amos (possibly) and Hosea (certainly), both active in 8th century Israel; in contrast Proto-Isaiah and Micah, both active in Judah at much the same time, never do; it thus seems reasonable to conclude that the Exodus tradition was important in the northern kingdom in the 8th century, but not in Judah.7 In a recent work, Stephen C. Russell traces the 8th century prophetic tradition to three originally separate variants, in the northern kingdom of Israel, in Trans-Jordan, and in the southern kingdom of Judah. Russell proposes different hypothetical historical backgrounds to each tradition: the tradition from Israel, which involves a journey from Egypt to the region of Bethel, he suggests a memory of herders who could move to and from Egypt in times of crisis; for the Trans-Jordanian tradition, which focuses on deliverance from Egypt without a journey, he suggests a memory of the withdrawal of Egyptian control at the end of the Late Bronze Age; and for Judah, where the tradition is preserved in the Song of the Sea, he suggests the celebration of a military victory over Egypt, although it is impossible to suggest what this victory may have been.8

Considering all this, I think the Hebrew Bible, or what makes it so special, really starts with the Babylonian captivity of the 5th and 6th centuries BC. Again, I couldn't put it better than Wikipedia. This is taken from https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Origins_of_Judaism (read on 2011-08-23):

The origins of Judaism lie in the history of the Israelites during the Iron Age and Classical Antiquity. The Rabbinic form of Judaism, known generally simply as Judaism developed during Late Antiquity, during the 3rd to 6th centuries CE.

The ancient roots of Judaism lie in earlier (Bronze Age) Semitic religion, specifically of the Levant, and of the worship of Yahweh reflected in the early prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. During the Babylonian captivity of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, certain circles within the exiled Judahites in Babylon redefined pre-existing ideas about monotheism, election, divine law and Covenant into an exclusivist theology which came to dominate the former Judah in the following centuries.

From the 5th century BCE until 70 CE, Israelite religion then developed in the various theological schools of Second Temple Judaism, besides Hellenistic Judaism in the diaspora. The text of the Hebrew Bible was redacted into its extant form in this period. The origins of Rabbinic Judaism lie in Late Antiquity. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (the addition of vowels to the consonant text) and the Talmud were compiled in this period.

The evidence is rather convincing that before Yahweh became what we know of as “God”, he was just another god, like all those many, many other gods, all created by people, like Isis and Zeus, Marduk and Ba'al. Here is a list of His contemporaries. You can find Yahweh among the Levanite gods.

Levantine deities

Adonis/Gauas · Anat · Asherah · Ashima · Athtart/Astarte · Atargatis · Ba'al · Berith · Chemosh · Dagon · Derceto · El · Elyon · Eshmun · Hadad · Kothar-wa-Khasis · Melqart · Moloch · Mot · Qetesh · Resheph · Shahar · Shalim · Shapash · Yahweh · Yam · Yarikh

Mesopotamian deities

Abzu/Apsu · Adad · Amurru · An/Anu · Anshar · Ashur · Enki/Ea · Enlil · Ereshkigal · Inanna/Ishtar · Kingu · Kishar · Lahmu & Lahamu · Marduk · Mummu · Nabu · Nammu · Nanna/Sin · Nergal · Ningizzida · Ninhursag · Ninlil · Tiamat · Utu/Shamash

Egyptian deities

Amun · Ra · Apis · Bakha · Isis · Horus · Osiris · Ptah

Greek deities

Ares · Aphrodite · Apollo · Athena · Artemis · Hades · Hera · Hermes · Hephaestus · Demeter · Poseidon · Zeus

Yahweh has gone through many changes. He has outlasted all of his contemporaries. And I am sure He will be around for quite some time yet. But just like Ahura Mazda, who is still worshipped in India and Iran (and the United States, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan and Pakistan), but in dwindling numbers, I get the feeling that Yahweh's life is also entering its autumn years.

§

So then who created the universe?

Some religious thinkers have suggested that the complexity of the universe is obvious evidence that it was designed and created. However, the same people do not think that a creator who is sufficiently complex to design the universe to its last detail throughout time, and then create it, would be complex enough that He in turn must have been designed.

Nor do they think that if a creator complex enough to design and create the universe could always have existed, then so could the universe, without a creator.

I think there is no such anomaly. I think it is really simple. The nature of the universe, the causes of the behaviour that we observe like gravity and magnetism, atoms and light, has always existed. And this nature is what is responsible for the universe. If you would like to call this nature “God” then you would share the illustrious company of Einstein and Spinoza. But you would need to realise that the nature of the universe is not conscious, it did not plan the universe in advance, and it does not have a special plan for your life.

So God's identity is surprisingly simple. But the truth about God is a very difficult one to absorb. Thomas Hardy wrote a beautiful poem called “God's Funeral” that captures his feelings as he came to terms with his realisation.

God's Funeral

I
I saw a slowly-stepping train—
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar—
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

II
And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

III
The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

IV
And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

V
Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard:—

VI
'O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

VII
'Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.

VIII
'And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,

IX
'Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

X
'So, toward our myth's oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

XI
'How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

XII
'And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?' …

XIII
Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: 'This figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!'

XIV
I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.

XV
Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

XVI
Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
'See you upon the horizon that small light—
Swelling somewhat?' Each mourner shook his head.

XVII
And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best …
Thus dazed and puzzled 'twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.

§

Christianity is about more than God. It is especially about Jesus. The Western Church, which later split into the Catholic and Protestant churches, had a very well-managed understanding of Jesus. Rome controlled Christianity tightly, and there is much less variety in Christian belief than we find in Hinduism and Buddhism, mostly because derivative beliefs were dealt with very severely. But Christian doctrine regarding Jesus was determined many generations after his death. It was strongly influenced by Greek culture and philosophy, and perhaps by mysticism and maybe even by Eastern astrology.

How much of what is written in the Bible about Jesus is true in a literal sense?

I think it is probable that the Jews who first believed Jesus to be the Messiah did not think of him in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity.

It is very likely that someone with great charisma can heal the sick, or at least those ailments that the mind of the believer has control over. Turning water into wine? It seems a lot more likely to me that these details were added later, or remembered differently, than that the laws of nature—perhaps even the laws of nature set by God—should be rent asunder for … for what? Proving to people that you're special? I'm disappointed.

And what of Jesus' resurrection?

Well, by dying as a sinless sacrifice, Jesus took upon himself God's punishment for sin. God punishes all of us for the fact that Adam and Eve disobeyed Him. And then by going to hell and rendering Satan harmless, and then rising from the dead, Jesus won eternal life for anyone who wants it—as long as they agree that Jesus is God.

There is no way to put this delicately: No.

There was no Adam and Eve. Nor was there a metaphorical first sin millennia ago for which God still holds every unborn human accountable. People who have been brain dead for more than 48 hours and stored at around room temperature never come back to life, without exception, because their brains and abdomens are no longer the way they used to be. And as we have established, God, or the nature of the universe, is not conscious.

I think it is much, much more likely that this incredibly good news is actually, rather, a strategy to convince people to do their best to live exemplary lives, to respect authority but never to buckle beneath it, not to be influenced by money or class but always to love each other, to help the poor and the weak, and to persuade others by example to do the same.

I do not think that creating stories, and then a whole philosophy, and ultimately developing an entire culture around a wonderful person is a bad thing. It has been a phenomenally successful strategy, and I am sure it was done with the greatest intentions. I just do not think it is literally true. I do not think my reckoning on this matter is morally bad, or tragically wrong. I think it is bit like growing up, and seeing the world through older eyes. It is like understanding that although the Christmas presents were not made by elves at the North Pole, they are still bought or made, and given, with love. That is the point, really, after all.

§

Prayer is powerful. It actually works in several ways. The first way is to get one person quietly to think about their challenges. Thinking quietly and calmly about a problem is often the first step to solving it. After that, a problem is resolved faster when a person takes responsibility for its resolution, and then actively plans and works towards it.

The second way prayer works is to get many people collectively to think about a problem; people who might know more about the problem, or are more capable of resolving it, or are just good at thinking clearly. This is even more powerful. It might be that one or more of them decide not to sit back and wait for God to do something, but rather that they can do something themselves.

The third way prayer works is a combination of what is called “magical thinking”, and “confirmation bias”. Magical thinking is reasoning that looks for correlations between acts and certain events. In religion and superstition, the correlations we're talking about are between religious rituals, like prayer or sacrifice, and expected benefits or outcomes.

Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favour information that confirms their beliefs of theories. So, people remember information selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases are strongest for emotionally significant issues and for deeply held beliefs.

For example, someone might pray for the resolution of a problematic situation. Over the next few weeks many events happen related to that situation. The events which confirm that God is resolving the problem are more likely to stick in that person's memory than events that might be evidence that God is not resolving the problem, or that God is not really doing as much as He could. This is confirmation bias. And magical thinking is the reasoning by which the person thinks that the prayer has something to do with the subsequent events.

Our brains are wired to find patterns, and to establish explanations. Confirmation bias and magical thinking are two of the many ways our minds go about doing that, and our brains tend rather to prefer false positives than to discard patterns and explanations. It is often safer that way.

§

Religion is like a pearl, with layers of calcium added over ages for many different reasons. Some reasons are political, like the need to establish a sense of a single national identity, or the feeling of being a united collective. Some reasons are noble, like the desire to motivate people to pass on inspirational ideas like the principle of forgiveness. Other reasons may be less noble, but serve a need at the time, like the need to motivate an army of soldiers. Some reasons fulfil basic requirements of human nature, like our need to find a rational cause for the effects we see around us; a cause for disastrous weather conditions, a cause for tragic death, or simply a cause for the sun rising, and for the cycle of the seasons and the feeling you get when spring comes around and flowers bloom and the opposite sex looks so wonderful. We also need to feel like we have a purpose, and we need something to hope for when we despair. We are social animals, and for us joy shared is joy multiplied. Christians always have a friend in Jesus. But even if you aren't Christian, all religions provide a community of people who will be happy to share in your happiness, and know what to do when you are sad. Humans find comfort, calm and security in routine and ritual. And in times of challenge, adversity, or just greed, societies need to forge themselves into single-minded units, demonising their adversaries, and believing, unquestioningly, that their side is right. Religion in general, and Christianity like any other, is used to meet all these requirements.

Humans share characteristics of pack- or herd animals. The mechanism by which authority works in our brains pre-dates our humanness. So the way in which religion is propagated is well established; an authority figure tells us something, and by their authority we believe it. As more people believe it, and form a group, so that belief is reinforced. The longer we believe something, the more tightly we tend to hold onto that belief.

There was a time when miracles were evidence of divine authority. Now, more and more, unexplained natural phenomena are evidence that our understanding of nature is incomplete, and that further investigation is required. (Unfortunately not everyone thinks so yet, and for some people noises from the piano downstairs are still explained by fairies, or hurricanes by divine retribution for women exposing cleavage.) 1500 years ago a man was seen to split the moon, and witnesses were persuaded that he must be a prophet of God. I hope that it is unlikely that witnesses would come to the same conclusion today.

I think you get three kinds of miracles: the kind where witnesses are mistaken about what they saw; the kind where they are not mistaken about what they saw but their understanding of what happened is incorrect; and the kind where the story is fabricated. Here is one from Buddhist culture that I am going to guess is an example of the latter:

When Ichadon was executed on the 15th day of the 9th month in 527, his prophecy was fulfilled; the earth shook, the sun was darkened, beautiful flowers rained from the sky, his severed head flew to the sacred Geumgang mountains, and milk instead of blood sprayed 100 feet in the air from his beheaded corpse. The omen was accepted by the opposing court officials as a manifestation of heaven's approval, and Buddhism was made the state religion in 527 CE.

(From https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Miracle#Buddhism, read on 2011-08-21)

Most Christians may think that testimony like this is ridiculous, and yet are happy to accept virgins giving birth, and men rising from the dead. The biggest Christian miracle of all, the most contentious one for Jews, and something that many early Christians thought was nothing short of heretical: the idea of a mangod; an idea that is contradictory to Jewish belief, but a story very familiar to Greeks, where a god and a human bring forth divine offspring, is now Christian doctrine, and has become core to Christian belief.

Why is it not enough just to believe in the principles of love and forgiveness?

Why do we need virgins giving birth to divine humans? Why must the universe be designed, but its creator not? Why must your consciousness outlast your body? Why must death be conquered?

Actually, none of these are necessary. The truth really is a lot simpler than all that. I think most Christians will be happier believing that they have all the answers already, and they have ticked all the check-boxes required to live forever. But I think life in the nineteenth, twentieth and especially the twenty-first centuries has taught us enough to realise that, actually, it works like this:

There is no such thing as a divine human. Humans only conceive when they are inseminated by another human. The only way virgins can fall pregnant is if they are inseminated without penile penetration—and even when this is the case, their babies will still not be gods, or angels, or demons.

Consciousness is not the result of a spirit, it is the result of a brain. And when that brain has stopped, that person is not conscious any more.

Death is conquered by anyone the memory of whom lasts longer than they lasted themselves. Most people are remembered for a couple of generations. Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare and Mozart conquered death very convincingly. Nelson Mandela is sure to be remembered for a long time too. But conquering death is not necessary for living a great life.

§

Hope is knowing that humans are collectively smarter than any individual human can imagine, and that humanity will survive beyond the lifetimes of your children's children.

Humanity is the most beautiful part of the universe, and the most adaptable. It is resilient, but it is also vulnerable and very, very precious. It can be horrifically evil, but it can be self-sacrificially loving.

Humanity's well-being and its progress are the highest possible purpose for anyone's life. That, I think, is what Jesus lived for. Not to make up for our ancestors' not listening to God 8 000 years earlier by dying for our sins. Not to go to hell, beat up Satan, and come back afterwards to prove he had done it. Not so that we can live forever as long as we agree that he is God. He lived to show us how to make life better for everyone – for all of humanity. That is all he did. But that is enough for me.

And while magic and miracles, fairy stories and fictions, accepted on nothing other than authority, might motivate people to contribute to humanity, the same have been responsible for the most heinous atrocities. Authority should never be the reason for anyone to accept something as true.

Humanity's well-being and progress can only be achieved and sustained by checking, and testing, everything we believe and understand in order to establish what is true, and what is wishful thinking. What cannot be tested cannot be relied upon.

Exodus 17:7: And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

Deuteronomy 6:16: Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah.

Luke 4:12: Jesus answered, "It says: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430): There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955): The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

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