Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

How to Subvert Societal Delusions by Saying "Merry Christmas!"

Jolly Old Saint Nick Punching a Heretic in the Face

(This article is the second part of a series--the intial installment, which lobs well-meaning and, I think, wholly reasonable advice at the combatants in the ineptly-titled "War on Christmas" can be found here. Image credits are located at the bottom of the post.)

Though it's now January, we're still in the Christmas season (no, it doesn't end at midnight on the 25th; traditionally it extends until the Feast of Epiphany/Theophany on Jan. 6), and so I have some further reflections on the surprisingly testy issue of whether one ought to say "Merry Christmas" or not. The fact that emotions get heated around this question is a surprising one, not least because no one really seems to have any idea as to what is actually going on. Rumors abound about fanatical secularists who are heinously forbidding the greeting, to which Christians respond either by digging catacombs for the imminent persecution, or by using "Merry Christmas!" as a stinging rebuke to anyone who might dare to say "Happy Holidays!" to them. Many secularists, for their part, try to deny any knowledge of their wicked plan to subvert the true meaning of Christmas, which might lead one to believe either that it's a very well-executed conspiracy against Christianity, or (the less tantalizing possibility) that the actual instances of people intentionally spurning Christ during the holidays are rather rare. The best evidence that your humble blog-author has found in his researches indicates that when this rather less-than-grievous affront occurs, it is usually perpetrated by corporations foisting directives on their hapless employees, and telling them to avoid saying "Merry Christmas" not because they themselves hate Jesus, but because they don't want to have any of their paying customers (who may conceivably be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, or virulently atheistic) to feel excluded and to stop shopping at their stores. So, as one might have guessed, the real meaning of Christmas, as celebrated here in America, is consumer capitalism.

But this act--of avoiding the mention of a particular holiday so as not to exclude other religious traditions--is a hallmark example of one of the oddest trends in our pluralistic society. Our society seems to be grasping for a fantasy-world where differences can be both celebrated and, at the same time, ignored. It's interesting that "celebrating diversity" is one of the most prized shibboleths of the progressive agenda, and yet most progressives tend to get goosebumps when the reality of diversity actually presents itself (such as the rather embarrassing reality that very few of the social values of most minority religions in this country--to take just one example, Islam--actually line up with the values of progressives who enjoy wearing ironic hijabs and marching in protest against Islamophobia). Our society appears to want an attractive veneer of diversity, while all of our real, authentic differences remain conveniently buried beneath the surface. Saturday Night Live, usually a bastion of witty secularism (and sophomoric lewdness) skewered this tendency in one of their post-election shows, creating an advertisement for progressives to escape the outside world and come and live in "the bubble," where "we don't see color...but we celebrate it."

To be fair, this tendency from the progressive wing of our society arises from noble intentions. We do need to find ways to move past racism and religious bigotry--those trends, just two of many, are among the ongoing tragedies in our nation's history, and progressive celebration of diversity is a well-meaning attempt to move past those things. But it should be clear that to do it by ignoring our very real differences in culture, doctrine, and worldview is an errant path that may very likely lead to layered resentments with the potential for social catastrophe. Those very real differences, which we're steadfastly trying to ignore, have an annoying habit of flaring up at the most inopportune times. 

There are obvious issues with the "celebrate diversity" slogan. Applied to some areas--race, for instance, or culture--it's a wonderful ideal, a catchphrase worth embracing. But it's usually also applied to ideological diversity, implying that we ought to celebrate religions and worldviews other than our own. But at that point, celebrating diversity becomes a trifle disingenuous, because the simple fact of having a diversity of worldviews means that different people are holding logically incompatible views of reality. It is impossible to "celebrate" the fact that you think most of society is entirely wrong-headed, unless you're a particularly odd brand of misanthrope. That's as true for Christians being urged to celebrate other religious traditions as it is for progressives to celebrate white supremacist movements--diversity, when it comes to ideological differences, ought not to call forth a response of willfully-blind "celebration," nor even of the vaguely virtuous-sounding "tolerance," but rather of substantive and respectful dialogue.

Let's turn for a moment to the intersection of Christianity and Islam in our society as a case study. As a Christian, I'm not going to celebrate Islam, because I honestly long for my Muslim friends to come to know the immense, inconceivable, ineffable love of God for them, freely available in Christ--and I hold that view not because I hate Muslims, but because I love them. I can't celebrate our differences, but I can respect their right to believe and worship as they choose, even while hoping they might someday choose differently. I can go further, and learn to respect and appreciate the many good and noble aspects of Muslim theology and culture (their disciplined habits of prayer and almsgiving, for instance, would put most American Christians to shame). But I can't celebrate the whole edifice of Islam, for the simple reason that it is (in my view) a system of belief that is hindering Muslims from being able to find the joy, the purpose, and the abundant life which all people were created for, and which I desire for every person just as passionately as I pursue it for myself.

True respect and true diversity in a pluralistic society requires dialogue and thoughtful conversation, not "celebration" based on willful ignorance, not protests and parades, not memes and bumper stickers. We need to be willing not just to say we're diverse, but to actually talk about the substantive differences between progressives and conservatives, between Christians and Muslims, between differing local and racial cultures in our country. We need to be able to try to understand the issues from the other side, and even if we don't agree (and we probably won't), to find a way to live together as neighbors and friends.

So why is replacing "Merry Christmas!" with "Happy Holidays!" a misguided notion? Because it's just one more aspect of this whole systemic blight on our notion of pluralism. It seeks to downplay the honest particularity of a religious tradition in favor of a bland "diversity" that ends up celebrating almost nothing of the beautiful traditions of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything else. I would rather live in a society where I can say "Merry Christmas," and, if informed that my interlocutor celebrates Hanukkah instead, to say, with great courtesy and heartfelt sentiment, "Then have a Happy Hanukkah"--far more than I would care to live in a society where all the beauty of our religious traditions is reduced to the lowest common denominator of "the holiday season" and to our omnipresent cult of consumer purchasing.

Merry Christmas, everyone. 

(Images - Iconography, top: Russian, author and date unknown; Photo, left inset: "Rede während der Diversity Konferenz 2016," by Charta der Vielfalt e.V., licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; Drawing, inset right: an early telephone set, by Adolphe Bitard, 19th cent.; Painting, inset left: "Two Discussing Voters," by Adolph Menzel, 1849)

No comments: