Faithful Progressive does a wonderful job articulating the significance and power of the Christmas story, especially the ways in which it connects with great literature, art and philosophy in describing the human condition:
I have for many years not really cared if the Christmas story is literally “true” or not in all of its aspects. Did wise men pay homage to the newborn under guidance of a star? Probably not…But, of course, thematically it makes sense for them to to do so–and for those of us who celebrate Christmas to do the same.
Innocence, poverty, purity of heart,
hope and the promise of justice
(God’s most essential and always timely gift)–
these things trump even the brightest
minds and the finest gifts.
This is true whether we approach the Christmas story as religion or a profoundly artful narrative. As we never tire of arguing, the arts and religion appeal to three basic philosophical categories which we will briefly highlight here.
First, both the arts and religion put forward a philosophy largely based upon Being rather than of instrumental activity or doing. It is the fact of Jesus, his essential being, that we celebrate at Christmas. Like all newborns, he just lies there, and we project so many of our “hopes and fears” (as the song says) upon the gift of his Being in the World.
Second, historically both religion and great literature have presented a tragic vision of humanity that stand in sharp contrast to either the unbridled positivism of crude versions of evolutionary theory (“things are evolving toward the better, toward the perfect if only unhelpful memes like religion would get out of the way”) or the essential and debilitating nihilism of other atheist thinkers (“it all ads up to Nothing”).
There is deep Tragedy at the heart of the life and story of Jesus: God has sent him to us a supreme gift, and yet we don’t recognize him as such…Our hopes for him, like our own deepest hopes in life, are often unfulfilled. But literature gives an awareness that our tragedy is no different from others who have gone before us. And religion, here in its Christian expression, gives us hope of transcending all of this in a life of faith in the face of tragedy.
Thirdly, both religion and literature and the arts explore the wisdom of transcendence and especially finding transcendent truth in an embrace of the philosophical Other. Jesus, an outsider Jew, living a marginal life with poor unmarried parents in a an occupied country, is the essential outsider. He is the Other incarnate. He is Other-Worldy, too, for us believers!
Northwestern University Professor Regina Schwartz recently edited a very interesting series of papers on Transcendence in philosophy, literature and theology. Schwartz and others distinguish between “vertical” transcendence, which generally looks above and beyond, and “horizontal” transcendence which is rooted in the idea of justice and “the transcendent other embedded in social life.”
Yet even this distinction is somewhat blurred, because as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas notes, both elements are also present in the Biblical understanding, where “there can be no knowledge of God separated from the relationship with men.”
In her own beautiful contribution to the book, Schwartz considers the ideas of Levinas in the context of Shakespeare’s ideas of justice in his play Othello. She finds much commonality in the latest philosophical thinking on ethics and the thinking of the greatest writer the English language has produced.
“I would argue that not only does each act of justice open up to eternity, as Levinas argues; furthermore, the human craving for justice that impels each act is transcendent. Where there is a check upon naked self interest, relentless aggrandizement, sheer grasping of power, it comes—not from some contractual understanding that our will cannot be done without compromise with the other…but from some other-worldly desire to make the world a just place, that is, to partner with creation by securing it through acts of justice.”
On Christmas, we believers believe that God partners with us and secures creation by sending Jesus (and his compassionate justice) to us.
Great literature and recent ethical philosophy have much in common with the universal values which seem to define nearly every religious tradition: all see compassion and a desire for justice as being a force which takes us out of the materialist box of rational self-interest and into the realm of solidarity with the Other.
Merry Christmas to all (whether you celebrate with us or not)–and happy holidays, believers and atheists, literalists and pluralists– from a Christian who loves the story of the birth of Jesus as both religion and art!