The Foundation (Part 1 of 6)

As unlikely as this might seem, I actually agree with the New Atheism movement.

And no, I’m not just saying that for the shock value—because now you want to find out why in the world a Christian would agree with those guys: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. (Although I’m not above saying it just for the shock value alone. Was there any shock value? I don’t know. I write this stuff pretty late at night, so my sense of what’s “shocking” might be a little off-kilter.)

Obviously, I don’t agree with their overall conclusion of atheism, but I agree with a great many of the observations they claim as support for their position.

Specifically, in his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues for what he calls a “conversational intolerance” of religion. In other words, when Christians (or adherents to other religions, for that matter) frame anything with “…according to the Bible,” or “This is what I believe…” or “…according to my faith…”, social convention and established etiquette dictate that it goes unchallenged, despite the hearer not sharing those beliefs. If we were to say that the earth is flat or that two and two make five, that would be challenged, but when we speak of God and miracles and answered prayer and angels and talking animals, Christians typically get a pass, Harris points out, and argues that we really shouldn’t, because faith isn’t really an answer. In the sense in which we typically invoke the concept, “faith” is only ever an evasion, or a restatement of the question at best.

And I think he’s dead-on about that, but not just for the obvious reasons he points out in his book, but because it would actually be better for us and for our cause, in the long run, if people did call us on what they think is our BS. I think that alone would, over time, correct a tremendous amount of the dysfunction and falsehood that characterizes Christianity as we know it (see my About page if you don’t know the “dysfunction and falsehood” to which I refer). It would strike at our very foundation, which is the only way we can know if we actually have one. If our foundation is secure, our belief-structure is invincible. The only reason we should be afraid of people like Harris and Dawkins attacking our religion is if we lack that foundation.

To clarify, let me explain that I think much of the dysfunction of our Christianity intersects at our use of the term “faith.” After all, faith is our foundation—“On this rock I will build My Church,” the Master said. If that’s off, everything else is off, and that’s where we’re off.

I think our concept of “faith” is profoundly mistaken, and that that mistake constitutes the nexus of all of our problems within the Church today. I’m not saying that a mere inaccuracy in the definition of terms lies at the root of all of our problems, mind you. Our problems have much deeper causes, and their effects go far beyond a misapprehension of the concept of “faith.” But, they all flow into and bottleneck and branch out again from that critical point.

To explain, let me begin by pointing out that there are two basic paths in life. And that’s not my observation—that’s what Jesus said.

If we apply this perspective to questions of belief, or epistemology, we’ll see that, whatever twists and turns we take along the way, there are only two basic paths to a belief of any kind, be it religious, scientific, political, relational or whatever: We either believe it because it’s true, or we believe it because we want it to be true. Of course, this doesn’t apply as much to the beliefs of children, who generally believe whatever their parents and other authority figures tell them, whether they like what they hear or not. But, after we’ve gone through teenage rebellion and resolved our philosophical/existential Oedipal and Elektra complexes (struggles against the constraints of authority figures and the belief systems they represent… that kinda’ fun stuff) and figured out who we are and what we believe about the world and our place in it, all of our beliefs can be accounted for by one of these two reasons.

If a belief is true, and we believe it because it’s true—that is to say, if a set of attitudes, propositions, and/or value judgments we hold with regard to reality, in whole or in part, is ontologically correct—then we should be able to point out specifically how reality itself corresponds to our belief. If we believe, for instance, that two plus two adds up to four, we should be able to demonstrate that in concrete terms with relative ease by finding any four objects and partitioning them into two groups of two, and vice-versa—perhaps by way of an abacus, or we could demonstrate it in conventional pre-established and agreed-upon symbolic terms (by way of Arabic numerals programmed into a calculator, most likely). If we correctly believe that the Eiffel Tower is located in Paris, we should be able to find the Eiffel Tower when we visit Paris, or find reports in the form of maps or written testimony from credible witnesses who have been to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower there. If we believe that a certain public policy is effective in bringing about the specific benefit for which it was intended, we should be able to find quantifiable statistical data to demonstrate that effect, and then be able to weigh that against the known costs and detriments of the policy, etc. You get the idea.

The process by which a belief of this kind is obtained is that a person begins with the facts at hand—which are potentially available to anyone and everyone because they’re part of the same reality in which we all exist, and then by way of logic and deductive reasoning, the person arrives at a conclusion, and that conclusion comprises their belief system in whole or in part. So, to summarize, the process goes:

Starting Premise (evidence, facts, data, etc.) + Logic and Reason (deduction, hypothesizing, experimentation, etc.) = Conclusion (belief system).

This, of course, roughly approximates what is known as the Scientific Method, although it can be applied to disciplines of study which are not strictly “science.”Questions of history, for instance, are not, strictly speaking, “science,” because we can’t reproduce past events in a laboratory and experiment with different variables for different outcomes. But, we can still use historical data to arrive at basically reliable conclusions by way of this process.

And while this part of the discussion might seem a little dry and tedious at the moment, it might be helpful to remember just how amazingly cool this method of thought really is—it’s how western civilization eventually moved out of the Dark Ages and through to the scientific revolution, and it’s why we have modern medicine and space shuttles and the interwebs and Blue-Ray players and other neat stuff. It has the advantage of enabling our beliefs to be known and scrutinized and dissected by others who can check our math, so to speak, and to join us if we’re right or to correct us if we’re wrong, thereby enabling all of us to find and live by the truth of our reality.

On the other hand, the second kind of belief is made up of the same basic building blocks, except their order is reversed. When people believe things because they want to believe them, their belief system is their starting premise, and then they apply logic and reason to cherry-pick the evidence to support their belief, and they eventually get into the habit of only exposing themselves to evidence that supports their starting premise and excluding any information that undermines it. And, typically, we don’t even realize we do this, and so we honestly see evidence everywhere to reinforce what we “know” to be true.

Starting Premise (belief) + Logic and Reason (induction, rationalizing) = Conclusion (carefully selected facts, evidence and data)

The disadvantages of this method of thought are many, not least of which is that it prevents anyone else who does not share our starting premise from joining us. In the First Path to Belief, we can share evidence and data apprehensible to anyone willing to accept it, and then explain our reasoning so that they also can arrive at our conclusion, but with the Second Path to Belief, the ground floor is a bit more exclusive. When people believe things because they want to believe them, it’s usually because that belief has been inculcated through lifelong socialization and cultural conditioning, so that their sense of security and identity within their peer or tribal group is tied up in their belief system. If a person grows up in Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, there’s a good chance he was raised in the Mormon belief system, and so the assumed truth of Mormonism is an integral aspect of his personal and social identity, and so the validity of his sense of self is directly tied to his religion, and all of the social and political values entailed by that religion.

And that’s true for most other people in the world: if you grew up in Saudi Arabia or Baghdad, you’re probably some variety of Muslim, and you’re going to get pissed off if someone denigrates Islam or the Qur’an or Muhammed, because the purported sanctity of all of that comprises Who You Are. If you’re Indian, you probably subscribe to some variation of Hinduism, and the same prediction applies with regard to its literature and rituals and key figures.

This, of course, is why it’s such a taboo to challenge a person’s religious beliefs. You’re not just challenging the factual validity of their claims about magic underwear or the Night Journey, you’re challenging the validity of their very person and of their family and of their entire civilization.

But, religious people don’t have a monopoly on this form of belief. It’s the same for political beliefs, or even some politically-charged scientific beliefs. For instance, whether or not you believe in global warming and what you believe about its causes can be somewhat reliably predicted by your voter ID card, along with the news channels you watch and the people with whom you socialize.

And so, for people who wonder how someone can be so misguided and deluded that they believe they’ll live for eternity with 70 beautiful virgins if they strap a vest of explosives to themselves and blow up a bus full of Israeli school children, or fly a plane into the side of a building—that’s your answer.

If you’re wondering how your neighbor or family member of a different political affiliation can honestly swear by that “news” channel or magazine that is so obviously (to you) nothing but one-sided propaganda—that’s your answer.

The Second Path to Belief that I’ve described is typically what we mean by the term “faith.”

So, when we read in Scripture that we are “saved by grace through faith,” and that eternal life is granted to “whosoever believes,” we usually take that to mean that salvation comes through Faith as opposed to Reason. So, we don’t have to do good deeds, or keep certain rituals, or even be a nice person, really—we just have to believe, and God will forgive all of our sins, and we can safely presume on His forgiveness when we inevitably sin again.

That being the case (as our thinking goes)—What, precisely, a person must believe in order to be saved is of paramount importance. Most churches have doctrinal statements outlining the specific, minimal requirements needed for salvation (and therefore membership in their church), which usually consists of a list of particulars related to God and to Jesus and to the Bible and to the afterlife to which a person must subscribe, and they’re usually arranged in order of priority, which varies from church-to-church. And they’re not negotiable, because if you can’t sign off on them without qualification, you don’t belong at that church and you’re better off finding somewhere else to go on Sunday morning, if you can. They might let you join in if you don’t believe everything, but you’ll never be a full member with full privileges, and you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut when that particular doctrinal point you dispute comes up for discussion. For instance, belief in the Trinity is a must, normally, but if you’re a monophysite or some other variety of doctrinal mutant, that’s a deal-breaker and you may well go to hell for holding such a heresy, depending on which church leaders you ask. Because of the grave importance of holding the correct beliefs, and because of the far-reaching logical implications of those beliefs, churches have gone to war over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and various other highly-nuanced points of doctrine. So-called Jehovah’s Witnesses uphold that Christ was crucified—not on a cross, but on a vertical stake, and those who are mistaken on this point are very possibly outside the grace of God, hence the energy and attention JWs have devoted to correcting this grievous heresy.

In most churches, these beliefs are inculcated through childhood socialization and lifelong indoctrination, and holding them amounts to being rightly-related to God. And because these beliefs are held by faith and not by reason, evidence is really incidental to the whole system. Of course, the Bible is cited as evidence—but only if you read it with the correct emphases so that you know which verses trump others, and how to interpret those verses (and the doctrinal statements are there to tell you all that—or, at least, to correct you when you’re wrong). But, why it’s the Bible you’re reading instead of the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or The Iliad or On the Origin of Species is very much a question of childhood conditioning.

So, if you believe and uphold these things, you’ll be accepted and validated and given influence and position, but if you don’t, and you openly question those beliefs and uphold something else instead, they’ll cast you out… to “protect God’s people from false doctrine,” of course.

Now, it’s Ok if you want to go to the trouble of proving these beliefs by evidence and reason—if you’re into that kind of thing. But it’s really not crucial, because that’s above and beyond the minimal requirements for salvation. And besides, “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of heaven, right?” as Christians are fond of saying. Because, it’s not our job to convince people. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. After all, we can’t make anyone accept our starting premise—only God can do that, so if He doesn’t miracle them into believing, then they must not be predestined for salvation as we are. We can share the Four Spiritual Laws with them and give them gospel tracts and show them diagrams of the Bridge Illustration as often as we can, but it’s up to God to make them believe.

At least, that’s what I hear from my fellow Christians whenever there’s a seminar on evangelization, or an impromptu discussion of apologetics.

But apart from a scant few scripture verses taken out of context and greatly misconstrued, I can’t find any evidence to support this approach in the Bible that we claim as our authority.

What I find instead is example after example of Jesus and the apostles imploring people along the First Path of Belief:

“Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22)

“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3)

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)

“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)

“(Paul) went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)

“He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:28)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

Maybe you can’t “argue people into the kingdom of heaven,” but nobody told Paul that. Debate and argument and reasoned persuasion appear to have been his entire approach.

And yes, Paul argued from the Scriptures… sometimes—when his audience already accepted them as authoritative (as I’m doing now), but he didn’t expect non-Jews to blindly accept them on his say-so. When he made the case for Jesus Christ to Gentiles, he argued from other grounds of evidence that they would accept.

And nowhere in the Bible does it instruct us to believe the Bible “because the Bible tells us so.” The books of scripture were written by human prophets, and if Moses is to be trusted, then God Himself instructed the Israelites not to believe every prophet—only those whose prophecies stand the test of history (which, incidentally, disqualifies Pat Robertson several times over).

So, when Paul “argued from the scriptures,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the authority of the scripture was his starting premise. Rather, his argument was the same as that of the apostle Peter, who pointed to the authority of scripture as a logical conclusion to draw from the evidence of what he witnessed in history.

Jesus and the apostles used reasoned persuasion (the First Path to Belief) to educate people into the truth, not emotional manipulation or appeals to superstition (the Second Path to Belief) to indoctrinate them into a belief system.

In fact, it was the very same kind of lifelong socialization and deeply-ingrained prejudice which passes for faith today that they had to work against in their time. The people to whom Jesus spoke were just as invested in Pharisaical Judaism as anyone today whose sense of self is tied up in the religion of their upbringing. Much of Paul’s audience identified just as fanatically with the gods of Olympus as any Muslim extremist does today with Islam.

This is why Jesus so often said that whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for His sake would find it, and that one must take up one’s cross daily to follow Him. He didn’t just mean that His followers should be ready for martyrdom (although He did mean that). He meant that they’d have to die to the sense of personal identity to which they’d been socialized. As long as they were just trying to preserve their tribal identity and the place within Jewish religious society they’d absorbed from their parents and rabbis and peers, they could never be open to learn anything new because—even though those things often pass for “godliness,” they’re really a counterfeit. If a person is truly devoted to God, then they know that honestyintellectual and moral honesty—is more important to Him than keeping rules or rituals, or even maintaining relationships. In scripture, we read that truth is the basis for morality and righteousness and spiritual freedom, so if we’re loyal to God, we follow the truth wherever it leads. So, if honesty demands that we cut ties with the religion of our upbringing, that’s what Jesus Christ calls us to do.

When the religious authorities of His day denounced Him to their followers, He said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on My own.”

The original Christians held out the resurrection as the central validation of Jesus’ message—the proof that His teaching came from God. And, they held it out as a verifiable historical fact—as something that happened in time and space, within human history and experience. As such, whether or not it happened is not a question of faith. It’s a question of evidence and reason and logic, and its truth or falsehood should be determined by the First Path to Belief: it should be demonstrable by evidence and reason apprehensible to anyone inclined to attend to it.

And if the evidence isn’t sufficient for the conclusion that the resurrection actually happened, then Christianity is an utter waste of time and a source of destruction and false hope, and should be abandoned. And that’s not by my determination—that’s how the apostle Paul summed things up.

If it can be proven, though—then the things we claim about God and Christ aren’t questions of faith either. They are not the starting premises accepted on blind faith, and from which everything else proceeds, but conclusions we reach by reason and evidence.

And it’s only then that faith comes into play—when reason alone takes us as far as it can. It is then that—having come to understand that God is real and has intervened in history to reveal Himself, we come to trust Him—not as a point of doctrine, but as a personal, relational trust. As Paul explained to the Athenians, we don’t believe God raised Jesus from the dead because we have faith. Rather, we have faith because God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is itself the proof of God’s existence and purpose, and it’s the down-payment on His promises to humanity.

“Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, and so your faith and hope are in God,” wrote Peter.

We can see this play out in the very first sermon ever preached about the resurrection: Peter, after pointing out recent events known to everybody in Israel at the time concerning Jesus, concluded, “Therefore, let all Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

His audience evidently did know that for certain, because it reads that they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

We read elsewhere in scripture that we receive salvation through the Holy Spirit when we respond in faith. But, despite the fact that they evidently believed the facts Peter had impressed upon them about the resurrection, and so were certain in their knowledge of who Jesus was, they did not yet have faith, for Peter went on answer their question by instructing, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

They were cut to the heart because they believed and understood who Jesus was and what they had done, but they had not received the Holy Spirit, and had not been forgiven their sins…

It continues to read that “with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”

So, contrary to popular versions of the gospel, when the Scripture reads that we’re “saved by grace through faith,” it’s not Faith as opposed to Reason, because it’s reason that leads us to faith. And when we read in scripture that our faith is “not of ourselves, it is the gift of God,” it doesn’t mean that He provides faith by way of mysterious and invisible, disembodied mystical forces, it means that He has given proof of Himself through the resurrection, so that we can apply reason and logic to the question of God’s existence. The resurrection is the “sign of Jonah” spoken by Jesus, by which everyone has opportunity to believe.

The truth isn’t actually as elusive as we make it out to be—He’s made it known and knowable to anyone so inclined. The problem is that people aren’t inclined, and that’s where we’re supposed to come in.

God does give faith through the Holy Spirit, but not invisibly and mysteriously. The entire point of Christianity and of the Church is that the Spirit of God and of Christ is present in the world through uswe are the Body of Christ, we are the temple in whom the Spirit of God dwells. So, it’s through people that the Holy Spirit works—through people like Paul and Peter and you and me. He’s given us the keys to the kingdom of heaven: what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. And if we don’t work to impart faith—and do it honestly and reasonably the way the apostles did it—then it won’t be imparted. People won’t believe.

And, in fact, people don’t believe—fewer and fewer every day. That’s not necessarily because the Church hasn’t been active in sharing the gospel. It’s because we’ve been sharing a false gospel.

The “gospel” is typically presented—explicitly or otherwise—as “salvation by grace through faith,” with Faith as the converse of Reason, but that’s obviously false. Rather, it’s Faith as opposed to Law by which we are saved.

And law, essentially, is a cudgel.

Or a sword. Or a gun.

Law says, “Comply, or else.”

And that’s the reason we don’t steal or cheat on our taxes or break the speed limit—because we know there are people with guns who will come after us if we do.

And that’s not a bad thing, because we need the law. As I discuss at length in my Christmas entry, we are a race dominated by our animal instincts and appetites. We need law to channel those appetites and instincts, to keep us from eating each other. The law keeps a stick at our backs to threaten us, and holds a carrot in front of us to entice us, so that doing the right thing is always in our personal best interest, and it protects us from others who might otherwise decide it’s in their best interest to kill us to get our stuff.

And that’s basically what the Old Covenant was about—God gave His law, and laid out a series of sticks and carrots to channel the Israelites’ appetites to make them righteous. When He applied the carrots and they were happy, they’d fall into complacency and wander away from Him, and then when He applied the sticks, it usually brought them back in line, but only for a generation or two. The problem was that the law couldn’t ever really make them righteous, because it wasn’t in their nature to ever be righteousness—nor in ours (it wasn’t just a Jewish thing, it’s a human thing). Of course, God knew that all along, so the real purpose of the law was to show them the truth of their (our) nature, so they’d understand what was on the table when He eventually offered them a New Nature through faith in the Messiah.

With the New Nature, what was impossible under the Law became possible by faith. Because now, those who belong to the Messiah have more than their animal nature to draw upon—they have the very Nature of Christ and God within.

Historically, there has been a great deal of confusion over this. Some understand the New Covenant to mean that the Law is abolished, while others insist that we must keep it in order to be saved. Some rally to what Paul said by upholding faith alone against works, while others invoke James’ insistence that we’re saved—not by faith alone, but by works.

My own position is that this confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the term “faith.” When “faith” just means believing the right doctrines in the absence of or in the face of reason and evidence, that confusion is understandable. But, when we understand “faith” to mean simply and plainly trusting God, then faith and law come out to the same outward expression. Both amount to doing what God wants: by faith we uphold the law, Paul said.

Except, if we’re doing it out of observance of the law, we’re doing it to avoid the stick and to get the carrot. In that regard, we’re God’s employees, at best, or His trained pets. Under the law, we’re really just using God to get what we want, but if there were another, easier way to get what we want, we’d drop God and go do that instead, because we don’t really care about God, we just care about that carrot.

Under the New Covenant, though, that economy is inverted. If we’re living by faith, we obey God because we love Him and trust Him, regardless of what we get or, even, when obeying Him guarantees that we’ll suffer and be persecuted. Even when doing what He wants guarantees us the stick and denies us the carrot, we do it anyway, because His will being done on earth as it is in heaven is what we’re ultimately after, because we trust His will and want to see it accomplished in the world.

A wise man once wrote, “Let us not seek to prop virtue by imagining hellish torture after death for vice and houris hereafter as a reward for virtue in this life. If virtue has no attraction in itself, it must be a poor thing…”

Under the New Covenant, obeying Him is reward in itself, because it’s as gratifying to our New Nature as sin was gratifying to our fallen nature.

And it’s not that the New Nature and salvation by grace through faith weren’t available before. In fact, one of Paul’s most emphatic points here, here, and here is that the righteousness by faith is older, and more fundamental than the Law of Moses. Everyone who’s ever been saved has always been saved the same way—that being by grace through faith, because there is no provision in the law related to eternal salvation, and if there were another way than the way Jesus and the apostles taught, then Christ died for nothing, he said.

The only difference now, then, is that we have a much greater basis for our faith than they had before—because of the aforementioned “sign of Jonah,” God’s goodness and glory are now verifiable facts of history.

Except, ironically, we don’t actually take advantage of that benefit, because we don’t preach the same gospel Jesus and the apostles did. We actually preach the Old Covenant, but package it as the New.

Instead of Faith as the converse of Law, we hold out Faith as a kind of law. We don’t teach people to tithe a tenth of their spices or dictate how wide their phylacteries and how long their payot have to be, but we make up other rules—rules of belief, which are just as ritualistic, and just as unrelated to actual righteousness before God. And, instead of the reasoned persuasion and logical appeal to evidence employed by the apostles, we use sticks and carrots to control people, to coerce them as best we can into believing what we want them to—reward them with popularity and influence and other goodies if they comply, and punish them if they don’t by ostracizing and vilifying them.

And it’s bad enough that we do this within our own walls. Despite Paul’s clear instruction that it’s simply none of our business what consenting non-Christians do with their genitals, we still try to use the government as a cudgel to enforce our standards for marriage and sexuality—standards we ourselves cannot keep.

And that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in. That’s why the Church is dying. That’s the reason 80 percent (!) of teenagers, upon graduating high school and moving out of their parents’ home and beyond their direct control, stop going to church—they haven’t been told why any of this stuff is true, and so they have no foundation. They’ve been socialized and indoctrinated and conditioned with sticks and carrots, but they haven’t been educated and empowered to understand why Christianity is true so that they can live it out by their own initiative, by their own genuine faith. And they see well enough how phony our own practice is, and so they don’t see anything worth emulating in Christianity as we know it.

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The Truth about Christmas, the Super-man, and Hunter/Gatherers

Christmas has always been a curious phenomenon, beset with controversy and contradiction. And I’m not talking about the supposed “War on Christmas” decried these days on cable news talking-head shows, castigating secularists’ efforts to overthrow Christians’ monopoly on the season. The controversy I have in view is more of a “Civil War on Christmas,” where Christians have been divided among themselves over the various and sundry customs of the holiday. As long as there’s been a yearly festival to celebrate the “Christ Mass,” churchgoers have feuded over its propriety and excesses.

That hasn’t been so apparent within Christendom as we know it, though, as evidenced by where the battle lines have been drawn in our more recent holiday controversies. It’s typically assumed that if you’re Christian, it automatically follows that you’re pro-Christmas and all that comes with that. After all, the people who are replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and crying “foul!” over public nativity scenes and the like—aren’t they the same people who want to keep prayer out of school and take “In God We Trust” off our money? Aren’t they all part of the same villainous cabal of religious naysayers who are trying to marginalize Christianity itself?

At least, that’s the narrative typically invoked to rally the faithful to preserve our holiday against the unholy forces of secularization…

Upon deeper examination, though, I think we’ll find the moral and religious assumptions of that narrative to be highly dubious. “Jesus is the reason for the season,” we say, and we invoke our nation’s purportedly Christian raison d’etre to justify our demand for the cultural right-of-way in all things, be it holy matrimony or holiday merriment. But, even among Christians… is Jesus really the “reason for the season”? Is that really reflected in our customs?

Growing up, I was always well aware, of course, that the stated reason for the holiday was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But we never really talked about God or Jesus or religion in general in my family, and we only ever went to church on Christmas Eve, when we went at all, but even that wasn’t a regular tradition. Jesus was just there in the background—never deliberately ignored or discredited, but still silent and inconspicuous behind the more colorful and crowded forefront of holiday mascots: Santa and his cast of supporting characters, Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, Charlie Brown, and whatever shiny new collection of action figures and video games and novelty gifts I looked forward to unwrapping that year.

At its very best, Christmas was about family and generous sentiment toward the “less fortunate,” but it was never (really) about the birth of Christ, and it was always, always centered upon that Christmas-morning ritual of waking up at the first gleaming of dawn to hover anxiously around the tree to await permission to finally relieve the burgeoning suspense over What We Got That Year. Whatever else Christmas was or was supposed to be, it always revolved around that main attraction, and Jesus was never much more than an afterthought hovering on the outer fringe. Even the occasional Christmas Eve church service was little more than an exercise in delayed gratification before our single present we were allowed to open as a preview of the Christmas Morning Ritual to come.

When I became a Christian in my early 20s, though—naturally, that changed. My spiritual rebirth suddenly infused Christmas with a new energy and luster, because now the “reason for the season” was personal, and it transcended all of the customs I’d known from childhood. I embraced those customs with a new vigor, because now they were about something—about someOne—greater and more meaningful than my own gratification from getting or giving armloads of stuff, or even time with family. The armloads were still exchanged, but there was a message, a significance that wasn’t there before: when someone unwrapped that hand-held electric back-massage device I got them that year from The Sharper Image, my purpose was to say, “Here—because God has come into the world and given Himself to us, you should have this Chinese-made battery-powered knick-knack to work the kinks out of your neck with. Aaaaaaaah-men!”

Of course, it’s doubtful that that or any other gift was received as anything but a routine performance of seasonal obligation, and not everyone (ahem! “no one”) was interested in hearing about Him more explicitly—“reason for the season” or not. Perhaps that was my own fault for being so obnoxious and overbearing in my newfound zeal; or, perhaps, even the most thoughtfully delicate presentation would have been rebuffed just the same. In either case, as time went on, I came to have a harder and harder time attaching that meaning with any honesty, or to see anything genuinely “Christian” about the whole yearly production. In fact, I can’t honestly see any trace of Jesus Christ in any of the annual routines we mean by that word “Christmas”:  we’re bombarded every year with incessant enticements to a shameless orgy of hedonistic commercialism, we try to out-do each other in decorating our homes with flashing colors and hollow plastic elves and cartoon snowmen, and we teach our kids to worship a sanitized, wish-granting version of the Norse god Odin, which we vaguely justify by renaming him after an obscure, 4th-century saint most of us have never heard of, but who happened to bear a faint, superficial resemblance to the pagan deity. We tell them to appease this all-knowing, all-powerful personification of “Christmas” by being “nice” instead of “naughty” and by a sacrificial offering of cookies and milk left on the fireplace altar, and they’ll get toys and candy and moral validation in return.

All this, supposedly, is to celebrate the humble birth of the Messiah to an impoverished young Jewish couple. His mission, as we know, was to teach mankind to worship the one true God—a God whose name is Jealous, because He hates idols and falsehood and will suffer no rivals for the devotion of His children.

Try as I might, I’ve never been able to reconcile the many inconsistencies and contradictions between Christ and Christmas, and so joining in all the seasonal reindeer games eventually came to feel like more of a betrayal of Christ than a genuine celebration of His advent, so eventually I just… stopped. I stepped out of The System, abandoned the customs entirely, told my family I love them… but to count me out from now on.

So, I found it to be greatly encouraging when a friend posted this quote from someone’s blog on my Facebook page recently:

“I always thought it was strange how Christians will tell me they have this giant and awesome truth they know is true deep in their soul and want to share with me, but when 12/25 comes around they lie to their own progeny because, apparently, that giant, liberating, and awesomely simple truth is somehow just not enough. It may be a good narrative, but it needs a little something to give it some panache.”[1]

It was tremendously heartening to read this. I always feel like an alien this time of year, and this made me feel a little less so. So, I was unspeakably gratified by the fact that someone articulated the above quote, and that it resonated with a friend who passed it along in a gesture of solidarity with my now well-reputed opposition to all things ostensibly “Christmas.” I was even more encouraged when the discussion continued, and others acknowledged that they recognized the same disconnect between our stated “reason for the season” and all the rest that we pile on to obscure and cheapen that Reason.

The wide, gaping discrepancies between our practices and our stated beliefs are clear enough. And, they’re widely enough acknowledged that some people are speaking out and giving voice to their internal conflict. And that’s good.

But I’m not sure it’s widely enough understood how we got to this point, and why so many well-intentioned Christians have unwittingly traded Christ for Santa and God for store-bought, brand-name material goods. Consequently, I’m not sure our attempts at reform, at this stage in our collective understanding, can get us where we need to be.

Many people, of course, answer this state of affairs by emphasizing family over commercialism, and scale back their spending to focus instead on quality time with loved ones. And that’s admirable.

I don’t believe that really addresses the issue, though. Yes—it’s a step away from shameless hedonism, so it’s a good step to take, but it’s not necessarily a step toward the real Reason for Christmas. And it also doesn’t really deal with how or why we managed to mutilate the supposed reason for the holiday to this extent in the first place.

Of course, for non-Christians, all of that is a non-issue. I don’t condemn or judge them for however they choose to spend the holidays. If they want to teach their kids to pray and sacrifice to Santa and his elves in exchange for a Nintendo Wii or a Barbie Dream House, or if they want to make it all about charity and quality family time instead, it is, of course, none of my business either way. It’s their money, their family, their time, and their consciences to do with what they will, and they’re probably no more interested in my thoughts on the matter than I am in theirs.

All of that goes without saying. I just wanted to make it explicit, so it’s clear that I don’t write any of this in judgment of what non-Christians rightfully do with their own lives and families. But, I also hope to have the same courtesy extended to me and not be condemned for sitting it out. I’m not going to go out of my way to help you lie to your kids about Santa Claus, and I’m not going to exchange gifts or gestures of “Merry Christmas” with people whom I know full well are indifferent or, even, hostile to Jesus Christ, because we’re clearly not celebrating the same thing when we exchange that greeting.

The Third Commandment reads, You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.

In other words, we’re not supposed to swear falsely by His name, or trivialize it by reducing His name to a figure of speech, or by calling stuff “God” that isn’t really God or related to God. His name is sacred—mere mention of Him is sacred, and He commands us to honor that sanctity as His due.

As a Christian, I also recognize that the God in view in the commandment is present in the Person of Jesus Christ. That’s what we celebrate when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That’s the whole point of celebrating the Nativity: the eternal, transcendent God who created the universe, the God of Mt. Sinai, the God of Moses and David and the prophets took on flesh and blood and human frailty by becoming localized, temporal, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

All of that and more is (or should be) encapsulated in Christians’ use of the word  “Christmas.” The holiness we’re commanded to honor and emulate becomes wrapped up in that word, so utterance of the phrase “Merry Christmas” almost takes on the gravitas of a sacrament: the merriment we wish upon the hearer arises from the fact of God’s Chosen One having come into the world. Our joy is because our God has drawn near to make Himself known.

When we attach that merriment and joy to other things that have nothing to do with Him, and that He might even condemn—scrambling around on obligatory spending sprees with money we don’t have for crap nobody needs, having mandatory office parties and “Dirty Santa” exchanges and teaching kids to worship false gods and flying reindeer—and call that “Christmas,” it’s a transgression of the Third Commandment if there ever was one. It doesn’t honor Him, it offends Him. We trivialize His name and we cheapen whatever meaning there might otherwise be in our celebration.

If non-Christians want to do all that—again—it’s just not any of my business. Go for it. Knock yourselves out. That’s between you and yours and whatever god, if any, you choose to worship.

But please don’t condemn me for bowing out. Or, go ahead and condemn me, if you feel like it. Whatever floats your boat. Understand, though, that it isn’t that I’m setting out to deliberately offend you or make any kind of moral statement or judgment against what you’re doing. I’m just trying to be faithful to my own convictions, and my own convictions are that those observances aren’t compatible with my loyalty to Jesus Christ.

But understand that I’m not abstaining, necessarily, because most or any of the practices we call “Christmas” are intrinsically wrong. It’s not that it’s bad to throw Jesus a birthday party—it isn’t that Jesus was just so staid and joyless that parties are wrong in themselves. That’s not the “Jesus” we find in the New Testament. His very first miracle[2] was to give free alcohol to people who were already drunk, so Jesus evidently appreciated a good party.

No, much of what we call “Christmas” is wrong because Jesus isn’t even invited to His own party much of the time. And if He is, He usually takes a back seat to this other guest of honor we conjured up, apparently because, well… let’s face it: Jesus can be kind of a drag sometimes. With His insistence on loving lepers and Samaritans and other people outside our tribe, and on doing what God wants, and all that about hell and logs in our eyes and stuff—He’s just not that much fun to be around sometimes. So, if we absolutely have to have Him around, it should be “Baby Jesus,” because He just lays there cooing and being cute, and we can walk away from that manger when we get bored and feel like mingling. Santa, on the other hand, is always cool and fun to have around, because he’s all about giving us what we want and he always turns a blind eye when we’re naughty (and he does this hilarious Chris Farley “Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker”-impression).

But if we’re really friends with Someone and people are using His birthday as an excuse for a party, but then they don’t even invite Him, we’re not being very good friends if we go to that party. By joining in as if nothing’s wrong, we’re essentially saying, “No, no, it’s cool—I don’t really like Him that much either. Ooh! Hey! Is that a karaoke machine?” Of course, we could tell our Friend later, “Oh, yeah… I just went so I could tell them what a cool guy You are, and that they totally just don’t get You, but if they did, they’d know You’re awesome, but then we got to talking and I lost track of time…” But, Jesus isn’t stupid. He knows you just wanted to go to that party, and that you’re a crappy friend.

It’s also not very honoring to our Friend if we try to make Him crash their party. That’s not going to make Him any more welcome, and He doesn’t want to be at a party where He’s not wanted, anyway. Who would? And for all we know, He doesn’t even like those people, so maybe He’s glad they forgot to mail His invitation? (“Gasp! But Jesus likes everybody, doesn’t He? Doesn’t He?”) Instead, we should just have our own party for Him, and let those other people hang out with Santa if that’s what they want to do.

And that brings us to the “War on Christmas” decried by conservative pundits. I say let the non-Christians win. It’s not even a fight we should be having, because it’s not a “victory” we should even want. Why should we care if they want to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? In fact, we should insist upon it, in the unlikely event that anyone asks for our opinion.

In view of the Parable of the Unwanted Birthday Guest—use of the term “Christmas” should be like other Christian-specific observances. Many churches, for instance, respectfully ask visiting non-Christians to abstain from Communion service, because the entire purpose of the sacrament is to give expression to our unity in Christ by sharing in His body and blood. When non-Christians participate, it degrades it, and even threatens to negate it. It’s the same way U.S. Marines feel (in quality, not degree) when civilians casually wear dress blues jackets just “because they look cool,” unwittingly (or otherwise) degrading the exclusive distinction we earn by our sweat and blood. With Communion, Christ is the One who earned it, but the distinction still belongs solely to those who are His.

If I walk into Walmart and the greeter says “Merry Christmas,” I’ll reciprocate without raising questions of conscience[3], but if he says “Happy Holidays” instead, I’ll be grateful that he hasn’t reduced the name of Christ to a marketing ploy, or invoked His name just to keep Bill O’Reilly and his viewers off his back.

So, that’s what I have to say about Christmas as it concerns non-Christians—it’s just not any of my business, and I won’t judge if you don’t. Well, actually, I won’t judge even if you do. “For what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” the apostle Paul wrote.[4]Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”

…….

About Christmas as it concerns Christians, on the other hand… I think we have what we’d call a “teachable moment” here.

As Christians, our Christmas observances are really just an extension of our overall practice of Christianity, and we’re all pretty much agreed, I think, that we’ve mutilated Christmas beyond anything the apostles could ever begin to recognize.

So what does that say about our Christianity?

To put it mildly, it doesn’t say anything good. But, perhaps we should ease into that more gently by considering briefly what things are supposed to look like.

Christianity, in its most basic, essential, and fundamental expression, is really about human evolution.

Now, I’m sure that’s going to sound unlikely at first, and possibly even scandalous, given the longstanding antipathy between Christians and Darwinism and the insidious “E-word.” And even if we lay aside for a moment the purported impropriety of the word “evolution,” I recognize that valid questions could be raised over whether it wouldn’t still be more appropriate to say that “Christianity is about humanity’s redemption” or “… the salvation of the human race” or any number of other churchy, doctriny terms we routinely preach and sing about.

Except, all of those words have been parsed and diluted by so much contradictory denominational nuance that they’re practically useless now. “Redemption” or “salvation” could mean anything, really. You’re supposedly “saved” if you answer an altar call, or believe the right doctrine, or if you’ve said the “Sinners’ Prayer” and invited Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior with sufficient gusto, or if you’re regularly involved in church, or if you’ve achieved self-actualization and joined the fight against poverty and social injustice. The meaning of the words “salvation” and “redemption” depend entirely upon whatever emphasis your particular church tradition places on the aforementioned religious permutations, and they all too often translate to mean only that a person has been socialized to conform to a particular religious community’s standards of etiquette and rhetoric and political correctness.

Also, there’s a thing that happens when you say a word over and over again enough times: it loses its meaning. And that’s what’s happened with much of our church vocabulary—we speak and sing a great deal in use of these terms, but we’re really saying very little. Much like our Christmas observances—we do what the person next to us does, we go through the motions, we recite our lines and do everything else expected of us, but we get lost in the routine and lose sight of why we’re there in the first place, but we don’t want to rock the boat or disrupt our comfortable routine, so we keep at it.

I could say “Christianity is about salvation,” and most people would think they understand my meaning, but I think they’d be wrong. And what would be the point of saying that in the first place? It would just be a meaningless tautology like so many others we exchange when we mistakenly think we’re actually communicating.

“Evolution” is a word we haven’t worn out yet, and it’s actually a pretty appropriate definition of “salvation.” Again—I know that’s a controversial remark, but if we look past all of our modern-day cultural struggles over textbook content and public school science classes and take the scriptures on their own terms, we’ll see that it’s there.

In John’s Gospel, just after Nicodemus’s culturally-conditioned religious mind is blown when Jesus tells him about being “born again from above,” or “born of the Spirit,” the narrative[5] moves on to read, “The One who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The One from heaven is above all.”

Paul elaborated on these two categories of being, and on what it means to be “born again” when he wrote[6] at length about the resurrection. He explained that “The first man (Adam) was of the dust of the earth; the second man (Christ) is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”

It’s easy to gloss over what Paul’s saying here and to read this only as a distinction between mortality and immortality, but if we unpackage his imagery we’ll see that he’s really saying much more than that.

In the book of Genesis, we read[7] that animal life first came about when “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so…”

Similarly, at the end of that same period of creation, we read[8] that “God formed man from the dust of the earth.”

Just like the animals that emerged from the earth, mankind comes from the dust of the ground, so humanity and the beasts of the earth have in common a similar “earthly nature.”

In plain language, what that means is that humans are basically upright animals. Now, we do have certain higher attributes from being uniquely “made in the image of God”: we have faculties of speech and logic and self-awareness and moral awareness. But, those aren’t the real drivers of our behavior; those are tools we use, not necessarily the nature we live by. We fell from our original state of divine perfection, and as a consequence, we were cursed[9]—cut off from immortality, exiled from Eden and the Tree of Life and given over entirely to the animalistic tendencies arising from our earthly nature:“for dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” He said.

The apostle Peter likened[10] those who live by their earthly nature to “brute beasts,” “unreasoning animals,” and “creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed,” and added that these people, “like animals, (will also) perish.”

This followed the apostle’s initial sketch[11] of the Christian life as a process of “participating in the Divine Nature and escaping the corruption of the world caused by earthly appetites.”

The Greek word I’ve translated here as “earthly appetites” is epithumia, which is typically translated in English Bibles as “evil desires,” “corrupt desires,” or “lust.”

I think those translations greatly misconstrue the real meaning, though.

The word comes from the prefix Epi-, which is an intensifier meaning “at” or “upon” (as in epicenter and epidemic, etc.), and Thumos, meaning “passion” or “desire.” Epithumia, then, are desires that are hard-wired into us as biological and psychological imperatives. The word is typically translated simply as “appetite” in other Greek works, most notably in Plato’s Republic, where the philosopher names it as one of the three components of the human soul, along with nous, or “mind,” and thumos—emotional desire.

So, “appetite” is simply a more direct translation of the literal meaning of the word.

Further, to translate the word as most English Bibles do projects meaning onto it that isn’t really there. I’m not making an argument for moral relativism here—quite the contrary, actually—but the truth is, the terms “evil” and “corruption” have connotations specific to whatever culture is using them. Also, the word “lust” would only be used within a distinctly Victorian moral sensibility to account for all “corruption in the world.”

If you’re an ancient Greek or Roman, for instance, “evil” is whatever offends the gods of Olympus, who were themselves just as prone as mortals to pettiness or heinousness. If you’re a modern day secular humanist, “evil” is whatever stands in the way of scientific and social progress (which usually amounts to religious fundamentalism). If you’re of a socially-conservative bent, “corruption” is whatever threatens the cultural status quo, but if you’re socially liberal, “evil” is whatever preserves that same status-quo.

Peter is doing more here than just distinguishing between “good and evil” or “godliness and corruption.” He’s defining those very terms by telling us that the difference between “good” and “evil”—between an authentic Christian and a godless non-Christian—is the difference between a fully-evolved human being and a brute beast.

Animals aren’t really “evil,” though—not in the sense in which we normally use the word. They live to obey their natural instincts and bodily appetites—they’re not malicious in any premeditated way; they just want to eat and mate and feel safe in their territory to raise their young, and achieving those ends makes for a pretty good life, if you’re an animal.

And that’s how the majority of the human race lives as well, as the apostle Paul denoted[12] when he spoke of those “whose god is their stomach,” who “serve only their own appetites,” “whose minds are on earthly things…”

This was the same contrast the apostle John made[13] between love for God and love for the things of the world: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the appetites[14] of the flesh, the appetites of the eyes, the boasting of what one has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.”

Everything the world of men does—all of our institutions and culture, our occupations and recreation, our social organizations and hierarchies—they serve no other purpose than to obey and to channel the programming of our appetites and our glands. This is often belied by the great pomp and circumstance we attach to most of what we do; but our boasting of position or accomplishment is ultimately no different than when a silverback asserts his dominance over his troop by claiming all the female gorillas for himself, or when an alpha wolf claims its due by eating the choicest part of the deer carcass. As humans, we have different perks and more complex structures of social hierarchy, but it all runs on the same feather-preening, chest-beating, fang-bearing, and feces-hurling that we see in the animal world. We might be domesticated animals, but we’re still animals.

And, again—it isn’t that our appetites are intrinsically “evil” (as we normally define the word). For life to go on, we need to eat, so we need to feel hunger. We need to procreate, so we need our sex drive. We need laws and jobs and social structure and everything else to survive, so these drives are not, in themselves, sinful. In fact, they’re good, because we wouldn’t survive as a species without them.

But, they don’t really lead us anywhere, except along this self-referential biological process of arising from and then returning to dust. “The world and its desires pass away…” wrote[15] the apostle. We’re all on our way to the slaughterhouse. Some of us might have more fun on the way (we might enjoy more appetite-gratification than others), but we all wind up in the same place, and we’ll all be forgotten within a generation or two when an entirely new set of people take our place and continue the cycle… for however long the cycle lasts. If we’re fortunate, a few of those people might look a little bit like us, or remember us long enough to misspell our name on a history test, but that will be the only indication we were ever here in the first place, and nobody’s guaranteed even that much.

Where we differ from mere animals, though, is that mere survival as a species doesn’t do it for us. Most aspire to more than just a brief, momentary existence. We share a universal conceit that humanity is superior—not just “better adapted” by virtue of our larger craniums and opposable thumbs, but metaphysically superior to all other forms of life on this planet. Even though our sciences have so far failed to prove any substantial, qualitative difference between human and animal life, we still hold a single specimen of homo sapiens to be more sacred, more transcendent, more meaningful and important than an ape or a dog or a dolphin, and so most of us would be offended if the apostle Peter’s designations of “brute beast” and “creature of instinct” were applied to us.

That’s because we were made for far more than just to follow our appetites. That’s why the thought that this Sisyphean struggle we call “life”  is all there is drives so many to suicide—the emptiness of that prospect is too horrific to bear. And that’s why our tendency to only follow our instincts and appetites is cast in such aspersion in scripture: what’s natural and expected of animals is corruption and sin and shameful abomination for us.

Except, the real problem is that we cannot behave any differently, because we only have our animal nature to draw upon, and according to that nature, we haven’t the capacity to hope or to strive beyond the values delineated by our appetites: you can wrap a gold bar in meat, for instance, but that won’t make a dog see its worth… at least, not after the meat’s been devoured. Likewise, we may well acknowledge that everything we do is just to get girls, fill our bellies, and to brag about it to other alpha-male contenders, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it and reveling in it, because we don’t know what else we should be chasing after.

Our existential angst informs us of our condition, then, but it doesn’t do anything to free us from it—it enables us to bemoan our puppet strings, but does nothing to sever them, and it would give us no alternative mode of life and movement even if it did.

Contrary to a great many popular versions of Christianity, then, it isn’t just salvation from a torturous afterlife that’s in view in the New Testament but, as Peter wrote,[16] “redemption from the empty way of life handed down from our ancestors.”

For Peter, that “empty way of life” had to do with mending nets and boats and finding the best spots to fish and to sell his catch. As a typical 1st-century Jew, he also would have inherited a festering resentment of his country’s continued oppression by their Roman overlords.

When Jesus recruited[17] him to become a “fisher of men,” then, Peter naturally understood that to mean a better way of filling his belly and defending his niche in the food chain by reclaiming his national territory. If Jesus was the anointed Alpha Male promised by God, as Peter hoped and believed, then Peter would share in the spoils when Jesus finally came to power and overthrew the invasive species of Romanus Imperius. Such fantasies of exalted silverback-status occupied much of the other disciples’ thoughts as well, and was a regular point of debate[18] as they all vied to be quarterback of Team Messiah (Jesus, of course, would be the “coach” in this analogy).

So when Jesus eventually told them that—instead of the wealth, power, and crowded harems of nubile young women enjoyed by His royal ancestors, He would be arrested, humiliated, tortured, and murdered (then raised to life again), Peter was the first to beat his chest and rail against it: “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!”

Jesus’ response[19] spelled out our universal spiritual conflict perfectly: He turned His back to Peter and said for everyone else to hear, “Get behind me, Satan! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

He went on to explain[20] that those who serve only their instincts of self-preservation and pack-identity and other earthly appetites will perish with those appetites. Those who follow Him in denial of those appetites will “find their lives” when “the Son of Man comes in His Father’s glory with His angels.”

The “Father’s glory,” after all, is otherworldly, transcendent, and therefore beyond adequate representation by any earthly symbol or image—that’s why the God of Israel was unique in the ancient world for His prohibition[21] of any idol whatsoever to represent Him: no golden calves, no constellations, no statues of men or animals could represent Him, because He is beyond sensory apprehension or human comprehension, and so to reduce Him to anything that would correspond to any human appetite of flesh or ego would be infinitely beneath Him, and it would spiritually cripple and degrade those who did so.

That’s because man cannot live by bread alone.[22] We’re not supposed to be mere animals enslaved to our bellies and hormones, but sons and daughters of the living God.

But Peter and the other disciples couldn’t understand that yet. After all, they only had their appetites at that time, and couldn’t see past the values delineated by those appetites, because “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

That’s what Jesus told[23] Nicodemus when the religious leader visited in secret, presumably to ask about the sights and scenes he could look forward to when he finally, as a matter of course, arrived in heaven. Jesus’ remark is often taken just to mean that Christian conversion is a prerequisite for entrance into the realm of heaven: there’ll be an “admission ticket” asked at the front gate, and believing in Jesus is that Ticket, and whoever has it will be granted access to behold the wonders of sight and sound heaven holds.

That’s a common, conventional interpretation, but it’s most definitely wrong. For one thing, Nicodemus and the other Pharisees and Sanhedrin members already, in a sense, “believed” in Jesus: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher sent by God, for no one could do the miraculous signs you are doing unless God were with him,” Nicodemus had said at the first to elicit the remark in question.

Also, Jesus had said[24] on other occasions, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and “The kingdom of God is upon you,” and “The kingdom of God is within you” or “…among you.” The kingdom of which He spoke was not some Other Place a person could go away to see, either in spirit or in the flesh, because it was already there, all around them, upon them, among them.

But it couldn’t be detected within the normal scope of human observation, because it didn’t register as anything worthwhile within the range of values delineated by our appetites: you can’t eat it, it won’t get you laid, you can’t use it as a cudgel to assert your dominance, nor is it useful for anything else we upright primates tend to want to do (excepting of course that Christianity, as we know it, is actually great for all that stuff, as we’ll discuss momentarily).

There’s an old saying that speaks to Jesus’ meaning: “When a pickpocket meets a holy man, all he sees are pockets.” The kingdom of heaven is the aforementioned solid gold bar: the dog doesn’t even see the gold because he’s only interested in the meat wrapped around it.

In order to see it and value it, one needs a new set of eyes from a new mind[25], which is part of a new consciousness from a new Spirit, a New Nature.

And that’s what Christmas is ultimately about (or should be about)—the Incarnation, and all that follows from it: by condescending to become a Specimen of that particular species of primate we call “man,” the infinite and eternal Supreme Being who made this and every other universe entered into that biological, creaturely process of arising from the dust of the earth through the portal of a mammalian womb, then made His living from the earth, with every aspect of carnal temptation[26] and animalistic drive inherent to that earthly nature.

But He was never mastered by it, was never truly subject to it because, unlike the rest of His species, His consciousness had more than just His stomach and His glands as drivers. The Man from Nazareth was possessed of the very Consciousness of God, and so His sense of truth and justice and the meaning of existence itself descended from a frame of reference entirely unknown within the normal scope of earthly appetite. His human consciousness was nourished and conditioned by the laws and oracles given by His Father centuries earlier through the prophets, which brought His inherent Nature to a stature and awareness that would have been impossible had He been merely human: He never could have understood what He understood, nor taught what He taught, nor done what He did, had He not been God Almighty among men.

And so, God-as-Man eventually died, just as all of those born of the dust of the earth must inevitably do. Except, that’s where He broke from the cycle of doom and decay common to the children of the earth—dust He was, but to dust He did not return, but instead rose again from the dead into a Mode of Being previously unseen in the universe.

In so doing, He became the First of a New Race of Humanity. He introduced something entirely new and different within the ongoing stream of human life, and so carried the human race into the next and final step of its evolution. It wasn’t through a new permutation of DNA, because mere flesh had evolved as far it could go in the standard species of homo sapiens.

No, what He gave was the very Spirit of God—the Consciousness of God.

It is, however, as if He added a third helix to our DNA, because we inherit His qualities just as we do those of our parents. Those qualities aren’t genetic, but spiritual—qualities of consciousness. The medium of consciousness is language: by reading and understanding my words, you—the reader—are this very moment partaking of my consciousness. A sort of telepathy is at work this very moment by which the thoughts produced by my consciousness are even now becoming a part of your own.

In a similar but more powerful way, the words of God and of Christ also convey[27] His Consciousness, His Life, His Spirit. If, then, a person accepts and believes His word—not just through rote memorization or by suspension of disbelief about a creed or a particular set of doctrines—but if a person accepts and understands and lives by His word, then His Spirit becomes a part of that person: he or she becomes[28] a New Creation, and thereby joins the New Race of Immortals initiated by the Messiah.

That Word of Life is most complete and comprehensive through news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so the “Third Helix” of the New Nature is first embedded when that message is examined, then admitted through a person’s reason and critical faculties, so that the heart can unreservedly trust and embrace it. “Through Him, you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God,” wrote[29] Peter.

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. All who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He is pure,” wrote[30] John.

And that is the entirety of the Christian life: as a consequence of the death and resurrection of the Son of God, we participate in the Divine Nature, and so our behavior is increasingly marked by the very attributes of God,[31] and we thereby escape the corruption of the world brought about by our animal appetites. In so doing, we become[32] like Christ himself, in character and action, on the promise that the transformation will finally be consummated when we are raised from the dead as He was.

None of this happens automatically, though. After all, God doesn’t want[33] trained pets or livestock, nor even devoted slaves, but[34] sons and daughters who exhibit His very own Nature. We’re not to be dragged along by external strings anymore, because we’re no longer puppets; becoming a “new creation” means each of us has been turned into a “real boy” now, with muscles and self-determination to move by our own initiative and strength.

That transformation is a process, which the apostles continually implored[35] their followers to consistently and diligently pursue. Peter urged his disciples to “make every effort” to add to their faith all of the qualities of the Divine Nature, just as Paul urged the disciples in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. They repeatedly and emphatically called their followers to a life of discipline and purpose by which they were to “put to death” their animal natures and set their thoughts and their hopes entirely and exclusively on the things of God, on their New Life in Christ.

Individually, the ultimate goal[36] and expression of that New Life was subjugation of the animal appetites for the attainment of that quality of love known in the Greek as Agape—a love unconditioned, uncreated, unbound from the lesser “loves” arising from our earthly drives. “Love,” as the world knows and practices it, is just another way to get what we want from each other—it’s nothing but another appetite, but Agape is a different thing entirely. It isn’t a mere affection arising from parental instinct, infantile dependence, sexual attraction, nor is it a mere friendship based in similar interests or in the entertainments of personal charm. And we don’t agapao necessarily because Christ commands us to (although He does), because in and of itself, that’s nothing but legalism, and you can’t really “love” someone because a rule says you have to. But we also don’t do it because of the inherent lovability of those we love—that would be a “love” arising from personal desire, from epithumia: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even the pagans and the tax collectors do that.”[37] Instead, ours is God’s own love, manifest in and through His children and, like God, we don’t love because of the inherent worthiness or lovability of others, or because of any rule that puts our Christian accreditation on the line if we don’t, but because it is our very nature to do so: we don’t agapao because of who someone else is, but because of who and what we are.

Collectively, the goal and expression of that New Life is to fulfill the Great Commission[38] given by Jesus before His ascension: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me; therefore go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, until the very end of the age.” He’d said[39] earlier, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven: what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Our collective goal is to spread God’s kingdom on earth by passing along the New Nature—not through government coercion, emotional manipulation, cultural pressure, passive socialization, brainwashing, or by any other pull of the puppet strings of appetite, but through reasoned persuasion[40] and by living out[41] the New Nature ourselves. He’s given us the keys, put us in the driver’s seat—by putting His own nature within us, He’s given us the power and the responsibility to shape the world by advancing His teachings. And once we’ve fulfilled[42] our mission, we’re promised that it will be then that He’ll return to renew all things—to bring immortality and universal peace and to turn the earth into the paradise God always intended for it to be.

That mission puts us at war with the rest of the world, though, because everything about the world is engineered for merely earthly, animalistic purposes. Our epithumia, after all, do not lend themselves to Agape, but to exploitation and corruption, and the New Nature opposes that corruption. That’s why Jesus was condemned as a criminal and crucified, and the apostles were each and all persecuted and killed after Him (minus John, who died of old age, but he had a pretty rough time of it too). The world will threaten us as well, and try to seduce us, and persistently work on us to compromise and conform to its futile way of life. The current is always against us, and that’s why the apostle Paul implored[43] the Christians in the imperial capital thus: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your logical worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Conformity to this world, then, is the antithesis of the gospel taught by Jesus and the apostles. Christianity means transformation into the likeness of Christ, and becoming more and more a New Order of Humanity, set apart from mere humanity, and so “salvation” means being saved from that conformity to the world.

That’s why Paul rebuked[44] the Christians in the city of Corinth for their petty quarrels and jealousies—because they were “behaving like mere men.” He similarly rebuked[45] the Christians of Colossae for “submitting to the basic principles of the world” rather than to their new nature in Christ, then instructed them to “put to death whatever belongs to (their) earthly nature.”

It’s vital to understand, though, that this should never lend itself to Christian chauvinism, or to bigotry against non-Christians (even though it has, and does still all the time). Such an attitude disqualifies itself, because it only arises from an animal instinct to assert dominance and privilege. That attitude itself constitutes “conformity to the pattern of this world,” and is therefore a regression from participation in the Divine Nature. We have the Divine Nature purely by the grace and mercy of God, and so boasting[46] is entirely inappropriate, as is exploiting[47] it as a pretext for advantage in this world, political, economic, or otherwise.

Yet, the indwelling Divine Nature does constitute an obvious functional superiority. The mere man–the Man of the Earth, is dominated by his appetites, trapped by his own nature within a pattern of futility and emptiness, while[48] “everyone born of God,” on the other hand, “overcomes the world.” We are not subject to the “basic principles of the world,” nor[49] to the judgments of mere men—we know that no honor or validation can be bestowed within any man-made hierarchy that can compare to the glory He promises, and so no shame or stigma threatened in this world can ultimately matter. Threats of death and imprisonment, even, hold no ultimate peril for us, because we know that this world, as it is, is not our home,[50] and “death”—which is inevitable for all regardless—only means the end of our exile.[51]

Not to belabor the point, but this axiomatic contrast between “those who are of the earthly man” and “those who are of the Man of heaven” seems to escape most representations of Christianity, not just presently in the United States, but throughout history.

So, perhaps there is another illustration that might better serve us? Something less diluted by centuries of dogmatic misuse and overuse?

Probably the clearest and most striking illustration I’ve come across was, ironically, provided by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche: “I teach you the Superman; Man is something that is to be surpassed,” he wrote.[52]

For the uninitiated, it’s worth explaining that by “Superman” or “Overman,”[53] Nietzche wasn’t talking about a flying strongman in spandex from the doomed planet Krypton. The “Ubermensch” of the Nietzschean ideal is someone whose creative powers so far exceed those of normal humanity that he transcends conventional notions of “good and evil,” and is thereby qualified to create a new system of values to pioneer a new meaning and purpose for human existence. In so doing, he leads humanity into the next stage of being—the next stage of evolution.

Nietzsche contrasted the Ubermensch with the so-called “Last Man”: a weak-willed, apathetic specimen who takes no risks, because he aspires to little more than keeping warm and well-fed so he can survive long enough to die peacefully in his bed. The Last Man passively and uncritically absorbs the values presented by the world around him, and like any other animal enslaved to its appetites, he can be trained and herded with food and creature comforts.

The Ubermensch, on the other hand, is like the “Knight of Faith” defined by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in his Fear and Trembling: a person who has placed complete “faith” [54] in God, and in himself as God’s servant, so he operates independently of any other influence of the world. Abraham, in his offering of his son Isaac, was the template for the “Knight of Faith” of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

Of course, any comparison between the Ubermensch and the Knight of Faith can only go so far, because Nietzsche’s entire philosophy was an answer to the supposed “death of God.” Because, as he believed, “God is dead,” the consequence is nihilism, nothingness: existence is empty of any ultimate truth or meaning. He recognized the human condition more or less as the Bible describes it, according to which conventional human values arise solely from appetite and animal instinct. Yet, Nietzche didn’t believe anything eternal or transcendent had ever been given through divine revelation or Incarnation, but believed Christianity to be a man-made cultural construct arising from the very instincts and appetites it purportedly supersedes.

Because, in Nietzsche’s view, there is no God to intervene and provide meaning to life, man would have to supply it for himself if he is to save himself from nihilism. Not just any man could do this, however, because most of the human race is populated by Last Men, who have no interest in meaning or purpose beyond mere survival and the pleasure of gratifying their animal appetites. It would take an Ubermensch to overcome nihilism, and until one emerged, humanity would have to make-do with its hope for an Ubermensch, and so Nietzche argued that humanity’s collective goal should be to bring such a superior being about.

Of course, Nietzsche would fiercely disapprove of my identification of his Ubermensch ideal with Christ and Christians, since his utter contempt for all things Christian was the driving force of his entire philosophy. Christianity—with its preoccupation with pleasing a fictional God to merit a fictional afterlife, as he saw it—is the worst exemplar of nihilism, and is therefore a haven and a breeding ground for the “Last Men” he so despised.

Many Christians would object as well, and with equal ferocity, considering Nietzschean philosophy’s obscene associations. Adolf Hitler, for instance, fancied himself to be the Ubermensch of Nietzsche’s vision, and Nazi Germany committed mass-murder in agreement with his perverse vision of a new morality. So, my adaptation of Nietzsche’s ideas for Christian purposes might seem a bit inappropriate.

All of that is really incidental to the concept itself, though, as is Nietzsche’s boiling hatred of Christianity. What Nietzsche describes in the Ubermensch is essentially a messianic figure, but divorced[55] of its traditional Judeo-Christian religious associations. All I’m doing is taking it back, but with the advantage that it gives us a way to understand Jesus in terms free of so many centuries of thought-terminating dogmatic baggage.

That said, “Ubermensch is precisely the role Jesus and the apostles after Him fulfilled: He did transcend and abolish then-prevalent conventions of “good and evil,” which were rooted in the religious elite’s supposed monopoly on God and morality, and forever altered the course of human history by doing so. Even if a person doesn’t accept His divinity, it’s still plainly obvious that He did, in fact, create a new system of values for humanity, exemplified at first by calling His disciples out of the customary religious mores and empty rituals that characterized Judaism at the time: He instructed them to love and comfort Samaritans and tax-collectors and prostitutes and Gentiles instead of hating and excluding them, as the existing religious establishment taught. His disciples continued His defiance of established religious obligation as they advanced Christianity throughout the Roman Empire against vicious opposition from the hostile forces of pagan idolatry and polytheism.

The Ubermensch concept also shows just how much Christians at-large (and Nietzsche) have often misread Jesus, and Christianity. If we can look past Nietzsche’s smug superiority for a moment and consider the validity of some of his observations, we’ll see that instead of following our Master’s example, we are, unfortunately, very much as Nietzsche described.

The original Church was a living, active expression of Jesus’ new system of values and the new life He died to give us—there was “no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ (was) all, and (was) in all,”[56] so a slave could serve as an elder over his own master in the local church community, a Gentile could baptize a Jew into the faith, and a destitute man had just as much influence in the Church as a wealthy man, and differences in race generally didn’t even register in anyone’s awareness. In sad contrast, the church denomination with which a person identifies today can be reasonably predicted by their socio-economic and racial background: a white, conservative, middle-class suburban evangelical would feel uncomfortably out of place in an inner-city black church, just as a rural Southern Baptist preacher wouldn’t win much of a following if he somehow landed a gig as a guest-preacher in a northeastern Episcopal church. Neither group could speak very well to the others’ interests and emphases, so their respective expressions of “Christianity” wouldn’t be relevant, nor even palatable to each other. The suburban evangelical would have no use for the exodus-centered Black Liberation Theology (as it’s called) he’d encounter at the predominantly black urban church, and they would likely have little regard for his Calvinist preoccupations with predestination and academic rigor. The rural Baptist would be more likely to offend than edify the northern Episcopals, as his insistence upon “the proper place of women” and the marginalization of homosexuals from public life would come as naturally to him as breathing, and he would, in turn, be inconsolably scandalized by the female pastors and openly-gay couples he’d find there.

This is all symptomatic of the fact that the Church, as it is today, isn’t really the pillar and foundation of any universal cosmic truth[57] to unite a new order of humanity; it’s a medium of expression for whatever variation of tribalism with which we identify.

It’s a place to mingle and socialize with people of a similar background. It’s a gathering-place to make friends and business contacts, join a singles’ group or some other clique suited to our station in life, and to arrange for pot-lucks and dinner parties and Superbowl watch-parties. After we’ve landed a spouse and a house in the suburbs with a two-car garage, white picket fence, and 2.5 kids, church then is a place to facilitate cooperative child-rearing to socialize and indoctrinate our children into our particular tribal identity. And, it’s a place to gossip and to maneuver for influence and power as one climbs the ladder of church hierarchy—which is done by exemplifying and preserving that shared, tribal identity. It’s a place to have weddings and funerals and youth recreational activities and a million other functions basic to any community of homo sapiens, religious or secular. The only thing that sets us apart is that we have “Jesus”—not as our Messiah, but as our mascot.

As an institution, the Church doesn’t even bother to attend to its mission to advance God’s kingdom on earth by facilitating our individual transformation into Christ-likeness. Instead, it holds Christianity out as way to indulge the very appetites we’re called to deny. The Church, by and large, has conformed to the pattern of this world by reducing Christianity to a cultural security blanket, and a banner for whatever flavor of tribalism we happen to prefer.

And we all know something is wrong, we all know something is off kilter, something is missing. We know that the Church is dysfunctional, that it’s become something diseased and barren—something the apostles would only regard with horror and disgust. And so we constantly pray for and “prophesy” about the “revival” we just know God will bring about, even as we jealously guard the precious familiarity and phony security of our failed status quo against the “heresy” and “false doctrine” of anything unfamiliar and new.

But we don’t know what else to do, because most of us have been conditioned from infancy to trust in the very Church walls that cage us, because they’re purportedly God’s walls. Our Lord gave us the keys to the kingdom of heaven and gave us the very power and Spirit of God, then was Himself crucified for defying the man-made falsehoods that passed for religion in His day. Yet, we’re programmed to just passively await permission from preachers and teachers and small group leaders, and to just “wait, and be ready to be molded by whatever God has for you…[58]

As a consequence, the Church has become, in Nietzsche’s words, a haven and a breeding-ground for passive and ineffectual Last Men.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the collection of customs we call “Christmas.”

First, let me point out an already well-known fact: there was no Christ Mass for the first few centuries of Christianity’s existence. The specific date of Jesus’ birth isn’t even mentioned in the New Testament, because it wasn’t pertinent within the overall scheme of His identity and purpose.

In fact, birthdays in general weren’t of interest within the Church. The Romans celebrated birthdays and were known for their wild partying and debauchery to mark the occasion. Consequently, Christians associated birthday celebrations with hedonism and sexual immorality, and so they were generally regarded to be the exclusive domain of pagans and sinners.

If they had made an early practice of annually marking the occasion of Jesus’ birth, they would have done so in the spring, which is the season Luke’s Gospel indicates when it reads[59] of shepherds living in the fields at the time, keeping watch over their flocks at night. They only did that in the spring, when sheep generally give birth, as that was the only time 24-hour monitoring would have been necessary.

So, “Christmas” wouldn’t have been a winter festival if its origins were purely Christian. It would have been in the spring—except, that time of year was already devoted to another holy day to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And, they would have had plenty of competition in the form of numerous other winter celebrations that were already well-entrenched centuries before Jesus was born.

The “Yule” festival, for instance, was a 12-day yearly celebration in pre-Christian northern Europe, which ended on the winter solstice. It was named for Jölnir, which was one of the many alternative names for the Norse god Odin.

A central practice of the festival was to sacrifice any overabundance of livestock to Odin so they wouldn’t have to be fed through the harsh months of winter. So an extended feast was held during this, the only time of the year when there was meat in abundance to be enjoyed. On the last night of the feast, the night of the winter solstice, it was believed that Odin—depicted as a heavy, white-bearded old man astride a flying, eight-legged horse named Sleipnir—would fly over their rooftops in the middle of the night, dispensing blessings and curses for the coming year, depending on which households had met their Yuletime ritual obligations to worship him.

The Romans also held a festival at the same time of year, called “Saturnalia,” which was essentially a week-long party to honor Saturn, the god of the harvest. There were feasts and sacrifices and gifts exchanged, and slaves were served a banquet by their masters and allowed to speak and act with relative freedom, while poets and musicians were allowed to publicly lampoon their rulers without fear of reprisal. It was a season of wild celebration and overall goodwill between all niches of the social spectrum.

Each festival had their ritual trappings and religious emphases, but one can imagine how mere animal appetite and natural utility would have given rise to these practices long before anyone began to imagine names and faces and personalities for the forces of nature they would eventually know as “Odin” and “Saturn” and other characters comprising their pantheons. Winter came every year, with its harsh cold and scarcity of food and warmth, and so it was natural and instinctive to hoard food and to hibernate. Their nesting instinct would draw everyone to huddle around a fire, under shelter, surrounded by fellow tribesmen and women. It’s not hard to relate to the feelings of satisfaction and gratitude from the security and comfort of having worked hard to gather provisions of food and firewood, and having fortified their huts against the coming onslaught of ice and cold and snow. They’d planned and prepared for nature’s months of hostility and scarcity, and now they felt safe and ready and protected against the cold and the dark and whatever other evils might be lurking beyond the shelter of their hut or village.

And life was far more precarious then than we can easily relate to now. So as man learned to relate to nature and to manipulate it to provide its resources, he did what he could with his own hands to till and irrigate the soil, to polish his hunting skills and sharpen his weapons, to drive off pests, etc. But that wasn’t always enough to stave off starvation in winter, because nothing he did directly could make his crops grow if the rain didn’t come, or to lure deer to his hunting grounds if there wasn’t enough fresh vegetation. The weather was beyond his control, and so the question of whether his family ate that winter or starved to death was entirely beyond his control… unless he could influence it in some way, however slightly and tenuously. If he could somehow befriend it or appease it or bargain with it in some way…

So, the life-giving rain couldn’t just be a blind force of nature—it had to become a person to whom they could appeal. It was Thor, son of Odin, god of thunder. In Canaan/Israel, they called the storm-god Baal; Indra was his name among the Hindus, and Zeus/Jupiter in the Mediterranean region. The names and rituals were different, but they all arose from the same need to hedge their bets, to beat the fickle odds of blind chance. If they could stay on the storm-god’s good side, then the coming winter would be tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable.

Their natural instincts of nesting and hibernation and the camaraderie of pack-security took on the stature of religious observation, and their gratification of the needs of their appetites grew into tributes to their gods. They took elements from nature that reminded them of their gods—like evergreen trees, which persisted through the cold winter months, just as their gods had enabled them to do—and turned them into wreaths and other tokens to honor Odin and Thor, decorating their homes with them in the season of Odin-Jölnir’s worship.

And that’s the essence of all pagan religion: anything that gratifies our psychological and bodily appetites is deified and worshiped; Ultimate Reality consists solely of full bellies and wombs and of comfortable shelter from the elements and victory over territorial rivals. A pagan’s stomach and his glands are his gods, and so his so-called “spiritual life” is no more than the blind contentment of an animal at the top of the food chain.

In the 3rd-century, when Christians were still a growing but persecuted minority, Emperor Aurelian added a new feature to the Romans’ winter observances. He made Sol Invictus—the “Invincible Sun,” the official god of the Empire, and designated the conclusion of Saturnalia, December 25, to be a national holiday in its own right to celebrate the sun-god’s nativity. This, of course, was on or near the day of the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year, and so it celebrated both the sun-god’s birth and the “invincibility” of his light against the cold and dark of winter, so it was customary to celebrate by lighting up the city at night with candles and lamps—a precursor to modern day “Christmas” lights.

Augustine of Hippo frequently condemned the cult of Sol Invictus, and it was the practice of some Christians to use the title “Sun of Justice” for Christ in opposition to the claims of supremacy made by pagans for the sun god. At least, that’s how some ancient and modern commentators have interpreted the title, while others have condemned it as a capitulation to the imperial cult.

The precise time December 25 became the Christ Mass instead of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti isn’t entirely clear, nor is it clear who started it or why. In their written discussions of various Christian feasts and holy days, none of the early church fathers made any mention of any ritual observance of Jesus’ birth for the first two-hundred years of the Church’s existence. But, as Christianity spread and came to be thought of more and more as a “Roman religion” (albeit, in any given place or time, an underground religion for Romans), Christians began to relax the customary “anti-birthday” taboo by adopting various practices for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. On the basis of a variety of different and sometimes contradictory rationales, some pockets of Christendom celebrated it on January 6 or 7, some combined it with the Feast of the Epiphany, and a few celebrated it on December 25. By the year 386, John Chrysostom preached a sermon in Antioch urging all Christians to uniformity by making December 25 the agreed-upon date for the Christ Mass.

It isn’t clear when any of these practices began, but it’s plain that a few decades after the Day of the Unconquered Sun became a yearly empire-wide fixture of celebration and debauchery, a new emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity and unofficially made it the new religion of the Empire. He never made it compulsory by any formal decree as Aurelian had with the cult of Sol Invictus; his famous Edict of Milan merely established Christianity as officially legal to practice. But, Constantine made no secret of his own preference for it. And this immediately followed the period of Christianity’s most intense and systematic, empire-wide persecution under Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian, who made Christians into the most reviled and abused underclass of Roman society. Yet, Christians were now suddenly coming out of the woodwork to bend the emperor’s ear and curry favor. Because of the emperor’s well-known affinity for the previously despised religion, being “Christian” was naturally the best way to get ahead in Roman society, and being endorsed by clergy was the best possible testimonial for appointment to cushy public service jobs, or to ease one’s tax burden.

Constantine didn’t compel anyone to convert to his new religion, but he certainly incentivized it, and made it much less advantageous to openly worship the old gods of storm and sun and other natural forces. It was only a matter of time before “Christianity” and “Roman Empire” were synonymous terms, and submission to Church authority was a matter of social and legal obligation.

That hardly meant people were going to abandon their cherished customs, though. They no longer openly referred to those customs by the names of the now-forbidden gods previously associated with them, but they still enjoyed their scheduled yearly revelry and feasting, with all of the same customs, same costumes, and same decorations. They just called it by the name of their new god—“Christ.”

In that regard, their new god wasn’t very much different than their old gods, and their new religion wasn’t so very different than their old religion.

Not too long after Constantine’s reign, Church leaders were outright political appointees, priests and deacons were bureaucrats, and being “Christian” had little if anything to do with personal faith or conviction or with disciplined participation in the Divine Nature—it just meant you were born into a society ruled by clergy. “Christianity,” such as it was, became the background of everyday life, and so the “basic principles of the world” and the basic operation of the Church became one and the same.

There were still faithful Christians who sincerely loved Jesus Christ and sought to emulate and obey Him, and so there was a considerable amount of conflict within the Church about—among other controversies—the revelry and hedonism that characterized the Christ Mass. Various councils were held in various corners of the Empire, which held various courses of deliberations to arrive at various conclusions on what to do about it, and various decrees were made, but the momentum of public opinion, and the weight of the imperial sword, always tended to favor the lowest common denominator.

In the early days of the Church, the apostles often found that the gospel was a tough sell because of the high apparent cost, so they had to take their lives in their hands when they ventured to individually persuade people to turn away from their false gods and empty rituals and to trust instead in Jesus Christ alone.

Under the post-Constantinian Church, though, Germanic barbarians and Celtic savages—who had for centuries eluded Roman conquest—now converted en masse when they learned they could go to heaven simply by submitting to the authority of the Church, and they could keep all of their old gods, to boot, but under new branding. Odin, for instance, was re-christened “St. Nicholas” after a 4th-century philanthropist and bishop from Asia Minor, and eventually traded his eight-legged flying horse for a team of eight aeronautical reindeer instead. Other gods were given the names of other departed Christian luminaries, but they kept their managerial
responsibilities over their respective natural forces, and people continued to worship them and pray to them just as they always had. Their pantheons were intact, but under new management and branding, and with a new Roman god called “Christ” in the top slot.

They were like dogs who believed themselves blessed because they had meat wrapped around a bar of solid gold, but they couldn’t fathom that the real value of what they had was hidden by the feature that had them salivating. They thought the meat itself was the gift from God, and so they had no use for the strange and unfamiliar substance they found beneath it.

So, these customs eventually merged over time and all came to collectively express the strange hybrid religious festival known as “Christmas,” and took hold in popular belief as a supposedly God-ordained obligation and gift. There were several attempts, however, during the Protestant Reformation to slough Christmas off as unwanted pseudo-Christian detritus, and several more attempts by the Puritans in the early history of the United States, but popular devotion to the custom always eventually erased any trace of their efforts.

Christians are fond of saying “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and for many, I know that to be true. Historically, though, Jesus has typically only been a thinly-veiled pretense for a season that’s really about revelry and self-indulgence and the gratification of appetite and animal instinct.

And for the record, I happen to love revelry and self-indulgence and the gratification of appetite. Those things are great, in their place, and Jesus even had a bit of a reputation[60] for it Himself. And these are acceptable and even encouraged ways[61] to worship God. When our partying is truly in love and celebration of our God, it’s holy and good and honorable. But when “worship” and a “Christian holiday” are just excuses to indulge ourselves, and love for God is absent and irrelevant to our celebration, then we’re really no different than our pagan forebears, whose gods, ultimately, were their stomachs and their glands.

Of course, that difference is invisible, because it resides in each individual heart (although we can see it plainly enough in our culture at-large), but it’s as significant a difference as that between marriage and prostitution: some of the outward practices might be the same, but they are as different in character as good and evil, life and death, love and hate. Likewise, if our “Christmas” is about anything other than Christ—even otherwise good things—it’s idolatry.

Jesus said[62], “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for My sake will find it.”

So when we say “Christmas is all about family” as an alternative to the commercialism that typifies the season, does that really honor Him? Howler monkeys and hyenas and wolves have “family values” all on their own, quite apart from any Christian influence.

When we celebrate this mish-mash of customs and obligations we call “Christmas,” do we really do it to worship Him? Or is it just that these are a part of our cultural security blanket, and we do it out of childhood nostalgia or a sense of obligation to the people who inculcated those customs?

And when we do battle against this supposed “War on Christmas” by insisting upon use of the word “Christmas” by chain store greeters and on White House stationery—is that really motivated by devotion to Him, or are we just waving the banner of our own tribalism and asserting the privilege of our presumed cultural right-of-way?

What’s more, when Christian preachers and worship leaders roll out the red carpet and expand their seating accommodations for the massive influx of people they expect for Christmas Eve services, putting on elaborate musical and visual productions to move and entertain by inducing warm, comfortable, nostalgic feelings in audiences of people they know full well have no use for church or for God for the rest of the year—is it really to “bring people to the love of Christ”? Or is it because they know they’ll get more money in the collection plates that night than any ten Sunday-morning services combined? If it’s the former, then why aren’t there ever any warnings about the dreaded words[63] they’ll doubtless hear: “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!”, or about receiving[64] the grace of God in vain? Could it be because, in their calculations, the few they might actually shock to their senses and save that way wouldn’t compensate for the multitudes who won’t turn up for next year’s show?

The words[65] of the prophet Isaiah come to mind, through whom God rebuked the people of Judah for essentially the same practices:

“‘The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to Me?’ said the LORD.

‘…I have no pleasure in your offerings…When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of My courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. …I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your …feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.’”

Nobody alive today had any hand in the creation of any of these customs. We’ve all just inherited them from people who are long dead, and whose authenticity as followers of Jesus Christ is highly debatable. “Christmas,” as it is, is not the legacy of Jesus or the apostles, but of an unholy union between the wandering Bride of Christ and a pagan empire.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we should completely abolish it, nor even jettison many of its customs. Even originally pagan customs can be redeemed and adapted for godly use, as the apostles themselves amply demonstrated.[66]

What it does mean, though, is that we cannot continue to observe a so-called “holy day” named for Christ for which love for Christ is merely incidental—a holiday that is largely indistinguishable in practice between those who know Christ and those who don’t. If Christianity is to survive, its observances should encourage and facilitate our participation in the Divine Nature, not distract and impede us by seducing us into the very corruption from which we are purportedly saved.

We didn’t create “Christmas” as it is, but we do have the power to rise above the basic principles of this world by remaking Christmas into something holy and good. We have a gold bar wrapped in rotting meat, and there are dogs all around drooling over it and snapping at each other for it. We’d be better off just giving them the meat and keeping the gold, but we’d rather fight over it, because we evidently don’t know any better than they do the value of what he have.

If our Christmas observances are an extension of our Christianity, then our so-called “Christianity” is just another commodity to exploit for the gratification of our appetites. We have a religion that promises to make us into Ubermenschen, yet produces only Last Men. That isn’t the failure of our religion or of our Messiah, but of our own faith in what He’s promised.


[1] The quote is from http://www.jenhatmaker.com/blog/2011/11/29/the-christmas-conundrum, which the writer attributes “Andrew,” her non-Christian friend. Very astute observation, Andrew.

[2] John 2:1-12

[3] 1 Corinthians 10:25

[4] 1 Corinthians 5:12,13

[5] John 3:32

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

[7] 1:24

[8] Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:7

[9] Genesis 3:17-24

[10] 2 Peter 2:12

[11] 2 Peter 1:4

[12] Romans 16:17, 18 and Philippians 3:18,19

[13] 1 John 2:15, 16

[14] Again, the word here and for “desire” in the last sentence, is the Greek epithumia.

[15] 1 John 2:17a

[16] 1 Peter 1:18

[17] Mark 1:17

[18] Matthew 18:1

[19] Matthew 16:21-23

[20] Matthew 16:24-27

[21] Deuteronomy 4:15-20 ; Exodus 32

[22] Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4

[23] John chapter 3

[24] Matthew 4:17; 12:28, and Luke 17:20, 21

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:11-16

[26] Matthew 4:1-3, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2, Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15

[27] John 6:63,64 and 1 Peter 1:23-25

[28] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[29] 1 Peter 1:21

[30] 1 John 3:2,3

[31] 2 Peter 1:5-8

[32] Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:27-29

[33] Psalm 32:8,9

[34] John 1:9-13 and 20:17; Romans 8:14-39 ;and Hebrews 2:10

[35] 1 Peter 1:13; 2 Peter 1:5-11; Philippians 2:12; Colossians 2:4-6 and 3:1-3; 1 Corinthians 9:24,25; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, among a billion or so other passages.

[36] 2 Peter 1:5-9; John 13:35; Romans 13:10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Galatians 5, along with about a billion or so other passages.

[37] Luke 6:32

[38] Matthew 28:18-20

[39] Matthew 16:19

[40] Acts 9:22; 17:2,3; 17:17; 18:4; 18:19; 18:28; 19:8; and Deuteronomy 18:21,22 coupled with 2 Peter 1:18,19

[41] Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, among about a billion or so other passages.

[42] Matthew 24:14; Romans 11:11, 12 and 11:25,26; and 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[43] Romans 12:1,2

[44] 1 Corinthians 3:4

[45] Colossians 2:20 and 3:5

[46] Romans 3:27; 1 Corinthians 4:7; Ephesians 2:8-10

[47] Philippians 2:6

[48] 1 John 5:4

[49] 1 Corinthians 2:15

[50] Philippians 3:20

[51] 1 Peter 1:1 and 2 Peter 2:11

[52] Thus Spake Zarathustra, prologue, part 3.

[53] Either translation misses the nuances of the word Ubermensch in the original German, so it’s often left untranslated.

[54] Nietzche and Kierkegaard are both considered to be the fathers of Existentialism—a system of philosophy which holds that meaning and purpose are subjective to and initiated by the individual, which itself gave rise to Postmodernist philosophy, of which moral relativism is a cornerstone. A full examination of their differences and similarities would be well beyond the scope of this discussion, but to put it briefly: both believed that man is responsible to supply meaning, but Kierkegaard’s model was for man to do it by a deliberate choice of faith over nihilism. But, Kierkegaard’s notion of “faith” is better known by the technical term of fideism, which is vastly different than the concept of faith upheld in the Bible. The scripture describes “faith” as a personal trust arising from an absolute, reasoned certainty based in evidence (Acts 2:36 and 1 Peter 1:18), while fideism is a self-referential, circularly-reasoned belief without justification in evidence, which is qualitatively no different than superstition.

[55] Not entirely divorced, though—A few years after Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote a short book entitled The Antichrist to flesh out the full anti-Christian implications of his philosophy.

[56] Colossians 3:11

[57] 1 Timothy 3:15

[58] These were the precise words I heard to close and summarize a sermon a week before Christmas, in which the preacher “suggested” by these words that those who might not be in a very festive mood be open to receive whatever “Christmas gifts” God has. It was essentially a message to people who might be cranky to just be optimistic by laying down and dying until God walked by and dropped a happy-pill in their mouth as a vague and ethereal “Christmas present” in the form of a happy upturn in circumstances of some kind. It was fortune-cookie vague, with absolutely no actionable instruction, which describes most sermons one is likely to hear in Church in America: calculated to be sufficiently general to make no demands whatsoever and to cause not even a hint of offense, but produce a warm, gooey sense of sweetness and light so people will keep coming back.

[59] Luke 2:8

[60] Matthew 11:18,19

[61] Deuteronomy 14:22-27

[62] Matthew 10:37-39

[63] Matthew 7:23

[64] 2 Corinthians 6:1,2

[65] Isaiah 1:11-15

[66] The prologue of John’s Gospel is a pretty mind-blowing example of this, as is Acts 17, among other passages.

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