24 December 2012
Jim Al-Khalili in the Guardian explains why, as an atheist, he celebrates Christmas. Fair enough, except he is celebrating no such thing. Like many atheists – especially when they are scientists – he treats religion as a simple entity, an atomic unit of human experience. Religion, in this view, performs certain obvious functions – consoles with thoughts of an afterlife, sustains social homogeneity and so on – and, therefore, it is a resilient ‘meme’, a cultural version of a gene. (It might be helpful to remember that the scientific method is also a meme, but I don’t believe in memes so it probably doesn’t matter.)
This is not necessarily wrong, it is just hopelessly shallow because it fails to address the vital particularities of religion. Imagine talking about art in such terms. If, standing in front of Titian’s Assumption or listening to Bach’s Mass in B, you held forth on the evolved functionality of art, those around you would rightly dismiss you as an unfeeling lunatic. What counts is the thing itself and what is happening in your imagination, the rest is babble. The same is true of religion. To sit through a mass in Westminster Cathedral in an anthropological frame of mind is to embrace ignorance.
It would be wiser for even atheists to contemplate and investigate the wonder of religion as a primary feature – perhaps the primary feature – of our species. Then you can start asking why and how and you will get away from banal issues of historical truth or otherwise and begin to understand the fundamental power of metaphor.
“For heaven’s sake,’ Marilynne Robinson once said to me, “the idea that the dome is the sky is the skull of a murdered god. What is being described there? A very great deal. The idea that that is the kind of statement that could be displaced by something aboout gravity or the atmopshere – that’s a bizarre assumption to make.”
Humans, even or specially those who claim to be ‘hard-headed’, live by and through metaphors. These are the only way of describing the immaterial realm which consciousness has created or to which it has access. The stories, ideas, images, sounds and structures of this realm are as real and as factual as the periodic table or the inverse square law of gravitation. Theology describes this realm as do philosophy, art and literature. Or, put it this way, to be aggressively anti-religious is to be anti-imagination.
Christmas works for all kind of reasons, not because it is simply the festival of peace and togetherness of which Al-Khalili dreams, but because it is so much more than that. It should be considered, for example, as the first scene in a tragedy that ends on the cross. In Journey of the Magi, this is how Eliot wrote of the first Christmas as ‘hard and bitter agony’ and most , if not all, Renaissace images of the Virgin and Child contain some visual mention of the cross. Then there is the difficulty of the birth, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents. This is not a story of peace and harmony, it is a story about the grievous lack of those things and, in that, it reflects the world as it is. Christmas only survives and Christianity only grips the imagination because it is not a fantasy, it is a truth that can only be apprended through a story. Invent a secular equivalent and it will not last twenty years, never mind two thousand.
Or, to put it another way, happy Christmas.