The story of Christmas is little more than one enormous fiction. So I was grimly informed in a recent conversation. Emmanuel, “God with us,” the “humble king” and all that—just pleasant illusions that we entertain ourselves with each year on our naively hopeful and recklessly irresponsible way to the mall to anesthetize our miserable selves with shopping and candy.
We like our pleasant winter scenes and candy canes and elves and cheery Christmas carols because they make us feel nice, after all, and, in a similar way, we like our fantasies about baby Jesus coming to earth. It makes us feel good to believe that God likes us and bothered to come and hang around in our skin once upon a time. And we like feeling good, so we’ll take whatever we can get! Santa, Jesus, Rudolph, Frosty—it matters not. The more the merrier! It’s all just one giant exercise in self-deception to help us avoid the many pains and contradictions of our meaningless lives in a world where God has not come and will not be coming, where hope is little more than a necessary fiction, a marketable truism for a Hallmark card.
These are familiar enough sentiments in the post-Christian western world. If we scratch beneath the surface of the worldviews of many of our friends and neighbours, I suspect that something like this is what we will find.
But the charge that the story of Christmas (or any other element of the Christian story, or indeed any story of meta-meaning) is one big exercise in wish projection undertaken by fearful little creatures who just can’t bear to face reality as it really is and must, therefore, distract and deceive themselves with make-believe stories about another world is not really new. This is a well-traveled road populated by Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and countless others along the way.
What struck me about my recent conversation wasn’t so much the content of the doubts as the apparent assumption that this perspective was a response to something new.
As if it were somehow revelatory that the world as it is doesn’t always provide unambiguous evidence for the existence of God or of the nature of God’s strange coming to be among us.
As if pain and injustice and human cruelty and oppression existing alongside claims about a sovereign God with a good plan for history were recent discoveries.
As if hope was more obvious at every other point in history besides our angst-ridden, obsessively individualistic postmodern cultural moment.
As if a God-man birthed from the womb of a peasant teenage girl in a tiny little Palestinian town was once an entirely plausible explanation for the hope of the world, but we just can’t accept such silly ideas anymore.
As if we were the first people in history to wonder why God seems so slow in his coming.
The Christmas season is as good as any for asking some questions about whether our historical moment is as unique as we are sometimes pleased to think that it is. It’s at least worth considering that our struggles and insecurities, our fears and anxieties have appeared on the stage of history a time or two before our arrival on the scene. And it’s at least worth considering that faith and hope in a world made new and a God who came and will yet come might just itself be something like an act of courage in a world that seems, on so many days and in so many ways, to be hell-bent on little more than its own destruction.
It’s too easy to say that Christmas is a meaningless fiction. It’s too easy to mock those whose hope has not yet died. A harder, less frequently traveled road would be to wrestle—really wrestle—with the apparently irreducible and ineliminable human propensities toward hope, meaning, justice, peace, and goodness in a world in which these have never been our obvious end, and to wonder what (if anything) these might mean. And, perhaps most importantly, to consider if they might point to the possibility of something new.