Monday, January 07, 2013
The Orthodox world seems to be one of the few places where Christmas is still regarded as primarily a religious holiday, rather than a meaningless extravaganza of presents and decorations and celebrations of nothing in particular. Perhaps that's too extreme, but the standardized sanitized a-religious "Christmas" production that's politically correct in parts of today's America strikes me as a weird and even dreadful thing, dreadful because it emphasizes the almost complete absence of deep belief in anything. How strange to see non-Christians who mock Christianity or are even deeply offended by it then go to great lengths to set up a Christmas tree, spare no expense in selecting presents, and produce a huge Christmas dinner, all centered on 25 December (Gregorian) and all the while religiously opposing any religious reference. What's the idea? I don't get it.
On the other hand, do you really have to be a believer to get the point of this holiday and respect or even celebrate it? Maybe not.
Walter Russell Mead has had a very nice special "Twelve Days of Christmas Yule Blog" that investigates the meaning of Christmas for the benefit of both believers and non-believers. I've not read all of it yet, but like all of his stuff it's quite thoughtful and well-informed. Much of it is extremely good indeed. For example, here's an excerpt from January 5 (Day Twelve, there are actually 13 posts):
Society really does depend on the imperfect virtue of its members. Self restraint and moral behavior, even only realized in part, really are the foundations of liberty. If too many people do the wrong things too many times, nothing can protect us from the consequences.
The weaker the hold of virtue on a people, the stronger the state needs to be. If people don’t voluntarily comply with, for example, the tax codes, the enforcement mechanisms of the government need to be that much stronger. If more people lose their moral inhibitions against theft, and against using violence against the weak, then society has to provide a stronger, tougher police force — and give them more authority under less restraint.
Yet at the same time the state becomes stronger, it loses control of itself. When the moral tone of a people declines, bureaucrats and the police are not exempt from the decay of morals. Perhaps a stratum of high minded elites and civil servants can keep up a moral tone that is significantly higher than the declining standard around them, but lesser officials and the police will reflect the society around them. They will steal; they will abuse their authority; they will manipulate the processes of the state to serve themselves and their favored clients. The courts become corrupt; the security services link up with the crime syndicates. Night falls.
This is almost a summary of Adam Smith's basic arguments in Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. If I disagree with anything, it's only that I'd emphasize that the moral rot can easily start at the top, perhaps more easily. "[H]igh minded elites" who imagine they possess a superior moral tone arewhat is truly to be feared.
Or consider this excerpt from 29 December on the meaning of Christmas:
This feeling that there is some meaning to our lives is the basis, I think, not only for the Christian religion and for all religions and mystical experiences; it is the basis for the many noble forms of ethical thought and philosophical reflection found among atheists and agnostics. Anyone who feels the pull of a higher path and greater responsibilities than just blindly grabbing what can be seized is moved by a vision of something outside ones own life that compels our allegiance and respect: a vision of what matters and a sense of life’s meaning.
That sense of life’s meaning is our sense of the transcendent: a sense that our experience points beyond itself to something important.
It seems to me that atheists and theists often exaggerate their differences. Both atheists and theists experience transcendence or meaning in their lives and both have faith that transcendence matters. Both try to live their lives in the light of their experience of life’s meaning.
The difference between theists on the one hand and atheists and agnostics on the other is relatively minor compared with the difference between those who believe that life means something and those who don’t know and don’t care. Ethical atheists believe in the importance of justice, the need for self-control and the need to live by an ethical code in the world just as much as religious people do. Like religious people, they often fail to live up to the codes they believe in, but that (for now) is not the point. The vast, the overwhelming majority of the human race thinks that life means something and that we ought to honor that meaning in the way that we live.
Mead's argument is, I think, that it's the sense of the meaningfulness of life that generates personal morality and then civic virtue. If I may expound further... We have an inbuilt moral sense. We may not all take the same intellectual starting point, but we're not tabula rasa with respect to ethics. Most people really are interested in better lives, more freedom, and respecting the rights of their fellow human beings. But it must be learned, and regularly reinforced, and can be lost, as the first excerpt suggests.
Writers as diverse as Ayn Rand and Sam Harris have made identical arguments. Mead suggests that for Christians, Orthodox and otherwise, Christmas encapsulates this meaning. I agree. And that's why a non-believer can wish everyone a Happy Orthodox Christmas with no irony at all. We can honor the meaning that good people who happen to have different ideas and knowledge attach to something. One of the most important things about human knowledge is that we all are radically ignorant; most of what is true we not only do not know, but have no inkling of. But so long as we respect and protect each others' rights, that doesn't matter so much. And so...
Happy Orthodox Christmas to all!
Photo: Ukrainian girls caroling.