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Christmas and Religious Change

Posted on: December 17, 2017

Category: Theology

Christmas and Religious Change

Christmas and Religious Change
By David Galston
When we change our diets, two things often happen. One is that our bodies take some time to adjust. When new foods become staples and old foods are no longer eaten, the body notices, reacts, and can take time to accept the new normal. The other thing that happens is that family members, friends, and colleagues also have to adjust to the new you. Sometimes a friend might say somewhat innocently and somewhat critically, "Oh, you're one of them now!" Others may not understand the change at all. Friendships can be lost or broken over something that seems to you a move for the good. Changes in life always hold the double edge of promise and tragedy.

What happens when you change your religion or decide that staple beliefs from your past are no longer part of your future? Some of the same struggles that result from a change of diet also surface in a change of religion. Probably the most dramatic expression of this occurs in a move from a conservative or fundamentalist form of religion to a questioning and progressive form. At first, one's belief-system has trouble adjusting. Like the introduction of new foods, it can take months of adjustment to get used to the new normal. In this adjustment, there is a more than good chance of losing old friendships and of feeling guilty as a consequence. But, as the Jesus saying goes, once you place your hands on the plow, it's impossible to go back. The other element, and the more difficult one, is the question of what to believe going forward? When the old creeds die there is a sense of liberty, but at the same time there is the question of what now? This is a hard question to answer but it is the inevitable question that will never go away.

At Christmas time the situation can be acute. How do you sing Christmas carols about things that never happened and that you no longer believe? Jesus was not born on Christmas day. The manger scene is a creation of the gospel writer Luke - whoever Luke was. It's not easy to sing "Away in a Manger" with this knowledge at hand. Matthew's story of the three Magi visiting from the East is a great example of ancient imagination but not a recount of historical events. "We Three Kings" is a carol, which I happen to like, that is a song about Matthew's imagination - whoever Matthew was. Most of the time the attempt on the progressive side is to recover the theology of the gospel writers, which can be challenging and even radical theology, but it remains disappointing to admit that we sing about gospel writers' imaginations and not about things that ever happened. Then there is the coup de grâce: the Christmas season was created out of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and actually has no historical relationship to the birth of Jesus. These comments can make it seem like progressive people are in league with the Grinch or Scrooge or maybe both in combination. Like changing one's diet, changing one's religion leaves the question of what is left to eat or to celebrate?

There might be one thing that progressives who remain related to the Christian tradition can celebrate. One misplaced Christmas carol holds the key. "Joy to the World" has nothing to do with Christmas. It was written by Isaac Watts and it imagines what the world would be like on the day that Jesus returns to establish the empire (kingdom) of God on earth. It is a Pentecost song. Though arising from Watts' imagination and based on Christian myth, it makes its point. The Second Coming of Jesus is the day when division and tragedy (sin and sorrow) come to an end. Thorns are no longer part of our agriculture or daily life. The heavens and the earth are united. Written in 1719, the song resonates with the theme of the Social Gospel of the early 20th Century. The motto of the Social Gospel was the kingdom of God on earth. That motto is also a good one for the historical Jesus.

Christmas can be a reminder about the gospel of Jesus, which is not about God or some far way master but about how one lives in life now. Even more seriously, Christmas can be a reminder of the revolution to come where peace and equality, justice, and perhaps fair taxation are promised. The revolution to come, in Christianity, is not one of violence but of a transformed world. This is why in the Scholar's Version of the letters of Paul the word "gospel" is translated as "world transforming news."

In both the commercial way and the churchy way of celebrating Christmas, there may not be a lot of things that resonate with those who have chosen to practice the progressive diet of Christianity. But there is one very important thing remaining: one's religion is about justice and one's Christmas is about establishing justice both in law and society. These are world transforming things. This is a Christian diet for a new world.


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