By:Chronicles | December 21, 2015
The following article by Allan C. Brownfeld is reprinted with permission.
Christmas approaches at a time of increasing turmoil in the world and in our own society. The hope, once widespread, that with the end of the Cold War, we would embark upon an era of peace and tranquility, has long since been proven to be wrong. Today, we face new adversaries and there is much uncertainty about how to respond to the challenges we face.
This uncertainty, as well as the economic difficulties brought about by globalization and a changing competitive environment, together with an increasing economic gap among Americans, has led to growing intemperance in our political life. Those offering themselves for political office seem to have abandoned entirely the once bipartisan notion of a "loyal opposition." Personal insult and invective have, in many cases, replaced a serious discussion of policy alternatives and the notion that, as Americans, we must confront the future together. Disagreeing without being disagreeable was once viewed as a virtue. This no longer seems to be the case. We should not forget that, as the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm used to say, "We came over on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."
Christmas 2015 comes at a time when we need the kind of introspection and consideration of what is really important in life which it provides. Christmas, of course, is many things. It is a season of celebration and family reunion, a season of merriment and good cheer. More than this, however, it is a time for contemplation of the meaning of life—and of our own lives—and of seeking our answer to the question of what God expects of us.
Even many who proclaim themselves to be Christian seem not to understand that the views of man and the world set forth by Jesus—and the one which dominates in the modern world—are contradictory.
This point was made in the book Jesus Rediscovered, published in 1969, by Malcolm Muggeridge, the respected British author and editor. Muggeridge, who had a religious conversion while preparing a BBC documentary about the life of Christ, pointed out that the desire for power and riches in the world—a desire to which so many are committed—is the opposite of what Jesus commanded. Indeed. Jesus was tempted by the Devil with the very worldly powers many of us so eagerly seek:
"Finally, the Devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said: 'All this power I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will give it.' All Christ had to do in return was to worship the donor instead of God—which, of course, he could not do. How interesting, though, that power should be at the Devil's disposal, and only attainable through an understanding with him! Many have thought otherwise, and sought power in the belief that by its exercise they could lead men to brotherhood and happiness and peace—invariably with disastrous consequences. Always, in the end, the bargain with the Devil has to be fulfilled—as any Stalin or Napolean or Cromwell must testify. 'I am the light of the world,' Christ said, 'power belongs to darkness.'"
Speaking of our own time, Muggeridge notes, "The parts of the world where the means of happiness in material and sensual terms are the most plentiful—like California and Scandinavia—are also the places where despair, mental sickness and other twentieth century ills are most in evidence. Sex, fanned by public erotica, underpinned by the birth-control pill and legalized abortion, is a primrose path leading to satiety or disgust; the rich are usually either wretched or mad, the successful plod relentlessly on to prove to the world and to themselves that their success is worth having; violence, collective and individual, bids fair to destroy us all and what remains of our human situation . . . as Pascal points out, it is part of the irony of our human situation that we ardently pursue ends which we know to be worthless."
The Western world was once motivated by religious values, although it often acted in violation of those values, and a view of a God-centered universe. Now, it has turned its attention to other things. Malcolm Muggeridge lamented, "I firmly believe that our civilization began with the Christian religion, and has been sustained and fortified by the values of the Christian religion, by which the greatest of them have tried to live. The Christian religion and these values no longer prevail, they no longer mean anything to ordinary people. Some suppose you can have a Christian civilization without Christian values. I disbelieve this. I think that the basis of order is a moral order; if there is no moral order there will be no political or social order, and we see this happening. This is how civilizations end."
And yet, despite all of this, there is a spiritual yearning in our American society, a feeling that things are not what they should be, a desire to set ourselves and our country back on a better path. Christmas speaks to that spiritual vacuum in our lives—but only if we will listen to its message.
G.K. Chesterton, discussing the message of Christmas, wrote: " . . . there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not, in its psychological substance, at all like a mere legend of the life of a great man. It does not in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him in to good."
A key question for Chesterton was, "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?" His sense that the world was a moral battleground, wrote his biographer Aliza Stone Dale, "helped Chesterton fight to keep the attitude that has been labeled 'facile optimism,' so that he could never recover the wonder and surprise at ordinary life he had once felt as a child."
This holiday season, all of us, whatever our religious beliefs, would do well to reevaluate the real gods in our lives and in the life of our country. Intolerance toward those of different faiths or races or ethnicities is the opposite of what Christmas embodies. As the popular hymn proclaims, "In Christ there is no north or south, In Christ no east or west." And while Jesus told us to "love our enemies," we seem barely able to tolerate those with whom we simply disagree on this or that public policy.
Malcolm Muggeridge concluded that, "It is very important to know the history of Socrates because Socrates is dead, but the history of Christ doesn't matter because He is alive. If and when we know the final truth about human life, we shall find that the legends, or what pass for legends, are far nearer truth than what passes for fact or science of history."