Most Christians find a degree of contradiction in the celebration of Christmas. It can be seen in our attempts to ‘put Christ back into Christmas’ or in our critique of turning the generosity of gift giving into the materialistic cash cow of the retail industry. But lying behind these issues is a far more profound contradiction between natural and revealed religion.
Humans are almost universally religious, although it is notoriously difficult to define religion. The range of activities and ideas that come under the word ‘religion’ seem almost infinite. Humans want to be connected to something larger or ‘other’ than themselves which leads to all manner of religious expressions.
While the variety of these religious expressions is great, their similarity is also noticeable. There is the creation of mood by music or dance, by candles or lighting, by incense or joss sticks, and by artwork and architecture. There is the sense of authority in the ancient and traditional, in processions and in unusual clothing and costumes. There is the sense of otherness in the elevation of the mystical, magical or miraculous and in the downplaying of the rational, sensible or normal. There is the diminution of the human in obeisance, homage, physical discomfort or even self inflicted pain and suffering. There are usually dietary rules about what can and cannot be eaten and about fasting and feasting. There is the effect of being in isolation, quietness and silence or the opposite method of losing one’s own identity in a large crowd of worshippers all concentrating on a single concern.
These are all external expressions of what can be called ‘natural religion’. They are the expression of the religious instinct that requires humans to act in ways that align them with or please the supernatural being(s) or force(s) that impact lives. It is ‘natural religion’ because it is what humans naturally can understand and participate in. It is what is done when people think of ‘religion’. It is what is expected at a religious observance. The individual custom may vary – from drums to organs, from incense to candles or to joss sticks – but the basic idea that these are ‘religious’ is the same. It may be the otherness of a medieval chant or the overwhelming power of modern electronic percussion or just the rhythmic drumming of tribal dance but it moves the participants beyond the normality of life into a religious experience.
These religious expressions have an ethereal impact on aesthetic sensibilities giving some sense of ‘otherness’. They are all attempts and activities of humans to get in touch with the spiritual side of reality. And as such are quite different to revealed religion.
For what may be known about God, He has made plain to us in his creation (Romans 1:19f).
And in many and various ways He spoke by His prophets to His people of old. And in the last days He has spoken to us by His Son – the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4).
He is the perfect expression of all that is God, for in Him the whole fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19).
He was the Word of God become flesh. And when we beheld His glory we beheld the glory of God (John 1:1,14)
Revealed religion is not about how humans please God but how God saved humans. It is not about how we come to know God but about how God has made Himself known to us. It is not about how we perform the rituals that will bring us into the spiritual realm but how God entered into our realm to bring us to Himself. And behind revealed religion is the personal God as opposed to the spiritual force or reality or even the many gods interacting with each other. For revealed religion is about relationship with the personal God issuing in changed behaviour rather than the experience of supernatural otherness (James 1:27).
This very thing is what makes Christmas celebrations so contradictory for Christians. For if ever there was a time to celebrate the revelation of God to humanity it is at Christmas when we remember the moment in history when God became man. Yet each year the Christmas celebrations appear to be increasingly conformed to the practice of natural religion. There are the funny costumes, the large crowds, singing (often meaningless) traditional songs about mythical characters in a far away land and time. It is about food and gifts and community celebration. It is ‘seasons greetings’, ‘merry xmas’ and ‘happy holidays’.
And into this heady and enjoyable mix of natural religion, Christians try to inject revealed religion. We wish to proclaim God become man, the baby who comes to be crucified and sinful humanity’s need for a saviour. Our message is about relationship with God not ceremonies to get in touch with Him – but we declare this message in the midst of ceremonies where people are once more feeling touched by the supernatural or the nostalgia of their natural religion.
Richard Dawkins is the leader of today’s active atheists. He makes no bones about seeking to undermine Christianity. But in 2007, calling himself a cultural Christian, he confessed that he had no intention of undermining Christian tradition – “I like singing carols along with everybody else.” Natural religion is of no threat to atheism and can be joined in with enthusiasm by all and sundry even the most extreme anti-Christian atheist.
Many years ago I recall rejoicing to hear my child sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know’ and then recoiling in horror as she segued into ‘I feel like a Tooheys’. It is the undiscriminating jump from ‘I saw mummy kissing Santa Claus’ and ‘Rudolph the red nosed reindeer’ to ‘God of God, Light of Light, Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ or ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity’ that makes Christians cringe over the contradiction in Christmas celebrations.