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Its Christmas Time...


Right, there is one post left before the inevitable Christmas break i shall be imposing on all things ranty. Today's Guardian carries quite and interesting piece about the place of Christmas in general in a populace which is increasingly secular/agnostic. This, of course, is the time of year when many people emerge to berate the trajectory of modern society and reiterate how different it all was eons ago. Perhaps they are correct in that assertion but the article by Jenni Russell takes a bit of a different tack.

This Humanist seems to be slightly sad at the de-religification of Christmas, searching for traditional decorations, she instead finds a series of sterile non-denominational holiday season gifts.

"Perhaps in a misguided attempt to avoid offending other faiths, there was not a hint of anything that might have suggested actual Christianity, such as a cradle or a nativity scene. If a Christmas song was playing, it would be something jaunty and secular, such as the appalling Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
And yet there is no consistency in what I want. I am deeply and sentimentally attached to this festival, and want it to remain part of our public life. But how can that make any sense when I am so distrustful of religion's influence in so many other ways? I fear its capacity for authoritarianism, self-righteousness, and hostility to non-believers. I think faith schools, with their utter certainties, are dangerous and divisive."

I think there are many out there who would absolutely agree with this sentiment, I myself am deeply agnostic about God and horrified by the manner in which our faculties get abused and shackled by a religion designed to emancipate. Yet I deeply love Christmas. I woke up this morning and tried to figure out reasons why I should celebrate the event as I have grown more and more disillusioned with the presence of God. This festival should be immediately outside of my capacity to celebrate, should immediately sideline me from the crowd of happy celebrants.

Yet, sans religious motivation, I preserve Christmas as a time of celebration. There is a deep part of human nature, beyond the observable, even metaphysical which becomes motivated by a sense of sharing and celebration. Juxtaposing this very religious sentiment with a broader set of humanist beliefs seems to be a very tricky thing to do. Indeed Russell herself problematises the issue as such;

"The piercing loveliness of a sung Messiah; the symbols on the tree; the participation in the massed roar of O Come All Ye Faithful - these are bonding rituals that do indeed make me feel warmer to all mankind, while their annual repetition gives a reassuring structure to my life. Am I deluded to think that one can adopt the best elements of religion while avoiding the worst?"

This is a deeply philosophical point and my initial reaction is to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to adopt the best aspects of Christmas, though for most these aspects are hollowing away and dying out. They are dying out because the religious anchor around which the tradition grew and bloomed has been lost to most. This is no bad thing, for much of the modern period there has been a deep desire to remedy the worst of religions excesses among avowed secularists, humanists and others.

Yet that leaves a tradition bereft of narrative, in that absence, in the absence of a reason there enters the commercial. The new narrative which replaced religion at the heart of Christmas became the commercial one. It became subject to advertisement, quantification and all other things. It was ripped from the metaphysical breast of the church and placed in the physical hands of the humans. Yet this need not be so. Philosophy has given us all many reasons to adopt the ethos of Christmas and allow it to have that transcendent metaphysical aspect.

The desire to maintain that special element of Christmas such that the time is equal to more that the sum of its parts (ie gifts, food etc), is alive and well in most humans. I am of course generalising but i do so in the confidence of a human nature which desires progress and spirituality. Such an event is within our grasp to create, if we believe that what is passing for Christmas now has been stripped of the metaphysical.

"Is it just the case that we haven't found the language to inspire people as religion does, or does rationality have its limits? It seems to me that most of us wish there was a purpose in life beyond the mundane, and that there are aspects of life that rationality doesn't reach."

Does rationality have its limits? Such a question rarely has an answer. Which form of rationality? Aristotle saw many different shapes to reason, many have seen certain ideas of purpose removed by philosophical and scientific enquiry. In their place lies nothing. Yet there is a deep desire for the metaphysical, for it to be available to us as a valid form of enquiry, a valid epistemology and a valid source of spirituality.

I don't think that for such a thing to exist we must discard reason, for that means discarding the means to millions of years of progress. This is a discourse which I gather is pretty unique to English language discourse. Much continental philosophy would submit reason to the exploration of the human condition through and beyond the physical. What Russell seemed to be seeking is a celebration of the human metaphysic.

Stripped of the superstition we can still celebrate the human which lies open to reflection and contemplation. Stripped of the disillusion we can find hope in a celebration of the human condition and human potential. We can certainly keep Christmas, certainly in a traditional way and no one will be required to compromise humanism or other secular tendencies because a celebration of Christmas should be about human-kind and openly engaged with ideas of progress, growth, exploration and development.

This morning I decided that is what I shall be celebrating and tomorrow I intend to raise a glass to all of you and all of us. The growth of family units, social enterprises and now technological innovation stands as testament to what we can achieve. This time of year offers us all a chance to get back to basics.

"The depressing realisation for those of us who don't have God to tell us to think of others is to discover that, in the absence of faith, people are more likely to turn to consumerism than humanism."

That is indeed sad, since the fulfillment of being human can be at once as beautiful and spiritual as any amount of religion. The removal of religion does not imply the denial of aspect of our human which are open to spirituality, praise, glorification and reflective exploration. It admits that there are no easy answers and may not be one single answer. It can praise the unity of humanity under some commonalities and praise the innovation and difference which we are capable of producing. Yet consumer's simply offers the same retreat as religion, flat-packed pre-made cut-out-and-keep answers to dull away the razor sharp questions and gaps.

Christmas can and does mean something special, something exceptional and there is nothing wrong with promoting a celebration of human exceptionality. Yet it must seriously acknowledge a lack of teleologically determined perfection and admit there is no big plan. I will be celebrating an odd mish-mash of causes, events and other things this year. Primarily, a toast to the human project and a celebration Humanity.

Happy Christmas.
Im not sure if this is making sense, though in the new year I intend to start bringing a great deal of philosophy into the site. It should help with my study and open up some debate.

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  1. Blogger wulfbeorn | 6:11 p.m. |  

    Really great post RR. The urge to have a party or do something special at the bleakest point of Winter is something shared by billions of people around the world of all faiths and none, throughout history. I think it's nice to do for whatever reason you choose, even if only that you enjoy it.

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