The Reason(ing) for the Season

nativityIs Christmas a real Christian holiday? It may seem like an odd question, but it’s one that gets a lot of attention in some quarters. It’s become something of an online tradition, really: this time of year, a few articles and videos will surface that claim to expose a Christmas conspiracy. The piece will argue that, although Christians claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, in fact, that’s not the case at all. They then go on to make a number of claims in a quasi-conspiratorial tone. These articles and videos tend to repeat the same claims with the same mixture of out-of-context historical data and slippery argumentation to suggest that, somehow, Christmas is not really a Christian holiday at all. I think this conclusion is demonstrably false and even silly, and I’d like to explain why.

First, let’s establish the core claims at the heart of many of these videos and articles:

  1. We don’t actually know when Jesus was born, therefore December 25 isn’t really Jesus’s birthday.
  2. Other religious groups–e.g. those who worshiped Mithra–celebrated December 25 as a major feast. Christians chose this day in order to compete with such celebrations.
  3. Some Christians (e.g. Puritans) actively suppressed the celebration of Christmas, in part because it was often celebrated with lots of alcohol. This suggests that, for many, Christmas was more about partying and gifts than about religion.
  4. Many Christmas traditions–including the use of pine trees–have nothing to do with Jesus and come from pre-Christian European customs.

Now, each of the above claims has a solid historical fact behind it, and so, taken just as historical facts, there’s little to argue with. The problem is that people will take these well-established points and try to fashion a further argument from them: namely, that Christmas “isn’t really a Christian holiday at all.” This is the sticking point. People move from solid claims to a mangled conclusion through fallacious reasoning. I’d like to address each claim in turn and show that, although the historical kernel in each is solid, none suggest in any way that Christmas is somehow an illegitimate holiday or some kind of elaborate ecclesiastic conspiracy.

First claim: we don’t actually know Jesus’s birthday

Claim one begins with an undeniable truth: although the vast majority of historians and text-scholars interested in the subject agree that Jesus of Nazareth existed, we have no idea when he was born. So, December 25 could be Jesus’s birthday, but it seems no more likely than any other date. But to argue that this means that December 25 can’t be properly celebrated as Jesus’s birthday, or that this date could not become fixed as the day on which Jesus’s birthday ought to be celebrated, is fallacious.

To see why, consider this example: many Somali refugees share the same birthday on their government-issued documents: January 1. This puzzled me when I first noticed it, but after asking around, I learned that this date was assigned to these particular refugees because no one–not even the individuals themselves–knew when they were born. (Exactly why is a little unclear to me. It may be the case that Somali culture simply doesn’t stress celebrating birthdays, or it may be because so many Somalis were orphaned at a young age during the civil war(s) in that country, or some combination of these and other reasons.) January 1 was assigned as their date of birth for government documents simply for bureaucratic expediency.

Now, say that I wanted to throw a birthday party for three different Somali refugees, each of which had January 1 listed as their official date of birth. I could just throw one giant part on the first of the year, but this seems like a bad idea for a number of reasons: first, each man would not feel that he was being celebrated himself, he would have to share the day. Second, none of the men might feel that this date held any significance for them; indeed, throwing a party on this date might simply remind them of sad realities about their past. Third and perhaps most significantly, most Americans will have celebrated New Year’s Eve the night prior, and probably won’t be interested in attending a birthday party the next day.

What should I do? Here’s one solution: soccer is popular in Somalia. Let’s say that each man has a different favorite player: one loves Cristiano Ronaldo, another prefers Lionel Messi, the third is more old-school and thinks that no one has topped Pele. Perhaps we could have each man celebrate his birthday on the birthday of his favorite player: February 5, June 24, and October 23, respectively. That seems like a solution that will spread the birthdays out, let each man feel that the day has some real significance for him, and hopefully avoid conflicts with other major celebrations.

Of course, the likelihood that any of these men were actually born on their newly-adopted birth-dates is exceedingly low. But I doubt that anyone would arrive at the party and then loudly explain that today isn’t really Abdihahim’s birthday, because we don’t actually know when he was born. In fact, such a person would not only be rude, but also misguided: a birthday is not a celebration of a day, it’s a celebration of a person. The date of their birth is just a convenient day to set aside for this celebration.

Christmas, too, is the celebration not of a date, not of the particular angle at which the sun sits in the sky, but is rather a celebration of a person–in this case, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we Christians regard as the Messiah. Not knowing the date of his birth in no way prevents us from celebrating his birth and his life. December 25 is at least as good a day to choose as any other.

Second Claim: December 25 was a common pagan holiday

That December 25–or other days just before or after it–was a common day for a variety of religious celebrations in the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago is uncontroversial. The date may have been celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, and it seemed it was definitely set aside for the celebration of Sol Invictus. Some of these differing holidays may also have been conflated and combined by some syncretistic groups (Constantine himself worshiped both Jesus and Sol Invictus; he may also have conflated Jesus with Apollo). Furthermore, it seems likely that the Church chose December 25 precisely to compete, as it were, with these varying mystery religions and local cults. Again, this is all more-or-less well established historically. No argument here.

The question is: what significance does any of this have for contemporary Christians who celebrate Christmas on December 25? Some people seem to think that Christmas is not a legitimate Christian holiday because its date was chosen in the way that it was. But it is not at all clear why this would be the case. Again, since we don’t know Jesus’s actual birthday, December 25 is just as suitable as any other day. If Christians decided that this day made especially good sense as a day to celebrate Jesus’s birthday because it would allow them to party on the day when their pagan neighbors (and frequently, their pagan friends) partied, then, so what? It’s not at all clear what harm has been done here. Again, none of this has been hidden by the Church. Sometimes people will post memes about Mithra and Jesus as if they are disclosing some deeply hidden secret. One gets the sense that such people have read The DaVinci Code and confused its fiction for history.

The Christian church has a long-standing policy regarding human cultural practices: there are some–like, say, human sacrifice–that the Church definitely opposes, and so, if the faith is spreading to a community that practices human sacrifice, that practice must be opposed and ended. There are other cultural practices–like caring for the sick–that the Church actively agrees with, and so, if the faith were spread to a community that already valued caring for the sick, then the Church would probably simply amplify this existing practice. Meanwhile, there are a host of practices that the Church neither supports nor rejects. The attitude to such practices is to simply strip them of any offending element (say, the worship of a pagan deity), and then allow them to carry on otherwise as they did before. This point will come up again below when addressing the fourth claim, but let’s make it clear here: there is a lot of human culture that is simply neutral, as far as the Church is concerned. Having a party on December 25 is just such a cultural practice. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a thing people can do.

Now, one option for the Church would have been to simply insist that Christians who wanted to party on December 25 do so without engaging in any pagan religious practices. What the Church did instead was to start its own version of the December 25 party, and link it to Jesus’s birthday: a classic two birds and one stone scenario. Celebrating Jesus’s birthday was already something many Christians would have wanted to do; why not celebrate it on a day when people already party, and thereby strip away any religious elements that would have been problematic for church members?

This history to the celebration of Christmas doesn’t showcase some kind of conspiracy on the part of the early Church. Instead, we just see how pragmatic early Christians were. Any day could have been used to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, but December 25 made sense for the reasons listed above (and probably many others, such as its proximity to the winter solstice, and themes of the renewal of life in the darkest and coldest time of the year). Admitting all of this, though, does no harm to the contemporary practice of Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Having admitted this pragmatic genesis to the holiday, we Christians can certainly carry on celebrating it regardless. When Christians gather on Christmas Eve, we really are celebrating Jesus’s birth, despite the fact that December 25 probably isn’t his real birthday and despite the fact that December 25 was probably chosen for all kinds of pragmatic cultural reasons.

Third Claim: Christmas is about drinking and presents!

The third claim one will often hear as a critique of Christmas as a religious holiday is that many Christians–especially the Puritans–actively tried to suppress Christmas because it was often a day of drinking, idleness, raucous games and general laziness and fun. But those who take this historical fact and spin it into an argument against the legitimacy of Christmas are making at least two massive logical errors. First, they are conflating the practices of one very particular (and rather small) Christian group with the practices of Christianity as a whole. Yes, some Christians thought Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated (for a more contemporary example, see the Jehovah’s Witnesses) but most Christians have celebrated this holiday it since its inception. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, Lutherans–these groups have recognized the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord as an important holiday for centuries. Yet, many people in the US, at least, seem to think that because Puritans were against Christmas, all Christians were, at one time, opposed to it. But this is simply false.

Secondly, those who argue that because there was drinking and partying and laziness and games on Christmas, it wasn’t really a religious holiday are basically engaged in a continuation of the error outlined above: Puritans were definitely against drinking and laziness and fun, but most other Christians love those things. Jesus himself drank with prostitutes. In fact, those who seem to think that Christians should be scandalized by Christmas’s history as a day to drink and party only expose their own ignorance: feast days are, and always have been, days set aside especially for partying and drinking alcohol. As one of the principle feast days on the Christian calendar, of course Christians would have been drinking and having fun on Christmas. That’s the point!

Fourth Claim: Christmas traditions are really just pagan practices

The fourth and final claim made by those arguing that Christmas isn’t really a Christian holiday is that so many of the practices associated with Christmas–like decorating a pine tree–are linked with pre-Christian practices that have nothing to do with Jesus. Now, again, the core claim here is perfectly right: there’s nothing particularly Christian about pine trees or tinsel or long socks or mistletoe. But there’s also nothing un-Christian about them either. As I mentioned above, in the section on the second claim, the Church has had a long and very public policy of accepting cultural practices that are good or “neutral”. Decorating pine trees and hanging stockings and kissing under mistletoe are all, in and of themselves, perfectly fine things to do. So, as Germanic people converted to the Church, many of them retained such practices as a part of their Christmas celebration, because they were things that they did beforehand. And Church leaders….said that was just fine. So long as such practices were de-coupled from any worship of a pagan deity or other practice that the Church would have been opposed to, such cultural acts were seen as inoffensive and fine.

Again, this wasn’t some grand conspiracy to crush paganism or fool people. It was rather a completely pragmatic approach to dealing with diverse human cultures. Christianity itself has no fixed language, clothing, cultural practices, aesthetic preferences, etc. It is meant to be a universal faith that can integrate into the full diversity of human cultures. Of course, as mentioned above, at times Christian teachings will conflict with certain practices, and in that case, the Church has (or should have!) insisted that new Christians cease such practices. But the vast majority of human culture is neutral from a Christian theological viewpoint. How we dress, the shape of our houses, what kind of art or music we like–this is all up for individuals and communities to decide as they please.

So: Christmas trees are neither obligatory nor forbidden for Christians (and, of course, it’s worth pointing out that Christian communities not heavily influenced by Germanic culture celebrate Christmas without decorating pine trees. That so many in the English-speaking world seem to assume that all Christians engage in this cultural practice at Christmastime speaks to a broader and un-reflected upon ethnocentrism, even among people who likely think of themselves as worldly and tolerant…) Cultural practices associated with winter that have become attached to the celebration of Christmas among some Christian groups are just that: cultural practices. They are fine, but they are not essential to the celebration of Christmas as the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Now, all of that said, considering that so many of these practices are basically Christo-neutral certainly does mean that non-Christians can decorate trees and kiss under mistletoe. There’s nothing Christian or un-Christian about doing those things, and if people want to re-constitute the cult of Mithra or decorate a tree in celebration of the solstice, that wouldn’t bother me as a Christian one bit. Have at it! It is only once people start to argue that Christmas is somehow not a legitimate Christian holiday–simply because the celebration of Christmas has been fused with such cultural practices–that I have a problem. Such reasoning is fallacious and, to be honest, lazy.

Of course, there is a whole ‘nother article to be written on this subject pointed in the other direction: we Christians ought to be less worried about decorations and presents and festive music and more concerned to really discern what it means to celebrate Jesus’s birth. But considering the length of this post already, that point will have to wait for a future post. I hope that I have shown that many of the arguments made against Christmas as a Christian holiday are faulty ones. Though built on solid historical claims, such arguments use poor reasoning to arrive at false conclusions. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and an important one at that.

Making Sense of Freedom

freedom-sign“Freedom” is a word beloved by Americans, both left and right, liberal and conservative. No one in this country would ever explain their own political philosophy by saying, “basically, I’m against freedom.” Even those who wish to control others always present it as a mode of liberation. Everyone argues that they (and generally, they alone) are struggling against a sea of nefarious opponents to deliver true freedom to the world. But if that’s the case, why are we still struggling? If everyone agrees that freedom is good, the good, why haven’t we achieved it? If everyone is for freedom, then no one can be against it–so why is it always receding off into the distance?

And furthermore, isn’t this a rather strange situation, that everyone would agree–in word word, if rarely in deed–that freedom is the proper goal of all human political and economic activity? How is it that Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Marxists, and even Fascists all alike present their programs as struggles for freedom?

Perhaps this is only branding? That is: perhaps only one of these groups is really fighting for true freedom, but the other groups, having seen how popular it is, chose to parrot this in their PR? Even so, such a universal respect for something that so often seems controversial is still hard to explain. Everyone loves freedom, and everyone presents their opponents as the enemies of freedom. What’s going on here?

Considering how many different political groups all champion freedom, it isn’t surprising to find that they each understand the concept somewhat differently. What is surprising is how much continuity there nonetheless is between these various understandings of human freedom. Such a curious situation demands further attention, yet our enthusiasm for freedom has tended to result in less, not more, intellectual scrutiny towards the concept: when everyone agrees about something, it’s not likely to get discussed much. How often do we ramble on and on about how important breathing is?

The fact that these contradictions about freedom simultaneously sit right at the apex of our political culture and yet are simultaneously almost never explored suggests that ideology is at work here. Though in common English, the word “ideology” is generally synonymous with “a system of political and economic ideas”, in certain corners of the social sciences, the word has taken on a more technical meaning. In this sense, an ideology is an existent social system–that is to say, it’s not just a set of ideas, but is actually the social structure that truly pertains in the present–that actively seeks to obscure itself. Ideologies are social systems that maintain their dominance, at least in part, by hiding from plain view.

This may seem odd, but an example can flesh this out. Perhaps that most obvious and oft-repeated one is the claim by defenders of laissez-faire economics that unfettered capitalism is the natural method of allocating scarce resources. Note that word, “natural”. Using this word makes this particular politico-economic system seem to be the given state of affairs–as if if no one chose it, no one in particular benefits from it, and as if no alternatives are really possible. Presenting the current social structure as “natural” is an effective rhetorical tactic. Anyone who argues against such a structure can easily be denounced as uneducated, unrealistic, or immature. Once a given social system is presented–and received by the public–as “natural”, it becomes much harder to challenge. After all, how many political movements oppose gravity? If a system can present itself as inevitable as gravity, it will be nearly impossible to displace.

This is how ideologies function. They press certain contingent social structures onto populations, and then cover their own tracks, convincing a majority of the people living under them that they are natural, irreversible, absolute. And, of course, it’s not only defenders of capitalism that are guilty of this maneuver. Most Marxists argue that only they have a political program developed from an objective understanding of the science of human history; likewise, many religious institutions try to claim that only their view of spirituality reflects human, natural, and divine realities as they truly are.

But what does any of this have to do with the ubiquity–and simultaneous vagueness–of the word “freedom” in western political discourse?

Broadly speaking, especially in the West, “freedom” always has two aspects: it is freedom of the individual, and it is negative freedom. To say that we westerners celebrate “negative” freedom is just to say that we understand freedom as freedom from other people. Freedom of religion means that others can neither prevent nor require my religious practice. Likewise, freedom of speech means that the state may not prevent me from speaking my mind. And this leads to the other aspect: such freedom is always of the individual: it is the individual who can be free, it is the individual who strives to be free. Individuals strive to be free of the state, of natural events, and of other individuals.

One can characterize this understanding of freedom as ideological because it forecloses on other possible understandings of freedom without ever even alluding to the fact that such alternate view of freedom are even possible. During the Cold War, however, Eastern Bloc states made a point of arguing for a “positive” conception of freedom: freedom to certain things, rather than only freedom from certain people or institutions: freedom to work, freedom to health care, freedom to meaningful social interaction, etc.

This critique of a purely negative conception of freedom is therefore not unheard of, even if it is rare in the west and, indeed, utterly absent in any mainstream political discourse. But the second dimension of the ideology of freedom–that freedom is always freedom of the individual, generally receives less attention. Again, “orthodox” Marxist theory has generally critiqued this assumption as well, though perhaps less consistently, and certainly less successfully. By and large, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, most western Marxists have attempted to cast themselves in language that is more friendly to liberal conceptions of freedom (that is, the one we have been discussing above). In fact, this “softer” Marxism runs back into the pre-World War II days, when some intellectual Marxists attempted to present a more humanistic approach to Marxist theory (e.g. Walter Benjamin).

So even the primary pole of opposition to liberal capitalist hegemony has had a hard time sustaining the idea of freedom outside the confines of the individual. And the fact that this dimension of the ideology of freedom has been harder to name and counter makes a lot of sense–opposing a purely negative conception of freedom is easy to do because modern people understand the need for things like work, medical care, and education, and so the idea that freedom could be “for” as much as “from” is easy to grasp, even if it ends up having little actual political traction. But individualism is a much harder nut to crack. The very way in which most modern people understand themselves is through the lens of individuality. We see ourselves, separate people, as the subjects and agents of existence. This extends well beyond the realm of politics. In our romantic lives, in our spiritual lives, in our day-to-day activities, western culture is, through and through, a culture of individual experience and identity. The watchword of the 21st century is, I think, “authenticity”. Authenticity, not to one’s region, or ethnicity, or history, or religion–but to self.

Political projects are understood to be good or bad to the extent that they maximize the potential for individuals to act authentically. But is this the only way to characterize freedom? Is it possible to have a conception of freedom that is social, rather than individual? Of course, the idea of freedom for certain groups is not new–nationalists constantly decry the restrictions on their nations–but this attitude towards freedom is still fundamentally anti-social; that is to say: zero sum. One nation’s freedom necessarily means the loss of rights, property, or power on the part of some other nation.

A truly social understanding of freedom would seek to create social institutions that free people for one another, not just from one another. Such an understanding of freedom would be much harder to articulate than those who have argued for a positive understanding of freedom alongside the negative, because it would require a completely new mode of subjectivity–we would have to know ourselves, and each other, in a new and different way, because the very way in which we understand self and other today already has inscribed in it the zero sum competition of individual against individual. The possibility of freedom with one another has already been foreclosed upon by the reality of our social relations. Only able to witness, and imagine, freedom from one another, we reproduce these social relations in our constant struggle to achieve more freedom for ourselves at the expense of others. We can’t imagine being anyone other than who we are–even if  who we are now is profoundly unfree.


What exactly this kind of social, rather than individual, freedom could mean is not–and, I think, at this time, cannot–be clear. And this is precisely because any change in the understanding of freedom (since this concept is so essential to the very way we understand ourselves, our identities, and the societies in which we live) would result in a completely different way of thinking. At this stage, I think it is only possible to discuss the limits of the current structure of our subjectivity, to continue to whittle away at its foundations. The answer is still well over the horizon–but we can ask the question today.

An example will be illustrative. When it comes to discussions of racial justice, many on the progressive Left are fond of saying that white supremacy is bad for white people as well as for people of color, and that therefore the struggle for racial justice is something that everyone should be able to get behind. Whatever one thinks about the factuality of this claim, it’s clear that the goal of this kind of rhetoric is to produce and maintain a sense of solidarity–that term so much-beloved (and oft-over-used) by leftists. To the extent, the thinking goes, that we can get white people to believe that anti-racist agitation, legislation, and direct action is good for them as well as for their non-white neighbors, we reduce the obstacles to achieving racial justice.

So far as it goes, of course, this makes sense. But there’s a problem: what if many white people realize that anti-racism won’t always benefit them, or that it will benefit them in some ways while harming them in others? Or that it will benefit them in the long-term, but not in the short-term? The problem is that this claim about the universal benefits of racial justice stumbles over the gritty details of our actual social existence. It would be ridiculous to deny that at least some white people benefit some of the time in concrete ways from white supremacy. Indeed, that’s the whole point of deploying the term “white privilege”: white supremacy gives white people real and desired advantages. So which is it? Is white supremacy ultimately a social structure that gives real, material advantage to white people? Or is it an obstacle to the welfare of all people–including white people–and therefore something that we can easily develop solidarity in resistance to?

Of course, I have oversimplified the reality of white supremacy as an existent social structure. The fact of the matter is that some white people benefit far more from others, and that white people in general both benefit in some ways and pay in others. It’s not possible to easily quantify the cost/benefit impact of white supremacy on white people in general or even on specific white individuals. This is especially true for white working-class people, for whom white supremacy provides both benefits–more likelihood of being hired, generally higher wages, much less chance of violence from police, etc.–but also real costs, since a working class divided by race will generate–and very clearly has generated–lower wages, fewer benefits, and less occupational security for all working people as a whole. And of course, this is the perverse genius of racism’s appeal to white workers in the US: it both acts to discipline and impoverish them while simultaneously drafting them to uphold, through political violence against their fellow workers (of color), the very system that limits their political possibilities.

Considering the complex nature of the situation makes it clear that, whatever we would like to believe, simply stating that racism hurts white people and therefore white people should be eager to combat it is imprecise at best, and disingenuous at worst. A more honest call to racial justice would take a different course, especially if one were speaking to middle-class or upper-class whites, whose benefiting from white supremacy is almost completely unalloyed by class costs: “white supremacy helps you, but you should resist it anyway.”

But there is an obvious question that they would raise here: “why should I?” And here our survey of the concept of freedom above is essential. To the extent that we understood the only proper goal of a socio-political system to increase the autonomy of individuals to act in their own interest–so long as this is what we mean by “freedom”–it’s clearly nonsensical to call on (especially middle- and upper-class)  white people to resist white supremacy. They are clearly, and materially, benefiting from the structures of racism. And it must be noted that while poor and working-class whites may actually be able to benefit more clearly from an end to white supremacy in some ways, many of them nonetheless identify so strongly with the accepted notion of freedom that they will respond to calls for racial justice as if they were solidly middle-class: the American “poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires“.  If politics is nothing more than the competition of individuals to maximize their own autonomy and access to property, why would any white individual choose to dismantle such an effective tool as white supremacy?

It is this question, I think, that can function as  crowbar at the site of the contradictions that must be explored here. Most Americans seem to want to both understand themselves as individual political actors and cherish their individual freedom to live their lives unfettered by others but also want to see themselves as moral beings who act in ethically consistent ways. But these two visions of human life are mutually exclusive. To the extent that one believes individual humans to have an absolute right to individual freedom, one cannot maintain the idea that humans might have an ethical responsibility to care for one another. One could, of course, choose, as an individual, to try and live up to some set of moral standards for a more or less arbitrary reason, but such a moral ethics would have no social, political, or philosophical force behind it. It would be a lifestyle choice, not a call to justice.

So, for progressives, leftists, and radicals, which is it? Do we understand ourselves primarily as individuals seeking unfettered freedom of action? If so, it’s hard to see how we can avoid endorsing a more-or-less libertarian view of government action, even if we adopt socially liberal attitudes towards sexuality, drug use, and entertainment along with our laissez-faire economics. Or, do we find ourselves committed to a set of ethical claims about our responsibility to care for each other? In this case, we have a strong intellectual basis in arguing for a more-or-less socialist mode of government, in which individuals sacrifice some degree of arbitrary autonomy in order to create a more just and more equitable society.

If we choose this latter option, though, we will need to think long and hard about what we mean when we say we are fighting for freedom, since the meaning that that word generally has in most of its contemporary uses will, I hope to have shown above, no longer be consistent with our political vision. This is not to say that Freedom and Justice are somehow mutually exclusive in an absolute sense, but rather that this particular understanding of freedom–which is the dominant and default one–is not consistent with our understanding of, and commitments to, social and economic justice. I think there can be a fruitful and mutually-reinforcing intersection of these two ideas as they inform our political and social vision of the future–but I don’t think we’ve arrived at that intersection yet. Instead, we find often find ourselves trying to talk out of both sides of our mouths, as discussed above in reference to leftist discourse around white supremacy.

If we honestly believe that combating white supremacy will materially harm at least some white people (and indeed, all white people in at least some ways for at least some period of time) we should be honest about this and then still call for whites to fight for justice. But this will involve developing a political discourse that sees freedom as one good among many others, rather than the absolute and only political good. The difficulty is that, as I have suggested throughout this essay, most of the time, American political discourse has functioned according to a freedom-first or indeed freedom-only paradigm. All of this is to say that if we want to organize people around social and economic justice, we cannot simply try to insert our content into the form of political discourse that currently exists. If I may be allowed a short Biblical reference: we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Our politics is not just a variation of liberal democracy. We are not proposing some tweaks of and tinkering to capitalism. We are calling for a radically different mode of social, political, and economic organization. We are calling not just for some new political content, but wholly new forms of political life. For a completely different way for individuals to relate to one another. We cannot pretend that such a radical vision can be communicated with the political terms and assumptions of the very system we find so problematic–and yet, generally speaking, this is what we do.

This means that struggling against capitalism will mean imagining a different way not only of working, voting, and allocating resources, but a different way of thinking and indeed of existing as social creatures. Above all else, we need a completely new discourse, a new set of fundamental political terms to build our discussions on. The trouble is that the left in the US seems, more often than not, to simply try and radicalize the terms and assumptions of centrist liberalism, as if one can accept the need for socialism if one simply reads Paul Krugman, and then multiplies his position by ten. But this just isn’t the case. The very basis for what constitutes good and just governance for liberals is completely different than for socialists.

Part of what this means is that we need to be as focused on “theory” as on “action” (though dividing these two things as if they are not mutually interdependent is itself, I think, a faulty mode of thinking). Imagination must be seen as a critical political tool. We have to be able to imagine different ways of living together before we can be expected to work towards them; we cannot arrive at our destination if we have no idea where we are going. Much of what passes for “radical” thought today is, I think, little more than metastasized liberalism. Calls for “social justice” too often simply mask attempts to gain leverage within the structures of capitalist decision-making, rather than attempts to dismantle this system. We have to recognize the limits not only of the outcomes of the systems we are struggling against, but also the conceptual and linguistic foundations upon which those systems are built.

As I admitted above, I will not pretend to have any idea of exactly what structures of thought can replace those which we are struggling to break free from. Many leftists will attempt to build upon the work of Marxist thought; religious progressives and radicals may prefer to build on their own spiritual traditions for clues on how to build new modes of subjectivity. Anarchists and syndicalists will doubtless offer their own critiques (though the essential dimension of individual freedom for this lineage of radical thought must, I think, be admitted and addressed). I don’t have the answer, but I am convinced that we must incessantly, loudly, and seriously ask these questions about the very foundations of our political ethics if we want to have any idea of how to move forward.

How vs. Why: Tension in the Means and Ends of the Church

HTBromptonRelevant Magazine’s most recent issue has a short article by James Dwyer on Holy Trinity Brompton, a parish in the Church of England which the piece celebrates for its innovative engagement with contemporary culture. At a time, Dwyer stresses, that the CoE’s membership is collapsing, Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB”)is showing massive growth, not only of its principle parish, but also of additional “centres” (what I think would traditionally be called parish missions) around London. Dwyer chalks this success up to Brompton’s vicar, Nicky Gumbel, who critiques the “classical music” model of traditional Anglicanism and advocates for liturgy, formation, and fellowship modeled instead on contemporary culture.

Now, on the face of it, I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this. The idea that the kerygma must be translated, as it were, into new cultural forms is as old as the Church itself; Paul struggled to faithfully convey the radical perspective of this new Jewish sect to his Gentile converts. But, as with most things in life, the devil is in the details. What are we talking about when we talk about “culture”, anyway? It’s such a broad term, and it can cover things as seemingly innocuous as contemporary slang and fashion, to weightier issues like consumerism. Which elements of culture, exactly, is Rev. Gumbel interested in being “in sync” with–and are there any elements of contemporary culture he is not willing to compromise with? These are really the essential questions, but, disappointingly, Dwyer does not press them.

And there are deeper questions still, questions which do not even come up over the horizon of this article. Fundamentally, what do we think the Church is really about, anyway? The driving assumption of this piece is, as far as I can see, that the goal of the Church is simply to get more members, more butts in pews, higher Average Sunday Attendance. HTB is celebrated by Dwyer because it succeeds at getting people to come into church on a regular basis in a country where Christianity is in major decline. That seems to be the only criterion for success here. More traditional parishes are dismissed because their membership is falling, while Gumbel’s work is presented as self-evidently wonderful because he built it, and people are coming.

Now, doubtlessly, the Church can achieve nothing if it has no members; indeed, the Church just is the community of its members. So there really can’t be any disagreement that for the Church as a whole and for specific denominations and congregations to be around in the first place, they have to find ways to gain and retain membership. But we have to be aware of “mission creep”–having our means slowly come to be seen as our ends. Gaining and maintaining members is only worthwhile if those members–all of us–actually take Christian discipleship seriously. Simply going to Church and describing oneself as a Christian is the first, not the last, step of our faith. The question is whether our parishes are inviting and challenging people with the full force of the Gospel.

Now, again, the Gospel is not tied to any particular kind of music, or architecture, or type of vestments. Innovation and change in these matters has been the norm, not the exception. That said, we must not ignore issues on which the Church and our culture more broadly are in real conflict. To the extent that Gumbel is suggesting more or less superficial changes to our liturgy or our PR, I don’t see anything particular objectionable about this. But my guess is that being “in sync” with contemporary culture ultimately involves more than this. Note, for example, that Christian formation shifts, in his “Alpha” educational program, to “down-to-earth conversations about Jesus and faith, not just theology”. It’s not clear exactly what this means (and I am not familiar with these educational materials), but this sounds like an attempt to sideline perhaps serious questions of faith and commitment in order to make the Gospel more digestible–less challenging, less radical, less imposing. As I have suggested before, I think this is the opposite of what we should be doing. The Church should be challenging central elements of our culture, like hyper-individualism and the logic of capitalism. Are we likely to do this if our primary concern is being “in sync” with the culture (it must, of course, be admitted that more traditional-looking and -acting parishes do no better on this score–but this only deepens, rather than mitigating, the problem!)

Central to my concern here is the point that our means and our ends are not easily decoupled. We tend to think in a disconnected way about our methods and our goals, but in fact, frequently, certain goals just can’t be achieved by certain methods. If we begin by insisting that contemporary society requires a certain set of means or methods before we lock down exactly what our goals are, we are liable to lose track of what it is we thought we were up to, and move into a habit of focusing on just continuing our methods, as if the indefinite extension of those methods was our goal all along.

Indeed, at times, the logic of our methods is actually not just less-than-ideal to achieving our goals, but is rather totally counter to them. And all the hand-wringing about declining membership, I think, shows this with extreme clarity. If, at its core, the Church is about announcing both the bad news that human society is horribly disfigured by sin and the Good News that God has acted, and is acting, decisively to heal that disfiguration, then we should be suspicious of methods of growing the Church that demand that the Church shape itself around contemporary culture, itself part of the larger world disfigured by sin. In other words: the Church was inaugurated to challenge much of human culture. When we become more focused on how to model ourselves on the culture around us rather than challenging it, we lose our focus on the actual goal of the Body of Christ.

This, as I said above, is most decidedly not a new problem. We see it witnessed to in Scripture, in the earliest theological texts of the sub-Apostolic era (e.g. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus), all the way up through the medieval and modern periods as well. Richard H. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is often pointed to as a seminal text in studying these matters, but he was simply providing an updated look at the issue, not inaugurating a new field of study.

And it must be admitted that much of what more traditionalist Christians are defending against cultural innovation is just older cultural innovation. The music we find “traditional” today was new a few centuries ago; the early Church had no pipe organs or sheet music. The habit of kneeling to pray is only common in the western Church, and became so only in the medieval period (previously, standing was the norm, with occasional acts of full prostration generally reserved for particular kinds of prayer, especially penitential acts). The vestments common in the western Church were borrowed, more or less, from the Roman Senate. So Gumbel and others would be completely correct in saying that we should be ready to change much of this. I would certainly agree.

But we have to be on guard against allowing the logic behind making those sorts of changes replicating and expanding itself into our thinking about other matters. That’s not to say that more fundamental changes in liturgy or theology should never be made; such a position is simply a fetishization (one might even say idolization) of the past. But changes to our core beliefs must never be made simply to get more butts in the pews. Once we are willing to change core principles simply to try and keep the Church alive, we know that it’s definitely about to die.

For example, over the last 50 years many Christians–myself included–have embraced the ordination of women and the welcoming of LGBTQ Christians with full equality in the Church. But if I thought the only reason for doing so was to keep the Church up to contemporary cultural attitudes and membership up, I would be deeply worried. Instead, I would argue that Christians with “progressive” attitudes on these issues are actually just the very Christians who are most willing to be challenged by the Holy Spirit and the radical witness of Scripture. Sexism and heteronormativity, in other words, were actually cultural constructs which the Church adopted precisely in order to be accepted by the culture around it (the argument for this claim would obviously take up much more space than I have here; lots of work, historical, textual, and theological, has been done on this. A good place to start might be to read, say, Galatians and then either of the Epistles to Timothy –probably written much later–and note the tension between them).

That is to say: much of both our traditions and  our innovations are actually just hypostatized ideas about our means rather than our goals. We absolutely should be wiling to discard “traditions” that are at tension with the radical message of the Gospel–but we must be just as wary of innovations that are in the same tension. The truth of the matter is that the Christian faith has no business being popular. We worship a God whose Word became incarnate in a man who was tortured and killed by the state, whose friends abandoned him after spending years completely misunderstanding his message. Apart from a few poor people, he was not popular during his lifetime, and the Church took the better part of a century to grow to about 10,000 members. We preach a stumbling block, a millstone around the neck. Our Lord calls us to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and take up a Cross–a torture-device. When we baptize our children, we wash them in the death of Jesus. We announce that our only hope comes through the mystery of death.

basilSocialJusticeNone of this is calculated to be popular or easy to accept. So any church that is growing at a phenomenal rate is likely doing so precisely because it is refusing to really be honest about what Jesus taught and teaches, what kind of life Christian discipleship really is. Instead of focusing on getting more butts in the pews, we should be worried about whether we ourselves are really living as faithful witnesses of our radical, incredible, and, let’s admit it, scary faith. We are promised not a pie in the sky, but division, and fire, and strife–because our social, economic, political, and cultural structures feed on exploitation, misery, ignorance, and hatred. Our goal is to fight these structures, to do the work God has called us to in the abandoned vineyard–and yes, to welcome more workers into the vineyard. But that’s just it–we should only rejoice if someone has really committed to that work. If our churches are full of people who say “Lord, Lord”, but do not keep Jesus’s commandments, who do not feed the hungry and visit prisoners and challenge the Ruler of this world, then what have we done, exactly?

Indeed, we should be asking ourselves how many people already in church–very much including ourselves and this writer–are actually living the Gospel. Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about getting more people into the church, and more time worrying about whether the Church really is doing the work its Head calls it to do. And indeed, if we actually lived, publicly and privately, the way Christ calls us to, I imagine that people really interested in a deep life of commitment–and not just feel-good spirituality–would take notice. Before we evangelize, let’s make sure we know what the Good News we are trying to spread actually is.

All of this is to say, not that everything that HTB is doing is somehow wrong (all I know about this particular parish I have gleaned from the rather slim article introduced at the beginning of this post), but rather that I think that those eager to celebrate this approach to ministry are asking the wrong questions, worried more about our social media presence than about whether the Church is really living the radicalness of the Gospel. I fear that so much of the innovation many contemporary ministers are interested in is really just like decorating a funeral home with bright balloons and playing up-beat music in the entryway. We are welcoming people to a corpse, but spending all of our time on the welcome, instead of trying to resuscitate the body.

Church Versus Culture or Church With the Culture?

individualism71315Jason Evans penned a short piece over at his blog making a crucial point clear: the Church is not “special”, some kind of holy elect who can do no wrong. We have much to learn from non-Christians, whether from other religious traditions, secular political movements, or new scientific research. For more politically progressive Christians, this is an obvious point; those of us who are strong advocates for, say, women’s ordination or equality for LGBTQ Christians will be quick to point out that in many ways, progress on these issues resulted, at least in part, from the willingness of Christians to listen to arguments from outside the Church.

Of course, theologically, this could be restated as: the Spirit moves and speaks where it will. The Spirit hopefully speaks in and through the Church, but can just as easily speak elsewhere. And to this pneumatological point one might add an ecclesiological one: the Church is, as Cyprian of Carthage said, a “hospital for sick souls”. The only requirement for membership is recognition of one’s being caught up in sin. We are Christians because we recognize our desperate need to be renewed–not because we already have all the answers.

And there is no doubt that this is a message that needs repeating. We Christians do have a long history of Church-exceptionalism, thinking that only what comes from within our walls could possibly be worth listening to. Jason’s reminder is the kind of thing one might feel more ‘conservative’ Christians need to hear. (It should be pointed out here how vague this term ‘conservative’ is: political, cultural, religious, and fiscal conservatism are, for example, all quite distinct, and one could be conservative in one field and yet not in another. Nonetheless, lacking any more suitable term, I will use this one here, though one should keep in mind its vagueness throughout this piece.) Such Christians are much more likely, for example, to question evolution, forbid their children from listening to secular music, adopt less-compromising attitudes towards Scriptural interpretation, etc. If I am taking Jason’s point correctly, he is simply reminding such Christians of a basic theology of creation: God created us and everything else to be good. No matter how far we and others hae fallen, we should never forget that Truth can arise from anyplace whatsoever. Let’s not forget that it was the Assyrians of Ninevah and not the pious Israelites who heeded Jonah’s warning.

As far as all of this goes, I agree whole-heartedly with Jason’s point. But I also think we have to actually make the same sort of criticism in the opposite direction. Just as more ‘conservative’ Christians need this reminder that Truth may appear outside the boundaries of the Church, I think it should be said that more ‘liberal’ Christians need to be reminded of the ways in which Christian discipleship may demand confrontation with the culture around them. (And again, all the same caveats made above must also be made about this term ‘liberal’.) Just as there are undoubtedly situations in which the Church must be prepared to hear wisdom from non-Christian sources, there are also times in which we must be prepared to hold the line on our values and speak prophetically against problems we see in our culture.

Of course, precisely which issues require which response is itself a controversial matter. The point I want to make here is more formal and structural, rather than to advise compromise or confrontation on any specific issue. Indeed, though, I think it is precisely on structural issues that we Christians perhaps need to be most confrontational.

We humans tend to think that the structure of our thought and language just is what it is, and just reflects what is, more or less exactly and clearly. It’s very hard for us to imagine thinking about things in a completely different way. Examples of this are hard to come by, precisely because of the very issue itself: how does one think about thinking about things differently? One has to use the very structures of thought one wants to reflect on in the very reflection. How does a nearly-blind person inspect her own glasses?

Modern American Christians are, of course, modern and American just as much as they are Christian. We participate in, and are formed by, the cultural, political, social, and economic structures of the broader society. While we should absolutely be prepared to learn hard lessons from that society, we also need to reflect on it critically. Are there assumptions about humanity that our society accepts and promulgates uncritically? Are any of these assumptions at odds with Christian perspectives? I certainly think so. The best example is one that desperately needs more serious discussion, but which is increasingly hard to discuss precisely because it is so often treated without sufficient critical rigor: consumerist individualism.

Now, if your eyes are already rolling–“not another blog thinkpiece about consumerism!”–I can understand. Attacks on consumerism are now commonplace shibboleths in our culture, to the point that they seem drained of all importance. But I think this is precisely because such critiques themselves continue to operate out of the very perspective they seek to criticize, which is one reason I refer to ‘consumerist individualism’ rather than simply consumerism.

Frequently, consumerism is presented as a danger to an authentic individualism: consumerism is bad because, in consumerism, individuals are made to express themselves through the purchase of mass-manufactured items rather than expressing themselves through some other, presumably more legitimate, means. But this dodges the deeper issue, which is: what do we think we are talking about when we talk about individual identity in the first place?

This may seem like an odd question precisely because the idea that particular human beings have a more-or-less set identity–as well as the idea that being able to live that identity without interruption is the definition of a good society–are bedrock, fundamental principles of American political, social, and economic thought. This is well evidenced, I think, by the fact that both self-identified conservatives and liberals are likely to completely agree with the above statements, even if they tend to differ on which elements of identity are most important and on when compromise of self-interest is or is not valid. Individualism is ultimately a subterranean feature not only of our political system, but of our social culture and even our own ideas about our selves: we form an image of ourselves based on the way we are taught to think about ourselves–which, in our culture, is as individuals.

Beginning with the individual as the operative unit of political, social, and economic activity has a massive array of consequences, of which a specific few are I think crucial to note. Firstly, thinking of ourselves in this way first means that we think of society as something that individuals make. This is abundantly clear in Rousseau’s myth of the social contract, and is also clearly in play in the way we think of constitutional forms of government: people come together and agree to certain rules.

And this leads to the second major consequence: the assumption is that “self-interest is the proper goal of all human action“. A just society, from this perspective, is that society that allows individuals to act on their own interest without obstruction or interruption. Of course, compromises can be made on this through legislation of certain rules that everyone, or at least a majority, agree to. But the baseline assumption is that the goal is to allow for maximum individual autonomy, all other things being equal.

Thirdly and finally, what it means to be an individual here is basically to be either a property-owner or at least a potential property-owner. If the individual is defined by autonomy, and never by any social context, then no religion, nationality, ethnicity, family or culture can be defining terms of a particular human being. Since any such attribute is either changeable (e.g. religious conversion) or rendered abstract and meaningless (e.g. the relative unimportance of nationality in the identities of most natural-born US citizens) by choice, it is only the choices one makes relative to property ownership that ultimately really display the identity of the individual. Indeed, each of these other possible identities is viewed as just this–property. One can choose how, and whether, to present one’s ethnic or religious identity, and treat it more like clothing worn for reasons of fashion rather than a context which actually helped to determine the identity of the individual in the first place.

It’s worth noting that most contemporary Westerners, especially in the English-speaking world, seem to take these positions as facts, rather than as cultural interpretations. And when one points out that, for example, Chinese Confucian social theory has a radically different take on human identity, or even that Western Europe had very different views on it before the 17th century, this is generally seen only as evidence of the great progress that has been made. That is, we almost always perceive our own cultural and political structures as obviously true and right, and as either the default for any discussion of politics or anthropology, or at least as the high-water mark of human culture.

Now, at this point, we could descend into any number of discussions–on ethnography, for example, discussing the vast variety of human cultures, or on political ethics, perhaps discussing the virtues of these political and cultural structures. There is material enough for books upon books in this rich vein of possible topics. But I want to get back to the original discussion, on the Church’s response to non-Christian culture, philosophy, and achievements.

I want to suggest that though, as I said above, I strongly agree that we Christians must always be prepared to recognize truth when it is spoken, regardless of the source, we also must be critical of the larger culture which forms both our own communities as well as those outside the Church. And, more specifically, I think we must begin to consistently critique the assumptions of what I have outlined above as consumerist individualism. For one thing, as Christians, we simply cannot accept the claim that the ideal society is one where each individual simply pursues his or her own self-interest. Indeed, we should be clear that such a society would often be little more than an expression of our human sinfulness. Christ teaches us that it is love for others, and not the sating of self-interest, that is the mark of a just society.

And in admitting our sinfulness, we are also admitting that our very identities have been formed by political, social, cultural, and economic forces which manifest the rebellion against God’s love which is the problem Christ came to solve. This means accepting two things that the culture of consumerist individualism treats as heresy: first, we do not have identities which arrived out of the ether, some sacrosanct personality which exists apart from the world. Our personalities are not really ours at all: we are the complex structure(s) that result from our biology, our environment, our parents, our peers, and our educators. The society which we claim ownership of, in fact, actually shaped us into who we are. We define our individual uniqueness over and against the very set of factors which generated that unique identity.

Second, much of what makes us who we are are features that are, well, bad. I am often lazy and judgmental. This really is a part of my identity. But these are not features to be celebrated! Rather, they are marks of the ways in which I, and the world at large, has not developed into what God has created me, and the whole of existence, to be. So long as I hold onto the idea of a sacrosanct “I”, I will be blind to the depth of the ways in which I am not who God has made me to be. Which is to say: for the Christian, our true identity is a goal to be worked towards, not some inner and inherent possession.

All of this is ultimately a long and drawn-out, but I hope not useless, way of saying that the Church needs to be prepared to confront elements of our society that are problematic, elements that work against the mission that Christ sends us forth to. At times, we may find that it is actually us, the Church itself, that is the biggest impediment to Christ’s work. Other times, however, we may find that we must speak a prophetic word to secular thought. And in still other times, we may find that we and secular folks alike share a set of tragic assumptions which prevent us from speaking the Truth and working love. So I agree with Jason that it is important to remember that we Christians have much to learn from others. But I hope we also remember that at times, we may really have a unique and necessary truth to proclaim.

The two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, so long as we remember that we live in a complex world. But I think we nonetheless need to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, the Church’s mission is not just to get by, reproducing its structure generation after generation in human cultures. God has and is acting to renew creation, to complete a work undone by sin. And that means that at our root, the Church must be ready to challenge the structures that keep us blind to the truth and unwilling to love in fullness.