If you walk into just about any chain bookstore in this nation and stroll to the “religion” section, you’ll find some Bibles and commentaries but you’ll also find volume after volume of new-age froth, including a title of striking redundancy: “Spiritualism for Dummies.”
We in the United States have shaved religion down to “spiritualism,” which is shorthand for “wistful emptiness.” Spiritualism is the latest attempt to transform man into a god. It asks nothing, demands nothing and means nothing. It reaches out to lost souls by acknowledging some central, disturbing facts that we’re lust-laced thinking beings living on a dust mote of a planet, painfully aware of death’s ubiquity and desperate to discover the meaning of things. But then it maroons us in a sea of august verbiage.
Spiritualism insists that we are unguided and feral, propelled by urges that can’t satisfy our cravings; doomed to mistaking resignation for contentment. Its animating force is as impersonal, distant and chilly as an aurora borealis. So is its creed: It talks not about how we ought to treat others, but how we should become therapists to ourselves.
Such idiocy explains why we have Christmas. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, suggests that life’s meaning issues not from a wispy emanation, but from a living God. But unlike its religious cousins, it adds an audacious wrinkle. Jesus is the only great religious figure ever to claim that he was not just sent by God, inspired by God or used as God’s stenographer, but was in fact God.
So was he? This is the key question. It won’t do to venerate him as a saintly guy with a penchant for performing miracles. Jesus insisted that we make a choice: acknowledge him as God in which case, his gospel teaches us profound, difficult and comforting things about reality or dismiss him as a lunatic who deserved crucifixion. Christianity is the easiest of all religions to dismiss because it offers no middle ground: Either Jesus was God or a charlatan.
This accounts for the astonishing power of Christmas. Christians commemorate the appearance on Earth of the universe’s very Creator, followed by execution and resurrection. The story is straightforward, but it beggars the imagination. As C.S. Lewis noted, the narrative produced by church fathers was unlike anything that had ever appeared on Earth notable not merely for the artistry of its parables, but the specificity of its account.
The Bible doesn’t resort to “spirits” that let us play god; it introduces God, the father, the maker of heaven and Earth of all that is, seen and unseen. It pelts us with commandments to love one another, to pay special attention to the poor and infirm, to worship God rather than oneself. It supplies practical advice. It illustrates the power of faith.
That is what many of us celebrate now. We all know, somewhere in our heart of hearts, that we didn’t pop into this world randomly. Everything we have learned of our world and the worlds around us teaches us that actions incline toward a purpose and the universe follows simple, elegant and powerful laws.
Everything, that is, but human history. People excel in stupidity and cupidity. As we mature, our illusions pop like soap bubbles. We see good men suffer and bad men earn fortune and praise. It is difficult to make sense of the world and tougher yet not to become bitter. Only religion confronts us with stark requirements shalt nots and Golden Rules that gratify our need for direction. It tells us not merely that a mountaintop exists, but that one may find reliable guides to get there.
For many, the path to the peak begins in Bethlehem, where beasts of burden yowled as a baby greeted the world. In time, that baby would deliver a revolutionary message about the superiority of love over power, faith over pride, charity over affluence and hope over despair.
We keep that message alive in a host of ways. We buy presents, jam into malls, hop into cars to visit people we love. We sing carols and perform good deeds. In short, we participate in a continuing miracle: After 2,000 years, hundreds of millions of people prefer the hard morals of the Bible to the facile crooning of the spiritualists; still see God in the faces of an infant born two millenniums ago and a poor man seeking a warm meal today; still swell with joy each year not because Jesus was, but because Jesus is.
Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.