Monday, December 21, 2009

Sermon: “Nativity & Naïveté” (Delivered 12-20-09)

Bah humbug! I am so tired of the Christmas story. I don’t believe in the virgin, or the star, or the angels. And Jesus was not born on December 25th. He was probably born in April or something but the early Church moved the date to December so that Christianity would have a festival to compete with the pagan feast of Saturnalia. The authors of the gospels added in all those details to make the story fit with a bunch of prophetic scriptures that predicted the coming of the Messiah. It is all one big hoax. Bah humbug.

And “bah humbug” to Hanukkah too! So the lamps stayed lit in the temple for eight days. I know one thing. When the needle on my dashboard points to empty, I can squeeze in one more day of driving, not eight. That’s just the way it is. Bah humbug!

Solstice? Don’t even get me started on Solstice! The days get shorter. Then the days get longer. It is called astronomy, people. The weather gets colder. The weather gets warmer. It is called meteorology. I have a big surprise for you. Next year the days are going to get shorter and then they are going to get longer. And, it is going to happen the year after that too, so bah humbug!

In the late 60s a Unitarian minister named Chris Raible published a satirical hymnal that contained a piece called “God Rest ye Unitarians.” “There was no star of Bethlehem; there was no Angel’s song. There couldn’t have been wise men for the trip would take too long. The stories of the Bible are historically wrong. Glad tidings of reason and fact.” Raible’s send-up of Easter is even better. “In the cross of Christ we’d glory, but we don’t believe the story. For our sins Christ can’t have died. In them we’re well satisfied.”

“The stories of the Bible are historically wrong.” “But we don’t believe the story.” This morning I am going to talk about Christmas and I am going to talk about how we celebrate holidays, how we can celebrate meaningfully even if we do not possess a literalistic faith that accepts the stories as they are.

If you go to a Christian bookstore and look for materials designed to get the kids interested in the Bible, you are certain to come across comic books with titles along the lines of “Bible Action Heroes.” These comics tell the story of Noah or Moses or David fighting Goliath or Daniel in the lion’s den. These comics are successful not just because kids like action comics. They are successful because they reflect a psychological reality. Young children’s brains understand a world of heroes and villains, a world of black and white moral absolutes, a world where the good prevail and the wicked are punished, and even a world where supernatural powers can intervene in order to protect the good. The secular forms of these stories contain super heroes and super villains. Superman always does what is good and right. Lex Luthor always does what is evil and bad.

At some point in most people’s lives these stories cease to be as compelling. One reason they might cease to be compelling is that they contradict the workings of a rational, scientific universe that we learn to embrace. Where is the evidence of a flood? We can’t really account for the plagues of Egypt. The laws of physics do not account for bodies of water parting. But rational and scientific qualms are not the only problems we find with these stories. The texts themselves, when read literally, contain morally questionable material that does not support our childhood expectations of good people prevailing and bad people being vanquished. The Biblical flood is less a story about Noah and saving the animals; it is the ultimate act of terrorism. The plagues of Exodus do not only afflict a stone-hearted Pharaoh. They punish an entire people for the sins of their tyrant ruler. David is not just a scrappy kid with a slingshot, like a Dennis the Menace of biblical proportions. King David’s rule features a whole lot of actions that are morally indefensible.

Furthermore, if the world within the texts themselves is morally indefensible, the scriptures can come across as downright insulting when we draw parallels between the stories and the world we see around us. In the Exodus God feeds the Hebrews by turning stones to bread and by causing milk and honey to spring forth from the earth. How do we reconcile this loving protection with images of malnourished children in the desert in Ethiopia and Somalia? Doesn’t the story of Noah’s ark come across as especially barbaric in the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina?

So, the elementary school versions of the Biblical texts at some point cease to make sense as we grow into thinking adults. They cease to make sense not only scientifically, but also morally. They offend in light of the geopolitics of the world we see today. I am probably overstating things a little bit. I am probably being a little bit selective. But fortunately our choice is not limited. We do not have to choose between an elementary school level interpretation or complete rejection. There is a third way.

There is a French philosopher named Paul Ricoeur whose thought is helpful in showing us our options as religious people. Ricoeur is also just about the most difficult to understand philosopher I have ever read. (If you can explain Ricoeur’s concept of “threefold mimesis” from his masterwork Time & Narrative I will buy you lunch.)

Ricoeur uses a concept to help us think about how we might expand the limitations of our thought. That elementary school level understanding of religious stories is what Ricoeur calls the first naïveté. Eventually, that naïveté comes to an end and we grow disillusioned. But, Ricoeur argues that we do not need to remain perpetually in that state of disillusionment. When we move beyond disillusionment we enter into what he calls a second naïveté, or a willingness to reengage with our disappointments and our letdowns. When we do this, we trade disappointment for joy, rejection for meaning, and stagnation for life. We also trade disconnection for interaction. In Ricoeur’s words, we place “a world in front of a text, a world that opens up new possibilities for being.”

G. D. Robinson writes about Ricoeur’s philosophy in a way that is accessible. He says, “It is simply too easy when reading a text, especially one that we are familiar with, to do so with a rigidity and complacency that tends to ‘freeze’ its meaning irrevocably. To approach the text with suspicion – to query whether what the text appears to say really does correspond with its true message – seems to be both… valid and necessary.”

“Well, this is all very well and good Reverend Belote,” you may be saying, “but why exactly should I care one iota about any of this?” Because disillusionment can take a toll on us. Because disillusionment can be a pretty lousy place to stay for too long.

Disillusionment. It is that feeling and that emotion, I contend, that fuels some of the bizarre behavior we always see at this time of the year. Take, for example, the whole “War on Christmas” thing that gets stirred up every year at this time with TV personalities leading the charge. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the “War on Christmas,” let me briefly explain. The “War on Christmas” has to do with manufacturing outrage and indignation over the idea that forces in our nation are actively conspiring to diminish the significance of Christmas. The targets are often towns that have decided to alter or dispense with the display of a nativity scene or to display the symbols of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa coequally with a crèche. The targets are also retail stores and big box stores whose employees wish shoppers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

In point of fact, the generals going on about the “War on Christmas” are playing on people’s feelings of disillusionment. They don’t like how it feels and it scares and troubles them. They feel the loss of a familiar world they thought they knew; they yearn for an ideal past.

Just days ago none other than Garrison Keillor published a nasty diatribe on the liberal web-site If the piece is satire, it is especially bad satire. The piece, entitled “Don’t mess with Christmas” takes on Unitarian Universalists and chastises us for altering a few of the words to the hymn “Silent Night” as it appears in our hymnal. “Christmas is a Christian holiday,” Garrison Keillor writes, “if you are not in the club, then buzz off.” One of my colleagues summed it up best when he wrote that Keillor seems like an angry man yelling at the kids to stay off his lawn.

The disillusioned “War on Christmas” movement has spun off its own critics. A Christian movement known as Advent Conspiracy advocates for something like Paul Ricoeur’s second naïveté. Advent Conspiracy is explicitly Christian and demonstrates a developed and mature faith. This group combines aspects of the simplicity movement with direct service and a desire to re-enchant the Holidays simply by loving all, spending less, giving relationally and philanthropically, and worshipping joyously. Part of their message is that if your faith requires employees at Wal-Mart or Target or the mall to say “Merry Christmas” your faith is definitely on the ropes. Don’t expect Bed, Bath, & Beyond to confirm your Christianity for you. This is called self-differentiation.

Earlier in today’s service I asked a member of our congregation to offer a testimonial about what his family does to infuse holidays with a sense of magic. His family shares a mixed Unitarian Universalist and Jewish heritage. Also knowing both of them and their two children, I knew when I asked them that they would share some of the creative ways they celebrate the season with meaning and significance and joy, not with cynicism and disillusionment. I know of another family in our church that plans and hosts an elaborate solstice ritual in their home.

My colleague Tom Schade, in a message to fellow UU ministers this week, reminded us that, quote, “Most of us will preach and enact a meaning of the birth of Jesus this season, that of a winter festival that reminds us that what we hope for will come from the most unexpected places, in sudden and seemingly miraculous reversals, and [will] be incarnated in acts of generosity, kindness, hospitality and rootedness.”

Love, hope, generosity, kindness, hospitality, rootedness. If those things are naïve, then I shall rejoice in naïveté. In them there is no place for any bah-humbugging.