Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Christmas Stories

(This post is not meant to offend anyone who maintains a literal belief in the events of the Christmas story, but rather to offer some personal reflections on the powerful spirit that permeates this time of year. I intentionally didn't post this during the holidays so as not to offend. So no bah humbug here, just honesty. But if you prefer your beliefs remain unchallenged, then you probably should head elsewhere.)

December 2014

I recently went to a fantastic Christmas concert for Sound of the Rockies, a hundred-strong men's a cappella chorus. Last year we went to see a friend perform, and although he's since moved to Arizona, we were so blown away by the quality and spirit of the performance, that we went back this Christmas, this time taking the kids.
A hundred men's voices, each song ending in a roof-blowing, spine-tingling crescendo of perfect, multi-layered harmony. It was energetic and immersive. All night, the music moved back and forth from secular ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus") to religious ("O Holy Night"). It was funny, moving, serene. My children loved it. My seven-year old was transfixed for almost three hours, a miracle in itself.

As I watched him absorbed in it all, I couldn't help but think about his perspective. Against all odds (and the thinly veiled skepticism of his two older siblings), he still believes in Santa Claus. Actually, I would venture at this point that he persists in belief of the Big Red Guy out of sheer force of will. (And trust me, this boy has a formidable will.) And yet, taking a cue from his parents, he says he doesn't believe in God.

The irony, eh? Still believes in Santa, because of his naiveté, his precious youthful yearning for magic (and, undoubtedly, for presents--there's a potential price for disbelief!), and his complete trust in his parents to not tell him a lie--those same parents who have been conflicted but complicit in the Big Lie his whole life.
"Something seems a little off here . . ."
So he believes in Santa, and yet doesn't believe in God. Hmmm . . . Is this a good thing? I think so. Are we depriving him of some sacred right to still believe in God? No. For now and into the future, if he expressed that inclination, we wouldn't dissuade him. We're simply being honest with him. We're not pretending to believe in things we don't. We've discovered a reverence and awe for the natural world, for science, for the human condition, that feels nearly equal to that which we ever harbored for our conception of God. And it's another blog post, but I think it is short-sighted reaction that believers tend to have towards non-believers, that they can't live lives of integrity. I believe that honesty, integrity, values, compassion, and authenticity can be found in equal (or more) abundance within a secular philosophy.

But I've decided not to label myself anymore. I'm open to the idea that there is some underlying order and purpose to our existence, that there is a generally benevolent creative force that is unfolding itself, a Universe self-actualizing through us. But I don't believe in a personal, literal God or afterlife. So atheism doesn't fit exactly. I like secular humanism, but it feels a bit euphemistic. Despite my fondness for Buddhism and new practice of meditation, I'll never be a Buddhist. It's orthodoxy seems just as goofy to me. Taoist sounds pretty good, but I'm still not sure exactly what that means. After reading a biography of Albert Einstein, I thought Einsteinian Agnostic fit pretty well: he didn't believe in a personal God, but found divinity in the prevailing order of the Cosmos. But that's not a defined label. Sometimes I think Jedi Knight would fit best--but I'm not sure I have a high enough mitichlorian count to be legitimate. But bottom line is, I'm still a spiritual work in progress, and I'm committed to pursuing my belief (or lack thereof) with integrity, without pretense, and without shrinking from hard questions. If at any time I feel like I am compelled by evidence or experience to believe in a certain way, then I will do so. But at this point, I'm not standing for anything. Just moving purposefully towards love and justice.

Which brings me to my feelings about Jesus. When I first left Mormonism, I found most resonance with the idea of "Christian Universalism." This seemed to allow me to be at once Christian without the constraints of orthodoxy. "Christ's love is so powerful and pervasive that it simply doesn't matter what you believe. He will save us all." This was more comfortable for a time than throwing the baby Jesus out with the Mormon bathwater, because I once had what seemed a deep and unshakeable faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Redeemer. For all of my criticisms of Mormonism, that was one thing that it planted deep in me: a faith in Christ.
(There is a Mormon legend that this painting represents "the best likeness of Jesus" that the Mormon prophet had ever seen, clearly implying intimate familiarity. As missionaries, we used this picture when teaching about Jesus. Thus this was the image I utilized when visualizing my future interactions with him. Seemed legit.) 
I remember feeling, shortly before coming home from my proselyting mission in Brazil, that I wanted to do nothing but preach Christ resurrected for the rest of my life. In fact, I couldn't imagine what else in life would even be worth discussing. How could people go to movies, go on dates, read other books, have careers? None of that mattered. Jesus was the reason, this season and every season! I was in the thrall of my faith. Jesus Christ was to my mind an absolute actuality, the most real and important thing in the universe, the gravitational center around which everything else orbited. I baptized converts, said my daily prayers, made covenants in the temple to offer my life to him and his church if necessary, offered my heartfelt service to my fellow man, all in his name. I had dreams of bathing his feet with my tears, of watching him suffer for my sins in the Garden of Gethsemane, bleeding from every pore. I imagined feeling his perfect loving embrace when I successfully completed my mission here on earth, weeping as I touched the nail prints in his hands and feet, hopefully to be admitted to his presence in the Celestial Kingdom, where he would say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." A persistent semi-vision came to me: I was one of the infinite hosts of heaven, clothed in white, bathed in light, singing the anthemic Hallelujah chorus within a giant celestial coliseum as Christ the King entered triumphant to claim as his own all those who confessed him to be their Savior . . . and, of course, who also kept their Mormon covenants.

During my medical residency in Greeley, a man wrote an op-ed piece in the Greeley Tribune, slamming Joseph Smith, claiming that Mormons weren't Christian. Why? I don't know. He hated Mormons. So I wrote a rousing rebuttal, sidestepping any controversy about the prophet (I sincerely knew nothing about any controversy. True to Mormon scripture, I thought Joseph Smith was second only to Jesus Christ in his righteousness and importance before God. There was no dirty laundry. Nothing to be ashamed of.) So I responded in print as a Mormon doctor with a fervent testimony of Christ as Savior. It was widely read in the community. I received many kudos from Mormons and non-Mormons alike for so vigorously and articulately defending my faith in Christ.

Now, for those who maintain a literal belief in Christ, I sincerely honor you here. That is a beautiful, powerful, compelling force in a person's life. I remember it well, often with aching nostalgia. As you probably feel now, your faith seems to transcend your physical experience, more real than reality, offering you hope of eternal exaltation and thus purpose and direction, a solid anchor point in the liquid fray of life. A real part of me hopes that can last for you, like it couldn't for me.

Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to lose that faith, that certainty, for that sure foundation to suddenly dissolve beneath you, dropping you into an endless ocean of doubt. Imagine if this erosion of faith felt totally inevitable, irreversible, just like water can't hold it's shape once the glass breaks. Imagine how you might flail if suddenly everything you once believed seemed to become false, that everyone you trusted seemed to be either lying, oblivious, or lost like a child in an infinitely-layered fable. Your foundation of rock has suddenly turned into sand.

Or let's say the course of your life has led you inexorably towards a cliff that's standing at the very edge of the world. The Void. When you walk to the edge of the abyss, and look over your shoulder at the comfortable lights of home behind you, with all of your family and friends entreating you to return, and with seemingly nothing before you except darkness, will you turn back? Or will you proceed onward into that darkness? Why would you? Well, you know what's behind you. You've seen it for what it is. It seems empty and hopeless. But then a glimmer of hope shines down in the Void: could the dark clouds in front of you actually be concealing something profound, beautiful, and true?

Both choices before you are compelling, yet both seem like a suicide. You have reached an excruciating decision point: you must, due to the relentless forward pressure of life, make a fateful choice, either to return to that inauthentic falsity of your previous faith that still beckons you, or to trust your internal compass and leap into the unknown. But one way of the other, you're forced to move.

Maybe you can see that it is not a step taken lightly, or without consideration of consequences. Give me, my believer friend, for a moment, the benefit of your doubt, that I too wanted to believe, that I did believe, so badly that it when I ceased to believe it felt like my heart had been carved out of my chest. Maybe you can understand that, despite the severe and potentially eternal costs involved, I became simply unable to maintain the charade anymore. I could no longer pretend, or twist myself in intellectual pretzels, or lie to my daughter's face, just like I couldn't stick my head in sand and hope to keep breathing. I was going to be authentic before myself, before my family, before society, and, if it applied, before God, even if it killed me. No more crippling cognitive dissonance. If God existed, he would honor my courage and integrity--and if he didn't honor those indivisible aspects of my soul, then he wasn't a God I could have faith in, or want to spend an eternity with. But if he didn't exist, then I had never had anything real to fear losing anyway, and so for the perceived severe price of my disaffection, I would have purchased an insight of great importance into the nature and purpose of my shortening life.

The lights in the void beckoned. The gates behind me closed. It was Pascal's wager in reverse: everything to gain, and nothing to lose. You know my choice. My reach was away from a personal God, off of the straight and narrow path, and towards hope, staring across those mists of darkness, that formless void, and whispering, Let there be light, please.

Back to Christmas. As I watched my son enthralled by the sights and sounds of this Christmas concert, a mash-up of the secular and the sacred, an elusive, child-like insight fluttered across my mind, something I knew, but that I now saw through my son's wide eyes. They're just stories! Santa Claus. Baby Jesus. Elves and reindeer. Angels and wise men. Each as real or fictional as the other. And what awesome stories they are! Fun, poignant, cozy, directive. Perhaps not "true," yet with human truth embedded within them. Be good, be giving, be hopeful. You are known and loved. Within these Christmas stories, I was able to find beauty and truth this season, acknowledging them on a believer's terms, accepting them on mine.

That's how I see it. Our civilization conspires--collectively, unconsciously--to perpetuate these Christmas stories, because of their magic and their morals. Because we children and adults want so desperately for something to hold on to. Because we live in a real world that often feels like a dream. Because we sense there must be some grand mystery to it all, some wizard behind the curtain. Because we hope some big jolly guy is checking our name off his list, or reaching back for us from beyond the veil. We need nice stories to tell by the fireplace on Christmas Eve when it's snowing outside, or in the chapel on Sunday morning before we head to war. This is a level on which I can appreciate these stories, remembering their magic for me in my youth, holding them both carefully and skeptically in my palms, where I can find some salvageable truths worth sharing with my children. But they will be shared as such. As stories. Not as the moon itself, but as fingers pointing to it. All available angles will be presented with good will and careful scrutiny, and my son will have the choice of what he chooses to believe, or not. No threats of supernatural consequences, no pretensions to privileged authority.

This Christmas, he chose to believe, in Santa at least. The minute he expresses true doubt, the ruse will be revealed. Hugs given, congratulations for being such a smart boy and figuring it out. But that hasn't happened yet. His reasons for maintaining belief are still too strong. It was an awesome Christmas. Our youngest boy was lit up with magic and delight all season long.

And wouldn't you know it? The big fella came through again. Lots of thoughtful and quirky presents under the tree.

Well played, Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Well played.

No comments:

Post a Comment