Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Prayer

John Locke was the first great liberal defender of the idea of religious toleration, as well as the thinker who lies behind many of today's arguments that religion should be excluded from political considerations in "the public square." Locke is widely regarded in the academy as the great originator of liberal secularism. Yet, it was Locke - in a less-read work called The Reasonableness of Christianity - who argued that reason alone was insufficient to arrive at certain moral precepts held to be true by modern man, above all the belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings. What Locke knew - that reason provided insufficient basis for a belief in human dignity - many of Locke's epigones have forgotten. Yet it is a lesson with which we re-acquaint ourselves every year during the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke wrote: "'tis our mistake to think, that ... we had the first certain knowledge of [truths] from [reason], and in that clear Evidence we now possess them. The contrary is manifest, in the defective Morality of the Gentiles before our Saviour's time.... Philosophy seemed to have spent its strength, and done its utmost...." In other words, the reason-based philosophy of the pre-Christians (such as Plato and Aristotle) went as far toward ascertaining morality as was possible, but still - from the perspective of those living after the birth of Christ - fell short.

Locke concluded that the unaided reason of ancient philosophy - truth available to all humans by reason alone that preceded the truth of Biblical revelation - was finally insufficient to discover the full scope of morality: "And we see, [reason] resolved not the doubts that had arisen amongst the Studious and Thinking Philosophers; Nor had yet been able to convince the Civilized parts of the World, that they had not given, nor could without a Crime, take away the Lives of Children, by Exposing them." Reason-based philosophy was insufficient to finding an argument against the exposure of babies, a conclusion that should strike many contemporaries as worrisome, particularly as the idea of human dignity today is undergoing a new, post-Christian reason-based assault.

Today many take for granted what the Enlightenment thinker John Locke did not permit himself to assume - that unaided "reason" is sufficient to discover and defend grounds of inherent and equal human dignity. Too easily we assume that this unique legacy of Christianity is easily translated into secular terms. Yet, many would be hard-pressed to articulate the grounds for human dignity without at some point relying upon the Christian inheritance that is often attacked or denied by many elites in today's formative institutions.

Perhaps, finally, the grounds for our inherited (and, perhaps, attenuating) belief in human dignity is best understood by reflecting upon the meaning of the events that are commemorated in the next several days - the birth of Jesus, the Emmanuel. For, when God becomes man - and a woman gives birth to God - then even in God's humiliation, all of humanity is elevated. For the first time, even the lowliest human is godlike, and God is to be found in all humans, no matter their place or position. Often lost in the culture war debates over creches and Christmas trees is the basic transformative fact that God was born of woman in a barn. The world, and humankind, was never the same.

A better expression of this idea might not be found than a prayer by Ian Oliver, pastor of the University Church at Yale University. I copy this from the Christmas Eve meditation in this years Magnificat. And, to let the words of Reverend Oliver be the last here before the days of Christmas, I take this opportunity to wish readers a blessed and peaceful Christmas. Salvete.

A Christmas Prayer

On that holy night,
Somehow
It happened.

Somehow,
God took a handful of humanity:
Proud, petulant, passionate;
And a handful of divinity:
Undivided, inexpressible, incomprehensible:
And enclosed them in one small body.

Somehow, the all too human
Touched the divine.
And was not vaporized.
To be human was never the same,
But forever thereafter,
Carried a hint of its close encounter with the perfect.
and forever thereafter,
God was never the same,
But carried a hint of the passion of the mortal.

If God can lie down in a cattle-trough,
is any object safe from transformation?
If peasant girls can be mothers to God,
Is any life safe from the invasion of the eternal?

If all this could happen, O God,
What places of darkness on our earth
are pregnant with light waiting to be born this night?

If all this could happen, O God,
Then you could be, and are, anywhere, everywhere,
Waiting to be born this night in the most
unbelievable places,
Perhaps even in our own hearts. Amen.

1 comment:

AT said...

I just read the comments posted on the Washington Post site for this post. Incredible! Once ideology has taken hold of the mind it is impossible to dislodge. It gives one a sense of how the damned have an immutable will confirmed in evil.