Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Holy Night

Despite conservative disapproval of the greeting "Happy Holidays," as a Christian I take no offense at the phrase. After all, the words effectively invoke the same sentiment - they are a slight abbreviation of the words "Happy Holy Days." Happy Holidays, I say, and all that those words imply - which is much indeed.

Even when contemporaries try to find a non-Christian way of getting around the fact of Christmas, there is really no escaping that the season in one way or another is about the birth of the Christ child. In the ferocious battles over such cultural markers as "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" or whether a crèche ought to be allowed on this or that parcel of public property, the true meaning of Christmas is indeed often lost - and not only by antagonists of Christianity. In point of fact, it's quite likely that we are all Christians to a greater or lesser extent, since most modern humans recognize the inherent dignity of the human person. And - whether secularists like it or not - this is a decisive legacy of Christianity, a legacy that remains as ever-present if unacknowledged as the pious sentiment contained in the supposedly neutral words "happy holiday."

My favorite Christmas carol is "O Holy Night," whose first verse (as translated by John Sullivan Dwight) in part reads:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The words capture the central meaning of Christmas: the Incarnation, the divine assumption of humanity. At that moment, everything changed: no longer merely species fodder or defined by one's birthright, all humans everywhere were now under the umbrella of Christian grace, all equally partaking in the divine participation in our humanness and expectant of redemption. That the Christ-child was born to an ordinary woman in the most abject conditions (and why liberals should love what the crèche portrays) was intended to show that the Incarnation embraced everyone in every circumstance and condition: the high shall be made low and the low shall be raised up.

Early liberals recognized that liberalism was fundamentally premised upon Christianity. The idea of inherent human dignity was unprecedented in the great ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome before the advent of Christianity, and in all likelihood will not withstand the efforts to dismantle Christianity from a place of pride in the Christian nations in which liberalism arose. It was John Locke - the ur-father of liberal theory - who recognized that Christianity was most fundamentally the source of the West's belief in human dignity. He noted in his late book The Reasonableness of Christianity that the Greeks were the most rational of all people, and yet they did not discover a rational argument that prevented them from exposing their newborn children. Locke argued that it was Christianity that introduced the idea of inherent dignity belonging to all humans - whatever their circumstance or condition - and that put an end to the practice of exposure. One sees today in the most ferocious and consistent rationalists the effort to dispel the notion of human dignity, as Peter Singer has attempted to do - in order (in part) to justify new forms of infanticide. Singer's arguments suggest that there is really no (instrumentally) rational basis for the belief in human dignity - it is a unique legacy of Christianity and undergirds liberalism itself. Yet, today liberalism increasingly seeks to dismantle the very grounds that support what it claims to be one of its core beliefs. And, while liberalism insists upon the need for circumspection and questioning, it is often ferociously self-certain that religion in general and Christianity in particular is the source of all human ills, and has nothing to do with (among other things) the idea of human dignity. Many liberals are ardent supporters of "the precautionary principle" in environmental matters (e.g., global warming), but not in the deeper and even more complex waters of moral and civilizational grounding (conservatives ought rightly to embrace "the precautionary principle" on a strongly consistent basis - it is one of the core features of the conservative disposition).

There is a deep similarity between liberalism's preferred use of the phrase "happy holidays" and its claim to believe in human dignity. Both are residues of its older Christian faith, holdovers that remain in force even as the basis for their existence is explicitly attacked and dismantled. Both are thoughtlessly invoked without reflection upon their source or meaning. Yet, both are assuredly on the way to vapid meaninglessness without the reinforcing beliefs which gave them original force and meaning, whether the joyous observance of the Holy Days or the great and mysterious gift of human dignity that arose on that December morning when the soul felt its worth.

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