Since when did they stop playing Christmas carols?
It wasn’t all that long ago when yuletide canticles could be heard everywhere this time of year: on the TV, over the radio, in all the stores, and ringing out into the wintery air on our city streets.
But no more.
Yeah, I know, we still get carpet-bombed each year with the same cynically packaged and repackaged “holiday” ditties such as Santa Baby, All I want for Christmas is You, and Jingle Bell Rock, but when was the last time you heard in public any musical work that recalled, let alone celebrated, the birth of one Jesus of Nazareth?
I suppose it’s understandable. The target audience of youthful Americans seem to have turned away from Christianity in a big way. Or, to be more accurate, seem to have turned away from all religion in a big way. And who can blame them? Somehow, through the classical religions, mankind has managed to justify supreme avarice, incomprehensible societal inequity, rape of the land, intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, bigotry, prejudice, child abuse, persecution, torture, slavery, terrorism, genocide, war, more war, and countless other horrors. Besides, in an era of staggering scientific and technological advancement hasn’t mankind evolved to higher orders of cognition than the unquestioning acceptance of ancient catechisms?
Many would argue that we, indeed, have. They see no need for a divine and caring puppet master who watches intently over us all, or for a disinterested celestial billiard player who, having racked up the primordial stuff of existence, smacked it with his or her germinal cue ball, allowing things to go entirely where they might, for better or for worse. They see no need for any overarching deity-derived force behind it all, at all. It all just is, and was. Except when it wasn’t. They contend that science will someday be able to explain everything—no supreme beings required in the equation. Heck, through analysis of “cosmic microwave background,” that is, radiation blasted out into whatever it blasted out into when there was nothing to blast out into, astrophysicists apparently can date the coming into existence of existence, the moment, if you will, of “creation,” to about 13.8 billion years ago, give or take a few eons. Or so I’ve read.
Many scientists argue that there is nothing particularly miraculous about the presence of our world and all we find in it. Given the billions of years of the trillions of trillions of physical-chemical interactions that have gone on in the universe since its inception, the creation of galaxies, solar systems, hospitable planets, and what we call life, was, essentially, inevitable. No supernatural assembly required.
As if to pile on, biologists are making it clear that there is also nothing particularly special about us human beings, as beings. That, make handful of changes in the chimpanzee genome (no more than 4 percent) and “Bob’s your uncle” you’ve got a person. That, there is more genetic difference between a rat and a mouse than there is between a human and a great ape (even a not-so-great one). That other non-sapien versions of ourselves walked this earth alongside of us, created tools, buried their dead with care, thought abstract thoughts (maybe), and perhaps even voiced said thoughts in speech, until they were beat out at the Darwinian finish line by us—extinguished from existence—or conveniently absorbed into our genomes.
Neuroscientists chime in with the disturbing notion that all we experience, feel, think, question, and believe in, are simply the products of our neurochemistry and neuro-connectivity. We possess no souls. We are not unique reasoning beings who get to enjoy the freedom of making choices about our next contemplations, plans, or actions. We don’t willfully consider our options, plot our courses, craft our futures, hedge our bets, weigh our odds, or take our risks. And we don’t act out of selfishness, or greed, or guile, or kindness, or empathy, or altruism, or patriotism, or responsibility, or calculation, or careful consideration, or love. Rather, every thought, every action, every internal conversation with ourselves, is, for all intents and purposes, predetermined: predetermined by the neurochemical interactions going on within our brains—neurochemical interactions that are subject to the nuances of our interfaces with the random chaos of the physical world that is always swirling around the very transient vessels of our beings. We have no say. All we are and do is ultimately at the will of elemental physics, or quantum mechanics, or whatever. We are merely temporary physical-biochemical flotsam and jetsam bobbing about on the cosmic oceans of existence; and God is merely a byproduct of dopamine, serotonin, glutamine, and a pinch of other transmitters, in the right quantities at the right synapses. God, heaven, the heavenly hosts, the angels, the demons, and all the rest are merely the deranged constructs of our intrinsic processors—processors that are limited in their scope, are error prone, and are often completely on the blink.
Some have gone so far as to tell us that the thing we hold so dearly about ourselves, and that gives us our sense of being, and that makes us, us—our consciousness—does not actually exist either. It is but an illusion. The brain maintains a “user illusion” of itself, generated by itself. Consciousness is nothing but a colorful and useful interface program—like the screen of a cell-phone—that will always only deliver a markedly simplified representation of the machine within, and the stuff that goes on without it. It is capable of some pretty complex functionalities, yes, but, as offered by proponents of this viewpoint: no one argues that a single-celled bacterium possesses consciousness despite some “willful” and apparently complex behaviors like moving towards a food source, or “mating” with other bacteria.
These same spoil-sports go on to tell us that our neural networks have evolved through natural selection, over millions of years, to appear quite special; that our brains’ behaviors and capabilities appear so complex that there is a temptation to elevate them, to separate them from the physical world, to see them as being super-natural. But, they maintain, we are misleading ourselves. That in reality, our brains are very limited. That the related processors, in hardly a metaphysical manner, purposefully deprive us of vast swaths of our surrounding reality all the time. That they filter out much of what we encounter internally and externally, and feed us only snippets of data that can be more readily taken in, processed, and put to good use by our interface hardware, lest our brains become overwhelmed by a one-to-one representation of what is truly going on out there. When, for example, was the last time you saw an infra-red wave, heard a 30,000 hertz tone, or felt your pancreas release some insulin?
Some assert that in the not too distant future, in the labs of Silicon Valley, Stanford, MIT, and/or Harvard, we will create machines that (who?) will perceive that they too are conscious beings, and who may strut and fret their hours upon this earthly stage, agonizing over how and why they exist, and feel compelled to create their own souls and their own dieties.
Others have already incubated in petri dishes, balls of human nerve cells that apparently are throwing electrochemical signals about like real brains. Will Beethoven’s Ninth be far behind?
So, with existence so explainable, and mankind so…well…unnoteworthy, there appears to be no need any for preternatural forces or entities in the mix. Science explains it all, or will do so, eventually. What is more, it has given us a marvelous predictability to our existence.
Predictability. Isn’t that a fundamental human need? A drive, a thirst, a desperate need to know what will be coming around the existential bend in the next few minutes, the next few days, or the next few years. A need to know that we won’t suddenly burst into flames. A need to know that we won’t fly off of this rapidly spinning celestial ball with our next misstep. A need to know that the crops will sprout again in the spring. A need to know that there will be a spring.
And, at least for the last couple of centuries, science has provided for us an extraordinary predictability to our existence. In fact, its capability in this realm borders on the miraculous—if you were to naively believe in miracles. With this incredibly reliable predictability about all that goes on within and with out of us, we have been able to eradicate plagues (some at least), build great cities, learn to fly, shatter the atom, create thinking machines, even manipulate our own genome. Armed with this predictability, we have been able to construct the soaring citadel of technology that we all inhabit today, and, dare I say, worship.
So, with the rise to supremacy of science and technology, who in the world needs a God, or a Yahweh, or an Allah, or a Jesus, or a Mohammed? After all, it wasn’t religion that provided us with all this predictability. It wasn’t religion that put man on the moon. Shouldn’t all intelligent, clear-thinking, level-headed, modern people be atheists?
Well, many are. Some seem to be avowed atheists, even proselytizing atheists. There are many nowadays who subscribe to an incontestable science-based explanation for all that is, or is not, and who completely deny even the most minute possibility of there being something more to it all. There are many who are absolutely convinced that what we experience, study, and measure, is all there is; that there is and can be no “super-natural” component to it all.
So what ninnies faced with the overwhelming prowess of modern science would allow themselves to be taken in by one fatuous theology or another? Certainly the evidence against a deity-engineered existence is overwhelming, isn’t it?
Or is it?
I think many of us have a fundamental misconception of what science is, and what it is capable of delivering. Science is not in the business of declaring incontrovertible truths. Rather, science is a methodology applied to our attempts to better understand the physical world around us, and inside of us. Instead of accepting explanations predicated on anecdote, superstition, or blind faith, science seeks to create a fund of “knowledge” built on better and better estimations of what is actually going on behind the scenes of what we are experiencing, of our existence.
It does so through offering various educated conjectures (or hypotheses) about the stuff of our world, and then testing these conjectures to see if they can hold up to scrutiny. Central to the process is the vigilant maintenance of a level of “scientific skepticism,” a systematic calling into doubt of all hypotheses, all dogma, and, indeed, all “knowledge.” And, ideally, all that is “understood” about our physical world is repeatedly challenged through disciplined experimentation.
In experimentation, reproducible models of what is believed to be happening are constructed and tested. These models are by necessity always only approximations of reality, i.e. limited representations of reality. In every experiment, “confounding variables” are eliminated in order for the findings to have any chance at reproducibility, and thus some “scientific” validity. In other words, the representations of the natural world in scientific experimentation are significantly simplified so various potentially confusing influences on the results can be removed. These representations are therefore, by their very nature, artificial.
Furthermore, a hypothesis cannot actually be proven to be 100% correct. Rather, alternative hypotheses are shown to likely be incorrect. Science moves forward in a stuttering fashion, tossing out various less dependable representations of the natural world, and embracing new, hopefully more hardy ones. Representations that pass muster are added to our cannon of “knowledge,” until they too are disproven, as they oft are, and/or a better approximation of reality is arrived at.
But there lies the rub. Science does not and should not claim to arrive at unassailable “facts” about our world (let alone other worlds, other existences). In fact, it begs us to go ahead and assail such “facts” in the interest of generating even better ones. All scientific “facts” are simply our current best explanations for what is going on out there. Some are magnificently hardy and longstanding, others are not. But they are all always only approximations, estimations, not incontrovertible truths. To assert definitive knowledge of the nature of existence goes against the very grain of true science, and strolls towards a theology unto itself.
In addition, a circular argument surfaces. If consciousness is an illusion, if our processing hardware is limited and faulty, then our “evidence-based” exploration of existence must be inherently flawed. How could our deficient hardware (our brains) ever deliver to us the truth, and how could we appropriately process said truth even if it could be delivered to us? How can we trust the information at hand and how we handle it? Remember, this is the very hardware, that has collectively fooled itself for millennia into believing that it is quite unique and special in the universe, and that it exists as singular conscious beings—all perhaps with eternal souls.
Does science deliver the truth, or does it construct a universe that we, with our highly filtered and far from omnipotent brains, can accept as making some sense, as possessing some order, as obeying some set of fundamental rules, as offering some predictability? Through science, are we simply modeling a world, a universe, an existence, into a package that can be digested and acted upon by those same brains? Could it be that science will only ever be descriptive, descriptive in a language that our brains can readily process (at least a select few brains)? When a physicist tells us light behaves both like a particle and a wave, for example, is this an assertion of the actual nature of existence, or is it a useful description of a relatively incomprehensible phenomenon of our physical realm?
And, when it comes to trying to know something about the unknowable, what are the limits of science? For example, when theoretical astrophysicists, or whatever they are, tell us that there may be other universes out there, perhaps many universes, perhaps an infinite number of universes, universes that may not have to obey our universe’s laws of quantum physics, universes that may differ from ours by just one sub-atomic particle, or two, or three, and so on, are they too straying out into the metaphysical weeds?
When we ask science to tell us about what goes on beyond that which we can be experienced, accessed, manipulated, measured, and modelled, are we asking too much of the discipline? Thus, isn’t the stuff of religion beyond science’s scope anyway? Perhaps Hamlet was onto something when he pointed out: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The philosophy (a.k.a. scientific “knowledge”) of what causes lightening, how man evolved, how we pass on traits to our offspring, how our current physical world may have begun, even of parallel universes, does not make an argument for a lack of something else. And it certainly does not prove the non-existence of a god.
This is why I’m somewhat perplexed by the rampant cynicism out there about all things super-natural. How can so many people out and out dismiss the existence of a soul, of a god, of an afterlife, of other plains of existence? While we have not been offered much proof of the existence of such things, we have been offered absolutely no proof of their non-existence. And I can’t imagine we ever will be. Are we all guilty of unbridled hubris when we profess to “know” the truth about all that is, and is not? Are we placing more confidence than is justifiable in another set of false idols? Are we are simply bowing before a new god, the god of science, and moved to a new form of religious fervor by modern day miracles, the miracles of technology?
I wonder if a confirmed belief in the absence of all things extra-natural is simply an easy way out, the lazy-man’s approach to contemplating existence, if you will. Belief in something more, belief in things that contradict our mental map of the physical world, belief in things that we will likely never experience in our current state of being, is hard work. It takes rejecting some of what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, measure with our oscilloscopes, read in our textbooks, and witness on our local PBS channels. It takes a leap of faith, a leap beyond the experiential. And as the movie Miracle on 34th Street pointed out: “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” and that ain’t easy.
Personally, I wish I had more faith. Faith in something. Instead, I seem to be hopelessly adrift in the purgatory of uncertainty. I have no clue as to whether there is a shred of providential rhyme or reason to our time here on earth, or to existence at all. I’m in the dark as to whether there might be some guiding force behind things, or whether all that we experience here on earth is simply a wonderful but perfectly predictable accident of momentary order spontaneously arising out of random cosmological chaos—a flash of existence in the timeless, boundless, void of nothingness.
I do so want to believe, though, that I am more than the sum of coincidental collisions, fusions, fissions, spins, and waves amongst sub-atomic particles, even if it is absolutely not so. I want to believe that my consciousness is real; that the thoughts that I am thinking are my own; that what I’m doing is by my own choice; that I am a unique cognitive being, that I’m an “intentional agent;” that I am more than a very transient concentration of cosmic dust; that I possess, for lack of better term, a soul. I cannot imagine that science will grant me this. Perhaps religion might.
Unfortunately, religion always seems to have the fingerprints of very human humans all over it. The great religions have, throughout time, reeked of politics, and control, and power, and jealousy, and avarice, and personal gain, and abuse. They have always seemed to be “corrupted files” of what was supposed to be pure and guileless. And, lest we sink into a smug condescension, we need to acknowledge that science has forever carried the very same fingerprints. Examples of all the same vices have repeatedly compromised the veracity of work produced at the great universities and published in the great journals.
Anyway, despite religion’s sordid history, and my own related ambivalence, I’m not sure that a little of it is such a bad thing—we have plenty of science. I think religion may offer things science never can: a notion that there is a why to things, that there is some rationale to it all, that someone out there actually gives a damn about us, that there is something beyond what we are going through now, that there is something after our deaths other than all that unforgiving nothingness.
And, for those of uncomplicated thought—no, make that all of us—perhaps it isn’t so bad to have a set of rules to play the game of life by, nice rules, kind rules, forgiving rules, inclusive rules, but some level of guidance nonetheless.
I cannot help but wonder if our current fetish for superheroes is a reflection of an emptiness felt from our collective loss of a benevolent creator and his or her legions of fawning guardian angels, all striving to protect us and point to us the way. After all, don’t the superior beings of our movies defy the rules of science as they save us from ourselves? And don’t they routinely dispense volumes of wisdom and advice that would easily fit into the Judeo-Christian cannon (along with many others)?
This somehow brings me back to the notion of Christmas. I don’t profess to know whether Jesus was God, or the Son of God, or a direct messenger of God, or a superstar prophet, or simply a man, or anyone at all. And I certainly am at a loss about the whole Holy Ghost thing. But whatever Jesus was, if he was, he seemed to have espoused, with startling impact, a most peaceful and gentle approach to existence, to living here on earth, to co-existing with others.
Whatever Jesus was, the message that comes to us from him, two-thousand years after he broke bread with small ragged collections of outcasts, is one that still reverberates today: one of good will to all people, one of love and kindness over hatred and cruelty, one of charity and self-sacrifice over predatory gain, one of spirituality over materialism, one of peace over conflict, one of humility over self-aggrandizement, one of mercy over revenge, one of quiet devotion and good deeds over shameless self-promotion, one of celebrating the brotherhood of man, one of embracing the lowest of the low.
Speaking of the lowest of the low, rather than callously stepping over them in the streets, Jesus seemed to be inexorably drawn to the diseased, the disabled, the destitute, the lost, the homeless, the filthy, and the forgotten; that is, to the wretched refuse, of a wretched corner of the world, in a wretched time. The only people he seemed to reflexively recoil from were the pretentious, the hypocritical, the self-inflated, and the power and riches-seeking. In fact, his teachings anticipated the current progressive counter-capitalist sentiment amongst many of our youth. It was Jesus who asserted that: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Bernie Sanders could not have put it any more succinctly.
Thus, as far as religious and/or historical figures go, Jesus is a remarkably admirable one. I find I must wholeheartedly concur with Caiaphas from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar who noted: “One thing I’ll say for him—Jesus is cool…”
Perhaps this is why my eyes welled up a bit and I found myself smiling warmly the other night as I strolled past a neighbor’s front-lawn crèche, resplendent with life-sized light-up biblical figures. I’m pretty sure my response wasn’t motivated by some hedge on my existential bets via a late-in-life dash to the embrace of a tolerable religion. And I don’t think it was solely the function of a whimsical nostalgia for the simpler times of my childhood when all we had to worry about was the atomic bomb, and when “living” manger scenes, with actual cows, donkeys, pigs, and chickens, and some pretty young girl playing Mary, might be strangely enjoyed on the snow-covered grounds of the local Town Hall. No, I believe I was moved by a momentary contemplation of the life of this remarkable being, a reverence for his timeless message of peace, tolerance, and beneficence; and, I think, by a lifelong affection for the bizarre yet rather lovely story of his birth and all the magnificent music, art, and poetry that it has inspired:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Now, I’m sure that other religions have equally moving narratives and uplifting holy days, inspiring equally soaring poetry, art, and music. And, we could and should celebrate them as well (I’m certain that the world’s religions could offer a far more compelling message were they to seek commonality rather than divergence). But, personally, I am hopelessly and joyfully infused with, and sucked in by, the culture of Christmas. And, one way or the other, the Christmas season sure comes with a lot of nice trappings.
Sure, you can’t be a modern day cynic if you don’t point out that many or most Christmas traditions were appropriated from various very non-Christian ancient peoples, all trying to appease one deity or another in the hope of fending off the ravages of winter and bringing back the promise of spring. After all, mistletoe, holy, ivy, evergreens, caroling, gift giving, wreaths, yule logs, ornaments, and toy-dispensing mythical beings, were all the stuff of pagan cultures past. If you really want a gold star, you can point out with much condescension that even the celebrated date of December 25th was co-opted from the pagans, and was highly unlikely to have been Jesus’ actual date of the birth. Mind you, there exists no known birth registry for a Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem, or anywhere else. His birth very well could have taken place on the 25th, although some scholars have scholared pretty hard to prove that it could not and would not have been on said date. They note that there were no comets or refulgent planetary alignments on the 25th of December of year zero that would explain the appearance of the Star of David. And, it goes without saying, that shepherds most certainly did not abide their flocks by night in the winter time. This apparently was an activity reserved for the spring.
But this all so widely misses the point. Does it really matter what the actual date was? We are celebrating the message behind the birth, the person, the ministry, not a specific day. And does it matter who thought up sneaking a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe, or who granted us an excuse to collectively give tokens of love to those we care about, or who first sprinkled some nutmeg on top of a hot mug of eggnog? I say the pagans had it right. These are lovely traditions—and I hate eggnog. By late December we all are experiencing the early winter, cold-wet-weather, exhausted-by-the-year-past, blues. The leaves are down, leaving the hillsides brown and moaning; the windows are sealed tighter than on a lunar command module; a dank grey shroud smothers the sun, reticent to lift until May; darkness falls earlier and earlier each afternoon, sucking every bit of energy out of us. Why not, for a few weeks, infuse life with some hope, and love, and kinship, and gratitude, and concern for the poor and the forgotten, and generosity, and good will, and good cheer, and light, and color, and beauty, and music, and celebration? We all could use it. It can be such a resplendent and rejuvenating time of the year, thanks to Christmas. To paraphrase Bill Murray in the movie “Scrooged,” it really is a sort of miracle. Christmas is a time when people act a little nicer, smile a little more, care a little more, and become the people they would want to be during the rest of the year.
I have to agree, It does feel like some sort of miracle. I adore it. I drink it in and savor it, like wine from a bottle rather than a box, no, like wine from a fountain of youth. The sound of Bing Crosby crooning “Oh Holy Night,” or rows of sopranos reaching heart-swelling highs in The Messiah; the sight of the brilliant reds and greens singing out against the omnipresent grey; the pervasive aromas of cookies, and roasts, and evergreens alighting the home and hearth; the bite in the air; the crunching of snow underfoot; the smell of wood fires; the irrepressible excitement of our children that goes well beyond greedy anticipation and blossoms in the fertile soil of the season’s abundant love; the savoring of one’s own childhood memories; the joyous reunions of friends and families; the infectious laughter and merriment; the old movies where people who have it much worse than any of us realize how lucky they are; the regression of stodgy old adults back into silly, effervescent, singing and dancing youngsters; the little baby; the loving mother; the manger; the swaddling clothes; the friendly beasts; the shepherds; the Magi; the heavenly hosts; Scrooge; Old Fezziwig; Tiny Tim; George Bailey; Kris Kringle; Charlie Brown; Snoopy; Linus; Clark Griswold; and the rest. I can never get enough of it. And it’s always over much too quickly.
So what’s so wrong with celebrating Christmas outright, with unrestrained joy and delight? It need not be exclusive. It need not and should not condemn the religions or beliefs of others—I cannot imagine that the Jesus of Christianity would have tolerated such a behavior. Why don’t we drop the pretenses, and the hyper-pseudo-intellectualism, and the need to condemn everything simple and sweet, and bathe in the love and magic of Christmas? Why not deck the halls with evergreens, bellow out some hymns, make a couple of appearances at the local parish, pray for snow, make oodles of sugar cookies, wrap some presents, take in a pageant, huddle around a fire, watch some sappy movies, be the life of some parties, smooch under the mistletoe, smile at strangers, wish each other well, practice random acts of kindness, and pray for peace? Why not celebrate the birth of someone special, no matter who he may or may not have been, or celebrate all births for the miracles that they are? Surely it has to be more fun than celebrating the birth of a quark. Why not stow away our cynicism about otherworldly matters, and focus on making our time and everyone else’s time here on earth happier, warmer, safer, friendlier, and more filled with kindness, gentleness, good will, and good cheer? It’s wonderful to be periodically reminded to do so. I am fine with it being on 25th of December each year.
And, one way of the other, please, give me back my damned carols…
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!
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