On Going to Church on Christmas Morning

Such is the nature of the relationships that spring up between parents who have kids in the same class at school that my wife’s best friend, since we moved south 12 years ago, is the director of Christian education at First Presbyterian in downtown Tallahassee. Every Christmas Eve she holds a buffet supper for friends, especially for those who need a meal between the evening and the late night services at the Church. Lizzie and I like these events. The people there are grand folk, especially the minister and his wife, a couple who take very seriously their Christian faith and their obligations to their society.

The minister’s older son, also an ordained minister, and his wife were home for the holidays, and we were asked to go along to church the next morning, where the young couple were holding a service of carols and readings. Lizzie and I did so, and very moving it was too. The church dates from the first part of the 19th century and has the stark, beautiful simplicity of a Quaker meeting house. The readings were well chosen, from the Bible from Isaiah to the great first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, together with readings from one of the greatest Christian martyrs of all time, Dietrich Bonhöffer. The music, played on the clarinet by the pastor’s younger son and on the cello by the son’s partner was exquisite–Bach and Beethoven and more.

I was moved by the sincerity and elegance of the event, and especially by the warm welcome. I could see how churchgoing plays such an important role in American life and realized, as I have often thought, had I married someone who was a practicing Christian how I could easily fit into a family pattern of going to services. But I did not have a spiritual experience and I was keenly aware that emotionally and intellectually I was an outsider. I found myself reflecting on their faith and my lack of it.

We have if you like two paradigms, although unlike Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms I do see some overlap. Strip away all of the silliness and (very nontraditional) nonsense about absolutely literal readings of the Bible and the Christian story is simple and powerful. We are the creation of a good god and yet we are deeply flawed. God loves us so much He was prepared to undergo great suffering to save us from ourselves and to make possible our eternal salvation.

I, the non-believer, accept completely the beginning part about our being deeply flawed and inadequate. If you don’t feel that at the age of 71, then you have been living in cloud cuckoo land. I think always of the great hymn by Isaac Watts.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My greatest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

That applies to nonbelievers too.

The question is where you go from here. For me, there is no message of hope and eternal future. I just cannot feel that things are made that way. Don’t cry for me or pity me. I am comfortable in my nonbelief and grow more so every day. It’s just that I think the only meaning to life is that which you create yourself. Trying to be a better friend or parent or spouse or teacher or citizen or whatever. Remembering always what Plato says in the Republic. Only the good person is the truly happy person and so striving is both an obligation and a joy. And that’s it.

I am not a hard-line atheist. There are too many unanswered questions for that. What we philosophers call the Fundamental Question: Why is there something rather than nothing? And above all the question of consciousness, sentience. There are some unsolved problems like the natural origin of life that I see being solved. I just don’t even think we’ve made a start on sentience. These problems don’t flip me into belief, but they keep me from certainty that there is nothing. I just don’t expect more or indeed altogether want more. Bernard Williams once wrote of the “tedium of immortality”!

Do I think Christianity is the Big Lie, in an Orwellian sense? I think it can be and we see this in our society today, as when in the name of Jesus people try to control women’s bodies and stop gay lovers from having the rights of the rest of us and more—such as convincing people that state-enforced, medical care for everyone is a morally bad thing. But I see that nonbelief can be a Big Lie too—think Russia and China.

Why do my friends—and I hope they are my friends—at First Presbyterian think one way and I another? Is it because (as I confess I think) I am a bit more grown up than they? Or is it because, as I suspect a Calvinist like Alvin Plantinga thinks, God decided on sheep and goats and they are sheep and I am a goat and frankly there is not much more to be said? I dunno.

These are the thoughts and questions that that service on Christmas morning set spinning in my mind, and for this I am thankful to my wife’s friend and the minister and his wife and children and their partners. They are important questions and it is good to think about them, even if you know ultimately you will never fully answer them. And it is good to realize that even though we don’t agree on the deepest of questions, we live in a society where that is possible and where we can go on living and working together in friendship and love. You hear a lot of criticisms from me about American society, but not today.

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