Christmas: A Meditation

Christmas: A Meditation
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The Christmas story is subversive, so we try to render it safe and saccharine. Contrast the idea of God as some great, all-powerful being in the sky with the icon of the helpless baby in the manger. The former, many imagine, micromanages all the details of our lives and the nightly news; the other needs his diaper changed. The Christmas story takes God off his high throne in the firmaments and puts him into a crib, surrounded by animals, wrapped in dirty rags, and in grave danger. The reversal is staggering. The incarnate God enters the world as a baby!

God, too, must evolve and develop, be born and be nurtured. The Baby Jesus is an archetype in evolution’s long progression through an unbroken chain of babies. From an evolutionary perspective, there must continue to be babies, and these babies must survive long enough to themselves reproduce. Moreover, human offspring require many years of selfless devotion by adults—as children arrive unfinished, vulnerable, and powerless. Survival and reproduction are paramount, and as such, deeply imprinted in our minds-brains-bodies-cultures.

Life, however, is more than mere survival and reproduction. Jesus puts a question mark over the existence of what we hold most true, good, and beautiful in the human drama. As such, the actual story of Christmas is filled with existential terror. There is nothing kitschy here. God is born the bastard child of Mary into poverty and oppression. Jesus will soon be the only child to survive the great massacre of Bethlehem.

We are also survivors. We are the lucky babies who grew up. We feel a tinge of guilt that we expiate in this season of giving. Looking backward, we see happenstance in our births and in the world. While we got this far, we know our luck won’t last forever. Like Jesus, our death is always a certainty from the day we are born.

Still, life is addictive—a series of intermittent experiences with predictable and unpredictable pleasures and pains. We want more. Childlike anticipation overshoots the reality of Christmas morn. The hype leaves us feeling unsatisfied, ready to try again next year. Christmas harnesses our outsized expectations and infinite desires.

We humans display an unreasonable and sometimes wonderful expectation that life should be better than it is, and that we should be better people than we actually are. This spiritual hunger for life lived more abundantly is whence many of us seek and perhaps find God-by-whatever-name.

It turns out, however, that God needs us much more than we need him. Like the baby, God needs us especially in the laboring and the rearing, in bringing forth many instantiations of good, beautiful, and true things in the world. Incarnation is a kind of bottom-up creativity. In order to survive, these daily creations need help along the way. The newly born need peace in the world and good will to all. The angels proclaim: survive, thrive, adapt, evolve!

The Christmas story can be read independently of what one believes about Christianity or God. It can be read as a story that promotes values and behaviors conducive to survival and reproduction. It does so through complex biocultural evolutionary pathways that now also promote retail sales and endless repetition of seasonal songs in the shopping mall nearest you. Sacred stories may not be true, not in the sense that history and science are true, but they seem always to be profound.

Originally published on the Huffington Post, 2011/12/16.

William Grassie is an interdisciplinary scholar, academic entrepreneur, social activist, and accomplished author. During his school years, he hitchhiked some 30,000 kilometers throughout North America and Europe. He has worked as a newspaper boy, night watchman, farm hand, house painter, dish washer, janitor, caretaker of multiply handicapped children, apprentice in a ceramic studio, camp counselor, computer consultant, real estate manager, and general contractor, among other jobs. Billy received a B.A. in political science from Middlebury College, and then worked for ten years on nuclear disarmament, citizen diplomacy, conflict resolution, community organizing, and sustainability issues in Washington, D.C, Jerusalem, Philadelphia, and West Berlin. He completed a Ph.D. in Religion from Temple University, where he wrote a dissertation on "Reinventing Nature: Science Narratives as Myths for an Endangered Planet" (1994). He has taught at Temple University, as well as at Swarthmore College, Pendle Hill, and the University of Pennsylvania. A recipient of academic awards and grants from the American Friends Service Committee, the Roothbert Fellowship, and the John Templeton Foundation, Billy served as a Senior Fulbright Fellow in the Department of Buddhist Studies at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka in 2007–2008. He is the founding director of the Metanexus Institute, which promotes scientifically rigorous and philosophically open-ended exploration of foundational questions. Metanexus has worked with partners at some 400 universities in 45 countries and publishes an online journal. He has authored "The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and Bottom Up" (2010) and a collection of essays, "Politics by Other Means: Science and Religion in the 21st Century" (2010).