The True Meaning…
“The Rt Rev Carl Cooper warned political correctness was destroying the meaning of Christmas.” Daily Mail, 2008
“A bishop has added his voice to the chorus of complaints that political correctness is destroying the meaning of Christmas…” Daily Mail, 2007
“Only one in 100 Christmas cards sold in Britain contains any religious imagery or message… scenes of the Nativity has been replaced on cards by designs or jokes with little or no relevance to the Bible story and the true meaning of Christmas.” Daily Mail, 2006
For some people it is when the first tinsel and cards appear in the shops, for others when the first blitz of TV ads for this year’s Tracey Island hit our screens, or the Christmas Radio Times hits the shelves. I measure the ever-earlier approach of Christmas in headlines. Before the first window on my advent calendar is open and the first chocolate tasted, there are the headlines. “School choir forced to pull out of Christmas concert as carols were ‘too religious’” was my favourite last year. Although embellished with a bit of health and safety from time to time (“Killjoy bosses have ordered firefighters to take down their Christmas decorations,” “A major department store has been banned from playing Christmas carols because they create ‘noise pollution’”), the main refrain that is sung each year is that this secular age has lost the meaning of Christmas, the true meaning, the real meaning.
The implication overall is that, without the Jesus bit, we who might celebrate in December are shallow and trivial. We are thinking of nothing but feasting, giving and receiving gifts and spending good times with family and friends. ‘How superficial! How trivial!’ is the charge. But many of us, thinking about it, will wonder what is wrong exactly with spending our holiday this way. ‘You are missing the real meaning’, say Christians. But perhaps the opposite is true. Quite apart from the fact that the real roots of Christmas are pagan, not Christian (as A C Grayling shows elsewhere), the meaning of Christmas for many is precisely the time spent with family, the chance to reflect on the year gone and the year to come, the break from routine and the giving of gifts and it’s enhanced – not limited – by being divorced from supernatural narratives.
The festive outrage is, of course, just the surface of a much larger claim. It’s not just the meaning of Christmas that is lacking in humanists, but the meaning of life itself, which can only be provided by religion. ‘Enjoy your life’ said the atheist bus posters, and provoked the righteous ire of some for offering such an exhortation. The argument was that without the purpose of life found in faith, there can be no purpose. It is on this foundation that the case for theism and religion is often built these days, not least in the works of religious apologists spawned by the blockbusters of the ‘new atheists’. ‘Okay’, say the defenders of faith, ‘you can’t prove the existence or non-existence of god, like you might discuss the existence of Neptune or Alpha-Centauri; and it is obviously true that people can be good without religion or belief in god. But you’ve missed the point. What religion gives us is meaning – meaning and purpose.’ Faith is what gives structure to life, it gives narrative, it gives shape, it gives meaning – that’s what we godless just don’t get.
But is meaning really such a thing, something that we can read off from grand god-infused narratives and ancient fables? In a universe without discernable purpose or direction, those of us who are not religious will doubt that it is possible to make meaning this way, and deny that a grand and eternal narrative is useful to frame it. For many of us, the meaning of life, like the meaning of Christmas, comes not from ancient texts but from the experience of living our real and present lives. Our individual lives and feelings are important to us without an importance that comes from without. Some may pretend that an exhortation to ‘enjoy life’ must result in shallow hedonism and consumerism. This says a lot about what the critics in question may secretly take enjoyment to be, but not much about anything else. Human beings have intelligence, imagination and creativity to give direction and purpose to their lives. By seeking happiness, and making it easier for others to be happy, by taking enjoyment in the wonders of nature and of human art, by valuing that inner life that makes us more than other animals, and by working together to overcome our problems and make the bad times better, human beings can give the human world a meaning and purpose of its own. In fact, the conviction that our mortal, earthbound existence is all the human existence there is can act as a powerful spur towards these goals. Many humanists embrace Sigmund Freud’s assertion that ‘Limiting the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of an enjoyment.’
For some, of course, this statement seems the very opposite of life-affirming, and what the baby in the manger means as much as anything else is the promise of a life hereafter. Eternal life for some is what guarantees meaning, because a life without god is a life that must end with death, and this finality, they feel, robs life of meaning. To rational people, the case for something being true cannot be built on its being comforting to believe, but even if we ignore that for the present, the idea of life after death does not necessarily bring comfort.
Even if we accept that there may be some personal existence after death, there is no reason to think that it might be a happy state. Some critics targeted into the atheist bus adverts because they invited people to ‘stop worrying’, but let’s remember why that phrase appeared in the adverts. The original Christian adverts to which the Atheist Bus Campaign was a response linked to a website that promised non-Christians an eternity of torment in a lake of fire. Pretty worrying. Just as distressing to the thoughtful might be the prospect of infinite existence, deprived of the finitude that gives meaning to our feelings and experiences. So, although there may well be many who find meaning in the hope of a future existence, there are many others who will accept with greater comfort the 2,300 year old reassurance of the humanistic philosopher Epicurus: ‘…death is nothing to us. All good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation.’ We need not worry about torment and suffering in a future existence – it is the present world, comprehensible and time-bound, where we must exist and flourish. We may not all achieve the full and active 98 years of Bertrand Russell, but we can aim to cultivate his sentiments on this question: ‘An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually, the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man or woman who, in old age, can see his or her life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things they care for will continue.’
There are many other non-religious responses to the fact of death as the end that we can draw on as consolations from the rich tradition of humanist thought. The idea of returning to nature consoles many of those who reflect, with Carl Sagan, that we are all made of ‘star-stuff’ and will return to nature when we are finished. ‘Nature’s law is that all things change and turn, and pass away, so that in due course, different things may be,’ as the stoic Marcus Aurelius said, and this feeling persists in the contemporary trend towards eco-burials where human bodies nurture the soil of beautiful places. Others draw comfort from the fact that, though those we love die, the echoes of their lives remain with us as do their achievements. Sometimes they are so present in our thoughts we forget they are dead. ‘To die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead,’ said Samuel Butler, and in facing our own deaths we can reflect that we too will leave behind us some legacy, of children, of good deeds done or of achievements made.
Meaning that comes from these quotidian sources is not trivial or superficial, just because we can often find it in the little places of our lives (notice them this Christmas – making the meal, decorating the house, the little moments of achievement which we can notice during and after, enjoy, and which add to our lives).
Ask many people what it is that Christmas means to them and they will say it is a time for friends and family – a time for being together. Much of our fulfilment, meaning and purpose can come from others – from our relationships with friends and family. These are the sort of relationships that are affirmed at this time of year by being together, by giving and receiving gifts, cards and good wishes. And the meaning that we find in our relationships with family and friends is not the only meaning we can find in people. If we extend our thinking and our sympathies, we can see ourselves as part of a global continuum of people; this continuum also stretches through time. The human story is millennia older than the Christmas story, which cannot hope to contain the grander narrative that history, biology, anthropology, geology and all the sciences of human ingenuity have unveiled.
We do not have to look only to our fellow human beings for meaning. It flows just as readily from our experiences of the world of nature and of art around us, and again this are enhanced for us in a way that even the wisest of ancient wise men could not have understood. What after all is more wonderful – a single star pushed across the firmament by the hand of god, or the fact that, looking up at the night sky, our imaginations can now push out into a universe of billions of stars? The wonder we can feel when we contemplate the vastness of the universe is correspondingly vast – and meaning is not only found in these expansive vistas. Perhaps no time of the year as Christmas is so associated in our minds with smaller ‘scenes’ of beauty – winter landscapes, still and silent – and many of us find the contemplation of nature and art gives a fulfilment which enriches life. It’s stretching the point a little to add pantomimes and TV Christmas specials in this same category but they too give us enjoyment and signify the wider world of stories, plays, music and art can which we value are all part of the fulfilment to be experienced in life.
In our own memories too we make stories. At Christmas, we remember last Christmas, and the Christmas before; such moments in the calendar let us look back and forward order our lives as we take stock, and we weave them – as we weave all our experiences – into the narrative of our life. Our own lives are stories, as Bertrand Russell’s words convey, which we give a shape and purpose as best we can.
In the context of the universe, human beings are peripheral. The universe was not made for us. To the universe, we mean nothing. But to ourselves and each other we are everything. The real meaning is the one we make for ourselves. And it’s for life, not just for Christmas.