What Christmas Means to Me

640px-Nativity_tree2011

 

Good morning friends and readers – –

The morning twilight has begun although I’m 37 minutes away from seeing the sun rise.  Perhaps before I finish the post.  A plaintiff train whistle calls in the distance, followed by the low comforting rumble of constant steel wheels on tempered rails.  The house sleeps.

We have teenagers now.  They will likely sleep past the sun’s announcement.  How different it was in the footed pajama days.  They woke us up then.  We, tired from putting together the some assembly required toys which took two glasses of wine to manage.  We, happy to wake while tired, reliving childhood excitement in the eyes of our children.  We, remembering ourselves – – just what does this day mean to us?

I know that R&P has readers in both skeptical and believing camps.  I realize that the believers represent a plurality.  That’s the whole point as we grow.  So, if you trust me, let me share my belief with an open hand.  I know that I could be wrong, but I’m living as if I’m right.  I know that I can’t answer every question, but this is where I stand.

Christmas speaks of the difference.  I have begun a long journey to understand the faiths that are not my own.  A particular focus of these writings is my friendship with Russell, an atheist.  Skeptics, agnostics, and freethinkers may sit within this Venn circle and my heart is expanding for them.  What of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’i, Taoists, Jains, and others?  Where is the difference?  Are there not just believers and nonbelievers?  If the story of each faith (or lack thereof) was the same, then that would be true.

Christmas speaks of the difference.  God is spirit.  That statement puts me at odds with Sean Carroll and my dear friend Russell.  Spirit does not exist in the naturalist worldview.  Soul could be reduced to biochemistry and neuroscience – – mind, will, emotion mapped by functional MRI.  But spirit remains undefined, and for many unreal.  God is spirit.

We are made in God’s image.  Is Genesis and the garden literal?  Did God create life from chemistry from the physical laws that he authored and then superintend evolution?  There is room in my orthodoxy for either.  We are made in God’s image.  So we are spirits.  Our spiritual nature does not exist in the naturalist worldview.  I respect and understand that, but disagree.  Therein lies a clear divide in a sea of subtlety – – believers believe in spirit, nonbelievers insist that nature is enough because it is all and that the supernatural begs the gods of gaps to step in.

Christmas is the story of God’s spirit completely entering mortal body and soul in Jesus Christ.  God’s spirit navigated the humanity he created.  God’s spirit was willingly and intentionally contained in the frailty of a human body with human mind, will and emotions.  God’s spirit did what we do – – suffer.  Christmas is the story of compassion, literally suffering with.  The Buddha did not suffer with me, he taught me how to avoid it by divorcing attachment.  The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not suffer with me.  He taught me how to submit to God and how to conquer.  The pantheon of Hinduism did not suffer with me.  They taught of creation, destruction, and the fire that synthesizes the two in daily life.  Jesus suffered.

Russell and I have gone back and forth on passages as simple as Romans 1:1-7 – – the claim that Jesus was a historical figure, the claim that his differing genealogies in the gospels could be reconciled, the claim that his life could serve as a foundation for ours.  If he was a figment of Paul’s imagination, then I should not build my life on him.  I should not consider it joy to suffer with him as he suffered with me.  I should not offer false hope to others.  Rather, I should help them (and me) to construct a reason sufficient to imbue life with meaning – – or just not care about meaning at all – – I could be naive.

Christmas is not the story of an angry father brutalizing his son.  Christmas is the story of God coming himself and accepting the force of his own wrath in the only way that offers mercy without trampling on justice. Christmas means a lot to me.  What else does Christmas mean to me?  It means that I was deeply cared for and so I will care for you.  I was not brave enough to love before being loved.

I look forward to completing our first year together in writing.  I hope that our friends grow and are blessed by respectful conversation.  Ahh – – the sun is rising.

Merry Christmas,

Pascal

–1:16

“Nativity tree2011” by Jeff Weese – Flickr: Nativity. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_tree2011.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Nativity_tree2011.jpg

13 comments

  1. Interesting read and nice summation of the respect that needs to be taken for every religion…at least for the sake of relating to this blog. I find the most interest in the spirits aspect of life…and well, death too. I believe that the spirit is the only thing that provides the vitality of life. The body withers away and turns back to Earth because that where its from. But the spirit carries on, and in some instances, may even linger within a location. So how can people not conceive a life beyond death? Or the existence of spirits, and their return from whence they came?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a fair question to ask skeptical friends. Step one — have skeptical friends and earn the trust required to ask fair, but difficult questions. Step two — listen as carefully and patiently as possible. Careful and patient listening are not natural to me. I hope to grow into it. Welcome friend.

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    2. Hi dredbeauty,

      I can’t tell if your questions are only rhetorical or not. If you are really interested in someone answering let me know – I’ll give it a shot.

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      1. Yes plzz answer. If the body is of the Earth where is our spirit from? And where does it go when we die? I know theres heavy debate about life after death, but I, for one, believe that we live on in other forms. Explain to me ur point of view Howie.
        P.S thanx for responding it was rhetorical but im always up for insightful perspectives.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. dredbeauty,

          First, I personally don’t think all the evidence we currently have leads to a completely certain conclusion about philosophy of mind, but I do think there is evidence that we have which points to the conclusion that the mind emerges from functions of our brain, and does not continue after death.

          It is clear that modification of the brain by either chemicals or injury changes personality. This seems to be a fact that I haven’t seen disputed because it has been verified by medical investigations. This suggests a strong tie of who we are (which you call spirit) to our brains.

          In previous generations it was the case that our eating habits caused heart failure before brain failure but we are beginning to see a strong rise in the amount of people living long enough to where the brain begins to show how it’s deterioration leads to deterioration of our personality. My father turned 93 recently and he has been showing signs of dementia for about 5 years or so. The past year has unfortunately shown strong changes in the person our family knew before. I realize there can be responses to this that keep the idea of a spirit that lives on after death, but again this looks to me like a good reason to believe that our consciousness is tied to our brains, and thus when the brain fully dies, the consciousness dies as well.

          There is also a commonly shared experience of the fact that we don’t remember any form of consciousness before we were born (when our brains didn’t exist). I have very little memory of who I was before the age of about 4 as my brain was developing in it’s early stages. In that way I can very easily imagine that after I die I will no longer be conscious.

          Also, here is a link to a good explanation of the “interaction problem” which is the most common objection to the belief that there is a spirit that lives independently of our brain function: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/05/23/physics-and-the-immortality-of-the-soul/

          I’d like to also add that lots of things that many of us consider to be solid facts could be philosophically questioned. For example, all philosophers are aware of “the problem of the external world” which details the fact that we don’t really have solid proof beyond a doubt that the external world which we see around us is actually real. Obviously we practically live assuming that it is, which makes that question a little different, but the point is the same – complete certainty is beyond our capability but I still believe we can build reasonable conclusions based on empirical investigations and critical reasoning.

          Another interesting point to ponder is that I’ve met several well thought Christians who believe in annihilationalism which is the belief that those who don’t go to heaven do not have a continuation of their consciousness after death. This doesn’t prove my point at all, but indicates a wide diversity of belief even among Christians regarding “spirit”, and some of that includes a belief that consciousness could end after death.

          Sorry for my comment length but the topic is a very deep one. If you have strong evidence to believe otherwise I’d be interested in hearing it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. don’t apologize that was a good explanation. I see that a lot of people rely on science but there are some things that science cannot explain. and I appreciate that you brought that up in your comment.
            I just don’t see how some people can not believe that there may be a life of consciousness without the body. At least even consider it, albeit from skeptical medical standpoint.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I suppose everyone has their own differing levels of skepticism (or lack of skepticism) toward things like that. I’m a bit more open than some to such ideas, but just tend to doubt the idea more than not.

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  2. Hi Pascal – I hope you and yours have been having a wonderful Christmas. I’ve been noticing your words paint pictures. Does your day job include writing? I’m an engineer so I don’t have that skill.

    My children are 9 and 6 so out of the footed pajama stage but definitely not out of the early wake up stage. 🙂 We’ve been enjoying more than a week of holidays with Chanukah and now Christmas. The holidays to me mean wonderful times with family and friends. Drawing closer, appreciating them, hugs, kisses, jokes, laughter, fun stories. Of course all of that comes along with the typical tiffs which are to be expected as life’s not perfect (e.g. my wife wasn’t so happy about the early wake up 😉 ).

    By the way, some very liberal Christians might argue with you that even if it turned out that large parts of the Jesus story are myth they can still build their lives on the story which is meant as a symbol from the God which they believe in. Maybe not as easy a sell for most (like me) but at least another perspective to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Howie — I’m so glad that you were able to enjoy the gift of family — the tiffs are worth it. No, I don’t do much writing in my day job. Maybe that’s why journaling and writing here means so much to me. I think writing is how I learn, perhaps a part of how I see the world and construct reality. I have a soft spot for engineers – – mechanical in particular. My father was a PE and my youngest son aspires to engineering. Also a way to see the world and an incredibly useful way to contribute to it.

      Concerning your comment on some very liberal Christians and what they might argue. In my moments of quiet and doubt I’ve asked myself if I would join them. Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and blessings on your role as an active, engaged husband and father.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/private-language/
    I’d recommend some Wittgenstein. Words cannot “mean things to me,” because there is a universal grammar and particular cultural grammars that cannot break those universal rules. If one resorts to private meanings, we’re simply speaking incoherently. IE Christmas cannot have a private meaning anymore than “woman” or “dog” or “blackberry” can. We are taught language, we don’t create it. Check out Wittgenstein’s “beetle-in-a-box.”

    As for one of the commentators discussing the “connection” problem between body and spirit, this is a reiteration of the modernist Descartes so-called “Mind-Body Problem.” This departure from the hylomorphic camp (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas) can give an account of Phineas Gage (railway spike through the brain effecting personality) and a form or “s-o-u-l” as a kind of principle of motion that directs the body (thinking, passions, appetites). Once one forsakes the modernist substance dualist, material reductionist, or formal reductionist frameworks these so-called issues dissolve easily. I’d highly recommend Plato’s Republic to be read as the text itself suggests, as a parable about the soul, and not as a political treatise (read his Laws if you want that!).

    Peace be with you,
    Fr. Gregory

    ecuga.org/

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