The Poetic Optimism of Christmas

Some three or four years ago, I and three others had a discussion on the existence of God and whether, if God exists, he is anything like the God we find in the Christian Bible.  That particular discussion was between two Christians, myself included, and two atheists or agnostics.  At a moment in the discussion that, to this day, stands as an exceptionally vivid recollection in my mind, one of the non-christian gentleman asked of a particular doctrine, ‘but what’s the point of that?’, as if to say that the notion was unpleasant or inconvenient, to which the other offered the corrective reply, ‘No, it isn’t a matter of practicality, they actually believe it’s true’.

What was so memorable for me about this moment, and what should be so significant about it for others, is the way it blatantly uncovered a fundamental misunderstanding that many non-christians have about Christianity: we Christians do, as my friend said, actually believe in what we read in the Bible.  This seems, to most Christians, like it should be obvious, but from outside the tradition looking inward, it’s not.  Outside of Christianity, allover the world, people believe in things not because they are necessarily convinced of their truth, but because they want to.  In the common model, human comfort and happiness precedes, and is even the essential purpose of, human reasoning and philosophy, and philosophy is built around what is pleasant and practical; it is a rationalisation of that which is easiest to believe.

This pattern of human behaviour likely stretches all the way back to the beginning of mankind’s existence, ruling the human mind ever since we left the Garden of Eden, but I can at least vouch for its continued existence and dominance since antiquity.  This is significant because it means that even since the very birth of Christianity, there has been friction between the rest of the world and this very different kind of tradition—a kind of tradition in which, among other things, the sacred text is believed to be absolutely true.

At large, the pagan traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans centred their doctrines around the magnificent works of the epic poets, such as Homer and Vergil, among the which are the yet extant Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and also many others we have since lost, all of which likely derived from an oral tradition predating the time of Homer around the seventh or eight century BC.  The tales of these epics were called μύθοι (transliteration: muthoi) by the Greeks, from which we get our English word, myth.  This is why the vast body of pagan religious literature in which those works are included is called ‘mythology’ in modern times.  Today, one of the primary meanings of the word ‘myth’ is ‘a false story’, but to the ancient Greeks, a μῦθος was, first and foremost, a story.  Hence, the word itself did not denote these tales as necessarily false, but even in ancient Greece, the word was also used for fables and professed works of fiction.  So, even for the ancient Greeks, as I would argue, there was a looming undertone of falsehood in the connotation of the word.

This semi-modern usage of the word myth is what makes the world of Indian religions, and many similar traditions, go round.  Indian religion is of interest because it is comparable to ancient Greek traditions in this respect.  Just as in ancient Greek mythology, there are many formulations of the same myths, and each one is considered valuable in its own right, though, to account for the contradictions, none of them need be true.  They are myths, didactic fables that have significance in the moral and philosophical principles they present, but not necessarily in their histories.

This is the same sort of religious scene into which a very different kind of story, the true story of Christ, entered some two-thousand years ago.  In principle, Christianity should not have been dramatically different from what preceded it.  We can find the idea of a reversed hierarchy, in which the God of the universe is made to be born, a man, in the humblest of circumstances—we can find something very similar to such a concept in Odysseus’ return to his family as a beggar instead of a hero, after his rightful place as head of the house has been usurped by suitors, just as Christ’s rightful sovereignty was held by the Roman empire.  And the idea of self-sacrifice is all over ancient tales of battle and κλέος, epic glory.  But these things were principles and philosophic ideals that were thought of with a kind of dreamy romanticism; they were the way things ought to be.˚

On the other hand, the radical proposition of Christianity that such stories could be historical fact, and indeed, could be the singular story of God Himself, is something all together unprecedented in human history.  In this way, Christ’s birth is the epitome of what I have called ‘poetic optimism’ in my last post.  Just as Catullus takes the vulgar understanding of love and humanity and transforms it into something better, so does Christ’s birth transform pagan mythology.

As I pointed out in my last post, our word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin vulgaris, meaning ‘common’, or ‘that which belongs to the vulgus, the common people’.  This is the way we might describe pagan mythology before Christ.  It was something common, and even, occasionally, something vulgar.  In Greek and Roman mythology, references to love are really references to Venus, sexuality and lust.  But Christmas presents a fresh ideal of love, a transformation of this common thing into something far more weighty and worthy.  It’s the story not of a god falling in love with or lusting over a human, but of the God displaying His sacrificial love that He has born for humanity since He first conceived of her.


˚ On a less serious note, I’d like to point out that the Greeks even mocked the ridiculousness of their own mythology, with one of my favourite examples being a line from Aristophanes’ comedy, Birds: Heracles addresses Poseidon, “Just hold on a minute there, Poseidon, by god!  Do we really want to fight a war over a single woman?  That’s ridiculous!”  I would make a footnote explaining the humour of this line for those of you who may not get it, but this is already a footnote, and right now, making a footnote to a footnote is a little too silly even for me.