Thu | Feb 22, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | Lessons at Christmas

Published:Sunday | December 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

It's Christmas time, and while generally being thankful that the Earth has made another revolution around the sun with me on the surface of it - rather than below it - I'm also mindful that this isn't such a bad time to be alive.

I also think that the part of the world I happen to live in is preferable to any of the alternatives. And that's for many reasons, not least among them is that liberty is prized in these parts, there is a great deal of material wealth, and I'm generally protected from the actions of those with more power than myself, even when I shout from the rooftops how much I dislike them or think they're full of it.

How it is that I came to be so fortunate is a question that has exercised my mind, and the answer when you get right down to it is that I was born under the dominion of the Cross. In my view, culture and politics swim downstream from metaphysics and religion, and we all happen to have pulled the lucky cards on that score.

I'm not talking here about the truth claims of Christianity, which is a whole set of other matters. I'm talking about its history and cultural impact. So here's another reason to enjoy yourself this Christmas: Ultimately, you made out like a bandit in the 'where you were born' sweepstakes.

Christianity, through a series of historical twists and turns, delivered a basically humanistic understanding of the world to us, one where we (at least in theory) hold human life to be sacred and prize the individual as the locus of value. We tend, of course, to focus on how the society fails to live up these ideals, but the fact of having these ideals is the more remarkable thing. They're not found elsewhere except insofar as the influence of the West has been felt. I love how this simple fact annoys people, but there it is.

There is no obvious reason that the inherent dignity of all human life is a tenet to hold. In fact, it is, historically speaking, such an utterly bizarre idea that if we weren't already so enmeshed in the belief, we would hardly derive it from our feelings about our neighbours.

Can humanism survive the severance from its religious roots?

I don't think it can, or at any rate, that it can for long. Without a Christian understanding of personhood, and unless animated by the great Christian mythos of a Man-God, it will wither away.

There are two rival stories of the moral revolution that gave us our present-day moral reflex of belief in human dignity, which as I've intimated, stands at the source of our respect for representative institutions, moral freedom, and expansive social ethics.

The first more ancient and accurate historiography has it that the moral revolution had its advent at Advent, and the ideas that developed there. In contrast, and against, the bloodthirsty and arbitrary pagan gods, Christianity instituted a law-governed world. A God of universal love opposed entrenched tribalism and held Charity as its highest virtue.

Of course, the impact and effects of this disruption continue and have slowly evolved through the many centuries.

The other story is that our basically humanistic impulses grew out of the repudiation of the Church and her ridiculous mysteries and fusty, smoky, old superstitions, when science and reason were held aloft and proven triumphant in the 16th and 17th centuries.

On this view, as the scientific revolution, with its enormously transgressive metaphysical claims, disrupted Christianity, people were slowly liberated from the constraints of the suffocating social and religious order.

One approach was typified by the great thinker Immanuel Kant, who managed to derive a philosophy that looked suspiciously like reheated Christian moralism out of "pure reason". Another approach was to revive epicureanism and talk of the greatest good for the greatest number. But that approach has fallen completely flat as a method of sustaining humanistic instincts, as it found itself unable to distinguish the worth of a dog's pleasure from the worth of a human being's.

The great philosopher Nietzsche saw that these enterprises were going nowhere. He was, like many of the early atheists, honest about the implications of giving up the belief in God as a central organising fact of individual and social life. Morality was over; it would be the dawn of nihilism, he said. I think he's right. Despite numerous rescue missions and saving attempts, none have been remotely successful in telling us why we need to care for strangers and other tribes.

This is not to say that atheists can't be moral people, any more than it is to say that religious people are moral. Not at all. In fact, many people arrive at their atheism because of a moral outrage at God, and a disgust with the particularity and idiosyncrasies of Christian teaching.

But I'm well and too deep into the intellectual debates now. The point was to say why it's a good idea to enjoy the festivities and mirth surrounding the birth of the Christ. Suffice it to say that whether you treat it as myth or as fact, or some variant in-between, it's landed you in a pretty good spot, with unequalled material abundance and moral and physical freedom. What's not to celebrate about all that?

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.