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An Egghead's Eggnog Tidings

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The polymathic German scholar Max Weber (stay with me, Huffpost readers) viewed the entire history of Western religiosity as tending toward, and culminating in, a modern process of disenchantment. In short, we moderns have become less and less inclined to believe in a truly magical or miraculous universe. Latter-day Protestantism, thought Weber, had replaced a genuinely sacramental (read: magical) view of redemption with a largely instrumental and calculating view of religious endeavor. The penultimate cost-benefit analysis would now go thus: If God is good, then x, y, and z must follow--for those reasons, I shall commit my belief to Him and His Heaven. Such a deal!

Against a Weberian backdrop I reflect upon my own sometimes-ambivalent attempts to maintain to my kids for as long as possible the fairy-tale deception that is Santa Claus. As a family we indulge in all of the seasonal silliness: flashing colored lights outside on the house and lawn; a tree in the house adorned with hand-crafted decorations; special holiday candies and treats; songs and stories about a roly-poly bearded guy in a red suit who comes down the chimney and brings gifts to all good girls and boys. The ornamental lights and jingle-bell merriment clearly disrupt a business-as-usual sense of the world (even as they contribute to capitalist coffers). Such extra-ordinariness seems to add up to a kind of collective, conspiratorial, Gnostic gesture toward maintaining or recuperating the possibility for modern miraculousness. (Hannah Arendt, a secular Jew, turned to Augustine's notion of natality--the miracle of birthing--as the centerpiece thematic on which to build her elaborate theory that political action, properly understood, can indeed, at times, re-invest the world with newness). I gladly share, or participate vicariously, in my kids' prolonged anticipation for Christmas Day to come: Maybe, maybe, maybe--they hope against their better judgment and growing peer pressure to the contrary--Santa is real. The astonishing appearance of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning seems to provide proof-positive confirmation of the presence of magic while confounding, at least for duration of the holiday period, all down-to-earth thoughtfulness that we've been trying to inculcate in them otherwise. Those gifts--appearing overnight, somehow bestowed, not exactly given, involving no reciprocity, not making complete sense at all: what joy!

The festivity brings unexpected adult pleasures, too--if a bit arcane. At a neighborhood "cookie exchange" party, I eventually gravitate toward another academic in the room, a professor of religion, a "Q" scholar at that, who lives around the corner from us, and we strike up a conversation about his latest book, on the historical Jesus: Can it really be that the New Testament tradition espousing Mary's virginity probably hails from a simple mistranslation (e.g., Isaiah 7: 14) of the Hebrew word for young girl (almah)? Why wouldn't the Catholic Church step in sooner to correct that obvious typo? Well, I say, part of me admires such protracted intransigence! Besides, maybe it took fifteen centuries of stern-faced monkish insistence on that ridiculous conception so that Rabelais could produce his wonderful mockery of it in his scatological depiction of "the very strange manner of Gargantua's birth." Some jokes, especially those most sublime, require a long set-up. In retrospect, it was probably worth it.

At the heart of Weber's analysis is that Christianity, at its apex, was a religion that turned on magic, not just mystery. I do wonder why so many contemporary believers take its basic soteriological narrative so literally, so earnestly, so clumsily. The fideist, decisionist, and absurdist traditions in Christianity seem so much more compelling to me (were I to choose): Pauline conversion; Tertullian apologetics; Pascalian wagering; Kierkegaardian fearfulness and faith-leaping; Calvinist depravity and helplessness. Even rationalist Aquinas predicated his grand notion of a "Great Return" to the creator on an inexplicable pivot point in history, the unfounded interjection of God's son as savior into the temporal order of things. Christianity doesn't make sense, and blind belief doesn't repair its utter implausibility. Freud was surely right that it is not fit for grown-up minds. Heaven is a great construct, a wonderfully poetic aspiration that provides, for many, tremendous inspiration, uplift, prospect, and consolation--but it nevertheless requires a childlike, maybe childish sense of dreamworld fantasy, like the belief in Santa Claus.

By now, if you've concluded that I'm blogging a bottom-line bah-humbuggery to it all, you'd be missing my point. Me, I love watching my kids gleefully opening those presents, an act emblematic, albeit in a contorted way, of the story of gifting to the baby Jesus, a further testament to the sheer idea of Jesus as an improbable gift to humankind, the worldly insinuation and ironic insistence that human flesh ought to be seen as potentially sacred in the highest sense imaginable. But goodness gracious, don't mistake the letter of that tale for the spirit (and certainly don't let the letter killeth the spirit along the way). Need I really wait an eternity to regard my precious children--and other children--as divine-like creatures?

In his recent book, Patriotism and Other Mistakes, George Kateb strongly warns against aestheticizing religion, which so often leads, he submits, into the dangers and horrors of an aestheticized politics. Duly noted here. On the other hand, I so love Dante: the very proposition, expressed and enacted through the Commedia, that the poet becomes the pilgrim, that Dante replaces Christ, and that now art replaces theology, affording us to grasp the distant possibility of, as it were, a redemptive vision of love. In a nutshell, that is why, in my humble view, Cinema Paradiso beats out Miracle on 34th Street as the greatest movie of all time.