Friday, December 4, 2015

As We Approach Christmas

As we observe this season of Advent that leads to the Holy Incarnation which by all accounts is the most momentous event in theology, I am reminded of how I felt as a boy about the birth of the God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. We can't forget this glorious birth of our Lord. Even before Advent, in late October, Christmas hymns were played in all shopping centres. Neglectful though we may be of our religious duties, the world will remind us of the birth of Jesus. As I hear the hymns played in secular establishments and particularly, as I hear the lyrics that include direct exhortations to 'Fall on your knees' and 'Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend', I cannot help but think that the biblical prophecy that 'every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord' has a ring of truth.

A nativity scene I inexpertly photographed in a church.

When I was very young, during Advent, I could always feel within me both a sense of the sacred and the expectant joy of Christmas. The joy of Christmas began to diminish little by little as I grew older and this is natural, as adults do not share the same exuberant joy that only children can experience, but the sense of the sacred or the divine remains fairly strong. And this is totally irrational, given my current stand on the supernatural.

When I first read in my youth the works of scholars who declared that the early stories of Jesus in the Holy Gospels were not authentic, I was devastated. I didn't want to believe what I read but my head told me that what the scholars said was perfectly rational. Despite my youth, I started to intellectually accept that what is ideal and what is desirable may not necessarily be true. But this is something many adults still cannot grasp even if they think they can. I have lost count of the number of times when grown men and women told me that Christianity had to be true because it was the most 'ideal, peaceful and loving religion' or some such words to the same effect. God must exist because otherwise there'd be no justice for good people can't be rewarded and the bad will remain unpunished. They are unable to accept that what is desirable need not be true.

Another church nativity scene. You have to bear with my poor photography.
I do not like to steal other people's photos.

But things got more depressing for me as I read more and more. I soon discovered that the Virgin Birth was the result of the alma-parthenos mistranslation. I wrote about this in greater detail a few years ago in this blog. Not having the 'wise men from Orient land' standing beside the infant Jesus in a lowly manger was bad enough. Not having the star from the East that is the subject of so many great hymns was unthinkable. But not having the Virgin Birth? That's heresy! Even today, whenever I recite the Creed, I will banish the truth from my mind and insist to myself that yes, Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Rather than applying the head which is antithetical to faith, I will focus on the 'mechanics' of the ritual, for example, at which point of the Creed I have to bow and at which point I have to cross myself, and these are of course things I'm familiar with as a former altar boy.

There are two ways a person can read up more about his own religion. One way is to read only the Bible and the works of conservative or even fundamentalist scholars. If your diet consists entirely of these, chances are you will end up a conservative Christian with exclusivist views. But if you read widely and do not restrict yourself to only 'fervent Christian' writers or 'born-again Christian' writers, whatever term you choose to use, there is a high likelihood that layer after layer of what used to be viewed as conservative truths will be peeled off, exposing serious flaws in the religion. Just by way of an example, when I wanted to read more about the Canon of Scriptures, I chose three books by three scholars - Bruce Metzger, LM McDonald and FF Bruce. FF Bruce is conservative evangelical but the other two are not. As it turned out, FF Bruce alone would have been enough to overturn my hitherto conservative understanding of Scriptures because unlike his other books meant for the general public (eg The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? which answers the question with an emphatic 'YES'), his more scholastic books aren't that 'edifying'.

But the beauty of Christianity is it's open for a complete debate. There are critical scholars in renowned universities and they write authoritative books critical of biblical reliability and even the faith in general. These people are not threatened at all. There is no fatwa against them. They continue to teach and write books.

Immediately after the Islamic State's killing of the Jordanian pilot by burning him in a cage, many Middle Eastern countries including Jordan and Egypt tabled a list of actions and one of them was the possibility of reforming Islamic teachings. But I have not seen any follow-up from that. To reform Islamic teaching, you must allow for critical scholarship. And the scholars cannot be threatened with death and bombings. It will be great if Islam, like Christianity, has its critical scholars including scholars who are not even Muslims. But can critical scholars who criticise the Quran and the Hadiths or show them to be spurious (the way critical scholars treat the Bible and Church Traditions) be assured of their personal safety?

If it's any comfort to traditionalists, the unreliability of Scriptures need not necessarily affect faith itself. The same with many other aspects of religion if they are shown to be false. We may know the erroneous means by which the Virgin Birth came to be a doctrine of the Church but that doesn't mean anything to the faithful. We still recite the Creed and we will still hear the angel's proclamation of the Virgin Birth at Christmas whether in church or at the shopping centres and I know I will still be filled with wonder and awe at the glorious Incarnation when God took on flesh and became man through the Blessed Virgin. And as we look at the crib during its blessing, we (yes, even I) will be 'strengthened in faith and receive the fullness of life'.

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