September 25, 2017

David Lose on “The Absurdity of Christmas”

David Lose holds The Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching. David led the creative team that developed Working Preacher, one of my favorite resources on the Internet. There he writes a weekly column on the upcoming lectionary texts. He also appears regularly as a columnist at the Huffington Post.

• • •

I love the Christmas message David Lose wrote for his HP column this week, “The Absurdity of Christmas.” In it, he reflects on the growing public voice of atheism, reflected in various advertisements and billboards posted during the holiday season.

The gist of the advertisements is essentially that there is little to no proof that Christmas — either as we imagine it or as narrated in the New Testament — ever happened and that, further, belief in God in general, let alone God incarnate in a baby born in Bethlehem, is foolish at best and more likely downright absurd. And here’s the thing that strikes me: They may be right.

He then chronicles several reasons why people find it hard to believe the Christmas story. First, the four Gospels themselves don’t set forth a unified, consistent account of Jesus’ birth. But before and beyond that Enlightenment-style criticism of the text, earlier skeptics found the concept of Incarnation fantastic, even unseemly. As far back as the second century, gnostics like Marcion found Jesus’ full humanity a difficult concept to square with their idea of God. Apologists like Tertullian responded by saying things like, “You repudiate such veneration of nature, do you, but how were you born?” In other words, if God is put off by such things as the messy birth of a baby, what makes us think he cares about real people at all?

Today, David Lose notes, it isn’t so much the philosophical/theological argument about God’s nature and relation to his creation that is the issue. The whole idea of an infinite-personal God to those who live in a secularized, materialist world is preposterous. Furthermore, if God does exist, what evidence is there that he gives a damn about us, given the horrific things that happen every day?

It is precisely at this point that Lose agrees with the atheists. The evidence is not strong in our favor. He quotes from W.H. Auden’s “Shepherd’s Carol” — “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.” And is this not the very point of God’s own outrageous, absurd act — to be born a baby in this world?

Nativity, Schongauer

Faced with cancer, or hunger, or loneliness, or disappointment, or depression, or any of the host of other things that on any given day threaten to overwhelm us, some have perceived, or at least dared to hope, that there is a reality beyond this one, that there is a God who created, cares for, and promises to redeem us and the whole creation. While some look upon this kind of desperate faith as part wishful thinking and part emotional crutch, others perceive, with Auden, that “nothing can save us that is possible” and so look with longing and hope to what Karl Barth once named “the impossible possibility.”

Which is why, I think, the billboards opposing Christmas don’t really offend me. For Christians like me, you see, atheism isn’t so much an offense as an understandable and occasionally tempting alternative in light of our circumstances. In an age when absolute certainty seems to be the goal, many Christians (and some atheists as well, I suspect) will likely dismiss this kind of tentative faith as weak or tepid. Yet a more temperate approach to questions of faith and doubt seems somehow to accord better with the story of a helpless babe born to a teenage mother and placed in a feeding trough. This is a story not of strength but weakness, not of certainty but of courage, not of power but of utter vulnerability.

So is the Christmas story unlikely, improbable, even absurd? Perhaps. But some of us think that the world needs such a story and is, indeed, a better place for its telling. And so we believe. We do not know for certain, but we believe…

There is something so winsome and utterly human in David Lose’s words. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t have to be afraid of doubting. I don’t need to fear when things don’t make complete sense, when I can’t explain everything. “I believe; help my unbelief” has always been the most honest prayer, I think.

We have common ground with our neighbors, even the most unbelieving of them. This world and what happens in it makes believing hard. A story about an infinite God being conceived in a young girl’s womb and “brought into the world together with its after birth” (Tertullian) doesn’t really make things any easier, now does it?

Comments

  1. I wish my Christians could be like that. In the circles I moved in everyone was 110% certain…right down to the rapture and end times theology.

    I find the following campaign for the Center for Public Inquiry to be much better. I think it goes more for the jugler in taking on certain aspects of fundy teachings…..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0SqlG8_gVY&feature=plcp&context=C3875abfUDOEgsToPDskIRUIUiJ-FuglYqZ9yWodZb

    • Paul Davis says:

      I do too Eagle.

      I doubt, and I think anyone who doesn’t doubt or struggle with their faith is either delusional or a liar. I can’t be around anyone who claims every answer is known, and every thing fits in a neat little package.

      I want real people in my life who struggle, hurt, and sometimes just don’t know. Anything else is not authentic…

      -Paul-

      • There was a guy I knew who had hid from many Christians that his brother was dieing from cancer. The facade that was projected, everything is fine; bothered me immensely when I learned. what was going on behind the scenes. When the news came to me that my Mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I cried and wept in my apartment; and told others. It turned my world upside down. How could someone pretend to have it together and project another image of “being together”. I just don’t understand a lot of evangelical Christians. And then comes all the questions. The whys, the hows, etc..

        I don’t know why this is like that. I’ve known people in bars and social clubs that talk about that messy divorce, that relative suffering from cancer, etc… For me this reminds me of why Christianity can pose a threat to one’s integrity and character. I don’t want to lie like that…

    • Today being the feast of St. John the Evangelist, from the “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians” by St. Jerome:

      The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, “My little children, love one another”. At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, “Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only?” Whereto he replied to them, worthy of John, “It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.”

  2. Donegal Misfortune says:

    wow

  3. Kerri in AK says:

    I read the David Lose article at HuffPo and loved it. It fits in with the earlier iMonk essay on the foolishness of announcing the birth of Christ to a bunch of shepherds. “This is a story not of strength but weakness, not of certainty but of courage, not of power but of utter vulnerability.” Says it all if you ask me.

    Also, Working Preacher is a way cool resource! Thanks for mentioning it. I’ve now sent the link along to two of my favorite priests!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      If you want Strength, Certainty, and Power (as well as starting with an unbroken 500+ year winning streak), the Kaaba still beckons from the Great Mosque in Mecca.

  4. We used to realize how absurd the gospel message is, and apparently we have lost some of that along the way. I remember a couple of years back watching Ben Stein’s Expelled and arguing the premises of science vs. religion. I gave up actively engaging atheists, but we did have some whopper exchanges.

    “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are being saved it is the power of God.” I Corinthians 1:18, KJV

    Paul knew it, first century Christians knew it. God has a love and heart of mercy that surpasses our understanding. We must be careful not to re-create God in our image. Not only is he capable of bringing salvation (with God all things are possible) but he wishes to bring salvation. God’s heart is towards us whether that makes sense to us or not. God’s ways are not man’s ways. Thank goodness.

    http://themasterstable.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-foolishness-of-the-cross/

  5. Love it!

    C.S. Lewis had a grasp of the same reality saying that the God event is just too unlikely to have been thought up by humans.

    Lose sounds much like Peter Rollins…http://peterrollins.net/?p=2765

    Tom

  6. As a hospital chaplain, I was on the schedule to work yesterday. One of the pages I responded to was the room of a 47 year old on the oncology unit. I sat next to his bed while he told me that the doctors said he had a very short time to live. I listened while he explained, in his weak quiet voice, that he had heard all the christian stuff. Then he said, “I don’t get it, its just so confusing, its just so confusing”.

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    “many Christians (and some atheists as well, I suspect) will likely dismiss this kind of tentative faith as weak or tepid.”

    Without a doubt, so far as the atheists are concerned. The strictest Biblical literalists I know are atheists. They tend to be far stricter than Christians who self-identify as literalists. When I have engaged with them, they often insist that I must defend the literalist position and are confused and annoyed when I decline the honor. In my experience, non-Christians who understand that nuance is permitted in religion tend to self-identify as agnostics.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The strictest Biblical literalists I know are atheists. They tend to be far stricter than Christians who self-identify as literalists.

      I’ve seen a similar pattern in Furry Fandom, among the pathological furry-haters. They’re every bit as over-the-top obsessed fannish as those they spend 24/7 vocally hating, just flipped one-eighty from Total Blind Adoration to Total Blind Hatred.

    • Oh, yes. The ones who say “Ha! So you believe the world was created in six actual days of twenty-four hours each!” and then when you say “No, I don’t”, it’s “So you’re not a realChristian then!”

  8. RuthAnn Wilson says:

    Reminds me of Madeleine l’engle’s Glorious Impossible. http://www.amazon.com/Glorious-Impossible-Illustrated-Frescoes-Scrovegni/dp/0671686909

  9. Rebekah Grace says:

    “We have common ground with our neighbors, even the most unbelieving of them. This world and what happens in it makes believing hard.”

    There is something very comforting in those sentences. Maybe it’s the world I was reared in where I was told and/or heard amongs the adults that we have nothing in common with our neighbors, let alone the most unbelieving kind. “Set yourself apart” and “come out from among them”…..are things my mother is still trying to unlearn in her 70’s. Part of my heart as a youngster who bailed was that I didn’t want to set myself apart OR come out from among them….I wanted to be with them, know them, be amongst them.

    With all God has been showing me and re-teaching me……not much has changed in my heart’s desire.

    • Kerri in AK says:

      Rebekah – I’ve come to the same place much later in life than you have. My sister and a friend (both very faithful, loving ladies, believe me!) have warned me against consorting with the enemy, so to speak, but those are the very people Jesus spent time with. In very mystical, interesting ways I’ve been called to live and work among the beat up and brutalized, depressed and despairing, arrogant and angry. Some believe, many do not, but God wants me there even when I falter and waiver in my own belief. It isn’t for me to debate the existence of God but get on with the business of making a life together no matter how contrary and dramatic it might be. And I readily admit I’m a bit slow – I’m just now figuring out what my heart’s desire is!

      • Rebekah Grace says:

        +1

        There are enemies, we have been told, that appear to be wolves in sheeps clothing. I watched a youtube video recently titled “unpresentable”….search it on youtube…..it will flip your lid!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Maybe it’s the world I was reared in where I was told and/or heard amongs the adults that we have nothing in common with our neighbors, let alone the most unbelieving kind. “Set yourself apart” and “come out from among them”….

      And we’ve seen where that leads. Pinched off behind their own Godly event horizon in their own Bible-saturated punyverse, surrounded by Christianese knockoffs and Utterly Secure in the Echo Chamber of their own Righteousness, denouncing all outside their four Thomas Kincade-decorated walls as Heathens, Apostates, and Heretics.

      Just like those Dwarfs who Wouldn’t be Taken In, crouching in their filthy stable while Aslan’s Land waited outside.

  10. David Cornwell says:

    We may never win the argument against atheism. It’s too much like arguing with other fundamentalists of whatever kind. Very seldom will they turn in another direction because we have won on points. Christianity doesn’t make sense to the world. The Story comes to us in paradox. Even many “believers” become extremely uncomfortable discussing the Sermon on the Mount. The Kingdom will never arrive by sword or force or even in the parlor of debate. And yet we pray along with Jesus that the Kingdom will come, and we continue to give allegiance to the King. And believe that His flag is firmly planted on our shores. Someday He will reappear in all of His glory.

    • David, as usual, you express my own thoughts much more eloquently than I can myself. I think we often forget that Christianity was never intended to be a “majority” religion. Christ himself said that he came not to “bring peace, but a sword”, dividing families and friends along lines of belief. The temptation is to break down faith into a formula, or a math equation, something easy to understand and memorize, because we WANT to understand it ourselves, to erase all areas of doubt and speculation! Truth is, that’s just not possible. If we believers could all accept that reality with humility…

    • David….if Christians stopped treating atheists as “the enemy” and learned to just love them. You may be surprised. Its easier to hate than to love and many Christians do need an enemy, someone to vent at especially those involved in the culture wars. A number of atheists expect Christians to despise them, however they don’t expect to be loved.

      I don’t know why but many Christians make enemies for them self. It has nothing to do with the gospel. Absolutely nothing….

  11. I believe, help my unbelief is my daily prayer.

  12. They looked into His eyes.

    They saw Him heal the sick, and raise the dead.

    And yet they did not believe.

    _____________________________

    The gospel doesn’t need defending. Doubters don’t need to be entertained.

    The message just needs to be announced.

    God is actually a REAL GOD. And is more than capable of doing His will when it comes creating faith.

    Thanks.

    Merry Christmas, all.

    • “Doubters don’t need to be entertained.”

      That statement depends on so many variables.

      In some cases we bang our sandals together and move on, as Jesus told us to do. But when you’re dealing with co-workers, or family members, then I think it does not apply. Patience and empathy and reason do come into play.

      Thanks.

  13. Touchy topic for me….

    I side with the Atheists on a number of things, this thing we call faith is a sham from all appearances. Everyone that we hold up as a moral standard, turns out to be either a loon, or a sham artist who is committing the very moral acts they are so loudly preaching about. And none of there ever gave an inch, they had EVERYTHING figured out, and presented themselves and the picture of moral purity.

    We can’t even get a clear message on the incarnation, the virgin birth, or the resurrection. Our apologists have an answer for everything, and we love going to war with not only each other, but ANYONE who doesn’t hold to what we believe. We are supposed to be to ones who hold the message of salvation, but we can’t stop fighting long enough to notice our own boat is sinking.

    The majority of atheists I have talked to, or heard, all believed at one time. But when they started asking hard questions, instead of getting honest answers, they got the standard polish job. And finally walked away disgusted with the whole thing (and I did the same thing).

    What Eagle is looking for (don’t mean to speak for you, but this is what I hear) and what I searched for was AUTHENTICITY, the honesty to say “I don’t know the answer”, and “I’m not sure myself”. Instead of pontificating and parading around like you have it all figured out, why not just be honest and for once lay it all out with a little introspection thrown in.

    Timothy Keller did that in his apologetic works, when I read that I started to realize that maybe there was truth out there, Thomas Merton is another who is starting to impress me with his honesty.

    That’s why I stick around here, I know I can at least hear the truth. I don’t always agree, but it’s OK to share other opinions. THAT is what the Jesus I read in the bible was like, the only people he smacked around where those who claimed to have ALL THE ANSWERS…

    Good Stuff CM…

    -Paul-

    • Rebekah Grace says:

      Yes Paul! Authenticity is where it’s AT!

    • Paul…

      You know me well. Authenticity is what I desire. I would crave an environment where people would say “I don’t know…” There’s so much crap out there from different pastors who talk about humility, and yet very few have the balls to say, “I don’t know…”

      If I heard “I don’t know” about the end times, rapture, creationism, etc.. I don’t think I would have nose dived off a cliff.

      At the other end of the spectrum I wish people could be open about their demons. Talk openly about their struggles with alcohol, having that affair, using pornography, being a workaholic, troubles at work, problems with doubt, problems with marriage, kids rebelling, problems with the Bible, etc…

      I would find that refreshing. In addition it would give me hope, which right now I don’t have…

  14. Rebekah Grace says:

    I read this the other day and added it to my list of favorite quotes:

    Religion is weak and it causes people to question anything. Truth is strong and it can be questioned, searched, purified, filtered, and refined as many times as we like without losing any of its substance

    • Rebekah Grace says:

      “Truth is strong”…….it can handle us and all our whatever! I want to, not only learn and live that, but pass it along. If I don’t accomplish another thing in my life….to accomplish that would be enough.

  15. OK, I’m having a problem with this… not the doubting, etc., but rather with the implied notion that atheism and/or enlightenment rationalism is built on a superior epistemological alternative to faith.
    Yes, the Christmas birth narrative, the resurrection, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the existence of God is a matter of faith; but so is ANY knowledge and reason based on observation… it ALL rests on revelation.

    “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition. (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.”

    I know Chaplain Mike hates links, but I HIGHLY recommend Stanley Fish (yes, the same Stanley Fish) and his NY Times column from a couple years ago – – just google “God Talk Part 2 Stanley Fish”. (quoted above).

  16. “This is a story not of strength but weakness, not of certainty but of courage, not of power but of utter vulnerability.”

    +1

    “This paradox, that he who is in the cradle is He who is Almighty God at the same time, was for Luther the real understanding of Christmas. This was Christmas for him, this mystical paradox of the smallest and most helpless of all beings, having in himself the center of Divinity. And this is something which we must understand, out of his thinking in the paradoxical nature of God’s Self-revelation, that the slowest and weakest is the strongest, because God acts paradoxically.” – Paul Tillich, from “History of Christian Thought”.

  17. Eric Weiner, author of “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine” stated the following on the News Hour this week:

    “I always thought that religious people were somehow more narrow-minded or not as expansive in their world view as secularists. And I have totally changed my mind about that. I found people of all religious stripes who, in fact, are filled with not only intellectual curiosity, but a kind of deep doubt that nourishes their faith. And let me tell you what I mean. We normally think of doubt and faith as being on polar opposites, they’re not compatible. But, in fact, I found that some of the most religious people who I admire quite a lot have this doubt that actually motivates them and that actually lives quite comfortably within their faith.”