Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Whose Beliefs Matter Most

I read Ross Douthat's column on how Christmas is a "tough season for believers", but wasn't inspired to revisit it until I saw Atrios's snark, that the "shorter" version of the column is "I am the one true Christian". I didn't personally infer quite that level of sanctimony. Instead, what caught my attention was that Douthat's distress comes from worrying about how other people perceive and approach Christmas.
Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Sure, if you want to fret that the person next to you in church doesn't believe strongly enough to attend services on a weekly basis, or that there are too many secular traditions associated with the Christmas season, you can probably create a great deal of anxiety for yourself. Douthat admits that these issues, for him, are "anxieties", and suggests that for others they can be "overdrawn" - "Think of the annual 'war on Christmas' drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed 'sacrilege' of keeping Congress in session through the holiday."

Douthat worries about a slide away from "the idea of a single religious truth" and toward a culture in which Christianity is "competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities". Yet our nation was founded upon the principle that there was no "single religious truth", and even as Douthat gives longing, backward looks to a historic America that he perceives as "an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation", that Christianity was not unitary. Some Christian faiths disagree on big issues - not just issues of social justice and equality, but also questions about the nature of God. Would Ross Douthat, a Catholic raised with the doctrine of the Trinity, accept a Nontrinitarian view of God as part of a "single religious truth" or even as "close enough"? How would he come to terms with those who question whether Catholics are really Christian because they haven't been "born again" or practice idolatry through the veneration of saints? Are there not non-Christian churches that Douthat would view as more in synch with America and its history than any number of Christian sects that dot our nation's landscape?

I think Douthat would be a lot happier if he stopped worrying about other people - whether others appreciate the "true meaning" of Christmas, whether the nation is sufficiently Christian, whether the guy next to him in the pew at Christmas Mass is going to be there next week, whether other people are celebrating Hannukkah or Kwanza, or the odd hybrid he calls "Christmukkwanzaa" - and focused on his own spirituality. In saying that, I'm not suggesting that he needs to form a personal relationship with God outside of the Church. He can work on his personal connection with spirituality and religion within the context of his Church and its teachings. But dare I say, if he can approach Christmas by focusing on the good, and focusing on his own relationship with God his anxiety should go away. And if he's worried about the future of Christianity, he'll probably do more for that cause by sincerely welcoming those church members who attend only for Christmas and Easter than he will by viewing them with a jaundiced, anxious eye while fretting about their connection to their faith.

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