A white-bearded old man has thrown the baby out of the cradle – and his trinket-filled grotto has replaced a rustic stable.
For most people, Christmas seems to have lost any vestige of religion. It is now a social festival – tinged with nostalgia and veneered with the hope that, for a while, ‘good will’ might just prevail.
Some local authorities have proposed that Christmas should be renamed Winter Festival, or something similar. They have pressed the ‘delete’ button to remove ‘Christ’ altogether.
The spiritual has been swallowed by the secular, the sacred obliterated by sentiment. Christmas has been gutted of its meaning.
But does it really matter? Perhaps we’ve grown up and religion is a thing of the past.
But is it? Do we need religion after all? We seem to.
It is mainly a Western perspective – and a recent one at that – which feels it can do without a spiritual dimension in life.
Whichever culture you study, in whatever period of history, people’s lives exhibit a religious element.
Deep down, we seem to be aware of another reality – one that cannot be explained by the laws of science. People have a thirst the material world can never satisfy.
Human beings are fundamentally religious. This seems to be true even for those exposed to continuous and powerful atheistic propaganda.
In 1949, the Communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung established the People’s Republic of China. His regime expelled all foreign missionaries, liquidated religious organisations, relentlessly persecuted religious minorities, and introduced aggressive atheistic education.
Is Britain different?
But what happened? At the time of the revolution there were an estimated five million professing Christians in China. Today that figure exceeds 80 million.
In the world at present there are almost 2,000 million professing Christians, 1,300 million Muslims, 820 million Hindus, and 400 million Buddhists – to mention just the major faiths.
In fact, recent research shows less than 16% of the world’s population is ‘non-religious’. By far the majority of people on our planet have some kind of religious faith.
And yet it doesn’t feel like that here! Britain seems to be different – and it is.
At the end of 2000, a survey conducted by Opinion Research Business found that 38% were ‘not religious’. British people are far less religious than the world average.
This is also true of some other Western states, like France, Germany and certain parts of North America.
Can we know?
But why are we less religious here? To find an answer we need to go back a couple of hundred years. Thinkers at that time had a revolutionary idea – and once these bright sparks in their ivory towers released it on an unsuspecting public, it spread like a bush fire.
This ‘big idea’ exploded and consumed Western society.
The idea is simple yet devastating. It is this: the cosmos is split into two separate compartments – the spiritual and the physical.
The physical part represents ‘reality’. The spiritual part (if it exists at all) is not only unknown, but probably unknowable.
So we might as well forget about it.
The upshot was as momentous as the atomic bomb. The physical realm only is ‘real’ because it alone can be explored by science.
The only true knowledge we can have (they say) is what is provided by scientific exploration. Anything that cannot be explored by scientists cannot be known.
And so religion is uncertain, unknowable and irrelevant – this is the root of the worldview that pervades our society.
But not everyone is happy with this perspective. Think about it for a moment.
If the physical world is all that exists, and all we can know, then we are merely thinking machines cobbled together by blind chance.
And if that is the case, why should we trust our ability to think at all? In other words, we cannot know about anything for certain – including science.
More than that, if we are just biological machines, what is the meaning of life? What are we here for? Life is absurd, futile and disposable.
This sense of futility has been expressed by many throughout the twentieth century. Some of the Beatles’ songs echoed it – ‘Nowhere man’ sits in ‘nowhere land, making his nowhere plans for nobody’.
In his massive 1980s hit ‘Born in the USA’, American rock-idol Bruce Springsteen could offer no improvement: ‘I’m ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go’.
And the renowned film director Robert Altman, interviewed for The Observer in 1995, looked back on a brilliant career and admitted: ‘None of it – gambling, money, winning or losing – has any value. It is simply a way of killing time, like crossword puzzles’.
For some this led to despair and suicide. In the West the suicide rate is spiralling. In the USA alone over 300,000 people end their own lives every year.
An estimated five million of that country’s present population have tried to do so.
All this points to a deep ache in the human heart – a longing for something more than this world can offer.
People are busy piling up possessions, but somehow still own nothing of value. The most ‘successful’ people often suffer the greatest disillusionment.
Animals can eat, drink and be contented, but we cannot.
This, perhaps, explains the explosion over recent years of neo-pagan and New Age exploration.
Dissatisfied with what sterile materialism can offer, many are going back to ancient pre-Christian religions – and reinventing them in modern forms.
Others are turning in increasing numbers to astrology, spiritualism and parapsy-chology.
All this goes some way to explain our religious attitudes this Christmas. Some still follow mainline religions, but most are lost in the cul-de-sac of materialism.
Yet others, disillusioned, seek alternative ways to satisfy their inner yearnings, while still crossing spirituality off their agenda.
The question at the heart of all this is the one we started with: Are spiritual realities unknowable?
God reveals himself
What some of us still call ‘Christmas’ holds the answer. It speaks of God breaking into our world and revealing himself in Jesus Christ.
Without his self-revelation, we must agree, nothing certain can be known about God. But given such a revelation, the situation is transformed. That is why we cannot afford to ignore the coming of Christ.
The Bible sometimes refers to Jesus as ‘the Word’, because words give us understanding – through words we acquire knowledge. And through Christ we may know God, for Jesus said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).
Nor is it necessary to have seen Jesus with our physical eyes, for he said again, ‘The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life’ (John 6:63).
Hear his words
So let us listen to some words! They come from the beginning of John’s Gospel and will soon be read in Christmas services across the world.
‘The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’.
So, what are ‘grace and truth’? Put your trust in Christ and you will find out.
For again he said: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me … and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-29).
There you will discover truth; there you will find grace.