Santa has returned to his Polar enclave for another year. Gifts have been exchanged and appreciated. Family and friends gatherings have been enjoyed. The northern hemisphere is locked into its white winter blanket for the next few months. Dieting and detoxing from the annual binge of “holiday cheer” is under way. For many there is a residual glow of well-being abiding for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or two. For those of us who have nodded in the direction of the old Christmas traditions of the Bethlehem birth by singing carols and attending a church service or two and a having ceremonial crèche on display, we can return such things to their closets and go on with normal life.
If only the rest of life were so conveniently classified. As long as things hum along in their expected course with only fairly minor inconveniences, we can mostly manage to keep all the big questions quiet. But… sooner or later … there is always something. “Stuff happens!” Nasty stuff, painful stuff, even deadly stuff. Sooner or later, it comes, and we all have to face it. As Maximus in Gladiator tells Emperor Commodus before their final combat (paraphrased), “Every man stares death in the face; all you can do is smile back.” It is a question of how we face the hard moments when they come.
Shall we be “as those who have no hope?” Or shall our answer be courageous as we take our stand. Shall we rail and scream at the injustice of it all, like Dylan Thomas advising, “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?
Ancient cultures typically offered little hope of anything looking like “salvation”. It was more like facing what appeared finally to be “sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare). But what about the cycle of samsara (Hinduism and Buddhism)? After many reincarnations one could achieve moksha and enter nirvana and so be (re)absorbed by Brahman, at last finding bliss and peace, although ceasing to exist as a person.
Perhaps a Buddha, a bodhisattva, would come along and show and teach the speedier way out of the cycle of suffering via the discipline of raja yoga, the way of very disciplined deep meditation.
Perhaps some prophet would reveal the strict path that would satisfy the wrath of the gods or the one God through a scrupulous adherence to these precepts. Then, when you died, you might be promised a place in some realm of peace beyond the grave, or at least spared from the worst suffering of the spectral realm.
Or, perhaps, when you die you are just dead and no longer exist. Then at least your personal pain is over, although the cosmos goes on in its meaninglessness (vanity), as Solomon put it in Kohelet. If you are one of the most unfortunate for whom life has indeed been largely a “vale of tears”, this is quite possibly an acceptable outcome. Solomon didn’t actually think so, though, with his cogent comment, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”
In the end it all boils down to what the universe really is, and who we really are in it. “Why are we/am I here?” That is the seminal question which, sooner or later, haunts everyone who thinks. As long as we seem to have the strength and means to avoid it by finding temporary sources of meaning, or at least distraction, most of us run from it pretty quickly.
When it comes down to it, our final answers are faith-based. Even an atheist answer is every bit as much faith-based as a “religious” answer. Everyone who thinks takes a theological position for or against the existence of a Creator, a personal supreme Deity who made everything that is. What one says about this foremost of all questions directs everything else in our life, consciously or not.
The real reason we have a Christmas time is The Jesus Story. This story begins with affirming that all that is was created by a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator. Over and over in this blog we have discussed this as the very ground of reality. It is the most economical and consistent explanation of why anything at all “is”. Even great scientists who do not accept a Creator have admitted this. By turning from it they are compelled to expend enormous time, imagination, energy and resources in searching for alternatives—such as evidence that matter is a constantly changing and morphing manifestation of eternal energy.
But even the most refined science and imaginative theoretical constructs cannot answer that still haunting question, “Why? Why does that energy even exist? Where does it come from?” (Usual answer: “Nowhere! It just is! It just came to be! It is just always coming to be!”) And on to, “Why am I here? What does it mean that I am here? Why does it look and feel like it really does have meaning? Like I should have meaning? Why do we spend so much time looking for this primal ground of existence and purpose if, after all is said and done, there just isn’t a purpose?”
And, perhaps more immediately applicable in a time of “Climate Crisis”, “Why are we so torn up about the crisis of our tiny little speck of existence called Planet Earth if it isn’t really special at all? Why are we so driven to cling to our meaningless personal and species existence as if it is really wonderful and awesome in some way, and not just an illusion of being special and awesome and wonderful?” Etc., etc, etc.
As we have said again and again, the best and most sufficient answer to all of this, the one answer that answers all the basic questions and is thus most probably the real truth (“true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it), the “Ockham’s Razor” answer for any philosophic types reading this, is: “There is a Creator who made all that is, who made us to know Him/Her and be in relationship to Him/Her, and to learn about all that He/She has made as a way to knowing Him/Her and becoming all that we are made to be.”
The best answer is the answer that most completely, directly, and simply answers the most basic questions all across the spectrum of our search for understanding and truth. Out of all our contrasting theologies and worldviews, how can we settle on the one that is “best”? How do we weigh the competing claims?
The Postmodern approach is, “Don’t bother. Just choose one and go with it. When it no longer works for you, just switch to another, or invent your own.”
The Modernist approach is to swear off all mysteries and religion and stick to “the facts, only the facts” as reason, logic, and Science, the greatest application of the first two, reveal the “true facts” to us via the proper methods of research and inquiry.
As to the claims of the Great Religions of human history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in chronological order of appearance – it becomes a bit of a mug’s game to try to “prove” the superiority of one over another. From an apologist’s point of view, all of them can be argued, although it can also be said that they do not all stand up equally well to serious examination regarding the integrity and verifiability of their sources, evidence, and the character of their major leaders in history.
For Christians and Christianity, it all boils down to Jesus. And as to this faith’s founder, it all boils down to a series of “True or False” and “Yes or No” questions. Theoretically, this should make Christianity a basically simple faith to discredit, if that is the agenda a questioner is adopting, as so many have since the 18th Century. And what should make it even easier to discredit this particular candidate for “most probable true story” is that its most basic elements are historically based, or at least purport to be. Just prove its history is false, and voila!
But first, we must first hear/read the story. Then we must consider its historicity and what it tells us about the historical person Jesus/Yeshua. Only then can we examine what it might mean, including what others have said it means. At that point, we are in a personal position to decide meaning, and what we will do with the decision we reach.
It all sounds very rational, even “scientific” in the methodological sense of the “Social Sciences”. But no one comes to a quest unbiased. All hold expectations of what will be discovered, what we hope to discover, however loosely formulated or consciously held. We all have presuppositions.
Today we will end with a short list of basic questions that must be considered by anyone wanting to find out the “truth” about Jesus. The reader may have other questions, or may have better versions of those listed here. I offer these:
1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person? (When? Where?)
2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story? (Miracles, healings?)
3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross? If so, why?
4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah? If so, did he offer any proof?
5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God? If so, what did he mean? Did he offer any proof? How is that even possible?
6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as his followers claim(ed)? What proof is there? If so, what does that mean?
7. How believable is this whole story? And what does it mean now?