Saturday 25 December 2010

The Meaning of Xtmas


[This post, composed on Xtmas morning surrounded by wrapping paper, is to prove that I am a serious blogger now...]


As I sat in the Xtmas Eve carol service and listened to the message about how Jesus came to save the world from sin - I reflected yet again how meaningless this message seems in mainstream modern culture.

Save us from sin - but the word 'sin' to a secular modern means only two things - neither of which requires Jesus to 'save' us.


The first to come to mind are sexual sins.

But modern people nowadays 'know' that sexual sins are arbitrarily defined and can be redefined at will; and indeed many people have lived to seen illegal sins made into privileged virtues promoted by government and media propaganda and rewarded by legal protection, high status, jobs, promotions, fame and honours.

So, it seems we don't need Jesus to 'save' us from this kind of sin, when the State and media can (apparently) easily and swiftly make any sin into a virtue.

(Alas, however, only by making the opposing virtue into a sin - but leave that aside, no doubt that too can be fixed, if necessary, at some time in the future...)


The other thing that springs into a modern secular mind at the mention of sin is selfish people being mean to other people: humiliating them, impoverishing, torturing them - making them into victims.

Yet, of course, the solutions to victimhood for moderns is not Jesus but (again) The State, especially State bureaucracies; who (at least  by the own measurements) claim to be the solution to all forms of selfishness, and to create an eternal mandatory and universal altruism - which is (apparently, 'objectively') far better than Christianity since it does not depend on such labile and contingent factors as personal repentance.

So we don't need Jesus to save us from that kind of sin, either. 


We absolutely need to re-conceptualize virtue and sin in terms of attitude, disposition, outlook, focus, perspective.

Sin not as wrong behaviours but a wrong relation to the world.

A matter of wrongness in the basic outlook on the world, the understanding of man's place in the scheme of things, of the human condition.

Virtue consists in a proper understanding of man's place in the world, which includes an understanding of his ultimate prupose in life.

(This ultimate purpose is 'theosis'.)

The great sin of modernity is its perspective and focused purely on this world, and ultimately focused on the subjective individual: that the human condition is seen as a matter of feelings and emotions.


Modern secular ethics are no more than an extension of this selfish subjectivism: what is good is (merely) what I feel to be good.

What is good is what it makes me feel good to regard as good.

And (of course) this is purely a matter of human innards: of physiology and psychology (and ultimately psychology reduces to physiology).


Humans could be, and are, manipulated (either by others, or self-manipulated) to feel good about something and bad about another thing; and the polarity can be reversed: all it requires is to be able to control how people feel and to link the feeling to an entity; and what else is the media, what else is pharmacology, what else is popular art, propaganda and the mass media?


Sin is this situation.

Sin is the situation where how we feel is ultimate human reality, and how we feel is known to be contingent and means nothing: sin is that ultimate reality is nothing

Sin is to embrace this nothingness as reality, to propagandise that nothingness is reality, to denigrate anything which saves us from nothingness.


And that is the reason we need to be 'saved'.

And this is the reason why we cannot save ourselves.

We need to be saved from nothingness, and from those who brainwash us into a belief in nothingness, and from ourselves who propagate that reality is nothingness.

Sin is to embrace nothingness.

We do not need to be told by Christianity that this is the state of sin (and we do not need to be told which behaviours are sinful and which are virtuous).

(None of that is of the essence.)

And to understand Christianity is to know that, if Christinaity is indeed true, then it does indeed save us.


But to understand the truth of Christianity, we cannot make a comparison with secular modernity because secular modernity does not even rise to the level of untruth - it has no coherence.

(How can it make sense to believe that reality is nothingness?).

Materialist secular modernity does not disprove Christianity, instead it renders thought impossible.

Secular  modernity does not disprove Christianity it (merely) makes Christianity incomprehensible, as it makes everything incomprehensible (science, beauty, art, morality)


So Jesus did come to save us from sin; but the modern concept of sin (and of everything else) is so hopelessly corrupted that we cannot understand what was obvious to all humans throughout history: we are pathetic, deluded and distracted creatures who cannot even understand the hopelessness, the nothingness of the human condition perceived from a wholly this-worldly and materialist perspective.


To Recap:

What do we need to be saved from?

What is 'this world of sin'?


Imagine a world of drugged dupes and drugging dealers, perpetually distracted by flashing lights and pictures when not flashing lights and pictures at others. By shouts and threats and tempting promises, by flattery and apology. Led by lust and hunger, the search for comfort and to escape pain; by a yearning for status, by the need for deference; and also crippled by guilt and a grasping for self-esteem, staggering from one temporary absorption to another. Of individuals controlled by alternating pain and pleasure (or the hope of pleasure and relief from pain), made to work by the crudest of carrots and sticks, or allowed not to work on condition of obedience, manipulated by each other into hatred or submissiveness. Let us call this the nightmare of nothingness.


We are indeed a world of victims, and at the same time we are a world of exploiters and would-be exploiters.

And at this level of analysis there can be no escape, no imaginable escape; because there is nowhere to escape to, and no-one to lead an escape; since all are - at root - in exactly the same situation.

In essence, Christianity is a profoundly mystical religion; it is about the human's relationship to reality.

Christianity is not about specific morals or arrangements: it is true everywhere, for anyone, in any situation; it happens (or does not happen) between us and Jesus Christ.

When we are saved, we are saved from the nightmare of nothingness. And we are saved by this relation between each human and God which is a relation above and beyond the nightmare of nothingness.


Everything else in Christianity if about helping us to escape the nightmare of nothingness and (by the process called theosis) moving us closer to communion with God.

That is the meaning of Xtmas - at least as we pathetic moderns can perceive it.


robert61 said...

You seem to come close here to Paul Tillich's idea of sin as separation - from God, from love, from reality. His idea of sin is much more fertile than the idea of sin as transgression against a norm.

Happy Christmas to you from a first-time commenter.

Your recent writing about PC has been illuminating. I have long argued that the downfall of the church has been the abandonment of original sin. Try telling a group of mainline Protestants you believe in original sin sometime - they'll look at you like you're mad. Yet the strength of PC is exactly that: it has absorbed original sin. Its tragic flaw is that it "immanentizes the eschaton". Rather than understanding original sin as being an inescapable product of human limitation, it imagines that it can correct it.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the comment. I haven't read Tillich - but I got most of my ideas on this topic from C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams initially - then from Eastern Orthodox sources, which I believe to be the highest form of Christian knowledge (because the insights are based on the insights of the *holiest* people, rather than on those who are primarily intellectuals such as philosophers etc.).

At any rate, I feel that the Orthodox 'mystical' tradition of Christianity is the only one likely to get past the systematic distractions and segmented evasions of modern mainstream 'thought'.

The problem is that true mystics are now extremely rare (unsurprisingly), and the Orthodox tradition is very patchy (and ethnically alien) in the West - so we must apparently rely mainly on written histories and other sources.

Anonymous said...


Hi, Bruce.

Good post and good blog. I am one of your readers.

I wanted to ask you something. I am curious about your transition from atheism to Ortodoxy. I was raised as a Catholic and became atheist in my youth.

I would like to become Christian again: there is a God-shaped hole in my heart.

But, for years, no Christian has been able to answer my questions about faith. I cannot believe if I am not convinced about the answer of these questions.

There are very common questions made by atheists. For example, why the End of Days that Jesus believed did not materialized? For example, why did Jesus die? God made some creatures and made them imperfect. Then He got angry because they made a mistake. Then He envoys Himself (since Jesus is God) to die in order to this sin to disappear. No means to disrespect but it doesn't make any sense to me. If God did not want us to be able to make sins, He would have made us sinless. If God wanted to delete our sin, He could have been done so (He is all-powerful) without making Jesus die.

I know the above questions appear silly but my English is not good enough to make the questions very understandable. There are lots of questions. For example, about the historicity of Gospels, etc. Nothing new but I long to have someone (or a book) who explains it to me, because I think these questions have been answered by Christian people before.

I know that this is not the aim of your blog, but you seem a kind person and your faith is strong. Maybe you can give me some link.

Even if you can't, thank you for reading this comment and apologies for hijacking this thread.

@IsaJennie said...

Very insightful and interesting blog post, but then again I find all of your posts to be insightful and interesting. I've been reading for awhile and I love what I've read.
Thanks for inspiring great intellectual discussions!
I look forward to reading more!


Dirichlet said...

Your thoughts are quite consistent with Kierkegaard's concept of sin as despair. Someone is in despair when he is not aligned with God's purpose, thereby losing his self and embracing nothingness.

Precisely, Christ came to the world to teach us how to return to God's path if we happen to be swallowed by nothingness.

Bruce Charlton said...

Anonymous - probably the first thing is to stop asking specific questions (which may be wrongly formed, or may be implanted by a secular materialist society) and find out what Christianity is saying at core.

When you understand it, what is 'on offer', then you can decide whether it is true.

And understanding it is not at all easy - because there is far more misleading information than correct information.

We are living is a pervasively corrupt and decadent era, when The Church is weak and confused (because most people are weak and confused). Also many people who are Christians just are not got at articulating their faith.

The classic text is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis; also outstanding is Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft - which is a selection of the most important of Blaise Pascal's Pensees (a classic) with commentary.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bruce. I am going to follow your advice and to read both books. Since there are lots of books about the topic and some of them are good and some of them are bad, having only two books to start is a big help. I'll start by Mere Christianity.

Like many other people, I am weak and confused, but the confusion is the worst part. If I manage to be less confused, I know it would be easier to fight my weakness.

You can't walk straight if you don't know what the straight way is.

Thank you and I'll keep on reading your excellent blog.