Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/21/2009

Mahatma Gandhi, Walmart, Target, and “God-With-Us”

Christmas in Kyushu

The Christmas season poses (epitomizes, typifies) a grand conundrum.

“. . . .a South Asian Indian woman, married to an American, [applied] for US citizenship. . . .At the final stage of being “naturalized” in New York, the immigration officer said to her, “Do you swear that you will bear arms
in defense of the Constitution of the United States?” . . . . she replied, “No, I won’t do that.” He asked, “What do you mean?” She said, “I am a pacifist.
I don’t believe in killing.” He said, “Who taught you that?” She said, “Mahatma Gandhi.” He said, “Who is he?” She said, “A great Indian religious leader.” He said, “Well, you will have to get a note, from him.” She said, “I can’t, he is dead.”
He said, “Well, get a note from whoever took his place.”

If the conundrum did not catch me (and I trust a great many other Americans) in its cross-hairs, it would entertain in its absurdity.

Christians know “the Christmas story.” The remarkably world-wide concept (existing in some form, as far as I can tell, in all religions) of God becoming one with humanity, “God-With-Us,” plays out in our tradition as the birth of one baby in one small town in one obscure part of the world, a town clinging to existence by its fingernails in the face of a crushing and dehumanizing occupation by a foreign power.***

We know the Christmas story—I memorized it from Luke in second grade—by heart. If our parents teach us well, we even know the concept of “God-With-Us” from an early age.
(“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’” –Isaiah 7:14.)

Exactly how that concept relates to “Four calling birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree” escapes imagining. Or more relevantly, “Save Money, Live Better” or “Expect More, Pay Less”.

American Christians barely notice the monetization—my extensive research has found no one but myself who does not participate—of Christmas that overwhelms the spiritual nature of the holiday. I, frankly, don’t “believe,” in any true sense of the word, the story of the manger-boy in the poor little occupied town. I do believe it in my way. Exactly how I believe it has no relevance here. However, I believe that whatever power brought forth life out of chemicals on this planet eons ago somehow put into place the process that led to human life. That belief compels me to try to work out for myself the conundrum of Christmas. That we humans are both partakers of and created in the magisterial beauty of the process of the evolution of life on earth inspires me to come to terms with the unknowable nature of existence (note, please, I did not say to understand it). I am willing to call that nature “God-With-Us.”

Black Friday

The story of the birth of an outcast boy in a backwater town of a terrorized would-be nation represents, perhaps, the best of the ideas about God-With-Us. God-With-Us becomes God-One-Of-Us. Not the “gods.” Not our God exclusively. Not the understanding of God concocted by our ancestors. God. The creator of life inhabits life. We exist as part of life, and we can perceive and understand our existence. Emmanuel. I don’t know a word for Us-With-God, but we need one.

The idea that Christmas pays homage to the mystery of God-With-Us and Us-With-God comes from our religious training, but we learn to understand it elsewhere. We are aware of it in spite of religion. At Christmas, more than at any other time of year, the mystery disappears into overweening tangibility. That we pick out one day a year to claim religiously to celebrate the mystery—and then make it the least mysterious day of the year—shows how little we actually comprehend it.

Because we do not want to come to terms with the mystery, we have to dress it up in the trappings of our minds and imaginations. We assume that we must sort out an exclusive religious version of the ineffable in order to make it ours.Christianity has generally forgotten [that God is one God of all] and like all religions has tried to comprehend (contain) God in its doctrines and beliefs and even to claim exclusive hold and possession of access to God through exclusivist misunderstandings of the Incarnation.” **** 

The conundrum exists because Christians assume from our exclusive hold and possession of access to God through exclusivist misunderstandings of the Incarnation” that we understand the mystery. This assumption leads to the false belief that, because Christians have access to God, we have the freedom to construct “God-With-Us” exactly as we please. Our traditions have grown over 2,000 years, but we (the collective we) have constructed them. Rather than the mystery of life, the unknowable ineffability of God, we have a proprietary god constructed in our own image, and we no longer believe in the One God of All.

We have easily confused our proprietary god with the god of the marketplace, the god of desire, the god of plenty, the god of good-feeling. We are one step away from celebrating not God-With-Us or Us-With-God but celebrating ourselves—not as partakers of and created in the magisterial beauty of creation but as ourselves the creators. Our creation of a society that satisfies our desires for the material and our need to hold onto creation rather than to understand its mystery becomes the focus of our celebration.

And the cheery little Christmas story about a baby (forgetting the real circumstances in which he came into the world) has become the perfect focal point for our trivial pursuit of Us-As-God, not Us-With-God.

Christmas, because it celebrates ourselves and our desperate need to avoid coming to terms with the realities of being a part of the natural world (birth, sustenance, procreation, and death) became long ago not merely a secular holiday, but an orgy of obeisance to the secular. Like the woman applying for citizenship, we know that God-With-Us is dead, and we’ve had to get a note from whoever took [God’s] place.”

** Shweder, Richard A. “‘Why do men barbecue?’ and other postmodern ironies of growing up in the decade of ethnicity.” Daedalus 122.1 (1993): 279+.
*** Part of the conundrum of Christmas rests in the obvious fact that the same town now, 2,000 years later lives under a crushing occupation. Apparently the truism from the Scriptures of the current occupiers remains true: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
**** Sanders, James A., and Paul E. Capetz. “Credo in unum deum: a challenge.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 39.4

The First Christmas Card (c. 1840), Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University


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