The Implications of Christmas

I admit that there's something a bit dissonant about quoting Christopher Hitchens on Christmas, but I've been meaning to say something about a peculiar passage in his anti-Yuletide burst of spleen, and tonight seems like a proper time to do it:

... Suppose we put the question like this: Imagine that conclusive archaeological and textual evidence emerged to prove that the whole story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth was either a delusion or a fabrication? Suppose the mother had admitted shyly that, in fact, she had fallen pregnant for predictable reasons? Suppose we found the post-Calvary body?

Serious Christians, of the sort I have been debating lately, would have no choice but to consider such news as absolutely calamitous. The light of the world would have gone out; the hope of humanity would have been extinguished. (The same obviously would apply to Muslims who couldn't bear the shock of finding that their prophet was fictional or fraudulent.) But I invite you to consider things more lucidly. If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.

I'm not entirely clear on Hitchens' meaning here - whether he means that everything would be the same for himself, and other committed skeptics, in the event that the Christian story was inarguably discredited, or whether he wants to make the more sweeping claim that even if one takes Christianity seriously it has nothing to offer on the Big Questions that hasn't been said and thought and wrestled with elsewhere. Either way, though, I think his claim is self-evidently false - and false in a way that reflects a misunderstanding about what the Christian story really is, at its core, and what lends this particular Palestinian revelation (I believe, for what it's worth, that the Bronze Age ended some time before the birth of Christ) its power two thousand years after the events in question took place.

The Christian story is not, for instance, a theological or philosophical treatise. It's not a set of commands or insights about our moral duties. Nor is it a road map to the good life. It has implications for all of those questions, obviously; certainly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn't exactly silent on "the concept of justice" during his lifetime, and Christians have been deriving theologies, philosophies and codes of conduct from his example ever since. But fundamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of events that, if real, tells us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures, that we couldn't have been expected to understand or accept in precisely the same way without the Gospel narratives.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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