In the west, nothing screams Christmas quite like Christians worrying that the meaning of Christmas has been forgotten. Every year, the straws in the wind seem to come a little harder. Plummeting church attendance; ignorance of the most basic details of the Bible; advent calendars filled with chocolates or sex toys rather than illustrations of the nativity.
Church leaders have plenty to worry about. Increasingly, across much of western Europe, and even in the US, the birthday of Jesus has become a time to ponder the death of God.
Simultaneously, in much of the rest of the world, the influence of religion is palpably on the rise. God, far from dying, maintains a startling comeback. The confidence of The Economist, which in its millennium issue published His obituary, now seems almost comically misplaced. If believers in the west feel embattled, then measured on a global scale it is those without faith who are in the minority. Throughout the 21st century, the currents of religious conviction have swept away much that previously had seemed settled. Skyscrapers have been toppled, countries torn apart, entire peoples targeted for genocide.
Equally, in the face of unspeakable suffering, faith has provided solace where no other source of comfort could. Perhaps it is necessary first to have walked in darkness to see a great light.
This Christmas, for instance, worshippers will gather in the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Paul for the first time since 2014. The capture of Mosul by scripture-quoting fighters convinced that they had a mandate from God to conquer a global empire and usher in the end of days had been calamitous for the city’s Christians. Isis, citing a verse in the Koran as justification, had appropriated their property and possessions, and driven them into exile. Elsewhere — in Syria, in Egypt, in Libya — Christians have been targeted as polytheists, and murdered. Yet in November, in the abandoned shell of Mosul’s cathedral, a Muslim violinist played “tones of peace and love” as other Muslims cleaned and refurbished the church. It was, in the words of one Iraqi tweeter, “a call for our Christians to come back”.
Perhaps it is not simple, amid the easy comforts of peace, to comprehend the extremes of suffering and redemption, of hatred and reconciliation, for which religion traditionally has provided the most potent vector and vent. This is a realisation with which western media organisations, to their credit, have lately begun to wrestle.
Last week, the BBC — a broadcaster so unapologetically liberal that it has entrusted responsibility for its religious output to an atheist, and even then only on a part-time basis — published a 40-page review. “Globally,” the report noted, “84 per cent of people affiliate with a religion.” The tone may have been that of an anthropologist observing with curiosity the customs of distant tribes but the report did at least commit the BBC to making an effort to understand them.
Nevertheless, there are limits to how far it is willing to go. Acknowledging that the great array of the world’s faiths are now to be found in Britain, the BBC’s response will be to double-down on what has long been its default setting: a bland ecumenism. Henceforward, Eid will be given primetime coverage as well as Christmas; Diwali as well as Easter. The template for this approach is provided by Thought For The Day, a three-minute slot on the BBC’s flagship radio morning news programme, in which bishops, rabbis and Buddhists compete to utter vacuous platitudes. No one ever says anything that a speaker from a different faith might not equally have said. Not a hint of the passions or the yearnings that can animate believers — still less the hatreds — is ever betrayed. It is the theological equivalent of milky tea.
The conviction that underlies the BBC’s approach, that all religions are essentially the same, is not unique to Britain. Rather, it is the secular orthodoxy across the west. It has its militant wing, in the form of atheists who dismiss all religions as equally pernicious. It has its pacific wing, in the form of liberals who refuse to countenance the possibility that, say, the actions of Isis might have anything to do with Islam.
The underlying conceit, though, is invariably the same: that it is possible to leave behind the swirl of religious identities and attain a plateau of moral and intellectual superiority; that to be secular is somehow to have left belief behind.
Neutrality, though, in the dimension of religion, can never be truly neutral. The concept of the secular, far from being common to every culture, originated in a specifically Christian context.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
It is this gnomic comment of Jesus, refracted through 2,000 years of cultural evolution, which underlie the emergence of church and state in Europe as distinct entities — and, in due course, the very notion of a secular space.
The west, then, has not broken nearly as free from the tar pit of its cultural inheritance as many in it like to believe. Secularists may take pride in having transcended the religious identities that prevail elsewhere — but they are no less Christendom’s heirs for that. The paradox of a secular Christmas, perhaps, is that it is no less Christian for that.
The writer is a historian and author of ‘In The Shadow of the Sword’
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