I do a lot of what could be called Christian-bashing on this blog. While my own spiritual leanings are a kind of hodgepodge of Buddhism and various forms of paganism, my roots are Jewish and I respond viscerally as a Jew to things like anti-Semitism, klezmer music, and having other religions forced down my throat.
The mainstream Christian denominations around which I grew up seemed to have left the "spreading the word" part of Christianity behind. I knew about the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, of course, but back then they seemed remote and historical; not something that could happen today. When I was a kid, the only proseletyzing and conversion attempts I experienced were from a Catholic friend when I was around eight or nine, who educated me about heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo, and where I was likely to end up if I didn't become a Catholic. This was pretty disturbing stuff for a kid whose parents weren't religious and who seemed to alternate between having a Christmas tree or a menorah, depending on the year.
In recent years, the proseletyzing and conversion part of Christianity has come roaring back, with attempts to put Christian prayer (and yes, the Lord's Prayer that we baby boomers still said in school is a Christian prayer) back into the schools, declare this a Christian nation, and make Jesus the head of state. I don't think someone who is even a mainstream Christian can understand how threatening this is to nonbelievers, especially given Christianity's history of massacres of those who do not believe. Why people who insist that their religion is truth aren't content with their own faith, but need for everyone else to affirm that same faith all the time is a mystery to me. But all too often, Christian faith does seem to be that insecure, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to believe that in these days of Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly and televangelists that if they could still get away with it, they would.
I've also written that because of my penchant for mocking and questioning the intelligence of those who have blended the religious with the political, I feel obligated to examine the Judeo-Christian tradition every now and then and see if anything's changed; to see if it speaks to me. And it never does. Part of the reason I studied Biblical Hebrew in college (at the Moravian Theological Seminary, no less) was because I wanted to read the Old Testament in its original language so I could read it as originally written, not as a bunch of translators with their own agendas decided it said. That class was where I learned things like how what's in the English OT as "God" starts out as "elohim", which is a plural form and then becomes YHWH; and how the first woman starts out as (transliterating here) "ishah" (woman) and doesn't become "chevah" (Eve) until the second telling of the creation story in Genesis -- an inconsistency that gave rise to the notion of Lilith as Eve's predecessor. A relative gave me an Old Testament with English on one side and Hebrew on the other, but I never got very far with my project, and alas, I've long since forgotten all the Hebrew I knew.
But no matter how many times I revisit this spiritual system, with its punitive, capricious alpha male deity who tests Abraham's faith by telling him to take his beloved son Isaac up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him -- and at the last minute says "Kidding! Just wanted to see if you'd do it!"; its virgin birth and a man walking among us as the literal son of this anthropormophized deity, who died so that David Vitter could patronize prostitutes and Jim Bakker could have sex with Jessica Hahn and embezzle money from tens of thousands of people and so that Larry Craig could decry homosexuality while cruising in airport bathrooms, the answer always comes back "Naah."
But on Christmas Eve, I understand why people believe. I love Christmas Eve. I love it because it is the quiet after the storm of shopping; after the stores are closed and the horn honking and fighting over parking spaces and the orgy of consuming takes a break before becoming an orgy of acquisition the next morning. Most people are at home, with the lights on both inside and outside their homes. On my street, many people line the sidewalk with luminaria. I can step outside, and if it's a clear night, I can see stars in the sky and hear nary a sound, save the slight white noise from the highway three miles away.
And if I stand very still and listen to the quiet, I can visualize a young couple in a makeshift shelter, surrounded by well wishers from afar, with a newborn whose arrival they don't quite understand but that they know promises great things for mankind. They're a little bit frightened, but also awed at the huge responsibility they face in caring for this tiny child and nurturing him into the man whom some will believe is a god. As this couple looks up at the same sky I do, they also feel insignificant, and inadequate to the task they face -- not much different from what all new parents must feel. Tonight, millions of people think about this tableau that even I can see. And for a brief time, it reminds them of what they've often forgotten during the shopping frenzy of the last four weeks; of what they celebrate tonight and tomorrow.
For those who believe, I wish you all a joyous Christmas filled with love and wonder.
And for the rest of us, well, it's a good day to watch The Lord of the Rings