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[Chalice] The Ugliest Idea Ever Conceived [Chalice]
And the Most Beautiful Idea Ever Conceived:
Thoughts on Christianity

Presented January 12, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

As you know, I love the Christmas season. I try to make it last as long as possible. I believe all Christendom should start celebrating Christmas on December 24 and continue the celebration all the way through the Christmas Day of Eastern Orthodoxy, on January 6th. Now we are past January 6th, and no, I am not even thinking about taking my Christmas tree down yet.

I love Christmas lights and I love Christmas trees, and I love the Christmas season because it is a season of parties. And as a theologian and a philosopher I love the Christmas season because it is a time of theology.

Like it or not, you really cannot avoid Christian theology during the Christmas season and you really cannot escape thinking about it. When you get right down to the bottom of the Christmas season, the theology is the reason for the celebration. This Christmas season I found myself for some reason thinking like sort of a combination between a theologian and an analytic philosopher (the type of philosopher who pays great attention to language and who desires precision out of people's language). I found myself wanting to ask everyone who was celebrating Christmas: Ok, now what is it that you are celebrating exactly? Who do you think was the person whose birth is celebrated? How do you think the significance of his birth and of his identity? And how does this all connect for a celebration for you and for all those who believe this during this season?

And it seemed to me during this Christmas season I was asking these questions for the first time from a perspective that might even be considered outside of Christianity. Going to Christian services over the Christmas season and wanting to ask these questions of the people in the congregation I certainly felt like I was an outsider investigating Christianity. Soren Kierkegaard, the greatest Christian philosopher of the 19th century, increasingly felt himself critical of Christianity and on the outside of it, and that fact led him to describe himself as a spy within Christianity, and during this Christmas season for the first time I felt like a spy within Christianity.

So this talk could be considered a report from a spy into Christianity over the Christmas season (though my confessed love for the Christmas season may in some minds call my identity as a spy into serious question). And my report is that in my experiences with Christianity over the Christmas season I am very disappointed. And my disappointment can best be expressed by saying that in all the expressions of Christian theology I encountered over the Christmas season, within different churches and by different pastors, celebrated by different congregations, Christianity still presented itself as One, as one basic story, as one narrative of the inter-relation of human and divine history.

This one basic story that Christianity presented itself as, is one you are probably too painfully familiar with. The basic one version of Christianity, or Christianity as One story, goes like this: humans had gotten themselves stuck in a bad situation where they were trapped in sin and unable to get out of it. Human sin was such a problem that the only one who could really solve the problem was God. So at a certain point in history God incarnated Himself in the human form of this baby born on Christmas day, Jesus. Through this event God was giving humans another chance and canceling out the problem of sin. This event of the birth of Jesus at Christmas is the center of all human history. After this, what humans need to do is believe in this person Jesus, believe that he was God's Son. From that point on, God is on the side of those who know and believe this. Those who follow Jesus and believe that he is God's son and that this new age starts with his birth will be God's people. God is now directing human history and things will turn out well for those who believe in Jesus and thus are on God's side. Those who are on God's side will most often have good things happen for them and will have-at Christmas or Thanksgiving-a lot to be thankful for, and all that they have to be thankful for is just an indication of all the great things that await them in heaven.

Now does this sound to you like the basic story celebrated by Christians at Christmas? That is certainly what I heard in the Christian churches I was in, the one version of Christianity, the only one I heard. Theologians might refer to this version as "triumphalist" because the whole version is about triumph, about victory: God's victory over sin and death, and then the victory of the Christian church and of Christians over everyone else. The whole version boils down to: if you are one of us, and you believe what we believe, you will win.

And this Christmas season celebrating this one, "triumphalist" Christian story, I kept thinking: this one Christianity is perfectly suited to the USA and the USA is perfectly suited to this one, "triumphalist" Christianity. This one version of Christianity is certainly a religion for winners. God's people are the winners, the ones who triumph. And how can Americans, at least the mostly middle and upper-middle class white Americans in main-line Christian denominations, not feel like winners? We are Americans. We are triumphant. Our country is so much wealthier than most of the world and our standard of living is so much higher. It's really quite astonishing how much wealthier America and the first world is than the rest of the world. How did it get that way? This fact might prompt us into critically analyzing the history of colonialism and imperialism and of the role of multinational corporations and globalization today, but that is to get into the minutiae of history. And Christianity gives us a much more comforting, grander picture of human history, the upshot of which is that God will shower blessings on Christian countries, that is just the way things will be. And from our American perspective as winners, well, that picture has a wonderfully comfortable and irresistibly sensible logic to it.

It seems to me that American Christianity in its dominant white, middle and upper-middle class version sleeps within this comforting Christian theological logic. And most Americans after September 11 turned to the churches to have this view of Christianity and of America reaffirmed, not challenged. I guess I have entirely lost my patience with the tenacity of this one "triumphalist" version of Christianity which is both so well suited to the economic, political and military dominance of America and the only Christianity I got when I went to Christian churches this Christmas season. I found myself feeling so outside of this one Christianity that I thought to myself: this whole idea, this whole mythology of Christ and Christmas and that everything depends upon whether or not you believe this and so are "in" as one of God's people, this is the ugliest idea ever conceived.

At which point I might have walked out of the church, except that the contemporary German Christian political theologian helped me understand and think about the ugliness. Metz has been constantly critical of the "triumphalist" of Christianity, of Christianity in its "triumphalist" version. In a very honest essay, he argues that this "triumphalist" view of Christianity and of human history has caused the Christian churches down through the centuries to be insensitive to the poor, the weak, those who are not the winners. And then he even says that there is more real Christian history in the history of how the Jews have been persecuted by the Christians down through the centuries than there is in the entire history of "triumphalist" Christianity, this history which-as disastrous as it is-never seems to end, or even get critiqued within the church itself.

I am sure Johann Baptist Metz and other political and liberation theologians keep Christmas well. I bet you they celebrate Christmas all the way through to Eastern Orthodox Christmas. I'd like to think they have a lot of Christmas trees too that they keep up as long as they can. But the theology behind the Christmas celebration, and really the whole meaning of the Christian story, that's what is so different from "triumphalist" Christianity, from anything I got in the Christian services I attended.

When I thought about how ugly, how distasteful the idea of "triumphalist" Christianity seems, especially now, in this current political climate, I found myself thinking about Metz and about why he would still be celebrating Christmas, about what he would say if he were giving the homily at midnight mass on Christmas eve in a Lutheran church in Phoenix, AZ. He would, perhaps, say that of all the ways we can try to understand God and come in touch with the divine in various ways in our lives, still the Christian church teaches that the fullest expression of God is Jesus. And the revelation of God in Jesus is not in the birth of a baby but in the life of the man Jesus. And if you take the life of Jesus seriously as divine revelation, then says Metz you must understand that Jesus was not wealthy, not first world, was one of the world's multitude of poor and powerless. Not only did Jesus not have political power, but his life in fact was snuffed out so quickly by the dominant political power of the time. If God is showing divinity through this life, then God should be understood not through wealth and power, through the winners, but through the opposite of all of this. And then Metz might say: and that's why we celebrate Christmas, to remember this, to remember what is so opposite of how we tend to think.

This, I think, is a beautiful way to think about Christianity, and about Christmas. This version of Christianity has a real beauty to it, as well as a critical power. Can you imagine a less-American way to think? Can you imagine a version of Christianity that would be less suited to America? Can you imagine ministers and priests in this Christmas eve in this country now, immersed as we are in our new war, telling their congregations that since the human image of divinity was himself destroyed by political power that any great and powerful country must be all that much more uneasy about its power and vigilant about its responsibilities?

This might not be a very American version of Christianity, might be in fact a very un-American version, but it is a version of Christianity. Christianity is never one, although all too often it seems as if the "triumphalist" version is Christianity, the only one around. Despite this, Christianity really is never only one, which is why I was there and will be there, at least as a spy if nothing else.

©2003 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2003. The Ugliest Idea Ever Conceived And the Most Beautiful Idea Ever Conceived, /talks/20030112.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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