When I had
the privilege of working for the Council for Secular Humanism, I used to notice
some odd and interesting maneuvers about this time of year. Once I even organized
a symposium on the subject of Christmas and proclaimed it a celebration of Festivus.
“Festivus—for the rest of us!” You know, Frank Costanza’s
holiday from Seinfeld. It was a terrific exchange of ideas. There were, as I
recall, three basic positions. Tom Flynn, by far the most consistent theoretician
of Secular Humanism I have had the pleasure of knowing, argued that Christmas
was basically a humbug foisted upon the world by “six eminent Victorians,”
and that it is, as Scrooge put it (sorry, Tom!) “a false and commercial
festival.” I argued, by contrast, that Christmas is just the latest overlay
on a much older, seasonal (Solstice) holiday, and that since people generally
comment on how secularized Christmas has become, we ought to run with it and
celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday of family warmth and abundance, no
more religious than Arbor Day or Lincoln’s Birthday. Then Joe Fox proposed
having a distinctively Humanist winter holiday called Humanlight. In fact, he
had already begun observing it with his family. I guess Joe had the last laugh,
since I get annual announcements from Secular Humanist groups wishing me a happy
briefly revisit the controversial theme of that afternoon as Christmas draws
near again. I said that Tom Flynn is the most fearlessly consistent advocate
of Secularism I know. He argued not only that Christmas is something of a holy
hoax of which Secular Humanists ought to have no part. He further urged that
observing Unitarian, pseudo-pagan mock-ups like “Solstice” (or implicitly
Humanlight) is just to kid ourselves, like Mormons drinking a cup of “Coffee
Near.” It is still a “holiday,” that is, a holy day. The kind
of days that are not supposed to exist for you if you are a Secularist. For
this reason, Tom always comes to the office to work on Christmas Day, even though
he is the only one there. He says he worked hard to rid himself of the pleasant
thrill of mystery when the sacred days come around. The bracing chill of reality
unvarnished, unembellished by fantasy, is plenty invigorating for him. You see
why I admire this guy?
But I am
still left wondering why even so doughty a Secular Humanist as Joe Fox or Barry
Seidman feel the need for something like Humanlight. Whether or not there is
a God-shaped vacuum in the human psyche, it seems hard to deny there is a Christmas-shaped
hole that human nature abhors. We seem to need, or irresistibly to feel that
we need (which means it is a need), to have a seasonal celebration bracketed
off from the affairs of mundane life. And what is the opposite of the mundane?
The antithesis to the profane, the secular? It is the sacred. Sacred in the
sense of set apart as special, consecrated, like a Sabbath of rest. Now, if
even the “hardened” Secularists I just mentioned still feel the
need for the Christmas-substitute, doesn’t that imply it is almost irresistibly
human to set aside and to celebrate the sacred?
the cavil always aimed at religion by Humanists is that it is all man-made.
And of course it is! It is a product of human nature, culture, artistry and
imagination! Sure, I know it eventuates in people taking myths and fables literally,
which is an innocent mistake, sometimes even a dangerous one. But that’s
an abuse, and we make plenty of excuses for the abuse of other good things.
But I feel Christmas ought to be celebrated precisely as a human invention,
a case of “sacred” play. This is a precious aspect of human nature.
And so to fulminate against it and to strive to make everything mundane seems
to me dehumanizing in the first degree. And that is a very odd strategy for
so-called “Humanists.” That’s where I still disagree with
disagree with Joe is that I believe, with Bultmann and Tillich, that myth is
the irreplaceable language of the sacred, and this has nothing to do with belief
in the supernatural. The failure to realize this is what makes Unitarianism
so insufferable to me. Once I remember seeing on the signboard of a local Universalist
Church a supposedly inspiring quote from Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Come on: is
that all you’ve got? In the same way, I am not satisfied with Frosty the
Snowman. I want Santa Claus if not the baby Jesus. I’ll even be satisfied
with Scrooge, as long as you don’t leave out the ghosts!