Despite the cautions about discussing religion or politics at family gatherings, we served up heaping helpings of both on Thanksgiving. The debate was lively, and a consensus gradually emerged. Religion in any form can breed fanaticism, closed minds, judgment of others. I use this italicized word on purpose: no one’s religious truth should trump someone else’s.
One of my sons said, “It can even be risky to take children to Sunday School. They might get indoctrinated before they learn to make choices for themselves.”
That’s a mouthful from someone raised as a preacher’s kid. And…he has a point.
Early experience of a faith community can be wonderfully grounding for children. We can expose them to concepts of unity, service, and love for the human family, especially those who differ from us.
But let’s face it. Critical thinking skills don’t fully emerge until adolescence. Until then, when we present myth and absolute truth backed by authority figures and worship, how can children sort it out? How can they know that the way offered to them is just one of many beautiful options on this planet?
Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, often spoke of the “post-hypnotic trance” induced in our youth. The weight of what we are taught and how we are treated too often numbs us to our authentic identities.
My parents (God bless them!) had me confirmed in the Lutheran tradition. The task was to memorize and confess the right beliefs. The presiding pastor never encouraged us to think for ourselves, to test every truth in the laboratories of our lives. No one spoke about the sanctity of individual conscience.
That’s why, in my years as a pastor, I approached confirmation classes from a vastly different perspective. Yes, we surveyed the history of Christianity. We examined the scope of the Bible and its genres. We even outlined the polity of our denomination. But we clearly emphasized some central truths. Question authority! Think for yourself! Don’t adopt someone else’s faith unless it makes sense to you!
Which brings me to Christmas. The quaint stories of a pregnant virgin, choirs of angels, and a star spotlighting Bethlehem, arise from the wells of legend. In my childhood, these myths were enthralling. I could feel the breathless expectation of the Messiah’s birth, as if nothing in history made sense before that moment. It, and later the cross, became portals to ultimate meaning.
With a subterranean sigh, I think of how much time and energy it took to unlearn what they taught me. To realize that all faith systems are attempts to apprehend this mystery in which we live. To critically examine holy writings from historical and literary viewpoints. To move from an exclusive faith to one that embraces the journey of every human being, no matter how different from my own.
Yesterday, I saw a familiar sign on someone’s front lawn: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. I don’t know the residents of that home, but I have met too many who insist on this slogan as a cultural mandate. We all know the litany. The myths of scripture, including Christmas, are inerrant historical truth. Jesus is the only way to God. Being Christian means being right. Be saved or be damned.
For me, Christmas is a time to reclaim what it is about Jesus and his message that still guide my journey. His anti-materialism. The way he challenged his own people’s nationalism and religious arrogance. His counterculture stories that still burrow into our souls. His love for the disenfranchised. His victory in forgiving his enemies while they executed him on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.
As the Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith says, that cherubic baby in the Bethlehem manger would grow up to be “unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition.”
That’s why, in good conscience, I can still enter into his story.
Jesus is the treason for the season!