Wednesday 23 November 2005

Celebrating Christmas in a pluralist Ireland

Printed in Nenagh Guardian - November 05

If one thing is as sure as Christmas it is the annual rehearsal of the tired old arguments between Church and Society around the appropriate celebration of this festival. Every year without fail some Bishop or senior church figure raises his head above the parapet and cries halt to the marching commercialism and secularism of Christmas. Also often critiqued is the ever lengthening lead in period to Christmas which undermines the season of waiting that is Advent.

Meanwhile, oblivious and unmoved, the Christmas industry ploughs on and from Halloween onwards anticipates with glee the annual jackpot that Christmas brings to those in the areas of the economy that benefit at the expense of the rest of us. When the Church says: “What about Advent?” the response is “What about it!” Already loosing its once firm grip on so many areas of society, now the Church it would seem has even lost Christmas!

To those sympathetic to the Church’s plight who look for solace there is always the comforting thought that it could be worse! In other parts of the world even more ground has been lost to the secular agenda. One only has to look to America where Christmas is increasingly referred to as ‘the Holidays’ and the dominant greeting to be found on cards is the uninspiring and unimaginative phrase: “Happy Holidays”. In Britain many local authorities have banned the depiction of any Christian symbolism in public places and so Christmas lights may not feature any religious symbolism or sentiment. Some local authorities in deference to multi-culturalism and as a demonstration of their political correctness have even attempted to rename the festival ‘Winterfest’.

There are many who will see all this as progress - proof of the increasing tolerance and maturity of society. In the current climate of cynicism regarding institutional religion it may even be seen as liberation but perhaps this is a little premature. There is no denying that Ireland has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Our economy is envied the world over. We have much to be proud of. Our transition to a modern cosmopolitan society has been meteoric in its pace and impact. One of the most tangeable results of this accelerated development is the increasingly multi-cultural society in which we find ourselves. Ireland, from being a country that people could not get out of quick enough, has become one of the most desirable destinations for peoples of various national, religious and ethnic identities. This fact alone demands a fresh appraisal of how we as a nation deal with Christmas and indeed all religious feasts and festivals. It is however by no means inevitable or desirable that such an appraisal will lead to the furtherance of the secular agenda. Marcus Borg a leading American theologian has observed that “the fact of religious pluralism creates an imperative to understand other religions and the people who practice them.” That is certainly the challenge for us in Ireland today – a nation no longer simply home to Christian believers, non-believers and the disaffected. Now we have a multi-ethnic/religious culture with a diversity of religious understanding and practice which brings fresh challenges and opportunities.

And how do we respond to this new reality? The political correctness lobby would have us censor everything that might make our new citizens feel uncomfortable. This may be in part the remnant of primitive angst following the western cultural imperialism of another age. Like most guilt induced behaviour it is neither helpful nor healthy. Another prominent force is that of secular fundamentalism that is itself a reaction to the destructive forces of religious fundamentalism which have blighted all religious traditions in recent times. Sadly this secular fundamentalism is every bit as soulless and barren as its religious equivalent. Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University has characterised this secular fundamentalism as “Paganism without the fun”.

The principal that we should suppress the particular (in this case Christianity) to defend the universal is fundamentally flawed and fruitless. The events of recent weeks in France have demonstrated the dangers of a politics which suppresses an honest multi-cultural encounter in favour of the complete privatization of religious and cultural identity. The result has been the ghettos of immigrant and disadvantaged communities which have been neglected by a series of governments to the extent that they are alienated from the society in which they find themselves! Is that the road we want to go down? In a recent column in the London Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, commenting on those same French riots, pointed out the need for any political state to be based on a “shared sense of history and destiny”. The mistake in France was, according to Sacks, that the State was established before society was built….a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. The suppression of identity may have ‘worked’ in the short term but now France is reaping the whirlwind and the suppression of these same diverse identities has turned them into distorted and violent forces.

Not only is this secular fundamentalism a very destructive force; it is also remarkably ill-informed. Out goes the baby Jesus and our traditional Christmas carols and in comes Santa Claus and such politically correct seasonal ditties as “Santa Claus is coming to town”. The fact that Santa Claus is derived from the Christian Saint Nicholas and that the afore mentioned song is a thinly disguised Christian Advent hymn just shows how bankrupt and dishonest this secular fundamentalism is. Just substitute Jesus Christ for Santa Claus throughout the song and it is as orthodox Christian a message as you will find!

None of this is to deny the reality that Ireland is not the same almost monochrome ‘Christian nation’ it once was. We live in a culture of many faiths and of non. Even before the recent waves of immigration, church attendances were in freefall. All traditional institutions with strong authoritarian structures such as the churches have lost adherents in a society which offers increasing freedoms and choices. Recent scandals may have contributed to this decline but they are not the whole picture. There is a danger however that these same scandals will fuel the fundamentalist secular agenda and lead to a reactionary suppression of religious identity and Catholicism in particular. In the light of recent events this prospect is worrying.

The fact remains that, even if we wish it were not so, Christianity is a huge and undeniable part of our story as a nation. Christmas, as one of the principal festivals of Christianity, is a significant part of that story. Despite the increasing cynicism of society about anything that smacks of mainstream religion there is something about the story of the helpless child in a manger whose strength is based in humility that appeals to people of all faiths and of non.

There are other stories too and we need to hear them as well. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists will bring their stories and in time they too will become a part of our story. They will add to the colour and richness of our lives. The test of the truly multi-cultural and pluralist country is the ability to tell our story and to listen to other stories without the need for censorship or suppression of our various distinct identities. To the religious fundamentalist all this may sound like pure relativism; to the secular fundamentalist it is defeat but to those of us who still call ourselves Christian it is the only possible response to the message of Christmas – humility and truth. As we face into the Christmas season let those of us for whom it has special significance celebrate it unashamedly and without regard to the tyranny of those who would suppress the richness and diversity of humanity for the sake of a false and deceitful uniformity. It is only in an honest acknowledgement of this diversity that the freedom of all religious traditions can be ensured and protected and so bring peace and goodwill to all men and women.