After we explain what we believe and how it guides our lives, those of us with a liberal or progressive approach to Christianity often receive some appreciation from people of other faiths or no faith for focusing on compassion for others rather than doctrinal boundaries.
And we’ve usually gotten used to the dark looks and snide remarks from Christians of a more traditional bent, who sometimes fear that progressive Christians play “fast and loose” with matters of faith.
But Christmas (and Easter – that’s probably worth another article) add a piece to the puzzle that’s about more than ethics or spirituality. We’re told that a particular event happened at Christmas in a specific way, and there are a lot of unscientific, unexplainable aspects to it.
At some point, we liberals/progressives have to come to grips with the biblical Christmas story:
- angels predicting things that actually happen
- unexpected pregnancies and miraculous births
- mysterious visitors following a star instead of GPS
- events that fulfill ancient prophecies
Did it all really happen just as the Bible relates it? Are we required to believe in an angel Gabriel, Mary’s virginity through Jesus’ birth, a pregnant woman turned away from shelter and a Christ-child lying in a stable’s feed-box while three kings from a foreign country offer odd gifts by the light of a moving star?
And what happens if we decide we have trouble believing the story as it’s been told? Are we no longer Christian? Is Christmas meaningless? What’s the truth?
At some point after the Enlightenment, Western culture began to confuse “truth” with “facts.” Something could only be “true” if it were factual, subject to evidentiary validation.
Religion scholar Marcus Borg used the term “fact-fundamentalism” to describe both conservatives who require belief in the literal truth of the Bible and liberals who care only for things that are provable.
I think there’s got to be another way, and fortunately I’m not alone. Former Harvard professor James Kugel (an expert on the Hebrew scriptures) once suggested that this emphasis on factuality is a problem peculiar to modern Christians. Jewish biblical interpreters, he said, do not ask, “Did it happen?” but, "What does it mean?”
“What does it mean?” sets aside the factuality of an event – neither affirming nor denying it – in order to focus on deeper lessons. So what might the Christmas story mean?
Angels telling shepherds of Jesus’ birth while King Herod sits in his castle unaware might suggest God’s compassion and primary attention on the lowly and needy rather than those with status and power, making us think about who we prioritize.
The journey of foreign visitors and their welcome at the stable can imply that whatever “gift” Jesus brings is not just for “us” but for “them,” not restricted to one group (whether identified by ethnicity or doctrine) but open to all.
The role of God’s Spirit in making this birth happen points to the divine desire to be involved in all the messiness of our lives, rather than standing aloof from human tragedy and suffering, inviting us also to be in solidarity with the oppressed.
And the connection of this event to historical figures (accurate or not) indicates that this life and this earth are the places God desires to be and bless, and not some other-worldly plane of existence, so that we might value and care for our planet and seek good for those around us.
It’s said that Thomas Mann defined a myth as “a story about the way things never were, but always are.”*
I don’t know, for certain, if the biblical Christmas story tells of “things that never were” factual in exactly this or that way, but I don’t care. I continue to hear “things that always are” true in the deepest sense, leading me into a more faithful life.
*Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) p. 50