Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Jingles, Utilitarian Christianity, and Reality as It Is

I love traditional Christmas music and carols; however, I really dislike almost all pop-Christmas music. It always presents to me with the image of a solitary man at a bar on Christmas Day, smoking a lone cigarette and nursing a double whiskey, no ice. As the music on the jukebox is playing “Santa is Coming to Town,” he tries to forget all of the mistakes he made in life that led him to be spending Christmas alone at the only bar open for 10 miles; but for the life of him, he can’t forget.

Enough of that. The real introduction to my topic is the song referenced above: “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” One of the verses ends with this: “He knows if you've been bad or good, / So be good for goodness sake!” I always hear the second line first and think, “Yeah, we should be good for goodness sake.” Then I internalize the first line. In the song, children are being asked to be good not for goodness sake, as the second line makes it seem, but because Santa can see when children are good and/or bad, and he gives presents accordingly.

This gets me thinking about a version of Christianity – or perhaps “an articulation of the faith” is a better phrase – that always seems to unsettle me. I’m not sure if it’s automatically a false version of the faith, or simply a version with a misplaced focus. It’s the version of Christianity that focuses on reward. “Do good, so that you’ll get to heaven.” “Love your neighbor, because it’ll get you a crown in heaven.” “Love your enemies, so you can enter heaven earlier.” And so on.

I call this the “Utilitarian Version of Christianity:” The rules and dictates of the faith are worthy to be followed because you’ll end up in a good place. The consequences of following Christianity are worthwhile.

When I read Camus’ issues with Christianity, this is what I always see as his stumbling block. He finds a lot of truth and beauty in the Christian religion – in particular, its ideas of love, brotherhood, unity – but he finds the flaw in the fact that Christianity offers a reward for cooperating with those things: Heaven; eternal happiness.

There is much of the Bible that presents the faith as such. The Gospels are replete with dictates that we should follow Christ or do X or not do X “in order to attain eternal life.” And St. Paul is often more extreme. He tells us to love and smile at our enemies in this world, and to be sure we’ll see them burning on hot coals in the next. (I think this is in “Romans” – but I’m not positive; it’s one of his epistles, though.)

As odd as it sounds, I think the old Christmas jingle “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” helps demonstrate this seeming paradox. The second line is trying to claim that we should be good for goodness sake: we should act right because it is right, not because of the risks/rewards. However, the song is about Santa coming to give gifts to the good children, and overlooking the bad ones. It’s all about him “watching” you and “knowing if you’ve been good or bad.” So ending the verse by asking the children to be good for goodness sake seems ridiculous.

But shouldn’t we be good for goodness sake? Isn’t that the real point? It’s the heart of the Christian faith God’s love for us, and secondarily our response to that love, directed at Him and others? Shouldn’t I love my enemies because they are creations of God Almighty; as fellow-humans, aren’t so intrinsically connected to my own humanity, in a bond that is a reflection of the Trinity?

I often find myself during the holidays arguing with different family members about faith and morality. Often, I’m presented with the question: “So why does the Church say not to do X? Because it’s enjoyable? They love saying you can’t do things that are enjoyable.” And I have to repeat the same thing: The Church says not to do X because X isn’t good for me. It isn’t arbitrary; the Church attempts, through revelation, to get at the heart of reality, and formulate a system that best works with reality. And so I don’t do X because it isn’t good for me; and it isn’t good for me because it isn’t in line with “Reality as It Is.”

The Christian faith isn’t about rewards, then; it is about aligning oneself to Reality as It Is. If Heaven is the ultimate goal, this is only because it is the ultimate or final step in Reality as It Is.

So I’m not sure if the earlier proclamations about the Faith are fine, misguided, or just wrong. Perhaps they’re simply one way of viewing a complex matter. Even so, I find them an ill-advised way.

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