Wednesday 16 December 2015

The Meaning of Christmas

It has become almost a tradition to complain of the commercialisation of Christmas, and I am not going to do that here. After all what’s the point? We have gone so far down that particular road there can be no turning back. But Christmas has not only been commercialised. It has been thoroughly trivialised too with every year bringing a further reduction of the sense of what its meaning really is, to the extent that the Christian aspect is now almost an embarrassment. We are happy to talk about a generalised peace and goodwill to all men but only in a rather bland, humanist context. Reindeer and elves? Fine. The birth of Jesus? Not so good. It might be divisive. Even many religious leaders appear to have succumbed to this watering down of the Christmas message, so much are they a product of their times, seemingly unable to stand back from the relentless flow of materialistic assumptions which increasingly frame all our discourse, our language and what passes for our philosophy.

So here I would like to consider what the true meaning of Christmas is, and I will start off by saying that it has nothing to do with peace and goodwill. This may be a part of it but it is by no means central. Nor, for that matter, is love, another word that has been hijacked by people whose understanding of it seems to be limited to a general sense of benevolent tolerance. But love is not merely well-meaning egalitarianism. It is a spiritual quality that can only be correctly understood in a spiritual context. To be sure, the materialist can come up with an imitation of love but an imitation is what it will be since real love derives from the soul. If the soul is denied then so is love, and all you are left with is a copy or reflection on a lower level, void of any real substance.

What then is Christmas about if not peace and goodwill? The answer to that is to be found in the image of the star shining in the winter night over Bethlehem, an image that is plainly symbolic (though not only symbolic), and speaks of something that combines a wonderful simplicity with great profundity. And what it tells us is that the message of Christmas is redemption from darkness. For Christmas is about the entry of supernatural light into the spiritual darkness of this world, and its core message is that those who recognise and follow this light can be saved from the darkness that constantly threatens to engulf us, a darkness so pervasive that it is not even recognised as such by many of us. Indeed, so much have true values been inverted, that sometimes it is even mistaken for light.

So the true message of Christmas has to do with the salvation of the soul. The rest, peace, goodwill and so on, is peripheral to that central point. Now this means three things. First of all, it means we have a soul. An immortal part of us that is not derived from or determined by the body, or even the mind as normally considered, and which will survive death. Secondly, that soul requires salvation. It is not in a good state at the moment. It certainly needs to get somewhere other than where it currently is. And thirdly, salvation is possible. The light exists but we must acknowledge and accept this light. We must recognise it and allow it to illumine us for, though it may be supremely powerful, it is not coercive and will only come when invited. The most powerful thing in the universe enters this world as a weak, defenceless baby. What a teaching there is in that!

There are those who would like to rebrand Christmas as a pagan winter festival, a sort of eat, drink and be merry Saturnalia. And there is nothing wrong with that unless you think this is all there is to it. Being merry is an excellent thing, and eating and drinking are rather good too. But tomorrow we die. What happens then? The entry of the light of Christ into this world tells us what may happen if we accept that light into our heart. This does not simply mean acknowledging with our mind that Christ is the Lord or something of that nature. That is a purely external thing. There is a big difference between Christ as a person out there, and the light that he embodied. I am not saying the two are separate but the one informs the other not vice versa. It is this light that you must accept and strive to be illumined by if you would embrace the true spirit of Christmas. For Christ does not want your mind, he wants your heart. It is his dearest wish that we break out of our self-inflicted prisons (our egos, if you like) and join him in his heavenly kingdom. This will eventually require death and resurrection but to begin with the entrance to Christ's kingdom is through the heart, and Christmas is the key that will unlock the door.

Some readers may be surprised by the overtly Christian nature of this post, given some of my other writings here. Partly this is because of the time of year. The post reflects that. But I would also say that, even though I do not think of myself as a conventional Christian in the external sense, my experiences with the Masters and my exploration of many spiritual traditions have never taken away my basic sense that it is in Christ that all teachings are consummated. I have always seen him as the supreme saviour of the world and, though there are other valid spiritual paths, the light of God shines most brightly through the figure of Jesus Christ.

It is often said that all religions are one on the level of mystical experience and only separated by their dogmas and doctrines which are ultimately outer things. That may be so but it does not mean that all religions are equally true. There is a fundamental impasse, for example, between Buddhism and Christianity in terms of how they view the Creator God, never mind the centrality of Christ in the scheme of things. I believe that the Christian view is the more correct one and comes from a higher revelation. Besides which, mystical experience is all very well but it really only points to the unity of consciousness on a supra-formal level, and entry into this state is not the primary goal of the spiritual life. At one time I might have thought it was but it's clear from the teachings of the Masters (and many others, of course) that the purpose of the spiritual life is not the attainment of some state of supreme consciousness. It is the sanctification of the soul. In other words, it is not attaining a personal enlightenment, nor any kind of experience, non-dual or otherwise. Rather it is fitting oneself, through repentance, purification, self-sacrifice and whatever else it takes, to receive the grace of God thereby allowing oneself to enter a full and complete relationship with Him which means deeper and deeper union. To think otherwise is to put the cart before the horse. This truth is taught most effectively and revealed most clearly in the figure of Christ and through the teachings of Christianity. 

The nature of life, with its complexities amidst fundamental simplicity, equal significance of the One and the Many, essential balance and complementarity of sameness and difference, and importance of goodness, beauty and truth, is just what one would expect if at root it were a Trinity of Persons and not mere impersonal abstraction. Subject, object and the relationship between them. This is just a fancy way of saying that God is Love. Only Christianity fully understands this.  As a result only Christianity really values the person, the individual and all that comes from the reality of the individual. Thus to say, as we are wont to do nowadays, that all religions share the same universal values is not quite true. Certainly they share many values and agree that the spiritual is fundamental but they do not agree on precisely what the spiritual is or on the true nature of the spiritual. Only Christianity fully accepts the personal nature of reality and because of that is able to see the purpose of Creation, explain the nature of evil, and understand the essential quality, reason for existence and goal of the human being. This is not to disparage any other religion for all undoubtedly contain truth and offer guidance. But it is something worth pointing out at Christmas, at a time when the relevance of Christianity is being attacked by its opponents, misunderstood and trivialised by many of its exponents and forgotten by the rest of us.


Anonymous said...

Just sharing an off-topic article...

...worth reading (but a bit lengthy)!

David Balfour said...

This seems to have answered some important questions for me. In particular it explains why Buddhism is incomplete compared to Christianity. An important milestone for me ad a former lay Buddhist of sorts before I became a Christian. The holy trinity as a relationship between father and son and mediated by the spirit of love. The model for any ideal relationship between two souls. Oddly I had not quite thought of the trinity like this until now.

When I read your book it sometimes feels like a work of perennial philosophy as you happily borrow seemingly disparate elements from both western and eastern religious traditions such as karma, concepts of atman and brahman from Hinduism and a kind of individual God emerging from the void or formless Nirvana to delight in being for the joy of relationships and personhood. I like this vision of the divine. I also want to lose my egoistic persona and to mature spiritually but I don't understand how I can remain an individual without some kind of ego? When purification has occurred to such an extent will all the saints not look the same? Surely our joyous individuality actually comes in part from our imperfections, idiosyncrasies and personal qualities rather than the uniformity of pure traits? I do hope these masters retain a sense of humour (for example) or prefer one thing over another such as a hobby or interest (even if it is designing plants or mountains for a brave new world or exploring a new mathematics or musical harmony) otherwise I'm afraid I'm too feeble a human to relate to the higher world's with affection over detached confusion or even fear of losing my identity or a sudden fear that I don't really know what my *true* identity really is. You have certainly made me think :-)

William Wildblood said...

When I wrote the book I was trying to be more universal in my descriptions of spiritual reality as I wanted to somehow integrate all spiritual traditions into one truth. I don't think I had fully appreciated the differences between them. However my instincts kept peeping out, as for instance in the passage about the absence of God in Buddhism or when I said that there was a duality beyond non-duality. Also, how the Masters were like wise abbots of a Christian monastery rather than teachers of enlightenment (a word they never used). And it's quite true that they were. Their teachings revolved around love and humility. The path of knowledge, which is basically the path of enlightenment, was certainly secondary to them though they did insist on the need to develop intuition.

I still stand by the book but I feel my understanding is more nuanced now. It has become so since being challenged by non-dualists after a post of mine ( The Non-Duality Trap) was put on a non-duality website. This led me to study the implications of pure non-duality more deeply which made me realise that my assumptions about it were incorrect. (These were that it was not dissimilar to Christian mysticism). Its rejection of God and the individual are, I now believe, completely flawed for reasons I have given in various posts.

So what I am saying ( and I say it in the book too) is that individuality is important. The Masters have transcended identification with their limited individuality as they are one with God who is the centre of their lives but they are still full individuals. In fact, even more so than most of us who are only half-formed individuals. I can assure you they have a sense of humour too. There are one or two examples in the book and they showed it on other occasions too that I haven't mentioned there. A heaven of identikit saints would be a sort of hell, wouldn't it?