Christmas is almost upon us, and because I was brought up in a strictly observant Catholic household, there’s been some discussion among my siblings and parents about how we “kids” choose to celebrate the holiday now, as adults.
I’m not religious in a widely accepted sense. I’m surely an agnostic – maybe even an atheist – but a better characterization of my religious/worldview would be Ethical Humanism, a philosophy that holds that there is something inherent in human character that tends toward fair, ethical, and “right” behavior – that we are capable of being ethical and moral without religion, without fear of eternal reward or damnation.
There are some things that provoke a “religious” experience in me – really good church choirs (or choral groups) singing sacred music or some other kind of classical music – they have to be really good – not just any choir will do! We sang Bach’s St. John Passion a few years ago in the Yellow Springs Community Chorus – and I don’t pretend that we are on the level of some other choirs or choruses – but it was a great experience being able to sing that piece with an orchestra. Actually brought me to tears.
Beautiful art – a lot of the old masters would qualify, for me, but they’re not the only ones. One of my favorite paintings is Hide and Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (it used to be on display at MOMA – and this photo repro doesn’t do it justice – you have to see it in person).
The Vision, a painting of Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, is my other favorite, at the Met (again , the picture doesn’t do it justice – it’s huge, and haunting – and yeah, it has a religious theme, but that’s not what I appreciate about it). I could sit and stare at either of these paintings for hours.
Being in a beautiful, natural setting – forest, mountains, ocean – is another experience I can consider “religious” – or even a beautiful cathedral. Or seeing a beautiful, sleeping baby (you notice I said sleeping 😀 – I don’t get the same feeling if they’re awake and screaming – they have to at least look really innocent!).
And when my extended family is all together, getting along and having a great time (and I mean all of us – no picking and choosing, and nobody left out) – that’s one of my highest experiences. We have so many shared memories, crazy stories (that the kids love to hear!) that no one else really understands or appreciates as much as we do.
You could say that God created all these things (or man inspired by God), or not – it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t have to have “God” associated with any of it to appreciate its beauty and force in my life – having that imprimateur doesn’t make the work or the experience any more valid or inspiring for me.
I never worry about whether there is or isn’t a God. Not that that never enters my thoughts – on the contrary – I love to read about that question and have discussions on the topic (not so much about the existence of God – because since it can’t be proved either way, that seems moot – I prefer to talk about why people believe in God). But none of this alters my behavior – I try (and try is the operative word here – doesn’t mean I’m perfect at it) to treat others the way I myself would like to be treated (the Golden Rule, some form of which is recorded in most major religions’ tenets), and that’s exactly the way I raised my kids. Religion didn’t have an iota of influence on how they were raised, and I don’t think anyone who knows them would argue with me when I say that they’re well-behaved, honest, thoughtful, considerate, loving people – I’m really proud of both of them.
I have nothing against religious people – unless they are pious hypocrites, who behave in a decidedly unChristian or unMuslim – or whatever – way, outside of church. It burns me when “religious” people use religion as a basis for wars or lesser intolerances against other people – that makes them unreligious, to me. If you believe in God, you believe that all people are “children of God,” not just those who subscribe to your particular religion, lifestyle, or worldview. In that vein, the existence of Jesus (or not), and the belief that he was the son of God, doesn’t hold any particular fascination for me. If indeed he lived, and if his life was as described in the Bible, then for the most part, he was a person worth admiring and emulating, which gives Christians a good basis for their desire to “walk in his path.” However, as far as I’m concerned, that WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) adage is an empty phrase – religious jingoism, if you will – used by a lot of folks who call themselves Christian. The behavior and attitude of some of these folks tempts me to say to them, “Yeah – what would Jesus do? Not what you’re doing!” (So far, I’ve resisted the temptation.)
Oh yeah – anyone who knows me well recognizes that I could go on forever on this topic – but I won’t! I’ll just say that whatever helps you to be a “good” person, who lives in a way that brings joy to the world (no pun intended), and who tries to make this world a better, more comfortable place for others, is a good thing.
I think it’s wonderful that in this season of cold and dark, we all have something to rejoice about – whether that’s Christmas, Hannukah, Eid al-Adha, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, etc. All these holidays allow us to come together for celebrations of light and life, to feast and sing and honor each other. Let’s open our arms to each other, give thanks, and make merry!