The older I get, the more I think that Karl Barth was right to maintain that religion is unbelief, though not perhaps for the reasons he gave. So much religion is exclusive, trivial and violent.
In this, it’s like any other human creation. One mistake some, though by no means all, non-religious people make is to suppose that, if religion withered on the vine, the world would be a happier place, freed from self-serving claptrap. In reality, religion would simply make way for other nonsensical ideologies and convictions held and practiced by inadequate, damaged and damaging people. Furthermore, since I seem unable to stop being religious, I hope that the life of faith, at its best, is more than self-serving claptrap!
I often think back to the words of my wise teacher, Michael Skinner, who told me that, at the very least, it’s important to support institutional religion because it keeps alive great and transformative stories, by passing them on from one generation to the next. As Christmas approaches, I reflect on how right he was. (And, as I get older, my indebtedness to him and to others who helped shape my life, seems more and more clear to me. But that’s not quite the point I want to make.)
Too many theologians freeze dry the stories of Christmas, having shaped them into some narrow doctrinal certainties. The accounts of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, the birth of her son, the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, should, instead, warm our hearts, stir our imaginations, and set our minds free to make all sorts of connections between them and us and the world we live in. They should teach us to live and learn us to die (as Lady Jane Grey wrote to her sister, just before her execution), not tell us what to think and do. The great Muslim mystic, Rumi, though educated in theology, got it spot on when he described many such people as ‘curs, baying at the moon’. They claim to know too much, and what they know is often beside the point.
I wish you all a merry Christmas. More than that, I hope that these ancient stories, full of wonder and of all the possibilities of hope, help to transform us into better people, whatever our beliefs or lack of them.