Does Christmas make you uneasy? Do you ever get a twinge of conscience about not helping out with the school Nativity play, or even about not attending the college carol service? I do. Always have. After four centuries of science, why are we still labouring to pass on a supernaturalist world view to our children?
Christmas for me sums up what has gone so badly wrong with modern religion - its loss of all intellectual standards, its relentless consumerism ("pastoral sensitivity" is the stock phrase for that) and its replacement of religious seriousness with a Heritage re-creation of an imaginary past. Christmas is the Disneyfication of Christianity.
If you doubt me, remember that our carol services began only after the First World War, and the obligatory school Nativity play only after the Second. Our present pop supernaturalism is roughly coeval with quantum physics.
Remember how a year or two back a well-known priest was forced to make a public apology for casting doubt upon the existence of Santa Claus. And remember the survey of the vocabulary of primary school children, some 15 years ago, which found that whereas they all knew what angels are, they did not know the word "conscience". Its archaic. When we took flight into the past, we lost much of our ethics. Hence todays chaotic moral panics.
It was different once. When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Christianity still seemed a relatively rational religion that lived in its own time. The old Georgian Anglicanism had lived in the Georgian world view. God had been half-demythologised into "Providence", and the supernatural world into the moral order. Going to church, you affirmed the harmony and the general benignity of the cosmic order and the social order, not as they used to be, but as they actually were. You searched your conscience and reminded yourself of the duties of your station in society. You also took the opportunity to look your neighbours over.
Oh, and by the way, there were no special Christmas services.
It sounds quaint now, and its certainly not my politics; but at least it wasnt hopelessly irrational by contemporary standards. It had a certain coherence, a certain dignity. It was a world view that you could live by, and people did so.
But by 1837 things were already changing. German philosophy had thoroughly demythologised the Incarnation, and German criticism had already demonstrated that the Nativity stories are not historical, but are pious folk tales picturing Jesuss birth as a fulfilment of Messianic prophecy. Even the Georgian religious settlement was beginning to look too conservative, and Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby, proposed a radical further modernisation of religion.
Just about then, peoples nerve cracked and the flight back into the past began. From the universities came Evangelicalism, Anglo-Catholicism and Gothic Revival architecture. From Prince Albert and Dickens came Christmas as a folk commemoration of the fast-vanishing pre-industrial world: coaches and Christmas trees, mistletoe and robins, the holly and the ivy, roast fowl and plum pudding, yule logs and posthorns, and all the world under a blanket of snow.
In the years that followed, a religion that until the 1830s had been more or less up to date and was livable was progressively replaced by a religion of nostalgia and denial, a theme-park mock-up that cannot be lived in reality.
In a way, the Victorians were the first post-moderns. Their "restoration" of the church building began the process of replacing the real with a simulacrum. Everything had to be transformed to make it look the way it ought: especially the church building, and then the public houses, the period property, the tourist attraction, and even, nowadays, the whole town centre. And the "countryside", too.
As for the school Nativity play, it seems to be a rather late-Victorian (c1955) revival of a medieval mystery play. Does anyone know its source? Perhaps it is a Towneley shepherds play, severely simplified. But if our schools and colleges are right to inculcate that kind of religion, shouldnt they by the same token be teaching Heritage history rather than critical history?
The Rev Don Cupitt is a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His latest book is `Solar Ethics (SCM Press, pounds 7.95).Reuse content