Faith & Reason : Why I won't celebrate Christmas

Daphne Hampson, author of After Christianity and Senior Lecturer in Divinity at St Andrews University, explains why she will not be joining in the festivities next week.

I attend a Christmas party. A choir of cherub-faced undergraduates sing of a virgin and her baby boy. I am embarrassed, ill at ease. They invite requests. A woman - whose company I have been enjoying - calls out: "The Holly wears the Crown", correcting herself to "The Holly and the Ivy". Sotto voce another woman says "nice pagan carol!" Overhearing the exchange, a most senior (male) member of the university, a scholar of the pagan ancient world, twinkles. I absorb the scene.

The Christmas story of course lacks any basis. In his customary zest to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the author of Matthew's Gospel cites Isaiah 7. But while the Greek Old Testament, in a mistranslation, says "virgin", the original Hebrew has no such connotation.

This is not a harmless myth. Young children will, this Christmas again, enact nativity scenes. There are shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, a father. Only one woman is present, and she qua mother. Each year a baby boy is born. An Anglican priest tells me his eight-year-old daughter enquired: "Daddy, did God have a daughter?"

The male myth forms the lynchpin of a complex sexual symbolism, in which the female represents the secondary, subordinate term. Thus Mary, who represents humanity, is "female" in relation to a "male"God . Likewise the Church, or the people of Israel (who sin and go astray), is cast as "female". Letting Mary stand for humanity, the Protestant Karl Barth speaks of "this non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign, merely ready, merely receptive, virgin human being".

Indeed, the Christmas story exaggerates God's "maleness". The Catholic theologian Michael Schmaus writes: "What is otherwise achieved through the action of a male, was done to Mary by God's omnipotence." God and Mary become a fertile couple, who conceive a child long-distance. Mary is humble - and obedient. It is a male father-son genealogy, in which woman forms the necessary intermediary.

Doubtless it comforts men. God is father, while the mother is wholly present for the boy child, the actual father off the scene. In Christian symbolism woman is never portrayed as the equal of man. You don't see Mary with her mouth open, talking or laughing, a sexual being who desires her husband.

It may well be that, in his religion, man explores what he names his "feminine" side. In his imagination he regains the mother; or else attains to a mystical oneness with the "father", now endowed with nurturing qualities. He may even cast himself as "female" in relation to this God. But such moves scarcely aid women!

Nor is a wholly male Protestantism necessarily an improvement over such Catholic symbolism. A religion of brothers simply excludes sexual diversity. Why should women wish to join sons who, through the Son, find reconciliation with the Father? Why was reconciliation needed? Why indeed was God ever absent, requiring incarnation?

In rejecting this myth women have not necessarily become atheists. On what had my new-found friend at the party been discoursing? The banal materialism of the American mid-West society from which she came. Most women I admire and treasure have about them a marked spirituality. Some of us indeed hold more explicitly religious beliefs, myself included. It seems to be the case that prayer is powerful, that quiet, loving concentration on another brings about miracles. When others think of us our lives are changed and healed.

Christmas equals many things. How badly - in our frantic lives - we need to "centre" ourselves again. We reknit human relationships, rekindle life. If "God" is love, joy and peace, our blighted world could do with that! The Christians, wanting to reverse a paganism in which the oak symbolised winter, the holly summer, crowned the holly. We should not desire to go back behind Christianity, nor can we. Nevertheless with Christian symbolism Western culture has been skewed. There is much to unravel.

Holly trees - I learn at that party - come male and female: to be fruitful they need one another. Could it be that women long for men to leave their myth behind in a new and equal future?

After Christianity is published by SCM Press, pounds 10.95

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories