Some 2,000 years after the birth of the Lord, what does the Savior see when he regards the world from deep within it ("The Kingdom of God is within you")?
STATE OF THE FAITHFULThe population of Europe, once the cradle of the faith, is shrinking; of those who remain, an ever-growing percentage are now Muslim, and in France perhaps more Muslims than Christians actually attend services on a weekly basis.
Yet Africa is exploding with Christian faith, witness, and dynamism, and in Asia too Christian devotion is rapidly spreading.
Altogether, the number of Christians in the world now amounts to one third or better of the human race, over two billion persons. And Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world.
As always, there is much suffering in the world: cancer, tuberculosis, hunger, war, pestilence, mental illness, betrayal, loneliness, despair. Some individuals bear this suffering sweetly, giving thanks to God and accepting from His hands life's hardships along with its gifts.
There are many, many such saints, unrecognized by the world around them, whose lives nonetheless cast a luminous radiance detectable by the radar of the soul. These are the centers of redemptive energies, which flow outwards like ripples until they round the earth and return, the invisible circlets of charity, as Dostoevsky once called them. These are those in whom the Christ dwells — the suffering servants. They are everywhere.
You probably know some in your own family, or among your acquaintances: There really is much suffering in the world, and it spares no income level, or class, or section. Yet there are still many truly holy persons.
STATE OF THE NON-BELIEVERSI am writing all this as an unabashed Christian, but you do not have to be Christian to see some truth in it, however different the traditions of your own thought and speech.
Recently, British scientist Richard Dawkins was described as "an atheist, and a strenuous and militant and proud one." (One does not hear often of humble atheists, but they do appear.) "He thinks religious belief is a dangerous virus, and that it is a crime to infect the mind of a child with it." He calls religions "dangerous collective delusions" and "sinks of falsehood." He especially regrets the public influence of religion: "He is made apoplectic by the pontifications of religious 'leaders' on such questions as whether human clones would be fully human." For Dawkins, in short, "Religion is superstition, like astrology, alternative medicine, and the rest."
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, about ten percent (or a little less) of the world population is atheist or agnostic. So however upscale the views of Professor Dawkins, he has his propagating work cut out for him. Most nonreligious, secularist people, it appears, actually believe in God; they just don't like organized religions.
Even Richard Dawkins would be hard-pressed to deny that among his friends and family members there is considerable acquaintance with suffering, and that some bear this burden more nobly and uncomplainingly than others. Further, some are preternaturally kind and others irascible; and some are rather a blessing to those around them, and others a bit of a cross to bear. Scientists are not immune to the ordinary sufferings of human life. They, too, need to dispose their will and character, so as to show who and what they are in dealing with suffering. Science is a noble profession; it is not by itself a way of life. It is predominantly a habit of the mind, much less of the will.
STATE OF THE INTELLECTMoreover, there is this to say about the religions of the Lord celebrated on Christmas — the feast of lights, the feast of candles, the feast of the stars, the feast of blazing Christmas lights even in the city streets. Both Judaism and Christianity are religions that give honor and praise to a Creator who knew what he was doing and chose to do it (a God of reason and love). Afterwards, He saw that His was a good piece of work, and spoke of His love for it. In a word, Judaism and Christianity hold before us a God of the intellect, one of whose proper names is Truth — in the sense of "intelligent infuser of the truth into all things."
Moreover, the Creator made humans in his image — endowed them with intelligence and will, so that they might in freedom come to know and to choose their own destiny, and being provident for it, imitate (from afar) His own Providence. He commissioned them to join in completing the incomplete creation with Him. He offered them his friendship, and therefore, not willing to have the friendship of slaves but of free women and men, he made them free. As Thomas Jefferson, a man not altogether unlike Dawkins in temper, wrote, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time."
It would therefore have ill become these particular world-shaping religions, in honoring the Creator who infused His creation with it, to have turned against intellect. On the contrary, Judaism famously nourished learning, disputation, and reasoning among its highest aspirations, and Christianity became from the first the patron of schools, academies, studios for artists, libraries, and universities. Among these early universities are two rather well known to Dawkins: Oxford and Cambridge, whose fame was celebrated even six centuries ago.
A nice irony is this: Whereas Christianity (and Judaism) can give atheists a dignified place within their own theory of religious liberty, it seems quite difficult for atheists such as Dawkins to assign religious people any place in their own theory other than the loony bin. For Jews and Christians, freedom is so dear to the Creator that He allows free human beings to turn away from him, to reject the granting even of His existence, and to scorn Him and His works. In their refusal of His friendship, He vindicates His love of liberty. Thus, atheists too give witness to His glory.
By contrast, Dawkins in his apoplexy can find no place for believing Jews and Christians except delusion. He thinks of atheism as a place of honor and of religion as a disease; teaching of the latter, a crime; teaching of the former, a way of light, knowledge, and truth.
STATE OF INSPIRATIONThere is a further irony. Time and again in history, reason has proved to be inadequate to its own defense. Most people most of the time live by passion, sentiment, custom, emotion — many such guides influence them — but few live purely by reason. Even famous philosophers of very high scientific standards have insisted that they did not choose their wives or guide their loves by scientific reason. Reason is but a thin sliver to build a civilization upon.
And the situation is far worse than that. The scientist qua scientist typically writes that the universe was formed by chance. At this starting point, then, there is a fundamental irrationality at the heart of science. There is a superstructure of towering reasonings, but based upon an absurdity — in the strict sense, an utter absence of discernible reason, a surd at the root of the matter. The thorough cultivation of science alone as a philosophy of life, therefore, normally ends as Nietzsche sadly announced, that, in our civilization, it already had: in nihilism.
By contrast, the two great religions of our civilization (the civilization whose years are enumerated both before and after one axial point, the birth of Christ) give every motive in the world for honoring reason, and for nourishing science. The very cathedrals of Europe — whose vast dark interiors were laid out so as to measure across their slate floors the length and movement of the sun's directed, filtered beams — were simultaneously reaching skywards in the name both of God's creative intellect and also of daring human intellect. The universities were built in the same design.
Faith, as Jews and Christians understand it, honors reason, nourishes it, embeds it in a context of nobility and purity, such that all are commanded to respect its autonomy within its own realm. When practitioners of these religions do not so honor science, as often they have not, their rejection can be proven wrong on these two religions' very own philosophical grounds. As practitioners of reason have committed sins against faith, so have practitioners of faith, against reason. If there were no inherent nobility in each, no sin against either would count for so much.
The God of Christmas instructs us in zeal for the Light; that is, the unquenchable drive to know. This drive is the very root of the religious impulse, for through it, we question everything. We come to an indirect awareness of the infinite, and of the Light that would suffuse us with the intelligibility within all things, if only our minds were large enough to grasp it. In this way we come to be humbled, to approach in fear and wonder and awe, and with fierce desire. The consummation of unconditioned inquiry in unrestricted Light — we know darkly and indirectly, by reflection on our own striving — is what we were made for.
STATE OF FREEDOMTo see the newborn infant in the crèche, born of a woman and visibly human, vulnerable, and humble, while contemplating in the unseen aspect of His being that He is also the Lord, the Creator of all things, is to glimpse an analogy for our own long-sought identity. Too well we know our own humanness. What we need reminding of is the side of us made for union with a Friend, who has called us by name, if so we choose.
It is, truly, a choice — not a certainty: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not... He was in the world: and the world was made by him: and the world knew him not."
In Christmas, then, lies our decision to answer to the Creator, and thus our inalienable right to make that decision, all by ourselves. Neither mother nor father nor brother nor sister can fulfill this duty for us. It is nontransferable.
As James Madison writes in his Remonstrance, "This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe... If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered."
One more reason why the crèche, the reminder both of that first Christmas night and of the origin of a modern sense of human dignity, deserves to be exhibited in front of every public building in America. The crèche is not only a religious symbol; it is not merely a secular symbol: It is a symbol of our uplifted nature, and of the rights that accrue to it.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
Last Friday we lit the first candle. For it was the first night of Chanukah, a minor Jewish holiday that's become a major one over the years. There are candles to be kindled and potato latkes to eat. But just what does this eight-day celebration celebrate?
Answer: A successful Jewish revolt against a Syrian empire ruled by the Seleucid dynasty of Greek kings some 2,200 years ago.
Well, not exactly. The revolt was not so much against the Syrian emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, as against an attempt to impose Hellenistic culture on ancient Judaea.
Well, not exactly. It's not noised about, but this now celebrated revolt against the Syrians was something of a civil war between those Jews who proposed to adopt more of the fashionable Greek culture and those who viewed its games and gods as a desecration, and fought for the old ways, the hallowed practices and beliefs. This festival really commemorates a military victory - of tradition over assimilation, of fundamentalists over modernists.
Well, not exactly. The military aspects of the struggle are scarcely mentioned in today's celebration of Chanukah. The focus has shifted over the centuries. The very name Chanukah, or Dedication, refers to the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by pagan rites.
After all, the holiday isn't named after any particular battle or campaign or hero. It isn't the Feast of the Maccabees, who led the revolt. Therefore the real theme of Chanukah is the rededication of the Temple.
Well, not exactly. The essential ritual of the holiday has become the blessing over the Chanukah lights, one for each night of the eight-day festival. The festivities now center about a Talmudic tale relating how the liberators of the Temple found only enough pure oil to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight - enough time to prepare a new supply. We're really celebrating the miracle of the lights.
But what is all this about light and candles? What about the heroes who are remembered during Chanukah - Judah Maccabee and his father Mattathias? Are not their deeds what Chanukah really celebrates?
Well, yes, but not exactly. Their exploits are referred to in prayers and rituals only by indirection. Heroic feats are transmuted in the glow of the candles; they become acts of divine intervention.
The blessing over the candles recited each night of the holiday goes: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old." Once again, it is He who delivered us; freedom is a divine gift.
The words inserted into the daily prayers during Chanukah refer not to victories but to miracles. Our liberator was God alone: "And thereupon thy children came into . . . thy holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praises unto thy great Name."
Chanukah isn't mentioned in the Old Testament. The story of battles and victories has been relegated to the Apocrypha. A mere military victory rates only a secondary place in the canon. It is not celebrated for its own sake but for what it reveals.
A violent confrontation is lifted out of history, and enters the realm of the sacred. A messy little guerrilla war in the dim past of a forgotten empire has become something else, something that partakes of the eternal. For only the spiritual victories last.
The central metaphor of all religious belief - revealing light - now blots out all the imperial intrigues and internecine warfare. And that may be the greatest miracle of Chanukah: the transformation of that oldest and darkest of human activities, war, into a feast of illumination.
There is more than a single theme to this minor but not simple holiday. One can almost trace the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, its yearnings and fulfillments, its wisdom and folly, its holiness and vainglory, by noting which themes of Chanukah have been emphasized when in Jewish history.
So does history say more about the time in which it is written than the time it describes. The historical message changes from age to age. The past we choose to remember may be the best reflection of any present.
But if there is one constant message associated with this holiday, it can be found in the weekly portion of the Prophets chosen to be read on the Jewish Sabbath. And over the centuries, the scripture for the Sabbath of Chanukah has remained unchanged: Zechariah 4:1-7, with its penultimate verse:
Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.Exactly.
As Americans across the country celebrate Christmas this week, the reasons for celebrating are numerous. Time off from work, breaks from school, the giving and receiving of presents, lights, laughter, the anticipation of Santa and food, food, food are all great reasons to be filled with cheer at this time of year. All these things give me great joy, too – and believe me, my family thrives on them.
Most Americans will attend a church service on Christmas Eve, or at least pay some sort of tribute to the birth of Christ. For far too many, this practice of the season is more routine than real.
Despite the fact that Christmas, is celebrated BIG time in every store, in every mall, in every town in America, many people are still afraid to examine Who it is we celebrate.
Folks don't want to get "too religious" when it comes to Christmas – it's OK to sing "Silent Night," or "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" – just don't stop and ask people to reflect on what the words mean or they start twitching and shifting their weight from foot to foot.
One of the joys of having my own column is the ability to address issues that some find too uncomfortable to discuss. This week, while everyone is celebrating Christmas, I'm going to address just that – Christmas.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ – the Messiah.
What does that mean for you and me?
It means God loves us. It means we can have a personal relationship with the God of all Creation. It means we can be forgiven of our sins – no matter how numerous or how bad they are – and start life anew.
Christianity as a religion often gets a "bad rap." And, quite frankly, much of it is deserved. Why? Because far too many folks who call themselves Christians resemble nothing of the Christ who was born in Bethlehem so long ago. I shudder when I think of the many mistakes I've made, of the many times I've failed to reflect the Christ who lives in me.
But how well someone else does or doesn't represent Christ mustn't stop you from deciding for yourself whether or not to accept His love and forgiveness. His absolute love, comfort and grace are available simply for the asking. To accept or deny Him is up to you, and you alone.
Why did Christ come to Earth? What is Christmas really about?
John 3:16 states it simply and powerfully:
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
There you have it. That is the reason for celebrating – not just on Christmas, but every day.
A good start for those who seek Christ on Christmas is to read all of the third chapter of John.
The late Dr. Bill Bright, one of the greatest evangelists of our day, succinctly boiled down in simple terms several verses from throughout the Bible which explain exactly why Christ came to Earth, and why Christmas matters for each of us. The salvation message can be outlined in what he called, "The Four Spiritual Laws":
Do you want to truly celebrate Christ this Christmas? He is yours for the asking. To learn more about the true miracle of Christmas, and how you can experience this miracle in your life, I encourage you to visit the website of Campus Crusade for Christ. If you already know Him, help pass the Christmas candle around the world: The basics of Christianity are provided in nearly 150 languages on another part of the Campus Crusade for Christ website.
To each dear reader and friend, I wish you the most meaningful Christmas of your life. May your heart be touched with the greatest love the world has every known. Merry Christmas to you and yours.
Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. She is also the former vice president of communications for WorldNetDaily and her 60-second radio commentaries can be heard on the Salem Communications Network.
This year, Hanukkah in Israel seems a bit dispirited. No wonder. After three years of the blood-thirsty intifada, the emergence of a massive movement of global anti-Semitism, and the painful, on-going rifts amongst the Jewish people coming to a head, the celebratory spirit of Hanukkah in Israel is noticeably subdued.
Post-Zionism has brought to question all the values that Israel once held dear. Some Israelis see the whole Zionist enterprise as unjust, war-like, and imperialistic. We are no longer the heroic Davidic underdog, but rather we are a Goliath-like, conquering war-lord who crushes the weak. Our self-image has been damaged by this movement and our values have become distorted.
Ariel Sharon's speeches leave one with the impression that the Palestinians indeed have a just claim on the land, and that the State of Israel has somehow dispossessed the rightful owners. The Supreme Court routinely blocks Tzahal (the IDF) from doing what's best for Jewish security. The government releases terrorist prisoners and uproots Jews from their land. Innocent, G-d fearing Jews are put on trail, detained, and harassed by their own country. The system in Israel has become, in many ways, anti-Jewish. How can we celebrate the Holiday of Lights in this time of darkness?
It is exactly at these moments that Hanukkah comes to strengthen and encourage us. Unlike most of our holidays, Hanukkah is not about a great beginning, a foundation miracle, or a time of atonement. Hanukkah is about Tikkun - about fixing a situation that has gone horribly awry. The Maccabees faced a time when Judaism itself was being totally undermined. Greek Hellenism managed to sway the hearts and minds of Jews away from the study of Torah and the precept-centered life to a life preoccupied with beauty, secularism, and hedonism. The Temple itself, once a center of worship and holiness, became the center of lewdness, depravity and lasciviousness. The country-side, which once saw Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the three holy pilgrimages, was now made to witness the desecration of holy sites, holy objects, and holy days. Many Jews threw off the yoke of Heaven and went willingly with the tide of sexual immorality. Others, who refused, were forced to bow to idols on pain of death. A great darkness descended on the Land of Israel and it seemed that the whole history of the Jewish people was for naught.
It was in such a time that the Maccabees revolted. They managed to push back the foreign influence in the land; they cleansed the Temple, and burned holy oil again on the Menorah. Their victory was as much against the Syrian Greeks as it was against the Jews who supported them and their culture. And it was indeed miraculous. They were few and weak, but they conquered their powerful enemies, and captured the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. They put Jewish history back on track.
Therefore, we celebrate Hanukkah not only to mark our great military victory or to remember the miracle of the long-lasting oil. On Hanukkah, we Jews celebrate the strength that G-d gives us to pull ourselves out of darkness, to redeem ourselves from epochs when everything seems to be going downhill, when all we want to do is to give up, when we have no hope because it seems that all is lost and that it is all our fault. Hanukkah is about rededication, rebirth, and renewed strength, and it is dafka (precisely) now, a time when darkness has set on the Jewish people and on the Land of Israel, that Hanukkah has its greatest significance.
Today, the message of Hanukkah is that we can overcome the powerful external forces that are crashing against us, and we can take back the spirit of the Jewish people. With the power of faith in G-d and with firm resoluteness for action, we can defeat the sense of defeatism that is so prevalent in Israel today, and we can turn this time of dreary despondency into a time when Israel shines forth as the greatest light the world has ever seen. Israel is the world's sole Spiritual Superpower, and no Jew-hating Osama, no blood-loving Arafat, and no anti-Semitic Frenchman can ever sully or extinguish the pure light of the Holy Menorah, which will one day illuminate the entire world from Jerusalem.
UN VICTORY- The EU has foiled a PLO initiative to challenge Israel's credentials at the UN, specifically Israel's right to represent the territories, telling Palestinian representatives that exploiting the routine votes on country credentials crossed "a red line," at the world body. The resolution was due to be voted on by the General Assembly on Wednesday, but was withdrawn after vehement objections from the EU who regarded it as an attempt to undermine Israel's legitimacy. "The Palestinian failure to challenge Israel's credentials is a victory for Israeli foreign policy," Israeli Ambassador Danny Gillerman said.
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