Sunday, December 10, 2017


- At the Desert Retreat House -

As we decorated our Christmas Tree yesterday, I thought about a friend of mine from graduate school who proudly boasts that he is a “non-believer.”  In fact, he refers to himself as a “committed atheist.” Although he grew up in the Christian tradition, he came to dismiss it all as fantasy; and yet, he loves celebrating Christmas. Every year, my friend and his wife (who also calls herself a “non-believer) decorate a tree, exchange presents, listen to Christmas Carols and look forward to a festive dinner on Christmas Day. Oddly enough, even though the Christmas holiday is so important to him, my graduate school friend remains adamant about the fact that he has rejected the God of his childhood and no longer thinks of himself as a Christian believer.  

As I think about it, my friend probably calls himself a “non-believer” because he is unwilling and unable to assent to doctrines and teachings about “God" and he is unwilling to participate in the institutional practices of any organized church; and yet in a very real sense he is a “believer.”

Interestingly enough, the way in which we understand “beliefs” and “believers” in our contemporary society is far different from how the word was used in ancient times. We identify “belief” as an act of the mind, an assent to propositions; but in ancient times, “belief” was viewed as an affair of the heart. When a husband tells a spouse “I believe in you,” he doesn’t mean, “I believe ideas about you,” rather he means “I give my heart to you.” In ancient times, “belief” was understood to be a commitment of the heart.  

My friend from graduate school may not believe the stuff he leaned about “God” in his childhood; but he is drawn to Christmas because by celebrating Christmas with all its beauty, tenderness, pageantry and poetry, his “heart” is moved, he encounters Mystery and Transcendence.  He is a “believer.”

I am reminded of an op-ed piece I once read in the New York Times:

When I hear people say they have no religious impulses whatsoever,
I want to respond: really?
You have never felt something in yourself
staking a claim beyond yourself,
some wordless mystery straining to reach you,
Belief is this longing of every human heart.

Yesterday as I decorated our tree, I thought about my “atheist” friend decorating his own Christmas tree and it struck me that any time any of us feel Mystery and Beauty “tugging at our hearts,” any time we feel the desire to “stake a claim beyond ourselves” we are all believers.

I am reminded of a line from the Islamic poet, Rumi:

Move beyond any attachment to names.
Every war and every conflict between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.
It’s such unnecessary foolishness because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship set and waiting for us all to sit down

Christmas is a time for all people of goodwill to move beyond the names they have put upon themselves and others. It’s a season for Christians and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, atheists, agnostics and humanists to put aside the names and sit at the table together.

Christmas is a festival that celebrates the longings of every human heart and you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas – everyone is welcome to the feast!

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