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Christmas and Western hope

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For Christians, the whole meaning of creation has been revealed by a singular event: the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of the world.

For Christians, the whole meaning of creation has been revealed by a singular event: the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of the world.

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“There’s something different about your Christmas.” The observation was by a Chinese student visiting Utah. “We have our New Year’s celebration, but there’s just something different about your Western celebration of Christmas.” He was right — and the difference embodied in Christmas goes to the genius (for good and for evil, to be sure) of Western civilization.

If I had to name a single founder of Western civilization, the best candidate would be St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), author of "Confessions" and "The City of God." After a wayward youth and years of spiritual seeking, Augustine returned to the Christian faith of his mother, Monica, and went on, as bishop of Hippo (now in Algeria) to defend this faith over many decades in what is now a very long shelf of theological treatises. Deploying all the philosophical and historical learning available in his world, he expounded the basic truths his unlearned mother had taught him concerning the birth, teachings, miraculous works and resurrection of the Son of God.

It seems odd to credit the author of gloomy and mistaken ideas of original sin and predestination with acting as midwife to the restless and dynamic humanism that defines the Western spirit. But this spirit is in fact the result of efforts by Augustine and other fathers of Western Christianity to translate biblical hope into a gentile idiom: the Good News that God’s promises to Abraham’s family were now the possession of the whole family of mankind was rendered in the rationalist vocabulary inherited from Greek philosophy. In Christ, the soul at last felt its worth, and philosophy was called upon to explain this worth. The marriage between Jerusalem and Athens has not been an easy one, but by denying we are the children of this marriage we lose all hope of self-knowledge.

The strains in the marriage between biblical supernatural hope and Greek rationalist resignation were evident from the outset. Augustine thinks very highly of Platonic philosophy and clings to its fundamental premise of a metaphysical hierarchy culminating in a pure and therefore immaterial divinity: The “I am” of Exodus is assimilated to the pure Being of Neo-Platonic philosophy.

But the Greek categories can only be stretched so far, and in Book XII of "The City of God," Augustine’s Christian Platonism reaches a crisis. For the Greek mind, there can be nothing fundamentally new under the sun: the universe is rational and eternal in its structure; everything is in order, and nothing of any importance can change. Human life in this lower realm, with all its vicissitudes, has no eternal significance. God’s eternal perfection is logically incompatible with any fundamental innovation. Time is an illusion inherent in our compromised, material state of being; it has no direction, no purpose, but is essentially cyclical: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Wisdom for the pagan philosopher takes pride in rising above the common affections and hopes of ordinary people.

For Christians, however, the whole meaning of creation has been revealed by a singular event: the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of the world. There is something new under the sun, and that changes everything. The temporal existence of individual persons is not an accident to rise above, to get over by the cultivation of impersonal reason, but the very purpose for which the world was created. Augustine thus replies to the Platonists’ cyclical theory of time: “Our faith laughs at this walking in circles. … If it were true it would be wiser to be in ignorance — I am trying to find words to express what I feel.” What the church father is feeling is that the meaning of human existence requires that there be a linear history culminating in the possibility of the salvation, once and for all, of thinking and loving individual persons.

We progressive moderns continue to cling to the hope of a linear history, even when we have forgotten or denied the Source (and thus the spiritual content) of this hope. Christmas is a good time to remember that Western humanism springs from a biblical hope in the possibility of something truly new under the sun. Merry Christmas.

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.