Christmas, for the first time

I’ve always loved listening to Christmas music. There’s nothing like a classic rendition of The First Noel or Adeste Fidelis sung by some great choir to stir up all the warm feelings I associate with this time of year.

Even though God or Jesus was never part of the equation, my family was always big on Christmas being a time of year for generosity, forgiveness, thankfulness and hope. We would pick up a couple extra coats at Wal Mart to give to children in need, more readily forgive each other for little transgressions, and take a moment to appreciate all that we had. And no matter how bleak things were or how many difficulties we faced, we always saw Christmas as a time to set aside our worries, to just find joy in simple things like having a fire roaring in the fireplace, decorating the Christmas tree or making cookies for friends and family. There were a few years in my life that were pretty dismal, where some pretty traumatic stuff happened, and I remember Christmastime being one of the few bright spots in my life. It was a nice, pleasant time of year.

This year, it’s different.

Of course I always knew that Christmas was based on the birth of the founder of the Christian religion but I thought, even as a young child, that that was an antiquated idea that few people took seriously anymore. I didn’t think that anybody honestly believed all that God and Jesus stuff, except for maybe the ignorant or the self-deluded. I never even took a moment to wonder how vastly much more glorious this season would seem if the events that supposedly took place were actually true, because I was so certain they weren’t.

As I’ve chronicled on this site, the path to belief was not a simple one for me. It has been a mostly dry endeavor, filled with doubts and uncertainty, with frustration and sometimes despair. I still don’t know what it’s like to have a childlike trust in God, and probably never will. I don’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But, by the grace of God, I believe. I set out to follow the truth wherever it led me, factoring in all data from human experience in addition to that which can be proven in a lab or a mathematical equation, and it led me to Christianity.

I have examined my decision and the path that led me here as objectively as I possibly can. I feel certain that I am not fooling myself, that the profound proof I have seen is not from my imagination alone. If nothing else, I could never come up with anything that good. I could never create within myself the deep love and peace I have experienced. But, if it is just all in my head, then it’s come from some deep, previously unknown facet of my personality, and it’s a pretty serious psychosis that I’ll probably never be capable of realizing.

Anyway, a couple Fridays ago, I was getting the house ready for a Christmas party and turned on some Christmas music, the same tunes I enjoy hearing every year. As the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s stunning rendition of The First Noel floated through the kitchen, I was almost stopped in my tracks. I realized, for the first time, what Christmas really is. The glorious melody that recounts the tale of shepherds gazing at a star on a cold winter’s night, of travelers from a distant land offering gifts upon bent knee to a newborn child, isn’t just beautiful, but an expression of the most beautiful thing that ever happened.

The truth of Christianity almost makes the beauty of Christmas almost too much to absorb. “Kindness,” “generosity,” “joy,” “love” — all the things that were always part of this wonderful season — are no longer just fleeting nothings, pleasant little chemical reactions in the human brain. They’re real. They have a Source, and I have found him (or, rather, he has found me). As I stood motionless that Friday, stopped in my tracks with a tin of Christmas cookies, tears welled in my eyes and my throat got tight. Of course they’re real, I thought. Of course. In a way, I knew it all along.

As the choir reached the crescendo, the joy in their voices pouring forth like a raging waterfall, singing this ancient carol that a thousand voices have sung before, I realized that this is really my first Christmas. What I thought was a few weeks of beauty and hope and joy, is a celebration of Beauty and Hope and Joy itself.

I’ve said countless holiday pleasantries in my life — “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” etc. But this year, from the very bottom of my heart, I sincerely wish every single one of the commenters and readers of this site a merry, merry Christmas.

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Enter the Conversation...

48 Responses to “Christmas, for the first time”
  1. Martin says:

    And an early Merry Christmas to you too.

    I almost always get emotional when I hear “O Holy Night”.

    It truly is a beautiful season.

  2. Mike J says:

    ‘Twill be an interesting Christmas for me too. The first in 25 years in which I will doubt the story. I’m not sure what I think of that.

    But I am looking forward to the special liturgies of the season.

    Something in your post struck me:
    > It has been a mostly dry endeavor, filled with doubts and uncertainty, with frustration and sometimes despair. I still don’t know what it’s like to have a childlike trust in God, and probably never will. I don’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus.<

    Sounds so familiar to me. Of course I approached it from the “other side of the fence” from you.

    Ah well. I do hope all have a joyous holiday season.

  3. Anonymous says:

    What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing these heart-felt thoughts.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  4. Jerret says:

    Hey, thanks. I appreciate the sentiment. Merry Christmas to you too, and all the other commentors.

  5. Tim says:

    I hear the phrase “the true meaning of Christmas” tossed around a lot, but it didn’t mean anything to me until my “first” Christmas. I understand exactly what you mean – that year when Christmas changes – no longer just a warm celebration of good cheer and sentiment – now it is a day to mark the arrival of salvation. I used to see mass as an inconvenience during the holidays. I liked everything else about Christmas – singing carols, decorating the tree, gifts, fireplace, TV Christmas specials, great food, friends and family – mass just got in the way. I still love all those things, but I’d trade them all for the celebration of Christmas mass. I don’t need any Christmas presents. Oh come let us adore him! Christ the Lord! That’s what I’m looking forward to – that’s what I want to do on Christmas.

  6. steveg says:

    A blessed Christmas to you and yours!

  7. Professor Chaos says:

    Merry Christmas to you, Jen!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Merry Christmas Jen!! I’m proud of just how much you are growing in the faith. It’s inspirational..even to a cradle Catholic like me…

  9. Tim says:

    Mike J- this question belongs on another post because it’s too darn broad, but I’m really curious to know, now that you doubt the story, what is your theory as to the purpose of life and why we are here. To avoid bogging this blog down with an issue that others might not want to talk about here, maybe you could just send your thoughts to me at Eire2x@aol.com. Thanks.
    Tim

  10. Mike J says:

    Tim:

    Your queries are sufficiently short, as are the answers, that I’ll just put them here.

    1-What is the purpose of life?
    –What you make of it.

    2-Why we are here?
    –Because we were born and have not yet died.

  11. Kasia says:

    Merry Christmas, Jen!

  12. Tim says:

    Mike: I kept it short to spare others, but your answers only make me more curious. Why were we born? Why do so many people have the need or desire to seek a higher being and a higher purpose? Why do you bum out when you conclude that there is no higher purpose? Where are these thoughts coming from? Why do we care about things? Why does the whole country unify in grief when people die, like 9/11? Why don’t we all just shrug our shoulders and say “what do I care? I’m just living until I die.” Why does the Golden Rule ring so true with so many people? I’m asking out of simple curiosity and a genuine desire to understand your viewpoint. My apologies to others who don’t share an interest in this topic. If there is a more appropriate place to post this discussion, please let me know.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Tim:
    Well your questions get more difficult.

    I think most folks here find this stuff interesting to some extent. If Jen thinks there’s a better place for this, she will let us know.

    I appreciate your effort to understand better. I’ve always sought to grasp differing ideologies sufficiently to be able to argue in favor of things I don’t agree. And, if possible, to argue it better than those who truly advocate it. [Took the pro-slavery side in a debate in school once. Destroyed the other side.]

    But on to your questions; with a brief caveat first.
    I”m not yet a truly, committed atheist/agnostic. I’m just a guy who is looking at a long-held belief that I can’t see holding to anymore. So while I answer like an atheist, it’s more of mental exercise than a declaration. [I've been able to argue the atheist position for a lot of years.]

    >Why were we born?<
    This one’s easy. Our parents had sex.

    >Why do so many people have the need or desire to seek a higher being and a higher purpose?<
    Lots of reasons. Too many to list. A few: Some may do it out of a genuine conviction that such really exists. Some may do it out of insecurity. Some may do it, because they were raised to think that way. The answers may be a varied as the seekers.

    >Why do you bum out when you conclude that there is no higher purpose?<
    Some bum out. Some don’t. By and large, folks who conclude that go on with living their lives. Some are very happy.
    I think a good number of former theists who reach such a conclusion may bum out for a while because they aren’t sure how to go about restructuring their lives. (Consistency tends to be very comforting.)
    Anyway I think the bumming out is temporary for most.

    >Where are these thoughts coming from?<
    Humans are thinking beings. All manner of thoughts will occur to them. Thoughts of existence are very prevalent.

    >Why do we care about things?<
    Hard to say. Some say it’s because there’s a higher reality behind things. Others say that’s wishful thinking. Others care because things effect them. Others enjoy caring. And some don’t care. Again, there must be as many reasons are there are people who care.

    >Why does the whole country unify in grief when people die, like 9/11?<
    Well, we didn’t all. There were a few who said, “Good. About time the US got hurt.” For the most though I think they care because they realize how vulnerable they are when they see things like that. Nobody who isn’t suicidal wants to be in a building when it’s bombed. When it happens, we all know, “That could have been me.” That scares folks.
    And yes, there’s lots more to it. I’m trying not to write a book here.

    >Why don’t we all just shrug our shoulders and say “what do I care? I’m just living until I die.”<
    See above. Some did. Others care. Others feel threatened. And… very few want to die soon.

    >Why does the Golden Rule ring so true with so many people?
    Because we want folks to be nice to us, to help us, to care about us. And it’s common experience and knowledge that folks will do that for you, if you do likewise for them.
    Neither Carnegie nor Jesus were original with that. I think “Og the Cavemen” probably came up with it first.

  14. Tim says:

    Mike- if I could, I’d like to focus on just two of your answers: the one regarding 9/11, and the one regarding the Golden Rule. Of the answers you gave, these are the two that I would find particularly challenging if I were to argue your position, so please allow me to poke at them a bit for clarification purposes.

    With regard to 9/11, I agree there were a minority that probably were happy about what happened. There is always a minority opinion on any issue in our country. Without benefit of actual data, could we simply agree that the vast majority of Americans were shocked and saddened over the events of 9/11? Focusing solely on that majority, what was it that led all of them to feel that sadness? Do you really think it was the “that could have been me” response? How does “that could have been me” lead to sadness? It may lead to soberness, and then to relief upon realization that “it wasn’t me.” Sadness on the other hand, under these circumstances, would suggest compassion. I didn’t know anyone that was hurt or killed on that day, but my heart was breaking as I heard the stories. And I think it’s safe to say that millions of hearts across the country were breaking along with mine. Where is the common sadness coming from? The victims weren’t my my mother or father or brother. They were strangers to me. Yet I felt deep, real sadness for them. If it were just me, then you can label me a freak – some kind of oddity. But it wasn’t just me. The majority of the country felt the exact same way. How can we explain this common reaction without any time for coordination or preparation? What is the genesis of the outpouring of compassion and sympathy for those that died and for their surviving families? Why were the funerals packed? Was it because everyone wanted to come together and meditate on “wow, that could have been me”? Why wouldn’t we just breathe a sigh of relief that we weren’t hurt and move on?

    With regard to the Golden Rule, I think there is some connection to the 9/11 issue. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How can we explain the stories of people helping injured victims get down the stairs before the towers collapsed? Are you saying that they were motivated by the thought that “if I help this injured person out of this building, they will do something nice for me”? Doesn’t that really pose a conflict? I mean, if the motivation for helping others is that they will be nice to me in return, what good will that do me if in helping them, I end up dying? I will have lost my opportunity to receive the thing that motivated me. Wouldn’t the person whose motivation is a payoff of some kind run down the stairs and save his own life, leaving the others? Why, when no payoff of any kind is possible, do people still follow the Golden Rule of loving others?

    I really appreciate your sharing some insight on your viewpoint with me.

    Tim

  15. Anonymous says:

    The collapse of the towers took everybody by surprise. Those who were helping others down the stairs didn’t know how little time they had left. If they did they would have trampled over each other in a mad rush to get out. That’s what happens when there is a fire in a nightclub or a movie theater.

    The outpouring of grief is due to the power of the media to focus our attention on something and to influence our reaction to it. People grieve because the media tells us that this is what we are supposed to do. The same outpouring of grief occurred when Lady Diana was killed in an auto accident.

    About 3000 people were killed in the attacks on September 11, 2001. About 3000 babies are killed by abortions every single day in America. One causes the nation to mourn. The other is ignored. The media is the difference.

  16. Anonymous says:

    P.S. The belief in an afterlife makes people more accepting of death because they see death not as death but merely a transition to a new life in heaven.

  17. sam harris says:

    Twenty percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.

  18. Enigma says:

    Enjoy this Christmas season. The music, the family, God’s grace and your burgeoning growing faith and those of others are all things I will be greatful for this Christmas. This is a beautiful post.

    Kita

  19. Anonymous says:

    Tim:
    Starting at the end of your post-
    > I really appreciate your sharing some insight on your viewpoint with me.<

    Remember my caveat earlier. I can’t really say that I own the viewpoints I’m sharing. I just understand them and give them some credit.

    > could we simply agree that the vast majority of Americans were shocked and saddened over the events of 9/11?<

    For sure.

    > what was it that led all of them to feel that sadness? Do you really think it was the “that could have been me” response?<

    Could have been partly that and/or any of a lot of other reasons.

    > Sadness on the other hand, under these circumstances, would suggest compassion. <

    Yep. Lots of folks are that way. For many reasons I suspect.

    > Where is the common sadness coming from? How can we explain this common reaction without any time for coordination or preparation? What is the genesis of the outpouring of compassion and sympathy for those that died and for their surviving families?<

    One possible, partial explanation for much of what you’re bringing up would probably be that there are a lot of religious people in this country and around the world. Religion, and belief in God, Satan, afterlife, spiritual things, etc. often makes people feel for others. As it should.

    Another possilbe, partial explanation is the deeply ingrained sense of community in humans. We associate ‘community’ with everything from our neighborhood, to our city, to our country, to our planet. When the community, or any part of it, is hurt, we react to that.

    > How can we explain the stories of people helping injured victims get down the stairs before the towers collapsed? Are you saying that they were motivated by the thought that “if I help this injured person out of this building, they will do something nice for me”? <

    As someone pointed out, they didn’t know the building was coming down. If they had, would they have done differently? Some would have. Some would have still been heroes. Why those differences? Heck, if I could give a comprehensive answer to that, I’d write my bestseller and then go collect my Nobel prize. Again, I’ll bet the motivations are as diverse as the people who hold them.

    > Why, when no payoff of any kind is possible, do people still follow the Golden Rule of loving others? <

    Kinda back to my possible, partial answers. Religion, community, taking the long view, belief in an afterlife, pathological altruism (Yes, that’s a joke term.), the hope that someone will do it for my friends or family after I’m gone, random acts of kindness.

    I think you’re sort of fishing for the idea that “maybe there’s really something behind it all”. Something like an unltimate giver, lover, father, God. I don’t deny that possibility. I’m just not so sure of it as I once would have been.

    Mike

  20. Tim says:

    Anon- Are you suggesting that the firemen running up the stairs of the towers, the building employees searching for survivors instead of running downstairs . . . are you suggesting that perceived no risk to their lives? Are you suggesting that they felt safe and secure staying behind in those buildings?

    Re the media influence, it’s certainly a factor, but I find it hard to digest your suggestion that we are essentially puppets who mourn when the media says “go.”

    Abortion is too complex a topic to get into in this particular post. I’m trying to keep my questions somewhat narrow on purpose so the topic doesn’t spread out of control. Perhaps Jen will bring it up another time (if she hasn’t already).

    Mike J- Yes- I guess I am getting at that question – isn’t it possible that the common reactions are the result of a common source? Is it the “image and likeness” of God that we’re seeing in these situations, or is there some other reasonable explanation. I haven’t found a reasonable explanation for why we humans experience love and concern for others, particularly strangers, other than that we are somehow reflecting the nature of our creator.
    Thanks for those thoughts – whether they be yours or not. It sounds like you’re still searching. That’s a good thing.
    Tim

  21. Anonymous says:

    Tim:
    > isn’t it possible that the common reactions are the result of a common source? <

    Yes. It’s possible. Since there are so many, varied reactions though, I have to think there may be many, varied sources.

    > Is it the “image and likeness” of God that we’re seeing in these situations, or is there some other reasonable explanation. <

    I tossed off a few.
    -Religious beliefs, regardless of whether they are true or not.
    -Sense of community
    -Belief in an afterlife (with or without religion)
    -The hope that someone will do it for my friends or family after I’m gone
    -Random acts of kindness
    The list could go on. And no one of them is likely to explain everyone’s motivations. Your proposal, “we are somehow reflecting the nature of our creator” could certainly be an explanation. Perhaps not an exclusive one though.

    > It sounds like you’re still searching. <

    Indeed. I’ve always thought that the search ends when you die. Then again, maybe not. But at any rate, that’s when I plan to stop.

  22. Tim says:

    >I tossed off a few.
    -Religious beliefs, regardless of whether they are true or not.
    -Sense of community
    -Belief in an afterlife (with or without religion)
    -The hope that someone will do it for my friends or family after I’m gone
    -Random acts of kindness
    The list could go on. And no one of them is likely to explain everyone’s motivations. Your proposal, “we are somehow reflecting the nature of our creator” could certainly be an explanation. Perhaps not an exclusive one though.<

    Mike-
    In the absence of some internal sense of a need to love others, most of these don’t make any sense to me.

    >Feeling of community?< Who cares? I'm just living to live - it's about me.

    >The hope that someone will do it for my friends or family after I’m gone.< Again, who cares? Let them take care of themselves.

    >Random acts of kindness.< Why? What's my motivation? Waste of time and effort.

    What do you think?

  23. Anonymous says:

    “Twenty percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.”

    As someone who has suffered two miscarriages, it was acknowledged as grief as did everyone around me acknowledged it as a loss. Just like any other individual who dies we acknowledge them. You don’t think mothers and father feel sadness when they lose something that was created by their love? Even husbands and wives can not attend each other’s funerals.

    We all eventually “die”, so God must be very very cruel. But the reality is that people who believe in God, believe our souls are immortal even one’s who are lost prior to being born. This is an imperfect world, but we exist beyond the physical bodies we have on Earth.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Tim:
    > In the absence of some internal sense of a need to love others, most of these don’t make any sense to me. <

    An internal sense of a need is just what I’m proposing.
    And if something doesn’t make sense to you or me, that may just mean that we need a better imagination.

    >Feeling of community?< Who cares? I'm just living to live - it's about me. <

    Then you lack a feeling of community. Others don’t.

    >The hope that someone will do it for my friends or family after I’m gone.< Again, who cares? Let them take care of themselves.<

    There’d be few with this attitude.

    >Random acts of kindness.< Why? What's my motivation? Waste of time and effort.<

    Doing so makes your life more pleasant and makes people think more highly of you.

    No one theory explains it all. You can shoehorn everything into one theory, but that doesn’t make it true. It just means you’re good a forcing everything into one theory whether it fits or not. I see folks do it in science all the time.

  25. Tim says:

    Mike- I think some of those explanations are pretty weak. Where does the desire for community come from? >There’d be few with this attitude< That's not an explanation - it's a conclusion. The idea that people do things or help others out of a desire to have people think well of them - that certainly explains some, but I don't think the majority have that as their primary motivation. It's deeper than that.
    You’ve been a great sport. Thanks for indulging me.
    Tim

  26. Anonymous says:

    Tim,

    Check this out: http://www.doghero.com/caninecourage.htm

    Are dogs made in the image of God?

  27. Tim says:

    To a certain extent, I suppose dogs reflect something of God – just as any painting in some way reflects the artist who painted it. But dog courage is generally aimed at helping the dog’s owner/master. A primal bond has developed because the owner gives the dog everything it needs to survive. And so there is a survival element involved – in other words, don’t mess with my meal ticket. I know the bond between dog and man often goes deeper than that, but I’m just pointing out that a human is much more inclined to help a stranger than a dog is.
    If a dog had been in one of the Twin Towers, it might have done something courageous to help its master, but I doubt it would wander off into the smoke looking for people to help out of a sense of concern for everyone else stuck in the building.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs, and I know they are capable of incredible things and indescribably deep bonds with their owners, but I don’t think they measure up when talking about a general, deep-seeded motivation that humans have to help other people, particularly when they are in great need.
    I know there is plenty of hate, greed, pettiness, jealousy, self-centeredness, etc. among humans, but underneath that, there seems to me to be in most people a sense of concern/care/love for others. For some, it only surfaces in desparate events. For others, it’s always at the surface. For others, external and internal factors have buried it so deep, it may never see the light of day. But I’m suggesting that it is there in all of us, and that it is the “imprint” of our Creator. I have not heard any other reasonable explanation for what seems to be a common occurrence throughout history of man helping man.

    Where does selflessness with no chance of return/reward come from? I’ve concluded it must be this “imprint” of God, His “image and likeness” coming through, but I’d still like to hear others’ thoughts.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Anon:
    In addition to Tim’s excellent response, I’ll point out also that any courage the dog has is really ours, not the dogs. The dog does, nothing more. He does not write commentary on his courage, nor do other dogs hear or read about it and become inspired. Canine poems to his heroism will not be written, nor barked out. He can’t even post a link to it on a blog so that we might contrast it to human action. ;-)

    We, not he, perceive his act as courageous and without that perception, without our being inspired, his act is nothing of inherent value of which we can speak. Without our reaction and contemplation of it, it is nothing but a random act. It is only because we can reflect on it that it has value, that we can dare to call it courageous.

    Thus, as with all things that are truly meaningful, it is our meaning, not the dog’s, thus the courage seen is ours, not the dog’s. His is but the act. Ours is the inspiration and meaning drawn from it.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Tim:

    As I’ve said before, I think explaining the incredible variety of human behavior requires an incredible variety of motivations or theories. Any one of them alone, will be weak. All 6 billion of them would probably make a strong case.

    The Christian theory that there’s a God and a Devil and all human behavior stems from degrees of following one or the other, is workable. And I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just positing other positions.

    For a challenge, try this: Shoot holes in the explanation you hold. Find its weaknesses. Find the areas it may not cover.

    Post some of them. If you like, I’ll even follow up by plugging the holes you find.

    I’ve been arguing one side of an issue. Give me a chance to turn coats.

  30. Tim says:

    Mike- I will trade sides with you after this last thought.

    Many cities have a big, free Thanksgiving dinner that they put on for the poor and homeless. My own city does this. People from all walks of life, all variety of background, gather and work together to put this dinner together.

    It is not a faith-based event. If you asked the volunteers if they believed in God, you would likely get many different answers. Some are Christians living according to the teachings of their faith. Some have no belief in God, but have a desire to participate. Some may be there because “Aunt Jackie” always volunteered, and she died last year, and the family wanted to honor her by carrying on her tradition. I suppose some might even be there for some social reason – they don’t have many friends, and it’s a chance to meet others. And as you say, on and on we go with the reasons people identify for being there.

    If you stood at the door and interviewed people as they were leaving, I think you’d find that despite these many different “motivations,” the majority would tell you that it gave them a “good feeling” to help out some people who are less fortunate. Religious beliefs aside, when people are asked why they helped, they often cite something like “it’s the right thing to do” or “it gives me a good feeling to help someone.”

    Why the common reaction from people who would give you very different explanations for why they were there to help? It’s not what they claim as their motivation that I’m getting at. It’s the common feeling/sense among the majority of volunteers that helping others is a good thing or gives them a sense of having done something worthwhile. I can’t come up with a good explanation for this common sense/feeling, except the “imprint” of God explanation that I’ve already described.

    If you have any new reaction to this, I’d like to hear it. Otherwise, next time I post a comment, it will be my alter ego.

    Tim

  31. Anonymous says:

    Tim:

    At the risk of sounding horribly redundant again, for yet another time, though I’ve said all this before, many times, in the past, as you know, and as I previously iterated….

    There might be one reason for all these folk to feel the same way. There might be many reasons why they arrive at similar feelings. [Maybe like I can feel good from a massage, a nap, a meal, a kiss, a movie, music, etc.]

    I do also think of the fact that many folks don’t go in for philanthropy, and still manage to feel good about things. One might wonder where that comes from.

    Part of the dichotomies we see in this discussion stem from the presuppositions one starts with.
    If a thinker starts with a God, he is apt to arrive at certain endpoints.
    If a thinker starts with no God, he is apt to find very different endpoints.
    Both thinkers are likely to see their endpoints/conclusions as right, and to find problems with the endpoints/conclusions of the other thinker.

    So then comes the challenge. To climb into the mind of another and try to see the world as they do. Sometimes it still looks whacked. Sometimes one finds a new vista.

    I have waxed rhapsodic enough now. Time for beddy-bye. I’ll see you (or your alter ego) next time.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Tim wrote:

    But dog courage is generally aimed at helping the dog’s owner/master. A primal bond has developed because the owner gives the dog everything it needs to survive. And so there is a survival element involved – in other words, don’t mess with my meal ticket.

    Good point. The same point can also be made about the bond between God and people. God is our meal ticket and we will do whatever is pleasing to Him. In some religions it meant offering human sacrifices. In Christianity it means loving our enemies. But the basic motivation is the same.

    I know there is plenty of hate, greed, pettiness, jealousy, self-centeredness, etc. among humans, but underneath that, there seems to me to be in most people a sense of concern/care/love for others.

    Wow. I think that you have totally misread human nature. I think that concern/care/love for others is superficial and that at the core we are self-centered.

    … it is there in all of us, and that it is the “imprint” of our Creator.

    Double wow. I think that you have totally misread the Creator. The Creator in the Old Testament was one mean hombre Who was constantly at war with His own creation. He got a makeover in the New Testament to such an extent that the God of the New Testament bears little resemblance to the God of the Old Testament. In fact, some early Christians argued that they were two different Gods.

    Where does selflessness with no chance of return/reward come from?

    But does that really happen? I am sure you agree that when people do something because they believe that God is watching and that they will get their pie in the sky when they die, that is not selflessness. But even when people do something just because it makes them feel good, is that really selflessness? After all, it makes them feel good, right?

    You might argue that feeling good about helping those in need reflects the image of God. But does God really help those in need? As an atheist I would argue that man creates God in man’s image and in so doing attributes to God all that is good and noble in man. We then make excuses for the God we have created to explain why there is so much suffering.

    steveg wrote:

    In addition to Tim’s excellent response, I’ll point out also that any courage the dog has is really ours, not the dogs. The dog does, nothing more. He does not write commentary on his courage, nor do other dogs hear or read about it and become inspired. Canine poems to his heroism will not be written, nor barked out. He can’t even post a link to it on a blog so that we might contrast it to human action. ;-)

    We, not he, perceive his act as courageous and without that perception, without our being inspired, his act is nothing of inherent value of which we can speak. Without our reaction and contemplation of it, it is nothing but a random act. It is only because we can reflect on it that it has value, that we can dare to call it courageous.

    Thus, as with all things that are truly meaningful, it is our meaning, not the dog’s, thus the courage seen is ours, not the dog’s. His is but the act. Ours is the inspiration and meaning drawn from it.

    Your post is so outrageous that I had to quote it in full in case anyone missed it. You must be a cat lover. :) Seriously, though, I think there is a word to describe your post. The idea that a dog’s act of saving a life is meaningful and courageous only because we humans say so is the epitome of anthropocentricism.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Anon:
    You seem to have missed my point altogether. I won’t quibble that my view is anthropocentric. But your view, your thoughts on the subject, your posting it in response to Tim in the first place is equally anthropocentric. All discussions among humans of such issues are by necessity so.

    I’ll also note that you don’t attempt to address the substance of the point, but instead dismiss it by labeling it outrageous despite the fact that what I explained is obvious with a bit of reflection. Unless you can describe how the dog’s act is what we would call courageous without us to perceive and label it such, the point stands.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Dear Jen,
    This is just beautiful. May your Christmas be filled with the deepest of joys ….

  35. Anonymous says:

    Merry Christmas Jen, from New Zealand where it is already Christmas morning!

    And thanks to Tim and Mike J for disagreeing so courteously :-)

  36. Veronica says:

    Tim,
    In thinking through your posts here, I am wondering if you a missing one of the biggest motivating factors for humans or if you have thought of an explanation for it. I am referring to the aspect of behavioral conditioning we receive from birth from our parents (or caregivers).

    We, as small children, do something good (i.e. something that is helpful to our parents or makes them look good) and they praise or reward us. Do something to bug them or make them look bad (“Your son pushed Janey down and wouldn’t even help her up or say he was sorry.”) and ooh boy, do we get it. These standards of behavior seep into and become part of us until we can’t help but feel like heels if we don’t give to the needy at the holidays or help people in dangerous situations ’cause it just seems “right” to us.

    This sounds a lot more cynical than I mean it to sound but I do believe that this makes up a LARGE part of who we are as humans and I wonder what you think about it.

  37. Anonymous says:

    Anon:
    You said to Tim:
    > I think that you have totally misread human nature. I think that concern/care/love for others is superficial and that at the core we are self-centered. <

    That’s more of the view of humanity that I’ve always heard from the Protestant and Catholic churches I’ve known. And it fits with a fair deal of what I’ve seen. Though I’ll credit that sometimes I see thing that seem to imply the opposite view. And now I’m back to my ‘people are just complicated’ stance.

    > The Creator in the Old Testament was one mean hombre Who was constantly at war with His own creation. He got a makeover in the New Testament to such an extent that the God of the New Testament bears little resemblance to the God of the Old Testament.<

    Here I’d really have to differ with your view. I can point to quite a few specific places in the OT where God was very nice and forgiving, and some places in the NT where He was vindictive. After several read throughs of the Bible, I found consistency in the views of God. Differences yes, but not contradictory differences.

    > In fact, some early Christians argued that they were two different Gods.<

    References, citations, primary sources please. I’m a bit of a history buff, and Church history is a particular interest of mine. For all that, I’m not aware of any sources for something like that. If you have sources, please let me know.

  38. Tim says:

    Veronica- I don’t consider your comments cynical. If a theory can’t withstand careful scrutiny, analysis and “testing,” then how can we ever determine whether or not it is valid?

    Your point about parental formation is a good one. No question that my parents made a point of letting me know what they thought was right and what they thought was wrong. They were pretty strict. Am I now, as an adult, behaving in a certain way because I’ve been “trained” or because I still want their approval? I don’t think so, but I won’t dispute that the decisions I make and my actions day to day are mostly in line with what my parents would probably consider “good” and “appropriate” behavior. But I think that begs the question of where did my parents get a sense of what is “good” and “appropriate?” And why do so many other parents teach their kids the same the same things that my parents did? Why do they have the same concept of what is good? Where is that coming from? Why do most parents reprimand their kids when they push another kid down or rip a toy out of their hand? Why don’t parents say “That’s right, John, if you want that toy, you go get it. You’re bigger than that kid, so take the toy if you want it.”? I don’t hear too many parents saying that. Most would say “give it back. You need to learn how to share.” Where does that common parental sense of good and bad come from?

  39. Tim says:

    Anon- If by “human nature” you mean the way in which humans are more inclined to act, then I agree that we lean heavily towards the selfish thing. We are weak creatures. We often take the easier route. It is much easier, in my opinion, to focus solely on myself and ignore others (unless they can help me). It’s not convenient to help my ailing father. There’s a part of me that wants to just spend my time doing what I want to do, and not taking care of others or thinking about their needs/concerns. That side is competing with another “force” in me that thinks that I “should” take care of my dad. It is out of a sense of gratitude for all he has done for me? Perhaps in part. But that doesn’t begin to cover it. This sense of concern and desire to help my dad overpowers the side of me that wants to have my time to myself. It isn’t fear of God that drives me. I believe in God, and yes, I do want to follow His way of doing things, but I’m not doing it because I’m being compelled to do so by some external force. I am making a conscious decision to reject the desire to do “my thing.” It’s my choice. No one made me do it.

    Perhaps saying this “desire for the good” is “beneath” the jealous, selfish side is not the best description. They coexist within me. Generally, I find the selfish thing much easier than the selfless thing. The selfless thing is usually more difficult, and yet it leaves me with the sense of great satisfaction – what we’ve been referring to as “feeling good” about what we do.

    Does feeling good about something amount to a reward that undermines the selflessness of the act? I don’t think so. Couldn’t that internal sense of “good” be an internal barometer put there by God to guide us?

    I have to stop – more a little later.

  40. Anonymous says:

    I think Veronica has hit on a very important point…and I think the reason why there is a general code of basic good behavior that we were all brought up with is because it’s good for us as a species. We’re social animals. Our survival depends upon some expectation of a certain type of behavior from each other. So we teach our children how to survive.

    You see the same type of social code and structure in other animals that depend on communal cooperation in order to survive.

    That we behave in a certain way and that we teach our children to behave this way is no more evidence of a god than it is of evolution.

    It’s our self-awareness and highly-evolved emotions that make us “feel” anything one way or another about our behavior or others’ behavior.

    And, actually, with greater self-awareness comes greater selfishness. The more we think we’re going to get something special out of acting a certain way, the more selfish the act becomes – it’s no longer for the good of the community, it’s for personal gain. And then it tends to stop being a good thing, communty-wise. The selfish attitude that accompanies the act tends to divide and destroy rather than foster unity.

  41. Anon says:

    steveg wrote:

    Unless you can describe how the dog’s act is what we would call courageous without us to perceive and label it such, the point stands.

    If a tree falls in the middle of a forest does it make a sound? It certainly makes sound waves even though nobody is around to hear them. So the answer depends on your definition of the word “sound.” However, I don’t see a similar difficulty with the definition of the word “courage.” Knowingly risking one’s own life to save another is courageous regardless of whether or not anyone knows about it.

    Steve, your posts are usually very good but nobody bats a thousand. You struck out on this one and I doubt you’ll find anyone here who will disagree with me.

    mike j wrote:

    I can point to quite a few specific places in the OT where God was very nice and forgiving, and some places in the NT where He was vindictive.

    Right from the get-go in the Old Testament God seems committed to tripping up man. Adam & Eve were so clueless they didn’t even know that they were naked. They believed whatever they were told. So when God tells them not to eat from the tree of knowledge they believe Him. And when the serpent tells them that it’s OK to eat from the tree of knowledge they believe him, too. How can they know what a lie is unless they do the one thing that God forbids them to do: eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And who let the serpent into the Garden of Eden anyway?

    Things go pretty much downhill from there. The overall tone of the Old Testament is that of an angry, genocidal tribal God who is different from the God of the New Testament. That’s what many early Christians thought. Check out Marcionism in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Anon:

    Once again I’m in part agreement and part sort-of-nonagreement. Of course since I don’t really take the Genesis story literally, my responses below are just academic.

    > Right from the get-go in the Old Testament God seems committed to tripping up man. Adam & Eve were so clueless they didn’t even know that they were naked. <

    Actually the passage indicates that being naked was not a issue to them. Clothes were not needed nor even thought of. I suppose it would be somewhat likened to some people groups today who wear next to nothing, or to most couples who aren’t bothered by being naked around each other.

    > They believed whatever they were told. So when God tells them not to eat from the tree of knowledge they believe Him. And when the serpent tells them that it’s OK to eat from the tree of knowledge they believe him, too. <

    Hmmm, I wonder if God even told them about Satan. It’s not in the text. Hmmm..

    > And who let the serpent into the Garden of Eden anyway? <

    Odd as it seems to me, I never thought of that particular question. ‘Tis a good one though. Why didn’t God protect them better? Did He ever give them the “don’t talk to strangers” talk? Did He ever tell them, “There’s a bad guy around here. Don’t deal with him.”?

    > The overall tone of the Old Testament is that of an angry, genocidal tribal God who is different from the God of the New Testament. <

    I’ll credit that the OT has more wrathful incidents than the NT. But neither has a monopoly on depicting God’s attributes. The OT does have examples of Divine forgiveness and forbearance (Think Jonah and Nineva). And the NT does have examples of wrath (Think Annanias and Sophira).
    Them’s some thoughts that pop to my mind.

    > That’s what many early Christians thought. Check out Marcionism in the Catholic Encyclopedia.<

    That’s a dicey source to support your statement. Marcionism was certainly not a majority view. It also does not agree at all well with the more temporally proximal sources. E.g. the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, epistles by Clement, Iraneus, Ignatius….
    I’ll grant you this much though; some people in the early Church did think as you do regarding the OT vs. NT God. We can quibble about how many, when, where, and so forth. I would however stake a firm position that they were a decided minority and did not have history on their side too much.
    That said, I must give Marcion credit for bringing up some tough questions. E.g. “If a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, how can a good God bring forth evil?”

  43. steveg says:

    However, I don’t see a similar difficulty with the definition of the word “courage.” Knowingly risking one’s own life to save another is courageous regardless of whether or not anyone knows about it.

    So a dog knowingly (i.e. consciously) risks it’s life to save another? Not out of instinct, or as Tim pointed out from a bond to it’s meal ticket? You sure about that, or are you imputing that from your anthropocentric vantage?

    You can declare ‘victory’ if you like, but you’ve still done nothing to address what I’ve raised. That being that the dog does not act courageously, it acts, and we see it as courageous, not he, nor any other dog.

    Beyond that, whether I stand alone on this, or in consensus matters very little to me.

  44. Tim says:

    Isn’t the God of the OT a God of third, and fourth and fifth and sixth (infinite) chances? After the flood, God vows not to destroy the human race again. And the Israelites blow Him off over and over and over . . . We just continue the tradition. How he resists the urge to start all over or simply give up on us altogether is beyond me. I guess that’s why He is God.

    Same could be said for the God of the NT. I’ve heard a lot of people say that if Jesus were really the Son of God and was truly coming back, He would have come back by now. Is it possible that He’s intentionally waiting (and taking longer than some would like) in order to give more people the time that they need to understand?

  45. Art W says:

    Mike J:
    I am a convert from a Jewish background. Here is the crux of the issue for me: Who do you say that I am? It all hinges on who is Jesus? He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of Lords, the son of God, our Savior. He cannot be anything else.

  46. Anonymous says:

    Art W:
    > Here is the crux of the issue for me: Who do you say that I am? It all hinges on who is Jesus? He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of Lords, the son of God, our Savior. He cannot be anything else <

    You are stating the old apologetic trilemma. It leaves out a significant fourth possibility. Jesus could also be the victim of propaganda. I.e. His bio could be exaggerated by those who put it together. In that case Jesus isn’t a liar, lunatic, or Lord. He’s just an historical figure whose bio got hyped.

    There’s another possibility that I’ve mentioned before. The whole story could be true. But the Church (all denominations) has so badly screwed up over the centuries that God has abandoned it. That would explain the fact that no church today has any of the power that so clearly marked the early Church.

    If you want/need elaboration on where I’m coming from, go back a little to the “Good questions from an atheist” discussion.

  47. Mike J says:

    In case Art W looks in here again; that last anonymous post was me. I just wasn’t logged in.

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