The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

The Radical Miracle of Christmas

Facebooktwitterpinterestmail

The Craziness of the Christmas Claims

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14a)

On the scale of crazy, this claim is tops. There’s no doubt that the Gospels trade in the extraordinary throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry. Walking on water, multiplying fishes and loaves, and even raising folks from the dead are all incredible, amazing and miraculous. We’d all be mystified and compelled to worship if we witnessed any of these events. However, the original Christmas events, when we stop to reflect on them, are on a whole different level. Consider this: the transcendent, all-powerful and self-existent one, the creator of all reality, the one who literally holds all things into being was born human in a common manger!!

The idea of the incarnation is so big and seems almost paradoxical that it makes us pause and consider whether or not it is even a coherent thought. Is it even logically possible that God becomes man? Though the notion is difficult and merits some serious reflection, the short answer is yes, or so it seems to me. To be sure, this idea is as big as it gets, and when we try to grasp all that is involved in the incarnation of Christ, we all too quickly hit the limits of our ability to understand. But being unfathomable is not the same as being logically inconsistent. And there are no obvious contradictions in the idea.

I won’t here say a lot about the doctrine of the incarnation. My purpose rather is, in this holiday season, to challenge us to consider both the bigness and the attractiveness of this idea.

Christmas as a Stumbling Block

A claim such as this is, to be sure, a major stumbling block for the “secular” person. The person I have in mind is the one who thinks that the physical universe, as discoverable by science, is all there is. On this view, God and the supernatural are mere holdovers from a prescientific, more superstitious time and, today, we should know better. This worldview is known as Naturalism. The naturalist in view here believes that there is nothing beyond the natural world. This view is nicely summarized by Carl Sagan who said, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” The idea there is a supernatural (or perhaps supra-natural) God is already ruled out from the start. So this view is, in a way, automatically atheistic. Thus, the idea of miracle, any miracle, sounds to secular ears like a fairytale or a myth.

Now so far, this really isn’t an objection to the miraculous. To assume naturalism, have an ultra-high view of science, and then say that Christian theism is therefore false or a fairy tale is not an argument or a true objection. The naturalist would need to say why naturalism best explains the world as we find it. The problem is that there are a variety of features of the world that go unexplained on the thesis of naturalism. These include the universe itself (how did nature come to be?), the fine tuning of the universe (if there is nothing beyond the cosmos, then the way the universe works is nothing more than extraordinary good fortune), moral facts (human value, meaning and purpose), human consciousness (this seems to involve far more than physical brain states), and even things like emotion. The naturalist can tell me what my typical brain chemistry is like when I’m experiencing overwhelming love for, say, my wife and children. However, this does not seem to even be close to what it is to be deeply in love with another. It seems to many of us that our rich human experiences are prime counterexamples to the naturalist worldview. If one takes naturalism seriously, all we have recourse to in describing our emotions are neural firings and brain chemistry. How do you write a compelling love song or poem about that? I wouldn’t try that at home!

Thus, the world of Carl Sagan is not a world any of us should wish for. It is an ugly world. It is a world without purpose, moral goodness, and genuine love. The only goods in this world are natural ones and these amount to fleeting pleasures.

The Beauty of the Gospel

But a world that includes the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the God-man, the incarnation of God, is an enchanted world. It’s a world with purpose and meaning. It’s a world where caring for someone means something beyond the warm fuzzy it produces. It’s a world where fighting the good fight has eternal significance and is not done merely as a matter of the survival of our species. It’s world that offers genuine hope.

Ultimately, love itself is an otherworldly value. And here’s the thing as we move into this Christmas season. Love was born in a manger. It was out of love for you that God took on flesh. For God so loved you(!) along with the rest of the world, to the extent that he gave his one and only son. This is big. It’s appears virtually incomprehensible but it is so very good.

Let’s be clear, I’m not here providing arguments for these claims. That’s a much longer conversation and one I would love to be a part of. I’m simply pointing out the attractiveness of these claims.

Given the bigness of all this, I don’t blame a person for doubting. I know I have along the way. But I believe it. In fact, I believe every single aspect of the Christmas story as presented in the Gospels, and I think I do so for good reasons. How can I believe that there was a large star in the East, Jesus was born to a virgin, there were a multitude of angels, groups of wise men, shepherds, and so on? How can I believe this in our contemporary age? It is because, on the basis of a variety of compelling evidence, I believe in a supernatural and all-powerful God. This automatically clears the way for believing in the unusual and extraordinary. I have no problem believing these things because I think it’s God’s prerogative of how He works in the world. If he wants to lead with a star in the East, then I don’t see why a supernatural God can’t do that. If God wants to impregnate a virgin, then so be it. These may read to our modern ears as quirky and strange, but quirky and strange does not mean false. Moreover, it is in the quirkiness that we find rich significance. It seems to me, given a belief in a supernatural God, we shouldn’t be put off by extraordinary claims. We should expect them.

The Christmas claims are big and they are beautiful. I rest comfortable in the hope they provide.

(A version of the article was first published on www.theologicalmatters.com on 12/22/2015)

Facebooktwitterpinterestmail

Thanks for reading! If you like this content, subscribe below to recieve new posts in your inbox.


5 Replies

  1. Philmonomer

    But a world that includes the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the God-man, the incarnation of God, is an enchanted world. It’s a world with purpose and meaning. It’s a world where caring for someone means something beyond the warm fuzzy it produces. It’s a world where fighting the good fight has eternal significance and is not done merely as a matter of the survival of our species. It’s world that offers genuine hope.

    It’s a great story. Absolutely no doubt about it. Sometimes I think I would consider calling myself a “Christian atheist,” because it’s such a great story. But I don’t think it’s true, in the sense of historically accurate.

    These may read to our modern ears as quirky and strange, but quirky and strange does not mean false.

    Well, these claims don’t particularly read as “quirky and strange,” they read as false (at least to my ears).

    Moreover, it is in the quirkiness that we find rich significance. It seems to me, given a belief in a supernatural God, we shouldn’t be put off by extraordinary claims. We should expect them.

    Well, sure, there’s rich significance. It’s part of a great story.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      That’s interesting. If I was an atheist I too would be drawn to the story. I’m not sure what it means to “read as false”. Something’s being likely True/false is a matter of evidence and I haven’t given the evidence here. I’m conceding that these are crazy and extraordinary claims. That’s not lost on me. But that alone doesn’t make them false and I of course think there are good reasons for believing they are true.

      What’s the missing piece for you or what objection makes you think it is false?

      1. Philmonomer

        The nativity story reads as myth, not history. Three kings travel from afar following a star? Please.

        It just sounds like a story Snopes would debunk–an urban myth, a legend.

  2. Beth Burns

    Thank you, Travis. This is just what I needed for my recent experience of doubting all of the Christian faith.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Thanks Beth. I’m glad it was helpful. What are the doubts you most struggle with?