This past Saturday night, my wife Roberta and I stood with a group of people on Hollywood Boulevard, holding flickering candles. Passers-by might have assumed we were Christmas caroling. But we were holding a vigil for the children and adults massacred in Newtown, Connecticut last week. Roberta organized the event earlier in the day, via MoveOn.org. For her, Saturday had a special significance. Her father was shot, randomly, on that night 40 years ago in Baltimore, and later died. Whenever there’s an incident of gun violence in the news, she grieves afresh. So there we stood, a semi-circle of family, friends, and strangers who became neighbors, lifting little lights into the night. We didn’t have a “cause” other than remembrance for the lives of those who died and hope for a society free from such tragedies in the future. There were no chants or speeches or picket signs. If people thought we were doing something Christmassy, perhaps they were right. ‘Tis the season to practice compassion.
Our President, reflecting on the tragedy at the interfaith memorial service in Newtown, said that we can do better. We can’t accept that the possibility of such mayhem is just a price we pay for our freedom. We must change, he said. His words were understated but powerful. He said rare things for a leader to say in this day and age when most so-called leaders are really followers, shaping their messages and actions to conform with the latest polling data. If we must change, that suggests we aren’t okay the way we are. Who wants to hear that? Such words take us outside our comfort zones, outside our smug self-concepts, and into the unknown.
The birthday of Jesus celebrates a change in human consciousness. Some thinkers suggest that the first Christmas was a moment in the longer Axial Age, the time span between the birth of Buddha and the death of Mohammed, when humanity underwent a developmental shift toward greater justice and compassion. Christmas is a time to celebrate this shift out of an old way of being and into the new. It’s a time to melt our guns into guitar strings on which to strum Christmas carols of praise for the coming of the Prince of Peace on earth.
For the sake of the memory of the children of Newtown, Connecticut, Christian churches must dump any dogma and jargon that get in the way of compassion and joy. The church needs to simplify its message and structure, and focus on being a community of people who support each other in becoming kinder human beings. We don’t have time for petty church politics and theological hair-splitting. We have lives to save from loneliness, meaninglessness, hopelessness, violence. We have higher consciousness to reach.
There is a creative tension in the Christian religion between admitting our limits and transcending them. Our tradition tells us we’re hopeless sinners, and then turns around and challenges us with Jesus’ admonition to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect. It is a healthy contradiction. A careful cultivation of humility must accompany our evolution. To become more than we are, we must remember that we always will be less than we need to be.
I am attracted to the idea of “evolutionary panentheism”, which suggests that the universe is evolving toward the divinity that is latent in every thing and event. It’s the idea that creation is developing in consciousness toward its Creator, who exists in every aspect of the creation. I don’t know that this view has a solid basis in science. But whether or not we are part of some divine, cosmic tendency toward higher consciousness, we appear to be able to shape our destiny. We can choose to evolve toward greater creativity and kindness. We got here through random mutation and natural selection. But now that we’re here, we can develop our consciousness consciously.
This is what I’m celebrating this Christmas: our emerging awareness that we can shape ourselves toward greater goodness. We can become more and better than we have been. We can give up our fear and our guns. We can turn off the violent video games and the blood-drenched Hollywood movies. We can befriend our troubled, isolated neighbors, especially the young ones. With intention, we can shape our society so that ordinary human beings cooperate to achieve extraordinarily positive things.
A German bishop, Franz Kamphaus, once said: “Christmas: Do it like God. Become human.” To become more fully human, to do it like God, means we must change. Weak as we are, like babes in mangers, we still have the Christ-potential latent within us. Consciously, intentionally, we can become better than we’ve been, both as individuals and as communities. Let this be our Christmas wish and choice!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California