When I was little, my parents taught me to believe there was a person who was always watching me, keeping record of all the good things and bad things I do. I couldn’t see him, they told me, but somehow he could be anywhere and everywhere without any limitations of time or space. I shouldn’t even bother looking, they said, because he wouldn’t show himself to me under any circumstances. Some kind of principle for him, I guess. But this person was going to either reward me for being a good boy or else punish me for being bad. At one point I began to question the existence of this person but I was told I had to believe. It was crucial for the magic to work. If I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t receive the benefit of the magic. For some reason, my believing was essential to the work of this all-seeing, ubiquitous, yet practically invisible person. It finally occurred to me one day that this person is totally made up. Whom am I talking about? I can think of a couple of options for whom this description fits very well. But at this point in my life my conclusions about both are the same: If you have to believe in something for it to become real in any practical sense, it’s probably just in your head.
At Christmastime we are bombarded with movies and stories touting the importance of believing in Santa. If you don’t believe, they tell us, he can’t do his thing. My kids love Polar Express, and like most movies about Santa Claus it reminds us that Santa’s magic only works if you believe in it. It’s not that he will cease to exist, mind you; it’s just that you won’t personally benefit from his work if you fail to acknowledge his existence. Grown-ups know this is a fairy tale of course, but we continue to pass this tale on to our children anyway because, hey, our parents did it to us. It makes Christmas more exciting and fun, and there’s the added bonus that sometimes it persuades kids to straighten up and act right. It works quite well on kids. But if a grown-up still believes this fanciful tale, well, that is the stuff of great comedy. That’s why the movie Elf is so funny. The very thought of a grown man bouncing up and down, excited about Santa coming to town is just hilarious.
In that movie, Santa’s sleigh was fueled by Christmas spirit. If an insufficient number of people believed in him, the sleigh couldn’t even fly. In Legend of the Guardians, all of the imaginary creatures derived their power from the subjective beliefs of the children. This is apparently a thing for everybody from the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny to Santa Claus, the Sandman, and even Jack Frost. See, when you are an imaginary creature, you depend on the imaginations of others for your very existence.
I also remember that when I was a Christian, I was told that I must believe in order to reap the benefits of the Christian faith. I was told I was a very bad person—so bad, in fact, that I deserve to be punished for all eternity (good grief…I know I have my bad days but come on, now!). That was the bad news. The good news was that if I’d only believe, I could receive in myself the benefit of a magical transaction which would erase, at least temporarily, the deleterious effects of my own awful wickedness. I say temporarily because after I performed my part of this initial transaction, I was informed that future mistakes still had to be paid for in some way or another (that part was very vague, mind you). But the benefits of my new membership in the Chosen People Club were always tied to how much I believed. God was real, I was told, regardless of whether or not I believed in him. But without the believing, I would receive little or no outward evidence of this person’s presence in my life.
Hmm. This feels very familiar. I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here.
Prayer works. But you have to believe.
People can be healed. But you have to believe.
You can be saved! But you have to believe.
The Holy Spirit can make you a new person! But you have to believe.
You can have a relationship with God and he can speak to you and guide you. You can “hear” his “voice.” But you have to believe.
So…what if I decide this whole thing sounds like another fairy tale, and what if I said it seems to me that this person (or these people, however many invisible people you want me to believe in) doesn’t even exist? How exactly can I know that this stuff isn’t made up? The answer, I am told, is that as long as I’ve decided I don’t believe in this person, it will essentially be to me as if he doesn’t even exist. Oh sure, he’ll still exist for everyone else, they tell me. But he’ll be completely hidden from me. All evidence of his existence will be as if it weren’t there. It’s just a thing for him. You have to believe before you can see the evidence. That’s just the way it works. So if you say you don’t see any evidence, that must mean you chose not to believe. It’s your fault, you see. You are the reason he seems not to exist. If only you would have believed, you would have seen. In this alternate reality, believing is seeing.
It took me till my mid-thirties before I finally realized that, if you have to believe something is real in order to make it real, it’s probably not real at all. It’s in your head. Oh sure, I know there’s power in positive thinking, and sometimes you can accomplish greater things if you keep a positive attitude and learn to visualize achieving your goals. My old football coach used to chant before a big game, “You gotta believe!!” And to some degree he was right. We’ve even learned that sometimes the expectation that you will recover from an illness can speed up your recovery. The human immune system is an amazing thing, and sometimes a dose of optimism is all it needs to kick it into high gear and do its job. But for most things it just doesn’t matter what you believe—whatever is, simply is. If I swallow arsenic, it won’t matter what I believe about arsenic…I’ll be a goner. If I believe I can fly and I jump off a tall building, I’m gonna be a pancake in the end. If I believe I have a million dollars in my bank account, it won’t do me any good and the debt collectors will still keep calling me until I present them with real money. And it didn’t matter how firmly anyone ever believed the sun goes around the Earth, the reality is still what it is no matter what you “think in your heart.” For most things in life, believing doesn’t make things true.
It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve come to be fond of this time of year for a number of reasons. As a teacher I obviously appreciate time off of school, so I suppose that goes without saying. I get to eat some really good food and see family members I don’t ordinarily get to see. Some of the best and funniest movies come out about this time of year. And of course it’s always fun to exchange presents with the ones you love. I’ll also add that Christmas music (both sacred and secular) can be some of the most beautiful and charming of any music I’ve ever heard. But I’ve also come to be entertained by the way Christmas has become for me a microcosm of the rest of my culture.
Here is a season in which one religion out of dozens feels entitled to assert its superiority over all others (How dare you say “Happy Holidays,” as if there are any others which matter!). And it doesn’t seem to matter that the event they are celebrating, if it ever happened at all,* probably didn’t happen at this time of year. The timing of this holiday was borrowed from other religions, as were many of the details of both the religious and non-religious traditions of the season (virgin births, decorated trees, door-to-door singing, etc). People who celebrate this holiday most fervently are blissfully unaware of the many non-Christian roots of their traditions, and they become quite upset if you try to tell them about it. They take it as an assault on their faith and culture, and common decency and respect demands that you show them tolerance for their beliefs even if they will do no such thing for you in return. All of this I see at Christmastime, and it encapsulates well the way things are.
But most of all I love that we can get together and laugh and say “Aww, how cute!” at all the movies which teach that imaginary beings depend on your faith in them for their very existence (or at least for them to be able to accomplish anything at all). It’s healthy for us to shine a spotlight on this concept every year because eventually it will start to sink in that this stuff is for chidren. It’s quaint. It’s sweet. It’s charming. Perhaps it’s even enjoyable for grown-ups to live vicariously through our children, remembering how magical it was to believe a guy in a red suit would circle the globe in one night, bringing presents to you while you slept peacefully in your bed (never while you are awake, mind you!). But the grown-ups know the secret. The truth is that we are Santa Claus. We are the ones who make all this stuff happen. We know better, even if we enjoy playing along. Maybe one of these days we’ll all learn to take that to its logical conclusion. One day we’ll see that anything that must be believed in order to be real…isn’t.
* I happen to believe Jesus existed, contrary to many of my fellow skeptics. But the birth narratives were clearly developed later, such that the earliest gospel (Mark) doesn’t even mention them. Even the concept of a virgin birth seems to have developed because of an ambivalent translation of a word from the Septuagint.