The following was written by guest contributor Martin Hughes.
It’s Christmas Eve, 2014, and as I’m sitting here thinking about the powerful meaning Christmas once held for me, my mind has gone back to the night I officially stopped seeing the Nativity Story as nonfiction – a Friday night in early April 2012.
I was deeply entrenched in Christianity, and that was the moment I began a major change in thinking about how to value life after I left that (literally) led me to become a liberal overnight.
When I believed in God, I had thought that human beings were fundamentally broken. This wasn’t a very difficult thing for me to do – the list of disturbing aspects in human experience is long. There was so much pain in the world, and much of it was brought on by other humans, so the concept that we were the source of our own pain made sense to me. And it wasn’t as if we could somehow make things right again on our own, I thought. We had tried many times throughout the years and failed – proof, I thought, that this pain was a product of our engrained flaws, and that the actions we did to enable this pain came from a permanent character flaw, or “sinful nature,” within us. But my belief in God showed me (or so I thought) that there was hope that things would be made right and ideal; God transcended the suffering in ways that I thought were symbolic of His promise that things would work out in the end. Humankind’s failure to set right the problems of its own doing made it easy for me to believe that humankind itself was a failure, that it was permanently unable to set things right due to its being fundamentally sinful, a depressing conviction that motivated for me to further strengthen my faith that there was a God transcending this suffering who could and would make things right.
And because humankind couldn’t make things right and, thus, was fundamentally sinful, the natural consequence of its actions was a place in which things would never be made right, in which they would become increasingly worse. That, in my mind, was hell. It was what humankind deserved for disobeying God via their free will, so there was a kind of guilt there in feeling the weight of what was deserved. But I didn’t think it was God’s judgmental self who condemned us, really; the condemnation was actually our own fault for not following God’s wisdom with the choices we made using the free will God gave us – it was simply a natural consequence of our actions. So aside from the guilt of what we deserved – hell was not exactly punishment from God so much as it was the natural consequence of not following the wisdom of the God who created the universe we lived in.
Furthermore, God loved us through Jesus, and we loved because we were loved by God. So this love I had been given by God through Jesus – it extended to others and made me want to care for them, because God loved them, too. And no matter how “immoral” people were, I thought they deserved God’s love and the right to exercise their free will. But at the same time, the important thing was to love God, first and foremost, and that meant loving God’s standards and understanding, as well as I could, the loving spirit behind these standards so I could imitate it. Loving people with God’s love also meant, to some extent, judging their actions using God’s standards.
When I went to the polling booth for elections, I wanted someone in office who loved God, because I thought loving God was a prerequisite to truly loving and caring about people – but proof of this love for God exhibited itself in a politician’s position on certain actions or ideologies. For example: I stood for free speech, because God wanted people to exercise free will, but I stood against same-sex marriage, because I thought that the love between an man and a woman was fundamental to God’s design, as He discussed its importance in the Old and New Testament, and I thought it would be against the spirit of God’s law to say that same-sex marriage was marriage. At the same time that I disapproved of same-sex marriage, I thought God loved lgbt individuals, so I did, too – but as an extension of the love God had for them, – which disapproved of same-sex relationships being called “marriage.” I was exhibiting my view of love, and there was some sincerity there, but bound in this love was the conviction that some things went against the ideals God’s revealed, and were thus sins that would probably would result in destruction. I believed in grace for the “sins” of those around me, but this required me to first see the sin as sin. I was compassionate, but I also thought, in general, that fundamentalist principles would make for a stronger country. I thought people were “sinful” and “evil” – but so was I, and God had forgiven us, and if I loved people with God’s love they’d maybe come around. And I wanted to be in a culture that highlighted God’s love as much as possible, while still giving them some of the free will I thought God wanted them to have. Because that love of God, I thought, was where people fundamentally got their worth.
When I left Christianity that night, my stance changed in an instant.
I still thought there was a kind of love in the world, because I noticed that whenever I took a close look at something I saw was “evil” – I always found something to salvage that seemed beautiful. Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance – undoubtedly, from a distance, he was an evil, evil man. He needed lifetime imprisonment for sure; he was a bad, horrific man who killed his victims and ate them. But at the same time, though this might sound strange – when you listen to him in interviews, he talks about how the people he was with were so beautiful that he wanted them to be a part of him forever. Now, that’s disgusting – and at the same time, we all visit gravesites, we all return to places that remind us of someone, we all have individuals we want to be part of our lives, and that feeling we all have – that’s a beautiful thing. Jeffrey Dahmer got it horrifically twisted, and that’s terrible, no question, obviously. But there is one sentiment there that, given the right artist, something beautiful could be seen within.
So the transcendent God that was behind the ugliness in the world – I saw that as no longer a transcendent God, but as the way people were. People weren’t 100% ugly. Nobody, I think, that I’ve looked at so far is like that. There’s a bit of something that I can find beautiful in everybody.
Thus, when I stopped trying to love people with God’s love, I started putting a much higher priority on what people loved about themselves. Whereas when I was a Christian I would judge same-sex marriage through the lens of God’s love, as an atheist I would begin my judgment of same-sex marriage through the lens of those involved, and then the second step after that was to see whether what the couple loved about their relationship was causing significant harm to others (including myself).
This quickly made me a liberal where I was a conservative before, because I constantly found things out about the beauty people find in themselves that I didn’t know about before. I am learning a certain humility in admitting that people see that beauty in themselves where I once was blind to it, but also a certain balance and caution in trying to come up with ideas as to how people can express that beauty without significantly harming others.
I’m not saying that all humanity has to agree with me. I just think there is beauty in more places than I could ever imagine, and that it will stay hidden if I don’t give people the opportunity to express the beauty they see in themselves, and protect them to share that beauty as much as possible without disproportionately harming someone else and, thus, snuffing that other person’s beauty out, if that makes sense.
This is not just an altruistic goal, either. Because as I encourage the expression of the beauty others see in themselves, I have noticed that I see more and more beauty in myself in places I never thought to look before, and the beauty feels like love.
And that’s the love I go to the polls with these days. Not the love of a God beyond our lives, but the love I find within the beauty I see in our lives.
I once wanted to assure you that God loves you, and create a world in which you were more likely to believe in a love that was tightly bound to standards I now see as mostly arbitrary and shallow.
Today, my goal is to see as much beauty in your life as I can before I die so I can see more beauty in a humanity that includes myself, and that goal defines love for me, a love that I can treasure here in the present moment in a way that makes it the primary purpose and reason I’ve found for my life.
Which brings me back to Christmas Eve. Metaphorically speaking, the Christmas story is about finding beauty in a cruel world. Jesus Christ is a symbol, however erroneous, of beauty coming into a cruel, ugly world to redeem mankind. I obviously think that story is flawed, but I see this metaphor in other places, too — Christmas seems to be a day in which we seem especially conscious of the beauty in the lives of other people, in which we see value in reaching out to the marginalized and helping them celebrate the beauty of their lives, in which the Scrooges of the world are encouraged to see beauty in places they may never have seen it before. So it’s dawning on me, this Christmas Eve, that, for me these days, every day is a bit like what today supposedly represents. Every day I’m on the cusp of having the opportunity of understanding beauty in someone else that I didn’t know was there before, and I have the opportunity, through understanding and encouraging that beauty, to see more love and beauty in myself.
This experience doesn’t require kneeling at a manger or bowing to a cross. There’s no nativity scene that needs to be on my lawn, no Sunday Morning church service I need to attend, and I don’t have to sing “Silent Night” to feel its power. Just you and me helping each other celebrate the beauty of our lives and calling it love.
This was a guest post by Martin Hughes. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@ .