How Now Shall We Live?

by Regis Nicoll | Despite the fashionable heroism of embracing the absurdity of our existence, we have an irrepressible sense that there are objective standards of right and wrong, that justice should prevail, and that our choices matter for something supremely significant. (image: James Chan from Pixabay)

From days of old, mankind has wrestled with the question of ethics. In ancient Israel, after fifty years of Babylonian captivity had all but erased God’s providence and law from memory, the Jewish community wondered aloud: “How now shall we live?”

The very question presupposes a standard and a purpose. Even the early Greeks, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, believed in a purpose-driven ethic—a universal ideal of “goodness” that could be known and toward which all men should strive.

But that all changed in the seventeenth century when René Descartes became the father of modern philosophy. Descartes introduced a method of systematic doubt that became the springboard to the radical skepticism of later thinkers. Pivotal was the influence of David Hume. Hume constructed a wrecking ball of skepticism that, among other things, reduced to rubble the notion of a universal moral standard.

Although it took a while to finish the job, once complete all that remained after the demolition was the dust cloud of relativism. During the last century, no one darkened that cloud more than the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

A Paralyzing Gospel
In post-WWII France, Sartre spoke to the anguish of his countrymen who were reeling in despair in the aftermath of the German occupation. Promoting the gospel of personal responsibility and choice, Sartre helped turn the mood of the nation from fatalism to optimism. But while autonomy and free choice can be liberating, it can also be paralyzing—as one young man realized after seeking Sartre’s advice.

During the war, a French student, agonizing over whether to join the resistance movement or stay home with his mother who was totally dependent on him, asked Sartre what he should do. Sartre’s answer: “You’re free, choose!”

I can imagine a choked “Huh?” from the young man as those pearls of wisdom rolled off the tongue of the famed philosopher—and a head-down, hands-in-pockets amble back home, as he strained for some moral scale with which to weigh his choices.

Thanks to Sartre and his sophistic forbears, classifications of “right” and “wrong” have been blurred if not obliterated, leaving us, like that French student, to wonder what it means to be moral.

Engaging a “Bright”
A while back, I discussed this very issue with a fellow named Bob. Bob is a rising star in the Brights Movement—a network of free thinkers who embrace a worldview “free of supernatural and mystical elements.” Notable luminaries in the movement include the likes of Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.

Our dialog began after Bob read an article I wrote critical of the moral “wholesomeness”—a term the Brights fondly use to describe their worldview—of philosophical naturalism.

In response, Bob denied the need for God to determine what is “good” or “bad,” asserting that ethics are based on common human concepts. He characterized Christian morality as “easy”—a “follow-these-rules-to-be-good” excuse to avoid thinking deeply about real-world ethical questions. He went on to ask whether I thought that biblical morality was moral only because God deemed it so.

My response went something like this:
Bob, you said that the moral capital of law is based on human concepts of justice, peace, and harmony. But that really doesn’t help, does it? If law derives from nothing higher than what has evolved in our collective psyche, then law is law, not because it’s right, but because it’s law—a contrivance of the ruling class. Some cultures care for widows, while others place them on the husband’s funeral pyre. Without a standard that transcends such “human concepts,” who’s to say which should be legal or illegal, not to mention moral or immoral?

While you dismiss Christians for their “cookie-cutter” approach to morality, you admit to struggling with “being a good, ethical person” because, for you, the real answers are difficult to find. You ask, “Is the only reason that it is wrong to steal, murder, or rape because God said it was wrong?

Sadly, I suspect that if you took a poll of professed Christians, some would answer, “Yes.” Yet, Christian morality does not originate from God’s commands; it derives from his ontology (i.e., his nature, who he is). In accordance with his ontology, God created a world of order, intelligibility, and beauty governed by laws that include physical and moral dimensions. Simply stated, morality is aligning ourselves with those principles so that we can experience all the goodness for which we were created. In essence, morality is a purpose-driven set of operating instructions necessary for human flourishing.

It is the same for any engineering product, like a car. Cars are precision-made to provide owners the benefits of efficient and reliable transportation. But to enjoy those benefits, an owner must operate his vehicle within the bounds of its design, and maintain it according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Failure to do so guarantees poor performance and shortened life. It is no less true for us.

Take sexual morality. While God has said that sex outside of marriage is wrong, it is not wrong because he said so; it is wrong because it conflicts with our design. Fifty years after the Sexual Revolution, witness the burgeoning rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, single parent homes, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases with all of the concomitant problems of abuse, poverty, and emotional trauma. By disregarding our design, Freudianism defaulted on its promissory note of self-fulfillment through free sexual expression, despite more social acceptance and education than at any time in history.

Still, the Christian must ask himself, “Why be good?” If all he cares about is avoiding negative consequences, he might just as well adopt the hedonistic aim of “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain” or the utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number.” However, neither conforms to the Christian ethic.

You suggest that Christian morality is “an excuse not to think more deeply about ethics”—an easy way out, as it were. No one who has actually read and grasped Jesus’s hard sayings could seriously think that.

A cursory read of his Sermon on the Mount will dispel any misgivings that Christianity is easy. In a series of “You have heard it said … but I tell you,” Jesus raises the bar of morality to breathtaking heights. Even the Golden Rule of “love neighbor as self” fades to a penumbra with the dizzying directive: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He concludes his discourse with the Herculean challenge: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—a standard that even Mother Theresa would not have claimed. All of this is bad news for those who take Jesus at his word. It forces us to ask what that “looks like” and whether there’s any good news in his message.

Jesus answers the first part of that question in the Gospel of John: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

To a non-Christian, this may sound like nothing more than doing good things for each other. But for the Christian who believes that Jesus answered the second part of that question with the Cross, our duty is nothing short of staggering. Out of gratitude for what Christ did for us, we should be willing to do likewise for all, including the “least and the last.”

Little wonder that G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

We do good not because the Bible says so, or out of fear of consequence, or for a utilitarian end—though, sadly, some Christians are motivated by those very reasons. We do good out of love for God who not only created all persons in his image, but humbled himself so that all could have community with him. For Christians, the Word made Flesh is the standard of ethics and morality that informs our Western concepts of right action, justice, equality, and human dignity.

I went on to explain that deep inside we all know this. Despite the fashionable heroism of embracing the absurdity of our existence, we have an irrepressible sense that there are objective standards of right and wrong, that justice should prevail, and that our choices matter for something supremely significant. It’s a truth that even Jean Paul Sartre, who shaped the thought of a generation with his God-denying philosophy, could not extinguish.

Shortly before his death, in the spring of 1980, Sartre made a startling disclosure: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”

It appears that the dying philosopher had an illuminating encounter with a real Bright—“the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9).

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

The Future of Ownership

K. E. Colombini | Exploring how technological and cultural developments are transforming our understanding of property.
Two recent articles take a look at the effect of technology on our consumerist society and reach startlingly different conclusions. One laments that we don’t own as much stuff as we used to, while the other talks about how online shopping has created a nation of hoarders. Can both be true, at the same time?

Writing for Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen makes the first argument. He is an economics professor at George Mason University, where he also directs the Mercatus Center, and he admits to worrying about “the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.”

Examples are clear, starting with books. When we buy a book in hard or soft cover, it is a physical object we own and can sell. When we buy an ebook for our Kindle or similar device, we don’t own it in the same way. In fact, the argument can easily be made that we don’t own it at all. We actually buy a license to read it, and Amazon has control over the terms of the license. “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider,” the agreement states, adding: “We may change, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, including adding or removing Subscription Content from a Service, at any time without notice.” The analog analogy would be if I buy a book at a bookstore, and the bookstore owner comes to my home and demands it back, without even offering to pay me back. The same applies to other media, of course, such as music or movies, as we transition away from hard copies to streaming or digital files.

Another similar example can be offered easily enough, although it is one most consumers don’t think about. When we buy a car, we don’t actually buy all of it. The software that runs important components is often managed through a licensing agreement, something most consumers don’t pay attention to. Over the years, this has proved controversial, with General Motors and John Deere stressing the importance of software copyright and licensing and using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to bar consumer or private auto repair shops from repairing them themselves. More and more state legislatures are looking at so-called “Right to Repair” legislation to help the independent operators.

At the same time we are using Amazon to—rent?—ebooks for our Kindle, we are using the online service to buy a lot of physical stuff, even things readily available at the local supermarket, and that is where the other argument about becoming a nation of hoarders comes in.

Writing in The Atlantic, Alana Semuels tallies the high cost of our consumerist society. She notes that last year, we spent $240 billion on possessions (goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment, reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis), twice as much as we spent in 2002. Semuels also notes that the number of self-storage facilities has doubled in the same time frame, to 52,000. “Thanks to a perfect storm of factors, Americans are amassing a lot of stuff,” she writes. “Now, we can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping.” One pathetic example: Semuels reported that the students who moved out of the Michigan State University dorms left behind nearly 150,000 pounds of their junk, from clothes to furniture.

At the same time we think about the compatibility of these two phenomena—a shift from material ownership to digital licensing, and the ease of acquiring more things—we must consider a third observation, the concurrent trendy interest in minimalism. The Kindle is supposed to be a great example of a minimizer, allegedly removing the need for bookshelves full of dusty volumes and with our smartphones we don’t need a stack of CDs to enjoy music. They were almost designed with the “tiny house” trend in mind.

Not too long ago in The New York Times, the writer Kyle Chayka called minimalism an “oppressive gospel,” one that pits wealthy elites against the common riff-raff of society. “The movement, such as it is, is led in large part by a group of men who gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them,” he writes. “But it takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet.”

It gets worse, when you consider where the technology is made, he says. “The technology we call minimalist might fit in our pockets, but it depends on a vast infrastructure of grim, air-conditioned server farms and even grimmer Chinese factories.”

Another critic poses minimalism as an example of Western privilege, talking about how it is the opposite of how some immigrants look at ownership. Arielle Bernstein, whose family left behind home and possessions when they left Cuba in 1968, explains why it is hard for some to accept the new minimalism. “Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust,” she writes. “For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away.” The article is a response to Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo, perhaps most famous for her idea of keeping only possessions that “spark joy.”

Lacking in the vast majority of these discussions in the mainstream media is the spiritual side of the equation. What should be our relationship with our possessions? Do they own us, or do we own them? Even in talking about the benefits of minimalism, we often are taking a secular approach. By shedding our possessions, we become liberated from them, freer to travel and spend our money elsewhere. If there’s anything “tiny houses” are built for, it’s not for large families, or for entertaining and showing hospitality to large groups.

We have become a consumerist society, to be sure, and one where it is cheaper and easier to replace your television than have it repaired, and where obsolescence is built into the newest gadget. Chayka’s point about the destructive nature of our technological age is a strong one, and we get the idea easily enough that it will be harder and harder to find real, lasting “joy” in many of the possessions that our obsession with one-click shopping provides.

K. E. Colombini

K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and four grandchildren.

How Is a Man Not Like a Computer?

by Anthony Esolen | A computer, it appears to me, is a really sophisticated card catalogue, as robots are sophisticated puppets.

I have just read a fascinating and, to my mind, cheerful article, by the research psychologist Robert Epstein, on why your brain is not a computer—for the simple reason that your brain does not store memories in the way that a computer does, nor does it function according to algorithms. We are not computers but organisms, says Epstein, and we ought to “get over it,” meaning that we ought to stop dreaming of a time when we will achieve “immortality” by downloading the contents of the brain into a computer. Even if we could know what is strictly impossible to know, and we could describe at one moment the quantum states of every electron zipping along every synapse of every neuron in a human brain—a task that would require bigger numbers than if we could chart every star in the universe—we would still, absent the person to tell us these things, not be any the wiser as to what the person had experienced or was thinking.

“Misleading headlines notwithstanding,” says Epstein, “no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite—no retrieval necessary.”

This, I think, makes what human beings do appear all the more wondrous. We have trained our dog, Jasper, to do upwards of seventy tricks. He jumps through a hoop, he rings a bell, he bangs the keys on his toy piano, and he flops to the ground and rolls over when I point my finger at him and say, “Bang!” What happens is that he has learned, as a whole dog—the whole canine organism from silky ears to plume-like tail—to interact with the world in a certain way that brings pleasure to him, in the form of praise and fun and treats. If we could “download” a human brain into a computer, then surely, a fortiori, we could do so with a dog—but here we see the analogy break down. What on earth could a dog’s brain in a computer possibly signify? Where is the dog himself, the creature interacting with the world, being changed by the world and changing the world in turn, as when he comes upon a telephone pole and sagaciously divines the message of a previous dog?

A computer, it appears to me, is a really sophisticated card catalogue, as robots are sophisticated puppets. The dog does not compute, and the computer does not prick up its ears and twitch its nose because a fox has been in the neighborhood. The dog does not download files, and the computer has no life experience. When it comes to human beings, then, Epstein says quite shrewdly that we really are unique, because no two people will react in the same way to the same things: I can hear Beethoven’s Fifth, and you can hear it, and yet in neither of us is the symphony simply imprinted on the memory for future retrieval, as when I download a file onto my computer, and it is there in the computer’s crystal, the same as if you had downloaded it, or the same as if I had downloaded it onto a different computer. We can have duplicate card catalogues, just as we used to have many thousands of telephone books with the same information in each, but not duplicate organisms, and therefore not duplicate human beings.

Epstein says that we are being misled by a model, a mere metaphor, one that we will need to discard, just as we discarded the mechanical model of gears and wheels that prevailed after Descartes, and just as we discarded the model “preserved in the Bible,” whereby men “were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god [sic] then infused with its [sic] spirit.” I am guessing that Epstein the scientist brings up the Bible only to suggest that the current model of the brain as computer is as inadequate as this outdated explanation. He ought to reconsider what the verse from the Bible means. He has not taken it seriously. It is not meant to be a mechanical description of what goes on in the human organism: it has nothing to do with humors (bodily fluids such as bile or blood, which were thought to determine personality), gears and wheels, galvanic forces, or computer algorithms. It has instead to do with persons: the Creator and man.

There is a qualitative difference, as wide as the gap between nonexistence and existence, between the computer and any living organism, and indeed the more we learn about even the most elementary organisms, e.g., those of a single cell, the more the mind boggles at the sheer complexity of an amoeba or a paramecium—or of an organelle inside the paramecium, like the mitochondria. It is as if we might dive into reality, and find what looks like a new universe awaiting us at each level, so to speak. Yet even this does not do justice to the organism.

Consider again the card catalogue. Information in it is organized according to variations upon a simple algorithm: alphabetical order. It is also organized by kind: author, title, and topic. The computer is vastly more efficient and far-reaching in its capacity to deliver this information in a variety of ways and by a variety of commands. It functions, to give an obvious and powerful instance, as a big concordance, finding where words or strings of words are used here and there and everywhere. This is all fine, for human use. But it is not a living thing, nor is it close to a living thing. A very large dictionary is no closer to having life than is a small dictionary. A library is no closer to having life than is a postage stamp.

I may be giving too little credit here to the power of the algorithms whereby a computer does its sorting and filtering and locating, but I don’t believe I have misunderstood the principle. It is not that a computer is less complex than is an amoeba, but that the complexity of a computer is that of a machine, and not that of an organism. We need a new term, perhaps, one that will bring into play the intimacy of the interrelationships among the parts of the organism. “All for one, and one for all,” cried the Three Musketeers. Socioplex, perhaps?

Every identifiable part of an organism is related to the others in an intimate way, working as a whole; the part is what it is only by virtue of its participation in and of the whole. The whole is present in each part. An organism is not a funny kind of machine. Rather, a machine, as Etienne Gilson once noted, is a mock-organism, with interchangeable parts that work by means of contiguity and efficient causality alone. Think of a wheel on a car. If you take the wheel off the car, you can still use it as a wheel for a different kind of machine entirely, one that also rolls. The wheel is indifferent. The car is not “in” the wheel. The wheelbarrow is not in the handle.

I am, however, in my flesh and blood. We know now that the instructions for the building up of my whole body lie in each cell of mine. The cell is not mere stuff, a mere jelly to which an electric charge is imparted, as the materialists of the Enlightenment wanted to believe. To press an analogy, we might turn to Saint Paul: Christ, and not just an extrinsic jolt of divinity, is present in each member of the body of Christ. The bodies of organisms are organized as it were pneumatically, from within, infused throughout by the Spirit of life, which is personal, intentional, artistic, and creative: “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created,” says the Psalmist. If it was God’s intention from the beginning to build up the Body of Christ that is the Church, then it seems fit that bodies themselves should bear witness to this kind of organization, to a degree that Saint Paul himself could not have imagined.

To go from amoebas to my dog Jasper is, I think, to cross another gap as wide as a universe. He trembles on the verge of personality, as C.S. Lewis puts it. And then there is personality itself, the real thing. Here we come to the final choice, the one that atheists with good hearts want to delay or avoid. It is the choice between seeing the human person as reducible to a machine—a thing, even if the thing is a brute like an amoeba, or seeing him as a being capable of a relationship with God, because he is made as a person, by a Person, for knowledge and love.

The person, endowed as he is with reason and intellect, is as Thomas Aquinas says, capax omnium, i.e., capable of knowing (though in a manner proper to himself, and not as God knows) anything there is to be known, and not just as one detail after another, but as wholes to be grasped in their peculiar beauty. The telephone book does not know anything. For to know is to come into a relationship with the thing known, and if we are talking about intellectual knowledge, knowledge implies not just a brain, but a knowing person. If I say, “I know John,” I am not talking about anything that can be measured, such as John’s height and weight and age, all of which may be logged by a mechanical device. I am not even talking about biographical data, such as where John was born and where he lives now. I mean something for which the word “know” seems equivocal. I mean that John has entered into my life in some way, and that he, the person, means something to me that no collection of data can mean, nor any set of robotic instructions that might mimic the actions of a living being.

We really do come to the crux here, and this explains why a consistent materialist like Daniel Dennett must hold that our very consciousness is but an illusion. He knows that to take the person as an irreducible datum of human knowing and being-known is to depart from materialism, which he takes as a given. It is then also to turn toward the Person from whom all personhood derives. David Hart once jested that it was the dream of all young materialists someday to grow up to be robots. We may say, in the same spirit, that the dream of such Christian grubs as we are is to grow in the Lord Jesus Christ, and become persons at last indeed.

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

The Fight Before Christmas

by Regis Nicoll | The fight over Christmas has been raging ever since the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. Yet the story endures—not only because it speaks to our greatest need and deepest longing, but because it is true.

Black Friday, 6:15 AM. The checkout lane was already twenty persons deep, but worse—it hadn’t moved in five minutes. As I scanned the other seven lanes, they were no better. Resigned, I took my place in line clutching the electronic gadgetry I had snatched up in my bargain-hunting frenzy.

As everyone knows, deep mark-downs await the deal-hungry consumer on the day after Thanksgiving. But the experienced shopper knows the real deals go to the “doorbusters”—those gritty individuals who forgo shaving, makeup, and even breakfast to be the first in the door. Of course the scarcity mentality of a disheveled and hungry horde can lead to some pretty uncivil behavior…

The lady behind me, also bothered by the slow lane, settled into the queue sighing, “Well, at least this is orderly—not like the first store.”

“First store? It’s only 6:15. What time did you start today?”

“Four. I tell ya, them folks was crazy … pushin’, shovin’, and grabbin’ stuff left and right. They even started fightin’ after a guy broke in line … two of ‘em rollin’ in the aisle … crazy folks!”

“You’re kidding.”

“It was ugly! I got no complaints now. Believe me. Them folks was crazy!”

As I listened, I recalled a scene from Jingle All the Way (1996) with Myron Larabee (Sinbad) and Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in an aisle-rolling melee on Christmas Eve. In their determination to grab up the season’s most popular toy, the warring duo resort to lying, stealing, wrestling, and even bomb threats. Why? As Howard’s son explains, “Johnny’s gonna get one. So is everybody else I know. Whoever doesn’t is going to be a loser.”

The “L” word seems to bring out the fight in us. While Jingle is hyperbolized for the sake of humor, there is much truth in its caricatures.

Marketing Christmas
Let me first say that Christmas is my least favorite holiday: not for what it represents, but for what it has become: a heavily marketed secular event in which the pressure to wow family and friends with presents, decorations, and Christmas dinner is enough to unravel all but the most determined Martha Stewart wannabe.

Indeed, for many folks the holiday’s months-long juggernaut can lead to post-Yuletide trauma, as the good news of “For to us a child is born” is buried in the rubble of discarded gift wrappings, turkey scraps, and unmet expectations.

For businesses, Christmas sales account for up to 50 percent of annual profits. Consequently, the season is a “make-it-or-break-it” time and retailers must be ever creative to avoid being a year-end “loser.”

One of the most prevalent schemes is “Christmas creep”—the continued expansion of the holiday season. If you’re like me, you barely recall the time when stores waited until after Thanksgiving to put out their Christmas merchandise. Today, many stores begin their retail campaign the day after Halloween and some shortly after Labor Day.

Not surprisingly, the resultant holiday overlap can lead to some awkward product placement. For instance, in Rite Aid stores Halloween merchandise was displayed across the aisle from Christmas items in symbolic tension.

Another strategy is to design obsolescence into products. How many of us have electronic or computer devices gathering dust which, although just a few years old, lack connectivity or compatibility with newer products and software? This tactic is optimized by introducing the latest techno wiz bangs during the Christmas season. Even the film industry gets in on the act by releasing their big wave of blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls after Thanksgiving.

Over the last several years, though, a new marketing ploy has been gaining momentum.

“Grinching” Christmas
What would have seemed lifted out of a Dr. Seuss story just a decade ago is a real life drama today. After generations of growing consumerism, Christmas has become a perennial target of those who are intent on stripping away all religious references and symbols from the public square.

The stories are familiar: city injunctions against nativity scenes, school bans on Christmas carols, plays, and cards with religious messages, the renaming of Christmas break to Winter break, and so on.

In the retail world, the “C” word is avoided in the belief that a welcoming atmosphere and healthy bottom line depend on a religion-free marketplace.

The “grinching” of Christmas—robbing it of its Object and true meaning—is necessary to make ever more space for commerce.

But as the push to co-opt Christmas as a season of partying and corporate profits continues, Christians should reclaim a vision of it in keeping with the highest ideals of Christianity: peace, good will, charity, and love—ideals at diametric odds with the indulgent consumerism that characterizes the season today.

Consider the tradition of gift-giving. What began in the fourth century as the charitable giving of essentials to the needy has become the exchange of non-essentials among the not-so needy. Thus, the outward emphasis of the original tradition has taken a decided inward turn: from unilateral charity to reciprocal gift exchange.

What’s more, driven by media hype and escalating expectations, too many of us end up spending too much, with money we don’t have for things we don’t need. Not only is that a bad exercise of Christian stewardship, it fuels the materialistic push towards a Christ-less Christmas.

That is not to say that Christians shouldn’t exchange gifts. It only means that the Christian ideal should be balanced toward true charity and that gift exchange should be well within the means of the giver.

Reclaiming a Christian vision extends to other Christmas traditions as well. Take the Christmas tree, for instance.

Despite its pagan origin, the Christmas tree points heavenward, inviting us to turn our gaze to Christ who was nailed to a tree to become the Tree of Life. It also evokes the Vine, through whom life courses out to connecting “branches.” Its red and white decorations bid us to rejoice as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And its piquant scent and evergreen color stir our senses, directing our thoughts to the life that is ever new and ever-lasting.

The fight over Christmas has been raging ever since the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. Yet the story endures—not only because it speaks to our greatest need and deepest longing, but because it is true.

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

∼ Charles Wesley (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.