A Contradictory Christmas

Been a while... ::blows dust off blog:: I've been working on other stuff, but it's time to come back around to writing here. Shooting for a post a month in 2020.

I've been following the work of Peter Rollins for several years now, and lately he's been talking a lot about the philosopher Hegel. Specifically his idea that we, at our core, are a contradiction, and in fact reality itself as we experience it has contradiction at a fundamental level. It's fascinating stuff, and there's no way I could do it justice if I tried to explain it. I mean people have struggled with understanding Hegel for over a century! But I'm less interested in the theory aspect and more about how it functions in real life.

One way this plays out is in our “frenetic pursuit of wholeness and satisfaction,” as Peter phrases it. We're always seeking out that thing (especially this time of year!) that will make us whole and satisfied, or at least more whole and satisfied. It's usually preceded by “if only” or “someday, when,” like “if only I did _____ more” or “someday, when I'm _____.” We fantasize about what life will be like when we're stronger/thinner/richer/married/disciplined/freer/productive/etc., but the problem is if we actually do get to that point, it doesn't satisfy. A recent Kurzgesagt video explores this. This negatively plays out if we consider how scapegoating works. We find this contradiction in ourselves and externalize it on something or someone else. It's really easy to see this in the state of our politics, we have deep-rooted problems in our system, but we externalize those onto the “other.” If only the Democrats win the next election, or if only we can get that wall built. It gets ugly real quick.

The religious solution is to postpone that wholeness and satisfaction to the future. C.S. Lewis took this approach when he said “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” But I think the Christmas story cuts against that notion, and I also think it can be pulled out of a religious context and offer insights into the human experience, areligiously.

The idea of God becoming human is a contradiction. God, the name we slap on the transcendent, the beyond, the fundamentally other, the ultimate wholeness that we so desperately seek. Whether you think of this as a being or hyper-being or the universe or nirvana or the noumenal or whatever, that takes on finite, poor, oppressed, non-exciting human flesh. That is 180 degrees in the opposite direction of our desire. We strive to escape our circumstances, move beyond them, get to the next better stage, experience some better way of being, get to our best life, but the Christmas story teaches us the complete opposite. It gets glamorized, with angels and wise men and hymns and so on, but think about it – you're talking about a scandalized teenager giving birth in an overcrowded stable full of animals and shit and bugs. The way we glamorize it is evidence that this contradiction brings us nearer to our own, so we gloss it over to cover up our anxiety.

We strive to escape our circumstances, move beyond them, get to the next better stage, experience some better way of being, get to our best life, but the Christmas story teaches us the complete opposite.

It doesn't matter if this literally happened or not, the lesson is that what frees us from the never-ending pursuit of wholeness and satisfaction, our pursuit of “God,” so to speak, is in turning around and gazing at where we are today. Accepting that contradiction is what makes us who we are. In doing so, it frees us to fully embrace the world, and work to make it better without needing to create a scapegoat, make it better by emptying ourselves into it. Merry Christmas.

Peace and tenacity,

PB