In many parts of the world Christianity is thriving. It is on fire in Africa, expanding through the global south and there are many more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist Party.
But much of the West, with the partial exception of the US, is heading towards a predominantly post-Christian identity. The main way Christianity is treated in public culture ranges from contempt and ridicule, to calumny and vilification, through to just being ignored and whitewashed from the public square, unless, very occasionally, it can be recruited to serve a fashionable cause.
Yet Christmas survives, even in the post-Christian West, as the most popular Christian festival, a symbol truly of universal appeal.
We all have our childhood memories of Christmas. For me it was midnight mass, black-and-white TV, presents at the foot of the bed, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, the roster of movies we seemed to watch every year — It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Going My Way — all long gone now.
It would take a fantastic curmudgeon to deny the happy sentimentality of Christmas, for much that is good is wrapped up in that sentimentality.
But as our society leaves Christianity behind, it is a pitiful fact the content of Christianity, and especially the content of Christmas, has all but passed out of collective consciousness.
Given that for most of the past 2000 years, until about five minutes ago, Christianity shaped Western civilisation, this sheer and wilful ignorance, entirely separate from the question of belief, is an extreme version of a perverse kind of intellectual self-harm. And to deny students especially any real knowledge of their own inheritance seems to mount perversity on perversity.
For Christmas, as traditionally understood in Western culture, is the most radical event in human history. The claims of the Christian religion, which centre on Christmas, are the most stupendous that have ever been made.
Consider just four of the most astonishing claims of Jesus, and of Christianity, arising out of Christmas: that Jesus is God and that God for a time was a child, that God alone is the principle of all goodness, that the devil is a real character always about and that Jesus can work miracles.
One common post-Christian way of understanding Jesus is to think of him as a good and kindly man who provided great moral teaching, a kind of early Mahatma Gandhi, and that others, especially the historical church, have attributed divinity to him that he never claimed.
The problem is this doesn’t accord with the facts at all. Jesus himself, and the Gospels generally, constantly claim that Jesus is God, not a messenger of God, not a teacher inspired by God, not an angel, still less the leader of a social movement, but actually God.
No other historical figure who founded a significant religion has ever made this claim. Therefore, as Christians used to point out, there are only three possibilities for Jesus. Either he was a deluded fantasist, a profoundly brilliant charlatan or indeed he was and is God.
One of the best ways to try to understand the cultural and historical import of Christianity is actually to read the Gospels. There are mysteries in them but overall they are abundantly clear on all the big points.
Did Jesus claim divinity? In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am.”
John’s Gospel, by the way, is one of the greatest works of literature in human history. Read it just for the literary experience, preferably in an older translation. Modern translators have tried to render the Bible in all the soaring prose of a telephone directory but even they cannot disguise the majesty and drama and sweep of John’s language.
In many passages, John refers to Jesus as “the word” and begins his Gospel thus: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.”
In Mark’s Gospel, when asked if he is the Christ, the son of God, Jesus replies: “I am.” Not much equivocation there.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies.”
Later, Jesus returns to the same theme: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
The point of these quotations, and there are many others to the same effect, is not to convince anyone that Christianity is true but just to make clear the uncompromising nature of the claims Jesus made.
Jesus proclaimed that he is God and that, incidentally, God created all the universe.
These are the most radical and paradigm-shattering claims ever made in human history. They may be wrong but it is surely worth knowing something about them.
The other claim entailed there is that salvation, eternal life, is available only through Jesus. This leads traditional critics of Christianity to describe a jealous God, as though God were just one person among many but demanding all the attention.
Catholic Cardinal George Pell addressed this in his justly famous debate with the atheist Richard Dawkins. Asked if non-Christians could expect salvation and eternal life, Pell answered yes, anyone who sought the good and moves towards God might find salvation. Pell outraged some Christians and surprised some atheists, but this is the official position in the Catholic catechism. It shows that while the basic messages of the Gospel are clear enough, there is still a need for interpretation. The inclusive view of salvation rests on the sovereignty and authority of Jesus. He alone decides who approaches the father so it’s not up to anyone else to judge.
But there is a much deeper point. As Jesus frequently declares in his teaching, everything that is good comes from God. It takes only the smallest extrapolation to realise that when being asked to worship God, it is not just to choose one person, God, among others, but to choose the very principle of goodness. Since God is the principle of goodness, the jealous god is jealous that people should choose good over evil.
That is not everything that a Christian believes but it illustrates that the message of Jesus, at least as claimed by Jesus, is universal, it is for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Which leads to another piquant question: why do Christians believe in and practise Christianity if they also believe that non-Christians can find salvation? The answer is simple: because they believe Christianity is actually true, which is the only reasonable basis for any serious commitment to Christianity at all.
Two smaller but hardly less revolutionary, to modern sensibilities, features of the Gospels are the presence of the devil and the near ubiquity in the Gospels of miracles.
A little over 40 years ago, the devil made a big comeback in Hollywood through The Exorcist. Hollywood has never quite wanted to dispense with him as he’s such an arresting character. But now he’s right out of fashion. The recent Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange movie felt obliged by the zeitgeist to give an entirely materialist explanation of the hero’s powers, which in the original had much to do with the occult.
But you cannot really believe anything of Jesus without believing in the real existence of the devil, for Jesus frequently talked about him and the devil is central to key Gospel episodes.
Pope Francis is immensely popular, in part because of his social justice messages. He is an Argentinian Pope who seems to interpret all economic matters through the very distinctive Argentinian experience. But of course, as the Pope himself often acknowledges, the Pope has no special authority on economics.
The media tends, however, to more or less ignore what the Pope says about religion, and he frequently talks about the devil.
Miracles are equally unfashionable. But in the Gospels, Jesus performs nearly 40 separate miracles. He spends a great deal of his time performing miracles. Intellectually, it is perfectly sensible to try to interpret the Gospels and not just read them without any interpretation at all. But as with all great works of literature, interpretation is entirely secondary to actually reading the work in the first place.
It’s pretty clear that unless the Gospels are absolutely full of lies, in which case the only reason for reading them is historical curiosity, miracles are a central part of the deal of the teachings of Jesus.
Of course, logically it’s hard to believe in God at all and not believe in miracles. Otherwise the proposition is God cannot do anything that we can’t do ourselves, in which case there is almost no meaning in the word God.
This is the quiet position of almost all believing Christians. Peter Costello, in his memoirs, attributes the recovery of his wife from a grave illness in part to the miraculous. Kevin Rudd, who I think quite nobly disclosed his Christian faith, was once asked point-blank whether he believed in miracles and answered point-blank that he did.
Yet in most circles, to assert a belief in miracles today would be to court instant ridicule.
The neglect of the wellsprings of Western civilisation in our education, and in our culture more generally, is one of the drolly miraculous elements of our own time. To desire not just to reject Christianity but to determine not to know anything much at all about it is weird and would be incomprehensible in any other field.
Though it is available to all cultures, Christianity built Western civilisation which, presumably, we still have some use for. Imagine wanting to continue to use a bridge but being determined to suppress the knowledge of how the bridge was built.
The wonders of Christmas are endless.