Belief is not binary – there should be something for all in the Nativity story

But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisted

The above conversation between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte is a superficially light exchange made over rather a lot of wine from the Brideshead cellar. The Brideshead family is very Catholic and religion is perhaps the key theme of the book. Sebastian is their most wayward member but, as we see, he is nevertheless a believer.

Evelyn Waugh was, I think, here postulating the idea of the Nativity story as a parable – the “lovely idea” as Sebastian calls it. Parables feature quite a lot in Christ’s teachings and why should his birth not be another one?

There is a symbolism about the birth in a manger and no room at the inn that has clearly had resonance across the ages. To find something of value in it does not require us to believe that it is in any way authentically true history. The message transcends the reality.

A dogmatic belief in the truth of religious texts leads to absurdity in discourse, and worse. The story of the Creation in the Old Testament is clearly another metaphor showing only that for the faithful everything is God’s will and of his manufacture. There are plenty of Christians who work in science who can prove that the planet and the Universe took rather longer than six days to be made! It doesn’t damage their faith, and nor should it.

What is morally right is subjective and the codification of rightness in commandments is not only a feature of Judaism and Christianity. Most religions have their Moses.

I am not a Believer in any conventional sense of the word but like Sebastian I too like a “lovely story”. So the idea of a displaced family seeking and finding shelter has a resonance with me – not least in a time of asylum seekers.

I don’t think you need to be a Christian to relate to the Sermon on the Mount as a useful checklist. The beatitudes bless the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger, the merciful, the pure in heart, those who are persecuted and ask for tolerance when people insult you, persecute you and “falsely say all kinds of evil against you” Above all the “peacemakers” are especially “blessed”. Amen to all that.

I’m happy to send my Christmas greetings to believers and non believers alike. But in doing so I would argue that belief is not binary. To find something useful in a “lovely story” does not mean you have to sign up to the whole caboodle. Some would preach its “all or nothing” – that the Bible or the Koran or the Torah are God’s word and non negotiable. Well that’s their call, but it’s not mine. Happy Christmas.

2 thoughts on “Belief is not binary – there should be something for all in the Nativity story

  1. Lovely piece Paddy for which I am entirely in accord. Thank you. I have loved Waugh’s books for many a year. He personally struggled with his Catholic faith and suffered much guilt.
    I wish you a very happy Christmas and a safe healthy Covid free 2022.


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