Tuesday, December 23, 2008

you can't keep a good god down

When the Young Heroine introduced me to Terry Pratchett's Discworld, the first book she gave me was Hogfather. It's hard to explain in a sentence if you're not familiar with the series, but it takes place in a cosmos that's very similar to, but not identical with, our own, and the Hogfather is that world's equivalent to Santa Claus. The book is quite wonderful for a number of reasons, oneof which is that you're reminded of how little of the Western Christmas has to do with Christianity and how much with paganism, but there's also this passage (and remember, read "Santa Claus" for "Hogfather")
Was the Hogfather a god? Why not? thought Susan. There were sacrifices, after all. All that sherry and pork pie [left on the table for him]. And he made commandments and rewarded the good and he knew what you were doing...
It's true: the Hogfather, er, Santa, is a god. And we know which one. Making a list and checking it twice? Going to find out who's naughty and nice? That's not a Christmas song; that's U'netaneh Tokef, the solemn prayer from the High Holy Days about the Book of Life. The god who punishes the naughty and rewards the nice, who listens to prayers and gives points for trying, but is ultimately concerned with behavior is, when you get down to it, the God of the Jews.

Ok, ok, we all worship the same God, so let's say, "the God as understood by the Jews". Which is different than the Christian understanding, because one of the main points of Christianity is the idea of "Justification by Faith," which is to say that one cannot get on God's good side through works or deeds; you are justified, or made right with God, through faith [Yes, I do know that this is a gross oversimplification, but still]. And so you have to ask, how does it happen that at one of the two foundational festivals of the God of Faith, the most popular character is an avatar of the God of Works. Or: how is it that in the middle of celebrating the obsolescence of Judaism, it keeps popping up?

And here's what I think: That as attractive as the doctrine might be that you don't have to "do" you just have to believe, and that God's grace is so great and given so freely that all one needs is be open to it, there is something about being human that needs the idea of justice. We can't help believing that it really does make a difference if you're naughty or nice independent of your personal faith. The official doctrine may say what it will about Grace being a totally free gift; there is something deep inside of us that is sure that the difference between a Wii and a lump of coal in your stocking depends on just how good a boy or girl you've been.

This does not necessarily mean that the Jews are saying anything true about God, but it does mean that we are saying something true about being human. Which is that the idea of justice is real, it is as much a part of us as love and beauty. And that there's much more of a universal sense of what counts as "naughty" and what as "nice" than we might otherwise think. Whatever we believe about God or gods or subatomic particles colliding, we are stuck sharing a common moral imagination, a capacity for recognizing the right, and an understanding that that's how we're supposed to live.

(Oh yes, Dick Cheney? If there were a Santa, you'd be in for some serious coal. Ho, ho, ho).

No comments: