The Christmas Story in an Era of Irrational Skepticism

Don’t we know it only too well? It is Christmastide, the time when Christians the world over rejoice at the Birth of their Saviour, the Word of God, Who lived and died to redeem Mankind. So, as predictable as ever, along come the old sceptics, relativists, secularists (basically, all atheists of one stripe or another) with their scorn for the ‘People of the Cross’, and with their high and mighty superiority, to revel in annual attempts to belittle and mock the followers of Christ. There is enough real evidence to prove the existence of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and that He was the Lord. We use Faith and Reason to claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Lord and King of all Creation. Therefore, let us ‘shake the dust from our feet’ of those who would deny this beautiful truth, and keep our eyes focused on The Beloved, for He Alone has ‘the words of Eternal Life’.

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BY AMIR AZARVAN on Crisis Magazine

Tis the season to attack traditional Christianity by pedaling, through social networks and the mass media, speculative theories that contradict orthodox Christian beliefs. On Christmas Eve (predictably), the Washington Post revived a 2014 article promoting the discredited theory that the “historical Jesus” never even existed. Yet even the agnostic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, famously remarked that Jesus “certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees” (but it is only conservatives who are anti-intellectual, right?).

To give another example, Patheos put out an article last Friday in which self-styled theologian, Mitch Mallory, opines that virginal birth theology is “misguided eschatology” that bears “Gnostic influence” and is at odds with “modern science.” Many readers who assume from the outset that miracles—like a virginal birth—are impossible are all too willing to accept recycled arguments like Mallory’s.

Such claims as these are to be expected in an era when imaginative, yet unscrupulous, writers routinely abuse their freedoms in the pursuit of attention or wealth (though it is unclear whether these particular writers fit into this category). Here, I wish to exercise my freedom by offering some thoughts on Christmas, as well as miracles in general.

Christians face a certain Catch-22 when trying to convince religious skeptics that their faith is true. On the one hand, nothing short of a miracle is required to persuade many skeptics of the truth of one’s supernatural beliefs. (Suppose that I told a crowd of people that I am God’s messenger and that I can prove it by breaking the world’s record for holding my breath underwater. Few people would accept my claim on the basis of this feat. But if I walked on water before their very eyes, it is likely that more people would start to take me seriously.)

On the other hand, such skeptics are likely to claim that a miracle is, in itself, a logical contradiction. As the French poet, Anatole France, argued, to say that a particular event contradicted the laws of nature is to wrongly presuppose that we have a complete understanding of those laws. The corollary is that any worldview that contains miracle stories must, on that very account, be absurd.

But this betrays a deeply flawed understanding of what Christians believe miracles to be. The confusion may partly stem from our very use of the expression “law of nature.” In our society, which places a heavy emphasis on the rule of law—whereby any violation of the law is generally regarded as evil—using the term “law” to figuratively describe generally observed patterns in the natural world risks confusing people who are prone to treating this description literally. All events, the natural law enforcers effectively tell us, must comply with the inviolable laws of nature.

But, accurately defined, a miracle is nothing more than a religiously-meaningful departure from what’s normally observed in nature. This definition implies two important truths. First, it is not necessary to have a complete understanding of the laws of nature to realize that certain religiously-significant events practically never happen. The earliest Christians may have known far less than we do about the processes of conception and child birth, but they knew enough to realize that virginal births do not normally occur.

Second, a scientific explanation for how an event occurred does not necessarily account for why it occurred in the particular, religious way that it did. If my hand towel were to suddenly emit myrrh, it would clearly be a departure from what one normally observes. But since the event lacks any religious significance, it would scarcely qualify as a miracle. If, on the other hand, an icon of the Virgin Mary were to emit myrrh from her eyes, and there are no signs of human manipulation, then we would be faced with a theologically meaningful deviation from what we generally observe in nature. We have no need for an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature as they relate to the emission of myrrh to know that such events rarely occur. And unless we are committed to the a priori assumption that miracles are impossible (in which case we are being close-minded, since, as I explained above, such an assumption is invalid, as it rests on an impoverished understanding of what miracles are), then we are left to conclude that the odds of the event occurring in such a theologically explicable way are so low as to make it perfectly reasonable to believe that the event was indeed miraculous.

This leads us back to the Christmas story. When we accept the false assumption that miracles are a logical impossibility, we become vulnerable to accepting, without demanding much if any evidence, all sorts of novel, naturalistic explanations for Christ’s birth. Let us undo this mental shackle and approach the Nativity this Christmas season with a truly open mind.

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17 Responses to The Christmas Story in an Era of Irrational Skepticism

  1. toadspittle says:

    “Irrational Scepticism” – wonderful.
    Wish I’d thought of that. So, it’s “irrational” to be sceptical of, say, Islam, Lutheranism, or Astrology, then?
    No – only to be sceptical of Catholicism. All other scepticism is irrational.
    Ah, yes – I see.
    Is it irrational to ask why God seems so utterly uninterested in what goes on daily on Planet Earth? Such as the wholesale massacre of Christians ( and Muslims) by Isis?
    No doubt it is.

    A belated “Happy Holidays” to all on here, plus Burrissimo and Jabba.
    I’ve been away in Santiago de Compostela – hugging the saint and all. Lucky old me.

  2. toadspittle says:

    In other words:
    Is it “irrational” to be sceptical of the pronouncements of the current Pope, (known affectionately on CP&S as, “Bergoglio, Spawn of Satan) ?
    ….No.
    Is it “irrational” to be sceptical of the doctrine of transubstantiation?
    Yes.

  3. toadspittle says:

    “Yet even the agnostic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, famously remarked that Jesus “certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees” “
    But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is whether Christ was God – or not.

  4. toadspittle says:

    “But if I walked on water before their very eyes, it is likely that more people would start to take me seriously.)”
    No, they wouldn’t. They’d say, “That’s a good trick. How did you do that?”

  5. johnhenrycn says:

    I suggest (TS – 17:50) the starting point is the historicity of Jesus, “as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees” from whence we can then move on to contemplating His divinity, if and when we are able to perceive of divinity, which is not a scientific concept. There’s the rub: a divinity that can be proven to your scientific satisfaction is not divine. QED.

  6. toadspittle says:

    “… a divinity that can be proven to your scientific satisfaction is not divine.”
    No variety of divinity could ever be ‘proven,” to any sort of satisfaction.

  7. johnhenrycn says:

    “No variety of divinity could ever be ‘proven,” to any sort of satisfaction.”

    The “variety” of divinity known as Jesus Christ has been proven to my satisfaction. Stick with your scientific mentality without supposing there are no other ways of proving the divine. You have this weird notion that divinity is something only you and your atheist friends can decide by using your parameters and in your ballpark, and that if you and they don’t accept it, it is not true.

  8. johnhenrycn says:

    You are a solipsist.

  9. toadspittle says:

    “Stick with your scientific mentality without supposing there are no other ways of proving the divine.”
    What we are at odds over here – is what we mean by “proving.” Surely we can agree on that?

    “You are a solipsist.”
    There’s a bit of it in each of us.
    “The “variety” of divinity known as Jesus Christ has been proven to my satisfaction. “
    And there’s your bit, JH., arriving right on time. But you are a perfect scream, and have me, and Kathleen, constantly in stitches.

    “As the French poet, Anatole France, argued, to say that a particular event contradicted the laws of nature is to wrongly presuppose that we have a complete understanding of those laws.”
    Who is foolish enough to suppose anyone has “a complete understanding” of “the laws of “nature”? No scientist – or there is no point in exploring the universe further. Bit of GKC-type “logic” there, from France.
    (P.S…Has the existence of The Holy Ghost been proven to your satisfaction?)

  10. kathleen says:

    Wow, Toad, what extraordinary lengths you go to in your ongoing desperate attempt to justify your 4 or 5 wives, lascivious living of earlier times, and decades of cynical bashing of Catholicism!

    Doesn’t work, old pal. Either the Hound of Heaven will catch up with you one day before you pass from this world to the next (and I pray that you’ll have the humility to slow down enough so that He will) and you will see the Truth you have been avoiding….., or you’ll be off to join the haters of God down “where their worm does not die, and the fire is never quenched“.

    You make the choice.
    (Although you like to pretend it is up to us to convince you!)

  11. kathleen says:

    Sayeth the Toad to JH:

    But you are a perfect scream, and have me, and Kathleen, constantly in stitches.

    Indeed! JH’s great wit and sense of humour often has me in fits of giggles… and many others too, as mmvc noted recently. (Though when he speaks seriously, he’s well worth listening to (IMO)!)

    JH has shoved you off your throne as “CP&S’s Resident Jester”, sorry to say! You seldom make us laugh these days. You’ve grown less carefree and witty, but more sarcastic and pernicious of late. 😦

  12. toadspittle says:

    CP&S is not about Toad – it’s about Catholicism. We would all do well to remember that.

    “JH has shoved you off your throne as “CP&S’s Resident Jester”, sorry to say! “
    He’s very welcome to it.

  13. johnhenrycn says:

    “JH has shoved you off your throne…”
    Which reminds me of a cartoon some years ago depicting HM Queen Elizabeth replying to Prince Charles on her newly acquired mobile, whilst she was discommoded:
    “Can’t speak right now, Charles, I’m busy on the Throne.”

  14. toadspittle says:

    …But I think Kathleen is largely right.
    Things are considerably more acrimonious these days – largely due to Francis and his somewhat ruthless spring cleaning.
    A lot less cheery fun about paedophile priests. A lot more paranoia about “dubbia,” whatever that is.
    ….Which is why I often think about kissing it all farewell. But plod glumly on.
    No choice.

    I read Jolly Jester JH’s character recently, Censored, of course.

  15. Brother Burrito says:

    God can never be proven, only met and experienced.

    In short, God refuses to be put in a bottle. He is wildly untameable.

    He is just like us, for He made us just like Him.

  16. johnhenrycn says:

    “God can never be proven, only met and experienced.” Nicely put, Eeyore.

    Wishing one and all a Happy New Year – “which I doubt it will be“, says the real Eeyore (:

  17. toadspittle says:

    “God is just like us, for He made us just like Him.”
    True, Bro B. – Irrational, angry, jealous, intolerant, and often vindictive.
    “An honest God is the noblest work of man,” – G.K Chesterton. (Just kidding, it was C.S.Lewis, really*)
    And I wish all here aboard The Good Ship CP&S a very Happy 2017, to be spent profitably abusing the current pope

    *Ooh! Don’t tell such frightful lies about an honest Anglican, Toad!

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