Charles Cottle —
On Christmas day, 2015, there appeared in the New York Times an essay entitled, “The Christmas Revolution” by Peter Wehner. In the essay Wehner presents a provocative set of observations about the incarnation of Jesus. It is Wehner’s view that Jesus’ birth was a revolutionary event, not only for those reasons that are well known, but also for reasons seldom discussed. I encourage you to read the essay. In the meantime, I have summarized the main points below.
- The incarnation is the source of much of the humanistic tradition.
- The incarnation rejected the Platonic notion that the material world was evil.
- “The incarnation also reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person. . . .”
- From the point immediately above flows our “entire democratic inheritance.”
- From the dignity and worth of each individual we derive the Christian compassion for the poor and for the practice of charity. Jesus’ example of how he treated the poor and outcast was radical for his time and ultimately created the concern for the poor as a cultural given.
- Just as God places “inestimable” value on human life, “regardless of social status, wealth, and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin,” so should we.
I cannot speak to each of these points, but I would like to make the following observations. First, I think it is a stretch to say that Plato and his followers thought the material world “evil,” as Wehner suggests. In my understanding, Plato’s doctrine of forms argued that reality was found in the world of ideas, as the things in this world were copies of them. This is not to say that the material world was evil, but rather less perfect than the ideas that gave rise to them.
Second, in my own religious background, it was the flesh that was evil. Piety consisted in resisting the temptations of the flesh. One might suggest that this view is more a product of culture rather than religion, but it seems to me in this case that culture and religion are so tightly woven as to be inseparable.
Finally, Wehner’s suggestion that the humanistic tradition flows from the incarnation of Jesus is provocative. This is the first time I have encountered the connection between the two. Most often I have encountered the view that humanism is a turning away from God as it is centered in human, rather than divine, concerns.
I find the topics raised by Wehner’s essay to be interesting and worthy of discussion. If you have views on this or related topics, I invite you to share them.