Christmas Day

25 December 2004 | Faith & Society

The celebration of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.


Put the presents outside, would you, and ask the shepherds to wait in the hall? Did you say there are already angels in the living room? Then be a  darling and ask the rest of the heavenly choir if they wouldn’t mind waiting in the kitchen. Quite right, if the shepherds are with their flocks, the porch would be better. No, I don’t remember when the wise men said they would get here, but if they really are wise men it won’t be for quite a while. Now - where were we?

Pull the Christian cracker apart and what falls out is you, God and a baby.  The existence of God has had a bumpy ride. Occasionally so has the existence of the baby. But the existence of you has seemed safe – good old Descartes, you think, therefore you are! That god-like self-certainty of existence: enjoy the feeling, since we may be the last human generation able to do so.

Professor of cognitive studies and polymath Daniel Dennett argues that the obvious intuitions which we typically have about selves in general and ourself in particular do not stand up well to logical analysis and the advances in his science. In his language, selves turn out to be fictions. We posit a narrator – we hypothesise an ‘I’ - at the centre of our world and rationalise confusing events into a narrative because it is a powerful idea which works - especially in an environment hugely dominated by words and ideas.

What is an ‘I’, if Dennett is right? He writes (‘Consciousness Explained’, pp 429-430):

Think of Ishmael, in Moby Dick. ‘Call me Ishmael’ is the way the text opens, and we oblige. We don’t call the text Ishmael, and we don’t call Melville [the author] Ishmael. Who or what do we call Ishmael? We call Ishmael Ishmael, the wonderful fictional character to be found in the pages of Moby Dick. ‘Call me Dan,’ you hear from my lips, and you oblige, not by calling my lips Dan, or my body Dan, but by calling me Dan, the theorists’ fiction created by - well, not by me but by my brain, acting in concert over the years with my parents and siblings and friends …

But don’t I exist?

Of course you do. There you are, sitting in the chair, reading my book and raising challenges. And curiously enough, your current embodiment, though a necessary precondition for your creation, is not necessarily a requirement for your existence to be prolonged indefinitely … your existence depends on the persistence of that narrative (rather like the Thousand and One Arabian Nights, but all a single tale) which could theoretically survive indefinitely many switches of medium, be teleported as readily (in principle) as the evening news, and stored indefinitely as sheer information.

It is a delicious levelling of the playing field, as we enter the twenty-first century, to glimpse that exactly the same reasoning applies to the personhood or not of any of the three bits which fall out of the Christian Christmas cracker. Any baby has to learn to treat himself or herself as a person. The baby may then learn to treat you as a person. As for God, who shall say? The only way to be a person is to have a name and tell a story (‘Call me Ishmael’).

In the burning bush, God responds to Moses’ request for the divine name with ‘I am’ (Exodus 3: 14). To claim to be an ‘I’ is to claim to be a person. And the story about God which we are told through the opening of John’s Gospel is one which sits quite comfortably in the world visualised by Daniel Dennett two millennia later:

(John 1: 1-5, 14)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.



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