The Christmas collection of cultural traditions is enjoyed by people around the world even as cultures vary and change. To create and operate within cultures is a human invariant.
Human invariants include eating, sleeping, working to make home, communicating in a native language, relating in a society, Love. We create cultural ways to accommodate the invariants. One invariant is all people’s awareness or wonder about something beyond our materiality and we create religions to facilitate this contemplation.
Religions are cultural ways in which we express spiritual awareness, and most people equate their cultural way with spiritual ultimates. This does not mean the ultimates are only cultural, but we tend to substitute our cultural wrapping for that which is the True beyond the wrapping, often sanctifying cultural aspects along with the ultimates.
For instance, some Christmas symbolism combines details from the Gospels to hold a sacred picture of the well-clothed holy family in a cozy enclosure with peaceful animals surrounded by rugged people of the earth on one side and opulent, exotic royalty on the other. Some resist any suggestion that this is probably not how it looked.
I grew up in an American subculture of Pentecostal Church that held many cultural things as sacred Truth which actually were not ultimates: no smoking, no dancing, no alcoholic drinking, no card gambling, no swearing, only heterosexual marriage, proselytizing as a command from God, the printed Bible as inerrant, “the End Times” including a certain order of cosmic events culminating with a lake of fire (hell) for all who do not accept Jesus as the only Son of God and heaven with gold-paved streets for all who qualify.
Today there are people building a power base to force their religious culture on entire nations, i.e.: Christian Nationalism, the Taliban. Unfortunately, too many Christians hold philosophical justification for behaviors contrary to Christ as a means to enforce their culture on the world, such as dictatorial rulers, subjugation of selected kinds of people, terrorism, physical and verbal abuse, and murder (aka “execution”). This parallels the circumstances surrounding the Nativity story we celebrate this season.
We Want the Ultimate Paradise
Perhaps some see the glow of an ultimate paradise beyond current circumstances and take it upon themselves to make it happen now. They do not want to wait for God to nurture us toward that glow; they want it in their “lifetime”.
The alternative is to actually live Goodness in the here and now. Without seeing the material fulfillment in our lifetime, we can make our contribution as a small part in the long lineage toward it. We acknowledge our kinship with past and future people who all reach for this destiny.
Distinguishing between ultimates and cultural symbols of those ultimates helps our progress toward peace and unity for all humanity. Acknowledging that all people have capacity for the truly sacred helps relax our grip on symbols, rituals, and exclusive behaviors. Acknowledging that God is present “over there” as well as “with us” does not in any way diminish the Truth that our culture represents. Recognizing ultimates represented by other cultures can enrich awareness of the truths we hold dear in ours. This can relieve us of a colonial “mission” to dominate other cultures or proselytize people out of their culture into ours. Instead, we will promote each other’s growth into the ultimates we all seek.
Jesus demonstrated this attitude in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) where he said the ways and places we worship do not matter because God is Spirit and desires us to worship in Spirit and Truth.
God Is More Than My Gifts
While the church of my early years was very cultural, still embedded in it was the realization that God is more than all these symbols and add-on cultural imperatives. The faithfulness of many within the cultural religion to teach that God is more than culture provided the freedom to grow and discover the expansiveness of the ultimates which all humanity senses are invariants.
The teaching that God is more helps us to realize and commune with the True Ultimate. As humans it is our nature to use symbols drawn from the world we know to enjoy communion with God. But I recognize that God, to be God, cannot be contained by my cultural symbols, rituals, explanations, or structures. To enjoy the freedom of the infinite God, I am holding lightly to my helpful symbols which loft me into the greater expanse of eternity where I will eventually let go of my tether to all the helps I have been given.
Culture, then, is a gift that we can hold respectfully without fear of appreciating the gifts of others. As Howard Thurman demonstrated in his intercultural church and Gandhi in his interfaith community, we can even benefit from experiencing one another’s gifts.
The Birthing Story
The primordial invariant is our awakening to creation’s emanation from God. We vary in all the behaviors and symbols we use to pursue that awakening. My personal experience is an affirmation within my deepest perception that this awakening is growth toward Goodness, and that it is initiated and secured by the Will beyond my constructs or descriptions. It is not a matter only of my mortal self, but of the Will that is bringing forth materiality. The symbolism of birthing is an important indicator of the process we are in, as in Jesus’ metaphor of being born (John 3), and Paul’s words about all of creation groaning in labor birthing what must come, the revelation of the children of God (Romans 8:19-23). As in “the Lord’s Prayer”, praying for that Will to be done is acknowledging our reality as members of and harmonizing with Creation emerging from God.
The story of Jesus’ nativity illustrates some of the ways we block the birth and growth of humanity:
- cultural oppression of women (Mary could have been legally executed for her pregnancy outside of marriage.)
- The life-threatening requirement to travel to Bethlehem and be “registered” by the empire
- Herod’s genocidal attempts to kill a potential rival by killing all children of two years and younger in and around Bethlehem
- Jesus’ family fleeing to Egypt as refugees
- Jesus growing up in the oppression of an occupied country
But the supremacy of Life coming forth is the outcome of the story. Losses and defeats notwithstanding, the sprout emerges, grows and multiplies; the unnoticed mustard seed grows into the largest tree; the unseen yeast permeates the loaf. Jesus’ behavior and teaching, wrapped in his culture, demonstrate the primordial invariant resulting in the thriving of Life.