Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pale Unsatisfied Ones

A short notice in the Contra Costa Times on Sunday, December 10th, reported on a survey:
TAKING A BREAK from asking Americans about politics and war, the Zogby Interactive poll surveyed 12,806 of us last month to find out how we prefer our holiday, er, Christmas, greetings.

The poll was conducted after Wal-Mart changed its corporate mind this year and told store clerks that they can greet customers with "Merry Christmas," instead of the benign "Happy Holidays" that was decreed last year.

Zogby found that 95 percent of respondents said they are not offended by being greeted with a "Merry Christmas" while shopping. Change the greeting to "Happy Holidays," though, and 46 percent said they take offense.

One in three respondents who identified themselves as Jewish said they were upset when they heard "Merry Christmas" as were 10 percent of those of non-Christian faiths or who did not identify themselves with a religion.

Of course, partisan politics is never far away. Zogby found 8 percent of Democrats are more likely to take offense at "Merry Christmas" compared with fewer than 1 percent of Republicans and 1 percent of independents.
If this survey is remotely accurate, those who strain the gnat trying not to offend have a problem on their hands. Seven times more people are offended by these efforts than are satisfied with them. After all, more than 75% of the U.S. citizens identify themselves with Christianity; the figures for Judaism and Islam are just above 1% each, the latter more likely to grow in numbers and less likely to be religiously non-observant than the former. There's a difference, of course, inasmuch as Christianity and Judaism are joined at the hip and always will be. But, as the columnist Burt Prelutsky stressed in the column I quoted in an earlier post, both the historical and the demographic facts make it perfectly clear that the U.S. remains a predominantly Christian(ized) society, though there are some who think they hear, with Matthew Arnold, the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of faith. That's probably what they hear alright, but the tide has a good ways to go before it's out, and it's return cannot be ruled out.

William Butler Yeats famously saw the receding of faith and coincident with it the blood-dimmed tide rising, the best lacking all conviction while the worst growing full of passionate intensity. But he also sensed, at least poetically, that once smitten with Christianity, the world cannot simply walk away from it for long, though it's inadvertent return might take a cruel and parodic form: the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. But "The Second Coming" isn't Yeats' only reflection on the Christ-haunted condition of the post-Christian world. Here's another:

The Magi
by William Butler Yeats
Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Putting the Irish poet to present use, I would say that Yeats has aptly captured the spirit of the begrudging Magi of our time, those drawn to the calendrical crèche, not to pay tribute -- bringing, not gifts, but grudges -- appearing beside the manger with the instinct of savvy politicians, determined to crowd into the photo-op alongside Christ. What these pale unsatisfied ones are unsatisfied with is the incomparable attraction of Christ himself, exerting as he does a pull on the human heart that is as subtle as it is ultimately irresistible -- "When I am lifted up, I will draw all humanity to myself," an attractive power that is already present in the nativity story, working on those who are sincerely seeking truth, as were the Magi in Matthew's Gospel.

Today the manger scene is crowded with unwitting Magi -- indifferent, pale and unsatisfied -- come to appropriate some of the cultural energy that these 2000 years later still streams into the world and into our hearts at the commemoration of Christ's birth. Seen through the eyes of faith, and with the generosity that is one of the gifts of faith, these often exasperating efforts to neutralize Christmas and eviscerate its religious meaning are unintended tributes to it.

Religious Jews often show considerable respect for religious Christians. The spirit of mutual respect required of Christians with regard to other religions is always in order, but it is especially called for between Christians and Jews. Hanukkah is an ancient holiday for Jews, but few would deny that it has been lately raised to prominence by virtue of its proximity to Christmas on the calendar. This is not some conspiracy; it is quite natural for Jews living in a largely Christian society to want to have a celebration that does not violate their religious sensibilities. Jews have long celebrated the rededication of the Temple after a Jewish military victory over their Syrian conquerors who had defiled the Temple by dedicating it to Zeus. But it is passing strange that this celebration by a small (albeit religiously kindred) minority has been all but officially raised to virtually equal status with Christmas in our society.

But once the principle of procrustean equality is made inviolable, historical realities and demographic facts count for little. At that point, everyone crowds into the calendrical crèche -- those celebrating Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, you name it -- hoping to find once more, being by Christianity's patrimony unsatisfied, the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor, a Yeats trope fully as ominous as the rough beast slouching. If Christian faith is allowed to retreat "down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world," as Arnold put it, and as seems to be happening in Europe, then one fine day we'll wake up to find a very rough beast slouching our way, as rough perhaps as the one Hitler mounted, its way prepared by the myriad little ways in which we have allowed our religious foundations to be eroded, often with the best of intentions, but not always so.

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