Brent Thompson had delayed telling his young son that there was no Santa Claus far longer than most of his colleagues. “What’s the harm?”, he asked.
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The boy, however, was old enough to know better, and perpetuating the myth might have consequences. For how long should parents perpetuate an illogical, nonsensical story without it effecting distortions in a child’s moral vision? The adult world was certainly filled with as much irrational belief as that in Santa Claus, and such a separation from reality seemed to be increasing.
On the other hand, childhood is the only period of one’s life innocently removed from logic. Fairy tales, animals that talk, witches, goblins, and magic wands are the currency of childhood; and what adult would not prefer to be freed from the yoke of choice and disciplined analysis?
Dostoevsky was right when Ivan Karamazov challenges the returned Christ and tells him that he has betrayed mankind. Man has never wanted free will, he tells him, only miracles, mystery, and authority. The awful responsibility of choice when Judgment is involved is something to be avoided. Let us live in a world of fantasy, men say, where we can be in awe of miracles, wonder at the glory of God and his heavens, and be guided by a benign and loving Church.
Ivan Karamazov could no sooner abide irrationality than he could the torture of little children. God would not have given man such a big brain if he had not intended him to use it. It was an apostasy to ignore or reject logic.
The founding fathers of the early Church – Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus among others – were all logicians who, despite their profound spiritual belief, saw the importance of a strong, rational, and irrefutable foundation for the new religion. Canon and doctrine must be logically determined, sanctioned, and codified. Otherwise Christianity could be torn apart by rumor, myth, and fantasy. Scholarship in the 2nd and 3rd centuries was not an academic exercise. It was essential to resolve issues of Christ’s divinity, his humanity, the Trinity, and the meaning of his death and resurrection; and to avoid irrational belief.
“You’re overthinking it”, said a close friend of Brent’s. “No child believes in Santa Claus for very long.”
Michael Bernstein was a Russian Jew who was raised by atheist parents. Esther and Saul were not just unbelievers, but were militantly so. The issue was not just rejecting the illogical, implausible, and clearly fantastical view that there was such a thing as a universal being that existed in limitless time and space; or that he had a son who tended business on earth. It was rejecting all irrational beliefs and irrationality itself.
Michael’s father, a literary scholar who in earlier days would have been a rabbi, taught his young son to believe in nothing. “Conclusion is enough”, said the old man. The boy took his father’s lessons to heart, and he is as free from myth, mystery, fantasy, and religion anyone Brent knew. Personality and experience always seem to get in the way of pure logic, however, and Michael’s intellectual arrogance often interrupted a more logically-derived analysis; but nevertheless he was one of the most disciplined, organized, and rational thinkers Brent had ever known.
“Michael Bernstein is the reason I worry about Bobby”, Brent said. “I can’t help thinking that there is a relationship between Santa Claus Area 51. What have I done?”
“I suppose that means that there is no Easter Bunny”, Brent’s son said when his father finally put the nail in Santa Claus’s coffin. He hesitated, understanding that childhood was now over, confirmed Bobby’s doubts.
The child took it well; and no tears were shed either over Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. He was the first one downstairs on Christmas morning, never even noticed that there were no cookie crumbs and a half-drunk glass of milk on the mantelpiece as there always had been, and never even winked at his father when he opened his presents. Logic simply arrives, Brent thought. Pump-priming is not required.
Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who gained popularity a number of years ago thanks to his feel-good approach to irrationality. It is alright to believe in stories, he said, even if they’re not true because myth is illustrative of the human condition, illuminative of essential truths, and gateway to spirituality.
Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told (The Power of Myth).
“Nonsense”, said Brent about both Santa Claus and Joseph Campbell. Myths if anything are created for very secular and often venal purposes. Grimm’s fairy tales all had unmistakable messages about good and evil; and the sooner children shivered under their bedcovers because of them, the better.
The disciples of Christ were canny mythologists turned marketers. Christianity was derivative, borrowing from Judaism, Hellenism, Roman and Greek mythology; and was designed to meet the needs of disaffected Palestinian Jews and marginalized gentiles. The argument many scholars make for the existence of a historical Jesus – his unique vision of love, brotherhood, and redemption – is exactly the one used by secularists. Of course Christ’s vision was new. It was the unique selling principle of all time.
Myths serve a purpose and not the one Campbell envisaged.
The only reason to have children in an era where there are no economic or social benefits to them is to experience innocence. Children are no longer expected to light the funeral pyre, to care for aged parents, to guarantee the longevity of the family name or preserve the family fortune. They cost far more than they ever return; interrupt normally predictable and safe lives; and are in and out of the family in less than two decades, often leaving a trail of guilt, worry, and disruption.
Why do we put up with this? Because for a few brief years, children are what we would like to be – free, perfect, uninhibited, happily illogical, and unconstrained by society, church, or authority. There really is something to the Hallmark Card moment of the the starry-eyed child in front of the Christmas tree and the magically-arrayed presents. Innocence, simplicity, and a total suspension of critical thought. Ivan Karamazov was as right as rain.
Few people subscribe to myth as a governing principle. We live in a very demythologized age; and yet in an impossibly complex age we create our own illogical fantasies. We have to, otherwise we would never survive. Few people can pore through reams of highly technical material on climate change, for example; and after a point simply believe that the world will be incinerated within our lifetimes.
It is far easier to believe that God created the world, lock, stock, and barrel than to understand Darwin and evolution. It is easier – and comforting - to believe that man is good and that society is headed towards a utopian future than to take a hard look at history which demonstrates just the opposite.
In other words, even Saul Bernstein’s, “Conclusion is enough”, is flawed. Most people stop their logical analysis before they get to the end. Their conclusions are, therefore, as subject to myth as the first Christians.
Tolstoy was a lifelong seeker of the truth. As he writes in his memoir, A Confession, for decades he applied the most rigorous, logical analysis that his very rational brain could muster to solve the problem of faith. He felt it his responsibility to determine once and for all whether or not there was a God and whether he should leave his nihilist past behind him. At the age of 50, tired, worn out, and old, he gave up. If so many millions of people believe; and if billions before them have believed, then what could be wrong? In other words, he backed into faith and let myth take over.
Brent’s concerns about Santa Claus and the future of his children were silly. Every Christian child believes in Santa Claus, and most turn out just fine. The fact that they all share a willing suspension of disbelief throughout their adult lives, and are given to the most irrational and nonsensical convictions has nothing to do with Santa Claus per se. It has much more to do with our inability to use more than a tiny fraction of our brainpower. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “It’s not the unknowns we need to worry about, it’s the unknown unknowns”. There is simply too much complexity around – too much unknowability – for us to make sense out of anything.
We need to cut each other some slack. We all believe in Santa Claus.