What’s Wrong with the World

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Taking Stock of our Inner Scrooge

The unregenerate Scrooge got and gets a bum rap. Of course he was cruel, selfish, cynical, and unbelieving. But so are all of us, to the extent we fail to internalize the message of Christmas. Scrooge is the old Adam (and Eve) within everybody past the age of reason, saying secretly or not so secretly "Bah, humbug" to the vulnerability of God in the Christ Child. It is not obvious that our inner Scrooge is wrong. If it were, divine revelation would have been unnecessary.

Nor is the truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ itself obvious. That a baby, sucking at a breast and needing diaper changes, was God, is not obvious. It is not obvious that, as an adult, he would save humanity from itself by letting himself be tortured and executed as a threat to the powers-that-be. It is by no means obvious that the vulnerability of God is the most important means by which he manifests his love and power to us. The Manger is as much a paradox as the Cross, and for the same reason. That must be recognized and acknowledged before we can internalize the message. Until we do, all we have are scapegoats for cleansing ourselves of evil. Scrooge unregenerate is a literary scapegoat; but not even creating real ones, which we do all the time, can effect transformation.

By the same token, however, it is not unreasonable to embrace the paradox. Our world teems with violence, exploitation, and filth that pose their own paradoxes. Wars are always breaking out, simmering, or threatening; most are the usual grabs at power and wealth, wasting countless lives in the process. But a certain class of monotheist still kills the innocent in the name of God "the Merciful, the Compassionate." Before they can see the light of day, when they would become even more inconvenient, children are regularly slaughtered in the name of freedom and life for women. Drug- and sex-trafficking entrench forms of slavery even worse than the buying and selling of human beings for their unpaid labor—itself a practice which it took humanity until the 19th century to begin to see as wrong. We degrade the ecosphere as a whole to fuel "economic growth," thus coming ever closer to killing the goose while we debate whether there is any problem at all. We rack up unprecedented levels of debt, public and private, thus robbing our children and grandchildren—who, thanks to contraception and abortion, won't be numerous enough anyhow to support us in the style to which we have grown accustomed. We are now on the verge of recreating life through genetic manipulation when we can't even live life now with enough sense and compassion. Those who most loudly champion "science," a human discipline that has indeed increased knowledge and improved life, expect us to believe that life is from nothing, to nothing, for nothing. Does life not seen and appreciated through the paradox of the Manger and Cross make more sense than life seen through it? I for one cannot think so, and I have a lot of company.

Yet even I and that company often have a hard time seeing the urgency of living the message of Christmas. Even when we do, we have a hard time living it. That signifies the unregenerate nature which made redemption necessary. We are animals commanded to become gods (cf. John 10:34; 2 Peter 1:4). On the other hand, we can thank God that our nature is not wholly corrupted. That is why even unbelievers can appreciate Christmas. The challenge for believers as well as unbelievers is to move beyond sentimentality to celebration, beyond appreciation to transformation. Since we cannot meet that challenge ourselves, the first step is to get out of the Child's way. My prayer is that we have the courage to do so.

Cross-posted at Sacramentum Vitae.

Comments (7)

Merry Christmas, Michael, and thanks for the thoughtful post!

Seconding Lydia, Mike.

It is not obvious, you mean, that Christianity is true? And yet we must make of ourselves Christians? And we must be Christians, rather than believe in Christianity, or at least, doing what passes for belief among us, which is to affirm that Jesus is Christ, whatever that entails?

We are wicked and we need the revelation -- I take it you say this. And the revelation has told us (or will tell us?) that Christianity is true? And make of us Christians?

You are telling me that I am bad, I suppose? Nobody, I think, wants to be called bad. Nobody wants to believe another person who tells him he is bad, anymore than he wants to believe himself bad. Neither do we want to be bad, nor do we want to believe that we are bad. But if I knew the revelation, I would know that I am bad, and knowing I am bad, would begin to make me good?

Or perhaps I am bad already? And yet I have heard some of what is called the revelation, and it tells me, as you said, that I am not bad -- and that all of us are not bad, because God makes no bad things.

But somehow, because I have heard the revelation, but I have not heard it -- maybe you say this -- just, perhaps, as you have heard it, but in another sense have not heard it -- I am bad, and you are bad, though perhaps not so bad as I. (How many ways are there to hear the revelation? Or of how many people can we say, "He has heard the revelation?")

Is it that a man who has not heard the revelation, is bad insofar as he has not heard the revelation, but good insofar as he has "an ear to hear"?

Can a man hear the revelation, without ever having heard what is called the revelation? No, I would imagine. For he might never have heard of Christ. And yet it is terrible to think of all the men with ears to hear, who have not heard, especially when we have heard what happens to those who do not hear.


Can a man hear the revelation, without ever having heard what is called the revelation? No, I would imagine. For he might never have heard of Christ. And yet it is terrible to think of all the men with ears to hear, who have not heard, especially when we have heard what happens to those who do not hear.

According to Catholic teaching, it is possible for people who never hear of Christ to be saved, if they respond positively to such elements of grace and truth as are available to them. And having "ears to hear" is already a gift of grace accepted.


If you really understand the revelation, then you have been given grace, and it is in virtue of this grace that you understand it.

But the revelation has occurred, and once it has occurred, someone has heard it. The revelation is its being heard, and understood by those who hear it.

Even at the moment of revelation, there will be this split between hearing the revelation, and really hearing it -- because the revelation is an experience, and underneath or behind that experience, is its meaning. I mean in the sense that reading is an experience, and underneath or behind reading, is the understanding of what is read.

But aside from hearing the spoken words, and understanding their meaning, there is something else, isn't there, which we call seeing the truth. Seeing the truth of the words, taking the words to be true, is the additional requirement.

And yet how can I take anything to be true, if I do not see how it can be true? The quest always seems to come before the faith.

Always there is this paradox, that what is taken to be true has to be believed before it can be taken to be true, in order to be taken to be true. And we endlessly admire the immortality of mortals, the sacrifice that can be no sacrifice, perhaps others.

Underneath it all, is a person somehow to believe, that what is not, is? Do you Christians come down against Parmenides, when he says, do not say it is not, for not being cannot be?

Because a person can hear the revelation, without understanding it, and understand the revelation, without believing it. And believing it is something more than saying you believe it -- something like seeing it is true. (Does a person also have to see how it can be true? Do you have to see how it can be true, in order to see it can be true?)

But if the revelation is the revelation of the truth, then someone can hear the truth, without understanding the truth. But it is also seems someone could understand the truth and believe it, without ever having heard it.

Is there one true statement, which, to believe, which, to take to be true, is beatitude, and which truth encompasses every other truth?

Or is the revelation not the truth, but only one truth?

And yet it seems such a wonderful thing, to say that if a man has ever taken the truth to be true, he has received the revelation. Because taking the truth to be true, is something we all feel we have done, at what time or another.

What is it to you if he is intellectually dishonest? You are calling him bad. Calling a man bad cannot win him to you, even if it is true. If his question is unclear, let him clarify his question -- or ask him what he means.

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