Thursday, 17 January 2013

Father Christmas and the theology of the gift

Recently I watched a debate between Richard Dawkins and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks televised on the BBC. You can find it here

 There is an interesting discussion from 19.30 minutes about the story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis. Dawkins puts his usual case that the God of the Biblical scriptures is an abhorrent tyrant, arbitrarily demanding that Abraham sacrifice his only son to him as a burnt offering. This particular story is obviously a useful one for those such as Dawkins who want to argue against the rationality of believing in the Biblical God, and it has been controversial among philosophers and theologians for centuries. Kant for instance said of the divine command:
"It is quite impossible for a human being to apprehend the infinite by his senses, but in some cases the human being can be sure the voice he hears is not God's; for if the voice commands him to do something that is contrary to moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, he must consider it an illusion."

In the debate about reason and obedience in morality Kant argues that we can never be certain that an experience of God is genuine, and where it appears to contravene a moral law, it will always be better to go with reason and disobey the command. He believes Abraham fails morally in not questioning it.

Theists usually claim that this is a test, a demand of obedience by God, and is thus a good thing. Indeed, in the God Delusion Dawkins says that a teacher told him that too. In the debate Dawkins says that to test someone in this way is morally abhorrent. I believe Dawkins has a point! I know many teachers of religion explain it this way, and I think they could do better. I have seen firsthand how unsatisfactory a group of thirteen year old students find this explanation of the story. Who wants to say that a perfect, wholly good God would put such a clearly faithful man who has devoted everything to God through such a horrific test, let alone the trauma the innocent child underwent on his way to the death sentence.

 One explanation is that it was a record, a folk memory hidden in a story, of the early Jewish people's rejection of child sacrifice, which was a commonplace amongst the cultures of the middle east at that time. Ultimately, God commands Abraham to replace the child with a ram, sending a clear signal to the people of the covenant that the burnt offering must not be human. This would place Judaism within the context of a developing religion amongst others, and coheres with the Jewish people's awareness of their unique relationship with the one God.

Rabbi Sacks' answer to Dawkins challenge on this point in the debate is also essentially the one given above, that it is a rejection of child sacrifice, but he develops it. He mentions as well as the widespread practice of child sacrifice in the ancient world, the prevalence even into Roman times of a similar worldview expressed in the principle of patria potestas in Roman law, which makes a child the property of the parents to dispose of as they will.

Sacks believes the story is fundamental to Judaism, with its emphasis on the importance of children,
and explains that in this story Abraham has to disown the child he has spent so long waiting for, the most precious thing in his life, to give him up. In doing this, God gives the child back to him, but now Abraham is aware that the child is a gift, on loan, and is not his to own. This emphasis on the nature of the child as a gift from God, which can never be hoarded, takes the child-sacrifice model and turns it on its head, forever marking them as a people that realise their radical dependence on God.

Clearly this realisation is an essential part of Christian theology as well, in particular the thomistic emphasis on  God as Being, and creation as a free act of love in which the overflowing generosity of God's goodness results in creatures who have being themselves, but in a limited, contingent way. God as sustainer in Aquinas upholds the world of creation in each moment. Creation is a gift.

To me the story now made more sense, but things really fell into place when I read Alison Milbank's book Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. In particular the discussion of gift-giving and Father Christmas.
For Milbank Father Christmas is a mediatory figure. Necessarily as he inhabits the world between the parent and the child, and in his way of entering into the house, down the chimney, being an opening to the realm of the sky, he embodies that which comes from beyond. As this third person in the parent-child relationship he can prevent the appropriating tendency of the adult from making the child into an image of itself. Father Christmas gives back the child to the parent as a gift because he reminds them that they and the child are themselves dependent on something beyond themselves for their existence. In Numbers 18:15-18 is found the origin of the Jewish custom of offering the firstborn son to God. Echoing this in modern culture the Father Christmas ritual seeks to express the sacredness of the gift-response relation in ways inimical to capitalist cultures, Milbank says. Father Christmas disallows the pre-modern absolute right of the father over the child that treats it as a form of property.
In the discussion I found many of the ideas that I had been thinking about in relation to Abraham and children taking on a new significance. In particular light was thrown on much of Tolkien's work as it related to what he called 'God and his sole right to divine honour'. This led me to reflect on obedience in the Abraham story and why many in the modern world have such an abhorrence of obedience to any authority other than the self.

The theft and hoarding of what belongs to the divine is a thread running through much of Tolkien. In The Hobbit Smaug the dragon coiled around his treasure hoard represents this monstrous appropriation. Gold in fairy tales is only valuable when freely passed on - as soon as it is hoarded it becomes cursed. In some sense Tolkien's diagnosis of our fallen condition is that we are tempted to do this epistemologically, to make the world we know ours and thus forget about it as it is in itself (Tolkien was aware of Kantian scepticism about the possibility of this and presents a novel answer to it), as a wondrous gift. This is explored in numerous ways in Tolkien's work, perhaps more obviously in his creation story the 'Ainulindale' and other stories in his Silmarillion.  The cure he offers for this tendency of habitual familiarisation and disenchantment is fantasy or fairy tale. Chesterton explains:

"That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream."

For now it will be good to finish with this:
"Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them" - Alison Milbank.

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