Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa and Postmodernism

Every Christmas, each of us is a little bit older. Some of us show our age more than others. Not so with Santa Clause. He remains the same year after year. However, beneath the white beard and sparkling eyes, some changes can be apparent to the discerning eye. The Santa of Postmodernism is not quite the same as the Santa of Modernism.

The Modernist makes no pretences about Santa’s ontology. Santa may be a useful lie for deceiving children into being good, just as Kant and the early Voltaire saw belief in God as a useful idea for motivating the masses in morality. But there was never any question, in the mind of the Modernist, about Santa being real. The Modernist is a rationalist and believes only those things which can be demonstratively proven.

In the original 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, the lawyer Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) proves in a court of law that an elderly man is actually Santa Clause, and he proves it through a legal appeal to authority of the postal service, who had implicitly recognized Kris as Santa by delivering to him mail addressed to Santa. This fictional rendition of Santa’s reality gave a nod to the evidence-based epistemology of Modernism.

Enter Postmodernism and it is no longer a question of whether Santa actually exists. Under Postmodern epistemology, truth is relative to the framework of the perceiver. Since the aim is “no longer truth but performativity” (Steven Connor, Postmodern Culture) Santa can actually be “real” for those who believe in him. This came across in an article I read last week in one of the British papers about a school where a supply teacher had let slip that the old man didn’t really exist. After a number of parents complained, the school fired the teacher and brought in a man to address the class and put them right about Mr. Clause. He assured the distressed students that the other teacher had simply made a mistake: Santa is real, he said.

A Modernist might make such an audacious claim as a manipulative tool (and Santa belief has traditionally functioned as a manipulative tool, as in the song “Santa Clause is coming to town”), but he would know it was a lie. But the Postmodernist can tell his child that Santa is real and really mean it, because he can be real for you. This is because it is a centerpiece of Postmodern epistemology (grossly oversimplified) that there is no notion of truth external to the conceptual frameworks we choose to adopt. This comes across in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, staring Richard Attenborough. In this newer version of the same story, the lawyer doesn’t prove that Kris is Santa by appealing to evidence. Instead he appeals to the legitimacy of having “faith” in God and then uses an a fortiori argument to show that it isn’t any less reasonable to have “faith” in Santa.

The placidity of the Postmodernism epistemic paradigm has meant there is new freedom for having faith in God, although “faith” in this sense differs greatly from the objective Biblical concept. Whereas Modernist critics of the Christian faith would typically respond by asking for evidence and proof, those who have been thoroughly Postmodernized are quite happy to accommodate faith in God as long as that faith is understood in the subjective sense typlified in the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street. That is why critics of religion who are still working under a Modernist paradigm, such as the new atheists, have been generally greeted with ire from both the religious and the secular communities. Why get so worked up about attacking faith if it gives meaning and purpose to people's life, many have asked in response to Dawkin’s atheistic crusades, including his crusade to abolish Christmas? Similarly, why bother telling children that Santa doesn’t exist if it gives magic to their lives? (See some of the comments following THIS article).

I am reminded of the play Nathan the Wise written by Lessing (pictured right) and published in 1779. (For background to the play, see my article "Mother State or Mother Church" in Christianity & Society, Volume XVIII, No. 1, Summer, 2008) Because Nathan the Wise takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, Lessing is able to have interplay between all three of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The portion of the play that is most famous, as well as most significant, is a parable that the wise Nathan tells to the Sultan. The Islamic Sultan had asked the Jewish Nathan to tell him which religion was the true one. Suspicious of the Sultan’s motives, Nathan answers with the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, there was once a rich man who possessed a magic ring. This ring had secret power which caused the owner of the ring to gain favor in the sight of God and humankind. Now the owner of this ring took precautions to leave the ring in his family, ensuring that it was faithfully passed on from generation to generation, from son to son. Finally, the ring reached a man who had three sons, each of which he loved alike. As the father drew near his death, he was in a quandary as to which son to leave the ring to since he had promised the ring, in turn, to each.

As a solution, the father secretly contacted a craftsman who made two identical replicas of the ring. Not being able to distinguished the original, the father left each son with one of the three rings. Of course, when the father died, disputes immediately began to arise between the sons, each of whom believed he possessed the genuine ring.

At this point, Nathan pauses the story to say that just as it was impossible to distinguish which was the correct ring, so we cannot trust ourselves to distinguish the grounds on which the different religions rest.

The story continues with each of the three sons believing their ring to be the true one since each had received it directly from the hand of the father. In the end the brothers take their problem before a judge. The judge enjoins the brothers that what is more important than knowing the truth about their rings, is the motivation and inspiration each will achieve through believing that their ring is the genuine one. The judge enjoins each brother to pass his ring on to his descendents as the real ring.

Thus ends the parable that Nathan used to answer the Sultan’s question, namely, which religion is the correct one. The important thing is not what is true but what you believe.

There are many things we could say in response to this tale. We might point out that in actual fact the religions of Islam and Judaism are quite distinguishable from Christianity. Or we might say that since one of the rings actually was the correct ring, it follows that two of the brothers would have spent their life believing a false proposition. However, such observations miss the whole point Lessing was trying to convey. His point – from my understanding of the story at least – seems to be that there is something far more important than questions of truth and falsehood in the narrow, letter-of-the-law sense. Stop trying to defend what you believe is true, he is saying to us, and instead concentrate on letting your belief motivate and inspire you. There is no need for factual coherence to be antecedent to religious belief as it must be with scientific truth; rather, the nature of religious belief is such that it can exist on its own, without needing to appeal to historic grounds. In fact, Lessing saw the very attempt of Christians to defend the historical veracity of their faith as intolerant since it failed to recognize that all the major religions, if rightly understood, were equally valuable routes to God.

Lessing’s parable illustrates the Enlightenment commitment to relegating religious belief to the realm of the subjective, private and unverifiable.

This subjective epistemology invited people to view religion and worship of God as a personal matter - a solitary experience between the individual and God that had little relevance to the objective world. To seek objective verification about a matter of faith was now almost to commit a category mistake, since the ‘truth’ of religion had now become a personal truth discontinuous from the fixity of the external world of science, history and public life.

Postmodernism has taken Lessing’s subjective epistemology and applied it to more areas than merely religious belief. Under postmodernism, all fields become matters of “faith” to the extent that our perceptions of reality are conditioned by our expectations and subjective ideological paradigms.

As soon as Santa-belief becomes a matter of faith in this sense, we are commiting a category mistake to speak of that belief as being true or false in the narrow objectivist sense. As in Lessing’s parable, we create our own truth by the belief structures we choose to adopt. Thus, the teacher referred to earlier can tell children that Santa is real just like the men in Lessing’s parable can tell their desendents that their family ring is the genuine article.
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