"Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!"
So ends George Meredith's poem "Modern Love" (1892), when a doomed couple's need for certainty leads them to disaster. I remembered Meredith's lines while doing one of my favorite holiday chores: setting up the crêche on the mantel above our fireplace.
Although the Christmas story, with the holy family in the manger, the star leading the magi to Bethlehem and the shepherds and their flocks keeping watch, is a certainty at holiday times, the actual details are extremely varied. The more one reads, the more uncertainty one discovers, in names, dates and places. And why not? It all happened a long long time ago.
The details are delectable — gold, frankincense and myrhh, etc. — but as we know, the devil himself is in the details. Our religions fight about them: baptism or not, blood or wine, bread or flesh, bo-tree or olive grove, pope or pastor, saint or savior — these "small" matters lead us into the larger ones: God, Allah or Brahma; fact, fancy or metaphor; and the place of women in all these stories. On the mantel, I move Mary in front of the kings. That's a metaphor.
In the past few years, we've had a kind of Surge toward Certainty, the same wave that raised fundamentalist Mullahs and evangelical Protestants, along with an orthodox Catholic pope (Pope Benedict as cardinal had been called "the Grand Inquisitor") and the born-again George Bush. The constant clashing of these certainties led Americans to surprise the world by electing the calm, moderate, pragmatic Barack Obama, even though he's black.
In a certain way, one can see conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, hard-line Jewish extremists and fundamental Islamists banding together to combat the true enemy: modern secularists. The former know the Answers (even though they're different), while the latter tend to say, "I understand where you're coming from, but on the other hand ..." Obama, though sometimes pushed into mouthing religious platitudes, seems secular in outlook, anti-dogmatic and ecumenical in action. He's inclusive by nature. His tone and religious stance are the opposite of both his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, and former rival, Sarah Palin.
Religious conservatives rise because at least their messages are clear: Do it this way, my brethren (seldom "my sistren"), and you will be both saved and rewarded: harps, heavens and virgins await the True Believers. (Does this apply to female suicide bombers? I haven't heard anything about that.) In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, he imagines Russia's future citizens crying, "Make us your slaves, but feed us."
As we learned in the past century, absolute faith is like atomic energy — it can be used for good or ill. But one thing our founding fathers recognized for certain is this: Absolute faith is dangerous and should be separate from the State. Science can also be dangerous, but we need it to stay ahead in the modern world; and right now it's doing more good than harm: Blesséd be the pacemakers.
Well, it's a many-layered subject, but I'm with yet another 19th-century writer, the poet John Keats, who wrote, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey (1817), "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination." And now we've elected a black president, and we are, like Michelle Obama, more proud of our great country than we've been in a long time. Merry Christmas, Creative Loafing readers. Merry Christmas, America.
—Peter and Jeanne Meinke will celebrate the holidays with as much purity and good will as they can muster. The angel was drawn by their daughter Gretchen when she was 6 years old.