Monday, December 19, 2022

No, Frank Pavone Was Not Defrocked for Being Pro-Life

I scarcely knew who Frank Pavone was before the news broke that the longtime Catholic priest and pro-life activist has been defrocked. I've heard his name, and I knew he was a Trumper. But what disturbed me more than his laicization were the instant assumptions from his supporters and other traditional and conservative Catholics that he was stripped of the priesthood simply for being pro-life. To a lot of Catholics, judging by the reactions to the news, Pavone's punishment is further proof that Pope Francis is deliberately trying to undermine the very values and teachings that make the Catholic church Catholic.

Here are the facts, the best I can work them out -- and the facts are what we should be looking at, not our feelings or allegiances.   

Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life. His group has been very vocal in its opposition to abortion. For Catholics, opposition to abortion is not unusual, nor is it a controversial position. If you're Catholic, you support the protection of human life from conception until natural death.  

What got Pavone got in trouble, it seems, was the manner in which he carried out his advocacy. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, for example, Pavone placed an aborted baby on an altar and posted a video of it to Facebook, while suggesting that anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton would be voting for those whose politics led to the abortion of that same dead child.

Following that incident, Pavone's bishop, Patrick J. Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo, denounced Pavone's stunt, calling the action "against the dignity of human life" and "a desecration of the altar."

Pavone and Zurek have a contentious history. In 2011, Zurek told Pavone to accept a pastoral assignment within the diocese and give up his extracurricular work. Pavone refused, so Zurek suspended him. Zurek had concerns about financial mismanagement within the Priests for Life organization, but more than that, Zurek wrote at the time, Pavone's "fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status." 

Pavone didn't stop there. In 2020, he became the co-chairman of Donald Trump's pro-life coalition and continued to rankle his superiors who wanted him to curtail his political activism. Canon law prohibits priests from taking an active role in political parties unless they receive permission from their bishop.

He ultimately stepped down from his position in the Trump campaign, but he continued to use social media to advocate for Trump. His Twitter profile shows him standing side-by-side with Trump and wearing the red "Make America Great Again" hat that's so tightly identified with Trumpism.

In particular, he used his platform on Twitter to call Joe Biden a "goddamn loser" and claimed that Democrats "can't say a goddamn thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump." 

"What the hell do you have to say for yourselves, losers?" he taunted.

To top it all off, he said that he would refuse absolution to anyone in confession who admitted to voting for Democrats. Again, Bishop Zurek had to write a statement, this time denouncing Pavone's words and actions as being "not consistent with Catholic Church Teaching." 

I hope it's become quite clear at this point why Pavone was stripped of the priesthood. It's not because the church leadership is out to get him. It's because he's proved time and again to be a loose cannon. As the letter from the papal nuncio announcing Pavone's laicization explained, Pavone has demonstrated "persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop" and engaged in "blasphemous communications on social media." That's the issue, not his pro-life advocacy.

The blasphemy charge relates to his taking the name of God in vain in his Twitter posts. In directly violating of one of the Ten Commandments, Pavone committed a mortal sin -- the kind of sin that dooms your soul to hell, and for which the faithful go to confession in the first place, so that they may be absolved.

Which brings us to Pavone's threat to refuse absolution to anyone who voted for a Democrat. Put simply, he's not supposed to do that. If someone shows up to confession and expresses genuine contrition for his or her sins, then the priest is supposed to absolve that person, issue a penance, and send the person on his or her way, with a fresh start and a caution to sin no more. To refuse that fresh start because Pavone didn't like the way someone voted is an abuse of his office, not to mention plainly uncharitable and wildly self-righteous. That's the way the woke behave, never allowing anyone to repent, forever condemning them for their ideological "sins." And lest we forget, holding absolution hostage was one of the things that triggered the Protestant Reformation.

Nor was Bishop Zurek wrong in admonishing Pavone for placing an aborted baby on an altar. Not only does Catholic canon law forbid the use of altars for anything but worship only, but Pavone unquestionably used the body of a dead human being as a political prop to get out the vote for his preferred presidential candidate. Pavone was guilty of both exploitation and desecration. "We believe that no one who is pro-life can exploit a human body for any reason," Zurek wrote at the time of the incident, "especially the body of a fetus."  

Look, I'm as pro-life as Pavone is, and I don't even necessarily disagree with him in principle on shocking people into an awareness of what it is they support with their views and their actions. As the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer is reported to have said, "Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight." Just think about it: If people witnessed executions, they may not be so eager to support capital punishment. If people saw the carnage on the battlefield, perhaps they'd be less willing to cheer on the empire's bloody war machine (or at least they might wonder why they cheer on Ukraine while ignoring the plight of, say, the people of Yemen). Heck, if people saw animals being slaughtered, there would probably be a lot more vegetarians in the world. Go ahead and show consumers the working conditions in the sweatshops that keep capitalism profitable. And yes, show them that the result of an abortion is actually the taking of a human life, not just the removal of an amorphous clump of cells. 

But there's a time and a place, and a consecrated altar is not an appropriate medium on which to display a dead body to make a political point -- all the more so if you're a priest. If you want to be a political activist first and foremost, then go be a political activist. If you want to couch your activism within the framework of Catholic theology and social teaching, that's fine too, because at least you have your priorities straight, inasmuch as everything you do as a priest is supposed to be directed toward saving souls. You can't serve two masters -- in this case, the sacred and the mundane, or God and Caesar, if you like. One has to take precedence, and if you're a priest, you'd better be sure which one comes out on top. 

There's also a certain way to comport yourself when you're a priest. First, you have to be obedient to your bishop. That's not negotiable. And given that Pavone has burned bridges with more than one member of the church hierarchy, it's safe to say that obedience to his superiors is not his strong suit. Even staunchly pro-life Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York cut ties with Pavone when the priest refused to accept ecclesiastical financial oversight of Priests for Life. I'm not big on obedience for its own sake, but if I were a Catholic priest, I would understand that what my boss says, goes. It comes with the job description. If you have a problem with that, then, again, you should probably find another line of work. 

In tandem with obedience comes humility, which is a trait that Trump and Pavone both appear to lack. 
We've already addressed Pavone's combative (and blasphemous) language in his tweets. Michael Voris behaves similarly, and although it was never explicitly stated at the time, the Archdiocese of Detroit was no doubt reacting to Voris' acerbic and decidedly uncharitable demeanor when it asked him to stop using the word "Catholic" in the name of his media outlet. Now known as Church Militant, it was at the time called RealCatholicTV. 

But even now that he's been defrocked, which should have prompted at least a fleeting moment of reflection, Pavone remains defiant. For one thing, he still refers to himself as "Father," as if his priestly faculties haven't been stripped away. In an open letter to his supporters, he asks the pope to reconsider his laicization while accusing people in the church hierarchy of lying about him and abusing their authority over him. And in a video following the Vatican's decision on his priesthood, he continued to use belligerent language, referring to his critics as "the dumbest in the world." Sound like a certain politician you know? And more importantly, does it sound like something you'd expect a priestly servant of God to say? 

Pavone is trying to play the martyr, claiming that church authorities are singling him out for his abortion advocacy. In doing so, he ignores the plainly obvious fact that the church is pro-life on abortion, and that many other Catholic clergy advocate for an end to abortion. They just manage to do it without being offensive and insubordinate. 

The man clearly has learned nothing from his predicament. Like the politician he idolizes, he seems utterly incapable of self-reflection or contrition. 

Many of Pavone's defenders claim the church is exercising a double standard in its punishment. They've been quick to point out, for example, that Fr. James Martin has suffered no ecclesiastical punishment for his LGBT advocacy. But Fr. Martin has not, to my knowledge, ever disobeyed his bishop, nor does anything he promotes oppose Catholic teaching on homosexuality. The only thing he's really calling for, as far as I can see, is a little bit more compassion and openness toward people who, if the scientific research holds up, have no control over whom they're attracted to. We all know of the fundamentalist Christian tendency to focus on homosexuality to the exclusion of almost all other social and moral issues. Fr. Martin just seems to want to create an environment where gays and lesbians don't feel singled out. 

We could also have a discussion about folks like Thomas Merton, the Berrigan Brothers, Dorothy Day, and Sr. Helen Prejean, and their advocacy and activism against war, capital punishment, and exploitation of the poor. All of these Catholics have brought forth different aspects of what it means to be pro-life. Pavone's pro-life focus just happens to be abortion. In a sense, they're all fighting the same fight, upholding the Catholic belief in the dignity of life. I don't doubt that Pavone is just as genuinely passionate about his pro-life cause as they are, and were, about theirs. I do, however, wish that the militantly anti-abortion folks would show just as much passion about other humanitarian issues. Here where I live, our deacon invited us to pick up a Christmas card from the church narthex and send it to the folks in the county jail, as a reminder that one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy in the Catholic church is to visit the imprisoned. Jesus implores us to do as much in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. So why do we not show as much of a dedication to all of "the least of these" as we do to the unborn? Where is the equivalent concern for, say, the poor and the refugee? Maybe that's yet another thing for Pavone to reflect upon.

Heck, we could go on all day about the German church that's in near-schism at this point, or the way the church shuffled around abusive priests for years instead of punishing them, or its comparatively soft treatment (so far) of Fr. Marko Rupnik, accused of the systematic sexual exploitation of several nuns. But the point remains that even if the church is inconsistent and falls short in other cases, in Pavone's cases it did exactly what it ought to have done.

All I'm calling for is some intellectual honesty when dealing with situations like this. Whether anyone likes Pavone and his views is secondary to whether he did something to warrant punishment from the Vatican. If you would condemn acts of disobedience and sacrilege from the "other side" of the political fence, then you have to condemn those things when "your side" does them. If you have no problem with Pavone's MAGA hat, would you feel the same if you saw a priest campaign for a Democrat or wave a rainbow flag? If not, why not? Jesus didn't have nice things to say about hypocrites. 

I'm not a tremendous fan of the current papacy, and I've made that known in the past on this very blog. I especially don't like the way Pope Francis has taken a hard line against traditionalists, in particular Catholics who attend the Latin Mass. But it's people like Pavone who make the Vatican want to clamp down on traditionalists in the first place. Peter Kreeft once astutely pointed out that while leftists have soft heads to go along with their soft hearts, conservatives tend to have both hard heads and hearts. And that's why traditionalists can sometimes look a whole lot like the same Pharisees that Jesus so roundly condemned, stuck as they were in their rigidness, their lack of charity, their resistance to change, and their attachment to the letter of the law without regard for the spirit of the law. That goes a long way toward explaining why Pavone is the way he is. It's not really something to be proud of. 

As Kreeft observes, Christians are called to combine soft hearts with hard heads, to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pavone falls short of that call, as do many. The way of Christ doesn't look like the modern Democratic Party or like Trumpism, and we miss the mark when we try to cram Christ into either one. Our job is to conform ourselves to him, not him to our contemporary political views. Pavone is not unusual in failing to figure that out. 

I have my eye on pursuing holy orders in 2023. I would be ordained as a priest with apostolic succession, albeit through a line that the Catholic church doesn't recognize. In the meantime, I enjoy attending Catholic Mass, and I don't intend to go out of my way to announce my priesthood to the churches I visit. But I have no doubt that if word of my ordination reached the bishop of our diocese, I'd run a good risk of being excommunicated. And I would accept that sentence if it were handed down, as I would be knowingly running afoul of church law. The problem with Frank Pavone is he wants it both ways. He wants to be able to disobey his superiors while carrying on being a priest. Sorry, Frank, but you're just not that special. If you don't like the rules, don't be surprised when your rogue behavior leaves you standing out in the cold. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Dystopia Is Here. The Time to Speak Up Is Now.

I had to check out of politics at the height of COVID hysteria. It was destroying my mental health to watch the mass irrational behavior and slavish groupthink. Challenge the narrative on masks, mortality rates, vaccines, alternative meds, or the redefinition of herd immunity, and you’d get “fact-checked” into silence and mobbed by panicked people asking why you want to kill their grandma. Society devolved into a mass psychosis that we haven’t really recovered from, and the reasons it happened are, I believe, threefold. First, people are tribal and don’t want to go against the grain. Second, people obey authority figures to often dangerous and destructive ends, as Milgram famously proved. And, as much as I hate to say it, most folks just aren’t very good at independent critical thought.

I’ve been thinking about this as I watch the news about the Twitter Files unfolding. I hate to be an I-told-you-so kind of person, but everything I’ve always said about social media and Big Tech was 100% correct. They were shadow-banning and silencing people based on political opinions they disliked and justified it by calling the targeted content “hate” or a TOS violation when they knew it was neither. They were using “fact-checks” not to actually correct misinformation but to silence information that ran counter to the institutional narrative, so that they could promote their own propagandistic misinformation and pass it off as the truth. We even know now that Twitter was in bed with the alphabet agencies and actively worked with them to suppress not just certain viewpoints but actual news stories – like the Hunter Biden laptop. Twitter suspended the New York Post for breaking the story, while the feds all piled on to tell us the story was “Russian disinfo,” when they knew full well it was nothing of the sort. They just knew the story had the potential to harm Joe Biden’s election chances. If we could stop saying that “private companies can do whatever they want,” especially now that we know how deeply enmeshed Big Tech is with promoting government narratives, that would be awesome.

As the Twitter Files continue to roll out, we’re now seeing that Twitter prioritized the censorship of conservative and populist viewpoints even above taking down posts involving child trafficking. We aren’t just dealing with woke ideologues here; these are genuinely evil people. Can you imagine the rot that would be uncovered if someone like Elon Musk took over Facebook and revealed what goes on behind the scenes? There’s a reason that those in power want you to think of Musk as a hateful Nazi: It deflects the public’s attention from what he’s busy exposing.

The problem – and it’s a massive problem – is that this isn’t just a Big Tech phenomenon. People of the same ideological persuasion have captured every major institution of power, leaving their agenda unchecked. Everything from science to higher education has been taken over by authoritarians who place ideology above truth and will marginalize or silence you if you challenge them.

But what can you do about it? Vote Republican? We see how that worked out. Republicans are a train wreck. They sit back and complain and think that will be enough, while the woke left steamrolls right over them, deepening their own institutional capture. You’d think that after the Republicans got their asses handed to them in the midterms, when control of Congress was ripe for the taking in the face of rampant inflation and woke intolerance, they’d realize that playing defense doesn’t work anymore. You’ve got to play offense once in a while. You’ve got to push back.

I say things like this and get called a right-winger, when all I really long for is decency and tolerance. Not the fake tolerance of those who suppress viewpoints they dislike, but an actual pluralistic society based on the ideals of classical liberalism, where we observe equal protection under the law and the majority protects the rights of the minority, rather than subordinating the majority to the minority and trying to pass off upside-down discrimination as progress.

Republicans pay lip service to the same, but they’re of one mind with establishment Democrats when it comes to protecting the privileges of moneyed interests over the common man. No one stands up for the poor and working class. The Democrats gang up on their populists (Bernie) or make their party ideology so intolerable that the populists leave (Tulsi). The Republicans have, well, Trump, and the less said about him, the better. I think DeSantis would make a great president inasmuch as he knows how to play offense against the woke, but I don’t know how well he’d stand up for everyday working Americans, and I highly doubt he’d do anything to even try to downsize our tools of empire and its sickening $850 billion military budget.

All I know is that somebody has to stand up and say this isn’t right. All of it. The woke are successful at shutting down their opposition not only because they hold so much institutional power, but also by playing on people’s sympathies, causing opponents to self-censor and back down. They make it seem like they’re defending the underdog, which makes their agenda all the more insidious. You might be told that you just hate gay people, for example, in order to obfuscate the truth of what’s really going on and to shut down genuine criticism. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t care less what consenting adults do in the privacy of their homes, and I really doubt that most reasonable people do. It’s the woke who have politicized immutable characteristics and played on people’s emotions to shut down dissent. After all, there’s a world of difference between a genuine bigot who says “I hate gays” and a reasonable person who might say, “You know, maybe it’s not such a great idea to have sexualized drag queens reading to kids in public libraries, or to encourage children to go on puberty blockers and maim their bodies, or to allow men to infiltrate women’s sports and personal spaces.”  

Kirk Cameron has a new kids’ book out that talks about the fruits of the spirit, and according to his publisher, at least 50 libraries have declined requests to let him speak on his book tour, usually citing their commitment to “diversity” and “equity.” And yet they throw their doors open wide for drag-queen story hours. We’ve gotten to this point because the woke left has conditioned enough of the public to think that the slightest modicum of criticism of their agenda is tantamount to bigotry. They go on about diversity and tolerance, when in truth they’re the most intolerant of all when it comes to allowing alternative points of view to be heard.

People might think these are petty criticisms, but what’s essentially happening all around us is death by a thousand cuts. We’re the frog sitting in a pot of slowly heating water until one day we end up boiling to death.

And again, this is not just about woke intolerance. It’s also about how the corporatocracy is crushing the poor and working class. The woke are in allegiance with them, so in a sense it’s one and the same monster we’re fighting. Conservatives and libertarians still seem to be stuck on the idea that it’s only government overreach we have to resist. But corporations hold enormous power and wealth, and the Twitter revelations should remind us of how deep in collusion the government and corporate powers in our world really are. 

You know who else married government power to corporate power and favored certain groups of society over others? They controlled Germany 75-odd years ago, and they weren’t very nice people.

Just because I’m a college grad who doesn’t do manual labor doesn’t mean I can’t stand in economic solidarity with the poor and working class. I grew up as one of them and continue to live in their midst and admire their hard work and resolve. And at the same time, just because I have a degree and some moderate smarts doesn’t mean I’ve become a pointy-headed elite who’s handed my brain over to the irrational authoritarianism of the woke left. But I feel like someone stranded between the increasingly rigid viewpoints of two political parties, neither of whom seems either willing or capable of doing the right thing for the people, and few of whom seem to see the world the way I do. The American Solidarity Party comes closest to mirroring my views. In Europe I’d fall in with the Christian democrats (small “d”). But here, I feel adrift. I always have, but the feeling has grown much more acute in the past few years. Worst of all, I despair over the future my daughter will have to live in.

The only thing that will change our course is for people to speak their truth. They have to stop self-censoring and being pushed around and bullied. They have to say no. The events that have unfolded since 2020 don’t give me much hope that they will. But if the tide doesn’t turn, and soon, I fear there’s going to be a point of no return.

There’s no time to waste. Dystopia isn’t on the way. It’s already here.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Advent 2022: The Secret Ingredient of the Christmas Story

It’s inevitable this time of year to hear critics proclaiming that “Christmas is a pagan holiday.” The obvious clue that this is not so is in the name of the holiday itself, literally “Christ’s Mass.” Early Christians did appropriate pagan customs, symbols, dates, and traditions, but not because the Christians themselves were, or wanted to be, pagans. Their aim was to persuade the pagans to become Christians, by trying to convince them that they didn’t have to give up all that much to follow a different god. The Christians in Ireland went so far as to take the beloved Celtic goddess Brigid and turn her into St. Brigid of Kildare, a miracle-working abbess who by an amazing coincidence possessed many of the same characteristics as the earlier deity.

At the other end of the spectrum are evangelical-leaning folks who are aware of the pagan overtones of many Christian traditions and forgo them, such that, say, “Easter” becomes “Resurrection Sunday,” to avoid any connection with the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Eostre, who may or may not have given Easter its name, and who may or may not have ever even existed as an object of worship. All we have on the matter is the eighth-century word of the Venerable Bede, whose idea was picked up by Jacob Grimm, he of the Brothers Grimm, and turned into legend. If only the Western church had chosen to use the word “Pascha” for Easter, as the Eastern Orthodox do, there would surely be much less controversy and consternation. If you suspect that the word “Pascha” has a connection to the Jewish Passover, you’d be correct.

The evangelical folks will also tell you that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and will implore us to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To this view I’m sympathetic. Christianity and Western civilization are, after all, inextricably joined, and there’s no point in denying it. I cringe every year to hear the incessant “holiday holiday holiday” from corporations whose bank accounts swell in November and December thanks to gifts being purchased by the 90% or so of the population that celebrates Christmas, not some amorphous, vague, and nameless winter “holiday.” Healthy pluralistic societies honor and protect the majority traditions that act as a cultural glue while respecting minority traditions and observances. What they don’t do is subordinate or otherwise suppress the majority traditions in an attempt to be “inclusive.” That’s a surefire recipe for cultural disintegration. More than that, it’s always bemused me that we never avoid saying “Easter” when it usually falls close to Passover, a major Jewish holiday by any reckoning, but we presumably avoid saying “Christmas” because of its proximity to other end-of-year celebrations, like Hanukkah, which is a comparatively minor Jewish celebration and has only been turned into a kind of Jewish Christmas by those who, for whatever reason, wish to promote a false equivalence.

Of course, keeping Christ in Christmas entails more than just saying “Merry Christmas” to the cashier at Macy’s. Jesus reached out to the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts. He loved his enemies and turned the other cheek. He prayed for his persecutors. And he called out the religious hypocrites who proclaimed their own holiness and lorded their supposed righteousness over the people, while in reality they were, in Christ’s own words, nothing but whitewashed tombs. Are we willing to walk the same path as Christ? Are we willing to be the Good Samaritan, the forgiving father of the Prodigal Son, the one who helps the “least of these”? Because that’s how you keep Christ in Christmas.

I try my best to do that, because even though I’m something like an eclectic Taoist Catholic who’s never gone strictly by the book and probably never will, it’s the Sermon-on-the-Mount goodness of Christ’s message that keeps me at least nominally in the fold. I was raised Catholic and find comfort and peace in the church’s rituals and traditions, the rhythms of the liturgical season, the undying message of love and hope, and the church’s unwavering pursuit of those timeless Platonic ideals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Am I a “believer” in the story of Jesus in the most literal sense? Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “believe.” I strive to live my life as if it were all true – not in a Pascal’s-Wager, hedging-my-bets-to-stay-out-of-hell kind of way, and not in a way of subjugating my critical mind to fictional absurdities, but because I see the benefit, both to myself and the world I live in, of adopting the philosophy that underpins the belief, whether the story is literally true or not.

“To make something special, you just have to believe it’s special.” So goes a line from the film Kung Fu Panda. I find it hard to disagree. Literal truth, philosophical truth, and spiritual truth are not all necessarily synonymous. It’s how you apply the truths you hold dear that ultimately make the difference.    

To that end, I have no doubt that a dogmatic by-the-book Christian would be uncomfortable with the spiritual decor in our house, at Christmas and otherwise. My nativity scenes and Advent wreath coexist peacefully with our pagan statuary and our Wheel of the Year plaque, which will soon turn from Samhain to Yule. We'll probably enjoy a little bûche de Noël, or even burn an actual Yule log in the fire pit, as we observe the solstice and cheer on the Oak King's annual defeat of the Holly King as the days start to get longer and we slowly emerge from darkness into light.

I suppose a bit of explanation is in order. My wife has an affinity for Taoist and pagan spirituality, and I myself walked the pagan path for a while before (sort of) coming full circle on my long spiritual journey. And I still admire the way those ancient primitive traditions bring us into closer harmony with the natural world and the rhythms of the changing seasons. But perhaps even more than that, I’m drawn to the way they elevate the nurturing gentleness and compassion, the yin, of the Sacred Feminine, which is lacking in the all-male Trinity and is something we dearly need more of in our violent and angry world, burning with the heat of yang male aggression.

Don’t tell the priest at the Latin Mass I attend, but I see Mary, Sophia, and the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Comforter, all as aspects of the feminine “half” of the Divine. Even beyond that, I regard them as accessible symbols of the Great Mother, the Tao, the infinite fruitful womb from which the ten thousand things arise, the natural order of the universe itself, that which guides and cares for all who follow her gentle ways, who find her in the natural world, and who honor and love her by living in harmony with her.

I’m not one of those all-religions-are-the-same people. That’s not my point, and it’s simply not true to say that Buddhism is Shinto is Islam is Christianity. My point is more that once you know the rules, you can break them, inasmuch as you can identify common threads and synthesize them into a worldview that magnifies the best of all the traditions you happen to observe and honor. I’ve been a student of religion for most of my adult life, and my explorations and wanderings have left me with a concept of God that has more to do with a sort of impersonal creative force, a universal mind or consciousness, the natural order, thought itself, or even a kind of elemental love. It’s something like the Hindu concept of Brahman, or, indeed, the Chinese concept of the Tao, rather than a perpetually enraged deity who casts into eternal torment anyone who slips up and breaks the rules. If God is really love, as the apostle John says, then God can’t be that God. It doesn’t compute.

And I think that’s one of the things Jesus came to tell us – that the Father desires mercy over sacrifice, that he wants reconciliation and forgiveness, that he wants us to focus less on exacting adherence to lists of rules, like the Pharisees did, and more on extending our hand to those in need, like the Good Samaritan did.

That’s what the Eastern Orthodox call theosis. You become more like God by becoming more like the man who, according to Christian theology, literally was God – in other words, what God would look like if God were Man. “God became Man so that Man could become like God,” said St. Athanasius. That notion probably sounds blasphemous to contemporary Western Christian ears, especially those outside the ancient Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where the theological notion of total depravity holds stronger sway. But I think Jordan Peterson made an excellent observation when, in commenting on Orthodox theology, he saw the point of being a Christian as “picking up your cross and stumbling up the damn hill,” in imitation of Christ.

That’s the same point Athanasius was making. If Christ was both fully human and fully divine, then by grafting ourselves on to Christ, by imitating his ways and following in his footsteps, by picking up our cross and following him, we can learn to infuse our flawed and broken humanity with the goodness of divinity. No, we’re probably not going to reach Christ-like heights of goodness in this life. Saints are saints, after all, because their exceptional lives are, well, the exception and not the rule. But at least we’re not consigned to being no more than Luther’s snow-covered dunghills, our inherent filth only ever covered and concealed by the purity of Christ. That’s a view that, whether it intends to or not, proclaims that Christ, the Son of God, lacks the ability to seep into our being and transform us on the inside. That, to me, seems far more blasphemous than anything Athanasius wrote down in the formative years of Christianity. God, after all, declared his creation good, and woe to those who call good evil, and evil good. It's all right there in the scriptures for anyone to see.

To me, the beauty of the Christmas story is that it gives us a light to illuminate the way toward theosis. It holds the potential to lift us up, to change our lives, to make this world a better place for the ones we will eventually leave behind. In imitation of Mary, we have to be the ones who demonstrate the faith to trust in the divine plan and to birth Christ anew into a world in dire need of his love, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and selfless sacrifice.

Too often, we reduce Christianity to a kind of quid pro quo: accepting Jesus as your savior so you can go to heaven when you die. That’s an awfully low bar, and it ultimately does little to transform the world around us, or ourselves. This, I think, is why Jesus said to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you.” It’s not something that can be observed, “nor will people say ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is,’” Jesus told them. It’s already here. Right here, right now. You just have to find it within yourself, and Christ came to Earth to show us how to do that, to unlock the secret, to show us the Way, his Way, that lay latent within us. In the words of Po, again from Kung Fu Panda: “There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”

Along the same lines, I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that the Chinese word “Tao” translates as “the Way.” The first Christians called themselves followers of the Way. So what, really, is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”? It’s the imitation of Christ, which is reflected in the natural order of the universe, and in the pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Therein lies what Christ called the Father. Therein lies love.

So my hope, even though it may be a fool’s hope, is that we might someday transcend our petty little turf wars, stop erecting walls, and embrace the inherent goodness of the stories that have for centuries united our culture. So what if Christianity appropriated pagan symbols and customs? So what if your neighbor’s idea of the Christmas story is a little bit different from yours? Christmas isn’t about dogma on one hand, or about throwing out the baby Jesus with the bathwater on the other. It’s not even about being pagan versus Christian. It’s about embracing the spirit of the law over the letter of the law, and following the Sermon-on-the-Mount example that was given to us as our moral, ethical, and indeed spiritual heritage. There may arguably be a time for “either-or” decisions in our lives. But Christmas transcends all that. It’s a holiday with a “both-and” spirit, a time that unites us in humility and hope, with a Way laid out before us, illuminated by the light of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

That’s not something to cast aside lightly. In fact, it’s the best Christmas gift we could ever hope for.