I never thanked Santa for that AT-AT play set from The Empire Strikes Back, a towering grey colossus, fully primed to mow down line after line of woebegone rebel fighters; so many moving parts that only an octopus could hope to operate it unassisted; so immense that there was a real danger of being pinned underneath it, gasping for air, if it should ever topple over.
Santa (A.K.A. Mum and Dad)
Yes, of course it was my parents, not Santa, who paid a Han Solo’s ransom to get it for me. They’d managed to outfox me again that year, and you have to get up pretty early in the morning to do that. In coming Christmases, though, I deciphered the clues. The fact that dad always carefully selected the cookies we’d leave out for Santa’s annual visit. The fact that Santa’s cursive handwriting was identical to mom’s in letter formation and slope. The basic physics precluding the same matter from occupying the same space at the same time, and the fact that Santa and Uncle Rusty never shared the room at the family’s Christmas Eve get-together. Checkmate!
Discovering the truth didn’t shatter me, because it didn’t hurt my bottom line. I foresaw no interruption to my supply chain for the latest Kenner, Mattel and Hasbro merchandise.
My youngest son, Tysen, returned from school the other day dismayed that many of his classmates now doubted the existence of Santa Claus. His own conviction remained stalwart. I smiled wryly at all this information. Renee and I know he’ll soon outgrow his belief. She’d like to hang on to the magic just a bit longer, I think, and I suppose so would I. If I’m honest, I sometimes wonder what the loss of Santa will do to his faith in God.
Maybe that’s why people lose their faith – because they see God and Santa in the same way: dwelling in a whimsical far-away land, showing up sporadically to impart a few blessings – or exact some judgement; receiving requests from all over the world and perhaps responding to one or two; making a list, checking it twice, finding out who’s naughty and nice, delivering shiny new AT-ATs to the good kids and lumps of crap to the ones who aren’t up to standard.
This image of a remote, detached God is our cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment in Europe and America. Enlightenment thinkers had had a gut-full of the church of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance digging its pudgy fingers into every aspect of political and domestic life. Thus, they set about dismantling the spiritual and social edifice which had stood for centuries. Step one was to send the officious and dictatorial God of Medieval society into exile. Bad things happening to good people (like the 1755 Lisbon earthquake) convinced them God was doing a half-assed job at best anyway. So they imagined a different kind of deity, hidden away in a cosmic man cave, playing pinball and Space Invaders and allowing the gears of the universe to grind and spin, answering the world’s concerns with, ‘I’ll get to that later…I’m about to hit 50,000 points!’
Is it any wonder that people lose interest in such a disinterested divinity? And I’d have to agree that such a ‘God’ belongs right next to Santa on the Shelf of Discarded Fantasies.
The Actual God
Because that’s not the God that Jesus, or the apostles, or the eyewitnesses, or the people of the earliest church proclaimed and worshipped. They didn’t envision ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ as two distinct locations separated by a vast distance. As N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard (among others) have written extensively about, they saw heaven and earth as layers of the same space. So when Jesus discussed the ‘Father in heaven’, he was talking about someone who is profoundly near to us at all times. Occupying a dimension beyond our physical senses, maybe, but near. The writers of the New Testament spoke with one voice about the God who was ever-present with people through the Spirit.
This God is also a suffering, relational God, not a dispassionate observer of our pain. We see that clearly enough in Jesus himself. This God is right ‘in the shit’ with us, sharing our anguish and heartbreak, understanding that our struggles regularly bring out our best. This God patiently hears the bitter verbal sprays we direct at Him* and attentively walks us through even the worst situations. He* doesn’t just field hail-Mary requests, but actually listens to us – and engages in the conversation, if we’re equally willing to listen in return.
And this God isn’t perpetually angry and ill-tempered either. No, despite what many think, the scriptures describe a loving, generous and merciful God, not a pedantic super-cop who scrutinises your every move and cracks it any time you don’t return the shopping trolley into the proper bay at the supermarket, or when you say that wayward four-letter word you know. They state that the Almighty’s indignation is stored up against the injustice, oppression, exploitation and cruelty perpetuated by worldly systems that destroy human life.
When we abandon the fanciful God of our collective cultural imagination and embrace the actual one, we’ll soon find this God is worth believing in!
* I’ve written previously about the gender of God – and that strictly speaking, God doesn’t have one, since both male and female are created in the image of God. I wish there were a neutral personal pronoun in English!
- Feature Image – ‘A classic American image of Santa Claus’ (Public Domain – Wikipedia)
- ‘AT-AT Playset’ (Pinterest)
- ‘Jonathan G Meath portrays Santa Claus’ (Free Image – Wikipedia)
- Stained glass from the Church of the Ascension in Youngstown, Ohio (Wikimedia Commons)