Moving Beyond a Sentimental Christmas

We are striving to lessen a sentimental Christmas. 

Parade of christmas shoppers. Photo originally posted HERE by Elliot Stokes.

In her critique of sentimentalism based on the media of the nineteenth century, sociologist Anne Douglas points out that science becomes a victim in sentimentalism because “the death of the critical instinct” plays a dominant role.  Sentimentalism reigns because advertising becomes “the only faith of a secularized consumer society” and advertising was deliberately directed primarily to women in its genesis in the nineteenth century.  In this way, she says, “the feminine occupation of shopping would constitute the dream-life of the nation.” 

The Scriptures are presented in a sentimental way.  For example the biblical creation story is preferred over Darwin’s story because the Garden of Eden story, we are told, is so “pretty and poetical, and is in the dear old Book that is so sweet and comfortable to us.” 

Georgian Fashion of 1836: Plate No 3 – Morning and Evening Dresses from the The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons 1836 Ladies Magazine. Photo originally posted to Flickr by CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange’s photostream HERE.

In the Ladies Magazine of 1830 we read about what constitutes a proper female: “See, she sits, she walks, she speaks, she looks—unutterable things!  Inspiration springs up in her very paths—it follows her foot-steps.  A halo of glory encircles her, and illumines her whole orbit.   With her, man not only feels safe but is actually renovated.”  It all sounds strikingly similar to an advertisement for a doll, observes Douglas.

Nativity scene caged and separated to give symbolic messaging on the current situation with separation of families at the US/MXO Border. Scene outside of Claremont United Methodist Church. Image credit: Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, via Washington Post

In contrast to sentimentalism about Christmas, consider some of Thomas Aquinas’ teachings that pertain to the deeper meaning of Christmas.  “Through the Incarnation we are led to enjoy goodness perfectly” he writes.  A call to explore the goodness of creation and the Via Positiva indeed. “To assume flesh was a sign of incomprehensible compassion on God’s part.  …Christ assumed flesh and came into the world to enlighten all people with grace and truth.”  Enlighten all people—about what?  “Christ teaches the dignity of human nature…and the full participating in Divinity, which is truly humanity’s happiness and the goal of human life.” About the dignity of human nature.  About a surer path to happiness.  Now there lies a revolution, doesn’t it?  Insight about our dignity as a species. 

Mirror art representing incarnation, originally posted to Flickr by Tif Pic HERE.

What does “the full participating in Divinity” mean?  Aquinas proposes the following: “Grace renders us like God and a partaker of the divine nature.” There is a divine dimension to being human.  “Divine virtue gives deification itself, that is, participating in the Godhead, which is through grace.” 

But lest we are tempted to commit ego inflation, he cautions us to remember that “We resemble God, but God does not resemble us.”  Divinity is beyond anything we can imagine.  Our imitation of the Divine however finds its grounding in works of justice and compassion.  Indeed, the pursuit of truth and justice, as we saw in yesterday’s DM, would usher in a desentimentalized Christmas.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, “On Desentimentalizing Spirituality,” in Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets, pp. 297-315.

See also Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 156-158, 163f.

Banner Image: Photo of christmas storefronts originally posted on Flickr by Herry Lawford HERE.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you find substance—as distinct from sentimentalism and nostalgia—in Aquinas’ teaching of our participation in the divine nature as being the purpose of Christmas?  And in our work toward truth-finding and justice-making?  What follows from that in the way we are living our lives?

Recommended Reading

In one of his foundational works, Fox engages in substantive discussions with some of history’s greatest mystics, philosophers, and prophets on today’s social and spiritual issues on such challenging topics as Eco-Spirituality, AIDS, homosexuality, spiritual feminism, environmental revolution, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism, Art and Spirituality, Art as Meditation, Interspirituality, and more.

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way.  The result is exciting!

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