I lost the argument with my wife. Should we encourage our children’s faith in Santa Claus? I was concerned that doing so might later undermine both our credibility as parents and our children’s belief in God.
It may not be a conversation that most couples have. Then again, must couples don’t include a former Jehovah’s Witness who was raised without holidays. As a child, I absorbed the cold hard truth dispensed from my parents. There was no Santa Claus. Other children’s parents cruelly lied to them. The privilege of knowing the truth served as consolation for receiving no presents.
Though I’ve long since rejected Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, my parents’ reasoning regarding the Santa fantasy lingered. Is there value in believing in something which is not true?
That question deserves careful consideration, and serves as a check against adult beliefs. In our postmodern, politically correct society, we commonly hear ecumenical equivocations like, “There are many paths to God.” While sharing my Christian faith, friends have more than once told me, “That’s your truth.” That rebuke stops short of saying my faith is false, claiming only that it is no more or less true than any other. But if that proves somehow valid, if one person’s faith in a flying spaghetti monster is no more or less true than my faith in Jesus Christ, what value is there in holding to either?
“Exactly!” an atheist might say. “Faith in Jesus is no better than faith in either Santa Claus or the flights of a pasta god.”
In Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, the ardent atheist and intellectual heir to objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand defines faith as the opposite of reason:
“Faith” designates blind acceptance of a certain ideational content, acceptance induced by feeling in the absence of evidence or proof.
Were this our working definition, I could agree that faith in anything is useless. However, this narrow view of faith does not encompass how the word is used in our culture. When a husband expresses faith in his wife, is he necessarily doing so in the absence of evidence? Or is his faith a bet made on the basis of past experience and intimate knowledge of her characteristics? Either scenario is possible, and surely men and women have been known to invest faith blindly. However, as a friend to a married person, we would not encourage blind faith in the same manner we would that informed by evidence.
Therein lies the essential difference between a child’s faith in Santa Claus and the mature belief of billions of adult Christians throughout history. The former is accepted blindly on evidence which even its perpetrators (parents) admit is manufactured. The latter is based on a body of evidence which has added up to a preponderance.
To demonstrate this point, we must first consider what we accept as evidence in our everyday lives. Christian author Mark A. Stelter reflects:
Many atheists are radical materialists, meaning they do not even consider any evidence that is not empirical evidence. This standard, used by many atheists, is rejected by most of the rest of the world—including courts of law. In a courtroom, for example, all kinds of evidence are considered by the jury. Some of the evidence is formally “scientific,” such as DNA. Most of it is not “scientific” but circumstantial, testimonial, experiential, etc. All evidence is given whatever weight the jurors determine the evidence to be worth. “Scientific” evidence has no more inherent weight or value than any other kind of evidence.
Evoking the example of a rape case, Stelter reminds us that DNA can only establish that sex occurred, not whether it was consensual. Decisive evidence utilized to arrive at the truth is typically the testimony offered and the circumstances known. Indeed, if it were so easy to know with empirical certainty who committed a crime, how, and by what means, our justice system would conduct its business much quicker with far fewer appeals.
With that in mind, what kind of evidence informs the Christian faith? Let us overview three categories. Science offers compelling evidence that God not only exists, but has certain innate characteristics. History documents the authoritative claim of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Finally, believers testify to encountering the Holy Spirit and being supernaturally changed by it.
Let us begin with our objective knowledge of the natural universe. It may seem counter-intuitive for a believer to evoke science in service of a supernatural conclusion. Yet the first century Christian apostle Paul did precisely that. From Romans 1:18-20:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Paul is saying that creation is God’s monument to himself. Creation is the irrefutable evidence of his existence, compelling every human being to give credit where credit is due.
That scripture prompts Tony Woodlief to ask:
How does one see “invisible attributes”? Only people raised on fairy tales can make sense of that.
Yet our study of the natural universe unveils invisible attributes all the time. Scientists have just recently discovered a planet orbiting the star Tau Ceti which they believe could be capable of supporting life. Why do they believe this? Have they seen it with their own eyes? Have they breathed its air or drank from its rivers? Of course not. While the star twinkles close enough to be seen with the naked eye, the planets orbiting it are far too small to be detected optically. A method of “mathematical noise modeling” was employed to discover the body and make reasonable assumptions about its conditions. ABC News reports:
“In order for a planet to be [considered habitable], it should lie in a zone that is neither too hot nor too cold to allow for liquid surface water and, potentially, life,” said [Steven Vogt, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz], who was part of the international team that made the discovery.
Whether this newly discovered planet is truly capable of supporting life is an open question. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence points to the possibility that life could be maintained around Tau Ceti.
Similarly, circumstantial evidence points to a gap in nature’s continuity which can only be filled by a supernatural entity. We observe that everything has an origin, that everything comes from something, that the universe appears to be winding down from a point of beginning. This presents what Scientific American blogger John Horgan calls “The Question:”
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Surely the apostle Paul regarded the answer as self-evident. There is something because it was made, and the capacity to make it requires certain attributes – eternality, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, the very qualities ascribed to God. Anything less would be unsuited to the task.
Accepting that God must exist as an answer to The Question, tells us little about what kind of person He is. Why then specifically believe in Jesus Christ? For Christians, it starts with scripture, which we regard as the revealed Word of God.
The Bible is usually dismissed by skeptics and placed out of bounds for intelligent debate. On the surface, that may seem to make sense. A sound argument with corroborating evidence cannot be made by citing a single source. Yet the Bible is hardly a single source. As a compilation of sixty-six historical documents meticulously preserved by scholars whose professional reputations depended upon uncompromising accuracy, the Bible boasts corroborating evidence. Its pages record testimony and circumstances which speak to the reality its authors perceived. It tells us that God deserves glory for the work He has done, that we have glorified creation in his place, and such sin commands a price which is just. It further relates God’s plan to pay that price on our behalf, requiring only our acknowledgement that we cannot absolve ourselves in any other way.
Beyond the Bible, the well-documented history of the church shows an inexplicable movement of fervent believers who were given every reason to deny their faith. They faced lions, crucifixion, stoning, beheading, burning at the stake, not to mention the several tortures which left many alive but maimed or crippled. If Jesus was not who he claimed to be, if he did not rise from the dead on the third day and appear to many witnesses, why would any believer endure? Surely if I knew I was party to a contrived scam with no basis in reality, the threat of torture or death would trigger an eager confession.
Further consider what it was these believers died for. Stelter spells it out:
The Christian story is one that is significantly countercultural. It admonishes us to do things that are counter to our natural inclinations. It offers a salvation unconditionally, which is not only counter to our inclinations but unhelpful to the power structure that could offer the means of salvation through kings, man-gods, money, tithes, offerings, obedience, etc. If it were a story made up by the church or any other person or institution, one would expect the story would give more power to the church, the person, or the institution promulgating the story. Instead the New Testament empowers men to give obedience to no one but God. This is a very strange thing for any culture to invent, as it takes away power from men and their institutions.
The strangeness of Christianity is further evidenced in the effect Christ has upon individual lives. Inexplicable conversions like that of the apostle Paul, who up to that point was an unrelenting destroyer of Christians, demonstrate an ability to turn men from their base nature. Christians credit this to the Holy Spirit, that person of the godhead which indwells the believer and regenerates the heart. The demands of causality and the testimony of ancients can only confirm what the Holy Spirit reveals to those who seek God.
At the end of the day, although I lost the argument with my wife and will maintain the Santa tradition in our home, I take solace in the likelihood that my children will grow to distinguish blind faith in a pure fantasy from mature faith fostered through such evidence. Believing in Christmas will thus become more profound and consequential as they grow in their capacity.