If Christmas was pagan, would it matter?


Alas, it was very real. It made them less efficient soldiers, because they had to take live captives for their sacrifices.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #42

Unfortunately there are plenty of these “cold hard” facts to go round. Contra those who think such barbaric practices are only the province of some “dark” past, the practice of human sacrifice is alive and well today -more so than ever before probably. We just don’t use altars and formal ceremony for it any more.

(Mitchell W McKain) #43

I am not buying this one either.

Sure there are criminals who do this sort of thing but that is a different matter – those are criminals, psychos. And I am not buying attempts by intolerant ideologies to equate completely different things to human sacrifice either. In fact, that reminds me of frequent attempts during time past to justify genocide by simply making bogus accusations of human sacrifice.

Unless… hmmm, I do recall that there are some behaviors in Africa which are close… something do do with AIDS. But no, that is still criminal.

(Randy) #44

I think @Mervin_Bitikofer was talking about how we don’t really care about people enough sometimes, so that fathers will sacrifice their children and families to the altar of success by going to work. It’s figurative. I agree that it’s not consciously as terrible, though there are some terrible things on both sides. Is that right, Mr Bitikofer? There’s a great Tim Keller sermon on that.


What are you talking about here?

(Christy Hemphill) #46

I interpreted it as the devaluing of human life to the extent that young girls are trafficked and sacrificed to the “god” of sex addiction or poor laborers on plantations or sweatshops in third world countries are sacrificed to the “god” of materialism or young men and women soldiers are sacrificed to the “god” of political dominance. But I would argue that is different than the human sacrifice of the cultures of the past, which was done as appeasement to the gods based on the idea that human life was the most valuable thing that could possibly be sacrificed. That is different than devaluing life and thinking it’s only fair to sacrifice it in pursuit of selfish ends and power. It will be interesting to see what @Mervin_Bitikofer really meant. :wink:

(Mitchell W McKain) #47

We have a different word for that: “slavery.” If he had said slavery is alive and well, then I would have given a rather different response. It is still criminal but doesn’t mean it isn’t slavery.

I am not a big fan of this kind of whining. Jobs can be just as important to the well being of people as family events and even much much more so. This can be just as true in business as it is in medicine, law enforcement, legal work, social work, utilities, politics, gosh the list is rather long now that I look at it. I have never had a job like this, but it infuriates me that families (both spouses and children) cannot support those (either men or women) who do – and frankly for the most selfish, self-absorbed even childish reasons imaginable.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #48

Not as figuratively as you might think, Randy.
Christy came closest, though I’m willing to argue that it isn’t as different as she or you all might hope to suggest (though I might be misreading you, in turn, here, Christy).

In any case, ancient cultures were exercising a height of pragmatism in trying to appease potentially angry gods to secure an end to a drought or a victory in a looming battle. To them it was a clear and necessary transaction. But when I try to come up with the difference between the religiously skeptical parody of the ancients: “It hasn’t rained in two months — hey I know! Let’s kill Steve!” and the modern equivalent: “You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs!”, I come up mostly empty trying to tease out the difference. I’m sure you will all happily fill me in that industry captains (at least in the legal or ‘public’ industries) don’t actually set out to kill their workers. But I think all your defenses of the industry captain that at least he wasn’t standing by the altar with the dripping bloody knife in his hand, will end up being cold comfort on judgment day when it comes to light how the latter’s workers had their [often shortened] lives and families squeezed dry to wring gold from their misery. And all this is without mention of the slavery and trafficking Christy brought up! And I don’t think of myself as entirely separated from all those industries (legitimate or otherwise). My participation in an affluent lifestyle, even while I disapprove of these things and refuse to participate in them directly - does not negate my complicity. [sometimes direct complicity in my demand for cheap or relatively free products of sweatshop labor.]

On a related note (and the reason my reply here was delayed a bit), was that I just got back from our church small group in which we listened to this excellent video of Anand Giridharadas as he gave an address to the Aspen Institute in 2015. That is at least peripherally related to my reply here, if yet more distant from the original topic of this thread. But it is an important topic. He also was in a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett. I haven’t finished listening to that one yet. But this is what all of us, Christian or otherwise, need to be listening to if we claim at all to care about our children’s futures.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #49

Earlier this evening we were listening to and NPR report about California using prison inmates to fight fires for … well … meager benefits. The person interviewed said he was glad for the opportunity because it sure beat the kind of life he had behind prison walls. So it makes for an interesting question for us as a society. Should we feel guilty for paying inmates a couple dollars a day (plus commuted sentences - there was that) when for some of those inmates it may be their ticket to a better life (assuming they survive!)? That the work somebody does is an improvement over prison life doesn’t actually constitute much of a high bar for worker conditions. These are society’s “cannon fodder”.

(Mitchell W McKain) #50

If I was to equate this with anything in the ancient world it would be more to things like pillaging, piracy, and war for profit, where people generally thought it was ok and even admirable to kill other people and take everything they had. Indeed these marauding conquerors became the nobility and upper class – so called ladies and gentlemen – all rather nauseating, if you ask me.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #51

Agreed. One difference that can be raised (and Mr. Giridharadas does) is that perhaps today’s “guilded age” winners are showing more signs of at least wanting to “give back” to society and improve the world, as there are more charitable gifts from billionaires than at any other time in history (I think). But band-aids and gifts are no substitute for justice and right living. Or as Giridharadas colorfully put it: paying for school playgrounds for fat kids is not a good substitute for not marketing foods and addictive things that help make those kids fat in the first place. Our unwritten capitalistic consensus is that we are very much encouraged to generously do good; but thou shalt absolutely not ask us to stop doing harm. You can ask us to give aid, which we happily will to appease our consciences and hope that it fore-stalls you asking for anything more. But do not ask us to stop taking from you in the first place. We are addicted to so-called “win-win” scenarios. As a tech CEO, I will happily provide your classroom with my company’s computer products. Your students win by having access [maybe - don’t get me started on this], and so does my tech company by getting a marketing foothold that advertising can’t buy. But don’t ask me to do anything that might actually cost me, or just be good for society unless I can get a kickback out of it somehow.

(Christy Hemphill) #52

I don’t think this was always the case. Sometimes it was reverence not pragmatism. For example, at one of the ruins we went to (At Yagul, not Aztec, rather the ancestors of the Zapotec), they showed us the ball court where men of a priestly class would train their whole lives to compete in a sacred game, the winners of which would be ritually sacrificed to the gods. It was the highest honor of the society.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #53

I won’t press my argument too far as you obviously are closer to the facts here. As a general perspective on even that honorific form of sacrificial practice, though, couldn’t it still be seen as pragmatism, only a level or two removed? I.e. – we all “know” such things need to happen, from whence springs our honorific industry to fuel it. But I’ll take your word about some specific practices not fitting my “pragmatism” thesis at all - and would continue to be interested especially if you think I’m off base generally about most/all ancient sacrifices across the world.

I guess the way I’m approaching this is that when the moderner, standing before the judgment seat, responds with “human sacrifice? what human sacrifice?” - that this “defense” won’t be any more successful than when the same insists: “Idolatry? What Idolatry? I don’t believe in Baal, Molech, Zeus, or any of those characters! -and I don’t know why you keep going on about money, science, democracy, pleasure, my own self, and all those because those aren’t false gods - they are real and actually work and are superior to all those other so-called deities!” (So ring the praises of sincere acolytes about how their gods really being the greatest - in a way that would make the most religious pantheonist beam with pride.)

Anyway - in that vein I do think that true atheists (if any actually exist - I’m not convinced that I’ve ever actually met or heard of one yet) would actually be spiritually ahead of most everybody else. At least their house is emptied out, swept clean, and put in order. They would be in that best of positions to then perceive and receive in uncluttered fashion the Spirit of the one true living God who could take up residence. But if that doesn’t happen quickly, we do have it on pretty good authority that such a cleaned-out house never stays long unoccupied. A full complement of spirits more wicked than the former ones quickly take up residence. Hence the almost certain rarity of any truly atheistic species. I’m thinking I might have about the same luck finding unicorns.

So, with apologies to all the self-identified atheists here, maybe some of you actually are the real thing for all I know. But it was not without cause that the earliest Christians were known as “atheists” to the culture of the day; since 99.9% atheist or 100% atheist was a meaningless distinction to them. Just take it as a compliment from me that I don’t think the bar to enter into your own venerated tradition is anything so low as what you may be imagining. Perhaps there are some highly disciplined Buddhists somewhere that might actually come closest, but none of the popularly published new atheists today appear to have come even remotely close, and the height of irony here would be that the genuine Christian (at least by deity number) would actually be closer to atheism than most would-be “atheists”.

I will be out to conferences today and tomorrow, so replies may be spotty. Signing off for now.
[with edits]

(Mark D.) #54

Wow. I shall listen to it again and share it.


We can learn much about human sacrifice when we find actual victims. Frozen Mummies of the Andes is a good article on human sacrifice in South America. Because the victims, usually young kids, were mummified they are preserved in striking detail. Yes, it was an honor to the whole family if their child was chosen to be sacrificed in this way. They were left high in the mountains and froze to death. Poor kids.

And occasionally we find sacrificial victims in peat bogs. also mummified. You can google peat bog mummies and get the gory details.

(Randy) #56

Just–this tears me up to read. What terrible fear of God and the unknown must drive us humans to sacrifice our own children! What terror those poor children experienced. No wonder why we acknowledge that skeptics have a role in questioning religious belief. http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/facing-evil.aspx

(Robin) #57

Good question, Reggie. And the answer is no.

Nothing inherently wrong with any of those things.

You said you are addressing the grinches in your audience but your question was “If Christmas was pagan, would it matter?”

Thus, we have three topics for the price of one…

Question: Is Christmas pagan?
Answer: If it is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, then it is not pagan (however you define that)…the observance of the birth of Jesus was not part of earliest Christian practice — for the very reason you state, which is that pagan deities had birth dates (and mothers and so on), whereas the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth believed He is from everlasting…
And when people DID begin to observe His birth, they never could really decide what date that was (November 17 per Clement of Alexandria)…

Question: Anything wrong with handing out gifts, engaging in charity, spending time with others…

Answer: No

Question: Are there grinches on the BioLogos website?
Answer: Don’t know for sure, but I presume they all wear green and eat garlic and onions.


(Robin) #58

Shawn…Interesting comments.

There are multiple interpretations of whatever is known of Constantine and his religious or political perspectives, and how these may have intertwined.

Safe to say that the discussion is academic. The date of Christ’s birth is speculative and always has been. November 17 of 3 B.C., per Clement of Alexandria…January 6 according to some other early theorists.

It’s all good…so long as people remember that Who He is — matters more than the Date of His Birth.

As for Constantine and the trinity…remember two things: Christian theologians long before Constantine wrote of a trinitarian deity (Tertullian first coined the term)…and Judaism before that was toying with some binitarian version of the Godhead…As for Constantine, he seems to have sided with the Arians more than the trinitarians.

Also — Rome ordered censuses for other purposes than simply taxation, and thus the specifics of the date of the birth are harder to pin down.

(Christy Hemphill) #59

I just think “pragmatism” is a very Western ideal that doesn’t seem to enter into much in many other cultures I’ve observed. Often it seems like pretty much every other value you could possibly imagine trumps “this would be practical and work out well.” Plus, we are talking about people’s deeply held religious beliefs. I would find it kind of off-putting if someone assessed what I feel is a genuine sacrifice for God’s kingdom as somehow just me trying to be practical and get what I want out of life.

Where I think the modern analogy breaks down is that money, pleasure, success, etc. are proxy’s for self-idolatry. Other cultures definitely worshiped an Other.

(Shawn T Murphy) #60

The trinity was discussed in early Christianity, but this was put to bed by Origen of Alexandria in his commentary on John 1:1. He devotes his first two books on the gospel of John to explaining in great detail how Jesus is not God. The enlightened early Christians rejected the trinity, but in the end the pagan’s won out. The final nails in the coffin we hammered by Justinian in 543 AD, making the belief in the preexistence of Jesus’s soul anathema. The books were burned or altered to reflect this new dogma. But there are some ashes left, which I as an engineer choose the believe.