Belief in Christmas appears to be declining. The Pew Research Center reports that a shrinking majority believes the traditional Christmas nativity tale.
The Pew Center asked whether people believed four of the traditional elements of the story: that Jesus was born to a virgin, that he was laid in a manger, that wise men followed a star and brought him gifts, and that angels announced his birth to shepherds.
Only 57 percent of Americans believe all four of those stories. That’s down from 65 percent three years ago. Even among self-identifying Christians, the numbers are down.
This may seem like a sign of the fall of Christian civilization. But it is also a sign that we are getting better at critical thinking. The study of literature, philosophy and religion opens our eyes to the complexity of texts, symbols and traditions.
Only 57 percent of Americans believe key parts of the nativity accounts. That’s down from 65 percent three years ago.
A careful reading of the Bible’s nativity stories is enlightening. The story is only told in two of the four Gospels. Both locate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. But there are differences.
In Luke, Jesus’ family lives in Nazareth and travels to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth. In Matthew, the family moves to Nazareth after escaping to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. In Luke, there is no threat of slaughter or flight to Egypt. The manger and the shepherds only appear in Luke. The wise men only appear in Matthew.
Critics of religion hone in on these inconsistencies. They reject the whole thing as fake news.
But Bible scholars such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue against taking the nativity stories literally. They argue that these stories are parables. A parable teaches a lesson. It is not supposed to be literally true.
To debate the factual truth of a parable is to misunderstand it. It is pointless, for example, to ask whether there really was a Good Samaritan. Instead, the point is to “go and do likewise.”
Thus it is odd to ask whether people believe the literal truth of the nativity stories. It is better to ask what these parables mean to people. That question opens the door to conversation and reflection.
Consider the idea that Jesus was laid in a manger. There are only a couple of sentences in Luke about the manger. It is impossible to know if there really was a manger. But the manger is an evocative symbol of the important role of poverty and humility in Christianity.
When we question what a story means, we open the door to conversation and reflection.
The former Pope Benedict XVI considered the manger as symbol in his book, “The Infancy Narratives.” The manger is a place where animals eat. Benedict suggests that Jesus was laid in the manger as a new food, the “true bread” of eternal life. He borrowed that idea from Augustine’s allegorical readings of the Bible.
Benedict, Augustine, and other Christians take it for granted that Jesus really was laid in a manger. But the manger is a powerful metaphor, whether the story is literally true or not.
Religion is, after all, a web of symbols and metaphors, stories and rituals. It is also a process in which people talk and think about the meaning of these symbols. To declare a story as true is to end the conversation and force people to pick sides.
But when we question what a story means, we open the door to conversation and reflection. The study of literature and philosophy show us how dialogue and thinking work. Religious wars show us dysfunctional disputation run amok.
Literal truth is obviously important. Facts matter. And “alternative facts” are simply lies. But some of the most significant human experiences are not grounded in fact. Faith, hope, love, and wisdom are not facts. They are symbolic experiences, not reducible to a simple question of fact.
Skepticism about Christmas shows that people are thinking critically. It is good to wonder whether the Christmas story is true. But it is also wise to wonder what it means.
Wisdom is about discovering meaning. The wise men of the nativity story stayed up late watching the stars. This too is a metaphor. Wisdom is wakeful and expectant. And it requires us to think carefully about the difference between fiction and fact.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala