Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Most Important Thing

This story has created a bit of a stir and even had Rush Limbaugh in a dither the other day, but it's hard to see what Dr. Williams says about the Christmas narrative that's obviously wrong or unorthodox:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but "legend".

There was scant evidence for the Magi, and none at all that there were three of them, or that they were kings, he said. All the evidence that existed was in Matthew's Gospel. The Archbishop said: "Matthew's Gospel doesn't tell us there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from. It says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that's all we're really told." Anything else was legend. "It works quite well as legend," the Archbishop said.

Further, there was no evidence that there were any oxen or asses in the stable. The chances of any snow falling around the stable in Bethlehem were "very unlikely". And as for the star rising and then standing still: the Archbishop pointed out that stars just don't behave like that.

Although he believed in it himself, he advised that new Christians need not fear that they had to leap over the "hurdle" of belief in the Virgin Birth before they could be "signed up". For good measure, he added, Jesus was probably not born in December at all. "Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival."

None of this is news to anyone who has spent any time studying the accounts of Jesus' birth, of course. Much of our traditional picture of the first Christmas is a result of later accretions. The only thing the prelate says that might be controversial among Christians is that people shouldn't be deterred from accepting the lordship of Christ because they have doubts about the possibility of the virgin birth.

Nevertheless, I think he's right about this. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, it's far more important that we enter into a proper relationship with God now than that we wait until all our doubts are resolved and all our questions are answered. There's nothing unChristian in reciting the words of Thomas as we submit our lives to God: "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief."

This is not to minimize the theological importance of the virgin birth, but merely to say that the Archbishop is correct not to make that doctrine the sine qua non of being reconciled to Christ. It's important for our understanding of who Christ actually was that theologians get the matter right, but for the average Christian layman paramount importance rests simply in one's surrender to Christ. I think that reading the Archbishop's words in context makes it clear that this is what he was trying to say, and Rush can relax.