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Cut Poinsettias

Cut Poinsettias, the Christmas Campaign of The American Humanist Association

    The cable news opinionaters muttered mightily this past week about bus signs in Washington D.C.. They were bought by The American Humanist Association and were dedicated to taking Christ out of Christmas.  The punch line in the advertisement is a steal from the Christmas ditty, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town": just "be good for goodness' sake." 

    That quote is charged with irony.  "Good" derives from the Old English word "god."  And "goodness" likewise.  Atheists advocating ethics in the name of the Almighty?!

    But I dither.  Forgive me.  For this bus ad in-your-jolly-face tease of Christian sensibility this season needs to be put in a more generous and thoughtful context than you and I are likely to find on TV news reports.

    Our nation, about which it is reported that 92% of the population believe in God, has been bullied by the religious right into believing that Christianity is threatened by godlessness at every turn.  Consider, however, the impossibility of anyone running for the presidency who cannot offer bona fides of religious commitment.  It would be easier for a Muslim to get into the White House than a protégé of Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawson, and Bertrand Russell. 

    A case can be made (and apparently the American Humanist Association is trying to make it) that America suffers from godfulness.  I mean that form of faith which parades its self-righteousness, telling us all with absolute certainty what is right and true and good and you had better believe it.  What is implied, but rarely said aloud, is that you had better believe it just like me.  The bumper sticker of yore says it all: The Bible Says It, I Believe It, and That's That.   

    That is, my dear humanist, I too think the fulminations of the super-religious are pains in the... soul.

    But I also agree, however, with the Psalmist who famously declared that those who say there is no god are fools (Psalm 14, more or less).  Their foolishness, in the present context of buses and being good for goodness's sake, comes under two headings: certainty and ethics.

    Anyone who would go to the expense of paying for signs on buses to "dis" God in the season of jollity has got to be possessed of a certainty of conviction the equal of Dr. Dobson or Pat Robertson.  Most of my friends who are agnostic or atheist go to it regretfully, hinting that they wish it weren't so but it is (meaning the no god thing).  That is, they have a healthy doubt about their doubts.  Just like me, about my faith.  As I said to one of them not too long ago when we contemplated the end of our mortality and he thought he would get there quicker than I would, "You'll know then (about God and life after death) sooner than I will."  "Yes, I will," he replied, I thought, with tones of sadness, perhaps for my delusion.

    Doubt is one of the evidences of wisdom in the soul.  And that goes for belief or unbelief.

    But it is the tag line, about being good for goodness's sake and not God's, that gives me the most pause... a pause to consider the folly of it.  What the American Humanist Association's bus ad advocates is an ethic empty of divine reference.  It's the second greatest commandment (love your neighbor as yourself) divorced from the first (love God with all your everything).  Long ago in my formative years Will Herberg gave a name to this idea, "cut flower" ethics.  Herberg, a Jew with a Calvinist christology, taught at Drew Theological Seminary, a Methodist institution, and is best known for his book "Protestant, Catholic, Jew."  In another of his books, "Judaism and Modern Man," he coined the phrase that places a large question mark on the bus ad:

The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as "humanistic" ethics has resulted in our "cut flower culture."  Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die.  So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity -- the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization.  Without the life-giving power of the faith out which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.

Apparently the sentiment behind the bus ad has been percolating for a long time, more than fifty years. Herberg insists, as I certainly would, that, finally and eternally, the first great commandment and the second are functionally inseparable.  Even though it may take several generations to prove it. 

    Paul Tillich agrees and, in fact, in my hearing anticipated Herberg's claim.  The great 20th Century theologian posited the category of "autonomous reason"; that is, the human mind, which finds its source and strength in God, but is oblivious or willfully ignorant of its dependence on divinity. Tillich pinned the horrors of the last century - Naziism, Soviet Communism - on this impulse.  It carries to the extreme the saying credited to Protagoras that "man is the measure of all things." 

    Put that in your bus and drive it!

    So here's a counter strategy, far better than the fulminations on "The O'Reilly Factor": wage a competing advertising campaign on D. C. buses, accentuating the positive.  How about: "Jesus tells us to love our enemies: do it and you'll surprise the hell out of them."  Or how about: "Love your neighbor as yourself: it may not always work but it sure pleases God."  And maybe: "Santa may not be coming to town, but God is and he's making a list, so be good for God's sake... and your own."





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