Explainer
Creed
Explaining Christmas
3 min read

The earth-shaking consequences of Christmas

Imagine Tolkien being born as a hobbit in the Shire, or J.K. Rowling going to school at Hogwarts. Barney Aspray explores the notion of the author entering his or her own creation.

Barnabas Aspray is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

A nativity scene in bold colours in an illumination style.
The Nativity, Mesrop of Khizan, Armenia, 1615.
Public Domain, The Getty Museum.

The radical uniqueness of the Christmas story can be easily lost in a culture over-familiar with carols, nativity scenes, and Christmas cards. The birth of Jesus is not, for Christians, merely the birth of the founder of their religion, comparable to Muhammad, the Buddha, Guru Nanak, or Moses. The heart of the Christian claim is that in the Incarnation, the Almighty Creator of all things has irrevocably identified himself with the human race, standing in solidarity with every person who ever existed and ever will exist.  

Imagine Tolkien being born as a hobbit in the Shire, or J.K. Rowling going to school at Hogwarts. The mind-bending notion of the author entering his or her own creation is far closer to the Christian idea of Jesus than any comparison between him and other great figures of history. For Christians, he was not just a moral teacher, not just an inspiring example – not even an object of adoration and love without further qualification. He was and is all these things of course. But all those things are put in the shade by something else, totally unique and unrepeatable: Immanuel, God-among-us.  

The implications of this are staggering. Dorothy Sayers puts it this way (quote slightly adapted): 

For whatever reason God chose to make human beings as we are – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – he had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from us that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile. 

The Christian God is a God who plays fair, who keeps the rules he commands us to keep, who suffered the same pain, anxiety, and daily struggle that we all suffer in the world he created. 

How is this possible? Only if we hold together two things that look like a contradiction at first sight: that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, at the same time, without confusion or separation. This is how Christian dogma has been enshrined in our creeds.  

The early centuries of Christianity were a delicate balancing act. Theory after theory was tried and abandoned because it failed to hold the necessary tension between ‘fully God’ and ‘fully man’. The long councils with hundreds of bishops arguing over the precise wording of the creed may seem very remote to our daily concerns, but they were trying to protect something vital to the life of the Church. One word wrong could have upset the whole balance, and Christianity would have become simply another mystical apparition or set of moral guidelines along hundreds of others in the ancient world.  

If we let go of the ‘fully God’ part, then we are left with a religious teacher who may inspire devotion, offer moral guidance, or even speak with the voice of God. But we do not have the Creator himself entering his creation to experience it as we do.  

If we let go of the ‘fully human’ part, then we are left with a supernatural appearance of the one who made us. He might command us to live a certain way and punish us when we fail. He might leave detailed instructions about the right way to worship him. But he did not share our condition. He did not get sunburnt, jostled in the street, woken up, pinched, teased at school, or sold a dud. 

The magic is in that combination of the two, almost impossible to grasp, that puts the source of all power, truth and beauty in a collision course with the deepest fears, sufferings, joys, hopes and longings of every member of the human race. The one who made us is not unaware of what it is like to live in this world. Whatever his mysterious purposes may be for his creation, they involve humanity in a prominent position. And whatever God destines for our race is a destiny he shares. As G.K. Chesterton writes of the Incarnation:  

‘Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, since the rumour that God had left his heavens to set it right.’ 

Explainer
Belief
Creed
7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.
UnHerd.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.