Oh, Virginia, He’s Real, But Not In The Way You Think
by: Madeleine Kelly
‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’, the famous reply by the New
York Sun to their young correspondent confirmed every child’s hopes –
that Santa Claus is indeed real.
Children use myriad ways to test their cherished belief in Santa. The
logical realize that big fat Santa couldn’t possibly fit down the
chimney, or visit everyone in a single night. Others catch on early
because older siblings tease them about Santa. Some are sat down at age
twelve and solemnly informed of the truth by parents concerned they will
blurt out the age-inappropriate belief at school.
Other kids summon the courage to ask a grownup, knowing that
confirmation of their fears will set their belief in a magical Santa
firmly in the past. Their initiation brings with it grief for lost
certainty. Once Santa is exposed, there can be no more true magic, as
the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy fall with him. God and Jesus Christ
are the next casualties of logical truth in many young minds.
Most of us as adults don’t believe in the supernatural events in the
Christmas story any more than we believe in Santa. The virgin birth, the
prophesies, the stable, the singing angels, the wandering star, the
three wise men are all viewed by most as nice elements in a fairy tale
to be enjoyed once a year in the Christmas pageant and then forgotten.
Although these supernatural stories were never meant to be taken
literally, churches continue to repeat the story without explanation,
making it difficult for people to take the churches’ message seriously.
Theologians such as John Shelby Spong are popularising the idea of
considering God in a different way. The God most of us are used to is
somewhat temperamental, vacillating between warlord and magical
grandparent. Nick Cave said it for many in song – ‘I don’t believe in an
interventionist God’. But churches lead centuries-old prayer seeking
God’s intervention among the nations, the community, the sick, the poor
and the dead. Overwhelmingly, God has been portrayed as a magician in
the sky, whom we must please in order to access his benevolent side.
Miracles such as healing, producing food for 5,000 people out of a
couple of loaves and fishes and walking on water are still presented by
churches as literal, or at best explainable, facts.
Spong, however, suggests that if we read the Bible chronologically (in
the order in which the books were written) we realise that the
supernatural events and ancient Hebrew symbolism were layered on by
writer after writer as the first century wore on. Paul’s writings are
the earliest in the Christian Bible, and they contained no reference to
supernatural events or a virgin birth. The addition of supernatural
events is suggested to be a retrospective response to the overwhelming
transformation brought about by the life and death of the adult Jesus.
Words failed the writers, who could only resort to over-the-top
impressions such as ‘the heavens rejoiced at his birth’.
Spong’s proposals follow the work of theologians such as Robinson,
Bonhoeffer, Barth and Tillich. Tillich claimed that God could not be
defined personally as a being, but should be considered non-personally
as the Ground of All Being.
If Spong is right, what does this mean for people brought up to believe
in the miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection and ascension? The
angels, the wise men, the star? Spong’s own grappling with the
implications of viewing God differently was ‘both an exhilarating and a
fearful experience,’ much like the child who dares to question Santa’s
Most of us uncover Santa at an early age, realising the North Pole, the
elves, the chimney, the reindeer, and frequent sightings at shopping
malls don’t quite match our experience of a physical world. For some
children it is an exhilarating initiation, albeit tinged with lament for
the secure beliefs one leaves behind.
Yet when the magic is stripped away from Santa, the growing child shares
adults’ view of Santa as ‘still real, but not literally magic’. There is
still a role for Santa Claus.
Similarly, when we peel away the magical layers of eastern, Hebrew
thought on God, we find he is ‘still real, but not literally magic.’
When we make that discovery, we start a journey into a deeper experience
of the Ground of Being. This is a more authentic experience that doesn’t
contradict what we know, but instead affirms and enhances our inherent
deep-knowing of the universe.
Madeleine Kelly is an author, mother and explorer of spirituality. Her
book 'Bipolar and the Art of Roller-coaster Riding' includes a chapter on
bipolar disorder and spirituality. Her latest book is 'How to do EVERYTHING – a
guide for young adults moving out of home'. See
www.twotreesmedia.com for more