The Christmas narrative is such an integral feature of Western culture that it is always tempting to take it for granted. But in reality, it is one of the most unusual and revolutionary tales known to mankind. During Advent, it is fitting to take some time to reflect on how incredible the story of the Nativity really is. I know of no better writer to reflect alongside in this season than G.K. Chesterton, and no better work to read (or reread) than “The God in the Cave.”
“The God in the Cave” is a chapter from The Everlasting Man, Chesterton’s master commentary on the history of the human race. It is also an insightful essay on the Incarnation, and it stands on its own as a great text. Chesterton’s central thesis is that the idea of God’s becoming a human baby is an unfathomable paradox that separates the Christian mind from all others and has genuinely “altered human nature.” What exactly does he mean by this?
The greatest story ever told
First, Chesterton argues that the story of Christmas is the fulfillment of the entire human project of mythmaking. The shepherds stand for all those men and women throughout history who had sought to explain the world around them and their place in it through the sacred art of storytelling. Over and against the hyper-rationalism of Greek philosophy and the hyper-practicality of Roman statecraft, such figures “understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality.” Yet even the best myths are just that––stories. As much as their imagery and archetypes may speak to our spirits, they can only ever be “a search.” Myths alone cannot fulfill the deepest yearnings of the human heart.
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But when God took on flesh and blood and was born of a human mother, he at once satisfied and transcended the impulse for mythmaking. He satisfied it by vindicating the childlike intuitions of the pagans, by proving that “the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone, was nearer to the secret of [the Nativity] and knew more about the crisis of the world” than the cold Mediterranean elites who derided their simplicity. And He transcended it by making his myth a frightful reality. After that first Christmas, humankind would continue to search for God, but its search would no longer be a blind one.
The truth of this insight can still be felt today. People continue to make myths, whether in the form of epic fantasy novels or superhero movies. But these modern myths are self-consciously referential to existing psychology and religion. Wagner’s Ring Cycle, for example, does not reach for the divine but rather looks within the human person itself, and it draws much of its inspiration from Norse legends. And as creative as Tolkien’s Silmarillion is, it still has roots in Catholic theology. Star Wars, finally, is not an original attempt to explain the universe but a reframing of Jungian archetypes, pop Buddhism, and Christian imagery. In the end, those of us who have encountered Christmas know that even the most beautiful story is infinitely inferior to the one myth that is also true. There is no going back from this.
The completeness of Christianity
The second way that the Incarnation “altered human nature,” according to Chesterton, was its inauguration of the only truly comprehensive belief system. In the same way that he connects the shepherds with mythmaking, Chesterton sees the wise men as symbolic of the project of philosophy. Philosophy, at least in the Socratic tradition, was also a search, explicitly, where storytelling was only implicitly so. It was an attempt to discover the truth of the universe, the form of the good, and it was therefore indicative of “a thirst for God.” But neither Socrates nor Plato nor Aristotle (nor Confucius nor Siddhartha Gautama) could bring himself out of his cave by his own power. The belief systems each created were always incomplete and prone to emphasizing some truths at the expense of others.
Christmas changed this forever. When the Word of God, Wisdom Himself, came into the world, He brought the potential for total enlightenment with Him. On the one hand, Jesus’ birth––and His subsequent life, death, and resurrection––meant a confirmation of all that was good and true in the old philosophies. But on the other hand, the arrival of the final public revelation meant the establishment of the philosophy to end all philosophies (at least in a latent form) and the discrediting of any comprehensive belief system apart from Christianity. Chesterton’s own words put it better than I can:
The Church contains what the world does not contain. Life itself does not provide as she does for all sides of life. That every other single system is narrow and insufficient compared to this one; that is not a rhetorical boast; it is a real fact and a real dilemma. . . . Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave [in Bethlehem], they would have known that their own light was [incomplete].
Of course, modern philosophers continue to produce new theories about the meaning of life and the world. But so much of what plagues our politics and society is the insufficiency of these belief systems. I have written elsewhere that formal ideologies are necessarily reductive. Socialism and fascism, liberalism and libertarianism, all ignore some aspects of reality and exaggerate others. When people wholeheartedly commit themselves to these philosophies, the results are always destructive. The bloody history of the twentieth century and even the zero-sum conflicts that characterize today’s public square are evidence of this.
A religion of rebellion
Finally, Chesterton reminds us that Christ was born a rebel, and Christianity a fighting religion. Jesus says that Satan is the ruler of this world (John 14:30). It is easy for us to forget this fact when the West has had a Christian establishment for close to 2,000 years. Now, when that establishment appears to be falling away, it is tempting to despair. But Christ was at odds with powers and principalities from the very moment of his birth. For Chesterton, Herod and his slaughter of the innocents point to the presence and primacy of the Enemy in this life.
This primacy means that Christianity is rooted in an attitude of rebellion, an attitude that can be found even in Christmas: “Christmas . . . is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry-makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandinavian winter feast,” writes Chesterton. “There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won.” Christians who find themselves distressed and unnerved by the growing secularization of American culture should seek to recapture that defiance. Taking a cue from Chesterton, they should remember that the world hates those that are not its own (John 15:19), and that suffering injustice for the sake of the faith is integral to the mission of every believer.
This Christmas, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to inhibit social gatherings, many of us will find ourselves newly appreciative of timeworn traditions and the ability to spend time with our friends and family. But this year also presents an opportunity to become newly appreciative of Christmas’s spiritual significance. In “The God in the Cave,” Chesterton explains that when Christians celebrate the Nativity, they are celebrating an event that changed the course of history and permanently transformed the DNA of human society. For that reason, the Christmas narrative will always remain unique. Chesterton describes this beautifully:
The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness [or] to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being. . . . It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within.
A story this remarkable must never be taken for granted. This Advent, we should prepare ourselves, with Chesterton, to dive deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation. We should strive to understand the great paradox of the God who became a human baby––“that the hands that had made the sun and the stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle”––while recognizing that it is ultimately too incredible to fully fathom.