Christmas Is a Reminder To Keep the Faith in the Face of Overwhelming Odds

The Christmas story reminds us that the hope of the world may come from the least likely places. Being a socialist means holding fast to this possibility.

A painting of the Christ child held at the Palazzo Madama Torino. (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

Growing up Christian, I was taught the Christmas story from a young age. And, in part thanks to the years my family spent attending an evangelical church, I believed that story, and the other events recounted by the Bible, were literally true for much of my childhood. The Virgin Birth, Jesus’s miracles, the Resurrection — I took all of these to be accurate descriptions of real historical events.

At some point, I moved away from the church and this literal-minded interpretation of the biblical texts. But, though I hesitate to identify as a Christian today, the Gospels and other elements of the Scriptures have kept a certain hold on me.

Early in graduate school, I read with fascination Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The work is in large part a meditation on the story, from the Book of Genesis, of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The basics of the tale were familiar to me from my churchgoing days: God promises Abraham a son with his wife, Sarah, who ends up giving birth to Isaac at an old age; Isaac is supposed to inherit God’s pledge to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.

One day while Isaac is still a child, however, God tells Abraham to take his son up to the top of Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. Abraham dutifully takes Isaac up and is on the verge of killing him when God sends an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice a nearby ram instead. Abraham’s willingness to obey God demonstrates his great faith.

This is how I was taught the story growing up — that Abraham was a heroic exemplar of faith. But Kierkegaard argues that we should find the story deeply puzzling.

On its face, from the standpoint of his own happiness or from a moral perspective, Abraham’s behavior makes no sense. Slaying Isaac means not just slaying his beloved son, but destroying the thing that has given his life its central purpose. It means alienation from Sarah. It means doing something that everyone around him would find abhorrent and unintelligible.

Kierkegaard asks: Why would Abraham do this? The traditional answer is that God has commanded him to. But why should we follow the commands of such a God? Why should Abraham believe the voice that commands such things is the voice of God in the first place — as opposed to a terrifying hallucination?

Fear and Trembling raises a similar question about the Virgin Mary, another exemplar of faith for Christians. Mary is visited by an angel who tells her she will give birth to the son of God — sans ordinary conception, of course. But what reason does Mary have to believe in this miraculous possibility, or profess it to others? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to think that the angelic messenger is, in fact, a delusion of her own mind?

Kierkegaard goes on: Why should anyone else believe her fantastical claims? And why, once Jesus is on the scene, should people believe in him? What reason did the shepherds or the Magi, for instance, have to think that a poor baby born in a Bethlehem manger was the King of Kings?

Religious and Secular Faith

Though interpretations of Fear and Trembling are much contested, it’s clear that Kierkegaard thinks the faith exhibited by Abraham and Mary is fundamentally at odds with reason. Abraham believes that he will kill Isaac yet God will somehow give him back; Mary accepts that she is the mother of God despite recognizing the absurdity of believing this. Faith in general, Kierkegaard suggests, means committing ourselves to that for which we admit we don’t have rational justification.

The issues at stake go beyond theology to what kind of life we should try to live. Kierkegaard is concerned with the proper way of relating to ourselves and our deepest projects and commitments. And his highest ideal seems to be a kind of person who can be passionately committed to something despite acknowledging that one lacks a rational basis for that commitment, or even knowing in some sense that what one hopes for is impossible.

In his profound 2019 philosophical case for democratic socialism, This Life, philosopher Martin Hägglund explicitly takes up and rejects this religious conception of faith. Hägglund advocates what he calls secular faith, which means recognizing that the things we care about are finite and fragile and therefore depend on what we do to care for them.

Abraham’s relation to Isaac, as depicted by Kierkegaard, represents the opposite idea. Abraham believes that Isaac will somehow survive even if he kills him — Abraham’s own actions don’t matter to whether his son lives or dies. The effect of this type of faith, Hägglund observes, is that Abraham acts as though he doesn’t care about Isaac at all.

Religious faith of the kind Kierkegaard advocates, then, represents a deeply distorted way of relating to the things we care about. Hägglund instead urges us to embrace a different view of faith, which acknowledges that the people and projects we’re devoted to: “the institutions we’re trying to build, the socialist revolution we’re trying to bring about, the communities we’re trying to achieve and maintain, or even personal love relationships — these things don’t exist independently of the way we are sustaining and devoting ourselves to them.”

Hope in Dark Times

It’s hard to disagree with Hägglund here. I am not going to relate to my loved ones or my political projects or my career or anything else in the way that Kierkegaard’s Abraham relates to Isaac. Really caring about something means recognizing you can lose it and acting accordingly.

On the other hand, as a socialist, there’s something in Kierkegaard’s view that still attracts me. I think there’s something to the idea that our commitments sometimes need to outstrip what’s rationally warranted. I think there’s something to the idea that caring about a project means remaining committed to it even when reason says it will probably fail.

That’s how I sometimes feel about socialism. Plenty of comrades would say there’s never been a better time to be on the Left in the US, at least not for many years. We have a socialist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, that boasts tens of thousands of members and elected officials at every level of government across the US; left-wing ideas are increasingly mainstream; unions are the most popular they’ve been in decades and the labor movement is showing renewed signs of life, most recently with the historic UAW strike.

All that is true, though when people say this sort of thing I’m tempted to reply with some more sobering reminders: union density is still at historic lows; after looking like he might actually win the presidency on a radical platform in 2020, Bernie Sanders has focused on behind-the-scenes lobbying of the Biden administration, unwilling even to defy Biden in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza; the climate crisis gets worse and worse while government action continues to be woefully insufficient.

Beyond the recent balance sheet of socialist highs and lows, my big-picture reason for thinking socialism is a not-quite-rational hope is just its world-historic ambition. Socialists want to do away with class domination and establish a truly democratic society. When one looks at the current state of the world, or the history of failed attempts to move beyond capitalism — even by movements much larger and stronger than ours — it can be hard to feel optimistic about future chances of success.

The prospects for human liberation have felt especially bleak the past couple months. Not far from Jesus’s birthplace, Israel continues its campaign of brutal collective punishment against the people of Gaza, with the backing of the US government. Bethlehem is located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the war has spurred a surge of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians; the churches in the city have canceled their celebrations in solidarity with Gaza.

If there are any bright spots in this deep darkness, it’s that the tide of US public opinion on Israel-Palestine may finally be changing. A majority of US voters now supports a permanent cease-fire, and to my eyes the young socialist left looks more united than it has in years in its support of Palestine.

Compared to the rubble in Gaza and the general wreckage of history, that’s not a lot. But I take Christmas as a reminder that the hope of the world might come from the least likely of places — and that, sometimes at least, we need to fight against our more reasoned judgments to hold on to that hope.