This year our local newspaper reprinted Francis P. Church’s reply to the eternal question Virginia O’Hanlon posed to the New York Sun in 1897: Is there a Santa Claus? If you’ve never read it, google it now. It is well worth the 2 minutes it takes to read these 500 brilliant words.
The phrase, “Yes, Virginia,” has become synonymous with believing in incredible things. People of faith hear it as a childlike affirmation of religious belief, skeptics see it as a rhetorical slight of hand. But it is neither. Francis Church was a very subtle and insightful theologian. He asked…
What does it mean to have faith in the modern world? For many, religion has become something like “believing in incredible things.” Woody Allan once quipped, “To me there's no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They're all equally valid or invalid, really.” For the skeptic, religion is all about believing in silly things, like Santa Claus, for instance. For the true believer, it is the same. Religious faith is belief in supernatural events and places, like heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints, like Santa Claus.
But Mr. Church saw a third way. Myths, like the Santa Claus legend, are metaphors for truly transcendent realities. He wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” Love, generosity, devotion—these are the real transcendent things that come to life the Santa Claus legend. Such things are real; we could not live without them. But they transcend the world of material reality. You cannot measure or weigh them. Something in them even resists explanation. But they are real. Not all real things are material. Love is real, and yet, only a fool would try to explain it. Consider Church’s final paragraph:
“You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.” Science has its place. But there are things that only the poets, the novelists, the prophets can explore.
To have faith in the modern world means trusting that things like love, justice, beauty, joy, generosity, hope do exist. They are real. And life without them would not be worth living. Religion is best, I believe, when it endeavors to explore these things. Religion is not “believing in incredible things.” Religion is attending to transcendent things.
Christmas is full of stories, and at the center, the story, the story of Jesus’ birth. Was Jesus born in a manger? Did shepherds worship him? Did Magi come from afar? No. It’s a story. But in that story true things come to life, things that move us to hope once again that with each new birth the power of love, justice and mercy comes to life among us in utter innocence, and that this power could change us and save us from our sins. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He loves you, and would give to you and every child in all the world the gifts that would bring you happiness and peace. Go to sleep, Virginia, and dream of that world. “In all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.” Go to sleep and believe that the world of your dreams might become real.