Nearly twenty years ago, the renowned educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a very provocative book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. As its title suggests, this isn’t a book that flatters contemporary culture. Part of our mind is darkening, he suggests. Our sophistication is making us smarter but less wise. Something inside of us is narrowing. What? What’s narrowing inside of us? How are our minds closing?
His basic idea can be captured in one image, this autobiographical piece:
When he was a young, undergraduate student in University, one of his professors walked into class on the first day and said this to the students: “You come here from your parochial backgrounds, full of your childish beliefs; well, I am going to bathe you in the great truths and set you free!”
Bloom wasn’t impressed. He remarks that the professor reminded him of a little boy who had solemnly informed him at age seven that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. However, Bloom adds, he wasn’t bathing me in any great truths, just showing off, like the professor. But still the lesson wasn’t lost on him. From this, Bloom resolved to teach in the opposite way. He would, on the first day of his classes, walk into the lecture room, look at his young students, and begin his class in words to this effect: “You come here with a lot of experience, already having tasted life, having been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of things, so I’m going to try to teach you how to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny again – then maybe you’ll have a chance to be happy!”
This invitation, to learn how to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny again, is one of the many challenges of Christmas. And the challenge is not so much to come back to the innocence of a child (something we could never do, even if we tried) but to see the knowledge and maturity that we’ve gained from all our years of learning and experience not as an end but as a stage, a necessary one, on the journey to a still deeper place, wisdom, fuller maturity.
What that means is that it is not just important to learn and become sophisticated, it is equally important to eventually become post- sophisticated; it is not just important to grow in experience and shed naivete, it is equally important to eventually find a certain “second naivete”; and it is not just a sign of intelligence and maturity to stop believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny, it is a sign of even more intelligence and deeper maturity to start believing in them again.
An old philosophy professor of mine used to express this is a series of adages: If you ask a naive child, if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say yes. If you ask bright child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say no. But if you ask even a brighter child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say yes, for a deeper reason.
Almost everything about Christmas, from its deep real meaning to the piety and even (ironically) the commercialism we surround it with, invites us to be that third child.
But that’s not easy. To be an adult is precisely to be experienced, complex, wounded. To be an adult is to have lost one’s innocence. None of us, unless we die very young, carries the dignity of our person and of our baptism unstained through life. We fall, we compromise, we sin, we get hurt, we hurt others, and mostly we grow ever more pathologically complex, with layer after layer of emotional and intellectual complexity separating us from the little girl and little boy who once waited for Christmas in innocence and joyful anticipation. And that can be painful.
Sometimes, if we’re sensitive, the innocence of children can be like the stab of knife to the soul, making us feel as if we’ve fallen from ourselves. But, in the end, that’s an unhealthy over-idealization, the false nostalgia of J.D. Salinger’s, Catcher in the Rye. We’re not meant to be children forever and innocence will always be lost.
Sometimes, more positively, we get to experience our old innocence and youthful wonder vicariously in the eyes of our own children, in their joyful anticipation and gleeful celebration of Christmas. Their belief in Santa and the wonder in their eyes as they look at the baby-Jesus in the crib help us find a certain softness inside again; not at the same place where we once felt things when we were children and still believed in Santa (because that would only bring the painful stab of nostalgia) but at a new place, a place beyond where we defined ourselves as grown-up (because that’s the place where wisdom is born).
That’s also the place where Jesus is born. That’s Bethlehem in the soul.