John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Celebrating a force for good


There is always something fresh and golden in the air at Christmas

Christmas, curiously, is the one time of year that religion attracts discussion in Western newspapers. Easter is far more important in the Christian story, but it is grim. Only Christmas speaks to the spirit in nearly everyone.

Call it goodness, call it God, I'm not not sure there is much difference.

At midnight or tomorrow morning, thousands of people like me who are not consciously religious will seek out a church service.

I tell anyone who asks that I go for the carols, which I love, and there is something immensely enjoyable about singing them in unison with thousands of people. But there is also something fresh and golden in the air at Christmas and it stays with you after church.

I go for that and I used to go also in the hope of hearing an inspiring pastor. That has never happened.

Religion is one of the highest reaches of the human imagination. It is up there with music, art and poetry and, like them, beyond precise translation in prose. So I was asking a lot of its priests.

Thankfully, I have never heard one like the Rev Glynn Cardy, vicar of Auckland's St-Matthew-in-the-City, who twice now has made it his mission to reduce Christmas to the most trite and tawdry piece of social comment he can conceive.

It is not the calculated offence of his billboards that surprises me, it is their total lack of religious excitement. It is as if he resents Christmas because it moves so many.

That impression was reinforced by an article he wrote in the Herald on Tuesday. He sniffed at the familiar nativity scene, saying we enjoyed it simply because "babies are wonderful, families and communities are important, love is the essence of God and music is the closest thing we have to a divine language". (Well, yes).

"The Bible's Christmas," he continued, "was not about a baby but about a man. The authors used stories from the Hebrew Bible to talk about Jesus' radical tolerance, his bias to the poor, and his challenge to those in positions of religious and political power."

If that is true, I'm not interested. If religion has no more to tell me than the Labour Party, then I'd sooner listen to the Labour Party. It faces the test of turning compassion into practical policy from time to time.

Christianity finds genuine expression in charity, but it can do more than that. Like music, art and the architecture of medieval cathedrals, it should be capable of moving rich and poor to moments of awe and excitement at life and its infinite possibilities.

Religion is a conviction that there are greater and better forces at work on the world than human reason. I'm not sure there are - so I suppose I'm not religious - but I like the possibility. I like the Christian conception of that force because it is benign and not too prescriptive.

I like religion not because there is anything wrong with human reason, but because a world without the eternal possibility of mystery and wonder would be a less interesting place. And maybe more dangerous.

One of the most valuable expressions of religion in New Zealand is the prayer MPs stand and recite when Parliament assembles each day. Most of them are probably not religious, but they are asked to humble themselves for a moment and appeal for divine guidance.

This is deeply disconcerting to those with an exalted regard for human rationality, especially their own. Their thinking is in a tradition that led to the creation of some miserable socialist states last century.

Their view of religion - or at least of Christianity; they don't mind others - is jaundiced by reading of sectarian wars, witch-hunts, social inequities and moral hypocrisy.

They have not noticed one element of Christian history that has been a powerful and lasting influence for good.

Kings and emperors of medieval Europe always had to bend their knee to a source of authority greater than themselves. Unlike rulers in some other religious traditions, they could not claim descent from a deity.

The limits of power in Christian Europe might well explain the ideas that took root in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the age of reason and discovery, giving rise to urban industries, capitalism, mass education and parliamentary democracy.

The countries once called "Christendom" took these ideas to the world.

I feel blessed to live in the religious tradition that celebrates its founder's birth tomorrow. The beauty of its carols, commercial expressions, gifts, family gatherings and feasts - all seem gloriously fitting. Have a very merry Christmas.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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