Tue 8 Dec 2009
Imagine explaining Christmas to an alien. Surely it would be strange to attempt to explain Santa Claus to someone completely unacquainted with the custom. Even once one got past the difficulty of explaining the religious significance of the holiday that celebrates God’ s redemption of humanity by his being born as a child and the tradition of giving gifts as an imitation of this ultimate gift, there would still remain even more and greater strangeness. We give our children gifts but pretend that they are not from us, but from this imaginary kind-hearted Santa Claus, who watches the naughty and the nice and grants the wishes of all the world’s children. We smile with tenderness at the innocence of our children as they absorb this belief and allow it to tinge the appearance of presents under a tree on Christmas Eve with a magical, mysterious glow. And we grieve, in a way, when the illusion is lost to the inevitable advance of our children’s knowledge of the practicalities that govern our world and the laws that govern the human heart. Why? Why do we do this, and why do we feel a great loss when we come to see it all as humbug?
It is surely no virtue to lie, nor is it worthwhile fostering an ability to be deceived, even about things that we might wish were so. The value of believing cannot lie in a willed ignorance of what is right before our eyes, but in a hope for a deeper truth that lies beneath the surface of things. All magic lies in there being more to things than meets the eye, in there being hidden virtues and powers hidden within the heart of things that cannot be revealed in their appearances without special probing and prompting.
It may seem that there are no two things more dissimilar than scientific knowledge and belief in Santa Claus, but I believe that there is a deep connection between them that reveals the value of belief of this sort. The scientist learns to probe beneath the surface of things, to believe that within the flux and chaos of normal experience there lie hidden laws of nature that exhibit themselves only to the initiated under controlled conditions. The natures of things, as Plato saw, exist eternally and purely, and can only be revealed in things as they come to fulfill them in time, in the absence of interference and impurity. A scientist must see in the complex morass of empirical data, a hidden structure. He must have confidence that at the heart of chaos, lies law; that the random ramblings of the most unruly particle is in the grips of a form, a law that will be revealed by its behavior only over time under pure enough experimental conditions. The scientists who sit and wait in the super-conducting super collider for the particle predicted by the exquisitely beautiful mathematics of their physical theory are waiting for Santa Claus.
Just as the scientists can work only in the hope the mathematical order to which his mind responds is reflected in the order of nature, so in the innocent heart of a child there lie the urgings of beneficence and love. Like the secret forms of the natural world, hidden in its complexity, these seeds lie amongst our passions and the practical requirements of our world, which interfere with their expression. Just as the scientist believes that reality, in the grips of a form, in the fullness of time, will exhibit the actions that mathematical laws prescribes, so the innocent, pure soul in the grips of these most scared urgings of the heart (as Simone Weil calls them) hopes for good rather than evil, that kindness will be returned, that their letters to Santa will be answered.
According to Weil, we grieve the loss of belief, because this ability to feel ourselves in the grip of eternal forms, forms that express themselves in this world only in pure circumstances in the fullness of time, whether these forms be forms of natural law or forms of life and love; this ability is the most sacred part of human nature. I don’t think this has much to do with the gullibility of believing in pleasant things, whether they be religious dogmas or cute fairy tales. There is a rationality to the belief of the scientist and the child. The things that matter, in both science and life, are more than what meets the eyes; they are things whose expression requires the fullness of time and purity of condition. We are sometimes mistaken in our ascription of form to the natural world, but only the man who believes, beyond all hope, in the face of the fear of error, that there is an order at the heart of motion of the planets, will discover it, as Kepler did. Often kindness is repaid with pain, and no unknown stranger provides hidden acts of kindness to delight us, but only those who keep alive the secret urgings of their heart to see the good, and expect it in all men in the fullness of time, will have the courage to build the types of conditions, as rare and difficult as a super-conducting super collider, in which these urgings can come to fruition. Only those that continue to hear the hidden ringing of the bell, inside the hollow metal shell, will discover one day as they sit back exhausted in the silent gleaming, after arranging presents quietly under a magically glistening tree, that there is indeed a Santa Claus, and that it is them.