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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Santa Claus Theology
December 16, 2010

First, a disclaimer: I am no St. Nick killjoy. I love Santa as much as the next guy, and routinely donned some ridiculous togs to play him each Christmas Eve when the children were young. One of my favorite seasonal songs to play at the piano is a jazz version I’ve arranged of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You’ll hear no “Bah, humbug!” about Mr. Claus from me.

That said, I’m troubled by the Santa Claus theology I see at large among us these days. It’s not just a holiday season thing; it’s with us constantly. There are two Santa Claus heresies running amok among us.

First, there’s the theology based in the story line of the song I love to play – “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, and I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” It’s the heresy that we get from God what we deserve.

I love the Christmas story line that runs in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes – Calvin spends a frantic week or two before Christmas desperately trying to convince Santa that he has been good enough to merit his Christmas presents after all, despite a year of very bad behavior. In yesterday’s online strip, Calvin ships a large box of papers off to Santa in which he makes his case that, despite every contrary appearance, he really does deserve the designation “good boy.” Calvin, thou protestest too much.

 I am dismayed to find a similar notion rampant among many good church folk, even Presbyterians – God rewards people for being basically good, and this is our hope for heaven. The dark side of this is the terror that because we can never measure up to God’s high standard, there’s no hope for us. God’s eye follows us everywhere, ever ready for the big “Gotcha!” as soon as we make a misstep. Either way, we deny the grace of God revealed in Christ, which is our only hope of salvation. This grace is grounds for real hope, not just a pipe dream. God is gracious – we need not fear being abandoned for our shortcomings. By the same token, we set aside any false hope we might have placed in our goodness as a ticket to God’s favor. We can’t neither earn nor lose God’s favor by what we do or fail to do. God shows us favor not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is.

Second, there’s the opposite Santa heresy, that God is this grandfatherly guy in the sky who stands at the ready to give us whatever we ask for.  In this understanding, God is a heavenly dispenser of good things and all we have to do to get them is to ask in the right way. Sometimes this way of relating to God is labeled “prosperity theology.” If you’re suffering, it says, it must be that you didn’t ask rightly; if you had, God would have satisfied you. Presbyterians may not be prone to crass versions of prosperity theology, but we easily lapse into the “nice guy” understanding of God that has more to do with what God gives to us than for what God requires of us.

A recent study by sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame identifies the basic theology of our high school youth as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” They have learned it from us, I’m afraid. The basic tenets of this theology are: God wants us to be nice, God wants us to feel happy, God’s main role in our lives is to help us solve our problems, and good people go to heaven when they die. (See his fuller articulation of this phenomenon at http://www.ptsem.edu/iym/lectures/2005/Smith-Moralistic.pdf, or read more about it in his prize-winning book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Life of Teenagers.) It is Santa Claus theology, pure and simple.

What can we do, what must we do, to give our children a better account of the faith? Is it any wonder that our church loses most of its youth somewhere during high school or college? Who needs a church to sustain such a theology? We can give them no more than what we have. So the question comes back on our heads – what kind of theology are we living?

Contending for the faith,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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