Naughty or Nice

Who checks whether Santa has been naughty or nice?

I was doing some junk-store shopping with the kids this week, and the kindly old lady behind the counter asked my daughters whether they had been naughty or nice this year. My retort was, ‘It’s a good thing for their sake that it doesn’t really work like that.’

Thinking about it further, it occurred to me that this element of the Santa story is pretty much opposite to the Christian message that we remember at Christmas time. This would be ironic, I suppose, except that so much else about Christmas is also at some degree of variance with the Christian message.

We give gifts at Christmas to remember that God gave us the ultimate gift at the cost of the ultimate sacrifice, both in giving up His God-ness to become a human (and a low-status human at that), and in giving up His life to die as horribly and shamefully as a slave can. And all this to open a way back for people who don’t want it, and who rejected Him and killed Him when He was here.

So, Christian gift giving remembers grace: the idea that we’ve been given something huge that we don’t deserve (or more properly the opposite of what we deserve). Santa — at least in theory — offers gifts to children who have been ‘nice’, but withholds them from children who have been naughty.

I guess it’s good to teach children reward-punishment thinking — it is not a true and complete ethic, but a necessary first step — but it’s a relief to me (and presumably to our children) that gifts of the Christmas- and the eternal variety are not offered on this basis but on the basis of grace.

 

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4 thoughts on “Naughty or Nice

  1. Mary says:

    Super post! It’s also worth noting that all other religions feature a god (or gods) who applies Santa’s reasoning: “naughty” people don’t go to Heaven, but “nice” people do – all the while assuming that there are lots of people nice enough to spend eternity with God on their own merit.

  2. Hephaestion says:

    We give gifts at Christmas to remember that God gave us the ultimate gift at the cost of the ultimate sacrifice, both in giving up His God-ness to become a human (and a low-status human at that), and in giving up His life to die as horribly and shamefully as a slave can.

    The “ultimate sacrifice” only applies when death is final. If death is only temporary then it’s not really death and it’s not really the ultimate sacrifice. Sacrificing yourself when you believe in an afterlife is also, therefore, not the ultimate sacrifice. (If there weren’t any post-fourth-century theological injunctions against suicide one can imagine hordes of fundamentalist Christians only too keen to depart this “corrupt” world for the perfection of the next.)

    It follows, then, that the ultimate sacrifice can only be given by those who believe (rightly or wrongly) that this life is all you get, that there is only non-existence to follow. This would truly be giving your life, and expecting non-existence in return. A Christian, by definition, cannot do this, and nor can a god.

    The more egregious sin, though, is taking punishment on behalf of someone, and furthermore doing so when it is not even asked for. Thus the Christian can always accuse the non-believer of not accepting the “ultimate gift” that he or she was given by Christ, and it follows, by a most wicked logic, that the non-believer has chosen to burn for an eternity.

    So, Christian gift giving remembers grace: the idea that we’ve been given something huge that we don’t deserve (or more properly the opposite of what we deserve). Santa — at least in theory — offers gifts to children who have been ‘nice’, but withholds them from children who have been naughty.

    Getting rewarded for doing something good, being nice or working hard is positive reinforcement. It is a simple and effective way to encourage certain behavior. This is as opposed to negative reinforcement, such as beating an animal (such as a dog or a person) to discourage unwanted behavior. Animals respond better to positive reinforcement. This is why we do not beat children anymore, and why the biblical injection to not spare the rod lest you spoil the child is immoral nonsense.

    To “reward” a person with something that they do not deserve is not usually considered a good thing. Indeed, this is an injustice of the highest order. We are creatures with a highly evolved sense of fairness, and it offends the senses to see people rewarded when they do not deserve it. (And on that topic, who would not be offended at the notion of Richard Feynman being punished for an eternity while the Pope is rewarded for an eternity?)

    Christianity uses positive reinforcement in that belief (in a supernatural cosmic overlord) is rewarded with an eternal post-life life of perfection, and negative reinforcement in which non-belief is punished with an eternity of torture. The nice and the naughty as you would have it.

    Christmas is about joy, about being with family and friends, about giving and receiving, about being nice to each other, about eating, drinking and being merry. Best of all, you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to enjoy it.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Assuming that an afterlife makes it less of a sacrifice is not to my mind a proper argument, because a) because giving yourself up to non existence is only bad if you take a particularly long and painful time to get there; if you go quickly, you don’t exist enough to care that you don’t exist; b) sacrifice is only felt if you’re conscious of what you’ve given up; both options experience that sense of loss while they’re busy being sacrificed, but the one expecting an afterlife has the risk that the sense of loss will persist with his consciousness; and c)you’re still assuming that we *know* with certainty that what we believe is a reality; we know as much as you do about the afterlife, in spite of our different beliefs about it. Even Jesus — without omniscience — would have been operating with a measure of faith. In addition, if we’re talking ultimate sacrifices, death is hardly the biggest deal about it. Any old William Wallace can die for somebody else. Jesus was sinless and divine, and about to ‘become sin’, as the Bible calls it, suffering the total anger and punishment of God. You probably suffer as I do just bearing the weight of *knowing* a news-bulletin’s-worth of what people do to each other. Actually bearing the sin of the whole world would make it the ultimate sacrifice, regardless of whether it was an end of existence, or the end of all possibility for reward.

      In any case, one has to accept one or other metaphysic; they don’t co-exist. If there is eternal existence (and I’m not saying that there is in such simplistic terms), the ultimate sacrifice cannot include a notion of non-existence, seeing as that is not possible in such a universe.

      Some assorted responses:

      1. I’m going out on a limb here, but you seem not to have children.

      2. Reward-punishment is a useful motivator in some conditions, and it works with a sense of fairness. It is not a commendable ethic, however, as surely rightness should be pursued for its own sake? Surely we praise people who give without regard for reward (genuine altruism), even going as far as giving one’s life? The higher acts of good tend to be opposed to reward-punishment operations and lean towards grace.

      3. As we Christians always point out, if God were to mete out fairness to humans, it would not end well. You can’t complain about the ethic of free giving if the alternative is consistent, fair harshness.

      4. We Protestants are not committed to the notion that the Pope is a paragon of virtue or a guaranteed recipient of grace. Our more combative ancestors were fond of calling popes antichrist. I prefer to merely invoke the likelihood of Matt 7:21-23 in the case of popes.

      5. Belief and non-belief are not works of good or evil to be rewarded or punished. They are states of reliance versus self-righteousness. They are modes of existence. There is an eternity of difference.

      6. No one ever said you need faith to have fun.

      • Hephaestion says:

        Assuming that an afterlife makes it less of a sacrifice is not to my mind a proper argument, because a) because giving yourself up to non existence is only bad if you take a particularly long and painful time to get there…

        It is not so much *how* the sacrifice is carried out but that it *is* a sacrifice. Is it more or less of a sacrifice if the *conscious* act of giving one’s life is carried out *knowing* that death is either the end or the beginning? A new and everlasting life in the perfection of Heaven would be more attractive than non-existence, to a Christian, and this must have some bearing on the decision to give one’s life.

        …but the one expecting an afterlife has the risk that the sense of loss will persist with his consciousness;

        Agreed, but you can’t then claim that Heaven is a place of perfection. If the agony of loss is to be experienced in Heaven then it is a place not unlike that of earth. Furthermore, since consciousness, and experiencing things such as the agony of loss, implies a brain or its neural equivalent, then it is a place in which the usual laws of physics apply. You would then be making assumptions about the nature of Heaven that you couldn’t possibly know.

        …and c)you’re still assuming that we *know* with certainty that what we believe is a reality; we know as much as you do about the afterlife, in spite of our different beliefs about it.

        Then you know nothing about it, and your honesty and candour is as unchristian as it is welcome.

        Actually bearing the sin of the whole world would make it the ultimate sacrifice, regardless of whether it was an end of existence, or the end of all possibility for reward.

        So it is the number of recipients that makes it the ultimate sacrifice? And what might that number be..?

        It is arrogant presumption to accept punishment on behalf of those of whom it was not asked. To do so on behalf of the whole world is an arrogance so monumental that it boggles the mind! There are those who accept responsibility for who and what they are, for the things they do and the things they say.

        As we Christians always point out, if God were to mete out fairness to humans, it would not end well. You can’t complain about the ethic of free giving if the alternative is consistent, fair harshness.

        Who’s complaining? The universe behaves just as one would expect of one that operates unrelentingly according to the laws of physics: a hydrogen atom always behaves like a hydrogen atom; a volcanic eruption destroys everything in its path, regardless of species, regardless of how well the life was lived, regardless of belief.

        However, evolution has shaped us to appreciate the rewarding of good deeds and the punishment of bad deeds. What we deem to be “good” and “bad” vary with culture, geography and time. In medieval England a mother might get her children ready for a matinee performance involving a screaming cat being dipped in burning oil. Such torture today would be met with disgust, outrage and a demand for punishment of such evil.

        Belief and non-belief are not works of good or evil to be rewarded or punished. They are states of reliance versus self-righteousness. They are modes of existence. There is an eternity of difference.

        However you wish to define belief and non-belief in a supernatural entity, the Christian view holds that those who do not believe are bound for an eternity in Hell. Christians offended at such an injustice resort to all manner of theological and linguistic gymnastics to avoid what the devout take in their stride, that Feynman is burning in Hell and will continue to burn for an eternity.

        No one ever said you need faith to have fun.

        No one ever said you need faith to go quantity surveying with Ethel the aardvark. Your point?

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