Santa, God and the Problem of Certain Belief

I once knew a family that didn’t do Santa Claus with their kids at Christmas. The reason they didn’t do Santa Claus was because they felt it might lead their children to doubt the existence of God. You see, Santa is basically an old man living far away at the top of the world. He gives you what you want because he loves you. But nobody ever gets to see him. And many children think of God as an old man living far away in heaven who answers our prayers (gives you what you want) and you never get to see him either. So their concern was that when the kids discover that Santa isn’t real (sorry if that’s a shock to you), that would sow the seeds of doubt about whether they were being similarly bamboozled when it came to believing in God. No seriously, that’s what the mom told me. I’m not making it up at all.

I actually think that the experience of finding out that Santa isn’t real, when handled decently well, is a good thing for kids. It’s a safe way to teach them that sometimes you believe things that aren’t actually true. And it’s OK. Life doesn’t end. The presents don’t stop coming. Yeah, you lose a little bit of the magic. But it’s not the end of the world. The real fun of Christmas doesn’t come from in believing in magic; it comes from expanding what brings you joy beyond just receiving. Christmas is much bigger and richer than presents that show up by magic if you’ve been good. It’s just like Christianity that way.

Unfortunately, this whole “never allow doubt, never consider that you might be wrong, never question the reality you’ve be taught” mentality is exactly how a good number of people teach their kids to approach the faith. I know that the people who do this and think this way believe they are doing the right thing. But the hubris of it is astonishing.

In order for me to teach my child never to doubt, question or challenge what they have been taught about God, I have to be confident that what I have taught them about God is 100% accurate and complete. I have to be so certain that my faith experience and theology represents the pinnacle of the Christian faith that it would be foolish and dangerous us for them to ever seek anything better than what I’ve got. And if you believe that about your faith, um, well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but, hmmmm . . . how to put this delicately? Maybe if I pet your unicorn while I figure out how to say this without sounding like a jerk? I know they must exist somewhere in your world, because your world clearly doesn’t work the way my world does.

In my world, God is bigger than I can imagine. In my world, we have barely begun to grasp his goodness. In my world, we’re still struggling to live according to his Kingdom ways. In my world, the way we’ve been doing it hasn’t been universally embraced and resulted in the meeting of heaven on earth, so clearly it’s not good enough. In my world, what I know and what I have experienced is the jumping off point, not the end destination.

If you think that what you know about God and how to live according to his Kingdom ways is good enough, well, flowers better be springing up around you everywhere you walk. Because that’s a mighty big claim to be making. Big claims require big proof. If the faith you are passing on is so delicate that learning that Santa’s not real might threaten it, that’s big proof alright. Just not the sort of proof that points to you being right.

It occurred to me this morning that our problem is that we are looking for a once and for all solution to everything. We want to get our theology right once and for all. We want to get our parenting right once and for all. We want to get our governments right once and for all. We want to get our sexuality right once and for all. We want to get our economies right once and for all. We want to get our laws right once and for all.

But this runs utterly contrary to how God created the world to work. There are no once and for all solutions on planet earth. You can’t water a patch of earth once and for all. You can’t grow food once and for all. Everything changes. What was once a jungle is now a desert. What was once a dominant male lion is now a fallen carcus being eating by scavengers. There is no once and for all. There’s only a process.

Then I thought, “but God does promise a once-and-for-all, doesn’t he? He promises salvation and redemption once-and-for-all. Right?”

And then I had one of those ah-ha moments. We want a once-and-for-all, but God gave us a process. There’s a Way of doing things. It’s why Christianity was called The Way very early in its development. It’s a way of doing life. A process for challenging the powers and principalities which rule this world. The process IS the once-and-for-all solution we’ve been looking for.

The process works when we are continually looking for a better way. When we are driven to do better and expect more from ourselves. We can always love better. We can always find better solutions. We can always learn from errors. We can always go deeper into God. We can always become more of who He created us to be. We can always experience our salvation more fully. We can always grow in deeper unity with each other. To embrace this process of continually learning better ways to follow Jesus’ teachings is to embrace God’s once-and-for-all solution.

The moment you insist that your way is THE way, that what you know about Jesus is what there is to know, that your theology is not only good enough, but unable to be challenged, you are cutting yourself off from God’s solution. You are like a child who refuses to mature. It’s not a good look, frankly.

Learning to be wrong is a skill. Most of us weren’t taught it. In fact, the more religious your upbringing, the less skilled you are likely to be at it. But refusing to be wrong doesn’t make you right. When I confront my children about their unwillingness to admit when they are wrong, I sometimes remind them of someone I knew growing up. He would never, ever admit he was wrong. He believed that it was his job to never be wrong and that to admit error meant he was failing at his job.

I ask my kids, “do you think he was ever wrong?” And of course they say yes. Everyone’s wrong sometimes. Then I ask them, “do you think that him never admitting when he was wrong fooled us? Do you think that we actually thought he was never wrong?” And of course they say no. We knew he was wrong even when he wouldn’t admit it. “Do you think you’re going to convince us that you’re never wrong just because you are unwilling to admit it? Do you think it will work better for you than it did for him? Or do you suppose we’ll all just think you’re kind of an idiot for never being able to admit when you’re wrong?,” I ask.

What I don’t tell them is that this person actually did manage to convince some people that he was as perfect as he claimed to be. It was shocking and hurtful to them when they finally had to face the reality that he was just as, if not more, prone to error than the rest of us. Even sadder was that he wasted many years dedicated to never being wrong that he could have been using to learn better ways of living and being.

So, I suppose that all of this is to say, there’s nothing wrong with your kids finding out that Santa isn’t real. And refusing to ever allow for doubt, questioning or error isn’t going to make you right. It’s just going to turn you into the kind of idiot who teaches their kids that God is like Santa Claus in the sky. Which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. But it’s not nearly good enough for me.

*Originally posted May 2014.

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3 thoughts on “Santa, God and the Problem of Certain Belief

  1. I never could get my head round this Santa thing. Parents telling their kids transparent lies; what does that do to family trust when they find out? And so as a kid I thought Santa was used as a metaphor from the outset. It still shocks me that I was wrong

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    • My husband and I deliberately fuck with our kids because we feel like it’s important for them to learn to tell truth from lies so that they won’t ever make the mistake of trusting anyone mindlessly. And we want them to practice dealing with deception. I mean, we don’t abuse it in any way. Mostly it’s just silly stuff like dad seeing if he can get our daughter to go along with trying to trick mom into thinking that he’d given her alcohol. It’s a game we play all the time basically. Our kids trust us as is appropriate, of course. When my boys were younger, I used to respond to badgering demands for an explanation for why they couldn’t have what they wanted with, “because I’m mean and don’t love you very much.” Which made them laugh and roll their eyes, knowing the conversation was over because the idea that I was mean and didn’t love them was so absurd as to be laughable. But we see it as part of our job to teach them how to navigate a world in which what is true and false isn’t always easy to see. So, while I’m not particularly nostalgic and I’d really like to convince my family that Santa has moved on to the next stage of his life and requests that donations be made to the charity of our choosing in his honor, I’m cool with the Santa Claus thing. I think it’s an important lesson for kids to learn that their beliefs are not infallible and no one is completely trustworthy.

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  2. And there’s the opposite extreme, where if you don’t believe in Santa and every bell and whistle that has accreted to Christmas, you’re attacking Christianity. I believed in Santa and so did my children, but I wasn’t devastated when I found out he wasn’t real and neither were my children. I guess my parents and I didn’t lay the whole experience of Christmas (tree, presents, etc,) at his feel. I was an only child who got several presents at Christmas, but only one was from Santa. We didn’t do cookies and milk; I think I had my picture taken with him once. I did the same with my family. So finding out that he wasn’t real didn’t really change much for me. In fact I’m surprised at some of the Christian families I know who go way out of their way to convince their children that he is real.

    It never occurred to me that finding out the truth about Santa would turn my children away from God. I do worry about all the Christian voices they hear preaching hatred and fear (while thinking they’re preaching love and peace) turning them away from God. And those voices seem to be the only ones that are heard in public spaces nowadays.

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