Merry Christmas? In many western metropolises, a certain awareness has arisen not to impose your religion on people you don’t know. But wishing others good tidings is a shared human instinct.
There is no question in my mind that the Western pursuit of political correctness sometimes oversteps the mark. A Christmas market is simply a Christmas market, a St. Martin's procession is a St. Martin's procession. For those who want to relabel Christian events in our culture, it is not about being sensitive towards religious minorities, but about being in constant opposition to any form of church-organized religion.
By doing this, these people ignore the key criterion for the present use of language: It is not called the "Christmas market" because the majority of Germans might be Christians and thus can claim certain rights for themselves, but because these markets were created in the context of celebrating Christmas. Everyone is welcome there, regardless of the person's origin or religion. The Christmas markets are inclusive, just like the lantern processions on St. Martin's Day. Of course, the great St. Martin can, in his selfless actions, be a role model to anyone. Why shouldn't he be?
It is essential that we are free citizens. It is not a question of what religion we follow, how old we are, our gender or whom we love. Our Western and free order of life is not based on the recognition of metaphysical principles. Nor does it forbid them. And if you accidentally wish a non-Christian a Merry Christmas, that is not a bad thing if the intention was good.
Religion as a source of identity
In India, on the other hand, the principle of citizenship, the ultimate characteristic of any democracy, has been abolished. Muslims not welcome. And this in a country where 200 million Muslims live and which is commonly considered the largest democracy in the world? You have to rub your eyes. Because something bizarre is happening.
The nation-state overcame religion and dynastic succession as the main pillars of community-building two centuries ago. From then on, identification with one another was based on a common language, history, taboos and geographical references. But by re-introducing religion as a source of identity, be it in India or elsewhere in the world, our world order is stripped of its foundation. We are now no longer who we identify ourselves to be, but what others make us into. This could be the end of a society based on the individual and a person's dignity.
It is important to note that we live in a permanent state of pluralism in the world of today. We have friends who have no religion, or a religion different from our own. We marry people who come from other countries. These are no longer isolated examples, but many people's everyday experiences. This does not mean giving up your own religion or culture. But your own religion and culture is put into perspective within society or only banally compared to others you meet on a daily basis.
Plurality and pragmatism
Alexander Görlach is also a guest columnist for The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche
In this sense, the whole world has become one city. And it should come as no surprise that the metropolis is already mentioned as a despised place in the Bible: the "Whore of Babylon" was sinful because all kinds of conventions, religions and traditions coexisted there (Eds.: biblical scholars see Babylon as a metaphor for the pagan Roman Empire at the time it persecuted Christians). The people there were not orthodox, but pragmatic.
These days the world is increasingly becoming such a place. Even in the remotest corners of the world, there are others out there who overcome life's challenges on the basis of their worldview. This plurality is a challenge for everyone. There are discussions in the Islamic community about whether wishing Christians a Merry Christmas should be allowed, or whether it would diminish a Muslim's own faith. The highest Sunni Islamic teaching institution, the Al Azhar University in Cairo, on the other hand, has proclaimed that the Qur'an and tradition not only allow but also demand good relations with non-Muslims (which includes congratulations) as decent and good behavior.
The ugly exclusivism in the name of religion and race is, therefore, hopefully, the last rearing up before plurality becomes the norm for humanity. In the Middle Ages, the Magi were venerated at the manger as representatives of the three continents then known to Europeans: Europe, Africa and Asia. The human family may not come together again in the same places of ritual significance. But we do not need this, for we are united by the fact that we must cope with life — with or without God's help. For some, the Lord's birth is a source of joy. Others simply see something positive in the news of the birth of a child. In German, people used to describe a pregnant woman as being "full of hope." Hope is something that the human race could well use at this point in its history. With this in mind, Merry Christmas!
Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.