WILLIAM McILVANNEY: Religious ritual still has place in modern world

A FRIEND once told me about attending a Christmas Eve service in a church in a small Ayrshire town many years ago.

He was expressing his own spirit of Christmas, even if it was one he found in a bottle. It's true that his sense of what Christmas means sounds vague, articulated through a fragment of old hymn which had perhaps surfaced in his mind like a childhood memory, the context for which had been lost. But that makes him not much different from a lot of us these days.

Like so many others things now, Christmas has gone post-modern. It's all comparative. You take the concept like a rough length of cloth and cut it to suit your taste. Probably the nearest thing to a commonly agreed style relates to family – not so much the holy family as that secular one we come from, where people go to their work and bring up children and everybody argues about how everybody else is cramping their fulfilment. Christmas is a time for giving the idea of family a fresh coat of paint by handing each other presents and actually eating a meal with everybody at the same table at the same time, with the television screen blank, and hoping the old resentments don't go off with the Christmas crackers.

The churches may be busier than usual but they're still not as busy as the shops. This year Scotland is promising to create a new record in festive spending – 1bn was removed from the major banks here during the month of December. But don't start trying to calculate your share of that. It would be against the unmercenary spirit of time of year.

The religious dimension still has its place. Apart from the increased church attendance, we had the usual speeches made by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen as defender of the faith. But, perhaps especially because we're all so neurotically aware of the present volatility of the world, these consisted of the familiar, carefully phrased and bromide generalisations.

There were references to the suffering of children and the need for shared values and the overcoming of religious and cultural differences.

As statements, these were all utterly unexceptionable. But the problem with assertions which nobody could seriously argue against is that there's not much point in arguing for them either. We know these things already. The only question is how to put the knowledge into practice.

The present Christian church tends to be less than dynamic in this area. It is so determined not to offend that it tends mainly to mediate among existing social attitudes rather than prescribe what those social attitudes should be. A Citizens' Advice Bureau is no substitute for a burning bush. The word of a politically correct Jehovah is about as compelling as that of an insurance salesman.

The result is that, though many people still celebrate Christmas as a religious festival, the religion no longer defines the nature of our society to the extent that it used to. It has become simply an option within that society. Church attendance figures would suggest it is an option which more and more people are inclined not to take up.

In such a situation it's not impossible to see Christmas as being for many people the intensive care unit of a dying faith kept dubiously alive on the life-support machine of commercialism. Every year we go along with the ritual since it isn't unpleasant anyway and the patient is a part of all our pasts. But we don't really expect to see so much as the eyelids flicker. Perhaps it's just that, like the drunk man in the church, we like the company.

But I still see the ritual as valid even for a devout agnostic like myself and I hope the convinced believers don't mind me joining in. I can understand the impatience of rationalists with some of Christianity's little subversions of the natural order, like virgin birth and resurrection. I can especially understand them after the decoding of a rough draft of the human genome. After this, I suggested at the time: If God is there, He may want to reconsider His job description.

I can see the plausibility of Voltaire's sly suggestion that, if God weren't there, it would be necessary for mankind to invent Him. It seems possible to me to think of the concept of God as being our con job on the natural world. We were different from the rest of nature, made in His image. Then, once we had used God to put ourselves above nature, we used science to usurp him. We were in charge. You could see God as the cat's paw phase of human evolution. Maybe Voltaire was right.

But I think something in those of us who have lost the certainty of faith misses God, or at least misses the possibility that He might just be there, keeping quiet about things. Sort of biding His time. Being masters of the world is a lonely job and, frankly, we're not very good at it. And it's a job from which you can't retire.

Taking over from nature implies that you can create a new improved order, some kind of remoulding of a just world. I don't know about you but it doesn't feel to me as if we are even getting close. It's too late now to insert the rider that nature is unjust and it's not our fault. The human project of civilised society allows us no escape clause. We can never henceforth be merely "in nature", not unless God decides to turn up again. We chose to take over. We can never resign the position.

The sphinx, which amounted to an animal committee, knew that when it asked Oedipus what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening. He said: "Man", thinking of babies, adults and walking-sticks. But that was a very chintzy interpretation. He took the riddle personally. He thought he was just answering a question. He was volunteering for a destiny. It was an evolutionary riddle. What walks on four legs is an animal. What walks on two legs is a human. What walks on three legs is a mutant. By presuming to control nature, humanity made a freak of itself, neither in the natural world nor effectively out of it.

It feels like evening now. Run a universe? We couldn't run a raffle. With God demoted, the word was with us. We could author the meaning of our own lives. Unable to believe, we could live our own fiction and suspend our disbelief that it wouldn't all turn out well. That's getting harder now with what seems to be developing into a horror story. Think of the kind of news that has surrounded us this Christmas.

So I wouldn't mind if God were there. I'm not saying I believe in him but I can't think of too many other solutions that would provide an answer. Can you? Merry Christmas.

Still the night, holy the night. Eh?

'Being masters of the world is a lonely job and, frankly, we're not very good at it'