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Why Christmas matters: reflections from a chess grandmaster

Why Christmas matters: reflections from a chess grandmaster

Guest writer Jonathan Rowson on what chess taught him about Christmas. 19/12/2019

Is it true Daddy? Is the 2000 year old story true?

My son asked this question at Christmas a few years ago and I am still not sure how to respond. I tell many elaborate tales to my children about Santa Claus, not to mention the tooth fairy, but when the truth is in doubt it’s harder to lie with conviction.

I don’t know in what sense the Christmas story is true, nor in what sense I want it to be true. I am culturally Christian and even welcome the possibility of God, but I feel no heightened affinity for Jesus, I rarely read the Bible, and seldom go to church. Around this time of year I notice, however, that when I allow myself to flirt with the truth claims of religious Christianity, the Christmas story ceases to be merely cute, and starts to feel uncanny and question begging. Is it true, Daddy?

In some ways this question is curiously niche. I am no theologian, but if you are already open to the plausibility of God’s existence, and already feel the notion that God is love makes intuitive sense, it’s a relatively small stretch to imagine that somehow God became human. That somehow defies easy explanation, and seems to be where faith comes in. I confess I cannot fully comprehend it.

Rowan Williams put it as follows in his Christmas lecture of 2007.

“The birth of Jesus, in which that power that holds the universe together in coherence takes shape in history as a single human body and soul, in an event of cosmic importance. It announces that creation as a whole has found its purpose and meaning, and that the flowing together of all things for the joyful transfiguration of our humanity is at last made visible on earth.”

What has been called ‘the scandal of particularity’ is that God did his Christmas thing precisely once, at one particular moment in one particular place. Curiously, this feature of the story makes a lot of sense to me. The Christmas child is stateless and homeless, a refugee at the centre of the political storm of his time. When you step away from the trappings of nativity plays, that quivering bundle of flesh at the heart of the story matters like life itself matters. Baby Jesus is the baby I once was, the babies I have since held and cherished, and the babies not yet conceived or born. He is an historical figure, but then we all are.

What makes this baby a cosmic lynchpin? Why Bethlehem? Why just once? Why so long ago and never again? I used to think it seemed flimsy and arbitrary at first blush, but there is another way to look at it. Being human is necessarily about being one human in particular; each of us utterly unique, just like everyone else. The older I get, the more I appreciate the singularity of beings and sense this may somehow be the heart of the meaning of life. Now I see that the notion that God may have existed once and only once in human form is not gratuitous; in fact it’s the only way the idea that God might know what it means to be human could make sense at all. On closer inspection the scandal of particularity looks more like the sanity of particularity.

None of which means the story is true; only that if it were true, it is meaningful to put it mildly. Personally, I still struggle with the cosmological absurdity of Christianity. Reflecting on the vast reaches of space and aeons of time makes any historical narrative about a brief moment on earth seem quaint; locally contingent rather than galactically necessary. The historical Jesus might be God, but I confess for me he remains an enigmatic storyteller, for now at least.

Christmas might nonetheless be more than a spasm of warm feeling in a time of cold weather. The question is not just is it true, but also, does it matter?

In my recent book about what chess taught me about life, The Moves that Matter, I reflect on why anything matters, and why anybody bothers doing anything at all. In my case I fed my spiritual hunger by playing chess for decades, and began reflecting on what it means to care about a competitive success of any kind. The journalist Simon Barnes puts it like this in The Meaning of Sport: ‘It is the mattering that matters … All sports represent the collision of wills: people or teams who want the same thing and have to cause somebody pain to get it. The more it matters to the athletes, the more vivid the experience for the spectator.’

Christmas is like competition in this sense: it entails the social construction of mattering. In chess, the game has no ultimate significance, but through the infrastructure of mattering – the rules, results and rankings – chess becomes exciting enough to be worth living for. Likewise, the Christmas story may or may not be true, but because we dangle silver bobbles on mass produced trees, because we sing carols as if they made sense, and because we gift each other toiletry bags as if they were urgently required; because of all that and more, we convey that life as such matters, and that we matter to each other.

To know and relish the narrative adventure of a chess game is not really possible unless you care about the result; but it is the caring that matters, not the result as such. I know how it feels to care enough that I would hold my head in my hands in defeat after a painful loss. That kind of competitive anguish may look different from writing Christmas cards to old neighbours, telling lame cracker jokes, or buying gift vouchers for half–remembered cousins, but these activities tap into the same distinctly human process of mattering – in fact a process of mattering is precisely what we are.

It might seem an oblique connection, but I believe it is at the heart of what is happening at this time of year. Like chess, Christmas does not matter until we make it matter, but it matters all the more for that.


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 Image: Mihail Fedorenko/

Jonathan Rowson

Jonathan Rowson

Jonathan is a philosopher. He is Director of the think tank Perspectiva, an Open Society Fellow and a three–time British chess champion. He is the author of The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (Bloomsbury). He tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

Posted 19 December 2019

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