Miracle on 34th Street and the problem of Postmodern epistemology

Every Christmas, each of us is a little bit older. Some of us show our age more than others. Not so with Santa Clause. He remains the same year after year. However, beneath the white beard and sparkling eyes, some changes may be apparent to the discerning eye. The Santa of Postmodernism is not quite the same as the Santa of Modernism.

The Modernist makes no pretenses about Santa’s ontology. Santa may be a useful lie for deceiving children into being good, just as Kant and the early Voltaire saw belief in God as a useful idea for motivating the masses in morality. But there was never any question, in the mind of the Modernist, about Santa being real. The Modernist is a rationalist and believes only those things which can be demonstratively proven.

Under Postmodern epistemology, truth is relative to the framework of the perceiver. Since the aim is “no longer truth but performativity” (Steven Connor, Postmodern Culture) it follows that Santa can actually be “real” for those who believe in him. This came across in an article I read last year in one of the British papers about a school where a substitute teacher had let slip that the old man didn’t really exist. After a number of parents complained, the school fired the teacher and brought in a man to address the class and put them right about Mr. Clause. He assured the distressed students that the other teacher had simply made a mistake: Santa is real, he said.

A Modernist might make such an audacious claim as a manipulative tool (and Santa belief has traditionally functioned as a manipulative tool, as in the song “Santa Clause is coming to town”), but he would know it was a lie. But the Postmodernist can tell his child that Santa is real and really mean it, because he can be real for you. This is because it is a centerpiece of Postmodern epistemology (grossly oversimplified) that there is no notion of truth external to the conceptual frameworks we choose to adopt.

The placidity of the Postmodernism epistemic paradigm has meant there is new freedom for having faith in God, although “faith” in this sense differs greatly from the objective Biblical concept. Whereas Modernist critics of the Christian faith would typically respond by asking for evidence and proof, those who have been thoroughly Postmodernized are quite happy to accommodate faith in God as long as that faith is understood in the subjective sense typlified in the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street (of which more will be said shortly). That is why critics of religion who are still working under a Modernist paradigm, such as the new atheists, have been generally greeted with ire from both the religious and the secular communities. Why get so worked up about attacking faith if it gives meaning and purpose to people's life, many have asked in response to Dawkin’s atheistic crusades, including his crusade to abolish Christmas? Similarly, why bother telling children that Santa doesn’t exist if it gives magic to their lives?

I am reminded of the play Nathan the Wise written by Lessing (pictured right) and published in 1779. (For background to the play, see my article "Mother State or Mother Church" in Christianity & Society, Volume XVIII, No. 1, Summer, 2008) Because Nathan the Wise takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, Lessing is able to have interplay between all three of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The portion of the play that is most famous, as well as most significant, is a parable that the wise Nathan tells to the Sultan. The Islamic Sultan had asked the Jewish Nathan to tell him which religion was the true one. Suspicious of the Sultan’s motives, Nathan answers with the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, there was once a rich man who possessed a magic ring. This ring had secret power which caused the owner of the ring to gain favor in the sight of God and humankind. Now the owner of this ring took precautions to leave the ring in his family, ensuring that it was faithfully passed on from generation to generation, from son to son. Finally, the ring reached a man who had three sons, each of which he loved alike. As the father drew near his death, he was in a quandary as to which son to leave the ring to since he had promised the ring, in turn, to each.
As a solution, the father secretly contacted a craftsman who made two identical replicas of the ring. Not being able to distinguished the original, the father left each son with one of the three rings. Of course, when the father died, disputes immediately began to arise between the sons, each of whom believed he possessed the genuine ring.

At this point, Nathan pauses the story to say that just as it was impossible to distinguish which was the correct ring, so we cannot trust ourselves to distinguish the grounds on which the different religions rest.

The story continues with each of the three sons believing their ring to be the true one since each had received it directly from the hand of the father. In the end the brothers take their problem before a judge. The judge enjoins the brothers that what is more important than knowing the truth about their rings, is the motivation and inspiration each will achieve through believing that their ring is the genuine one. The judge enjoins each brother to pass his ring on to his descendents as the real ring.

Thus ends the parable that Nathan used to answer the Sultan’s question, namely, which religion is the correct one. The important thing is not what is true but what you believe.
There are many things we could say in response to this tale. We might point out that in actual fact the religions of Islam and Judaism are quite distinguishable from Christianity. Or we might say that since one of the rings actually was the correct ring, it follows that two of the brothers would have spent their life believing a false proposition. However, such observations miss the whole point Lessing was trying to convey.

His point – from my understanding of the story at least – seems to be that there is something far more important than questions of truth and falsehood in the narrow, letter-of-the-law sense. Stop trying to defend what you believe is true, he is saying to us, and instead concentrate on letting your belief motivate and inspire you. There is no need for factual coherence to be antecedent to religious belief as it must be with scientific truth; rather, the nature of religious belief is such that it can exist on its own, without needing to appeal to historic grounds. In fact, Lessing saw the very attempt of Christians to defend the historical veracity of their faith as intolerant since it failed to recognize that all the major religions, if rightly understood, were equally valuable routes to God.

Lessing’s parable illustrates the Enlightenment commitment to relegating religious belief to the realm of the subjective, private and unverifiable.
This subjective epistemology invited people to view religion and worship of God as a personal matter – a solitary experience between the individual and God that had little relevance to the objective world. To seek objective verification about a matter of faith was now almost to commit a category mistake, since the ‘truth’ of religion had now become a personal truth discontinuous from the fixity of the external world of science, history and public life.

Postmodernism has taken Lessing’s subjective epistemology and applied it to more areas than merely religious belief. Under postmodernism, all fields become matters of “faith” to the extent that our perceptions of reality are conditioned by our expectations and subjective ideological paradigms. This was the view that was later articulated so eloquently by the Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard, who downplayed the relation between Christian faith and objective historical fact, even arguing that the latter is unnecessary.

As soon as Santa-belief becomes a matter of faith in this sense, we are committing a category mistake to speak of that belief as being true or false in the narrow objectivist sense. As in Lessing’s parable, we create our own truth by the belief structures we choose to adopt. Thus, the teacher referred to earlier can tell children that Santa is real just like the men in Lessing’s parable can tell their desendents that their family ring is the genuine article.

Many of these themes come to a head in the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

Imagination and Reality in Miracle on 34th Street

William Symington said that “imagination is one of the noblest faculties…the sound and proper use of which is not only necessary to the existence of sympathy….but also intimately connected those higher exercises of the soul, by which men are enabled to realize the things that are not seen and eternal.”
We live in an age that has lost the noble faculty to which Symington refers. The endemic scepticism, materialism and commercialism of Modernism has flattened out the sense of wonder, magic and imagination that not only makes life worth living, but orients towards the unseen world of spiritual intangibles.
That is why a film like Miracle on 34th Street is appealing. The film seems to offer a solution to the endemic scepticism of the modern world. In the beginning of the film, it is clear that 9-year old Susan Walker has been raised to despise anything make-believe. She looks down on children who pretend to be animals and she has never even heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, much to the consternation of Fred Gailey, her friendly neighbour who attempts to expand her horizons by introducing imagination into her life. Meanwhile, Susan’s mother Doris continues to instruct her daughter in a nuts-and-bolts approach to life, where the only things worth believing are tangible facts.

This epistemological conflict centres around the character of Kris Kringle, a curious old man who claims to be Santa Clause. Kris joins Fred in trying to awaken a sense of magic and imagination in the life of Susan and her mother. This attempt is connected with Kris’s goal of convincing the pair that he is indeed the real Santa Clause. These are not two separate goals, for Kris assumes that once Doris and Susan abandon their nuts-and-bolts empiricism, they will embrace his identity as Santa Clause. Santa-belief thus becomes a powerful metaphor for the human need to have faith in something beyond the tangible facts of the material world. The following dialogues from the film illustrates this:

Fred Gailey: No Santa Clause, no fairy tales, no fantasies of any kind – is that it?

Doris Wood: That’s right. I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not having them growing up believing in a lot of myths like Santa Clause.

Kris Kringle: You don’t believe then?

Doris Wood: By filling them full of fairy tales they grow up believing life to be a fantasy.

Throughout the film, all the main characters operate on the basis of a juxtaposition between a nuts-and-bolts, just-the-facts empiricism bereft of all magic, make-believe and sense of wonder, versus an imaginative orientation which recognizes that there is more to reality than meets the eye and appreciates the value of beautiful intangibles. Since Santa-belief becomes paradigmatic for the latter approach, the more Susan and Doris turn away from their sceptical empiricism the more they turn towards belief in Kris’ identity as Santa Clause. This culminates in Susan writing a letter to Kris expressing her belief in him, while Doris movingly adds “I believe in you too” at the bottom of the page.

Category Confusions in Miracle on 34th Street

The association of Santa-belief with an imaginative orientation sets up a number of confusing dilemmas at the heart of the film. Since Kris claims to really be Santa Clause in a tangible, factual sense, it is hard to understand in what sense believing in him represents an alternative to the just-the-facts scepticism of Doris and Susan.

Confusingly, the film connects Santa-belief with “faith in lovely intangibles” even though Kris claims to be Santa in a tangible sense! Further, how can Santa-belief be wrapped up with an ability to enjoy what is make-believe, seeing as Kris’ makes very clear that his identity as Santa is not a matter of make-believe at all? For all Kris’s lip-service to the importance of imagination (which he defines to Susan as the ability to pretend impossible things), he makes it clear again and again throughout the film that when it comes to himself imagination isn’t good enough: he wants everyone to accept that he is not just a pretend Santa Clause (like Macy’s former Santa), but the real thing. Confusingly, Kris colludes with the very fact-based epistemology he claims to repudiate, insisting that in his own case make-believe is not sufficient: he expects people to actually believe in his identity as Santa Clause.

Modernism and the Problem of Imagination

The above may be a simple ambiguity for the sake of the narrative, but I suspect it is symptomatic of Modernism’s fundamental misunderstanding of imagination. It takes imagination to enjoy fairy tales precisely because we know that fairies do not exist. Once fairies begin to be treated as entities which really exist in a factual sense, it not only destroys their magic, but means that we no longer need imagination to enjoy them, just as Santa requires imagination precisely until we begin to treat him as someone who really exists in the same sense that you or I exist.
This may help to explain one of the primary reasons why so many parents lie to their children about Santa: in the modern age, belief in falsehood often acts as a substitute for true imagination.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s comment that if Conan Doyle was correct in claiming to have seen a genuine photograph of a fairy, then fairies would lose their magic. Quite true, and that is why fantasies like Harry Potter which reduce magic to something mundane and prosaic ultimately require less imagination than a narrative like the Narnia Chronicles. Thomas Howard writes that ''what we encounter in the landscape of Narnia is true – not in the sense that we will come upon the ruins of Cair Paravel somewhere (there are none), but rather in the sense that Cair Paravel is a castle, and the man from whose imagination castles have disappeared is disastrously deprived, as is the man who has lost the capacity to appreciate how it can be that for a free man to bow in the presence of a great king, far from being demeaning, is ennobling.”
This highlights two different approaches to fantasy literature that have found expression in critical comparisons of the imaginary visions of J.K. Rowlings and C.S. Lewis. Steve D. Greydanus’ has argued convincingly that magic in both Lewis and Tolkien is always otherworldly, bearing little or no resemblance to the actuality of events in the real world. Magic in Lewis and Tolkien consists of obviously imaginary and fantastic phenomena that could never occur in the real world as opposed to Rowling’s more materialistic treatment of magic. Tolkien’s fantasy was intentionally non-realistic because he believed myths to be the best way of conveying truth that would otherwise be inexpressible. Something is lost when we try to translate myths into prosaic, materialistic fact since there are essences that can only be conveyed poetically. We see this dynamic at work in Miracle on 34th Street and the attempt to translate Santa into a realistic fact and to reduce the imagination to an approximation for believing in impossible things.

Miracle on 34th Street is symptomatic of a society that, because it has lost its sense of poetry and wonder, has reduced imagination to belief in fairies. Consider Fred’s treatment of Jack and the Beanstalk when he is talking to Susan. After she says that giants don’t exist, Fred responds that they used to in the old days, as if actual belief in giants was a necessary precondition for being able to appreciate the magic of Jack and the Beanstalk. As we have seen, this approach to magic ends up colluding with the very epistemology that the film tries to repudiate, since Kris asks people to believe that he is Santa in a factual, tangible sense which therefore has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy. The film thus invokes the dizzying paradox that those who think Kris is Santa in a make-believe sense (like Sawyer, Mr. Macy, New York County District Attorney Thomas Mara) don’t have any imagination, while those who believe Kris is Santa not in a make-believe sense, are learning to use their imaginations!

Faith and Reason in Miracle on 34th Street

Consider the following dialogue between Doris Wood and Fred Gailey, after the later decides to prove in a court of law that Kris is Santa.
Fred: You don’t have any faith in me, do you?
Doris: It’s not a question of faith, it’s just common sense.
Fred: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see, it’s not just Kris that’s on trial its everything he stands for: kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.
Doris: O Fred, you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world and all those lovely intangibles of yours are attractive but not worth very much. You don’t get ahead that way.
Fred: It depend on what you mean by getting ahead. Evidently you and I have different definitions.
Doris then accuses Fred of going on an “Idealistic binge”, whereupon Fred responds: “Someday you’re going to find that you’re way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work, and when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover they’re the only things that are worthwhile.”
As the ice on Doris’s heart begins to melt, she begins to have faith in things which go against common sense. She says to Fred, “I never really doubted you. It was just my silly common sense.” She then tells her daughter that she was wrong to refer to Kris as just as nice old man with whiskers: “I was wrong when I told you that. You must believe in Mr. Kringle and keep right on doing it. You must have faith in him.” When Susan doesn’t get the present that she asked for on Christmas, she begins to doubt that Mr. Kringle is Santa. But her mother encourages her to believe against all evidence, saying, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Taking this advice, Susan keeps repeating to herself, “I believe, I believe. It’s silly but I believe.” She keeps repeating this phrase until they stumble upon the present that Susan asked for: a house.

Fall and Redemption in Miracle on 34th Street

All good stories are echoes of the One Story, telling the account of the fall and redemption. Jack and the Beanstalk is typical of a good fairy story: it begins with Jack and his mother impoverished, which we later learn was because of the giant’s cruelty to Jack’s father. This is a type of the fall, although in this case the enemy is not the serpent but the giant. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from paradise, so Jack and his mother are sent to live the life of paupers. Jack, who is a type of Christ, comes and plunders the giant’s castle and redeems is father’s lost fortune, just as Christ bruised the serpent’s head and redeemed us for His kingdom.
The reason Jack and the Beanstalk and similar tales are so enjoyable is because they echo themes at the very heart of our world and our humanity. All good stories follow this same basic pattern, telling a story of fall and redemption.
Miracle on 34th Street is no different. It begins with Doris and Susan in a fallen state, although in this case it is a fall into a rationalistic, restricted epistemology which the cold Doris adopted as a form of self-protection after her divorce. Kris revealingly refers to Doris and Susan as “a couple of lost souls.” By the end of the film they are no longer lost but have found redemption, metaphorically, through “faith.” However, unlike Biblical faith, this faith is an existential leap of irrationality.

The Enlightenment and Miracle on 34th Street

According to many thinkers of the Enlightenment, the only things we can really know objectively are those things that we can perceive tangibly through the senses. This is known as the philosophy of empiricism. Empiricism created a divide between those ideas that could be verified through empirical observation, vs. ideas derived by other means. Ideas belonging to the latter category (which included religious ideas) were necessarily personal and private, existing in a different sphere to that of normal objective phenomena. Since one could apply reason to the former but not the latter, it followed that religion could only be a matter of blind faith. Whereas the pre-Enlightenment worldview generally attempted to apply reason to both the tangible and intangible realms (so that you could apply reason to the content of faith just as easily as the content of sense perception), empiricism said that reason could only apply to the former. Anything intangible (such as the content of religious belief) was necessarily personal, private and subjective. Lessing’s parable of the 3 rings brings this out very clearly.

Many modern films take this subjective epistemology one step further by suggesting that as long as you believe something to be true, then that can be true for you. Miracle on 34th Street anticipates this Postmodern epistemology by mixing the categories of truth and falsehood. When Doris and Fred are standing in the home that Susan believes Kris has provided, they talk about purchasing the house in order to preserve Susan’s illusion that it is a gift from Kris. In being willing to allow her to believe a lie, they reveal that truth does not matter for them. In this final scene, we find that Fred never really believed Kris was Santa after all, for when they spot Kris’ stick leaning against the wall of the house (an apparent vindication that he had actually provided it as a gift), Fred says that maybe he hadn’t done such a wonderful thing after all in proving that this old man was Santa Clause (the subtext being because he really is Santa Clause). We are then left to wonder in what sense Fred and Doris ever believed that Kris was Santa prior to this scene. If they only believed in him in the sense of believing in all the intangibles that Kris stood for, then that is accidental to his actual identity as Santa, thus rendering vacuous all the characters' statements about faith in Santa Clause. After all, I can affirm intangibles such as love and kindness without having to believe in the tooth fairy.

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