PARIS — Paris. -- The millions who celebrate Christmas are in fact, if not consciousness, making a radical affirmation about humanity's history. They are acknowledging not only the existence of a deity, the creator of the universe, but the proposition that this deity has directly intervened in the course of human events by himself becoming a man.
That, after all, is what it all means. If it doesn't mean that, Christmas celebrations are pointless, other than as some agreeable and sentimental occasion for pleasing children and expressing good will toward others.
That is not to be despised. Better good will than bad. But the question of the deity has concerned men from the beginning. The issue is both existential and moral. Why does the universe exist? Is its existence wholly accidental, random in development, or was it intelligently created, and if so for what purpose, if any? Is there a purpose to existence, other than the purposes men and women have invented for themselves?
I myself find it impossible to believe in the random or spontaneous creation or existence of the universe in all of its small and large complexity and harmonies (and its infinity, since the idea of a universe itself implies some limit or form to existence, yet as we see farther and farther into space, as into micro-space, we have yet to discover dimensions or limit).
I realize, however, that the notion of the creating intelligence -- of God -- is nearly as difficult to believe; and to believe in a deity's intervention in human affairs harder yet. However, these are propositions with a coherence which I do not find in the belief in an unintelligent and spontaneous creation from nothing.
To say this obviously is to touch superficially upon matters of profound preoccupation for humans since human consciousness began. Nonetheless, as we take existence for granted for most of our lives, it is useful on certain occasions to pose the begged questions and examine the usually unanalyzed assumptions of daily life. It is worth doing even though these questions are empirically unresolvable. Practical consequences follow from the assumptions upon which we and our political societies act, and the examination of those assumptions is an examination of where we stand with respect to political possibility.
In a book on nationalism, published a year ago, I remarked that I believed in the moral constancy and continuity of man through the millennia, saying that it seemed to me presumptuous and absurd to think that we, today, are the moral superiors of the artists who created the Magdalenian cave drawings of Europe, or the hunters and gatherers of prehistoric North America, or the tragedians of classical Athens or architects of Persepolis.
We live in a more complex and in some respects more sophisticated society than they, with an immensely greater knowledge of the physical universe and technical command over it. But this does not make us the moral betters of those people.
One of the critics of my book, Liah Greenfeld of Boston University, objected to this argument by saying that it implied that ''social and political systems must be treated as morally equivalent, and that we have no right to pass judgment on systems different from our own.'' If the moral level of mankind is constant, ''that means that no society can be considered, morally, better or worse than another.''
This seems to me a great misunderstanding, confusing social and institutional progress with change in the moral nature of man. Of course, some societies are superior to others in the way they treat individuals, in their systems of justice and government and in the values they defend.
But that does not demonstrate that the individuals in them are better than the individuals in another society. It shows merely that they have been (provisionally) more successful in creating institutions that reinforce what we believe is justice and inhibit evil. However, history demonstrates that these are always fragile accomplishments.
If you believe that no intelligence is behind existence, and no purpose -- that the universe is absolutely self-sufficient and autonomous -- then it would seem to me that you must believe that morality progresses, or you despair. Thus modern history has seen the repeated formulation of doctrines or ideologies of human progress. Marxism was one such. In its terrible way, Nazism was another. Both doctrines held that man can be turned into something fundamentally different from what he has been in the past.
The opinion you have of human moral possibility is very important to how you think about political society and action. That opinion, in turn, is linked to what you think about the nature of creation, its intelligibility and the purpose of existence. With that we return to Christmas, which says that there is a God and there is a purpose to existence. I wish my readers a very happy Christmas.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.