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The last session of my Intro to Philosophy class fell on December 6 — St. Nicholas Day. That’s not such a big deal, I realize. But St. Nicholas Day does register a small blip on the calendar in the Dutch-Disneyland town where I live. Even the most austere Dutch Reformed still have a thing for St. Nicholas

It being the last day of class, I brought speculaas or St. Nick cookies to class, purchased at our Dutch bakery. To my surprise, and some consolation, none of the students had any notion of St. Nicholas Day. 

I explained a little bit. This led to a conversation about Santa Claus. What had they believed about Santa as young children? When and how had they learned there was no Santa? 

Being a philosophy class, the discussion shifted to how the realization that Santa was not real affected their ability to know and to trust, to question reality and what they’ve always been told. I’ve heard it said that for many people discovering there is no Santa is a first and a critical disillusionment, the beginning of distrust in general.

One student said that in his house if you say that you don’t believe in Santa you don’t get any presents — regardless of your age. It brought some good-natured laughter to the classroom, and maybe a bit of respect and admiration. 

Somehow then in the discussion I brought up the notion of a second naivete. For many in the class, the word “naivete” meant nothing. I offered “naiveness” — the state of being naive, inexperienced, lacking sophistication or pragmatism, unduly idealistic. 

What I know “officially” about second naivete wouldn’t fill a 3×5 card. I know it is associated with Paul Ricoeur, a 20th century French philosopher. As I understand it, second naivete is facing some disillusionment, hard facts, a painful revelation, but then finding a way through it to a new, perhaps even stronger position of trust or hope. It isn’t a denial of the difficult information. It doesn’t try or even want to return to the original position. It acknowledges and assimilates whatever caused the loss of that original naivete. Yet it finds a new place of meaning or trust. 

Isn’t that what my student’s family was doing with their “if you don’t believe in Santa you don’t get any presents” statement? Presumably, everyone in the household knows there is no Santa Claus. Still, they press through that to find the joy and wonder they associate with Santa.

One student, perhaps not wanting to be naive, pushed back. “So isn’t what you’re saying just that we learn to move through and let go of little lies like Santa or the tooth fairy in order to accept bigger lies like justice or mercy?” His classmates weren’t having it. “You think justice or mercy are just necessary lies? No, they aren’t! There is something there. Something real.” Was their adamance a sign of their naivete being threatened? Or was it an early sign of a second naivete appearing? I hope for the latter. 

From there, the discussion moved beyond Santa. In a way, I told them, their entire college experience could be viewed through this lens. So much of what they assume and trust will be exposed, challenged, and blown away in the next four years. Just in our class alone we’ve done this with truth, freedom, objectivity, and more. But do we just stay there? In chaos, cynicism, and despair? Or can we find our way through this and beyond it? 

For most of us, something similar happens with friendship, love, and commitment. Our understanding of our parents and family. And of course, faith.

The universe isn’t 6000 years old.
Christians can be hypocritical schmucks.
There’s no mention that the magi rode camels.
Paul didn’t write Colossians.

All of these and countless other facts have caused people to lose their naive faith. And I’d venture that for most mature or life-long Christians, we aren’t on our second naivete. We’re on our 200th, maybe 2000th. Our sentences begin with words like still, yet, or nevertheless.

Some of the disillusionments are easy enough to assimilate. Others still hurt. We can’t quite say we’ve completely found a new place of trust. And it is tiring, exhausting really, to continue to push through ever new disillusionments. Of course, for many there are those painful revelations that they don’t find their way through. Their naivete is never re-established. 

My Christmas wish — or perhaps better, prayer — for you, dear reader, is that you find a second naivete in the days ahead, or sometime in 2023. Don’t mishear this naivete as callow or flimsy. True second naivetes are hard-won, courageous, and substantial. Yet there is still something childlike and light-hearted in them. Truly, I think this is the Christmas gift most of us need.

I’ve never been a big Santa fan. Still, I found the claim of my student’s family that if you don’t believe in Santa you don’t get any presents to be kind of clever. Better yet to claim that in “baby-Jesus” there is indeed a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Merry Christmas!

Winter photo by Sebastian Beck

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Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Good work in the classroom and on today’s RJ blog, Steve. And you almost certainly know that “naive” is connected to the idea of the knowledge or awareness of a newborn child. Naive, native, nativity–a great sequence.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, Jim. I’d love to respond “Of course I knew that and it was entirely intentional.” But I didn’t and it wasn’t. Naive, native, nativity, natal Wow! Maybe another Ricoeur-ism–a text with a “surplus of meaning”? Or maybe, the Holy Spirit strikes again.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    My aha moment came while on a church tour in Israel. Having grown up in Holland MI with a Christian church on every corner and no exposure to other cultures, I was now seeing a mosque at every turn—and over OUR sacred spot where Abraham brought Issac to be sacrificed! Pivotal moment in my Christian journey. I began a look into many other religions which eventually led me back to a much richer and deeper faith in God and His Son. A Rohr “Falling Upward” journey I’m still on.
    Tillich said “that the opposite of faith is not doubt–it’s certainty.”
    Thank you for this challenging post. I highly recommend a second naïveté.

  • Beautiful, Steve.

    And I know other commenters on this blog have named him a heretic, but I highly recommend “Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” So many quotable lines, like this one: “The ego hates losing – even to God.”

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you, Steve.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Great essay, Steve. Sounds like you’re a wonderful teacher, too. At my house, you have to believe that the REINDEER bring presents. Our gifts tags are signed by Rudolph, Dancer, etc. As everyone knows, Santa’s operation is big enough now that he outsources to his gift team.

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