After Francis Church and the New York Sun, I want to say, "Yes, (saint) Nicholas, there is a Virgin -- as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist." Just not as supposed by your conversation partner in your New York Times column of Christmas Day.
You asked him, "Can one be a Christian and doubt the virgin birth?" You even wondered whether, doubting, you are a Christian. As a Christian pastor for many decades, I have often encountered a spirit of uncertain questing like yours. And I always pointed toward a different door than the one opened for you in the published dialogue.
The first response I'd have offered to your questions is, "How would you know?" A teacher who gives all the answers and assumes the questioner will take the shape of empty, ignorant vessel disserves both student and himself. A good teacher wants to know how the inquirer is expecting to learn. How does she think one can know of "things above"? Does she want to be told what is so, like a child? Is she ready to go higher? "Am I a Christian?" you asked. How would you know? Who, in your conception of reality, has the right, the power, even the duty to tell you what is so with the things of God?
You asked whether belief in the virgin birth is essential. Essential to whom? You were told that "if something is truly integral to a body of thought you cannot remove it without destabilizing the whole thing." That is a truism, but it does not help sort what is integral from what is not. Moreover, the truism pertains only to thought. Religious life is not mainly about thought, but about wholeness and well-being -- not in the unknowable future, but now. It is said that a man once asked, "Teacher, how can I inherit eternal life." And the Teacher replied, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" (Luke 10: 24-25) The Teacher turned first to learn from the man. Who are you? What do you hold to be essential? What a beautiful beginning.
You observed that the earliest of the writings of the New Testament, including the letters of the apostle Paul, say nothing about Jesus' birth, virgin or not. You wondered whether the birth narratives might have developed long after the Crucifixion-Resurrection experience. A lot of biblical scholarship supports your surmise. Yet the answer you got only warned that if part of the ancient Christian story were deemed a legend, the very fabric of the Christian message would come undone. Says who? No evidence was supplied.
You heard next that the story of the virgin birth teaches -- claims -- that the power behind all things is a person who can be known and loved. Paul emphatically accepted this claim also, yet he "decided to come knowing nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Cor. 2.2) Well, as for that old-time religion -- if it was good enough for Paul, it's good enough. Yes, Nick, there is a virgin birth story worth telling -- but its worth is measured not by assertions of what happened long ago, rather by signs of what happens in the telling now. The story tells of the unstoppable movement of God Holy Spirit to give a new song and help humans bear love to life as their high and holiest offering in the grace of God. Anyone can sing that song, give that birth.
You asked whether the Resurrection must be taken literally. In no uncertain terms, you were told it must. Yet the dialogue did not really probe what you called the Easter stories' "fuzzy" account of Jesus' bodily presence. In fact, all but one of the Resurrection stories include the detail that the evidence of witness by sight was weak or faulty or irrelevant. This gospel chorus comes on forte. In each story, what brings witnesses to new life in Christ is hearing their Lord. Not seeing. Even years after the Crucifixion-Resurrection, the apostle Paul's experience of meeting the Christ first blinds him. Only then does he hear himself addressed. Paul would one day write, "Faith comes through what is heard." (Romans 10: 17)
Your partner in dialogue suggested that "the only historically plausible explanation for the birth of the Christian movement" is that many hundreds actually saw the risen Jesus. That assertion ignores the crucial fact that getting beyond dependency on eye-witness claims was the crisis of the early church, for sooner or later, there were no claims of appearances! Unless faith developed deep down, coming only through what was heard, there would be no church at all.
Christians have always benefited from the cautions implicit in the gospels' teaching of the Resurrection as more like a beloved voice than a face. Put plainly, the stories say that faith is not about things seen, that seeing is not believing. Early on, people urgently needed this message, so of course the churches learned fast which sorts of vessels could hold the holy fire for faith from generation to generation. Only stories have that quality. No doctrine, no essay like this, can carry the flame.
Does that suggest that the stories were "invented?" Not at all. "They didn't invent them," your dialogue partner said. Absolutely right -- if invention refers to an inventor with designs and desires to influence the public. Across the whole world, no one ever invented a story with power to draw souls into awareness of divine grace. People rather discovered the stories, by the grace of God -- together, in communities, according to their most sublime and practical needs. The origins of the stories are shrouded in mysteries that need no probing (although they can withstand any amount of it) because an open heart and mind receive quite naturally the meaning of a godly story. It has nothing to do with fretting its facts. Faith's cares are different. So of course anyone is Christian who feels drawn to the light of the story like a wanderer to a candle in a window. On this question, the Apostles Creed has no vote.
Finally, of course, you asked about salvation for others than Christians. I was glad that your dialogue partner knows that his cannot be considered "the Christian response." Who claims to know the ways of the Eternal! Yet imagine if all embraced the word of the prophet, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8) Many Christians see that they have no standing to assert that salvation for all must be through Jesus Christ. If here and there the Bible tells me so, and if people not convicted by its word say, "That's not my word!" -- how do I respond? Either I say, "You are wrong because I am right, so you change or else I hold you in the wrong on fundamental things." Ah! Those so certain to put others in the wrong abandon the way of Jesus for paths of power and control along which are strewn all the bloody evils of empires past and future. What is the alternative? We say, "You are right; this word is not your word, it is mine. I will endeavor to listen well to what I have heard."
Nick Kristof, your words and cares have brought light and life to souls in untold numbers. To call yours gifts of God can turns our face toward the One. Of course you are Christian.