What a lovely season Christmas is. From the core tale of a little Judean family to the medieval carols to Handel, Dickens and Crosby, it has its own layers of tradition, its peculiar colors and sounds and fragrances. You could never explain it to anyone who hadn't experienced it. In that sense, Christmas is intensely private, even though its privacy embraces a whole civilization.

A funny thing, privacy. People often confuse it with secrecy. But secret things arethings we hide, things we would wish not to share. Private things in their nature can only be properly shared with certain people. You can't share them with outsiders even if you try. Parenthood is private: Your child can be anyone else's friend, but nobody else's child. To be private is to be special.

Our civilization is based on privacy -- that is, based on respect for the things that are special to each of us. We regard invasions of privacy as a kind of profanation. To us, humanity is composed not of masses but of persons, and a person is a creature of inviolable dignity.

You might say we have a public commitment to privacy. And though the Christmas season abounds in public festivities, it peaks, cozily, in the home. For one day public life comes to a halt. Even televisions tend to stay off.

On Chritmas our scattered tribes abandon routine and business, and cluster together in an ancient familial jollity that survives, somehow, the dissipations of a year in the modern world. Christmas is the day when we naturally gravitate to the very people in all the world who appreciate us most -- often for reasons we can't fathom and they can't explain. But love is to be enjoyed, not understood. No public, agency, no concentration of experts could possibly plan such an occasion.

As we have commercialized Christmas, so we have secularized and thinned out the idea of privacy. But both Christmas and privacy are rooted in religion -- specifically in Christianity, whose own roots are in Judaism. Every man is unique, not as a snowflake is unique, but as an image of God, each creature a special expression of his Creator. The commandment against murder means, among other things, that a man's inconvenience to us has no bearing on this value to God. And no expert can determine that, either.

In our time, militant secularism has killed and oppressed untold millions. And continues to do so. Yet even in the West many people persist in seeing religion as the real menance to human dignity, a concept bequeathed by religion itself. We are all familar with the kind of folk who write letters to the editor denouncing "organized" religion, apparently on the theory that religion could exist and flourish better if only religious people would avoid each other.

There is a special toboo aganst affirming religion as truth. The secularist culture has taught Jews that it is arrogant to claim to be a chosen people, Catholics that it is dangerous to claim to be the one true church, Protestant Christians that it is ethnocentric, and maybe imperialistic, to claim a mission of converting the heathen. Atheism has ceased being a mere creed and has become that far more insidious thing, a system of etiquette: it isn't polite to talk about God. And because religious people are generally polite people, they tend to feel they should avoid giving offense by channeling their energies into uncontrovesial things like social work.

But the point of religious freedom isn't to water down religion, any more than the point of privacy is solitude. Spiritual life, like family life, can't be robust unless it is shared. It can't be shared unless it is informed by a sense of truth, of mission, of specialness. The problem of religion in the modern world is to find a vital middle way between the fanaticism of a Khomeini and the aridity of the World Council of Churches.

For good and evil, the year has been dominated by religious forces. Faith has already built a civilization. As that civilization suffers decay and assault, the Christmas season, the question is whether faith can restore it.