Friday, March 10, 2006

Philosophy Friday: A Christian Atheist

It sounds like an incredible contradiction in terms, doesn't it? Yet, as I read the following article, it really made me think.

From Robert Jensen at AlterNet:

I don't believe in God.

I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists.

Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church.


So, I'm a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.

I have to say I love what Jensen is doing here. He's drawing a dividing line between the moral philosophy of Christ's teachings and the metaphysical mysticism that dominates much of Biblical scripture. So how can one be a secular Christian?

Jensen goes on to explain:

[M]y decision to join a church was more a political than a theological act. As a political organizer interested in a variety of social-justice issues, I look for places to engage people in discussion. In a depoliticized society such as the United States -- where ordinary people in everyday spaces do not routinely talk about politics and underlying values -- churches are one of the few places where such engagement is possible.


Many no doubt would reject the idea that [a church which would accept non-traditional views of Christ] is truly Christian and would argue that a belief in the existence of God and the divinity of Christ are minimal requirements for claiming to be a person of Christian faith.

Such a claim implies that an interpretation of the Bible can be cordoned off as truth-beyond-challenge. But what if the Bible is more realistically read symbolically and not literally? What if that's the case even to the point of seeing Christ's claim to being the son of God as simply a way of conveying fundamental moral principles? What if the resurrection is metaphor? What if "God" is just the name we give to the mystery that is beyond our ability to comprehend through reason?

What Jensen is essentially doing here is separating out the Christian faith into a couple of its core components; components which most religions have. He's recognizing the difference between the moral teachings of Christianity and the colorful mysticism found in the Bible.

Personally, I would answer his question above with a definite "Yes!" I believe the Bible is written full of symbolism and allegory, which are used to breathe life into the moral teachings. I have long rejected Biblical literalism, as I feel it often detracts from the importance of Christ's teachings and often stands completely contrary to the world we know. It's not important that Jesus walked on the water, it's important that he walked among the sick and downtrodden. It's not important that he turned water into wine, but that he shared his food with the hungry. Christian apologists will claim that Christ needed miracles to convince the skeptical, believing that many in the days of Christ had magical powers. I say the miracle was in his teachings of empathy, compassion and peace. To lose track of this is to lose what truly made Jesus so important.

Jensen mentions in the article the tremendous religiosity of the United States. I can testify that it can be very uncomfortable sometimes being an atheist and secular humanist in America. It's something I kept to myself for a long time and, prior to writing about my beliefs here, I didn't talk about my beliefs much in front of my friends, family or co-workers. I grew up in a very Christian community and attended church quite a bit of my formative years. Many of my friends and most of my family remain conservative Christians today and often support many of the social policies I rant about here everyday. Offending them with what I write is a risk I have to take or else forfeit my integrity. But it's not easy...

It's not often that I read something that really speaks to me on a personal level, but this article did. I believe, as Jensen does, that it is wholly possible to be a Christian atheist. In fact, for me, the teachings of Christ are more important and more moving once the supernatural is set aside. For me, how Christ died is immaterial. It's how he lived that mattered. He set an example of social and personal responsibility that is just as insightful today as it was 2,000 years ago. Pity that so many conservatives today claim to be Christian yet their political goals and beliefs have little if anything to do with the teachings of the man whose name they give themselves.

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