Thursday, March 4, 2010

Christian Atheism and the Golden Rule

Following on from yesterday's post, the exploration of the paradoxymoronic concept of the Christian Atheist continues. Though there is clearly no textual basis for making the claim that Jesus wanted us to be secular humanists, there is always that "Be a Good Person" argument for those wanting to be Atheistic Christians. We can be good without God, or so the billboards posted by atheistic organizations proclaim. Just be nice to other people, and things all fall into place.

For the person professing to be a Christian Atheist, one of the ways to avoid major neural crashes engendered by irreconcilable cognitive dissonance is to say: "Anyone who approaches the teachings of Jesus with an honest and open mind knows that the Golden Rule is the primary point and purpose of Christianity. I don't believe in all this Sky Daddy Easter Bunny Superstitious Nonsense, but the ethic Jesus taught was basically just for us to treat other people the way we want to be treated. I'm down with that, therefore, I'm a follower of Jesus who just happens not to believe in God."

I'm not about to start frothing and foaming about this perspective. I'm not going to give a long rant about not being WAAASHED IN THE BLOOOD OF JEEESUS. In fact, I'm not even going to say it's evil and damnable, because I don't think it is. Folks who live out their lives governed by an ethic of compassion and love for neighbor aren't enemies of Jesus or his followers. That's true of Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. It's even true of atheists. When that Day arrives, quite frankly, those who just can't do the faith thing but do unto others the way Jesus taught aren't necessarily toast. We know so 'cause Jesus said so, and it's His call, not ours.

However, that does not make those folks Christian.

To be Christian, you need to be radically governed by the Great Commandment. It is our One Law, the single measure of our faith that defines and guides every other aspect of our faith. But the Great Commandment is not just "love your neighbor as yourself." It is, as Jesus taught it, far more radical than that. To be that "highest ethic" Thomas Jefferson declared it to be, it needs to be more radical. So let's take a hard look at the Golden Rule.

When you present the Golden Rule to an atheist with a chip surgically implanted in their shoulder, one of the typical responses you'll hear is, "Yeah, well, that's a really sucky morality. What if I don't want for myself the same things you want? What if you're just imposing your own sociocultural perspective of 'love' on me, and I have another perspective? What about that? Huh? Huh? That's why Jesus is a dumb loser stinkypants and you are too." They'll typically throw the word "fallacy" in there somewhere, too, because it's a Very Smart Word.

Though this could be construed as WAAAAY overthinking the Golden Rule, it actually has legitimacy philosophically. Loving others can easily be interpreted in such a way that it permits acts of violence or spiritual abuse. "I only yell at you because I know what's right for you. I'd yell at me, too, if I was doing what you're doing." In this instance, the "right" is typically an attitude that is, in fact, mediated by culture and society. Even the structures of our ethical reasoning are frequently mediated by those biases.

But the ethic that Jesus taught didn't hinge on just treating others in the way that we expect is right. That Great Commandment has two inextricably interrelated components. Love your neighbor? Sure. That's part two. But before that, we are told to "love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul." This theocentric grounding radicalizes the love commandment, because in giving ourselves over to that first element, a Christian experiences the Golden Rule in an interesting way.

The engagement of our whole being in the love of God has a continually iconoclastic effect. It is the great shatterer of idols, and by idols I mean the false godlings of society, culture, and self. God is not to be confused with cultic practice, or with doctrine, or with dogma. God is not to be confused with ethnic identity or political orientation or material prosperity or nationalistic pride. God...if we're being orthodox about it...cannot be conflated with any category that exists within the bounds of space and time. That orientation becomes, as Christian existentialist Paul Tillich would have described it, an "ultimate concern," one that forever drives us towards progressing and deepening our love of others.

That means, in terms of our practice of the love ethic, that the Christian is called to resist the desire to love only those who share our worldview. Christian orthopraxis requires us to apply lovingkindness in a way that is mindful of the needs and perpectives of those who are not Us. As Jesus taught it in the first century Near East, that included those who were outside of the boundaries that defined his culture. We are to love the lepers, the tax collectors, the unclean, and the Samaritans. We are to love and show kindness to those who are set utterly against us. This ethos transcends ethos itself...and as such, it's as radical a morality as possible.

Christian atheism does not get us there. If our orientation towards the numinous mysterium tremens et fascinans of our Maker is removed, then the Christian ethic is not authentically presented. What you get instead is not evil, necessarily. It may quite possibly be good.

But it cannot meaningfully claim to be what Jesus taught.