My blog musings from this last month with a Presbyterian pastor who has come to believe that atheism and Christianity are perfectly reconcilable have engendered some interesting conversations around the dinner table and with church folk.
The lay pastor of my church, a big-hearted Korean evangelical, shook his head in dismay, and lamented the decline of the PC(USA). My Jewish sons, upon hearing of that idea, were both totally unable to process it. "You can't be both! They're exact opposites!" One of the saints of my church, whose faith is an endearingly idiosyncratic fusion of Christianity and New Age practice, was hornswoggled. "But that totally misses the point!" My Danish brother-in-law, an agnostic steeped in classical philosophy, queried, "Doesn't that piss you off? It seems to entirely violate the integrity of what you do."
So...well...does it? Without casting any aspersions or making judgments about a particular person, can one be simultaneously Christian and atheist? I've got a reasonably flexible and open interpretation of what our faith entails, so what might be the grounds for claiming to be a Jesus-follower and rejecting the reality of God?
As I see it, those grounds might be twofold:
First, it requires the assumption that Jesus saw himself primarily as a storytelling teacher of ethical wisdom. His goal was not the salvation of humankind, but was instead to teach a new way for human beings to live in harmony with one another. This is the Jesus we might recognize from the Jefferson Bible, Mistah Jeffahson's effort to edit out every single miracle and supernatural event in the Gospels, leaving only what he called "..the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."
Second, it asserts that the heart of the Christian walk is the Golden Rule. If the essence of what it means to be Christian is a life lived in accord with love of neighbor and...more importantly...love of enemy, then to be Christian all one needs to do is to manifest those traits. If you live by that great ethic, then you can rightly call yourself a Christian, even if you overtly and expressly ditch the whole "God" thing as an unnecessary and quaint relic of a less enlightened age.
I can see some truth in both of these statements, but think that they both fall short of the mark.
In response to point number one, there is the rather pesky witness of Jesus himself. None of the the writings that the Christian community has accepted as canonical present us with a Jesus who presents himself as a straight up storyteller sage. Not a single one. His teachings are radically theocentric. In the synoptic gospels, that manifests itself in his focus on the Kingdom of God. In the Johannine Gospel, his teachings focus on himself, and his existential intermingling with both God and the Holy Spirit.
But what about those other voices? The ones that the early community rejected? The ones They Don't Want You To Hear (tm)? Maybe they give us grounds to argue that Jesus was primarily a teacher of ethics.
Nope. If we move outside of canon, and into the non-canonical witness, Jesus does not get less spiritual. In fact, those "rejected" Gospels (like the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) are all hyperspiritual, full of mysteries and miracles and whispered secret magic.
Even Jefferson's Miracle Free Bible is not atheistic. If you retain only the teachings of Jesus, and delete every single manifestation of the supernatural, you are left with teachings and stories that invariably center on right relationship with God. Had Jefferson ditched those stories, he'd have been left with only a meaningless pastiche of sentence fragments.
One can still argue for a God-free Jesus, of course. But that argument is not based in anything other than the Albert Schweitzer debunked desire for Jesus to be a reflection of you, rather than being open to what even the Jesus-seminar bean counters will admit was probably the heart of his teachings.
But what about the moral argument? If the Golden Rule is the beating ethical heart of Christian faith, then can't you adhere to that, ditch all the superstitious claptrap, and still be following Jesus?
I'll get to that in my next post.