Wednesday, October 03, 2012
October 3, 2012
A CASE FOR CHRISTIAN ATHEISM
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
- Zen Master Linji
While in Morocco a few years back, we took a cab from the harbor in Tangiers to the railway station. Along the way, our daughter, who, praise be to Allah, speaks Arabic, was engaged in an animated discussion with the cab driver. They were, in Moroccan tradition, loudly proclaiming whatever it was they were discussing. We sat in the back seat without a clue as to what was going on. Finally, the driver threw up his hands...and in Moroccan traffic that is a very dangerous thing to do.. .and then patted our daughter on the shoulder and murmured something and offered her a big smile. When we arrived at the train station and after shaking hands with the man several times, we asked her what had transpired…
"He wanted to know how I could speak his language..
(Molly is blond and stands out in a crowd of North Africans the way a burqa-clad woman would stand out at Pilgrim Place.)
Then he wanted to know what I was doing in Morocco.
…and then he wanted to know if I was Muslim.
When I told him I wasn't Muslim, he couldn't believe it.
So we discussed how an Arabic-speaking woman could be a Christian.
Again, he said he couldn’t believe it.
But then he patted me on the shoulder and said,
"All in good time, my child, all in good time."
You needed to have been there, I suppose, but I found myself reflecting on his declaration in a couple of ways. I know he was being authentically kind. He really did believe that ultimately all people will come under the Islamic tent…not with fear and trembling but genuinely acknowledging the wisdom of this particular revelation. On the other hand, I worry that he, like so many Christians I know over here, can't accept the multiple pathways of truth. Why must I become a Muslim or why must he become a Christian? Surely there are other ways of experiencing a nurturing, productive spiritual journey than one particular religion?
Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others are struggling to separate that which is essential in their teachings from that which is tangential. We can see evidence of this in a myriad of ways. Fundamentalist Muslims who see the modern world as evil, who demand ancient dress codes or entice youngsters to suicidal missions with the promise of eternal rewards, convinced that this is the only way of being a Muslim cause moderate Muslims to wonder if such a conservative stance is really essential. And, of course, there are Christians who make similar demands with ludicrous claims on science and sinister designs on the political process causing other Christians to separate themselves from such thinking. Indeed, there is a growing movement within Judaism that has many faithful Jews wishing to separate their religion from support of Israel. Decades of murder and mayhem have convinced them that any claim that God has promised a particular piece of real estate to one particular people is false.
Discovering what is essential in our own spiritual journeys is to constantly remind ourselves that the finger we use to point to God is not God, that the lens we look through on our search for the divine, is not the divine. All talk of God is metaphor. When we forget that essential understanding of the spiritual journey, it is time to kill the Buddha.
* * * *
Christianity, as most people understand it, is formed not around the teachings of Jesus but rather the teachings about Jesus. These teachings about Jesus began long before Matthew, Mark, Luke or John put quill to parchment and even before Paul, the earliest and most prolific of New Testament writers, began sending out his theologically driven epistles. It began with stories, stories told not via instant messaging or over the internet but one person, one story at a time and as the story went from one person to the next it was changed, altered, embellished, perhaps even mingled with other familiar stories going around the neighborhood. One of the great theological insights regarding this phenomenon comes from those masters of religious inquiry, Monty Python. In their brilliant movie “The Life of Brian” the Jesus figure is lecturing to the crowd in what appears to be the Sermon on the Mount. Someone on the periphery thinks he hears one thing…when we all know he should have heard another…
“What’s he saying?’
“Blessed are the cheese-makers.”
“Blessed are the cheese-makers?”
“Blessed are the cheese-makers!!!”
…and on and on it is passed in a brilliant example of the imperfections of oral tradition.
What exactly did Jesus say?
The Jesus Seminar, an often ridiculed but extremely dedicated group of scholars who have sought to determine the authentic words of Jesus found in the Bible and elsewhere, has spent considerable time and energy trying to answer that question. What they have discovered is, in fact, precious little that could be assuredly ascribed to Jesus. Nevertheless their work has, to my mind, offered a brilliant critique and an extremely helpful guide for those of us fascinated with the idea that we might actually peel away two millennia of often convoluted doctrine and catch a glimpse, perhaps only a very small glimpse, of the actual teachings of Jesus.
Such an enterprise, precarious as it may be, has been enormously inspirational to me and thousands of others who have found in the life and teachings of Jesus a model and guide for living.
Now what is so curious about this model and guide is that it is fully accessible without an attending theology. That is, one can employ, thanks to The Jesus Seminar and others, the assumedly authentic teachings of Jesus into one’s life without actually believing in God. Indeed, given the often bizarre beliefs that have been formulated in the name of Christianity, it just may be easier to be a devoted disciple of Jesus if you don’t believe in God.
I don’t for one moment think that Jesus didn’t believe in God. In his time and situation, it made all the sense in the world to accept the existence of a theistic being who ruled the universe with both a compassionate heart and an iron fist and who, not so incidentally, had a special place in the cosmic scheme of things for Jesus’ own people, the Jews. Everyone back then had a god or, more often, a plethora of gods to turn to when things got a little rough down below. But, of course, then came Copernicus and then came Galileo and then came
Newton, and Darwin
and Freud and Einstein and quantum physics and string theory and Sputnik and on
and on and on. The world underwent
enormous changes, some advantageous some not. We evolved. Industry, commerce, education, science, all
evolving, all it seems, but our religions.
To this very day, many religions cling desperately to language,
metaphors and symbols that speak to a different age, a different time, a
different way of understanding reality.
I continue to marvel over the fact that most of us would never employ a
doctor who still uses leeches or a dentist who has failed to stay current on
advances in her profession and yet many Christians still choose
similarly ill-equipped pastors and congregations.
Jesus believed in God but whether he did or not does not undermine the enormous wisdom found in his teachings. Again, it just may be easier, given the current state of conventional religious teachings, to be a devoted disciple of Jesus without believing in God.
This case for a kind of Christian Atheism gains strength when we consider the manner in which we develop our images of God. A friend and mentor, Jack Spong, offers this little bit of theological insight gained from Xenophanes: “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” So, for instance, the Lutheran god looks a little like a combination between Ingmar Bergman and Garrison Keillor…dark and gloomy most of the time but once a week you can count on a few good laughs. The Jewish god is pretty concerned with geography and the Muslim god likewise but with a decidedly different bias. The Presbyterian god likes most things in good order and the Catholic god speaks in a deep and very male voice while the Quaker god keeps silent. The Unitarian god seems to love everyone without exception even as the American god spends a good deal of time blessing, well, America. All kinds of horses with all kinds of horse-like gods.
Here at Pilgrim Place, and particularly at our mealtime grace, language is often employed that conjures up a peculiarly partisan god who seems to be extraordinarily eager to bless us who are gathered with the benefits of good food, fine company and meaningful lives while apparently ignoring the 90% of the rest of the world who go without such divine and disturbingly capricious, magnanimity. (“Heavenly Father, We are so blessed with this great food, wonderful staff, dear friends…”) What, one wonders, does that mean for all those without great food, wonderful staff and dear friends?
Christian Atheism recognizes the reality of a self-designed and self-designated divinity and suggests that it might be best to leave that often confusing component completely out of our spiritual lives. Christian atheism finds in the life and teachings of Jesus more than enough provision for a rich and meaningful life, an abundant life centered in a pre-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of history, a Jesus without the doctrine, without the distortion of creeds and archaic confessions of faith…creeds and confessions that were created out of the best intentions but nevertheless are no longer relevant in a post-modern world that has long since left literalistic interpretations and archaic myth-making far behind. Christian Atheism announces, haltingly, hesitatingly to be sure, but sincerely and honestly that the time has come to simply leave God in all her manifestations behind and center our faith in the figure of Jesus, admittedly little known but known enough to pin our hopes and dedicate our lives to following in his footsteps.
It is both curious and illuminating to note, by the way, that in three of the four gospels, Jesus puts very little emphasis on belief systems. He spends a rather insignificant amount of time urging his listeners to accept particular theological concepts or doctrinal descriptions. What he does spend the majority of his time doing is living out a life of compassion, of justice, of radical hospitality…and what he says, time after time, is not “Believe in me” but, rather, “Follow me.” Follow me! Don’t worry about whether you believe in this or don’t believe in that. Don’t worry whether you were born a cursed Samaritan or a denigrated woman. Don’t worry if you are despised by your neighbors or decorated by the state. Just follow me. And in so doing you will discover what I have discovered. You will enter into the kingdom of heaven that is all around you. You will experience the abundant life.
Amazingly, this emphasis on doing rather than believing has been dismissed by Christian hierarchy as nothing less than heresy. In my own Lutheran tradition, we were admonished by Dr. Luther to ignore the very action-oriented biblical book of James as being no more than “a book of straw” with little or nothing of import for faithful Christians. (Not so incidentally, it is this very book that often serves as a bridge between progressive Christians and other religious traditions. James is reportedly the favorite book of the Bible for the Dali Llama.)
For most of the past two thousand years, Christians have been told that the only thing that really mattered was that you believe particular doctrines and accepted certain theological descriptions. You needed to be born-again or at a minimum dipped three times in water to claim the mantle of Christian. But the emerging evidence of Biblical scholarship suggests that is precisely not what Jesus was teaching. “Follow me,” Jesus says, over and over again, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. “Believe in me…” is left, almost solely, to the Jesus found in the gospel of John, the latest and most doctrinal of the four gospels and, not so incidentally, the gospel most favored by conservative Christians.
Speaking of conservative Christians…in recent years, an emerging movement seems to be taking root in evangelical Christianity. A growing number of the faithful, particularly among the young and educated, are beginning to put an emphasis on some decidedly non-traditional conservative concerns…like the environment, like a fair and equitable health care system, like a government that seeks peace rather than war. Now this is a very exciting development because, I believe, whether these non-traditional evangelicals realize it or not, such thinking will move them ever closer to Christian Atheism. By that I mean: The more closely you follow Jesus the less you will need doctrines about God and the less you need doctrines about God the less you need God. Rick Warren, the enormously successful evangelical pastor who built up a church of tens of thousands and has sold millions upon millions of books centered on purpose driven lives is beginning to understand this principal whether he knows it or not. In the past few years,
Warren has turned his incredible talents to
serving those in need. He has rallied
thousands, maybe millions, of evangelical Christians to turn away from their
navels and look out to a world suffering from hunger, poverty, war, AIDS and so
much more. In a matter of days, he
raised millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers for Rwandan relief. When asked about this change, he confessed
that he now realized that he had spent far too much time building up his church
and far too little caring for the world.
At a Baptist convention a few years ago, Warren announced the need for a
second reformation that would be about “deeds not creeds.” Talk about a slippery slope! Welcome Pastor Warren to a conversation that
some of us have been having for a very long time. Welcome Pastor Warren to a god-diminished
religion. Welcome Pastor Warren to the
possibility of Christian Atheism.
On one of my sabbaticals, I spent the summer serving an Anglican parish in London and studying the history and theology of the Anglican tradition. Now The Church of England is a very curious institution indeed. It can be the most rigidly traditionalist force in all of English society and, at the same time, produce some of the most radical theological thinkers of this or any other day. One such radical is the Anglican priest and Cambridge scholar, Donald Cupitt. Cupitt is a kind of living archetype of the paradox that exists within the Church of England. For the Reverend Mr. Cupitt, an Anglican priest, is also a practicing atheist. He is a priest, I dare say, of Christian Atheism, of a movement that is drawn deeply and profoundly into the teachings of Jesus but has little interest in or commitment to the traditional teachings about Jesus. Cupitt has written extensively on his unique spiritual journey. In the preface of, what I believe to be, his most helpful book: “Taking Leave of God”, Cupitt explains his choice of title by quoting a great medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, writing on spiritual maturity: “Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, man takes leave of God.” It is that parting movement that seems, at least to me, the logical and inevitable destination of all those who choose, like Dr. Cupitt and a growing number of others, to be committed to following the teachings of Jesus rather than believing the teachings about Jesus. This is both the start and the essence of Christian Atheism.
Jesus taught and lived a life of compassion. It is the very heart of his ministry and it is a perfect model for our own imperfect ministries. It is an invitation to an abundant, meaning-filled life that can be experienced fully, richly, completely with or without much of the accompanying doctrine. Surely we have reached that place in inter-religious dialogue here at Pilgrim Place where all folk are welcomed…even those Christians who have taken leave of God.
Now I certainly understand there is nothing new in this proposal. It has been proffered for more than two thousand years and condemned as heretical for the same amount of time. But every so often, it seems to me, it is good to bring this little heresy back out into the open where others can see it and ponder its meaning for them and, perhaps, to discover as I have, that such an understanding, heretical as it may be, nevertheless offers a spiritual path that provides all that one needs for an abundant life, indeed all that one needs to enter into what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven.