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.
Standing before the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in
Austin, TX, I affirmed that I (1) endorsed the core principles in Christ’s
teaching; (2) intended to work to deepen my understanding and practice of
the universal love at the heart of those principles; and (3) pledged to be a
responsible member of the church and the larger community.
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.
A real Christian who doesn’t believe in God? This claim requires some
explanation about the reasons I joined, and also opens up a discussion of
what the term “Christian” could, or should, mean.
First, whatever my beliefs about the nature of the non-material world or my
views on spirituality, I live in a country that is extremely religious,
especially compared to other technologically advanced industrial nations.
Surveys show that about 80 percent of Americans identify as Christian and 5
percent as some other faith. And beyond self-identification, a 2002 poll
showed that 67 percent of all people in the poll agreed that the United
States is a “Christian nation”; 48 percent said they believed that the
United States has “special protection from God”; 58 percent said that
America’s strength is based on religious faith; and 47 percent asserted that
a belief in God is necessary to be moral.
While 84 percent in that 2002 poll agreed that one can be a “good American”
without religious faith, clearly there’s an advantage to being able to speak
within a religious framework in the contemporary United States.
So, my 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. Even
though many ministers and churchgoers shy away from making church a place
for discussion of specific political issues, people there expect to engage
fundamental questions about what it means to be human and the obligations we
owe each other -- questions that are always at the core of politics.
The pastor and most of the congregation at St. Andrew’s understand my
reasons for joining, realizing that I didn’t convert in a theological sense
but joined a moral and political community. There’s nothing special about me
in this regard -- many St. Andrew’s members I’ve talked to are seeking
community and a place for spiritual, moral and political engagement. The
church is expansive in defining faith; the degree to which members of the
congregation believe in God and Christ in traditional terms varies widely.
Many do, some don’t, and a whole lot of folks seem to be searching. St.
Andrew’s offers a safe space and an exciting atmosphere for that search. in
collaboration with others.
Such expansiveness raises questions about the definition of Christian. Many
no doubt would reject the idea that such a church 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?
In such a conception of faith, an atheist can be a Christian. A Hindu can be
a Christian. Anyone can be a Christian, and a Christian can find a
connection to other perspectives and be part of other faiths. With such a
conception of faith, a real ecumenical spirit and practice is possible.
Identification with a religious tradition can become a way to lower barriers
between people, not raise them ever higher.
We can ground this process in the ethical principles common to almost all
religious and secular philosophical systems, one of which is the assertion
that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. For example:
* None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes
for himself (Islam).
* Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Christianity).
* Act only on that maxim that you can will a universal law (Kant).
One of the most playful and powerful ways this has been conveyed is in the
story of the gentile who challenged two Jewish rabbis to teach him the Torah
in the time that he could stand on one foot. One rabbi dismissed the
question, but Hillel, one of the great Jewish theologians of the first
century BCE, told the man: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your
neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
There is an important struggle going on for the soul of Christianity, which
should be of concern to everyone, Christian or not. The debate is not just
at the level of arguments over whether, for example, certain Old Testament
passages should be interpreted to condemn homosexuality. The deeper struggle
is over whether Christianity is to be understood as a closed set of answers
that leads to the intensification of these boundaries, or as an invitation
to explore questions that help people transcend boundaries. Such a struggle
is going on not only within Christianity, but in all the major world
Where can this lead? Some might argue that promoting such expansive
conceptions of faith would eventually make the term Christian meaningless.
If one can be a Christian without accepting the resurrection, then calling
oneself Christian would have no meaning beyond an _expression of support for
some basic moral principles that are near-universal. That is partly true; if
this strategy were successful, at some point people would stop fussing about
who is and isn’t a Christian -- and that would be a good thing. The same
process could go on in other religions as well. Christianity could do its
part to help usher in a period of human history in which people stopped
obsessing about how to mark the boundaries of a faith group and instead
committed to living those values more fully.
In other words, the task of Christians -- and, I would argue, all religions
-- is to make themselves more relevant in the short term by being a site of
such political and moral engagement, with the goal of ensuring their
ultimate irrelevance. The task of religion, paradoxically, is to bring into
being a world based on the universal values that underlie most major
theological and philosophical systems -- compassion, empathy, solidarity,
dignity. Such a world would be truly based on love and real solidarity, a
world in which we would take seriously the claim that all people have
exactly the same value.
In his 1927 lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian,” the philosopher Bertrand
Russell said: “A good world … needs a fearless outlook and a free
intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time
toward a past that is dead.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I joined a Christian church to be part of that
hope for the future, to struggle to make religion a force that can help
usher into existence a world in which we can imagine living in peace with
each other and in sustainable relation to the non-human world.
Such a task requires a fearlessness and intelligence beyond what we have
mustered to date, but it also requires a faith in our ability to achieve it.
That is why I am a Christian.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of
Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist
He is the author of
The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both
from City Lights Books). He can be reached at:
Other Recent Articles by Robert Jensen
Failure of Our First Amendment Success: Dealing with the Death of
"Dangerous" Academics: Right-wing Distortions about Leftist Professors
* MLK Day:
Dreams and Nightmares
Intelligent-Design Debate Reveals Limits of Religion and Science
* The 1st
Amendment's Assembly and Petition Clauses -- Eviscerated by Big Money?
Thanks No More: It’s Time for a National Day of Atonement
Osheroff: On the Joys and Risks of Living Authentically in the Empire
The Challenge of a Broken World
Images Don't Bring Change
From Hiroshima to Iraq and Back with Sharon Weiner
Demonizing News Media is Attempt to Divert Attention from Policy Failures
* A New
“Citizens Oath of Office” for Inauguration 2005
Election Day Fears
Dams in India -- Temples or Burial Grounds?
Supports Anti-Democratic Forces in Venezuela Recall
Hypocrisy on the Vietnam War
“Fahrenheit 9/11” is a Stupid White Movie
Just the Emperor Who is Naked, but the Whole Empire
Strike Remembers the Victims of World Bank Policies
Condi Rice Wouldn't Admit Mistakes
President Bush Involved with Donation
to Group with
Observe Right to Unionize by Making it Reality
New Purported Bush Tape Raises Fear of New Attacks
General Boykin’s Fundamentalist View of the Other
Just the (Documented) Facts, Ma'am
Through the Eyes of Foreigners: US Political Crisis
“No War” A Full-Throated Cry
Media Criticism of Iraq Coverage Reveals Problems with Journalists'
Conception of News
Embedded Reporters Viewpoint Misses Main Point Of War
Fighting Alienation in the USA
Where's The Pretext? Lack of WMD Kills Case for War
For Self-Determination in Iraq, The U.S. Must Leave
The Images They Choose, and Choose to Ignore
Embedded Media Give Up Independence
On NPR, Please Follow the Script