Why this atheist is a Christian (sort of)

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle · March, 2006

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.

Standing before the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, 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 nonmaterial 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 (Before the Christian Era), 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 religions.

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 nonhuman 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.