How might Christianity evolve to become a better global citizen?
I remember, years ago, being startled by the idea that “Jewish” could be an ambiguous term. It might mean an ethnic identity, or a cultural one, or a religious one. In other words, someone could be a Jewish atheist, identifying with Judaism culturally but not religiously. Indeed, Israeli Jews are predominantly secular.
Christian belief within America has changed, going through Great Awakenings and spawning new flavors of Christianity such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-Day Adventist church, and the Christian Science church. At the turn of the early twentieth century, during the Golden Age of Freethought and decades after Darwin’s The Origin of Species, observers saw Christianity on the wane. But Christianity rebounded, with Pentecostal and other new charismatic churches. Today, Christianity continues to change, lately becoming more polarized within America while Europe becomes more secular.
If Christianity will continue to evolve, might it follow the example of Judaism, creating secular Christianity as a viable position?
Consider what this might be like. A secular Christian—I could be a candidate, for example—might go to church for the beautiful or traditional or inspiring music. The church building might be a draw, whether it were awe-inspiring or quaint. Sermons about finding the right path or avoiding the shallow temptations in life or even Bible stories might be edifying. Services could mark the important events in life such as births, marriages, and deaths. Whether the secular Christian went weekly or only a few times a year, the community of good people, eager to help others, would be welcoming. It might give focus to good works, providing opportunities for volunteering and direction for charitable giving.
But—and here’s the interesting bit—this secular Christian would reject the supernatural origin of Christianity, would be open about it, and would be accepted within the church community.
Of course, keeping the good parts of Christianity and discarding the supernatural beliefs wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems. There would still be human folly.
But perhaps there would be a little bit less.
- Moment magazine has is “Elephant in the Room” contest for the best answer to the question, What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?
- Kimberly Winston, “Atheist Jews: Judaism Without God,” Huffington Post, 9/23/11.
- The Celebrant Foundation and Institute trains people as nonreligious life-cycle celebrants.
The author and biblical scholar Robert M. Price calls himself a “Christian Atheist,” or “Atheist Christian.” I don’t remember which.
You don’t have to use your imagination. The majority of Danes and Swedes are “cultural Christians,” as documented by sociologist Phil Zuckerman in his excellent study, _Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment_. They have their babies baptized, go through “confirmation,” get married in a church because “that’s just what you do,” and they don’t believe in a supernatural deity or an afterlife.
Also, many Christian theologians are non-theistic: Paul Tillich, Thomas Altizer, John Shelby Spong, Lloyd Geering, Don Cupitt, Michael Dowd, just to name just a few prominent ministers amd theologians who are members of the Christian religion but do not believe in the existence of a supernatural, personal deity.
The reference to retired Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong is so appropriate: I have read nearly all his books and thank him for being honest about the need for Christianity to “change or die”, as he has entitled one of his books. By de-mythologizing Christianity, we would be humanizing it, broadening its appeal to all non-theists and reducing, if not eliminating, the divisiveness of its major theological components. The world might actually be a better place for all humanity.
That same process, then, should be done with the other, major, divisive religion: Islam. Between these two are two thirds of the world’s population and ninety-nine point nine nine percent of the world’s conflicts.
This is such a pleasant dream!
But just a dream, I’m afraid.
While I love the idea of a secular Christianity, I think we should be careful about drawing conclusions from looking at secular Judaism. The Jewish people are exactly that, a fairly close group of not-too-distantly-related people. Athiest Jews are still ethnically “Jewish” (for the most part, insofar as it can be true, though this is becoming less and less true every day as people around the world marry others outside their own culture). The same could be said of certain Christian groups, the Copts, for example, who share not only the same religion, but the same close genetic relationship with each other (via their relative isolation within an otherwise mostly muslim country). I think it’s hard to imagine a secular Christianity in the North American context, because if you strip out the Christ part (all the supernatural aspects), what really would you be left with? Could it really be called Christianity at all? There would be nothing to bind people together to be called Christian. No original sin, no redemption, no afterlife, no dogma of any kind, but also lacking the ethnic or otherwise cultural links that Europeans have, for example. It’s a wonderful idea, but I don’t think it could be called Christianity.